THE SLEUTH OF ST. JAMES'S SQUARE
By Melville Davisson Post
I. THE THING ON THE HEARTH
II. THE REWARD
III. THE LOST LADY
IV. THE CAMBERED FOOT
V. THE MAN IN THE GREEN HAT
VI. THE WRONG SIGN
VII. THE FORTUNE TELLER
VIII. THE HOLE IN THE MAHOGANY PANEL
IX. THE END OF THE ROAD
X. THE LAST ADVENTURE
XI. AMERICAN HORSES
XII. THE SPREAD RAILS
XIII. THE PUMPKIN COACH
XIV. THE YELLOW FLOWER
XV. A SATIRE OF THE SEA
XVI. THE HOUSE BY THE LOCH
The SLEUTH of St. JAMES'S SQUARE
I. The Thing on the Hearth
"THE first confirmatory evidence of the thing, Excellency, was the print of a woman's bare foot."
He was an immense creature. He sat in an upright chair that seemed to have been provided especially for him. The great bulk of him flowed out and filled the chair. It did not seem to be fat that enveloped him. It seemed rather to be some soft, tough fiber, like the pudgy mass making up the body of a deep-sea thing. One got an impression of strength.
The country was before the open window; the clusters of cultivated shrub on the sweep of velvet lawn extending to the great wall that inclosed the place, then the bend of the river and beyond the distant mountains, blue and mysterious, blending indiscernibly into the sky. A soft sun, clouded with the haze of autumn, shone over it.
"You know how the faint moisture in the bare foot will make an impression."
He paused as though there was some compelling force in the reflection. It was impossible to say, with accuracy, to what race the man belonged. He came from some queer blend of Eastern peoples. His body and the cast of his features were Mongolian. But one got always, before him, a feeling of the hot East lying low down against the stagnant Suez. One felt that he had risen slowly into our world of hard air and sun out of the vast sweltering ooze of it.
He spoke English with a certain care in the selection of the words, but with ease and an absence of effort, as though languages were instinctive to him—as though he could speak any language. And he impressed one with this same effortless facility in all the things he did.
It is necessary to try to understand this, because it explains the conception everybody got of the creature, when they saw him in charge of Rodman. I am using precisely the descriptive words; he was exclusively in charge of Rodman, as a jinn in an Arabian tale might have been in charge of a king's son.
The creature was servile—with almost a groveling servility. But one felt that this servility resulted from something potent and secret. One looked to see Rodman take Solomon's ring out of his waistcoat pocket.
I suppose there is no longer any doubt about the fact that Rodman was one of those gigantic human intelligences who sometimes appear in the world, and by their immense conceptions dwarf all human knowledge—a sort of mental monster that we feel nature has no right to produce. Lord Bayless Truxley said that Rodman was some generations in advance of the time; and Lord Bayless Truxley was, beyond question, the greatest authority on synthetic chemistry in the world.
Rodman was rich and, everybody supposed, indolent; no one ever thought very much about him until he published his brochure on the scientific manufacture of precious stones. Then instantly everybody with any pretension to a knowledge of synthetic chemistry turned toward him.
The brochure startled the world.
It proposed to adapt the luster and beauty of jewels to commercial uses. We were being content with crude imitation colors in our commercial glass, when we could quite as easily have the actual structure and the actual luster of the jewel in it. We were painfully hunting over the earth, and in its bowels, for a few crystals and prettily colored stones which we hoarded and treasured, when in a manufacturing laboratory we could easily produce them, more perfect than nature, and in unlimited quantity.
Now, if you want to understand what I am printing here about Rodman, you must think about this thing as a scientific possibility and not as a fantastic notion. Take, for example, Rodman's address before the Sorbonne, or his report to the International Congress of Science in Edinburgh, and you will begin to see what I mean. The Marchese Giovanni, who was a delegate to that congress, and Pastreaux, said that the something in the way of an actual practical realization of what Rodman outlined was the formulae. If Rodman could work out the formulae, jewel-stuff could be produced as cheaply as glass, and in any quantity—by the carload. Imagine it; sheet ruby, sheet emerald, all the beauty and luster of jewels in the windows of the corner drugstore!
And there is another thing that I want you to think about. Think about the immense destruction of value—not to us, so greatly, for our stocks of precious stones are not large; but the thing meant, practically, wiping out all the assembled wealth of Asia except the actual earth and its structures.
The destruction of value was incredible.
Put the thing some other way and consider it. Suppose we should suddenly discover that pure gold could be produced by treating common yellow clay with sulphuric acid, or that some genius should set up a machine on the border of the Sahara that received sand at one end and turned out sacked wheat at the other! What, then, would our hoarded gold be worth, or the wheat-lands of Australia, Canada or our Northwest?
The illustrations are fantastic. But the thing Rodman was after was a practical fact. He had it on the way. Giovanni and Lord Bayless Truxley were convinced that the man would work out the formulae. They tried, over their signatures, to prepare the world for it.
The whole of Asia was appalled. The rajahs of the native states in India prepared a memorial and sent it to the British Government.
The thing came out after the mysterious, incredible tragedy. I should not have written that final sentence. I want you to think, just now, about the great hulk of a man that sat in his big chair beyond me at the window.
It was like Rodman to turn up with an outlandish human creature attending him hand and foot. How the thing came about reads like a lie; it reads like a lie; the wildest lie that anybody ever put forward to explain a big yellow Oriental following one about.
But it was no lie. You could not think up a lie to equal the actual things that happened to Rodman. Take the way he died!....
The thing began in India. Rodman had gone there to consult with the Marchese Giovanni concerning some molecular theory that was involved in his formulas. Giovanni was digging up a buried temple on the northern border of the Punjab. One night, in the explorer's tent, near the excavations, this inscrutable creature walked in on Rodman. No one knew how he got into the tent or where he came from.
Giovanni told about it. The tent-flap simply opened, and the big Oriental appeared. He had something under his arm rolled up in a prayer-carpet. He gave no attention to Giovanni, but he salaamed like a coolie to the little American.
"Master," he said, "you were hard to find. I have looked over the world for you."
And he squatted down on the dirty floor by Rodman's camp stool.
Now, that's precisely the truth. I suppose any ordinary person would have started no end of fuss. But not Rodman, and not, I think, Giovanni. There's the attitude that we can't understand in a genius—did you ever know a man with an inventive mind who doubted a miracle? A thing like that did not seem unreasonable to Rodman.
The two men spent the remainder of the night looking at the present that the creature brought Rodman in his prayer-carpet. They wanted to know where the Oriental got it, and that's how his story came out.
He was something—searcher, seems our nearest English word to it—in the great Shan Monastery on the southeastern plateau of the Gobi. He was looking for Rodman because he had the light—here was another word that the two men could find no term in any modern language to translate; a little flame, was the literal meaning.
The present was from the treasure-room of the monastery; the very carpet around it, Giovanni said, was worth twenty thousand lire. There was another thing that came out in the talk that Giovanni afterward recalled. Rodman was to accept the present and the man who brought it to him. The Oriental would protect him, in every way, in every direction, from things visible and invisible. He made quite a speech about it. But, there was one thing from which he could not protect him.
The Oriental used a lot of his ancient words to explain, and he did not get it very clear. He seemed to mean that the creative Forces of the spirit would not tolerate a division of worship with the creative forces of the body—the celibate notion in the monastic idea.
Giovanni thought Rodman did not understand it; he thought he himself understood it better. The monk was pledging Rodman to a high virtue, in the lapse of which something awful was sure to happen.
Giovanni wrote a letter to the State Department when he learned what had happened to Rodman. The State Department turned it over to the court at the trial. I think it was one of the things that influenced the judge in his decision. Still, at the time, there seemed no other reasonable decision to make. The testimony must have appeared incredible; it must have appeared fantastic. No man reading the record could have come to any other conclusion about it. Yet it seemed impossible—at least, it seemed impossible for me—to consider this great vital bulk of a man as a monk of one of the oldest religious orders in the world. Every common, academic conception of such a monk he distinctly negatived. He impressed me, instead, as possessing the ultimate qualities of clever diplomacy—the subtle ambassador of some new Oriental power, shrewd, suave, accomplished.
When one read the yellow-backed court-record, the sense of old, obscure, mysterious agencies moving in sinister menace, invisibly, around Rodman could not be escaped from. You believed it. Against your reason, against all modern experience of life, you believed it.
And yet it could not be true! One had to find that verdict or topple over all human knowledge—that is, all human knowledge as we understand it. The judge, cutting short the criminal trial, took the only way out of the thing.
There was one man in the world that everybody wished could have been present at the time. That was Sir Henry Marquis. Marquis was chief of the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard. He had been in charge of the English secret service on the frontier of the Shan states, and at the time he was in Asia.
As soon as Scotland Yard could release Sir Henry, it sent him. Rodman's genius was the common property of the world. The American Government could not, even with the verdict of a trial court, let Rodman's death go by under the smoke-screen of such a weird, inscrutable mystery.
I was to meet Sir Henry and come here with him. But my train into New England was delayed, and when I arrived at the station, I found that Marquis had gone down to have a look at Rodman's country-house, where the thing had happened.
It was on an isolated forest ridge of the Berkshires, no human soul within a dozen miles of it—a comfortable stone house in the English fashion. There was a big drawing-room across one end of it, with an immense fireplace framed in black marble under a great white panel to the ceiling. It had a wide black-marble hearth. There is an excellent photograph of it in the record, showing the single andiron, that mysterious andiron upon which the whole tragedy seemed to turn as on a hinge.
Rodman used this drawing-room for a workshop. He kept it close-shuttered and locked. Not even this big, yellow, servile creature who took exclusive care of him in the house was allowed to enter, except under Rodman's eye. What he saw in the final scenes of the tragedy, he saw looking in through a crack under the door. The earlier things he noticed when he put logs on the fire at dark.
Time is hardly a measure for the activities of the mind. These reflections winged by in a scarcely perceptible interval of it. They have taken me some time to write out here, but they crowded past while the big Oriental was speaking—in the pause between his words.
"The print," he continued, "was the first confirmation of evidence, but it was not the first indicatory sign. I doubt if the Master himself noticed the thing at the beginning. The seductions of this disaster could not have come quickly; and besides that, Excellency, the agencies behind the material world get a footing in it only with continuous pressure. Do not receive a wrong impression, Excellency; to the eye a thing will suddenly appear, but the invisible pressure will have been for some time behind that materialization."
"The Master was sunk in his labor, and while that enveloped him, the first advances of the lure would have gone by unnoticed—and the tension of the pressure. But the day was at hand when the Master was receptive. He had got his work completed; the formula, penciled out, were on his table. I knew by the relaxation. Of all periods this is the one most dangerous to the human spirit."
He sat silent for a moment, his big fingers moving on the arms of the chair.
"I knew," he added. Then he went on: "But it was the one thing against which I could not protect him. The test was to be permitted."
He made a vague gesture.
"The Master was indicated—but the peril antecedent to his elevation remained.... It was to be permitted, and at its leisure and in its choice of time."
He turned sharply toward me, the folds of his face unsteady.
"Excellency!" he cried. "I would have saved the Master, I would have saved him with my soul's damnation, but it was not permitted. On that first night in the Italian's tent I said all I could."
His voice went into a higher note.
"Twice, for the Master, I have been checked and reduced in merit. For that bias I was myself encircled. I was in an agony of spirit when I knew that the thing was beginning to advance, but my very will to aid was at the time environed."
His voice descended.
He sat motionless, as though the whole bulk of him were devitalized, and maintained its outline only by the inclosing frame of the chair.
"It began, Excellency, on an August night. There is a chill in these mountains at sunset. I had put wood into the fireplace, and lighted it, and was about the house. The Master, as I have said, had worked out his formulae. He was at leisure. I could not see him, for the door was closed, but the odor of his cigar escaped from the room. It was very silent. I was placing the Master's bed-candle on the table in the hall, when I heard his voice.... You have read it, Excellency, as the scriveners wrote it down before the judge."
"It was an exclamation of surprise, of astonishment. Then I heard the Master get up softly and go over to the fireplace... Presently he returned. He got a new cigar, Excellency, clipped it and lighted it. I could hear the blade of the knife on the fiber of the tobacco, and of course, clearly the rasp of the match. A moment later I knew that he was in the chair again. The odor of ignited tobacco returned. It was some time before there was another sound in the room; then suddenly I heard the Master swear. His voice was sharp and astonished. This time, Excellency, he got up swiftly and crossed the room to the fireplace... I could hear him distinctly. There was the sound of one tapping on metal, thumping it, as with the fingers."
He stopped again, for a brief moment, as in reflection.
"It was then that the Master unlocked the door and asked for the liquor." He indicated the court record in my pocket. "I brought it, a goblet of brandy, with some carbonated water. He drank it all without putting down the glass.... His face was strange, Excellency.... Then he looked at me.
"'Put a log on the fire,' he said.
"I went in and added wood to the fire and came out.
"The Master remained in the doorway; he reentered when I came out, and closed the door behind him.... There was a long silence after that; them I heard the voice, permitted to the devocation thin, metallic, offering the barter to the Master. It began and ceased because the Master was on his feet and before the fireplace. I heard him swear again, and presently return to his place by the table."
The big Oriental lifted his face and looked out at the sweep of country before the window.
"The thing went on, Excellency, the voice offering its lure, and presenting it in brief flashes of materialization, and the Master endeavoring to seize and detain the visitations, which ceased instantly at his approach to the hearth."
The man paused.
"I knew the Master contended in vain against the thing; if he would acquire possession of what it offered, he must destroy what the creative forces of the spirit had released to him."
Again he paused.
"Toward morning he went out of the house. I could hear him walking on the gravel before the door. He would walk the full length of the house and return. The night was clear; there was a chill in it, and every sound was audible.
"That was all, Excellency. The Master returned a little later and ascended to his bedroom as usual."
Then he added:
"It was when I went in to put wood on the fire that I saw the footprint on the hearth."
There was a force, compelling and vivid, in these meager details, the severe suppression of things, big and tragic. No elaboration could have equaled, in effect, the virtue of this restraint.
The man was going on, directly, with the story.
"The following night, Excellency, the thing happened. The Master had passed the day in the open. He dined with a good appetite, like a man in health. And there was a change in his demeanor. He had the aspect of men who are determined to have a thing out at any hazard.
"After his dinner the Master went into the drawing-room and closed the door behind him. He had not entered the room on this day. It had stood locked and close-shuttered!"
The big Oriental paused and made a gesture outward with his fingers, as of one dismissing an absurdity.
"No living human being could have been concealed in that room. There is only the bare floor, the Master's table and the fireplace. The great wood shutters were bolted in, as they had stood since the Master took the room for a workshop and removed the furniture. The door was always locked with that special thief-proof lock that the American smiths had made for it. No one could have entered."
It was the report of the experts at the trial. They showed by the casing of rust on the bolts that the shutters had not been moved; the walls, ceiling and floor were undisturbed; the throat of the chimney was coated evenly with old soot. Only the door was possible as an entry, and this was always locked except when Rodman was himself in the room. And at such times the big Oriental never left his post in the hall before it. That seemed a condition of his mysterious overcare of Rodman.
Everybody thought the trial court went to an excessive care. It scrutinized in minute detail every avenue that could possibly lead to a solution of the mystery. The whole country and every resident was inquisitioned. The conclusion was inevitable. There was no human creature on that forest crest of the Berkshires but Rodman and his servant.
But one can see why the trial judge kept at the thing; he was seeking an explanation consistent with the common experience of mankind. And when he could not find it, he did the only thing he could do. He was wrong, as we now know. But he had a hold in the dark on the truth—not the whole truth by any means; he never had a glimmer of that. He never had the faintest conception of the big, amazing truth. But as I have said, he had his fingers on one essential fact.
The man was going on with a slow, precise articulation as though he would thereby make a difficult matter clear.
"The night had fallen swiftly. It was incredibly silent. There was no sound in the Master's room, and no light except the flicker of the logs smoldering in the fireplace. The thin line of it appeared faintly along the sill of the door."
"The fireplace, Excellency, is at the end of the great room, directly opposite this door into the hall, before which I always sat when the Master was within. The fireplace is of black marble with an immense black-marble hearth. And the gift which I had brought the Master stands on one side of the fire, on this marble hearth, as though it were a single andiron."
The man turned back into the heart of his story.
"I knew by the vague sense of pressure that the devocations of the thing were again on the way. And I began to suffer in the spirit for the Master's safety. Interference, both by act and by the will, were denied me. But there is an anxiety of spirit, Excellency, that the uncertainty of an issue makes intolerable."
The man paused.
"The pressure continued—and the silence. It was nearly midnight. I could not distinguish any act or motion of the Master, and in fear I crept over to the door and looked in through the crevice along the threshold.
"The Master sat by his table; he was straining forward, his hands gripping the arms of his chair. His eyes and every tense instinct of the man were concentrated on the fireplace. The red light of the embers was in the room. I could see him clearly, and the table beyond him with the calculations; but the fireplace seemed strangely out of perspective—it extended above me.
"My gift to the Master, not more than four handbreaths in length, including the base, stood now like an immense bronze on an extended marble slab beside a gigantic fireplace. This effect of extension put the top of the fireplace and the enlarged andiron, above its pedestal, out of my line of vision. Everything else in the chamber, holding its normal dimensions, was visible to me.
"The Master's face was a little lifted. He was looking at the elevated portions of the andiron which were invisible to me. He did not move. The steady light threw half of his face into shadow. But in the other half every feature stood out sharply as in a delicate etching. It had that refined sharpness and distinction which intense moments of stress stamp on the human face. He did not move, and there was no sound.
"I have said, Excellency, that my angle of vision along the crevice of the doorsill was sharply cut midway of this now enlarged fireplace. From the direction and lift of the Master's face, he was watching something above this line and directly over the pedestal of the andiron. I watched, also, flattening my face against the sill, for the thing to appear.
"And it did appear.
"A naked foot became slowly visible, as though some one were descending with extreme care from the elevation of the andiron to the great marble hearth, under this strange enlargement, now some distance below."
The big Oriental paused, and looked down at me.
"I knew then, Excellency, that the Master was lost! The creative energies of the Spirit suffer no division of worship; those of the body must be wholly denied. I had warned the Master. And in travail, Excellency, I turned over with my face to the floor.
"But there is always hope, hope over the certainties of experience, over the certainties of knowledge. Perhaps the Master, even now, sustained in the spirit, would put away the devocation.... No, Excellency, I was not misled. I knew the Master was beyond hope! But the will to hope moved me, and I turned back to the crevice at the doorsill."
"There was now a delicate odor, everywhere, faintly, like the blossom of the little bitter apple here in your country. The red embers in the fireplace gave out a steady light; and in the glow of it, on the marble hearth, stood the one who had descended from the elevation of the andiron."
Again the man hesitated, as for an accurate method of expression.
"In the flesh, Excellency, there was color that would not appear in the image. The hair was yellow, and the eyes were blue; and against the black marble of the fireplace the body was conspicuously white. But in every other aspect of her, Excellency, the woman was on the hearth in the flesh as she is in the clutch of the savage male figure in the image.
"There is no dress or ornament, as you will recall, Excellency. Not even an ear-jewel or an anklet, as though the graver of the image felt that the inherent beauty of his figure could take nothing from these ostentations. The woman's heavy yellow hair was wound around her head, as in the image. She shivered a little, faintly, like a naked child in an unaccustomed draught of air, although she stood on the warm marble hearth and within the red glow of the fire.
"The voice from the male figure of the image, which I had brought the Master, and which stood as the andiron, now so immensely enlarged, was beginning again to speak. The thin metallic sounds seemed to splinter against the dense silence, as it went forward in the ritual prescribed.
"But the Master had already decided; he stood now on the great marble hearth with his papers crushed together. And as I looked on, through the crevice under the doorsill, he put out his free hand and with his finger touched the woman gently. The flesh under his finger yielded, and stooping over, he put the formulas into the fire."
Like one who has come to the end of his story, the huge Oriental stopped. He remained for some moments silent. Then he continued in an even, monotonous voice:
"I got up from the floor then, and purified myself with water. And after that I went into an upper chamber, opened the window to the east, and sat down to write my report to the brotherhood. For the thing which I had been sent to do was finished."
He put his hand somewhere into the loose folds of his Oriental garment and brought out a roll of thin vellum like onion-skin, painted in Chinese characters. It was of immense length, but on account of the thinness of the vellum, the roll wound on a tiny cylinder of wood was not above two inches in thickness.
"Excellency," he said, "I have carefully concealed this report through the misfortunes that have attended me. It is not certain that I shall be able to deliver it. Will you give it for me to the jewel merchant Vanderdick, in Amsterdam? He will send it to Mahadal in Bombay, and it will go north with the caravans."
His voice changed into a note of solicitation.
"You will not fail me, Excellency—already for my bias to the Master I am reduced in merit."
I put the scroll into my pocket and went out, for a motorcar had come into the park, and I knew that Marquis had arrived.
I met Sir Henry and the superintendent in the long corridor; they had been looking in at my interview through the elevated grating.
"Marquis," I cried, "the judge was right to cut short the criminal trial and issue a lunacy warrant. This creature is the maddest lunatic in this whole asylum. The human mind is capable of any absurdity."
Sir Henry looked at me with a queer ironical smile.
"The judge was wrong," he said. "The creature, as you call him, is as sane as any of us."
"Then you believe this amazing story?" I said.
"I believe Rodman was found at daylight dead on the hearth, with practically every bone in his body crushed," he replied.
"Certainly," I said. "We all know that is true. But why was he killed?"
Again Sir Henry regarded me with his ironical smile.
"Perhaps," he drawled, "there is some explanation in the report in your pocket, to the Monastic Head. It's only a theory, you know."
He smiled, showing his white, even teeth.
We went into the superintendent's room, and sat down by a smoldering fire of coals in the gate. I handed Marquis the roll of vellum. It was in one of the Shan dialects. He read it aloud. With the addition of certain formal expressions, it contained precisely the Oriental's testimony before the court, and no more.
"Ah!" he said in his curiously inflected Oxford voice.
And he held the scroll out to the heat of the fire. The vellum baked slowly, and as it baked, the black Chinese characters faded out and faint blue ones began to appear.
Marquis read the secret message in his emotionless drawl:
"'The American is destroyed, and his accursed work is destroyed with him. Send the news to Bangkok and west to Burma. The treasures of India are saved."'
I cried out in astonishment.
"An assassin! The creature was an assassin! He killed Rodman simply by crushing him in his arms!"
Sir Henry's drawl lengthened.
"It's Lal Gupta," he said, "the cleverest Oriental in the whole of Asia. The jewel-traders sent him to watch Rodman, and to kill him if he was ever able to get his formulae worked out. They must have paid him an incredible sum."
"And that is why the creature attached himself to Rodman!" I said.
"Surely," replied Sir Henry. "He brought that bronze Romulus carrying off the Sabine woman and staged the supernatural to work out his plan and to save his life. I knew the bronze as soon as I got my eye on it—old Franz Josef gave it as a present to Mahadal in Bombay for matching up some rubies."
I swore bitterly.
"And we took him for a lunatic!"
"Ah, yes!" replied Sir Henry. "What was it you said as I came in? 'The human mind is capable of any absurdity!'"
II. The Reward
I was before one of those difficult positions unavoidable to a visitor in a foreign country.
I had to meet the obligations of professional courtesy. Captain Walker had asked me to go over the manuscript of his memoirs; and now he had called at the house in which I was a guest, for my opinion. We had long been friends; associated in innumerable cases, and I wished to suggest the difficulty rather than to express it. It was the twilight of an early Washington winter. The lights in the great library, softened with delicate shades, had been turned on. Outside, Sheridan Circle was almost a thing of beauty in its vague outlines; even the squat, ridiculous bronze horse had a certain dignity in the blue shadow.
If one had been speculating on the man, from his physical aspect one would have taken Walker for an engineer of some sort, rather than the head of the United States Secret Service. His lean face and his angular manner gaffe that impression. Even now, motionless in the big chair beyond the table, he seemed—how shall I say it?—mechanical.
And that was the very defect in his memoir. He had cut the great cases into a dry recital. There was no longer in them any pressure of a human impulse. The glow of inspired detail had been dissected out. Everything startling and wonderful had been devitalized.
The memoir was a report.
The bulky typewritten manuscript lay on the table beside the electric lamp, and I stood about uncertain how to tell him.
"Walker," I said, "did nothing wonderful ever happen to you in the adventure of these cases?"
"What precisely do you mean, Sir Henry?" he replied.
The practical nature of the man tempted me to extravagance.
"Well," I said, "for example, were you never kissed in a lonely street by a mysterious woman and the flash of your dark lantern reveal a face of startling beauty?"
"No," he said, as though he were answering a sensible question, "that never happened to me."
"Then," I continued, "perhaps you have found a prince of the church, pale as alabaster, sitting in his red robe, who put together the indicatory evidence of the crime that baffled you with such uncanny acumen that you stood aghast at his perspicacity?"
"No," he said; and then his face lighted. "But I'll tell you what I did find. I found a drunken hobo at Atlantic City who was the best detective I ever saw."
I sat down and tapped the manuscript with my fingers.
"It's not here," I said. "Why did you leave it out?"
He took a big gold watch out of his pocket and turned it about in his hand. The case was covered with an inscription.
"Well, Sir Henry," he said, "the boys in the department think a good deal of me. I shouldn't like them to know how a dirty tramp faked me at Atlantic City. I don't mind telling you, but I couldn't print it in a memoir."
He went directly ahead with the story and I was careful not to interrupt him:
"I was sitting in a rolling chair out there on the Boardwalk before the Traymore. I was nearly all in, and I had taken a run to Atlantic for a day or two of the sea air. The fact is the whole department was down and out. You may remember what we were up against; it finally got into the newspapers.
"The government plates of the Third Liberty Bond issue had disappeared. We knew how they had gotten out, and we thought we knew the man at the head of the thing. It was a Mulehaus job, as we figured it.
"It was too big a thing for a little crook. With the government plates they could print Liberty Bonds just as the Treasury would. And they could sow the world with them."
He paused and moved his gold-rimmed spectacles a little closer in on his nose.
"You see these war bonds are scattered all over the country. They are held by everybody. It's not what it used to be, a banker's business that we could round up. Nobody could round up the holders of these bonds.
"A big crook like Mulehaus could slip a hundred million of them into the country and never raise a ripple."
He paused and drew his fingers across his bony protruding chin.
"I'll say this for Mulehaus: He's the hardest man to identify in the whole kingdom of crooks. Scotland Yard, the Service de la Surete, everybody, says that. I don't mean dime-novel disguises—false whiskers and a limp. I mean the ability to be the character he pretends—the thing that used to make Joe Jefferson, Rip Van Winkle—and not an actor made up to look like him. That's the reason nobody could keep track of Mulehaus, especially in South American cities. He was a French banker in the Egypt business and a Swiss banker in the Argentine."
He turned back from the digression:
"And it was a clean job. They had got away with the plates. We didn't have a clew. We thought, naturally, that they'd make for Mexico or some South American country to start their printing press. And we had the ports and border netted up. Nothing could have gone out across the border or, through any port. All the customs officers were, working with us, and every agent of the Department of Justice."
He looked at me steadily across the table.
"You see the Government had to get those plates back before the crook started to print, or else take up every bond of that issue over the whole country. It was a hell of a thing!
"Of course we had gone right after the record of all the big crooks to see whose line this sort of job was. And the thing narrowed down to Mulehaus or old Vronsky. We soon found out it wasn't Vronsky. He was in Joliet. It was Mulehaus. But we couldn't find him.
"We didn't even know that Mulehaus was in America. He's a big crook with a genius for selecting men. He might be directing the job from Rio or a Mexican port. But we were sure it was a Mulehaus' job. He sold the French securities in Egypt in '90; and he's the man who put the bogus Argentine bonds on our market—you'll find the case in the 115th Federal Reporter.
"Well," he went on, "I was sitting out there in the rolling chair, looking at the sun on the sea and thinking about the thing, when I noticed this hobo that I've been talking about. He was my chair attendant, but I hadn't looked at him before. He had moved round from behind me and was now leaning against the galvanized pipe railing.
"He was a big human creature, a little stooped, unshaved and dirty; his mouth was slack and loose, and he had a big mobile nose that seemed to move about like a piece of soft rubber. He had hardly any clothing; a cap that must have been fished out of an ash barrel, no shirt whatever, merely an old ragged coat buttoned round him, a pair of canvas breeches and carpet slippers tied on to his feet with burlap, and wrapped round his ankles to conceal the fact that he wore no socks.
"As I looked at him he darted out, picked up the stump of a cigarette that some one had thrown down, and came back to the railing to smoke it, his loose mouth and his big soft nose moving like kneaded putty.
"Altogether this tramp was the worst human derelict I ever saw. And it occurred to me that this was the one place in the whole of America where any sort of a creature could get a kind of employment and no questions asked.
"Anything that could move and push a chair could get fifteen cents an hour from McDuyal. Wise man, poor man, beggar man, thief, it was all one to McDuyal. And the creatures could sleep in the shed behind the rolling chairs.
"I suppose an impulse to offer the man a garment of some sort moved me to address him.
"'You're nearly naked,' I said.
"He crossed one leg over the other with the toe of the carpet slipper touching the walk, in the manner of a burlesque actor, took the cigarette out of his mouth with a little flourish, and replied to me:
"'Sure, Governor, I ain't dolled up like John Drew.'
"There was a sort of cocky unconcern about the creature that gave his miserable state a kind of beggarly distinction. He was in among the very dregs of life, and he was not depressed about it.
"'But if I had a sawbuck," he continued, "I could bulge your eye .... Couldn't point the way to one?'
"He arrested my answer with the little flourish of his fingers holding the stump of the cigarette.
"'Not work, Governor,' and he made a little duck of his head, 'and not murder.... Go as far as you please between 'em.'
"The fantastic manner of the derelict was infectious.
"'O. K.' I said. 'Go out and find me a man who is a deserter from the German Army, was a tanner in Bale and began life as a sailor, and I'll double your money—I'll give you a twenty-dollar bill.'
"The creature whistled softly in two short staccato notes.
"'Some little order,' he said. And taking a toothpick out of his pocket he stuck it into the stump of the cigarette which had become too short to hold between his fingers.
"At this moment a boy from the post office came to me with the daily report from Washington, and I got out of the chair, tipped the creature, and went into the hotel, stopping to pay McDuyal as I passed.
"There was nothing new from the department except that our organization over the country was in close touch. We had offered five thousand dollars reward for the recovery of the plates, and the Post Office Department was now posting the notice all over America in every office. The Secretary thought we had better let the public in on it and not keep it an underground offer to the service.
"I had forgotten the hobo, when about five o'clock he passed me a little below the Steel Pier. He was in a big stride and he had something clutched in his hand.
"He called to me as he hurried along: 'I got him, Governor.... See you later!'
"'See me now,' I said. 'What's the hurry?'
"He flashed his hand open, holding a silver dollar with his thumb against the palm.
"'Can't stop now, I'm going to get drunk. See you later.'
"I smiled at this disingenuous creature. He was saving me for the dry hour. He could point out Mulehaus in any passing chair, and I would give some coin to be rid of his pretension."
Walker paused. Then he went on:
"I was right. The hobo was waiting for me when I came out of the hotel the following morning.
"'Howdy, Governor,' he said; 'I located your man.'
"I was interested to see how he would frame up his case.
"'How did you find him?' I said.
"He grinned, moving his lip and his loose nose.
"'Some luck, Governor, and some sleuthin'. It was like this: I thought you was stringin' me. But I said to myself I'll keep out an eye; maybe it's on the level—any damn thing can happen.'
"He put up his hand as though to hook his thumb into the armhole of his vest, remembered that he had only a coat buttoned round him and dropped it.
"'And believe me or not, Governor, it's the God's truth. About four o'clock up toward the Inlet I passed a big, well-dressed, banker-looking gent walking stiff from the hip and throwing out his leg. "Come eleven!" I said to myself. "It's the goosestep!" I had an empty roller, and I took a turn over to him.'
"'"Chair, Admiral?" I said.
"'He looked at me sort of queer.
"'"What makes you think I'm an admiral, my man?" he answers.
"Well," I says, lounging over on one foot reflective like, "nobody could be a-viewin' the sea with that lovin', ownership look unless he'd bossed her a bit.... If I'm right, Admiral, you takes the chair."
"'He laughed, but he got in. "I'm not an admiral," he said, "but it is true that I've followed the sea."
"The hobo paused, and put up his first and second fingers spread like a V.
"'Two points, Governor—the gent had been a sailor and a soldier; now how about the tanner business?
"He scratched his head, moving his ridiculous cap.
"'That sort of puzzled me, and I pussyfooted along toward the Inlet thinkin' about it. If a man was a tanner, and especially a foreign, hand-workin' tanner, what would his markin's be?
"'I tried to remember everybody that I'd ever seen handlin' a hide, and all at once I recollected that the first thing a dago shoemaker done when he picked up a piece of leather was to smooth it out with his thumbs. An' I said to myself, now that'll be what a tanner does, only he does it more.... he's always doin' it. Then I asks myself what would be the markin's?'
"The hobo paused, his mouth open, his head twisted to one side. Then he jerked up as under a released spring.
"'And right away, Governor, I got the answer to it flat thumbs!'
"The hobo stepped back with an air of victory and flashed his hand up.
"'And he had 'em! I asked him what time it was so I could keep the hour straight for McDuyal, I told him, but the real reason was so I could see his hands.'"
Walker crossed one leg over the other.
"It was clever," he said, "and I hesitated to shatter it. But the question had to come.
"'Where is your man?' I said.
"The hobo executed a little deprecatory step, with his fingers picking at his coat pockets.
"'That's the trouble, Governor,' he answered; 'I intended to sleuth him for you, but he gave me a dollar and I got drunk... you saw me. That man had got out at McDuyal's place not five minutes before. I was flashin' to the booze can when you tried to stop me.... Nothin' doin' when I get the price.'"
"It was a good fairy story and worth something. I offered him half a dollar. Then I got a surprise.
"The creature looked eagerly at the coin in my fingers, and he moved toward it. He was crazy for the liquor it would buy. But he set his teeth and pulled up.
"'No, Governor,' he said, 'I'm in it for the sawbuck. Where'll I find you about noon?'
"I promised to be on the Boardwalk before Heinz's Pier at two o'clock, and he turned to shuffle away. I called an inquiry after him... You see there were two things in his story: How did he get a dollar tip, and how did he happen to make his imaginary man banker-looking? Mulehaus had been banker-looking in both the Egypt and the Argentine affairs. I left the latter point suspended, as we say. But I asked about the dollar. He came back at once.
"'I forgot about that, Governor,' he said. 'It was like this: The admiral kept looking out at the sea where an old freighter was going South. You know, the fruit line from New York. One of them goes by every day or two. And I kept pushing him along. Finally we got up to the Inlet, and I was about to turn when he stopped me. You know the neck of ground out beyond where the street cars loop; there's an old board fence by the road, then sand to the sea, and about halfway between the fence and the water there's a shed with some junk in it. You've seen it. They made the old America out there and the shed was a tool house.
"'When I stopped the admiral says: "Cut across to the hole in that old board fence and see if an automobile has been there, and I'll give you a dollar." An' I done it, an' I got it.'
"Then he shuffled off.
"'Be on the spot, Governor, an' I'll lead him to you.'"
Walker leaned over, rested his elbows on the arms of his chair, and linked his fingers together.
"That gave me a new flash on the creature. He was a slicker article than I imagined. I was not to get off with a tip. He was taking some pains to touch me for a greenback. I thought I saw his line. It would not account for his hitting the description of Mulehaus in the make-up of his straw-man, but it would furnish the data for the dollar story. I had drawn the latter a little before he was ready. It belonged in what he planned to give me at two o'clock. But I thought I saw what the creature was about. And I was right."
Walker put out his hand and moved the pages of his memoir on the table. Then he went on:
"I was smoking a cigar on a bench at the entrance to Heinz's Pier when the hobo shuffled up. He came down one of the streets from Pacific Avenue, and the direction confirmed me in my theory. It also confirmed me in the opinion that I was all kinds of a fool to let this dirty hobo get a further chance at me.
"I was not in a very good humor. Everything I had set going after Mulehaus was marking time. The only report was progress in linking things up; not only along the Canadian and Mexican borders and the customhouses, but we had also done a further unusual thing, we had an agent on every ship going out of America to follow through to the foreign port and look out for anything picked up on the way.
"It was a plan I had set at immediately the robbery was discovered. It would cut out the trick of reshipping at sea from some fishing craft or small boat. The reports were encouraging enough in that respect. We had the whole country as tight as a drum. But it was slender comfort when the Treasury was raising the devil for the plates and we hadn't a clew to them."
Walker stopped a moment. Then he went on:
"I felt like kicking the hobo when he got to me, he was so obviously the extreme of all worthless creatures, with that apologetic, confidential manner which seems to be an abominable attendant on human degeneracy. One may put up with it for a little while, but it presently becomes intolerable.
"'Governor,' he began, when he'd shuffled up, 'you won't git mad if I say a little somethin'?
"'Go on and say it,' I said.
"The expression on his dirty unshaved face became, if possible, more foolish.
"'Well, then, Governor, askin' your pardon, you ain't Mr. Henry P. Johnson, from Erie; you're the Chief of the United States Secret Service, from Washington.'"
Walker moved in his chair.
"That made me ugly," he went on, "the assurance of the creature and my unspeakable carelessness in permitting the official letters brought to me on the day before by the post-office messenger to be seen. In my relaxation I had forgotten the eye of the chair attendant. I took the cigar out of my teeth and looked at him.
"'And I'll say a little something myself!' I could hardly keep my foot clear of him. 'When you got sober this morning and remembered who I was, you took a turn up round the post office to make sure of it, and while you were in there you saw the notice of the reward for the stolen bond plates. That gave you the notion with which you pieced out your fairy story about how you got the dollar tip. Having discovered my identity through a piece of damned carelessness on my part, and having seen the postal notice of the reward, you undertook to enlarge your little game. That's the reason you wouldn't take fifty cents. It was your notion in the beginning to make a touch for a tip. And it would have worked. But now you can't get a damned cent out of me.' Then I threw a little brush into him: 'I'd have stood a touch for your finding the fake tanner, because there isn't any such person.'
"I intended to put the hobo out of business," Walker went on, "but the effect of my words on him were even more startling than I anticipated. His jaw dropped and he looked at me in astonishment.
"'No such person!' he repeated. 'Why, Governor, before God, I found a man like that, an' he was a banker—one of the big ones, sure as there's a hell!'"
Walker put out his hands in a puzzled gesture.
"There it was again, the description of Mulehaus! And it puzzled me. Every motion of this hobo's mind in every direction about this affair was perfectly clear to me. I saw his intention in every turn of it and just where he got the material for the details of his story. But this absolutely distinguishing description of Mulehaus was beyond me. Everybody, of course, knew that we were looking for the lost plates, for there was the reward offered by the Treasury; but no human soul outside of the trusted agents of the department knew that we were looking for Mulehaus."
Walker did not move, but he stopped in his recital for a moment.
"The tramp shuffled up a step closer to the bench where I sat. The anxiety in his big slack face was sincere beyond question.
"'I can't find the banker man, Governor; he's skipped the coop. But I believe I can find what he's hid.'
"'Well,' I said, 'go and find it.'
"The hobo jerked out his limp hands in a sort of hopeless gesture.
"'Now, Governor,' he whimpered, 'what good would it do me to find them plates?'
"'You'd get five thousand dollars,' I said.
"'I'd git kicked into the discard by the first cop that got to me,' he answered, 'that's what I'd git.'
"The creature's dirty, unshaved jowls began to shake, and his voice became wholly a whimper.
"'I've got a line on this thing, Governor, sure as there's a hell. That banker man was viewin' the layout. I've thought it all over, an' this is the way it would be. They're afraid of the border an' they're afraid of the customhouses, so they runs the loot down here in an automobile, hides it up about the Inlet, and plans to go out with it to one of them fruit steamers passing on the way to Tampico. They'd have them plates bundled up in a sailor's chest most like.
"'Now, Governor, you'd say why ain't they already done it? An' I'd answer, the main guy—this banker man—didn't know the automobile had got here until he sent me to look, and there ain't been no ship along since then.... I've been special careful to find that out.' And then the creature began to whine. 'Have a heart, Governor, come along with me. Gimme a show!'
"It was not the creature's plea that moved me, nor his pretended deductions; I'm a bit old to be soft. It was the 'banker man' sticking like a bur in the hobo's talk. I wanted to keep him in sight until I understood where he got it. No doubt that seems a slight reason for going out to the Inlet with the creature; but you must remember that slight things are often big signboards in our business."
He continued, his voice precise and even
"We went directly from the end of the Boardwalk to the old shed; it was open, an unfastened door on a pair of leather hinges. The shed is small, about twenty feet by eleven, with a hard dirt floor packed down by the workmen who had used it; a combination of clay and sand like the Jersey roads put in to make a floor. All round it, from the sea to the board fence, was soft sand. There were some pieces of old junk lying about in the shed; but nothing of value or it would have been nailed up.
"The hobo led right off with his deductions. There, was the track of a man, clearly outlined in the soft sand, leading from the board fence to the shed and returning, and no other track anywhere about.
"'Now, Governor,' he began, when he had taken a look at the tracks, 'the man that made them tracks carried something into this shed, and he left it here, and it was something heavy.'
"I was fairly certain that the hobo had salted the place for me, made the tracks himself; but I played out a line to him.
"'How do you know that?' I said.
"'Well, Governor,' he answered, 'take a look at them two lines of tracks. In the one comin' to the shed the man was walkin' with his feet apart and in the one goin' back he was walkin' with his feet in front of one another; that's because he was carryin' somethin' heavy when he come an' nothin' when he left.'
"It was an observation on footprints," he went on, "that had never occurred to me. The hobo saw my awakened interest, and he added:
"'Did you never notice a man carryin' a heavy load? He kind of totters, walkin' with his feet apart to keep his balance. That makes his foot tracks side by side like, instead of one before the other as he makes them when he's goin' light."'
Walker interrupted his narrative with a comment:
"It's the truth. I've verified it a thousand times since that hobo put me onto it. A line running through the center of the heel prints of a man carrying a heavy burden will be a zigzag, while one through the heel prints of the same man without the burden will be almost straight.
"The tramp went right on with his deductions:
"'If it come in and didn't go out, it's here.'
"And he began to go over the inside of the shed. He searched it like a man searching a box for a jewel. He moved the pieces of old castings and he literally fingered the shed from end to end. He would have found a bird's egg.
"Finally he stopped and stood with his hand spread out over his mouth. And I selected this critical moment to touch the powder off under his game.
"'Suppose,' I said, 'that this man with the heavy load wished to mislead us; suppose that instead of bringing something here he took one of these old castings away?'
"The hobo looked at me without changing his position.
"'How could he, Governor; he was pointin' this way with the load?'
"'By walking backward,' I said. For it occurred to me that perhaps the creature had manufactured this evidence for the occasion, and I wished to test the theory."
Walker went on in his slow, even voice:
"The test produced more action than I expected.
"The hobo dived out through the door. I followed to see him disappear. But it was not in flight; he was squatting down over the footprints. And a moment later he rocked back on his haunches with a little exultant yelp.
"'Dope's wrong, Governor,' he said; 'he was sure comin' this way.' Then he explained: 'If a man's walkin' forward in sand or mud or snow the toe of his shoe flirts out a little of it, an' if he's walkin' backward his heel flirts it out.'
"At this point I began to have some respect for the creature's ability. He got up and came back into the shed. And there he stood, in his old position, with his fingers over his mouth, looking round at the empty shed, in which, as I have said, one could not have concealed a bird's egg.
"I watched him without offering any suggestion, for my interest in the thing had awakened and I was curious to see what he would do. He stood perfectly motionless for about a minute; and then suddenly he snapped his fingers and the light came into his face.
"'I got it, Governor!' Then he came over to where I stood. 'Gimme a quarter to git a bucket.'
"I gave him the coin, for I was now profoundly puzzled, and he went out. He was gone perhaps twenty minutes, and when he came in he had a bucket of water. But he had evidently been thinking on the way, for he set the bucket down carefully, wiped his hands on his canvas breeches, and began to speak, with a little apologetic whimper in his voice.
"'Now look here, Governor,' he said, 'I'm a-goin' to talk turkey; do I git the five thousand if I find this stuff?'
"'Surely,' I answered him.
"'An' there'll be no monkeyin', Governor; you'll take me down to a bank yourself an' put the money in my hand?'
"'I promise you that,' I assured him.
"But he was not entirely quiet in his mind about it. He shifted uneasily from one foot to the other, and his soft rubber nose worked.
"'Now, Governor,' he said, 'I'm leery about jokers—I gotta be. I don't want any string to this money. If I git it I want to go and blow it in. I don't want you to hand me a roll an' then start any reformin' stunt—a-holdin' of it in trust an' a probation officer a-pussyfootin' me, or any funny business. I want the wad an' a clear road to the bright lights, with no word passed along to pinch me. Do I git it?'
"'It's a trade!' I said.
"'O. K.,' he answered, and he took up the bucket. He began at the door and poured the water carefully on the hard tramped earth. When the bucket was empty he brought another and another. Finally about midway of the floor space he stopped.
"'Here it is!' he said.
"I was following beside him, but I saw nothing to justify his words.
"'Why do you think the plates are buried here?' I said.
"'Look at the air bubbles comin' up, Governor,' he answered."
Walker stopped, then he added:
"It's a thing which I did not know until that moment, but it's the truth. If hard-packed earth is dug up and repacked air gets into it, and if one pours water on the place air bubbles will come up."
He did not go on, and I flung at him the big query in his story.
"And you found the plates there?"
"Yes, Sir Henry," he replied, "in the false bottom of an old steamer trunk."
"And the hobo got the money?"
"Certainly," he answered. "I put it into his hand, and let him go with it, as I promised."
Again he was silent, and I turned toward him in astonishment.
"Then," I said, "why did you begin this story by saying the hobo faked you? I don't see the fake; he found the plates and he was entitled to the reward."
Walker put his hand into his pocket, took out a leather case, selected a paper from among its contents and handed it to me. "I didn't see the fake either," he said, "until I got this letter."
I unfolded the letter carefully. It was neatly written in a hand like copper plate and dated Buenos Aires.
DEAR COLONEL WALKER: When I discovered that you were planting an agent on every ship I had to abandon the plates and try for the reward. Thank you for the five thousand; it covered expenses.
Very sincerely yours,
III. The Lost Lady
It was a remark of old Major Carrington that incited this adventure.
"It is some distance through the wood—is she quite safe?"
It was a mere reflection as he went out. It was very late. I do not know how the dinner, or rather the after-hours of it, had lengthened. It must have been the incomparable charm of the woman. She had come, this night, luminously, it seemed to us, through the haze that had been on her—the smoke haze of a strange, blighting fortune. The three of us had been carried along in it with no sense of time; my sister, the ancient Major Carrington and I.
He turned back in the road, his decayed voice whipped by the stimulus of her into a higher note.
"Suppose the village coachman should think her as lovely as we do—what!"
He laughed and turned heavily up the road a hundred yards or so to his cottage set in the pine wood. I stood in the road watching the wheels of the absurd village vehicle, the yellow cut-under, disappear. The old Major called back to me; his voice seemed detached, eerie with the thin laugh in it.
"I thought him a particularly villainous-looking creature!"
It was an absurd remark. The man was one of the natives of the island, and besides, the innkeeper was a person of sound sense; he would know precisely about his driver.
I should not have gone on this adventure but for a further incident.
When I entered the house my sister was going up the stair, the butler was beyond in the drawing-room, and there was no other servant visible. She was on the first step and the elevation gave precisely the height that my sister ought to have received in the accident of birth. She would have been wonderful with those four inches added—lacking beauty, she had every other grace!
She spoke to me as I approached.
"Winthrop," she said, "what was in the package that Madame Barras carried away with her tonight?"
The query very greatly surprised me. I thought Madame Barras had carried this package away with her several evenings before when I had put her English bank-notes in my box at the local bank. My sister added the explanation which I should have been embarrassed to seek, at the moment.
"She asked me to put it somewhere, on Tuesday afternoon.... It was forgotten, I suppose.... I laid it in a drawer of the library table.... What did it contain?"
I managed an evasive reply, for the discovery opened possibilities that disturbed me.
"Some certificates, I believe," I said.
My sister made a little pretended gesture of dismay.
"I should have been more careful; such things are of value."
Of value indeed! The certificates in Madame Barras' package, that had lain about on the library table, were gold certificates of the United States Treasury—ninety odd of them, each of a value of one thousand dollars! My sister went:
"How oddly life has tossed her about.... She must have been a mere infant at Miss Page's. The attachment of incoming tots to the older girls was a custom.... I do not recall her.... There was always a string of mites with shiny pigtails and big-eyed wistful faces. The older girls never thought very much about them. One has a swarm-memory, but individuals escape one. The older girl, in these schools, fancied herself immensely. The little satellite that attached itself, with its adoration, had no identity. It had a nickname, I think, or a number.... I have forgotten. We minimized these midges out of everything that could distinguish them.... Fancy one of these turning up in Madame Barras and coming to me on the memory of it."
"It was extremely lucky for her," I said. "Imagine arriving from the interior of Brazil on the invitation of Mrs. Jordan to find that lady dead and buried; with no friend, until, by chance, one happened on your name in the social register, and ventured on a school attachment of which there might remain, perhaps a memory only on the infant's side."
My sister went on up the stair.
"I am glad we happened to be here, and, especially, Winthrop, if you have been able to assist her.... She is charming."
Charming was the word descriptive of my sister, for it is a thing of manner from a nature elevated and noble, but it was not the word for Madame Barras. The woman was a lure. I mean the term in its large and catholic sense. I mean the bait of a great cosmic impulse—the most subtle and the most persistent of which one has any sense.
The cunning intelligences of that impulse had decked her out with every attractiveness as though they had taken thought to confound all masculine resistance; to sweep into their service those refractory units that withheld themselves from the common purpose. She was lovely, as the aged Major Carrington had uttered it—great violet eyes in a delicate skin sown with gold flecks, a skin so delicate that one felt that a kiss would tear it!
I do not know from what source I have that expression but it attaches itself, out of my memory of descriptive phrases, to Madame Barras. And it extends itself as wholly descriptive of her. You will say that the long and short of this is that I was in love with Madame Barras, but I point you a witness in Major Carrington.
He had the same impressions, and he had but one passion in his life, a distant worship of my sister that burned steadily even here at the end of life. During the few evenings that Madame Barras had been in to dinner with us, he sat in his chair beyond my sister in the drawing-room, perfect in his early-Victorian manner, while Madame Barras and I walked on the great terrace, or sat outside.
One had a magnificent sweep of the world, at night, from that terrace. It looked out over the forest of pines to the open sea.
Madame Barras confessed to the pull of this vista. She asked me at what direction the Atlantic entered, and when she knew, she kept it always in her sight.
It had a persisting fascination for her. At all times and in nearly any position, she was somehow sensible of this vista; she knew the lights almost immediately, and the common small craft blinking about. To-night she had sat for a long time in nearly utter silence here. There was a faint light on the open sea as she got up to take her leave of us; what would it be she wondered.
I replied that it was some small craft coming in.
"Hardly that," I said, "from its lights and position it will be some swifter power-boat and, I should say, not precisely certain about the channel."
I have been drawn here into reminiscence that did not, at the time, detain me in the hall. What my sister had discovered to me, following Major Carrington's remark, left me distinctly uneasy. It was very nearly two miles to the village, the road was wholly forest and there would be no house on the way; for my father, with an utter disregard for cost, had sought the seclusion of a large acreage when he had built this absurdly elaborate villa on Mount Desert Island.
Besides I was in no mood for sleep.
And, over all probability, there might be some not entirely imaginary danger to Madame Barras. Not precisely the danger presented in Major Carrington's pleasantry, but the always possible danger to one who is carrying a sum of money about. It would be considered, in the world of criminal activities, a very large sum of money; and it had been lying here, as of no value, in a drawer of the library table since the day on which the gold certificates had arrived on my check from the Boston bank.
Madame Barras had not taken the currency away as I imagined. It was extremely careless of her, but was it not an act in character?
What would such a woman know of practical concern?
I spoke to the butler. He should not wait up, I would let myself in; and I went out.
I remember that I got a cap and a stick out of the rack; there was no element of selection in the cap, but there was a decided subconscious direction about the selection of the stick. It was a heavy blackthorn, with an iron ferrule and a silver weight set in the head; picked up—by my father at some Irish fair—a weapon in fact.
It was not dark. It was one of those clear hard nights that are not uncommon on this island in midsummer; with a full moon, the road was visible even in the wood. I swung along it with no particular precaution; I was not expecting anything to happen, and in fact, nothing did happen on the way into the village.
But in this attitude of confidence I failed to discover an event of this night that might have given the whole adventure a different ending.
There is a point near the village where a road enters our private one; skirts the border of the mountain, and, making a great turn, enters the village from the south. At this division of the road I heard distinctly a sound in the wood.
It was not a sound to incite inquiry. It was the sound of some considerable animal moving in the leaves, a few steps beyond the road. It did not impress me at the time; estrays were constantly at large in our forests in summer, and not infrequently a roaming buck from the near preserves. There was also here in addition to the other roads, an abandoned winter wood-road that ran westward across the island to a small farming settlement. Doubtless I took a slighter notice of the sound because estrays from the farmers' fields usually trespassed on us from this road.
At any rate I went on. I fear that I was very much engrossed with the memory of Madame Barras. Not wholly with the feminine lure of her, although as I have written she was the perfection of that lure. One passed women, at all milestones, on the way to age, and kept before them one's sound estimates of life, but before this woman one lost one's head, as though Nature, evaded heretofore, would not be denied. But the weird fortune that had attended her was in my mind.
Married to Senor Barras out of the door of a convent, carried to Rio de Janeiro to an unbearable life, escaping with a remnant of her inheritance in English bank-notes, she arrives here to visit the one, old, persisting friend, Mrs. Jordan, and finds her dead! And what seemed strange, incredible beyond belief, was that this creature Barras had thought only of her fortune which he had depleted in two years to the something less than twenty thousand pounds which I had exchanged for her into our money; a mere fragment of her great inheritance.
I had listened to the story entranced with the alluring teller of it; wondering as I now wondered, on the road to the village, how anything pretending to be man could think of money when she was before his eye.
What could he buy with money that equaled her! And yet this curious jackal had seen in her only the key to a strong-box. There was behind it, in explanation, shadowed out, the glamor of an empire that Senor Barras would set up with the millions in his country of revolutions, and the enthusiasms of a foolish mother.
And yet the jackal and this wreckage had not touched her. There was no stain, no crumpled leaf. She was a fresh wonder, even after this, out of a chrysalis. It was this amazing newness, this virginity of blossom from which one could not escape.
The word in my reflection brought me up. How had she escaped from Barras?
I had more than once in my reflections pivoted on the word.
The great hotel was very nearly deserted when I entered.
There was the glow of a cigar where some one smoked, at the end of the long porch. Within, there was only a sleepy clerk.
Madame Barras had not arrived... he was quite sure; she had gone out to dinner somewhere and had not come in!
I was profoundly concerned. But I took a moment to reflect before deciding what to do.
I stepped outside and there, coming up from the shadow of the porch, I met Sir Henry Marquis.
It was chance at its extreme of favor. If I had been given the selection, in all the world, I should have asked for Sir Henry Marquis at that decisive moment.
The relief I felt made my words extravagant.
"Marquis!" I cried. "You here!"
"Ah, Winthrop," he said, in his drawling Oxford voice, "what have you done with Madame Barras; I was waiting for her?"
I told him, in a word, how she had set out from my house—my concern—the walk down here and this result. I did not ask him at the moment how he happened to be here, or with a knowledge of our guest. I thought that Marquis was in Canada. But one does not, with success, inquire of a C.I.D. official even in his own country. One met him in the most unexpected places, unconcerned, and one would have said at leisure.
But he was concerned to-night. What I told brought him up. He stood for a moment silent. Then he said, softly, in order drat the clerk behind us might not overhear.
"Don't speak of it. I will get a light and go with you!"
He returned in a moment and we went out. He asked me about the road, was there only one way down; and I told him precisely. There was only the one road into the village and no way to miss it unless one turned into the public road at the point where it entered our private one along the mountain.
He pitched at once upon this point and we hurried back.
We had hardly a further word on the way. I was decidedly uneasy about Madame Barras by now, and Marquis' concern was hardly less evident. He raced along in his immense stride, and I had all I could manage to keep up.
It may seem strange that I should have brought such a man as Sir Henry Marquis into the search of this adventure with so little explanation of my guest or the affair. But, one must remember, Marquis was an old acquaintance frequently seen about in the world. To thus, on the spot so to speak, draft into my service the first gentleman I found, was precisely what any one would have done. It was probable, after all, that there had been some reason why the cut-under had taken the other road, and Madame Barras was quite all right.
It was better to make sure before one raised the village—and Marquis, markedly, was beyond any aid the village could have furnished. This course was strikingly justified by every after-event.
I have said that the night was not dark. The sky was hard with stars, like a mosaic. This white moonlight entered through the tree-tops and in a measure illumined the road. We were easily able to see, when we reached the point, that the cut-under had turned out into the road circling the mountain to the west of the village. The track was so clearly visible in the light, that I must have observed it had I been thinking of the road instead of the one who had set out upon it.
I was going on quickly, when Marquis stopped. He was stooping over the track of the vehicle. He did not come on and I went back.
"What is it?" I said.
He answered, still stooping above the track.
"The cut-under stopped here."
"How do you know that?" I asked, for it seemed hardly possible to determine where a wheeled vehicle had stopped.
"It's quite clear," he replied. "The horse has moved about without going on."
I now saw it. The hoof-marks of the horse had displaced the dust where it had several times changed position.
"And that's not all," Marquis continued. "Something has happened to the cut-under here!"
I was now closely beside him.
"It was broken down, perhaps, or some accident to the harness?"
"No," he replied. "The wheel tracks are here broadened, as though they had skidded on a turn. This would mean little if the cut-under had been moving at the time. But it was not moving; the horse was standing. The cut-under had stopped."
He went on as though in a reflection to himself.
"The vehicle must have been violently thrown about here, by something."
I had a sudden inspiration.
"I see it!" I cried. "The horse took fright, stopped, and then bolted; there has been a run-away. That accounts for the turn out. Let's hurry!"
But Marquis detained me with a firm hand on my arm.
"No," he said, "the horse was not running when it turned out and it did not stop here in fright. The horse was entirely quiet here. The hoof marks would show any alarm in the animal, and, moreover, if it had stopped in fright there would have been an inevitable recoil which would have thrown the wheels of the vehicle backward out of their track. No moving animal, man included, stopped by fright fails to register this recoil. We always look for it in evidences of violent assault. Footprints invariably show it, and one learns thereby, unerringly, the direction of the attack."
He rose, his hand still extended and upon my arm.
"There is only one possible explanation," he added. "Something happened in the cut-under to throw it violently about in the road, and it happened with the horse undisturbed and the vehicle standing still. The wheel tracks are widened only at one point, showing a transverse but no lateral movement of the vehicle."
"A struggle?" I cried. "Major Carrington was right, Madame Barras has been attacked by the driver!"
Marquis' hand held me firmly in the excitement of that realization. He was entirely composed. There was even a drawl in his voice as he answered me.
"Major Carrington, whoever he may be," he said, "is wrong; if we exclude a third party, it was Madame Barras who attacked the driver."
His fingers tightened under my obvious protest.
"It is quite certain," he continued. "Taking the position of the standing horse, it will be the front wheels of the cut-under that have made, this widened track; the wheels under the driver's seat, and not the wheels under the guest seat, in the rear of the vehicle. There has been a violent struggle in this cut-under, but it was a struggle that took place wholly in the front of the vehicle."
He went on in his maddeningly imperturbable calm.
"No one attacked our guest, but some one, here at this precise point, did attack the driver of this vehicle."
"For God's sake," I cried, "let's hurry!"
He stepped back slowly to the edge of the road and the drawl in his voice lengthened.
"We do hurry," he said. "We hurry to the value of knowing that there was no accident here to the harness, no fright to the horse, no attack on the lady, and no change in the direction which the vehicle afterwards took. Suppose we had gone on, in a different form of hurry, ignorant of these facts?"
At this point I distinctly heard again the sound of a heavy animal in the wood. Marquis also heard it and he plunged into the thick bushes. Almost immediately we were at the spot, and before us some heavy object turned in the leaves.
Marquis whipped an electric-flash out of his pocket. The body of a man, tied at the hands and heels behind with a hitching-strap, and with a linen carriage lap-cloth wound around his head and knotted, lay there endeavoring to ease the rigor of his position by some movement.
We should now know, in a moment, what desperate thing had happened!
I cut the strap, while Marquis got the lap-cloth unwound from about the man's head. It was the driver of the cut-under. But we got no gain from his discovery. As soon as his face was clear, he tore out of our grasp and began to run.
He took the old road to the westward of the island, where perhaps he lived. We were wholly unable to stop him, and we got no reply to our shouted queries except his wild cry for help. He considered us his assailants from whom, by chance, he had escaped. It was folly to think of coming up with the man. He was set desperately for the westward of the island, and he would never stop until he reached it.
We turned back into the road:
Marquis' method now changed. He turned swiftly into the road along the mountain which the cut-under had taken after its capture.
I was at the extreme of a deadly anxiety about Madame Barras.
It seemed to me, now, certain that some gang of criminals having knowledge of the packet of money had waylaid the cut-under. Proud of my conclusion, I put the inquiry to Sir Henry as we hurried along. If we weren't too late!
He stopped suddenly like a man brought up at the point of a bayonet.
"My word!" He jerked the expression out through his tightened jaws. "Has she got ninety thousand dollars of your money!" And he set out again in his long stride. I explained briefly as I endeavored to keep his pace. It was her own money, not mine, but she did in fact have that large sum with her in the cut-under on this night. I gave him the story of the matter, briefly, for I had no breath to spare over it. And I asked him what he thought. Had a gang of thieves attacked the cut-under?
But he only repeated his expression.
"My word!... You got her ninety thousand dollars and let her drive away with no eye on her!.... Such trust in the honesty of our fellow creatures!... My word!"
I had to admit the deplorable negligence, but I had not thought of any peril, and I did not know that she carried the money with her until the conversation with my sister. There was some excuse for me. I could not remember a robbery on this island.
Marquis snapped his jaws.
"You'll remember this one!" he said.
It was a ridiculous remark. How could one ever forget if this incomparable creature were robbed and perhaps murdered. But were there not some extenuating circumstances in my favor. I presented them as we advanced; my sister and I lived in a rather protected atmosphere apart from all criminal activities, we could not foresee such a result. I had no knowledge of criminal methods.
"I can well believe it," was the only reply Marquis returned to me.
In addition to my extreme anxiety about Madame Barras I began now to realize a profound sense of responsibility; every one, it seemed, saw what I ought to have done, except myself. How had I managed to overlook it? It was clear to other men. Major Carrington had pointed it out to me as I was turning away; and now here Sir Henry Marquis was expressing in no uncertain words how negligent a creature he considered me—to permit my guest, a woman, to go alone, at night, with this large sum of money.
It was not a pleasant retrospect. Other men—the world—would scarcely hold me to a lesser negligence than Sir Henry Marquis!
I could not forbear, even in our haste, to seek some consolation.
"Do you think Madame Barras has been hurt?"
"Hurt!" he repeated. "How should Madame Barras be hurt?"
"In the robbery," I said.
"Robbery!" and he repeated that word. "There has been no robbery!"
I replied in some astonishment.
"Really, Sir Henry! You but now assured me that I would remember this night's robbery."
The drawl got back into his voice.
"Ah, yes," he said, "quite so. You will remember it."
The man was clearly, it seemed to me, so engrossed with the mystery that it was idle to interrogate him. And he was walking with a devil's stride.
Still the pointed query of the affair pressed me, and I made another effort.
"Why did these assailants take Madame Barras on with them?"
Marquis regarded me, I thought, with wonder.
"The devil, man!" he said. "They couldn't leave her behind."
"The danger would be too great to them?"
"No," he said, "the danger would be too great to her."
At this moment an object before us in the road diverted our attention. It was the cut-under and the horse. They were standing by the roadside where it makes a great turn to enter the village from the south. There is a wide border to the road at this point, clear of underbrush, where the forest edges it, and there are here, at the whim of some one, or by chance, two great flat stones, one lying upon the other, but not fitting by a hand's thickness by reason of the uneven surfaces.
What had now happened was evident. The assailants of the cut-under had abandoned it here before entering the village. They could not, of course, go on with this incriminating vehicle.
The sight of the cut-under here had on Marquis the usual effect of any important evidential sign. He at once ceased to hurry. He pulled up; looked over the cut-under and the horse, and began to saunter about.
This careless manner was difficult for me at such a time. But for his assurance that Madame Barras, was uninjured it would have been impossible. I had a blind confidence in the man although his expressions were so absurdly in conflict.
I started to go on toward the village, but as he did not follow I turned back. Marquis was sitting on the flat stones with a cigarette in his fingers:
"Good heavens, man," I cried, "you're not stopping to smoke a cigarette?"
"Not this cigarette, at any rate," he replied. "Madame Barras has already smoked it.... I can, perhaps, find you the burnt match."
He got the electric-flash out of his pocket, and stooped over. Immediately he made an exclamation of surprise.
I leaned down beside him.
There was a little heap of charred paper on the brown bed of pine-needles. Marquis was about to take up this charred paper when his eye caught something thrust in between the two stones. It was a handful of torn bits of paper.
Marquis got them out and laid them on the top of the flat stones under his light.
"Ah," he said, "Madame Barras, while she smoked, got rid of some money."
"The package of gold certificates!" I cried. "She has burned them?"
"No," he replied, "Madame Barras has favored your Treasury in her destructive process. These are five-pound notes, of the Bank of England."
I was astonished and I expressed it.
"But why should Madame Barras destroy notes of the Bank of England?"
"I imagine," he answered, "that they were some which she had, by chance, failed to give you for exchange."
"But why should she destroy them?" I went on.
"I conclude," he drawled, "that she was not wholly certain that she would escape."
"Escape!" I cried. "You have been assuring me all along that Madame Barras is making no effort to escape."
"Oh, no," he replied, "she is making every effort."
I was annoyed and puzzled.
"What is it," I said, "precisely, that Madame Barras did here; can you tell me in plain words?"
"Surely," he replied, "she sat here while something was decided, and while she sat here she smoked the cigarette, and while she smoked the cigarette, she destroyed the money. But," he added, "before she had quite finished, a decision was made and she hastily thrust the remaining bits of the torn notes into the crevice between these stones."
"What decision?" I said.
Marquis gathered up the bits of torn paper and put them into his pocket with the switched-off flash.
"I wish I knew that," he said.
"Which path they have taken," he replied; "there seem to be two branching from this point, but they pass over a bed of pine-needles and that retains no impression.... Where do these paths lead?"
I did not know that any paths came into the road at this point. But the island is veined over with old paths. The lead of paths here, however, was fairly evident.
"They must come out somewhere on the sea," I said.
"Right," he cried. "Take either, and let's be off... Madame's cigarette was not quite cold when I picked it up."
I was right about the direction of the paths but, as it happened, the one Marquis took was nearly double the distance of the other to the sea; and I have wondered always, if it was chance that selected the one taken by the assailants of the cut-under as it was chance that selected the one taken by us.
Marquis was instantly gone, and I hurried along the path, running nearly due east. There was light enough entering from the brilliant moon through the tree-tops to make out the abandoned trail.
And as I hurried, Marquis' contradicting expressions seemed to adjust themselves into a sort of order, and all at once I understood what had happened. The Brazilian adventurer had not taken the loss of his wife and the fortune in English pounds sterling, lying down. He had followed to recover them.
I now saw clearly the reason for everything that had happened: the attack on the driver, and my guest's concern to get rid of the English money which she discovered remaining in her possession; this man would have no knowledge of her gold certificates but he would be searching for his English pounds. And if she came clear of any trace of these five-pound notes, she might disclaim all knowledge of them and perhaps send him elsewhere on his search, since it was always the money and not the woman that he sought.
This explanation was hardly realized before it was confirmed.
I came out abruptly onto a slope of bracken, and before me at a few paces on the path were Madame Barras and two men; one at some distance in advance of her, disappearing at the moment behind a spur of the slope that hid us from the sea, and I got no conception of him; but the creature at her heels was a huge foreign beast of a man, in the dress of a common sailor.
What happened was over in a moment.
I was nearly on the man when I turned out of the wood, and with a shout to Madame Barras I struck at him with the heavy walking-stick. But the creature was not to be taken unaware; he darted to one side, wrenched the stick out of my hand, and dashed its heavy-weighted head into my face. I went down in the bracken, but I carried with me into unconsciousness a vision of Madame Barras that no shadow of the lengthening years can blur.
She had swung round sharply at the attack behind her, and she stood bare-haired and bare-shouldered, knee-deep in the golden bracken, with the glory of the moon on her; her arms hanging, her lips parted, her great eyes wide with terror—as lovely in her desperate extremity as a dream, as, a painted picture. I don't know how long I was down there, but when I finally got up, and, following along the path behind the spur of rock, came out onto the open sea, I found Sir Henry Marquis. He was standing with his hands in the pockets of his loose tweed coat, and he was cursing softly:
"The ferry and the mainland are patroled... I didn't think of their having an ocean-going yacht...."
A gleam of light was disappearing into the open sea.
He put his hand into his pocket and took out the scraps of torn paper.
"These notes," he said, "like the ones which you hold in your bank-vault, were never issued by the Bank of England."
I stammered some incoherent sentence; and the great chief of the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard turned toward me.
"Do you know who that woman is?"
"Surely," I cried, "she went to school with my sister at Miss Page's; she came to visit Mrs. Jordan...."
He looked at me steadily.
"She got the data about your sister out of the Back Bay biographies and she used the accident of Mrs. Jordan's death to get in with it... the rest was all fiction."
"Madame Barras?" I stuttered. "You mean Madame Barras?"
"Madame the Devil," he said. "That's Sunny Suzanne. Used to be in the Hungarian Follies until the Soviet government of Austria picked her up to place the imitation English money that its presses were striking off in Vienna."
IV. The Cambered Foot
I shall not pretend that I knew the man in America or that he was a friend of my family or that some one had written to me about him. The plain truth is that I never laid eyes on him until Sir Henry Marquis pointed him out to me the day after I went down from here to London. It was in Piccadilly Circus.
"There's your American," said Sir Henry.
The girl paused for a few moments. There was profound silence.
"And that isn't all of it. Nobody presented him to me. I deliberately picked him up!"
Three persons were in the drawing-room. An old woman with high cheekbones, a bowed nose and a firm, thin-lipped mouth was the central figure. She sat very straight in her chair, her head up and her hands in her lap. An aged man, in the khaki uniform of a major of yeomanry, stood at a window looking out, his hands behind his back, his chin lifted as though he were endeavoring to see something far away over the English country—something beyond the little groups of Highland cattle and the great oak trees.
Beside the old woman, on a dark wood frame, there was a fire screen made of the pennant of a Highland regiment. Beyond her was a table with a glass top. Under this cover, in a sort of drawer lined with purple velvet, there were medals, trophies and decorations visible below the sheet of glass. And on the table, in a heavy metal frame, was the portrait of a young man in the uniform of a captain of Highland infantry.
The girl who had been speaking sat in a big armchair by this table. One knew instantly that she was an American. The liberty of manner, the independence of expression, could not be mistaken in a country of established forms. She had abundant brown hair skillfully arranged under a smart French hat. Her eyes were blue; not the blue of any painted color; it was the blue of remote spaces in the tropic sky.
The old woman spoke without looking at the girl.
"Then," she said, "it's all quite as"—she hesitated for a word—"extraordinary as we have been led to believe."
There was the slow accent of Southern blood in the girl's voice as she went on.
"Lady Mary," she said, "it's all far more extraordinary than you have been led to believe—than any one could ever have led you to believe. I deliberately picked the man up. I waited for him outside the Savoy, and pretended to be uncertain about an address. He volunteered to take me in his motor and I went with him. I told him I was alone in London, at the Ritz. It was Blackwell's bank I pretended to be looking for. Then we had tea."
The girl paused.
Presently she continued: "That's how it began: You're mistaken to imagine that Sir Henry Marquis presented me to this American. It was the other way about; I presented Sir Henry. I had the run of the Ritz," she went on. "We all do if we scatter money. Sir Henry came in to tea the next afternoon. That's how he met Mr. Meadows. And that's the only place he ever did meet him. Mr. Meadows came every day, and Sir Henry formed the habit of dropping in. We got to be a very friendly party."
The motionless old woman, a figure in plaster until now, kneaded her fingers as under some moving pressure. "At this time," she said, "you were engaged to Tony and expected to be his wife!"
The girl's voice did not change. It was slow and even. "Yes," she said.
"Tony, of course, knew nothing about this?"
"He knows nothing whatever about it unless you have written him."
Again the old woman moved slightly. "I have waited," she said, "for the benefit of your explanation. It seems as—as bad as I feared."
"Lady Mary," said the girl in her slow voice, "it's worse than you feared. I don't undertake to smooth it over. Everything that you have heard is quite true. I did go out with the man in his motor, in the evening. Sometimes it was quite dark before we returned. Mr. Meadows preferred to drive at night because he was not accustomed to the English rule of taking the left on the road, when one always takes the right in America. He was afraid he couldn't remember the rule, so it was safer at night and there was less traffic.
"I shall not try to make the thing appear better than it was. We sometimes took long runs. Mr. Meadows liked the high roads along the east coast, where one got a view of the sea and the cold salt air. We ran prodigious distances. He had the finest motor in England, the very latest American model. I didn't think so much about night coming on, the lights on the car were so wonderful. Mr. Meadows was an amazing driver. We made express-train time. The roads were usually clear at night and the motor was a perfect wonder. The only trouble we ever had was with the lights. Sometimes one, of them would go out. I think it was bad wiring. But there was always the sweep of the sea under the stars to look at while Mr. Meadows got the thing adjusted."