THE SUBSTITUTE PRISONER
Author of "Are You My Wife?" "Britz of Headquarters," etc.
Copyright, 1911, by Moffat, Yard and Company New York Published October, 1911
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Mrs. Collins (Frontispiece)
He looked about him in a bewildered way
She felt herself seized with a desire to weep
She did not repel the arm
THE SUBSTITUTE PRISONER
Did she come to threaten or to plead?
The question, darting swiftly through his mind as his eyes took in the unfamiliar outline of her figure, produced a storm of agitation which left him gazing stupidly at her, with fixed eyes in which surprise and terror mingled.
He had never seen her before—his first moment of survey impressed that clearly on him. Yet her presence in his home at this compromising hour signified that she was involved, remotely or intimately, in his own tangled affairs. The thought impelled him to closer scrutiny of her.
She was pleasing to the eye. But whether her beauty was soft and alluring or hard and repelling, his bewildered senses could not determine. Her toilet, fresh and elegant, rich and clinging, harmonizing with the velvet drapings and melting lights of the room, seemed to invest her with an air of breeding, gave her an outward show of refinement. Yet she betrayed certain signs of doubtful comfort, as if all this magnificence had been borrowed for the occasion.
He came forward noiselessly, his footsteps deadened in the soft pile of the Brussels carpet. She regarded his approach with cold, impassive demeanor, nodding slightly as he paused near the carved rosewood table above which hung an exquisitely wrought silver lamp, suspended by four silver chains from the ceiling.
"Mr. Herbert Whitmore?" she asked, not without trace of anxiety in her voice.
He observed that her skin had a warm and pearly tone, that her abundant hair was of a dark reddish tinge, and that her eyes, of turquoise blue, gleamed with a strange, impenetrable hue. He was still gazing vacantly at her, but his mind was working furiously, striving to answer the harrowing questions that presented themselves in tumultuous succession before it.
Who was she? What motive prompted this visit at ten in the evening? Did she come to plead a financial matter?—or was she here for purposes of blackmail? Did she have knowledge of his incriminating conduct, and was she sent to ensnare him into further complications? Above all, what attitude should he adopt toward her?
"What can I do for you?" he inquired in a tone frigidly polite, yet not devoid of an anxious note.
They regarded each other a moment.
"I hardly know how to begin," she said, lowering her eyes.
He did not credit her hesitancy. It was a deceit, he felt, a bit of theatricalism,—the simulated modesty of a woman of experience.
"Begin by being seated," he said rather sharply, as if he meant to convey that he penetrated her sham diffidence.
Ignoring his brusqueness, she dropped into one of the ornate rosewood chairs near the table.
"It is such a delicate matter on which I have come," she began timorously, eying him for a sign of encouragement. "Now that I am here I wish I hadn't come—it's so difficult for me to begin."
His keen gray eyes narrowed on her, but she read no encouragement in his glance. He had regained control of himself and assumed a non-committal attitude, as of one ready to listen, but indifferent as to whether she proceeded or withdrew.
"You haven't revealed the purpose of your visit as yet," he said, crossing his legs. "If you regret having come, you are at liberty to go without further explanation."
He hurled it at her as a challenge, but with a positive feeling that it would not be accepted.
"I have come to warn you," she said with sudden resolution.
"To warn me of what?" His brow knitted in puzzled surprise.
"I have come to tell you that he knows and has worked himself into a murderous fury."
"I don't understand." But his pretense of ignorance was too shallow not to be seen through immediately.
"You understand perfectly," she declared. "Moreover, you recognize your danger. It is useless to try to deceive me—an understanding between us might work to our mutual advantage."
He imagined that he perceived the sinister import of her suggestion. An understanding between them—that could mean only one thing. She had come to blackmail him.
"What sort of an understanding?" he asked experimentally.
She bent forward, thrusting her head directly underneath the overhanging lamp, revealing a face not untouched by care and suffering. He guessed her age at twenty-four, but the set earnestness of her expression made her seem close to thirty. She still possessed a certain girlishness, but it was marked and marred by an unpleasant maturity, as if she had arrived too young at a woman's understanding of the world. With physical beauty she was amply endowed; nor had it been hardened and coarsened beyond power to allure. There was no visible imperfection to detract from its charm; but, gazing on her, Whitmore felt something lacking, something spiritual, imponderable, yet immediately detected and missed. And this impression was heightened when she spoke.
"You are interested in George Collins and so am I," she said, and paused.
"And you've come to plead for him?" His manner signified that her errand was useless.
"Plead for him!" she echoed, a faint smile hovering about her lips. "Why should I plead for him with you? I came to tell you that he knows—and has bought a pistol."
"So he knows that I have learned of his conduct!" He studied the woman as if trying to read her inmost thoughts. "Does he suppose that by sending you with threats he can prevent me from telling—from telling—her?"
"He didn't send me," she retorted quickly. "I came without his knowledge. Nor do I care about what you have discovered! The point is that he has discovered that you have been urging his wife to divorce him. He accuses you of trying to disrupt his home. He is aware that you have been in correspondence with his wife and intends to intercept your next letter."
Whitmore's brow clouded. "Why did you come to tell me this?"
"For purely personal reasons."
"And who are you, madam?"
"I am——" She hesitated, as if afraid to disclose her identity. Then, overcoming her hesitancy, she said, "I am Julia Strong."
On hearing the name, the outward calm which he had maintained vanished, leaving him pale, agitated, apprehensive. Presently a mounting anger succeeded all other emotions, and he rose to his feet.
"What do you mean by coming here at this hour?" he demanded savagely. "You came here to warn me!—really, you overestimate my credulity!"
"I did come here to warn you," she persisted.
"And to betray George Collins!" The note of irony in his voice brought the blood to her cheeks.
"I don't want him to kill you," she said, controlling a clutch in her voice. "I want you to live. It is necessary—all my hopes and aspirations demand it."
He was on the point of making a sharp retort, but checked himself suddenly and regarded her with less aversion. Perhaps she was telling the truth! If so, the situation in which he found himself was not without its touch of grim humor. But what motive prompted her to extend the mantle of protection about him, and simultaneously to betray George Collins? He pondered the question a full minute. Then the simple solution, the only tenable one, occurred to him. She was ready to betray Collins for the same reason that had made her accept his protection.
"Madam," he said, with an eagerness he did not mean to betray, "knowing who you are, now I can guess at the nature of your hopes and aspirations. And you did right in coming to me. From what my detectives have communicated to me, I am led to believe that you are a woman with a keen appreciation of worldly comfort and luxury. I say this, without intending the slightest offense. You are aware, undoubtedly, that I am able to supply you with all you crave for—far in excess of anything that you can possibly hope to obtain from Collins. If you will consent to appear at my lawyer's office and make an affidavit——"
The changed expression on her face made him pause. She had risen and stood facing him, her eyes blazing resentment, her lips curled in a disdainful smile.
"I don't care to listen to your offensive utterances," she said, gazing at him as if to impale him with her glance. "I'm sorry I came. Good-night."
With an angry movement she donned her rich cloak, wrapping it about her figure and moving toward the door. He followed her with his eyes, until he saw her pass into the vestibule. Then he hastened forward and opened the street door.
She descended the broad steps holding herself stiffly erect, head uptilted—a striking figure, graceful, supple, almost commanding. In fact, so attractive was the picture she made as she stood a moment on the sidewalk, that a passing policeman, seized by a gallant impulse, opened the door of the waiting taxicab and held it ajar while she entered.
Balancing himself on the edge of the curb, the bluecoat stared after her in undisguised admiration until the cab swung around the corner; then he bestowed a curious glance on the house whence she had come. He saw that the door was half open and that a man's figure stood revealed in the soft light of the hallway. One hand was on the door knob, one foot was thrust forward as if the man were uncertain whether to plunge after her. Evidently he decided against venturing out, for he stepped back into the vestibule and shut the door.
"Even these people have their little scraps," the bluecoat murmured sagely, and passed on.
Herbert Whitmore did not return to the room in which he had received the visitor. Instead, he ascended the stairs to the library, and threw himself into the soft embrace of a wide leather chair.
The turmoil of his brain gave him an uncomfortable feeling of excitement, as if he were participating in something active and swift, which he but partly understood. He was incapable of connected thought—everything was vague and shadowy before him. In a dim way he recognized that he was standing in the way of an approaching avalanche, and gradually he began to discern the nature of the impending catastrophe. Presently the vague uncertainty that hovered before his mind resolved itself into action, and his groping forefinger pressed a button hidden beneath the carved edge of the library table. In response to the pressure, a liveried butler entered the room.
"Did you mail the letter I gave you?" inquired Whitmore.
"Immediately you gave it to me."
"That was about four hours ago?"
"That is all."
The butler effaced himself from the room as noiselessly as he had entered, and again Whitmore gave himself up to the alarming predicament in which he found himself.
His reflections centered about the letter which the butler had mailed. It was not sent in a moment of impulsiveness. The information which it conveyed was not offered in spite, or in anger, or in envy. It was the deliberate act of a man habituated to clear thinking and correct action. Viewed with full knowledge of all the surrounding circumstances, that letter must be regarded as the noble outpouring of a chivalrous love, honest, worthy, unselfish. Regarded without the illumination of the complex conditions which called it forth, the letter was pregnant with possibility of mischief.
It was addressed to Mrs. George Collins. And George Collins must not be permitted to intercept it.
With the single resolve to frustrate Collins actuating his movements, Whitmore went to his apartment, slipped on his topcoat, and left the house. He paused at the corner to consult his watch. It was eleven o'clock.
He was sufficiently acquainted with the city to know that over on Seventh Avenue certain shops kept open until midnight. He had passed them frequently after theater and observed the industrious proprietors and barkers noisily soliciting trade on the sidewalk.
Down Fifth Avenue Whitmore swung at a rapid pace, turning west at Forty-second Street. Through the swirling crowds at Broadway he threaded his way, finally entering the gloomy thoroughfare that cuts a somber, murky streak through the illuminated area of Times Square.
Even Whitmore, engrossed as he was in his own affairs, could not help a feeling of depression as with a single step he emerged from the throbbing life and light of Broadway into the shabby darkness of Seventh Avenue. For nowhere in the big city is the contrast of its extremes brought home so sharply as at this intersection of three busy thoroughfares.
It is worth while to pause a moment in the blatant glare of that monstrously hideous variety house, that architectural malformation that defaces the northwest corner; or opposite in the shadow of the gray illumined tower that mounts undaunted, a connecting ladder between earth and sky. Especially profitable is it to pause a moment at the hour when the neighboring theaters are discharging their crowds, and to glance behind and beyond the furious activity that bewilders the eye and dazzles the senses. If you have the eye to see and the mind to appreciate, you will behold an illuminated canvas whereon is depicted, within the limited area of your vision, everything that a great city holds of wealth and poverty, beauty and ugliness, joy and sorrow, luxury and squalor, purity and degradation, truth and falsehood. It is all there, in this narrow environment, with the lights and the shadows meeting and blending, as the noise from below merges with the silence above.
Nothing of these vivid contrasts struck the sense of Whitmore as with nervous steps he hurried toward his destination. In the first place, familiarity with the scene had deprived him of the faculty to read its pitiless meaning; secondly, a feverish anxiety to have done with the business that dominated his mind and accelerated his footsteps sent him unheeding across Seventh Avenue and down that thoroughfare until he stopped abruptly before one of the shabby second-hand clothing stores with which the street abounds.
The air of prosperity with which he was invested saved him from being seized immediately by one of the bawling salesmen and dragged into the mothy interior of the shop. He was not of the type that submits to being manhandled and browbeaten into purchasing cast-off garments. But, as he stood hesitant and uncertain within the narrow radius of the gas-lit window, one of the barkers found sufficient courage to invite him within. And, to the utter amazement of the alert salesman, Whitmore entered the store.
The proprietor of the place, a stooped, be-whiskered man who spoke with a pronounced Hebraic accent, came forward to wait personally on this elegant customer. But he found that no especial skill was required to consummate a sale. Whitmore selected an old, dilapidated suit, a worn coat, an old slouch hat, and a pair of heavy shoes, and almost caused the beaming merchant to die of heart failure by paying the first price demanded of him.
"It's for an amateur theatrical performance," Whitmore explained to the proprietor, who was unable to hide his surprise that a customer of such seeming prosperity should invest in these cast-off garments.
With the bundle containing the clothes under his arm, Whitmore returned to Broadway and entered one of the hotels. He consulted a railroad time table, after which he called for a taxicab and directed the chauffeur to take him home.
He entered the house with his latchkey and climbed the stairs to his room. Divesting himself of coat and vest, he stepped before the mirror and shaved off his gray mustache. Next he produced a soft tennis shirt, which he exchanged for the linen one he had on, and an old bow tie took the place of the blue four-in-hand which he usually wore.
Undoing the bundle with which he had entered the house, he proceeded to dress in the second-hand garments. When he had pulled the battered slouch hat well down on his forehead, he surveyed himself in the glass. The transformation was complete.
Regarding himself in this shabby disguise, he almost deteriorated in his own estimation. It was difficult to believe that a mere change of apparel could make such a vast difference. But one satisfaction he could not deny himself. It was unlikely that anyone would recognize, in the human derelict before the looking-glass, Herbert Whitmore, millionaire, owner of the great Whitmore Iron Works. It was certain that his most intimate friend would have failed to penetrate his disguise.
Dismissing the unpleasant reflections kindled within him, Whitmore proceeded with characteristic assurance to execute what was in his mind. He descended silently to the basement of the house, where he obtained a heavy screw-driver. This he secreted in the inside pocket of his coat. Next he went to the basement door and peered furtively through the grating. His anxious eyes swept the street until convinced that no inquisitive policeman was loitering in the immediate vicinity. Then, slowly, apprehensively, he opened the door and issued, like a thief in the night, from his own home.
The domestic life of George Collins and his wife was a daily lie which fooled no one. For five years they had lived completely estranged beneath the single roof that sheltered both, yet trying desperately to conceal their conjugal infelicity from the world. But the eyes of the world are too keen and penetrating when it comes to other people's affairs, and such painful efforts as the Collinses made to appear reconciled to each other were measured and appraised at their true worth.
Marriage is a common institution and the symptoms of its discontent are familiar to all. They appeared early in the married life of the Collinses, were faithfully diagnosed by the members of their immediate circle, and the prognostication based on them called for the early appearance of Mrs. Collins as plaintiff in the divorce court.
But religious scruples and a natural abhorrence of such a proceeding combined to keep the wife from making the one essential move necessary for her freedom.
Rather than do violence to the tenets of her religious faith and to the rigid principles of her upbringing, she chose to bear the burden of unhappiness that was imposed on her. Occasionally she and her husband even appeared in public together, and on such occasions they tried to give the impression of entertaining for each other all the affection of a happily married couple. But in their own home they lived continuously in a state of mutual aversion and estrangement, occupying separate apartments and holding only the most formal communications with each other.
The house which they occupied was a stately stucco structure, situated on top of a terraced lawn and approached by a gravel walk banked with flowers and shrubs. A sloping roof, painted a dull red and pierced by a huge chimney, gave a warm and picturesque tone to the place, which otherwise might have appeared coldly severe and uninviting.
The luxurious seclusion which the Collinses enjoyed was shared by about sixty neighbors who formed the wealthy colony of Delmore Park, a small suburb within easy motoring and commuting distance of New York. The park itself was an attractive inclosure of some three hundred acres, surrounded by a fence of high iron palings and laid out so as to give the impression from within of a natural forest, while, as a matter of fact, the place was a triumph of the consummate skill of expert gardeners. In this deliberately fashioned woodland it was possible to combine all the pomp and extravagance of city life with the rustic attractiveness and simplicity of the country—a combination toward which the wealthy are turning in increasing numbers each year.
On the morning following Whitmore's strange nocturnal excursion, Collins's alarm clock set up an ear-splitting din at a most unwonted hour. On retiring the previous night Collins had set the alarm for seven-thirty, an hour at which he usually attained his deepest sleep. Only on rare occasions was he known to retire before two A. M., and still rarer were the occasions when he relinquished his bed before eleven.
A product of the gay night life of the city, he required the mornings for slumber. Nor did he on this particular morning rouse himself into immediate activity. Stretching himself languorously, he permitted the alarm to exhaust itself, then buried his head in his pillow.
But he did not close his eyes. With a painful effort he prevented his tired eyelids from falling and for half an hour remained stretched between the sheets, lost in gloomy reflection.
There had been a purpose in setting the alarm at this early hour; the same purpose now held him awake, absorbed in thought, yet alert to every sound about the house. He heard the butler unlock the storm doors and the servants prepare for the morning work. An occasional delivery wagon ground through the gravel walk, the grating noise of the wheels rasping his quivering nerves.
Through the open window a stream of sunshine flooded the floor and distributed itself impartially about the room. The fresh arena of spring blossoms softened the crisp morning air with a pleasant perfume; feathered throats chirped happily in pursuit of the early worm.
The swelling chorus of happiness without aroused no responsive quiver in Collins's heart. It hung within him, a leaden weight coiled with bitterness and hate. His mind was a blazing furnace of furious resentment, emitting sparks of rage that kindled other fires in the storehouse of his emotions, until his temper seemed to reflect the conflict of all tempers.
The shrill call of a letter-carrier's whistle banished the silent fury into which he had worked himself. A thrill of expectancy shot down his frame. Donning his bathrobe and slippers he stepped into the hallway and listened. The butler and the mail man exchanged a word of greeting, then the former closed the door. Collins descended the stairs, blinking, with sleepy dissipated eyes.
"Give me all the mail," he said, extending a tremulous hand.
"There's a letter for madam—"
"Give it to me!"
Reluctantly the butler delivered the letter to him.
"You needn't mention my having received all the mail," Collins growled. "If madam asks whether there was any mail for her tell her there wasn't any. And don't forget what I say!"
The butler stared after him as he climbed up the stairs and disappeared into his own room.
Seated on the edge of his bed, Collins glanced through his personal mail then tore open the letter to his wife. It was in a familiar handwriting and the contents brought no look of surprise to his face. But he read it through half a dozen times, as if to sear it into his memory.
Presently he dressed and went out for a stroll, drinking copious draughts of the bracing morning air. But the tormenting presence of the intercepted letter in his pocket drew him back to the house. He encountered his wife in the hallway.
"There was some mail for me—where is it?" she said, extending a hand confidently.
He produced the letter from his pocket, poising it tantalizingly between his fingers. She recognized the handwriting and a wave of red mounted to her forehead. Also, she observed the ragged slit at the top of the envelope and the painful realization that he had read the contents rushed on her.
"How dared you?" She tried to seize the letter, but he, anticipating her move, withdrew his arm and thrust the missive into his pocket. "I didn't believe it possible you could sink so low," she murmured. "But this is the end," she added with sudden vehemence. "I shall leave this house to-day."
"Oh, no, you won't!" An angry scowl contorted his face. "You've flaunted your superior virtues in my face—accused me of cruelty and neglect and selfishness. Everybody, including your brother, believes you to be the long-suffering, patient little angel. You've been the woman with the noble soul—I've been the unworthy rascal. Now you stand there, your feelings outraged, because I had the foresight to intercept an incriminating letter. You calmly tell me it's the end. You're going to leave. It makes no difference how much scandal you bring on my name. You—"
She checked him with a contemptuous toss of the head. All the suffering which she had endured through the years of their married life now resolved itself into a fury of resentment.
"Your name!" she exclaimed with cutting irony. "As if anything which I might do could add to the weight of dishonor that you have imposed upon it! I don't know the contents of that letter, but it's from Herbert Whitmore and he's as incapable of a dishonorable act as you are incapable of anything honorable. And you had the audacity to open and read that letter!"
She paused, fixing him with her eyes, her lips curled into a disdainful smile. But the fire of her scorn left him unseared. His calloused sensibilities had long ago lost their capability of appreciating a nature such as hers. For his wife to have a letter addressed to her such as he had intercepted, spelled guilt. The debasing environment into which he had plunged on inheriting the fortune which his father had accumulated, had undermined all his faith in womanhood. He could not see beyond the Tenderloin purview.
But pride and selfishness were screamingly alive within him. To these was added the inordinate conceit of the habitual libertine, a combination than which there is nothing more sensitive in the entire human composition.
But as Collins gazed on the graceful lines of her full figure and on the almost classic beauty of her marmoreal features, he could not stifle a pang of anxiety at thought of losing her. The fact that he had discarded her in all but name, for the dubious pleasures of a life of dissipation, did not occur to him. He believed in the established moral code that excuses the offenses of the man and eternally condemns the woman. Yet, ready as he was to attribute culpability to her conduct, it was hard even for him to reconcile her smooth, artless brow, her frank, limpid eyes, her delicate, sensitive lips, with any act that savored of unworthiness or deceit.
"It's hard to look at you and believe you guilty of wrong," he said resentfully.
"It makes no difference to me what you believe," she snapped. "I'm through with you! I shall obtain a divorce."
The storm which had been gathering force within him all morning now broke in all its fury.
"You're going to get a divorce!" he cried ironically. "You still pretend to be the injured one. You and Whitmore have it all framed up—eh! But I tell you you've miscalculated this time! No man can wreck my home with impunity! No man can enter my house to steal my wife—and get away with it. I've been blind a long time, but my eyes are wide open now."
He walked to the telephone at the rear of the hall and lifted the receiver off the hook.
"What are you going to do?" she demanded.
"Call up your brother. We'll see what he has to say about it."
Lester Ward, the brother of Mrs. Collins, also lived in Delmore Park. He had succeeded to his father's banking business and occupied the house which his parents had left. Fifteen minutes after Collins summoned him over the telephone, he was seated in his sister's library, prepared to mediate in what he guessed to be another quarrel between her and her husband.
"This letter will explain itself," Collins opened the conversation. Lifting the note out of the envelope, he read:
"My Dear Grace:
"Since I communicated with you last, additional reasons have developed to justify your leaving him immediately. Your belief that with all his faults he has adhered to his marriage vows is but a delusion born of your own pure nature. I have the proof, if you care to hear it. Grace, you told me you loved me. My love for you is undiminished. Why sacrifice yourself longer—why sacrifice me? I cannot endure to be parted from you. Start for Reno at once—to-morrow is not too soon. Our love is too holy to be smitten and made to suffer by one entirely unworthy of your slightest consideration. Leave him, Grace, and come to me.
"Yours devotedly, HERBERT."
"Well, what do you think of that?" Collins asked, turning toward his brother-in-law. "My wife loves another man. And he's urging her to wreck her home!"
Ward's eyes alternated between his sister and her husband.
"Of course, she's not going to do it," he said as if expressing an inevitable conclusion.
"I'm going to leave here this very day," she declared firmly.
"And plunge into the scandal of a divorce proceeding?" Her brother bestowed a reproachful glance upon her. "Grace, you know how I feel toward your husband. Long ago I urged you to divorce him, but you refused. Now you must consider me. Think of the notoriety! My approaching marriage must not be overcast by the awful scandal that will follow your trip to Reno. Were we less prominent socially, it might be different. But the newspapers will be full of it. No, Grace, don't do anything hasty—not just now."
"You counsel me to continue living with him?" she inquired.
"I simply ask you to continue as you're doing."
She bent forward in her chair, her face set in an expression of unalterable determination.
"I love Herbert," she declared calmly, unmindful of the amazement which her avowal produced. "I have loved him a long while," she continued undismayed. "I crave him—I loathe the man to whom I am wedded."
"I sympathize with you," the brother hastened to assure her, "and, were it not for my marriage, I should urge you to leave him at once. He's a cad—"
"I'm not the sort of cad that permits another man to destroy his home," blurted Collins.
The others ignored his interruption.
"Lester," said the wife, "I shall leave this house to-day. Regardless of your marriage, I shall apply for a divorce and marry Herbert Whitmore."
The strained silence which followed was broken by Collins. He arose and walked to the door.
"You'll never marry Whitmore," he said. "There is a higher law that protects the home."
"Why—what do you mean?" the wife inquired in a tone of alarm. Something in her husband's face, something she had never seen there before, frightened her.
"I'm going to kill Whitmore," he said, leaving the room.
A premeditated killing wherein the murderer makes no provision to protect himself from the sure consequences of his act, requires a certain amount of perverted courage. Neither Mrs. Collins nor her brother credited Collins with the possession of even this low courage—at least not in sufficient degree to induce him to relinquish the comforts of freedom for the inconveniences of a prison. So they offered no objection to his departure, permitting him to leave without a word, as though they were entirely unconcerned in what he did.
Knowing Collins intimately as they did, it was impossible to take his assumption of the role of an outraged husband seriously. They saw, only too clearly, the ridiculous figure he made in the false light with which he had invested himself. But when he was gone, with his threat still echoing through their brains, they began to doubt their first impression of his cowardice.
"That's a fine mess you've made of it," said Ward, who had grown palpably uneasy.
"I made the mess when I married him," replied the sister. "I shall now proceed to disentangle myself from it. Until I start for Reno I shall live at your house."
"You don't think, really, that he would shoot?" The brother's face expressed incredulity, mixed with worry.
Her forehead contracted in thought.
"As he is now, I feel certain he would not dare. But should he start drinking—"
Ward was on his feet, his pale face grown paler.
"That's just it!" he exclaimed. "We must forestall him."
The same thought had flashed through her brain and she was already on the way to the telephone. She called up Whitmore's house and asked for the merchant.
"He didn't come home last night," the butler informed her.
Although burning with anxiety she made no further inquiries of the servant. Instead, she rang up Whitmore's office.
"No ma'am, he hasn't been here this morning," the office boy said.
"Then give me Mr. Beard, his secretary."
"He hasn't been here, either."
She hung up the receiver and turned a bewildered countenance to her brother.
"There is something singular about Herbert's absence from home and his failure to appear at the office," she said. "I don't know why I should think so—but I do."
"It's impossible for your husband to have reached the city," Ward answered reassuringly. "He won't get there for twenty-five minutes and the chances are he'll stop in various saloons before he tries to find Whitmore. I'll have my car here in ten minutes and we'll proceed at once to Whitmore's office and wait for him. Now hurry and get dressed."
Ward paced the drawing-room while waiting for his sister to finish her toilet. He had telephoned for his automobile and heard the car draw up at the gate. In the presence of Mrs. Collins and her husband, Ward had maintained an unruffled demeanor; now that he was alone his face assumed a tense, rigid look, as though he were staring at an apparition. Something weighed heavily on his mind and it was plain that he was beset by uncertainty. He continued to walk up and down the room with short, nervous strides, until the swish of skirts at the head of the stairs brought him to an abrupt halt at the doorway. The arm which he extended to his sister, as he escorted her to the waiting automobile trembled violently. A cold sweat moistened his face.
"Sis," he said, when the machine had started, "I'm going to tell you something. Things are headed for a great crisis and it is necessary that you should know. It's going to shock you—"
He paused, eyeing her quizzically. But her mind, occupied with the safety of the man she loved, understood but vaguely what he was saying.
The brother took advantage of her preoccupation to gather additional courage for the communication which he had to impart. He saw clearly that she was resolved to discard her husband, that it would be futile to combat her determination. Other occasions there had been, many of them, when he had averted a final parting between them. But there had never been another man involved.
"Grace, listen to me!" He placed one hand on her wrist. "We are both in a terrible predicament, out of which my marriage may lift us. If you do anything that endangers the marriage, if my engagement should be broken,—we are both ruined."
"What do you mean?" A puzzled look appeared in her face.
"I didn't tell you before, because I thought it would never be necessary to do so," he went on, growing more nervous and uneasy. "But little by little I put all our money into the South American Developing Company which I promoted, and the enterprise is a failure. Moreover, I induced most of the clients of the bank to invest—I grow sick every time I contemplate what's going to happen when they learn that their money is lost. But there was nothing dishonest, sis—nothing dishonest!"
The news appeared to have no visible effect upon her. Something more important than money, more alarming than the ruin which his words implied, distracted her with a vague foreboding of impending evil. She made no reply to her brother, but sat rigid, eyes staring vacantly ahead, her hands tightly clasped beneath the heavy fur rug that protected the lower part of her body.
The automobile sped on, smoothly as though running on steel rails. A brisk wind beat against the glass shield and was deflected, leaving only light currents of air to brush the faces of the occupants of the car. Between Ward and his sister a long silence ensued.
It was broken by the brother.
"Don't you understand the position we're in?" he inquired.
"I understand," she replied absently.
"And don't you care?"
"Nothing matters now, except Herbert."
For weeks the brother had dreaded the moment when he should be compelled to confess the loss of their fortune. Now, finding that she took it coolly, even indifferently, he decided to go through with it.
"But I haven't finished—you don't know all," he pursued desperately. "The situation is aggravated by your resolve to leave your husband. All his money, save the small income from the trust fund established by his mother, is likewise sunk in the enterprise. I induced him to invest, I'm really responsible for the predicament in which he'll find himself. Don't you see," he added pleadingly, "if you leave him now it will take on the aspect of desertion. People will say that your brother ruined him and then you threw him over. While if you wait until after my marriage, I shall be in a position to settle with him in full and still have enough to look after you."
For several minutes she remained mute, evidently digesting his words.
"And would you marry without letting her know that you are ruined?" she inquired in quivering tones. "Would you try to rehabilitate yourself with her fortune? Do you think it fair?"
The words cut like saber thrusts. But when a man finds the walls of his house about to fall on him he is apt to clutch blindly at anything which promises to prop the tottering structure.
"It is cowardly, I confess," he said. "But what am I to do? Besides, I love her. You know I would not marry without love, even to avert financial ruin."
"I shall not interfere between you and your intended," she answered icily. "Neither shall I permit the circumstances which you have described to alter my determination."
The car now threaded its way through the maze of traffic in the city. Presently it drew up before a huge, ugly factory that covered a square block on the upper west side, near the river. Ward and his sister jumped out of the tonneau and entered the building. They found themselves in a busy office, consisting of a single room down the length of which a wooden rail interposed between visitors and employes.
"I wish to see Mr. Whitmore," Mrs. Collins informed one of the office boys.
"Hasn't come down yet," the boy replied.
"Is he often away as late as this?"
"No ma'am," said the boy. "He's usually here at nine o'clock."
"Has Mr. Beard been here this morning?"
"Not yet. But he telephoned he'll be here at twelve o'clock."
Ward consulted his watch. It was a quarter past ten. He questioned the boy but was unable to obtain any information as to the possible whereabouts of his employer or his secretary. So he and his sister decided to await them at the office.
The visitors looked sufficiently important to warrant the office boy ushering them into Whitmore's private office. As they passed down the railed corridor they elicited the further information that no one answering Collins's description had called that morning.
"He's probably patronizing a bar somewhere between here and the Grand Central Station just now," commented Ward in an undertone.
They did not enter into further discussion of their impending financial ruin while awaiting Whitmore. Immediately on dropping into a chair Mrs. Collins seemed to draw within herself, surrendering to the harrowing thoughts that filled her mind. Ward also became deeply preoccupied with his own tangled affairs, his brain striving furiously to find some solution of the dilemma into which he was plunged.
They took no note of the passing time; but the minutes sped swiftly while they wrestled silently with the problems that had entered their lives and when Ward suddenly looked up the hands of the little brass clock on top of Whitmore's desk pointed to a quarter of twelve. An instant later the door of the office was flung open and a tall figure, clean-shaven, with clearly defined features, burst into the room.
On seeing the visitors the man paused, perplexed. It was plain that he was under great stress of mind. His face was haggard, his eyes were sunken, his mouth drawn, as if he had not yet recovered from some great shock.
"Ward—Mrs. Collins!" he stammered.
The voice recalled the woman out of the dreamy state into which she had lapsed. She scrutinized the man with eyes in which terror and suspense mingled.
"Mr. Beard—why!—something has happened!" she gave voice to her fear.
"Yes, something dreadful has occurred," he said, trying to avert his face.
A great fear shook the woman's frame. For an instant she raised her eyes imploringly, then lowered them.
"Then he has killed him—murdered him?" The words came as though each syllable wrenched her heart.
"Killed him?" repeated Beard with rising inflection. "Why, what do you mean?"
"My husband—Mr. Collins—he set out this morning to do it. For God's sake," she implored, "don't keep me in suspense. Tell me what happened."
By a violent effort Beard recovered sufficient calm to note the agitation of the woman.
"Why, no," he said reassuringly, "Mr. Whitmore hasn't been killed."
"But what has happened?" demanded Mrs. Collins with a gesture of impatience.
"I cannot tell you," answered the secretary. "But something has occurred—a grave crisis has arisen in Mr. Whitmore's life. He will not be at his office for some time—perhaps not for weeks, or months, or years. But he asked me to communicate with you, to let you know that he will notify you the moment he returns. Meanwhile, he asks you to believe in him, even though he cannot write to you. More than that I cannot tell you."
Ward and his sister exchanged bewildered glances. The unexpected turn of events left them speechless. And, before they were able to recover their dazed senses, Beard slipped out of the office and lost himself among the small army of clerks and bookkeepers in the outer room.
Ward, finally observing that he was alone with his sister, bestowed on her a bitter smile.
"What a muddle!" he exclaimed. "Domestic trouble ... financial difficulties!... Whitmore vanished! What next?"
She stared at him through swimming eyes. Her lips moved but no sound came from them.
"Take the car home, Grace," he said in milder voice. "I'll go to the office and try to puzzle this thing out."
What had become of Herbert Whitmore?
Like a thief in the night he had slipped out of his Fifth Avenue home, disappeared from his business, vanished like a specter, while the domestic tragedy of the Collinses paused in anticipation of his reappearance.
Beard, the confidential secretary, had taken possession of his employer's office, and to all inquiries regarding Whitmore's absence, made the same reply:
"He is gone indefinitely on a business trip."
Not even the persistent Collins was able to elicit anything additional. No further information was vouchsafed Mrs. Collins, who had taken up her abode with her brother; the financially troubled Ward, desperately fighting off ruin, could learn nothing from the silent, inscrutable Beard.
Then, one morning, unostentatiously as he had disappeared, Whitmore returned to his office. He wore a new spring coat, a new soft hat, new gloves and shoes, an unfamiliar brown tie against a striped shirt-bosom, as if he had just stepped out of a haberdasher's shop.
Down the long aisle, between the two rows of desks he passed, nodding with that air of pleasant kindliness that had endeared him to his hundreds of employes.
"Good morning, Mr. Whitmore—glad to see you back!" was fired at him with respectful familiarity from a score of clerks.
He smiled amiably, replying occasionally with a cheery rejoinder. Evidently he was in excellent spirits.
Whitmore's private office, at the rear of the long hall, ran the full width of the room. It was partitioned off from the main room by a glass partition through which he was at all times visible to his employes. The office contained no windows, being shut in on three sides by the thick walls of the building, and obtained its light through the glass paneling of the partition. The floor was covered by a green carpet and three or four chairs rested against the wall.
"Sam!" the merchant called to his office boy. "I shall be very busy with my papers this morning. Permit no one to enter my office and don't bring any visitors' cards."
Whitmore placed his hand affectionately on the boy's touseled hair.
"Don't forget my instructions!" he said pleasantly.
The merchant permitted the glass door of his office to remain open. Divesting himself of his coat he dropped into the revolving chair at his desk and swung around so as to sit with his back toward the outer office.
Behind the transparent partition he worked, sorting papers and slipping them into pigeon-holes. Toward noon one of the clerks observed that the merchant had slipped down into his chair, that his head hung strangely to one side.
"What's the matter with Mr. Whitmore?" the clerk asked the office boy.
The two thrust their faces against the intervening glass, noting that the employer's limbs were rigidly outstretched and that one hand hung limply at his side while the other rested on the desk.
They tiptoed into the office, like guilty schoolboys bent on eavesdropping. A single glance at Whitmore's white face and they burst through the door, their faces distorted with terror.
"Something's happened to Mr. Whitmore!" shouted the clerk.
Drummond, the head clerk, leaped forward in a quick offer of assistance. He remained a minute or two in the private office, then emerged, haggard, with eyes staring.
"Mr. Whitmore's been shot!" burst from his lips. "Get a policeman. He's dead," he added with a sob.
The news seemed to strike the office dumb. The clerks regarded each other like bewildered sheep, awed, terrified, a vague fear gripping their hearts. In the midst of their furious, living activity, the specter of death had suddenly appeared. It had crept in on them silently, stealthily, selecting the most shining mark as its victim. Unannounced, it had proclaimed the frailty of human life more effectively than if it had revealed itself in a lightning bolt. With noiseless, unseen hands, it had abducted the most beloved figure among them, deprived them forever of the kindly, fatherly personality of the man whom they had come to regard more as a friend than an employer.
Recovering from their first terror, the clerks left their desks and massed forward toward the partition, but the head clerk waved them back.
"Everyone remain in his place until after the police have arrived," he ordered.
The office boy, who had gone to summon a policeman, now returned with the bluecoat. The latter examined the dead man an instant, then, following the usual custom, summoned an ambulance and notified the coroner.
"Looks like a suicide," he declared over the telephone.
The ambulance was the first to arrive and the young surgeon, after listening vainly for a promising flutter of the heart, officially pronounced the merchant dead. When the coroner arrived, he was assured that nothing in the private office had been disturbed, after which he proceeded with his investigation.
Almost the first object which he noticed was a shiny revolver lying on the desk, about an inch from the dead man's fingers. As he lifted the weapon, he observed that the merchant had been shot in the side, and, turning toward the policeman, said:
"A plain case of suicide."
More as a matter of form, rather than with any hope of discovering anything of value, the coroner opened the revolver, and, as he did so, an exclamation of surprise escaped his lips. His eyes fixed themselves on the loaded chambers of the barrel in a puzzled stare until he was convinced that his senses were not deceiving him.
The revolver was fully loaded. It had never been fired.
Switching on the electric lights, the coroner examined the clothing of the victim. There were no powder marks where the bullet had entered.
"Officer, this is murder!" he exclaimed excitedly. "Notify the detective bureau. And don't permit anyone to leave this building."
While awaiting the arrival of the Headquarters men, the coroner busied himself with a preliminary examination of the clerks. The coroner was a small, fussy individual, smooth-shaven, with reddish-brown hair brushed back in pompadour fashion. Because of his small stature and insignificant appearance he was compelled to adopt a brisk air of command, lest witnesses presume to trifle with his authority.
"Gentlemen, I am Coroner Hart," he announced, stepping into the outer office and addressing the assembled clerks. "I shall immediately begin a preliminary inquest and you will all regard yourselves summoned as witnesses. The policeman will permit no one to leave the room without my permission."
The clerks, unfamiliar with the legal proceedings attached to a homicide case, exchanged puzzled glances. In the presence of their beloved dead, this man's unsympathetic attitude seemed almost a profanation. The policeman, in passing through the office on his way to the door, had let drop the remark that murder had been committed, yet none of the employes could bring himself to believe that an alien hand had fired the mortal bullet. No visitor had entered Whitmore's office; none of the clerks had been within. Who could have done it?
The coroner called one of the clerks who had sat within a dozen feet of the door all morning.
"Did you see anyone enter the office?" he asked.
"No, sir," the clerk replied.
"Could anyone have entered without passing you or without your noticing him?"
"Did you hear the shot fired?"
"I didn't hear a sound after Mr. Whitmore entered the office."
"And your hearing—is it good?"
After putting the same questions to half a dozen other clerks and obtaining similar answers, Coroner Hart decided to save time by addressing himself to the employes in general.
"If anyone saw any person enter that office this morning or heard a shot, let him come forward," he called.
The men stood mute, eyeing one another expectantly, each hoping someone else might have valuable information to offer. The hush finally was broken by a shuffling of feet as two strangers thrust their way through the crowd and ranged themselves on either side of the coroner.
One of the newcomers, the less heavily built of the two, compelled immediate attention by reason of his personality. He carried himself with an air of certainty, as if accustomed to meeting grave problems—and solving them. As he stood at the right of the coroner, his keen gray eyes, set deep beneath the arched outline of his eyebrows, swept the faces of the sorrowing employes, as if trying to read their inmost thoughts. Despite the severe cast of his features, there was something engaging about the man, some magic of personality, that drew one irresistibly toward him.
"Just in time to hear the most important witness," the coroner said to him, at the same time beckoning the office boy to come forward.
The two visitors and the coroner seated themselves at one of the flat-top desks, while the boy, pale, trembling, as if conscious of some guilty act, faced them with fear written in his youthful countenance. The coroner solemnly administered the customary oath.
"You know what will happen to you if you tell a lie?" he asked.
"Yes, sir, I'll be sent to prison," the boy answered timorously.
"Now what is your name?"
The witness further confided that he had been employed in the establishment three years, that he had seen Mr. Whitmore enter the office and that thereafter he had occupied a seat within a foot of the door until one of the clerks called his attention to the peculiar attitude in which his employer had fallen in the chair.
"What did Mr. Whitmore say to you when he arrived this morning?" inquired the coroner.
"He'd been away for six weeks, and he put his hand on my head like he was glad to see me and said that no one was to be admitted to the office and I wasn't to bring in any visitor's card." The boy sobbed convulsively as he recalled the last words of his employer.
"Were any visitors here this morning?"
"Did any of the clerks enter the office?"
"Did you hear a shot fired, or any other peculiar sound?"
"I did not."
"Are you positive?"
"I hope I may die on the spot if it ain't so," the witness said fervently.
The coroner's eyes alternated between his two visitors. The smaller of the two devoted himself to a long scrutiny of the boy's countenance.
"Mr. Whitmore was absent for six weeks?" he suddenly asked.
"Do you know where he was?"
"Mr. Beard told me to tell all visitors that Mr. Whitmore was away on a business trip."
"Who is Mr. Beard?"
"Mr. Whitmore's confidential secretary. He took charge of the business while Mr. Whitmore was away."
"Isn't it somewhat unusual that nobody called to see Mr. Whitmore on his return this morning?"
"I guess they didn't know he was back," the boy replied.
"Did Mr. Whitmore have any trouble with anyone before he left?"
"Not that I know of. But after he was gone a man came around here every day for four weeks looking for him. The man looked like a Broadway dude—like he drank a whole lot and didn't sleep much. I once heard him tell Mr. Beard that Mr. Whitmore had run away from him."
The coroner and the visitors exchanged meaning glances.
"Where is Mr. Beard?" inquired the coroner.
"He didn't come down to-day."
Again the coroner looked gravely at the others, but their faces failed to indicate what import they attached to the boy's statements.
"Lieutenant, is there any other question you desire to ask?"
"No, coroner, I think we'd better adjourn to the private office," said the man addressed.
Entering the merchant's office, the coroner closed the door behind them.
"Lieutenant Britz," he remarked cordially, "I'm glad they sent you up. This looks like a mystery worthy of your talents."
Lieutenant Britz disregarded the implied compliment. He had taken up a position of survey in the center of the room, from which his eyes traveled slowly about the place, studying every inch of the carpet, lingering on the black leather surface of the chairs, covering the wide area of the walls.
"Have you searched the body?" he asked.
"Yes," replied the coroner. "Only a key ring with four keys attached was found in the pockets."
"How about the papers in the desk?"
"Nothing but business papers."
At this juncture a clerk poked his head timidly into the room and said:
"Officers, it's three o'clock now and we haven't been out to lunch. May we go?"
"I'll let you know in a minute or two," answered the coroner. When the clerk had withdrawn his head, the official stepped over to Britz.
"Those clerks are in a conspiracy of silence," he declared. "This man could not have committed suicide. The pistol found on the desk was fully loaded. The clothing is devoid of powder stains. Moreover, a most careful search has failed to reveal any other weapon. Now, someone entered this room and fired the shot. Yet all those clerks maintain that no one has been in here and that they heard no shot, although the door stood open all the while the merchant was in the office. Somebody has secreted the pistol with which the shooting was done and it might be well to search all the clerks."
"That would be a useless procedure," replied Britz. "There is no conspiracy of silence. If those men outside could shed any light on the crime, they would do so eagerly. The murderer could not have enjoined silence on thirty or thirty-five men. No, they have told all they know. You may permit them to enjoy their lunch."
Although the coroner was the ranking official, his respect for Britz's judgment was such that he invariably followed the latter's suggestions. So he informed the clerks they could leave the building at will.
While the coroner was in the big room addressing the employes, Britz suddenly walked to the chair in which the murdered man still sat huddled. Bending down, he picked up something long and shiny, which the others had overlooked. It was a long darning needle, and the detective, after examining it an instant under the electric light, slipped it into a leather card case. He did not mention what he had found to the coroner, when the latter returned.
"Greig," said Britz to his bulky companion, "go out and fetch a step-ladder. Let us examine the walls and ceiling."
Greig hastened out of the office, returning in a few minutes with the ladder. The two detectives devoted half an hour to sounding the walls and ceiling, while the coroner wrote out the necessary permit for the removal of the body.
"Everything is absolutely solid," declared Britz, when he had finished his examination. "There are no panels in the wall through which the assassin might have entered."
"That's what I thought," beamed the coroner. "The murderer entered and left through the door. And some of those clerks, if not all of them, must have seen him—or her. I tell you they're in a conspiracy to shield the murderer."
Britz extended a hand toward the glass partition.
"Look down this room," he said. "The murderer, presuming it was a man, must have passed down this long aisle into the office. Then, it was necessary to repeat the journey in order to escape. Had there been a conspiracy, then those thirty clerks must have remained quietly at their desks while the assassin walked out of the room. Do you believe these men would have permitted him to escape?"
"Suppose he carried the pistol in his hand, don't you believe he could have intimidated them?" ventured Greig.
"Sure!" joined the coroner. "And the men may now be ashamed of their cowardice."
"That wouldn't have prevented them giving the alarm after the murderer left," declared Britz. "No, coroner, no one saw the slayer enter or leave. In fact, he did not enter through the door."
"Then how did he get in?" demanded the coroner. "Through the wall? Or did he fire through the ceiling or floor?"
"As I said before, there is no secret panel in this room," was Britz's rejoinder.
"Then you believe Mr. Whitmore committed suicide?" suddenly fired the coroner.
"He might have committed suicide, and the clerks, out of regard for their employer, substituted pistols in order to make it appear like murder," joined Greig.
"Perhaps," replied Britz. "Relatives and friends frequently endeavor to give a case of suicide the aspect of murder."
"But you don't really believe it of this case?" asked the coroner.
"I do not," confessed Britz.
"Then your theory must be that some invisible person fired a silent shot"—the coroner paused a moment, then as if struck by a sudden thought—"of course, a Maxim muffler might have deadened the sound of the pistol."
"The office boy would have heard the click of the hammer," interposed Britz.
The coroner repressed with difficulty the smile that struggled to his lips.
"Lieutenant," he said disparagingly, "you don't attribute this crime to the work of spirits, do you?"
"No," laughed Britz. "Spirits don't murder people outside of story books. No ghostly significance attaches to the murder of Mr. Whitmore."
"Well, what is your theory?" demanded the coroner.
"I haven't any—as yet. I shall wait until I'm in possession of more facts before formulating one. Of this I am certain, however. Mr. Whitmore came down here to-day expecting to meet death. In fact, he had prepared himself for it by destroying or secreting all his personal papers. More than that I am not prepared to say at present."
"Is there anything further that I can do?"
"Nothing, coroner, beyond ordering an immediate autopsy."
"Very well," replied the coroner, preparing to go. He was about to step out of the room when his footsteps were halted by an approaching figure that tore down the aisle as if under the stress of great excitement. The figure did not pause at the door but brushed past the official, halting abruptly before the body of the slain man.
"Dead!" he moaned, and the single word conveyed to his hearers the darting agony which rent him. For a long moment the newcomer stood, bowed with unutterable grief, holding the hand of the dead man, as if he would joyfully impart to those lifeless fingers, the largest measure of his own vitality. Reluctantly he relinquished the limp hand, and the effort cost him a pang.
As he turned from the rigid features staring vacantly up at him, he was sobbing inwardly. His handsome face was contorted as if in physical pain, his head drooped as if his shoulders had suddenly grown too weak to bear its weight.
"Who are you, sir?" the coroner's voice broke the stillness.
The wave of sorrow which swept over the man seemed to deprive him of the faculty of speech. He looked about him in a bewildered way, as if unable to comprehend the presence of the others.
"You knew Mr. Whitmore?" the coroner inquired mildly.
"Yes, I was his confidential secretary," the answer came in weak tones.
The coroner and the two detectives exchanged significant glances.
"Then you are Mr. Beard?" the former inquired.
"Can you throw any light on the murder—have you any idea as to who could have done it?"
As the weighty import of the query slowly dawned on Beard's consciousness, his face contracted until it took on the expression of one whose mental vision is gradually clearing; before whose dazed mind certain images are again taking compact shape, revealing themselves out of the surrounding darkness, sharply cut like figures illumined by the long-stretching rays of a powerful searchlight.
Britz noted the changing expression of the man's face with lynxlike eagerness. There was something touching, pathetic, in the utter desolation which the secretary felt at his employer's death. Then, suddenly, a burning anger seemed to succeed all other emotions, and, in an outburst of tempestuous fury, he exclaimed:
"Collins—George Collins—damn him—damn that scoundrel! He did it—there was no one else! Officers, arrest Collins—you know who he is. He threatened to kill Mr. Whitmore, came down here every day for a month to do it. I'll send that cur to the electric chair—why should I shield him?"
"Precisely," agreed the coroner. "Now, calm yourself and tell us all about Collins."
Beard had been carried away by the storm of resentment that had swept his mind. He had uttered a direct accusation, something which it was farthest from his purpose to do. Caution had been his life-long habit. It had deserted him for the instant, but only for the instant. The next moment it had returned, to abide with him throughout the rest of the examination.
"This Mr. Collins—can you explain how he got in here without being observed by the clerks?" asked the coroner.
"No," snapped the secretary.
"What motive had he for killing Mr. Whitmore?" the coroner fired at him.
"None that I know of," declared Beard.
"Well, tell us in your own way what connection Mr. Collins had with this crime," the coroner said persuasively.
"I have nothing to tell."
It was manifest that the secretary regretted his first outburst against Collins and was now prepared to counter every effort of his questioner. The coroner, however, was not to be easily repulsed.
"This, sir, is a solemn inquest into the death of Herbert Whitmore," he informed the other. "I am now holding court, as authorized by the statute. You will regard yourself as a duly summoned witness. Raise your right hand!"
Beard lifted a trembling hand above his head.
"You do solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!" intoned the official. Producing pencil and paper he prepared to record the answers of the witness.
"You have accused one George Collins of the crime of murder," he pursued. "Are you prepared to substantiate that accusation with proof?"
"I do not accuse anyone of murder and I have no proof," asserted Beard.
The coroner decided to try a new tack.
"Where did Mr. Whitmore spend the past six weeks?"
"I decline to tell," Beard answered firmly.
"On what ground do you refuse to answer?"
The secretary shifted uneasily from one position to another. His eyes roved about the room, finally studying the ceiling as if trying to discover written thereon some means out of his dilemma.
"I decline to answer—on the ground that my reply might tend to incriminate or degrade me. I'm sorry, but I must invoke my constitutional privilege."
Had a tongue of flame shot from the witness's mouth it could not have produced greater amazement. The coroner and the detectives regarded each other as if uncertain whether they had heard aright. The changed attitude of the witness could only denote that he feared to involve himself. He, who had been so quick to accuse another, now appeared intent only on shielding himself.
"You have found the customary refuge of guilty men," the coroner frowned at the witness. "In the presence of murder, all honest men speak frankly. What motive have you in concealing Mr. Whitmore's whereabouts during his absence from his office?"
"I must decline to say anything further until I have consulted with counsel," the secretary answered readily.
Certainly the two last replies smacked strongly of guilt, or at least, criminal knowledge. If not the actual murderer, he might be an accessory before the fact. So thought the coroner, and the cold gleam of authority in his eyes betrayed his belief.
"Since you won't speak, it is my duty to commit you to jail," he declared.
"On what charge?" demanded the witness.
"On suspicion of being involved in the crime."
The secretary made no effort to combat the coroner's resolve. He simply bowed his head meekly, ready to submit. Britz, however, who had caught every fleeting emotion that passed across the witness's countenance, was not prepared to see Beard silenced through intimidation.
"Coroner," he said, "suppose you adjourn the inquest for the present? I want to take Mr. Beard with me to Mr. Whitmore's home. He may be of service there."
"Very well," reluctantly agreed the coroner. "Take him!"
Had Herbert Whitmore, in a spirit of diabolical fun, resolved to present the New York police with a baffling murder mystery, he could not have carried out the design more effectively than in the manner of his taking off. Not a clue to the perpetrator of the crime or the manner of its accomplishment, was found in the merchant's home. There were not wanting signs of hasty destruction, but the obliteration of all possible leads had been complete.
Two hours were consumed in the search of the house, and all the while Beard looked on silently, offering neither help nor hindrance. Britz, pursuing the search with the help of Greig, put an occasional question to the secretary, but the almost invariable reply was a non-committal shrug of the shoulders.
"Since you won't tell us anything about Mr. Whitmore, kindly inform me where you spent the morning?" demanded Britz.
"Up to ten o'clock I was in this house," the secretary replied. "Then I visited the office of the Garfield Safe Deposit Company. I remained in the vaults, assorting Mr. Whitmore's papers until three o'clock. From there I came directly to the iron works."
"In other words, you have a complete alibi with which to meet a charge of murder?"
"Between the time that Mr. Whitmore entered his office and the time he was found dead, I was at the vault, continuously within sight of two guards," declared Beard.
The butler and the other servants were entirely empty of helpful knowledge concerning the crime. All of them united in declaring that Mr. Whitmore had left the house six weeks ago, that no one had seen him leave and he had not been back. Mr. Beard had taken charge of his affairs, in fact he had come to the house to live. None of them had seen Mr. Whitmore since the night of his disappearance, nor had they received any word from him. While they had not accepted unequivocally Mr. Beard's assurance that their employer was on a business trip, nevertheless they had no other knowledge concerning their master's whereabouts and therefore did not openly question Beard's assertions.
"Mr. Beard," said Britz, when he had finished questioning the servants, "I shall not arrest you for the present. But you will hold yourself in readiness to appear at Police Headquarters whenever I may want you."
"I shall not leave the city," promised Beard.
"Very well. Now kindly leave the house," requested Britz.
The secretary left reluctantly, as if unwilling to permit the detectives to be alone with the servants. But he offered no resistance as Britz escorted him to the door and closed it behind him. Relieved of Beard's presence, the detective summoned the butler.
"Who visited Mr. Whitmore on the night he disappeared?" Britz said sharply.
"A lady," answered the butler.
"Who was she?"
"I don't know. I had never seen her before."
"Did you see Mr. Whitmore after her departure?"
"Yes, sir, in the library."
"Did he say anything?"
"He asked me about a letter I had mailed."
"Did you observe the address on the letter?"
"Yes, sir. It was addressed to Mrs. George Collins, at Delmore Park."
"Was the lady whom you admitted that night Mrs. Collins?"
"I don't believe so. I don't know Mrs. Collins, but it couldn't have been she, for Mr. Whitmore did not seem to know the visitor."
"Thank you," said Britz, extending his card. "If Mr. Beard should discharge the servants, please call me up at Police Headquarters."
"Yes, sir," promised the butler.
Britz donned his hat and coat.
"Come on, Greig," he called to his assistant. "We're going to Delmore Park."
Outside, they found the newsboys shrieking the crime. The afternoon papers had worked themselves into typographic frenzy over it. Britz guessed that the coroner had primed the reporters with all the facts which had been ascertained at the office, and the reporters, exercising a lively fancy, had created a mystery that was calculated to absorb newspaper readers for many days. As Britz perused the news sheets on the way to the Grand Central Station, he noted with a smile that the reporters shared with the coroner and the employes of the iron works, the same mystification as to how the assassin managed to reach his victim without revealing himself to the clerks in the office.
"It is inexplicable to me how the murderer got in and out of the private office," one of the newspapers quoted the head clerk. "He must have worn the fabled invisible cloak," was the only explanation he could offer.
"It's uncanny," another clerk was quoted. "I sat at the third desk from Mr. Whitmore's door all morning and I'm ready to swear no one entered or left that office. He could not have committed suicide, for I would have heard the shot. He came down this morning, after an absence of six weeks, pleasant and amiable as usual. We all loved him, all of us at one time or another experienced his kindness. Any intimation that we are shielding the murderer is absurd. Had we seen him, he never would have left the office alive."
Dropping the paper, Britz sought in his pocket for the leather card case in which he had deposited the needle earlier in the afternoon. After scrutinizing it carefully, he replaced it in the case with an air of satisfaction.
"Greig," he said, moving his head slightly to one side, so as to face his assistant, "what do you make of the case?"
"Just this, Lieutenant!" He paused as if in deep reflection. "We've got to decide whether those clerks are telling the truth. If we accept their statement that they saw no one enter Whitmore's office and heard no shot—"
"I have already accepted their statement as the truth," interrupted Britz.
"The possibility of suicide is eliminated, of course," pursued Greig. "The pistol we found is brand new and has never been fired. Certainly Whitmore didn't shoot himself and then swallow the gun. And since the clerks are sure that no one entered or left the office, why, the only explanation I can give is that some supernatural agency was employed to bring about Whitmore's death."
Britz bestowed on his assistant a tolerant smile.
"Then I suppose we might as well charge the crime up to the spirits and drop the case!" he said ironically. "No, Greig, we're not going on a still hunt for murderous, disembodied shades. We're going after living people—and we're not going very far. What puzzles you and the clerks—how anyone managed to get to him and fire the shot—is so simple that I'm surprised you're worrying over it. I have already solved that."
Greig stared at his superior in undisguised amazement.
"Why—er—how was it done?" he stammered.
In reply, Britz produced the needle which he had found at the feet of the murdered man.
"Examine this and see if it doesn't solve the puzzle," he said.
Greig looked a long while at the long, thin, glistening instrument.
"There's blood half-way down from the point," he commented audibly. "But I don't see what it explains."
"Of itself, it wouldn't mean much," admitted Britz. "But taken in connection with the fully loaded pistol and the lack of powder marks about the bullet wound, it explains fully why none of the men in the office saw the murderer."
"But—but how do you figure it out?" asked Greig, more puzzled than ever.
"I shall not reveal that at present," answered Britz. "It will help our investigation to permit the murderer to believe that we don't know how he got to Whitmore. From the statements we have obtained, it is evident that conflicting interests are involved in the crime. We shall direct our energies toward bringing these adverse elements into active conflict, and, in the heat of battle, the murderer will be revealed."
They had reached Grand Central Station, and, luckily, had to wait only ten minutes before boarding a train for Delmore Park. During the short journey Britz fell into one of his deep silences, from which Greig did not disturb him until the train drew into the Delmore Park station.
Lieutenant Britz was too experienced a detective to rush unprepared into the home of the Collinses in the hope of obtaining incriminating evidence. In fact, he had determined not to visit the Collins house, but to devote himself to ascertaining something about the life and habits of the man whose name figured so conspicuously in the present stage of the investigation.
It was seven-thirty when the two detectives entered the home of the village postmaster and revealed their identity. The postmaster, a middle-aged, heavy-set man, appeared tired after his day's work. He was familiar with all the gossip of the wealthy residents of the park, and he quickly found new energy when the opportunity to display his knowledge was offered.
"That man Collins is a no good fellow," he confided glibly. "Just a bum—that's all he is. Stays out all night and sleeps all morning. His wife is a fine woman and I don't see how she stood for him all this time. Six weeks ago everybody around here knew that they had separated. She went to her brother's house—Lester Ward. But last night they seemed to be reconciled again. I saw Ward and Collins and Mrs. Collins at the station together and I heard them say they were going to the opera. That was the first time I'd seen Collins and his wife together since they separated. And this morning the postman told me that Mrs. Collins had spent the night in her own house—that she and her husband evidently had decided to live together again."
The postmaster paused reflectively, as if trying to read the meaning behind this unexpected reunion of the Collinses.
"Did you hear what brought about the break six weeks ago?" asked Britz.
"No, we had a lot of excitement around here just then," said the postmaster, his lips curling into a reminiscent smile. "That was the day of the robbery—or the attempted robbery." Aware that his visitors had begun to display increased interest, he proceeded with more deliberation, as if trying to heighten their curiosity. "The night before the Collinses separated, or about two o'clock that morning I should say, a fellow tried to break into the post office. Luckily there was a meeting of the lodge that night and a sociable after it. On the way home, Hiram Barker and Syd Johnson passed the post office just as the robber was forcing the door. They landed on him and took him to the lock-up. I notified the post office people down in New York and he was taken there for trial."
"Well, what happened?" Britz asked.
"The newspapers didn't seem to take much notice of the case," replied the postmaster regretfully. "A paragraph or two was all they gave it. A week ago the fellow pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years and six months in the Atlanta prison."
"What was his name?" inquired Britz.
"He gave it as John Travis."
"Rather an unusual name for a post office robber," commented Greig.
"He was a peculiar fellow, all right," declared the postmaster. "Wouldn't say a word to anybody. Just took his medicine without a whimper."
For a half hour the two detectives were entertained with gossip of the wealthy colony but when they left they were in possession of the life histories of Mrs. Collins, Collins and Ward.
Out in the street Britz consulted his watch.
"We've just got time to catch the eight-forty for New York," he said. "I guess we won't visit the Collinses to-night."
"Do you perceive any connection between the murder of Whitmore and the attempted post office robbery?" asked Greig.
"There may be," said Britz. "I'm going to Headquarters now to map out plans. This investigation will have to be pursued systematically in order to obtain results."
Three quarters of an hour later Britz was at his desk in Police Headquarters, studying the various ramifications of the case. Occasionally he scribbled a note and laid it aside for future reference. He was attacking the problem just as a business man might proceed with a commercial proposition—viewing it from all angles and arranging a programme for his subordinates to follow. At least half a dozen channels needed to be explored, all of which offered possibilities in the way of clues. On a typewritten sheet before him were the names of a score of men available for new cases. Britz pondered the list, carefully weighing the qualifications of each man, estimating his capability, his persistency, his resourcefulness. At last he checked off eight names, and, summoning a uniformed doorman, directed that the eight men be ordered to report to him forthwith.
"Officer Muldoon of the Eighth Precinct is waiting to see you," the doorman informed him.
"Show him in," said Britz.
Muldoon entered with the mysterious air of one who has important information to impart and does not intend that his hearer shall underestimate its importance.
"I think I've got a line on this Whitmore case," he began.
"Well, what is it?" Britz asked curtly.
"Just six weeks ago last night I was patroling Fifth avenue in front of the Whitmore house. I saw a lady come out and enter a taxicab. She was a beauty—fine looking and dressed like a queen. In the half-open doorway of the house Mr. Whitmore stood, watching her descend the steps. Both he and she looked as if they'd been quarreling."
"Anything more?" Britz asked impatiently.
"No, sir," the policeman admitted.
"Would you know her again if you saw her?"
"I surely would."
"Very well. Inform your precinct commander that you have been temporarily assigned to Headquarters and remain outside until I send for you."
Muldoon, happy to find himself relieved of patrol duty and assigned to this important case, proceeded toward the door, a broad smile illumining the wide area of his dull face. He shut the door softly behind him, but reopened it almost immediately, a look of bewilderment in his eyes.
"The woman—the one I saw—she's outside talkin' to Detective Greig!" he gasped.
Britz shot one quick glance at him, then said:
"Remain outside until I send for you."
Five minutes later and the door opened again, this time to admit Greig and a woman—a woman so perceptibly under the influence of overpowering emotions as to cause her to stagger rather than walk into the room. As she stood with hands resting on Britz's desk, she suddenly felt herself seized with a desire to weep. Wiping the moisture from the corners of her eyes, she accepted the chair which Greig offered, settling herself in it as if she had come for a long stay.
There was an awkward pause, which was broken by Greig:
"This lady, Miss Strong, has valuable information."
She turned her moistened eyes on Britz, who, through half-closed lids, was endeavoring to appraise her.
Keen student of human nature that he was, quick as he was to gather those little details of personal appearance which, to the trained eye, reveal with pitiless accuracy the innermost character of a human being, Britz was unable to form any satisfactory estimate of her. Outwardly, she had the appearance of a woman crushed beneath a great grief. Yet, there appeared to be something insincere in her sorrow, something calculating in her hesitancy. These contradictions in her manner puzzled and annoyed him, for experience had taught the detective to be wary of women informers. So he waited for her to speak.
"I wish to deliver the murderer of Mr. Whitmore," she said, stifling a sob.
Britz nodded encouragingly, but she appeared in no haste to proceed. Instead, she permitted her gaze to alternate between him and Greig, as if trying to read the effect of her words in their impassive faces.
Her pause might have been that of the consummate actress waiting to note the effect of her artfully delivered line; it might have been the timorous uncertainty of a child affrighted at its own boldness.
"The murderer will be at my home at eleven to-night," she went on in the same seemingly artless way.
"And you are preparing a trap for his capture?" inquired Britz, deliberately conveying to her the incredulity which he felt.
"No, not a trap," she dissented. "I am determined to see justice done."
Britz was too well aware of the average woman's distorted notion of abstract justice to accept her statement at its face value. Woman by her very nature is incapable of appreciating or applying impartial justice, and her incapacity grows in proportion to her immediate interest in the matter involved. This latter might apply with equal force to the average man; but man, less governed by emotions, will permit his sense of justice to prevail when not blinded by personal interest. Abstract justice will frequently appeal to him and he will act with rational regard for its proper application. To a woman's eyes, however, justice invariably shapes itself as her emotions dictate.
Britz, mindful of the fact that with a woman justice and self-interest are inextricably interwoven, immediately began to search for the visitor's selfish motive in offering to surrender the murderer, if, indeed, she meant to surrender the real perpetrator of the crime and not to shield him behind someone against whom she held a grievance.
"Who is the man you wish to surrender?" he asked with aggravating calmness.
"George Collins," she replied without hesitancy.
"What evidence have you that he committed the crime?"
"He often threatened to kill Mr. Whitmore. He told me of his intention innumerable times in the past six weeks."
"Have you any evidence bearing on the act itself—on the killing, I mean?"
"How can I have?" she replied with a faint smile. "He didn't invite me to see him do it."
"Then you simply believe he committed the murder because he had threatened to do so?"
In a carefully planned murder it is always safe to mistrust the obvious. Beard's outburst against Collins had seemed a genuine eruption of uncontrollable emotions, at first. But his subsequent conduct had given his words the aspect of shrewd premeditation. Now she appeared intent on fastening guilt on Collins. Her very anxiety to do so implied a hidden motive. It was necessary to be on guard against trickery.
Evidently she sensed Britz's lack of confidence, for she hastened to say:
"I know why he wanted to kill Mr. Whitmore. It was because Mrs. Collins was preparing to obtain a divorce in order to marry Mr. Whitmore. She had confessed her love for Mr. Whitmore and Collins had intercepted a letter from the merchant in which he urged her to obtain the divorce."
"When did Collins intercept the letter?" quickly asked Britz.
"On the morning Mr. Whitmore disappeared."
Here was something tangible at last. Not direct evidence that Collins was guilty, but circumstantial evidence of the highest importance. Not only had he threatened to kill the merchant, but he had motive for the crime, and a motive which could be established easily in a court of law.
"You say Collins will be at your house at eleven to-night?" inquired Britz.
"Yes," she answered, an eager light in her eyes. "And if you care to be there and will listen, you shall hear him confess the crime."
Her words and the tone of certainty in which she spoke almost dazed Greig. Even Britz had to struggle hard against betraying his amazement. The whole thing seemed incredible—yet the detectives had experienced more incredible happenings in the course of their long service.
"You say he will confess?" Britz said mechanically.
"More than confess," she answered. "You'll hear him gloat over the crime. He'll display his exultation before me, and I want you to be there to listen."
"But why—why are you betraying him?" faltered the detective.
Her face clouded, while her lips parted slightly in an expression of intense hatred. For an instant she rested her chin on her gloved hand, staring fixedly before her. Then, with a rebellious toss of her head, she declared:
"I am betraying him because he betrayed me."
Here was logic which the police could readily grasp. No inconsistency about a woman betrayed executing vengeance on her betrayer! Nothing obtuse, or puzzling, or improbable about that! It was not the first time that Britz had encountered such a woman. Convince a woman that her lover means to desert her and she will permit his head to rest unsuspectingly against her cheek, his fingers to entwine themselves lovingly in hers, his lips to linger caressingly on her lips, while her desecrated love is setting the trap for his destruction.
Was this woman really about to spring a trap beneath Collins's feet? Was Collins really the murderer or was she trying to fasten guilt on an innocent man? Was she ready to really assist the police, or was she trying to lead them into endless channels of error?
The questions remained unanswered in Britz's mind; must remain unanswered until the woman herself, should, in some way, disclose the impelling motive of her visit to Headquarters.
One thing, however, Britz determined on. He would not permit his watchful nature to be beguiled into slumberous acceptance of conditions as presented through the mouth of this woman.
"It's now quarter past ten," he reminded her. "Permit me to suggest that you go home alone, and that we join you in fifteen or twenty minutes."
"Very well," she replied, rising and drawing up her gloves. "I shall expect you."
As she walked toward the door, Britz lifted himself out of his seat, and, brushing past Greig, whispered:
"Have Muldoon trail her!"
Greig nodded understandingly, escorted her into the corridor and repeated Britz's directions to the waiting officer. Returning to the room, he found Britz leaning back in his chair, absorbed in thought, the lines of his forehead gathered between the eyebrows.
"Well, it looks as if we're going to get the murderer without much effort on our part," said Greig jubilantly.
"Greig, don't jump too hastily at every bait that is held out," replied Britz, emphasizing each word. "All the evidence seems to contradict the theory that Collins is the murderer. He may have betrayed this woman. She may be yearning for revenge. But it does not follow that he killed Whitmore."
"Why, what evidence is there to the contrary?" weakly asked Greig.
"Why, the very murder itself," said Britz, as if stating an incontrovertible conclusion.
"I don't understand," the other admitted helplessly.
"We have two witnesses who stated that Collins openly threatened to kill Whitmore," pursued Britz. "For four weeks, it is asserted, he went about seeking revenge on the man who, he believed, had wrecked his home. It makes no difference whether Whitmore was a home-wrecker or a man of the utmost probity. It was sufficient that Collins thought Whitmore was trying to destroy his home—that he wanted to marry Mrs. Collins. A murderous fury burned in Collins's mind and he was intent on killing the merchant. He didn't plan to kill and get away undetected. Not much! His was to have been a heroic killing, followed by a glorious acquittal in a courtroom crowded with sympathizers who recognized in him a noble defender of the American home. No secret murder satisfies the vengeance of such a man. Had he committed the murder he would have surrendered immediately and tried to justify the act before an applauding public."