Chapter XXIX. The Lead Poisoner
 

It was a gruesome recital and I was glad to leave the baths finally with Kennedy. Josephson was quite evidently relieved at the attitude Craig had taken toward the coroner's conclusion that Minturn had been shocked to death. As far as I could see, however, it added to rather than cleared up the mystery.

Craig went directly uptown to his laboratory, in contrast with our journey down, in abstracted silence, which was his manner when he was trying to reason out some particularly knotty problem.

As Kennedy placed the white crystals which he had scraped off the electrodes of the tub on a piece of dark paper in the laboratory, he wet the tip of his finger and touched just the minutest grain to his tongue.

The look on his face told me that something unexpected had happened. He held a similar minute speck of the powder out to me.

It was an intensely bitter taste and very persistent, for even after we had rinsed out our mouths it seemed to remain, clinging persistently to the tongue.

He placed some of the grains in some pure water. They dissolved only slightly, if at all. But in a tube in which he mixed a little ether and chloroform they dissolved fairly readily.

Next, without a word, he poured just a drop of strong sulphuric acid on the crystals. There was not a change in them.

Quickly he reached up into the rack and took down a bottle labeled "Potassium Bichromate."

"Let us see what an oxidizing agent will do," he remarked.

As he gently added the bichromate, there came a most marvelous, kaleidoscopic change. From being almost colorless, the crystals turned instantly to a deep blue, then rapidly to purple, lilac, red, and then the red slowly faded away and they became colorless again.

"What is it?" I asked, fascinated. "Lead?"

"N-no," he replied, the lines of his forehead deepening. "No. This is sulphate of strychnine."

"Sulphate of strychnine?" I repeated in astonishment.

"Yes," he reiterated slowly. "I might have suspected that from the convulsions, particularly when Josephson said that the noise and excitement of the arrival of the ambulance brought on the fatal paroxysm. That is symptomatic. But I didn't fully realize it until I got up here and tasted the stuff. Then I suspected, for that taste is characteristic. Even one part diluted seventy thousand times gives that decided bitter taste."

"That's all very well," I remarked, recalling the intense bitterness yet on my tongue. "But how do you suppose it was possible for anyone to administer it? It seems to me that he would have said something, if he had swallowed even the minutest part of it. He must have known it. Yet apparently he didn't. At least he said nothing about it--or else Josephson is concealing something."

"Did he swallow it--necessarily?" queried Kennedy, in a tone calculated to show me that the chemical world, at least, was full of a number of things, and there was much to learn.

"Well, I suppose if it had been given hypodermically, it would have a more violent effect," I persisted, trying to figure out a way that the poison might have been given.

"Even more unlikely," objected Craig, with a delight at discovering a new mystery that to me seemed almost fiendish. "No, he would certainly have felt a needle, have cried out and said something about it, if anyone had tried that. This poisoned needle business isn't as easy as some people seem to think nowadays."

"Then he might have absorbed it from the water," I insisted, recalling a recent case of Kennedy's and adding, "by osmosis."

"You saw how difficult it was to dissolve in water," Craig rejected quietly.

"Well, then," I concluded in desperation. "How could it have been introduced?"

"I have a theory," was all he would say, reaching for the railway guide, "but it will take me up to Stratfield to prove it."

His plan gave us a little respite and we paused long enough to lunch, for which breathing space I was duly thankful. The forenoon saw us on the train, Kennedy carrying a large and cumbersome package which he brought down with him from the laboratory and which we took turns in carrying, though he gave no hint of its contents.

We arrived in Stratfield, a very pretty little mill town, in the middle of the afternoon, and with very little trouble were directed to the Pearcy house, after Kennedy had checked the parcel with the station agent.

Mrs. Pearcy, to whom we introduced ourselves as reporters of the Star, was a tall blonde. I could not help thinking that she made a particularly dashing widow. With her at the time was Isabel Pearcy, a slender girl whose sensitive lips and large, earnest eyes indicated a fine, high-strung nature.

Even before we had introduced ourselves, I could not help thinking that there was a sort of hostility between the women. Certainly it was evident that there was as much difference in temperament as between the butterfly and the bee.

"No," replied the elder woman quickly to a request from Kennedy for an interview, "there is nothing that I care to say to the newspapers. They have said too much already about this-- unfortunate affair."

Whether it was imagination or not, I fancied that there was an air of reserve about both women. It struck me as a most peculiar household. What was it? Was each suspicious of the other? Was each concealing something?

I managed to steal a glance at Kennedy's face to see whether there was anything to confirm my own impression. He was watching Mrs. Pearcy closely as she spoke. In fact his next few questions, inconsequential as they were, seemed addressed to her solely for the purpose of getting her to speak.

I followed his eyes and found that he was watching her mouth, in reality. As she answered I noted her beautiful white teeth. Kennedy himself had trained me to notice small things, and at the time, though I thought it was trivial, I recall noticing on her gums, where they joined the teeth, a peculiar bluish-black line.

Kennedy had been careful to address only Mrs. Pearcy at first, and as he continued questioning her, she seemed to realize that he was trying to lead her along.

"I must positively refuse to talk any more," she repeated finally, rising. "I am not to be tricked into saying anything."

She had left the room, evidently expecting that Isabel would follow. She did not. In fact I felt that Miss Pearcy was visibly relieved by the departure of her stepmother. She seemed anxious to ask us something and now took the first opportunity.

"Tell me," she said eagerly, "how did Mr. Minturn die? What do they really think of it in New York?"

"They think it is poisoning," replied Craig, noting the look on her face.

She betrayed nothing, as far as I could see, except a natural neighborly interest. "Poisoning?" she repeated. "By what?"

"Lead poisoning," he replied evasively.

She said nothing. It was evident that, slip of a girl though she was, she was quite the match of anyone who attempted leading questions. Kennedy changed his method.

"You will pardon me," he said apologetically, "for recalling what must be distressing. But we newspapermen often have to do things and ask questions that are distasteful. I believe it is rumored that your father suffered from lead poisoning?"

"Oh, I don't know what it was--none of us do," she cried, almost pathetically. "I had been living at the settlement until lately. When father grew worse, I came home. He had such strange visions-- hallucinations, I suppose you would call them. In the daytime he would be so very morose and melancholy. Then, too, there were terrible pains in his stomach, and his eyesight began to fail. Yes, I believe that Dr. Gunther did say it was lead poisoning. But--they have said so many things--so many things," she repeated, plainly distressed at the subject of her recent bereavement.

"Your brother is not at home?" asked Kennedy, quickly changing the subject.

"No," she answered, then with a flash as though lifting the veil of a confidence, added: "You know, neither Warner nor I have lived here much this year. He has been in New York most of the time and I have been at the settlement, as I already told you."

She hesitated, as if wondering whether she should say more, then added quickly: "It has been repeated often enough; there is no reason why I shouldn't say it to you. Neither of us exactly approved of father's marriage."

She checked herself and glanced about, somewhat with the air of one who has suddenly considered the possibility of being overheard.

"May I have a glass of water?" asked Kennedy suddenly.

"Why, certainly," she answered, going to the door, apparently eager for an excuse to find out whether there was some one on the other side of it.

There was not, nor any indication that there had been.

"Evidently she does not have any suspicions of that," remarked Kennedy in an undertone, half to himself.

I had no chance to question him, for she returned almost immediately. Instead of drinking the water, however, he held it carefully up to the light. It was slightly turbid.

"You drink the water from the tap?" he asked, as he poured some of it into a sterilized vial which he drew quickly from his vest pocket.

"Certainly," she replied, for the moment nonplussed at his strange actions. "Everybody drinks the town water in Stratfield."

A few more questions, none of which were of importance, and Kennedy and I excused ourselves.

At the gate, instead of turning toward the town, however, Kennedy went on and entered the grounds of the Minturn house next door. The lawyer, I had understood, was a widower and, though he lived in Stratfield only part of the time, still maintained his house there.

We rang the bell and a middle-aged housekeeper answered.

"I am from the water company," he began politely. "We are testing the water, perhaps will supply consumers with filters. Can you let me have a sample?"

She did not demur, but invited us in. As she drew the water, Craig watched her hands closely. She seemed to have difficulty in holding the glass, and as she handed it to him, I noticed a peculiar hanging down of the wrist. Kennedy poured the sample into a second vial, and I noticed that it was turbid, too. With no mention of the tragedy to her employer, he excused himself, and we walked slowly back to the road.

Between the two houses Kennedy paused, and for several moments appeared to be studying them.

We walked slowly back along the road to the town. As we passed the local drug store, Kennedy turned and sauntered in.

He found it easy enough to get into conversation with the druggist, after making a small purchase, and in the course of a few minutes we found ourselves gossiping behind the partition that shut off the arcana of the prescription counter from the rest of the store.

Gradually Kennedy led the conversation around to the point which he wanted, and asked, "I wish you'd let me fix up a little sulphureted hydrogen."

"Go ahead," granted the druggist good-naturedly. "I guess you can do it. You know as much about drugs as I do. I can stand the smell, if you can."

Kennedy smiled and set to work.

Slowly he passed the gas through the samples of water he had taken from the two houses. As he did so the gas, bubbling through, made a blackish precipitate.

"What is it?" asked the druggist curiously.

"Lead sulphide," replied Kennedy, stroking his chin. "This is an extremely delicate test. Why, one can get a distinct brownish tinge if lead is present in even incredibly minute quantities."

He continued to work over the vials ranged on the table before him.

"The water contains, I should say, from ten to fifteen hundredths of a grain of lead to the gallon," he remarked finally.

"Where did it come from?" asked the druggist, unable longer to restrain his curiosity.

"I got it up at Pearcy's," Kennedy replied frankly, turning to observe whether the druggist might betray any knowledge of it.

"That's strange," he replied in genuine surprise. "Our water in Stratfield is supplied by a company to a large area, and it has always seemed to me to be of great organic purity."

"But the pipes are of lead, are they not?" asked Kennedy.

"Y-yes," answered the druggist, "I think in most places the service pipes are of lead. But," he added earnestly as he saw the implication of his admission, "water has never to my knowledge been found to attack the pipes so as to affect its quality injuriously."

He turned his own faucet and drew a glassful. "It is normally quite clear," he added, holding the glass up.

It was in fact perfectly clear, and when he passed some of the gas through it nothing happened at all.

Just then a man lounged into the store.

"Hello, Doctor," greeted the druggist. "Here are a couple of fellows that have been investigating the water up at Pearcy's. They've found lead in it. That ought to interest you. This is Dr. Gunther," he introduced, turning to us.

It was an unexpected encounter, one I imagine that Kennedy might have preferred to take place under other circumstances. But he was equal to the occasion.

"We've been sent up here to look into the case for the New York Star," Kennedy said quickly. "I intended to come around to see you, but you have saved me the trouble."

Dr. Gunther looked from one of us to the other. "Seems to me the New York papers ought to have enough to do without sending men all over the country making news," he grunted.

"Well," drawled Kennedy quietly, "there seems to be a most remarkable situation up there at Pearcy's and Minturn's, too. As nearly as I can make out several people there are suffering from unmistakable signs of lead poisoning. There are the pains in the stomach, the colic, and then on the gums is that characteristic line of plumbic sulphide, the distinctive mark produced by lead. There is the wrist-drop, the eyesight affected, the partial paralysis, the hallucinations and a condition in old Pearcy's case almost bordering on insanity--to enumerate the symptoms that seem to be present in varying degrees in various persons in the two houses."

Gunther looked at Kennedy, as if in doubt just how to take him.

"That's what the coroner says, too--lead poisoning," put in the druggist, himself as keen as anyone else for a piece of local news, and evidently not averse to stimulating talk from Dr. Gunther, who had been Pearcy's physician.

"That all seems to be true enough," replied Gunther at length guardedly. "I recognized that some time ago."

"Why do you think it affects each so differently?" asked the druggist.

Dr. Gunther settled himself easily back in a chair to speak as one having authority. "Well," he began slowly, "Miss Pearcy, of course, hasn't been living there much until lately. As for the others, perhaps this gentleman here from the Star knows that lead, once absorbed, may remain latent in the system and then make itself felt. It is like arsenic, an accumulative poison, slowly collecting in the body until the limit is reached, or until the body, becoming weakened from some other cause, gives way to it."

He shifted his position slowly, and went on, as if defending the course of action he had taken in the case.

"Then, too, you know, there is an individual as well as family and sex susceptibility to lead. Women are especially liable to lead poisoning, but then perhaps in this case Mrs. Pearcy comes of a family that is very resistant. There are many factors. Personally, I don't think Pearcy himself was resistant. Perhaps Minturn was not, either. At any rate, after Pearcy's death, it was I who advised Minturn to take the electrolysis cure in New York. I took him down there," added Gunther. "Confound it, I wish I had stayed with him. But I always found Josephson perfectly reliable in hydrotherapy with other patients I sent to him, and I understood that he had been very successful with cases sent to him by many physicians in the city." He paused and I waited anxiously to see whether Kennedy would make some reference to the discovery of the strychnine salts.

"Have you any idea how the lead poisoning could have been caused?" asked Kennedy instead.

Dr. Gunther shook his head. "It is a puzzle to me," he answered. "I am sure of only one thing. It could not be from working in lead, for it is needless to say that none of them worked."

"Food?" Craig suggested.

The doctor considered. "I had thought of that. I know that many cases of lead poisoning have been traced to the presence of the stuff in ordinary foods, drugs and drinks. I have examined the foods, especially the bread. They don't use canned goods. I even went so far as to examine the kitchen ware to see if there could be anything wrong with the glazing. They don't drink wines and beers, into which now and then the stuff seems to get."

"You seem to have a good grasp of the subject," flattered Kennedy, as we rose to go. "I can hardly blame you for neglecting the water, since everyone here seems to be so sure of the purity of the supply."

Gunther said nothing. I was not surprised, for, at the very least, no one likes to have an outsider come in and put his finger directly on the raw spot. What more there might be to it, I could only conjecture.

We left the druggist's and Kennedy, glancing at his watch, remarked: "If you will go down to the station, Walter, and get that package we left there, I shall be much obliged to you. I want to make just one more stop, at the office of the water company, and I think I shall just about have time for it. There's a pretty good restaurant across the street. Meet me there, and by that time I shall know whether to carry out a little plan I have outlined or not."