Sight Unseen by Mary Roberts Rinehart
At midnight, shortly after we reached home, Sperry called me on the phone. "Be careful, Horace," he said. "Don't let Mrs. Horace think anything has happened. I want to see you at once. Suppose you say I have a patient in a bad way, and a will to be drawn."
I listened to sounds from upstairs. I heard my wife go into her room and close the door.
"Tell me something about it," I urged.
"Just this. Arthur Wells killed himself tonight, shot himself in the head. I want you to go there with me."
"Yes. I say, Horace, did you happen to notice the time the seance began tonight?"
"It was five minutes after nine when my watch fell."
"Then it would have been about half past when the trance began?"
There was a silence at Sperry's end of the wire. Then:
"He was shot about 9:30," he said, and rang
I am not ashamed to confess that my hands shook as I hung up the receiver. A brick house, she had said; the Wells house was brick. And so were all the other houses on the street. Vines in the back? Well, even my own house had vines. It was absurd; it was pure coincidence; it was - well, I felt it was queer.
Nevertheless, as I stood there, I wondered for the first time in a highly material existence, whether there might not be, after all, a spirit-world surrounding us, cognizant of all that we did, touching but intangible, sentient but tuned above our common senses?
I stood by the prosaic telephone instrument and looked into the darkened recesses of the passage. It seemed to my disordered nerves that back of the coats and wraps that hung on the rack, beyond the heavy curtains, in every corner, there lurked vague and shadowy forms, invisible when I stared, but advancing a trifle from their obscurity when, by turning my head and looking ahead, they impinged on the extreme right or left of my field of vision.
I was shocked by the news, but not greatly grieved. The Wellses had been among us but not of us, as I have said. They had come, like gay young comets, into our orderly constellation, trailing behind them their cars and servants, their children and governesses and rather riotous friends, and had flashed on us in a sort of bright impermanence.
Of the two, I myself had preferred Arthur. His faults were on the surface. He drank hard, gambled, and could not always pay his gambling debts. But underneath it all there had always been something boyishly honest about him. He had played, it is true, through most of the thirty years that now marked his whole life, but he could have been made a man by the right woman. And he had married the wrong one.
Of Elinor Wells I have only my wife's verdict, and I have found that, as is the way with many good women, her judgments of her own sex are rather merciless. A tall, handsome girl, very dark, my wife has characterized her as cold, calculating and ambitious. She has said frequently, too, that Elinor Wells was a disappointed woman, that her marriage, while giving her social identity, had disappointed her in a monetary way. Whether that is true or not, there was no doubt, by the time they had lived in our neighborhood for a year, that a complication had arisen in the shape of another man.
My wife, on my return from my office in the evening, had been quite likely to greet me with:
"Horace, he has been there all afternoon. I really think something should be done about it."
"Who has been where?" I would ask, I am afraid not too patiently.
"You know perfectly well. And I think you ought to tell him."
In spite of her vague pronouns, I understood, and in a more masculine way I shared her sense of outrage. Our street has never had a scandal on it, except the one when the Berringtons' music teacher ran away with their coachman, in the days of carriages. And I am glad to say that that is almost forgotten.
Nevertheless, we had realized for some time that the dreaded triangle was threatening the repute of our quiet neighborhood, and as I stood by the telephone that night I saw that it had come. More than that, it seemed very probable that into this very triangle our peaceful Neighborhood Club had been suddenly thrust.
My wife accepted my excuse coldly. She dislikes intensely the occasional outside calls of my profession. She merely observed, however, that she would leave all the lights on until my return. "I should think you could arrange things better, Horace," she added. "It's perfectly idiotic the way people die at night. And tonight, of all nights!"
I shall have to confess that through all of the thirty years of our married life my wife has clung to the belief that I am a bit of a dog. Thirty years of exemplary living have not affected this conviction, nor had Herbert's foolish remark earlier in the evening helped matters. But she watched me put on my overcoat without further comment. When I kissed her good-night, however, she turned her cheek.
The street, with its open spaces, was a relief after the dark hall. I started for Sperry's house, my head bent against the wind, my mind on the news I had just heard. Was it, I wondered, just possible that we had for some reason been allowed behind the veil which covered poor Wells' last moments? And, to admit that for a moment, where would what we had heard lead us? Sperry had said he had killed himself. But - suppose he had not?
I realize now, looking back, that my recollection of the other man in the triangle is largely colored by the fact that he fell in the great war. At that time I hardly knew him, except as a wealthy and self-made man in his late thirties; I saw him now and then, in the club playing billiards or going in and out of the Wells house, a large, fastidiously dressed man, strong featured and broad shouldered, with rather too much manner. I remember particularly how I hated the light spats he affected, and the glaring yellow gloves.
A man who would go straight for the thing he wanted, woman or power or money. And get it.
Sperry was waiting on his door-step, and we went on to the Wells house. What with the magnitude of the thing that had happened, and our mutual feeling that we were somehow involved in it, we were rather silent. Sperry asked one question. however, "Are you certain about the time when Miss Jeremy saw what looks like this thing?"
"Certainly. My watch fell at five minutes after nine. When it was all over, and I picked it up, it was still going, and it was 9:30."
He was silent for a moment. Then:
"The Wellses' nursery governess telephoned for me at 9:35. We keep a record of the time of all calls."
Sperry is a heart specialist, I think I have said, with offices in his house.
And, a block or so farther on: "I suppose it was bound to come. To tell the truth, I didn't think the boy had the courage."
"Then you think he did it?"
"They say so, he said grimly. And added, - irritably: "Good heavens, Horace, we must keep that other fool thing out of our minds."
"Yes," I agreed. "We must."
Although the Wells house was brilliantly lighted when we reached it, we had difficulty in gaining admission. Whoever were in the house were up-stairs, and the bell evidently rang in the deserted kitchen or a neighboring pantry.
"We might try the servants' entrance," Sperry said. Then he laughed mirthlessly.
"We might see," he said, "if there's a key on the nail among the vines.
I confess to a nervous tightening of my muscles as we made our way around the house. If the key was there, we were on the track of a revelation that might revolutionize much that we had held fundamental in science and in our knowledge of life itself. If, sitting in Mrs. Dane's quiet room, a woman could tell us what was happening in a house a mile or so away, it opened up a new earth. Almost a new heaven.
I stopped and touched Sperry's arm. "This Miss Jeremy - did she know Arthur Wells or Elinor? If she knew the house, and the situation between them, isn't it barely possible that she anticipated this thing?"
"We knew them," he said gruffly, "and whatever we anticipated, it wasn't this."
Sperry had a pocket flash, and when we found the door locked we proceeded with our search for the key. The porch had been covered with heavy vines, now dead of the November frosts, and showing, here and there, dead and dried leaves that crackled as we touched them. In the darkness something leaped against, me, and I almost cried out. It was, however, only a collie dog, eager for the warmth of his place by the kitchen fire.
"Here's the key," Sperry said, and held it out. The flash wavered in his hand, and his voice was strained.
"So far, so good," I replied, and was conscious that my own voice rang strange in my ears.
We admitted ourselves, and the dog, bounding past us, gave a sharp yelp of gratitude and ran into the kitchen.
"Look here, Sperry," I said, as we stood inside the door, "they don't want me here. They've sent for you, but I'm the most casual sort of an acquaintance. I haven't any business here."
That struck him, too. We had both been so obsessed with the scene at Mrs. Dane's that we had not thought of anything else.
"Suppose you sit down in the library," he said. "The chances are against her coming down, and the servants don't matter."
As a matter of fact, we learned later that all the servants were out except the nursery governess. There were two small children. There was a servants' ball somewhere, and, with the exception of the butler, it was after two before they commenced to straggle in. Except two plain-clothes men from the central office, a physician who was with Elinor in her room, and the governess, there was no one else in the house but the children, asleep in the nursery.
As I sat alone in the library, the house was perfectly silent. But in some strange fashion it had apparently taken on the attributes of the deed that had preceded the silence. It was sinister, mysterious, dark. Its immediate effect on my imagination was apprehension - almost terror. Murder or suicide, here among the shadows a soul, an indestructible thing, had been recently violently wrenched from its body. The body lay in the room overhead. But what of the spirit? I shivered as I thought that it might even then be watching me with formless eyes from some dark corner.
Overwrought as I was, I was forced to bring my common sense to bear on the situation. Here was a tragedy, a real and terrible one. Suppose we had, in some queer fashion, touched its outer edges that night? Then how was it that there had come, mixed up with so much that might be pertinent, such extraneous and grotesque things as Childe Harold, a hurt knee, and Mother Goose?
I remember moving impatiently, and trying to argue myself into my ordinary logical state of mind, but I know now that even then I was wondering whether Sperry had found a hole in the ceiling upstairs.
I wandered, I recall, into the realm of the clairvoyant and the clairaudient. Under certain conditions, such as trance, I knew that some individuals claimed a power of vision that was supernormal, and I had at one time lunched at my club with a well-dressed gentleman in a pince nez who said the room was full of people I could not see, but who were perfectly distinct to him. He claimed, and I certainly could not refute him, that he saw further into the violet of the spectrum than the rest of us, and seemed to consider it nothing unusual when an elderly woman, whose description sounded much like my great-grand-mother, came and stood behind my chair.
I recall that he said she was stroking my hair, and that following that I had a distinctly creepy sensation along my scalp.
Then there were those who claimed that in trance the spirit of the medium, giving place to a control, was free to roam whither it would, and, although I am not sure of this, that it wandered in the fourth dimension. While I am very vague about the fourth dimension, I did know that in it doors and walls were not obstacles. But as they would not be obstacles to a spirit, even in the world as we know it, that got me nowhere.
Suppose Sperry came down and said Arthur Wells had been shot above the ear, and that there was a second bullet hole in the ceiling? Added to the key on the nail, a careless custom and surely not common, we would have conclusive proof that our medium had been correct. There was another point, too. Miss Jeremy had said, "Get the lather off his face."
That brought me up with a turn. Would a man stop shaving to kill himself? If he did, why a revolver? Why not the razor in his hand?
I knew from my law experience that suicide is either a desperate impulse or a cold-blooded and calculated finality. A man who kills himself while dressing comes under the former classification, and will usually seize the first method at hand. But there was something else, too. Shaving is an automatic process. It completes itself. My wife has an irritated conviction that if the house caught fire while I was in the midst of the process, I would complete it and rinse the soap from my face before I caught up the fire-extinguisher.
Had he killed himself, or had Elinor killed him? Was she the sort to sacrifice herself to a violent impulse? Would she choose the hard way, when there was the easy one of the divorce court? I thought not. And the same was true of Ellingham. Here were two people, both of them careful of appearance, if not of fact. There was another possibility, too. That he had learned something while he was dressing, had attacked or threatened her with a razor, and she had killed him in self-defence.
I had reached that point when Sperry came down the staircase, ushering out the detectives and the medical man. He came to the library door and stood looking at me, with his face rather paler than usual.
"I'll take you up now," he said. "She's in her room, in bed, and she has had an opiate."
"Was he shot above the ear?"
I did not look at him, nor he at me. We climbed the stairs and entered the room, where, according to Elinor's story, Arthur Wells had killed himself. It was a dressing-room, as Miss Jeremy had described. A wardrobe, a table with books and magazines in disorder, two chairs, and a couch, constituted the furnishings. Beyond was a bathroom. On a chair by a window the dead mans's evening clothes were neatly laid out, his shoes beneath. His top hat and folded gloves were on the table.
Arthur Wells lay on the couch. A sheet had been drawn over the body, and I did not disturb it. It gave the impression of unusual length that is always found, I think, in the dead, and a breath of air from an open window, by stirring the sheet, gave a false appearance of life beneath.
The house was absolutely still.
When I glanced at Sperry he was staring at the ceiling, and I followed his eyes, but there was no mark on it. Sperry made a little gesture.
"It's queer," he muttered. "It's - "
"The detective and I put him there. He was here." He showed a place on the floor midway of the room.
"Where was his head lying?" I asked, cautiously.
I stooped and examined the carpet. It was a dark Oriental, with much red in it. I touched the place, and then ran my folded handkerchief over it. It came up stained with blood.
"There would be no object in using cold water there, so as not to set the stain," Sperry said thoughtfully. "Whether he fell there or not, that is where she allowed him to be found."
"You don't think he fell there?"
"She dragged him, didn't she?" he demanded. Then the strangeness of what he was saying struck him, and he smiled foolishly. "What I mean is, the medium said she did. I don't suppose any jury would pass us tonight as entirely sane, Horace," he said.
He walked across to the bathroom and surveyed it from the doorway. I followed him. It was as orderly as the other room. On a glass shelf over the wash-stand were his razors, a safety and, beside it, in a black case, an assortment of the long-bladed variety, one for each day of the week, and so marked.
Sperry stood thoughtfully in the doorway.
"The servants are out," he said. "According to Elinor's statement he was dressing when he did it. And yet some one has had a wild impulse for tidiness here, since it happened. Not a towel out of place!"
It was in the bathroom that he told me Elinor's story. According to her, it was a simple case of suicide. And she was honest about it, in her own way. She was shocked, but she was not pretending any wild grief. She hadn't wanted him to die, but she had not felt that they could go on much longer together. There had been no quarrel other than their usual bickering. They had been going to a dance that night. The servants had all gone out immediately after dinner to a servants' ball and the governess had gone for a walk. She was to return at nine-thirty to fasten Elinor's gown and to be with the children.
Arthur, she said, had been depressed for several days, and at dinner had hardly spoken at all. He had not, however, objected to the dance. He had, indeed, seemed strangely determined to go, although she had pleaded a headache. At nine o'clock he went upstairs, apparently to dress.
She was in her room, with the door shut, when she heard a shot. She ran in and found him lying on the floor of his dressing-room with his revolver behind him. The governess was still out. The shot had roused the children, and they had come down from the nursery above. She was frantic, but she had to soothe them. The governess, however, came in almost immediately, and she had sent her to the telephone to summon help, calling Sperry first of all, and then the police.
"Have you seen the revolver?" I asked.
"Yes. It's all right, apparently. Only one shot had been fired."
"How soon did they get a doctor?"
"It must have been some time. They gave up telephoning, and the governess went out, finally, and found one."
"Then, while she was out - ?"
"Possibly," Sperry said. "If we start with the hypothesis that she was lying."
"If she cleaned up here for any reason," I began, and commenced a desultory examination of the room. Just why I looked behind the bathtub forces me to an explanation I am somewhat loath to make, but which will explain a rather unusual proceeding. For some time my wife has felt that I smoked too heavily, and out of her solicitude for me has limited me to one cigar after dinner. But as I have been a heavy smoker for years I have found this a great hardship, and have therefore kept a reserve store, by arrangement with the housemaid, behind my tub. In self-defence I must also state that I seldom have recourse to such stealthy measures.
Believing then that something might possibly be hidden there, I made an investigation, and could see some small objects lying there. Sperry brought me a stick from the dressing-room, and with its aid succeeded in bringing out the two articles which were instrumental in starting us on our brief but adventurous careers as private investigators. One was a leather razor strop, old and stiff from disuse, and the other a wet bath sponge, now stained with blood to a yellowish brown.
"She is lying, Sperry," I said. "He fell somewhere else, and she dragged him to where he was found."
"But - why?"
"I don't know," I said impatiently. "From some place where a man would be unlikely to kill himself, I daresay. No one ever killed himself, for instance, in an open hallway. Or stopped shaving to do it."
"We have only Miss Jeremy's word for that," he said, sullenly. "Confound it, Horace, don't let's bring in that stuff if we can help it."
We stared at each other, with the strop and the sponge between us. Suddenly he turned on his heel and went back into the room, and a moment later he called me, quietly.
"You're right," he said. "The poor devil was shaving. He had it half done. Come and look."
But I did not go. There was a carafe of water in the bathroom, and I took a drink from it. My hands were shaking. When I turned around I found Sperry in the hall, examining the carpet with his flash light, and now and then stooping to run his hand over the floor.
"Nothing here," he said in a low tone, when I had joined him. "At least I haven't found anything."