Chapter VI
 

I find that the solution of the Arthur Wells mystery - for we did solve it - takes three divisions in my mind. Each one is a sitting, followed by an investigation made by Sperry and myself.

But for some reason, after Miss Jeremy's second sitting, I found that my reasoning mind was stronger than my credulity. And as Sperry had at that time determined to have nothing more to do with the business, I made a resolution to abandon my investigations. Nor have I any reason to believe that I would have altered my attitude toward the case, had it not been that I saw in the morning paper on the Thursday following the second seance, that Elinor Wells had closed her house, and gone to Florida.

I tried to put the fact out of my mind that morning. After all, what good would it do? No discovery of mine could bring Arthur Wells back to his family, to his seat at the bridge table at the club, to his too expensive cars and his unpaid bills. Or to his wife who was not grieving for him.

On the other hand, I confess to an overwhelming desire to examine again the ceiling of the dressing room and thus to check up one degree further the accuracy of our revelations. After some debate, therefore, I called up Sperry, but he flatly refused to go on any further.

"Miss Jeremy has been ill since Monday," he said. "Mrs. Dane's rheumatism is worse, her companion is nervously upset, and your own wife called me up an hour ago and says you are sleeping with a light, and she thinks you ought to go away. The whole club is shot to pieces."

But, although I am a small and not a courageous man, the desire to examine the Wells house clung to me tenaciously. Suppose there were cartridges in his table drawer? Suppose I should find the second bullet hole in the ceiling? I no longer deceived myself by any argument that my interest was purely scientific. There is a point at which curiosity becomes unbearable, when it becomes an obsession, like hunger. I had reached that point.

Nevertheless, I found it hard to plan the necessary deception to my wife. My habits have always been entirely orderly and regular. My wildest dissipation was the Neighborhood Club. I could not recall an evening away from home in years, except on business. Yet now I must have a free evening, possibly an entire night.

In planning for this, I forgot my nervousness for a time. I decided finally to tell my wife that an out-of-town client wished to talk business with me, and that day, at luncheon - I go home to luncheon - I mentioned that such a client was in town.

"It is possible," I said, as easily as I could, "that we may not get through this afternoon. If things should run over into the evening, I'll telephone."

She took it calmly enough, but later on, as I was taking an electric flash from the drawer of the hall table and putting it in my overcoat pocket, she came on me, and I thought she looked surprised.

During the afternoon I was beset with doubts and uneasiness. Suppose she called up my office and found that the client I had named was not in town? It is undoubtedly true that a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive, for on my return to the office I was at once quite certain that Mrs. Johnson would telephone and make the inquiry.

After some debate I called my secretary and told her to say, if such a message came in, that Mr. Forbes was in town and that I had an appointment with him. As a matter of fact, no such inquiry came in, but as Miss Joyce, my secretary, knew that Mr. Forbes was in Europe, I was conscious for some months afterwards that Miss Joyce's eyes occasionally rested on me in a speculative and suspicious manner.

Other things also increased my uneasiness as the day wore on. There was, for instance, the matter of the back door to the Wells house. Nothing was more unlikely than that the key would still be hanging there. I must, therefore, get a key.

At three o'clock I sent the office-boy out for a back-door key. He looked so surprised that I explained that we had lost our key, and that I required an assortment of keys of all sizes.

"What sort of key?" he demanded, eyeing me, with his feet apart.

"Just an ordinary key," I said. "Not a Yale key. Nothing fancy. Just a plain back-door key." At something after four my wife called up, in great excitement. A boy and a man had been to the house and had fitted an extra key to the back door, which had two excellent ones already. She was quite hysterical, and had sent for the police, but the officer had arrived after they had gone.

"They are burglars, of course!" she said. "Burglars often have boys with them, to go through the pantry windows. I'm so nervous I could scream."

I tried to tell her that if the door was unlocked there was no need to use the pantry window, but she rang off quickly and, I thought, coldly. Not, however, before she had said that my plan to spend the evening out was evidently known in the underworld!

By going through my desk I found a number of keys, mostly trunk keys and one the key to a dog-collar. But late in the afternoon I visited a client of mine who is in the hardware business, and secured quite a selection. One of them was a skeleton key. He persisted in regarding the matter as a joke, and poked me between the shoulder-blades as I went out.

"If you're arrested with all that hardware on you," he said, "you'll be held as a first-class burglar. You are equipped to open anything from a can of tomatoes to the missionary box in church."

But I felt that already, innocent as I was, I was leaving a trail of suspicion behind me: Miss Joyce and the office boy, the dealer and my wife. And I had not started yet.

I dined in a small chop-house where I occasionally lunch, and took a large cup of strong black coffee. When I went out into the night again I found that a heavy fog had settled down, and I began to feel again something of the strange and disturbing quality of the day which had ended in Arthur Wells's death. Already a potential housebreaker, I avoided policemen, and the very jingling of the keys in my pocket sounded loud and incriminating to my ears.

The Wells house was dark. Even the arc-lamp in the street was shrouded in fog. But the darkness, which added to my nervousness, added also to my security.

I turned and felt my way cautiously to the rear of the house. Suddenly I remembered the dog. But of course he was gone. As I cautiously ascended the steps the dead leaves on the vines rattled, as at the light touch of a hand, and I was tempted to turn and run.

I do not like deserted houses. Even in daylight they have a sinister effect on me. They seem, in their empty spaces, to have held and recorded all that has happened in the dusty past. The Wells house that night, looming before me, silent and mysterious, seemed the embodiment of all the deserted houses I had known. Its empty and unshuttered windows were like blind eyes, gazing in, not out.

Nevertheless, now that the time had come a certain amount of courage came with it. I am not ashamed to confess that a certain part of it came from the anticipation of the Neighborhood Club's plaudits. For Herbert to have made such an investigation, or even Sperry, with his height and his iron muscles, would not have surprised them. But I was aware that while they expected intelligence and even humor, of a sort, from me, they did not anticipate any particular bravery.

The flash was working, but rather feebly. I found the nail where the door-key had formerly hung, but the key, as I had expected, was gone. I was less than five minutes, I fancy, in finding a key from my collection that would fit. The bolt slid back with a click, and the door opened.

It was still early in the evening, eight-thirty or thereabouts. I tried to think of that; to remember that, only a few blocks away, some of my friends were still dining, or making their way into theaters. But the silence of the house came out to meet me on the threshold, and its blackness enveloped me like a wave. It was unfortunate, too, that I remembered just then that it was, or soon would be, the very hour of young Wells's death.

Nevertheless, once inside the house, the door to the outside closed and facing two alternatives, to go on with it or to cut and run, I found a sort of desperate courage, clenched my teeth, and felt for the nearest light switch.

The electric light had been cut off!

I should have expected it, but I had not. I remember standing in the back hall and debating whether to go on or to get out. I was not only in a highly nervous state, but I was also badly handicapped. However, as the moments wore on and I stood there, with the quiet unbroken by no mysterious sounds, I gained a certain confidence. After a short period of readjustment, therefore, I felt my way to the library door, and into the room. Once there, I used the flash to discover that the windows were shuttered, and proceeded to take off my hat and coat, which I placed on a chair near the door. It was at this time that I discovered that the battery of my lamp was very weak, and finding a candle in a tall brass stick on the mantelpiece, I lighted it.

Then I looked about. The house had evidently been hastily closed. Some of the furniture was covered with sheets, while part of it stood unprotected. The rug had been folded into the center of the room, and covered with heavy brown papers, and I was extremely startled to hear the papers rustling. A mouse, however, proved to be the source of the sound, and I pulled myself together with a jerk.

It is to be remembered that I had left my hat and overcoat on a chair near the door. There could be no mistake, as the chair was a light one, and the weight of my overcoat threw it back against the wall.

Candle in hand, I stepped out into the hail, and was immediately met by a crash which reverberated through the house. In my alarm my teeth closed on the end of my tongue, with agonizing results, but the sound died away, and I concluded that an upper window had been left open, and that the rising wind had slammed a door. But my morale, as we say since the war, had been shaken, and I recklessly lighted a second candle and placed it on the table in the hall at the foot of the staircase, to facilitate my exit in case I desired to make a hurried one.

Then I climbed slowly. The fog had apparently made its way into the house, for when, halfway up, I turned and looked down, the candlelight was hardly more than a spark, surrounded by a luminous aura.

I do not know exactly when I began to feel that I was not alone in the house. It was, I think, when I was on a chair on top of a table in Arthur's room, with my candle upheld to the ceiling. It seemed to me that something was moving stealthily in the room overhead. I stood there, candle upheld, and every faculty I possessed seemed centered in my ears. It was not a footstep. It was a soft and dragging movement. Had I not been near the ceiling I should not have heard it. Indeed, a moment later I was not certain that I had heard it.

My chair, on top of the table, was none too securely balanced. I had found what I was looking for, a part of the plaster ornament broken away, and replaced by a whitish substance, not plaster. I got out my penknife and cut away the foreign matter, showing a small hole beneath, a bullet-hole, if I knew anything about bullet-holes.

Then I heard the dragging movement above, and what with alarm and my insecure position, I suddenly overbalanced, chair and all. My head must have struck on the corner of the table, for I was dazed for a few moments. The candle had gone out, of course. I felt for the chair, righted it, and sat down. I was dizzy and I was frightened. I was afraid to move, lest the dragging thing above come down and creep over me in the darkness and smother me.

And sitting there, I remembered the very things I most wished to forget - the black curtain behind Miss Jeremy, the things flung by unseen hands into the room, the way my watch had slid over the table and fallen to the floor.

Since that time I know there is a madness of courage, born of terror. Nothing could be more intolerable than to sit there and wait. It is the same insanity that drove men out of the trenches to the charge and almost certain death, rather than to sit and wait for what might come.

In a way, I daresay I charged the upper floor of the house. Recalling the situation from this safe lapse of time, I think that I was in a condition close to frenzy. I know that it did not occur to me to leap down the staircase and escape, and I believe now this was due to a conviction that I was dealing with the supernatural, and that on no account did I dare to turn my back on it. All children and some adults, I am sure, have known this feeling.

Whatever drove me, I know that, candle in hand, and hardly sane, I ran up the staircase, and into the room overhead. It was empty.

As suddenly as my sanity had gone, it returned to me. The sight of two small beds, side by side, a tiny dressing-table, a row of toys on the mantelpiece, was calming. Here was the children's night nursery, a white and placid room which could house nothing hideous.

I was humiliated and ashamed. I, Horace Johnson, a man of dignity and reputation, even in a small way, a successful after-dinner speaker, numbering fifty-odd years of logical living to my credit, had been running half-maddened toward a mythical danger from which I had been afraid to run away!

I sat down and mopped my face with my pocket handkerchief.

After a time I got up, and going to a window looked down at the quiet world below. The fog was lifting. Automobiles were making cautious progress along the slippery street. A woman with a basket had stopped under the street light and was rearranging her parcels. The clock of the city hall, visible over the opposite roofs, marked only twenty minutes to nine. It was still early evening - not even midnight, the magic hour of the night.

Somehow that fact reassured me, and I was able to take stock of my surroundings. I realized, for instance, that I stood in the room over Arthur's dressing room, and that it was into the ceiling under me that the second - or probably the first - bullet had penetrated. I know, as it happens, very little of firearms, but I did realize that a shot from a .45 Colt automatic would have considerable penetrative power. To be exact, that the bullet had probably either lodged itself in a joist, or had penetrated through the flooring and might be somewhere over my head.

But my candle was inadequate for more than the most superficial examination of the ceiling, which presented so far as I could see an unbroken surface. I turned my attention, therefore, to the floor. It was when I was turning the rug back that I recognized the natural and not supernatural origin of the sound which had so startled me. It had been the soft movement of the carpet across the floor boards.

Some one, then, had been there before me - some one who knew what I knew, had reasoned as I reasoned. Some one who, in all probability, still lurked on the upper floor.

Obeying an impulse, I stood erect and called out sharply, "Sperry!" I said. "Sperry!"

There was no answer. I tried again, calling Herbert. But only my own voice came back to me, and the whistling of the wind through the window I had opened.

My fears, never long in abeyance that night, roused again. I had instantly a conviction that some human figure, sinister and dangerous, was lurking in the shadows of that empty floor, and I remember backing away from the door and standing in the center of the room, prepared for some stealthy, murderous assault. When none came I looked about for a weapon, and finally took the only thing in sight, a coal-tongs from the fireplace. Armed with that, I made a cursory round of the near-by rooms but there was no one hiding in them.

I went back to the rug and examined the floor beneath it. I was right. Some one had been there before me. Bits of splintered wood lay about. The second bullet had been fired, had buried itself in the flooring, and had, some five minutes before, been dug out.