Chapter VII
 

The extraordinary thing about the Arthur Wells story was not his killing. For killing it was. It was the way it was solved.

Here was a young woman, Miss Jeremy, who had not known young Wells, had not known his wife, had, until that first meeting at Mrs. Dane's, never met any member of the Neighborhood Club. Yet, but for her, Arthur Wells would have gone to his grave bearing the stigma of moral cowardice, of suicide.

The solution, when it came, was amazing, but remarkably simple. Like most mysteries. I have in my own house, for instance, an example of a great mystery, founded on mere absentmindedness.

This is what my wife terms the mystery of the fire-tongs.

I had left the Wells house as soon as I had made the discovery in the night nursery. I carried the candle and the fire-tongs downstairs. I was, apparently, calm but watchful. I would have said that I had never been more calm in my life. I knew quite well that I had the fire-tongs in my hand. Just when I ceased to be cognizant of them was probably when, on entering the library, I found that my overcoat had disappeared, and that my stiff hat, badly broken, lay on the floor. However, as I say, I was still extraordinarily composed. I picked up my hat, and moving to the rear door, went out and closed it. When I reached the street, however, I had only gone a few yards when I discovered that I was still carrying the lighted candle, and that a man, passing by, had stopped and was staring after me.

My composure is shown by the fact that I dropped the candle down the next sewer opening, but the fact remains that I carried the fire-tongs home. I do not recall doing so. In fact, I knew nothing of the matter until morning. On the way to my house I was elaborating a story to the effect that my overcoat had been stolen from a restaurant where I and my client had dined. The hat offered more serious difficulties. I fancied that, by kissing my wife good-by at the breakfast table, I might be able to get out without her following me to the front door, which is her custom.

But, as a matter of fact, I need not have concerned myself about the hat. When I descended to breakfast the next morning I found her surveying the umbrella-stand in the hall. The fire-tongs were standing there, gleaming, among my sticks and umbrellas.

I lied. I lied shamelessly. She is a nervous woman, and, as we have no children, her attitude toward me is one of watchful waiting. Through long years she has expected me to commit some indiscretion - innocent, of course, such as going out without my overcoat on a cool day - and she intends to be on hand for every emergency. I dared not confess, therefore, that on the previous evening I had burglariously entered a closed house, had there surprised another intruder at work, had fallen and bumped my head severely, and had, finally, had my overcoat taken.

"Horace," she said coldly, "where did you get those fire-tongs?"

"Fire-tongs?" I repeated. "Why, that's so. They are fire-tongs."

"Where did you get them?"

"My dear," I expostulated, "I get them?"

"What I would like to ask," she said, with an icy calmness that I have learned to dread, "is whether you carried them home over your head, under the impression that you had your umbrella."

"Certainly not," I said with dignity. "I assure you, my dear - "

"I am not a curious woman," she put in incisively, "but when my husband spends an evening out, and returns minus his overcoat, with his hat mashed, a lump the size of an egg over his ear, and puts a pair of fire-tongs in the umbrella stand under the impression that it is an umbrella, I have a right to ask at least if he intends to continue his life of debauchery."

I made a mistake then. I should have told her. Instead, I took my broken hat and jammed it on my head with a force that made the lump she had noticed jump like a toothache, and went out.

When, at noon and luncheon, I tried to tell her the truth, she listened to the end: Then: "I should think you could have done better than that," she said. "You have had all morning to think it out."

However, if things were in a state of armed neutrality at home, I had a certain compensation for them when I told my story to Sperry that afternoon.

"You see how it is," I finished. "You can stay out of this, or come in, Sperry, but I cannot stop now. He was murdered beyond a doubt, and there is an intelligent effort being made to eliminate every particle of evidence."

He nodded.

"It looks like it. And this man who was there last night - "

"Why a man?"

"He took your overcoat, instead of his own, didn't he? It may have been - it's curious, isn't it, that we've had no suggestion of Ellingham in all the rest of the material."

Like the other members of the Neighborhood Club, he had a copy of the proceedings at the two seances, and now he brought them out and fell to studying them.

"She was right about the bullet in the ceiling," he reflected. "I suppose you didn't look for the box of shells for the revolver?"

"I meant to, but it slipped my mind."

He shuffled the loose pages of the record. "Cane - washed away by the water - a knee that is hurt - the curtain would have been safer - Hawkins - the drawing-room furniture is all over the house. That last., Horace, isn't pertinent. It refers clearly to the room we were in. Of course, the point is, how much of the rest is also extraneous matter?" He re-read one of the sheets. "Of course that belongs, about Hawkins. And probably this: 'It will be terrible if the letters are found.' They were in the pocketbook, presumably."

He folded up the papers and replaced them in a drawer.

"We'd better go back to the house," he said. "Whoever took your overcoat by mistake probably left one. The difficulty is, of course, that he probably discovered his error and went back again last night. Confound it, man, if you had thought of that at the time, we would have something to go on today."

"If I had thought of a number of things I'd have stayed out of the place altogether," I retorted tartly. "I wish you could help me about the fire-tongs, Sperry. I don't seem able to think of any explanation that Mrs. Johnson would be willing to accept."

"Tell her the truth."

"I don't think you understand," I explained. "She simply wouldn't believe it. And if she did I should have to agree to drop the investigation. As a matter of fact, Sperry, I had resorted to subterfuge in order to remain out last evening, and I am bitterly regretting my mendacity."

But Sperry has, I am afraid, rather loose ideas.

"Every man," he said, "would rather tell the truth, but every woman makes it necessary to lie to her. Forget the fire-tongs, Horace, and forget Mrs. Johnson to-night. He may not have dared to go back in day-light for his overcoat."

"Very well," I agreed.

But it was not very well, and I knew it. I felt that, in a way, my whole domestic happiness was at stake. My wife is a difficult person to argue with, and as tenacious of an opinion once formed as are all very amiable people. However, unfortunately for our investigation, but luckily for me, under the circumstances, Sperry was called to another city that afternoon and did not return for two days.

It was, it will be recalled, on the Thursday night following the second sitting that I had gone alone to the Wells house, and my interview with Sperry was on Friday. It was on Friday afternoon that I received a telephone message from Mrs. Dane.

It was actually from her secretary, the Clara who had recorded the seances. It was Mrs. Dane's misfortune to be almost entirely dependent on the various young women who, one after the other, were employed to look after her. I say "one after the other" advisedly. It had long been a matter of good-natured jesting in the Neighborhood Club that Mrs. Dane conducted a matrimonial bureau, as one young woman after another was married from her house. It was her kindly habit, on such occasions, to give the bride a wedding, and only a month before it had been my privilege to give away in holy wedlock Miss Clara's predecessor.

"Mrs. Dane would like you to stop in and have a cup of tea with her this afternoon, Mr. Johnson," said the secretary.

"At what time?"

"At four o'clock."

I hesitated. I felt that my wife was waiting at home for further explanation of the coal-tongs, and that the sooner we had it out the better. But, on the other hand, Mrs. Dane's invitations, by reason of her infirmity, took on something of the nature of commands.

"Please say that I will be there at four," I replied.

I bought a new hat that afternoon, and told the clerk to destroy the old one. Then I went to Mrs. Dane's.

She was in the drawing-room, now restored to its usual clutter of furniture and ornaments. I made my way around two tables, stepped over a hassock and under the leaves of an artificial palm, and shook her hand.

She was plainly excited. Never have I known a woman who, confined to a wheel-chair, lived so hard. She did not allow life to pass her windows, if I may put it that way. She called it in, and set it moving about her chair, herself the nucleus around which were enacted all sorts of small neighborhood dramas and romances. Her secretaries did not marry. She married them.

It is curious to look back and remember how Herbert and Sperry and myself had ignored this quality in her, in the Wells case. She was not to be ignored, as I discovered that afternoon.

"Sit down," she said. "You look half sick, Horace."

Nothing escapes her eyes, so I was careful to place myself with the lump on my head turned away from her. But I fancy she saw it, for her eyes twinkled.

"Horace! Horace!" she said. "How I have detested you all week!"

"I? You detested me

"Loathed you," she said with unction. "You are cruel and ungrateful. Herbert has influenza, and does not count. And Sperry is in love - oh yes, I know it. I know a great many things. But you!"

I could only stare at her.

"The strange thing is," she went on, "that I have known you for years, and never suspected your sense of humor. You'll forgive me, I know, if I tell you that your lack of humor was to my mind the only flaw in an otherwise perfect character."

"I am not aware - " I began stiffly. "I have always believed that I furnished to the Neighborhood Club its only leaven of humor."

"Don't spoil it," she begged. "Don't. If you could know how I have enjoyed it. All afternoon I have been chuckling. The fire-tongs, Horace. The fire-tongs!"

Then I knew that my wife had been to Mrs. Dane and I drew a long breath. "I assure you," I said gravely, "that while doubtless I carried the wretched things home and - er - placed them where they were found, I have not the slightest recollection of it. And it is hardly amusing, is it?"

"Amusing!" she cried. "It's delicious. It has made me a young woman again. Horace, if I could have seen your wife's face when she found them, I would give cheerfully almost anything I possess."

But underneath her mirth I knew there was something else. And, after all, she could convince my wife if she were convinced herself. I told the whole story - of the visit Sperry and I had made the night Arthur Wells was shot, and of what we discovered; of the clerk at the pharmacy and his statement, and even of the whiskey and its unfortunate effect - at which, I regret to say, she was vastly amused; and, last of all, of my experience the previous night in the deserted house.

She was very serious when I finished. Tea came, but we forgot to drink it. Her eyes flashed with excitement, her faded face flushed. And, with it all, as I look back, there was an air of suppressed excitement that seemed to have nothing to do with my narrative. I remembered it, however, when the denouement came the following week.

She was a remarkable woman. Even then she knew, or strongly suspected, the thing that the rest of us had missed, the x of the equation. But I think it only fair to record that she was in possession of facts which we did not have, and which she did not divulge until the end.

"You have been so ungenerous with me," she said finally, "that I am tempted not to tell you why I sent for you. Of course, I know I am only a helpless old woman, and you men are people of affairs. But now and then I have a flash of intelligence. I'm going to tell you, but you don't deserve it."

She went down into the black silk bag at her side which was as much a part of her attire as the false front she wore with such careless abandon, and which, brown in color and indifferently waved, was invariably parting from its mooring. She drew out a newspaper clipping.

"On going over Clara's notes," she said, "I came to the conclusion, last Tuesday, that the matter of the missing handbag and the letters was important. More important, probably, than the mere record shows. Do you recall the note of distress in Miss Jeremy's voice? It was almost a wail."

I had noticed it.

"I have plenty of time to think," she added, not without pathos. "There is only one Monday night in the week, and - the days are long. It occurred to me to try to trace that bag."

"In what way?"

"How does any one trace lost articles?" she demanded. "By advertising, of course. Last Wednesday I advertised for the bag."

I was too astonished to speak.

"I reasoned like this: If there was no such bag, there was no harm done. As a matter of fact, if there was no such bag, the chances were that we were all wrong, anyhow. If there was such a bag, I wanted it. Here is the advertisement as I inserted it."

She gave me a small newspaper cutting

"Lost, a handbag containing private letters, car-tickets, etc. Liberal reward paid for its return. Please write to A 31, the Daily News."

I sat with it on my palm. It was so simple, so direct. And I, a lawyer, and presumably reasonably acute, had not thought of it!

"You are wasted on us, Mrs. Dane," I acknowledged. "Well? I see something has come of it."

"Yes, but I'm not ready for it."

She dived again into the bag, and brought up another clipping.

"On the day that I had that inserted," she said impressively, "this also appeared. They were in the same column." She read the second clipping aloud, slowly, that I might gain all its significance:

"Lost on the night of Monday, November the second, between State Avenue and Park Avenue, possibly on an Eastern Line street car, a black handbag containing keys, car-tickets, private letters, and a small sum of money. Reward and no questions asked if returned to Daily News office."

She passed the clipping to me and I compared the two. It looked strange, and I confess to a tingling feeling that coincidence, that element so much to be feared in any investigation, was not the solution here. But there was such a chance, and I spoke of it.

"Coincidence rubbish!" she retorted. "I am not through, my friend."

She went down into the bag again, and I expected nothing less than the pocketbook, letters and all, to appear. But she dragged up, among a miscellany of handkerchiefs, a bottle of smelling-salts, and a few almonds, of which she was inordinately fond, an envelope.

"Yesterday," she said, "I took a taxicab ride. You know my chair gets tiresome, occasionally. I stopped at the newspaper office, and found the bag had not been turned in, but that there was a letter for A 31." She held out the envelope to me.

"Read it," she observed. "It is a curious human document. You'll probably be no wiser for reading it, but it shows one thing: We are on the track of something."

I have the letter before me now. It is written on glazed paper, ruled with blue lines. The writing is of the flowing style we used to call Spencerian, and if it lacks character I am inclined to believe that its weakness is merely the result of infrequent use of a pen.

You know who this is from. I have the bag and the letters. In a safe place. If you would treat me like a human being, you could have them. I know where the walking-stick is, also. I will tell you this. I have no wish to do her any harm. She will have to pay up in the next world, even if she gets off in this. The way I reason is this: As long as I have the things, I've got the whiphand. I've got you, too, although you may think I haven't.

About the other matter I was innocent. I swear it again. I never did it. You are the only one in all the world. I would rather be dead than go on like this.

It is unsigned.

I stared from the letter to Mrs. Dane. She was watching me, her face grave and rather sad.

"You and I, Horace," she said, "live our orderly lives. We eat, and sleep, and talk, and even labor. We think we are living. But for the last day or two I have been seeing visions - you and I and the rest of us, living on the surface, and underneath, carefully kept down so it will not make us uncomfortable, a world of passion and crime and violence and suffering. That letter is a tragedy."

But if she had any suspicion then as to the writer, and I think she had not, she said nothing, and soon after I started for home. I knew that one of two things would have happened there: either my wife would have put away the fire-tongs, which would indicate a truce, or they would remain as they had been, which would indicate that she still waited for the explanation I could not give. It was with a certain tension, therefore, that I opened my front door.

The fire-tongs still stood in the stand.

In one way, however, Mrs. Johnson's refusal to speak to me that evening had a certain value, for it enabled me to leave the house without explanation, and thus to discover that, if an overcoat had been left in place of my own, it had been taken away. It also gave me an opportunity to return the fire-tongs, a proceeding which I had considered would assist in a return of the entente cordiale at home, but which most unjustly appeared to have exactly the opposite effect. It has been my experience that the most innocent action may, under certain circumstances, assume an appearance of extreme guilt.

By Saturday the condition of affairs between my wife and myself remained in statu quo, and I had decided on a bold step. This was to call a special meeting of the Neighborhood Club, without Miss Jeremy, and put before them the situation as it stood at that time, with a view to formulating a future course of action, and also of publicly vindicating myself before my wife.

In deference to Herbert Robinson's recent attack of influenza, we met at the Robinson house. Sperry himself wheeled Mrs. Dane over, and made a speech.

"We have called this meeting," he said, "because a rather singular situation has developed. What was commenced purely as an interesting experiment has gone beyond that stage. We find ourselves in the curious position of taking what comes very close to being a part in a domestic tragedy. The affair is made more delicate by the fact that this tragedy involves people who, if not our friends, at least are very well known to us. The purpose of this meeting, to be brief, is to determine whether the Neighborhood Club, as a body, wishes to go on with the investigation, or to stop where we are."

He paused, but, as no one spoke, he went on again. "It is really not as simple as that," he said. "To stop now, in view of the evidence we intend to place before the Club, is to leave in all our minds certain suspicions that may be entirely unjust. On the other hand, to go on is very possible to place us all in a position where to keep silent is to be an accessory after a crime."

He then proceeded, in orderly fashion, to review the first sitting and its results. He read from notes, elaborating them as he went along, for the benefit of the women, who had not been fully informed. As all the data of the Club is now in my possession, I copy these notes.

"I shall review briefly the first sitting, and what followed it." He read the notes of the sitting first. "You will notice that I have made no comment on the physical phenomena which occurred early in the seance. This is for two reasons: first, it has no bearing on the question at issue. Second, it has no quality of novelty. Certain people, under certain conditions, are able to exert powers that we can not explain. I have no belief whatever in their spiritistic quality. They are purely physical, the exercise of powers we have either not yet risen high enough in our scale of development to recognize generally, or which have survived from some early period when our natural gifts had not been smothered by civilization."

And, to make our position clear, that is today the attitude of the Neighborhood Club. The supernormal, as I said at the beginning, not the supernatural, is our explanation.

Sperry's notes were alphabetical.

(a) At 9:15, or somewhat earlier, on Monday night a week ago Arthur Wells killed himself, or was killed. At 9:30 on that same evening by Mr. Johnson's watch, consulted at the time, Miss Jeremy had described such a crime. (Here he elaborated, repeating the medium's account.)

(b) At midnight, Sperry, reaching home, had found a message summoning him to the Wells house. The message had been left at 9:35. He had telephoned me, and we had gone together, arriving at approximately 12:30.

(c) We had been unable to enter, and, recalling the medium's description of a key on a nail among the vines, had searched for and found such a key, and had admitted ourselves. Mrs. Wells, a governess, a doctor, and two policemen were in the house. The dead man lay in the room in which he had died. (Here he went at length into the condition of the room, the revolver with one chamber empty, and the blood-stained sponge and razorstrop behind the bathtub. We had made a hasty examination of the ceiling, but had found no trace of a second shot.

(d) The governess had come in at just after the death. Mr. Horace Johnson had had a talk with her. She had left the front door unfastened when she went out at eight o'clock. She said she had gone out to telephone about another position, as she was dissatisfied. She had phoned from, Elliott's pharmacy on State Avenue. Later that night Mr. Johnson had gone to Elliott's. She had lied about the message. She had really telephoned to a number which the pharmacy clerk had already discovered was that of the Ellingham house. The message was that Mr. Ellingham was not to come, as Mr. and Mrs. Wells were going out. It was not the first time she had telephoned to that number.

There was a stir in the room. Something which we had tacitly avoided had come suddenly into the open. Sperry raised his hand.

"It is necessary to be explicit," he said, "that the Club may see where it stands. It is, of course, not necessary to remind ourselves that this evening's disclosures are of the most secret nature. I urge that the Club jump to no hasty conclusions, and that there shall be no interruptions until we have finished with our records.

(e)At a private seance, which Mr. Johnson and I decided was excusable under the circumstances, the medium was unable to give us anything. This in spite of the fact that we had taken with us a walking-stick belonging to the dead man.

(f) The second sitting of the Club. I need only refresh your minds as to one or two things; the medium spoke of a lost pocketbook, and of letters. While the point is at least capable of doubt, apparently the letters were in the pocketbook. Also, she said that a curtain would have been better, that Hawkins was a nuisance, and that everything was all right unless the bullet had made a hole in the floor above. You will also recall the mention of a box of cartridges in a table drawer in Arthur Wells's room.

"I will now ask Mr. Horace Johnson to tell what occurred on the night before last, Thursday evening."

"I do not think Horace has a very clear recollection of last Thursday night," my wife said, coldly. "And I wish to go on record at once that if he claims that spirits broke his hat, stole his overcoat, bumped his head and sent him home with a pair of fire-tongs for a walking-stick, I don't believe him."

Which attitude Herbert, I regret to say, did not help when he said:

"Don't worry, Horace will soon be too old for the gay life. Remember your arteries, Horace."

I have quoted this interruption to show how little, outside of Sperry, Mrs. Dane and myself, the Neighborhood Club appreciated the seriousness of the situation. Herbert, for instance, had been greatly amused when Sperry spoke of my finding the razorstrop and had almost chuckled over our investigation of the ceiling.

But they were very serious when I had finished my statement.

"Great Scott!" Herbert said. "Then she was right, after all! I say, I guess I've been no end of an ass."

I was inclined to agree with him. But the real effect of my brief speech was on my wife.

It was a real compensation for that night of terror and for the uncomfortable time since to find her gaze no longer cold, but sympathetic, and - if I may be allowed to say so - admiring. When at last I sat down beside her, she put her hand on my arm in a way that I had missed since the unfortunate affair of the pharmacy whiskey.

Mrs. Dane then read and explained the two clippings and the letter, and the situation, so far as it had developed, was before the Club.

Were we to go on, or to stop?

Put to a vote, the women were for going on. The men were more doubtful, and Herbert voiced what I think we all felt.

"We're getting in pretty deep," he said. "We have no right to step in where the law has stepped out - no legal right, that is. As to moral right, it depends on what we are holding these sittings for. If we are making what we started out to make, an investigation into psychic matters, then we can go on. But with this proviso, I think: Whatever may come of it, the result is of psychic interest only. We are not trailing a criminal."

"Crime is the affair of every decent-minded citizen," his sister put in concisely.

But the general view was that Herbert was right. I am not defending our course. I am recording it. It is, I admit, open to argument.

Having decided on what to do, or not to do, we broke into animated discussion. The letter to A 31 was the rock on which all our theories foundered, that and the message the governess had sent to Charlie Ellingham not to come to the Wells house that night. By no stretch of rather excited imaginations could we imagine Ellingham writing such a letter. Who had written the letter, then, and for whom was it meant?

As to the telephone message, it seemed to preclude the possibility of Ellingham's having gone to the house that night. But the fact remained that a man, as yet unidentified, was undoubtedly concerned in the case, had written the letter, and had probably been in the Wells house the night I went there alone.

In the end, we decided to hold one more seance, and then, unless the further developments were such that we must go on, to let the affair drop.

It is typical of the strained nervous tension which had developed in all of us during the past twelve days, that that night when, having forgotten to let the dog in, my wife and I were roused from a sound sleep by his howling, she would not allow me to go down and admit him.