Chapter IX
 

The following day was Monday. When I came downstairs I found a neat bundle lying in the hall, and addressed to me. My wife had followed me down, and we surveyed it together.

I had a curious feeling about the parcel, and was for cutting the cord with my knife. But my wife is careful about string. She has always fancied that the time would come when we would need some badly, and it would not be around. I have an entire drawer of my chiffonier, which I really need for other uses, filled with bundles of twine, pink, white and brown. I recall, on one occasion, packing a suit-case in the dusk, in great hasty, and emptying the drawer containing my undergarments into it, to discover, when I opened it on the train for my pajamas, nothing but rolls of cord and several packages of Christmas ribbons. So I was obliged to wait until she had untied the knots by means of a hairpin.

It was my overcoat! My overcoat, apparently uninjured, but with the collection of keys I had made missing.

The address was printed, not written, in a large, strong hand, with a stub pen. I did not, at the time, notice the loss of certain papers which had been in the breast pocket. I am rather absent-minded, and it was not until the night after the third sitting that they were recalled to my mind.

At something after eleven Herbert Robinson called me up at my office. He was at Sperry's house, Sperry having been his physician during his recent illness.

"I say, Horace, this is Herbert."

"Yes. How are you?"

"Doing well, Sperry says. I'm at his place now. I'm speaking for him. He's got a patient."

"Yes."

"You were here last night, he says." Herbert has a circumlocutory manner over the phone which irritates me. He begins slowly and does not know how to stop. Talk with him drags on endlessly.

"Well, I admit it," I snapped. "It's not a secret."

He lowered his voice. "Do you happen to have noticed a walking-stick in the library when you were here?"

"Which walking-stick?"

"You know. The one we - "

"Yes. I saw it."

"You didn't, by any chance, take it home with you?"

"No."

"Are you sure?"

"Certainly I'm sure."

"You are an absent-minded beggar, you know," he explained. "You remember about the fire-tongs. And a stick is like an umbrella. One is likely to pick it up and - "

"One is not likely to do anything of the sort. At least, I didn't."

"Oh, all right. Every one well?"

"Very well, thanks."

"Suppose we'll see you tonight?"

"Not unless you ring off and let me do some work," I said irritably.

He rang off. I was ruffled, I admit; but I was uneasy, also. To tell the truth, the affair of the fire-tongs had cost me my self-confidence. I called up my wife, and she said Herbert was a fool and Sperry also. But she made an exhaustive search of the premises, without result. Whoever had taken the stick, I was cleared. Cleared, at least, for a time. There were strange developments coming that threatened my peace of mind.

It was that day that I discovered that I was being watched. Shadowed, I believe is the technical word. I daresay I had been followed from my house, but I had not noticed. When I went out to lunch a youngish man in a dark overcoat was waiting for the elevator, and I saw him again when I came out of my house. We went downtown again on the same car.

Perhaps I would have thought nothing of it, had I not been summoned to the suburbs on a piece of business concerning a mortgage. He was at the far end of the platform as I took the train to return to the city, with his back to me. I lost him in the crowd at the downtown station, but he evidently had not lost me, for, stopping to buy a newspaper, I turned, and, as my pause had evidently been unexpected, he almost ran into me.

With that tendency of any man who finds himself under suspicion to search his past for some dereliction, possibly forgotten, I puzzled over the situation for some time that afternoon. I did not connect it with the Wells case, for in that matter I was indisputably the hunter, not the hunted.

Although I found no explanation for the matter, I did not tell my wife that evening. Women are strange and she would, I feared, immediately jump to the conclusion that there was something in my private life that I was keeping from her.

Almost all women, I have found, although not over-conscious themselves of the charm and attraction of their husbands, are of the conviction that these husbands exert a dangerous fascination over other women, and that this charm, which does not reveal itself in the home circle, is used abroad with occasionally disastrous effect.

My preoccupation, however, did not escape my wife, and she commented on it at dinner.

"You are generally dull, Horace," she said, "but tonight you are deadly."

After dinner I went into our reception room, which is not lighted unless we are expecting guests, and peered out of the window. The detective, or whoever he might be, was walking negligently up the street.

As that was the night of the third seance, I find that my record covers the fact that Mrs. Dane was housecleaning, for which reason we had not been asked to dinner, that my wife and I dined early, at six-thirty, and that it was seven o'clock when Sperry called me by telephone.

"Can you come to my office at once?" he asked. "I dare say Mrs. Johnson won't mind going to the Dane house alone."

"Is there anything new?"

"No. But I want to get into the Wells house again. Bring the keys."

"They were in the overcoat. It came back today, but the keys are missing."

"Did you lock the back door?"

"I don't remember. No, of course not. I didn't have the keys."

"Then there's a chance," he observed, after a moment's pause. "Anyhow, it's worth trying. Herbert told you about the stick?"

"Yes. I never had it, Sperry."

Fortunately, during this conversation my wife was upstairs dressing. I knew quite well that she would violently oppose a second visit on my part to the deserted house down the street. I therefore left a message for her that I had gone on, and, finding the street clear, met Sperry at his door-step.

"This is the last sitting, Horace," he explained, "and I feel we ought to have the most complete possible knowledge, beforehand. We will be in a better position to understand what comes. There are two or three things we haven't checked up on."

He slipped an arm through mine, and we started down the street. "I'm going to get to the bottom of this, Horace, old dear," he said.

"Remember, we're pledged to a psychic investigation only."

"Rats!" he said rudely. "We are going to find out who killed Arthur Wells, and if he deserves hanging we'll hang him."

"Or her?"

"It wasn't Elinor Wells," he said positively. "Here's the point: if he's been afraid to go back for his overcoat it's still there. I don't expect that, however. But the thing about the curtain interests me. I've been reading over my copy of the notes on the sittings. It was said, you remember, that curtains - some curtains - would have been better places to hide the letters than the bag."

I stopped suddenly. "By Jove, Sperry," I said. "I remember now. My notes of the sittings were in my overcoat."

"And they are gone?"

"They are gone."

He whistled softly. "That's unfortunate," he said. "Then the other person, whoever he is, knows what we know!"

He was considerably startled when I told him I had been shadowed, and insisted that it referred directly to the case in hand. "He's got your notes," he said, "and he's got to know what your next move is going to be."

His intention, I found, was to examine the carpet outside of the dressing-room door, and the floor beneath it, to discover if possible whether Arthur Wells had fallen there and been moved.

"Because I think you are right," he said. "He wouldn't have been likely to shoot himself in a hall, and because the very moving of the body would be in itself suspicious. Then I want to look at the curtains. 'The curtains would have been safer.' Safer for what? For the bag with the letters, probably, for she followed that with the talk about Hawkins. He'd got them, and somebody was afraid he had."

"Just where does Hawkins come in, Sperry?" I asked.

"I'm damned if I know," he reflected. "We may learn tonight."

The Wells house was dark and forbidding. We walked past it once, as an officer was making his rounds in leisurely fashion, swinging his night-stick in circles. But on our return the street was empty, and we turned in at the side entry.

I led the way with comparative familiarity. It was, you will remember, my third similar excursion. With Sperry behind me I felt confident.

"In case the door is locked, I have a few skeleton keys," said Sperry.

We had reached the end of the narrow passage, and emerged into the square of brick and grass that lay behind the house. While the night was clear, the place lay in comparative darkness. Sperry stumbled over something, and muttered to himself.

The rear porch lay in deep shadow. We went up the steps together. Then Sperry stopped, and I advanced to the doorway. It was locked.

With my hand on the door-knob, I turned to Sperry. He was struggling violently with a dark figure, and even as I turned they went over with a crash and rolled together down the steps. Only one of them rose.

I was terrified. I confess it. It was impossible to see whether it was Sperry or his assailant. If it was Sperry who lay in a heap on the ground, I felt that I was lost. I could not escape. The way was blocked, and behind me the door, to which I now turned frantically, was a barrier I could not move.

Then, out of the darkness behind me, came Sperry's familiar, booming bass. "I've knocked him out, I'm afraid. Got a match, Horace?"

Much shaken, I went down the steps and gave Sperry a wooden toothpick, under the impression that it was a match. That rectified, we bent over the figure on the bricks.

"Knocked out, for sure," said Sperry, "but I think it's not serious. A watchman, I suppose. Poor devil, we'll have to get him into the house."

The lock gave way to manipulation at last, and the door swung open. There came to us the heavy odor of all closed houses, a combination of carpets, cooked food, and floor wax. My nerves, now taxed to their utmost, fairly shrank from it, but Sperry was cool.

He bore the brunt of the weight as we carried the watchman in, holding him with his arms dangling, helpless and rather pathetic. Sperry glanced around.

"Into the kitchen," he said. "We can lock him in."

We had hardly laid him on the floor when I heard the slow stride of the officer of the beat. He had turned into the paved alley-way, and was advancing with measured, ponderous steps. Fortunately I am an agile man, and thus I was able to get to the outer door, reverse the key and turn it from the inside, before I heard him hailing the watchman.

"Hello there!" he called. "George, I say! George!"

He listened for a moment, then came up and tried the door. I crouched inside, as guilty as the veriest house-breaker in the business. But he had no suspicion, clearly, for he turned and went away, whistling as he went.

Not until we heard him going down the street again, absently running his night-stick along the fence palings, did Sperry or I move.

"A narrow squeak, that," I said, mopping my face.

"A miss is as good as a mile," he observed, and there was a sort of exultation in his voice. He is a born adventurer.

He came out into the passage and quickly locked the door behind him.

"Now, friend Horace," he said, "if you have anything but toothpicks for matches, we will look for the overcoat, and then we will go upstairs."

"Suppose he wakens and raises an alarm?"

"We'll be out of luck. That's all."

As we had anticipated, there was no overcoat in the library, and after listening a moment at the kitchen door, we ascended a rear staircase to the upper floor. I had, it will be remembered, fallen from a chair on a table in the dressing room, and had left them thus overturned when I charged the third floor. The room, however, was now in perfect order, and when I held my candle to the ceiling, I perceived that the bullet hole had again been repaired, and this time with such skill that I could not even locate it.

"We are up against some one cleverer than we are, Sperry," I acknowledged.

"And who has more to lose than we have to gain," he added cheerfully. "Don't worry about that, Horace. You're a married man and I'm not. If a woman wanted to hide some letters from her husband, and chose a curtain for a receptacle, what room would hide them in. Not in his dressing-room, eh?"

He took the candle and led the way to Elinor Wells's bedroom. Here, however, the draperies were down, and we would have been at a loss, had I not remembered my wife's custom of folding draperies when we close the house, and placing them under the dusting sheets which cover the various beds.

Our inspection of the curtains was hurried, and broken by various excursions on my part to listen for the watchman. But he remained quiet below, and finally we found what we were looking for. In the lining of one of the curtains, near the bottom, a long, ragged cut had been made.

"Cut in a hurry, with curved scissors," was Sperry's comment. "Probably manicure scissors."

The result was a sort of pocket in the curtain, concealed on the chintz side, which was the side which would hang toward the room.

"Probably," he said, "the curtain would have been better. It would have stayed anyhow. Whereas the bag - " He was flushed with triumph. "How in the world would Hawkins know that?" he demanded. "You can talk all you like. She's told us things that no one ever told her."

Before examining the floor in the hall I went downstairs and listened outside the kitchen door. The watchman was stirring inside the room, and groaning occasionally. Sperry, however, when I told him, remained cool and in his exultant mood, and I saw that he meant to vindicate Miss Jeremy if he flung me into jail and the newspapers while doing it.

"We'll have a go at the floors under the carpets now," he said. "If he gets noisy, you can go down with the fire-tongs. I understand you are an expert with them."

The dressing-room had a large rug, like the nursery above it, and turning back the carpet was a simple matter. There had been a stain beneath where the dead man's head had lain, but it had been scrubbed and scraped away. The boards were white for an area of a square foot or so.

Sperry eyed the spot with indifference. "Not essential," he said. "Shows good housekeeping. That's all. The point is, are there other spots?"

And, after a time, we found what we were after. The upper hall was carpeted, and my penknife came into requisition to lift the tacks. They came up rather easily, as if but recently put in. That, indeed, proved to be the case.

Just outside the dressing-room door the boards for an area of two square feet or more beneath the carpet had been scraped and scrubbed. With the lifting of the carpet came, too, a strong odor, as of ammonia. But the stain of blood had absolutely disappeared.

Sperry, kneeling on the floor with the candle held close, examined the wood. "Not only scrubbed," he said, "but scraped down, probably with a floor-scraper. It's pretty clear, Horace. The poor devil fell here. There was a struggle, and he went down. He lay there for a while, too, until some plan was thought out. A man does not usually kill himself in a hallway. It's a sort of solitary deed. He fell here, and was dragged into the room. The angle of the bullet in the ceiling would probably show it came from here, too, and went through the doorway."

We were startled at that moment by a loud banging below. Sperry leaped to his feet and caught up his hat.

"The watchman," he said. "We'd better get out. He'll have all the neighbors in at that rate."

He was still hammering on the door as we went down the rear stairs, and Sperry stood outside the door and to one side.

"Keep out of range, Horace," he cautioned me. And to the watchman:

"Now, George, we will put the key under the door, and in ten minutes you may come out. Don't come sooner. I've warned you."

By the faint light from outside I could see him stooping, not in front of the door, but behind it. And it was well he did, for the moment the key was on the other side, a shot zipped through one of the lower panels. I had not expected it and it set me to shivering.

"No more of that, George," said Sperry calmly and cheerfully. "This is a quiet neighborhood, and we don't like shooting. What is more, my friend here is very expert with his own particular weapon, and at any moment he may go to the fire-place in the library and - "

I have no idea why Sperry chose to be facetious at that time, and my resentment rises as I record it. For when we reached the yard we heard the officer running along the alley-way, calling as he ran.

"The fence, quick," Sperry said.

I am not very good at fences, as a rule, but I leaped that one like a cat, and came down in a barrel of waste-paper on the other side. Getting me out was a breathless matter, finally accomplished by turning the barrel over so that I could crawl out. We could hear the excited voices of the two men beyond the fence, and we ran. I was better than Sperry at that. I ran like a rabbit. I never even felt my legs. And Sperry pounded on behind me.

We heard, behind us, one of the men climbing the fence. But in jumping down he seemed to have struck the side of the overturned barrel. Probably it rolled and threw him, for that part of my mind which was not intent on flight heard him fall, and curse loudly.

"Go to it," Sperry panted behind me. "Roll over and break your neck."

This, I need hardly explain, was meant for our pursuer.

We turned a corner and were out on one of the main thoroughfares. Instantly, so innate is cunning to the human brain, we fell to walking sedately.

It was as well that we did, for we had not gone a half block before we saw our policeman again, lumbering toward us and blowing a whistle as he ran.

"Stop and get this street-car," Sperry directed me. "And don't breathe so hard."

The policeman stared at us fixedly, stopping to do so, but all he saw was two well-dressed and professional-looking men, one of them rather elderly who was hailing a street-car. I had the presence of mind to draw my watch and consult it.

"Just in good time," I said distinctly, and we mounted the car step. Sperry remained on the platform and lighted a cigar. This gave him a chance to look back.

"Rather narrow squeak, that," he observed, as he came in and sat down beside me. "Your gray hairs probably saved us."

I was quite numb from the waist down, from my tumble and from running, and it was some time before I could breathe quietly. Suddenly Sperry fell to laughing.

"I wish you could have seen yourself in that barrel, and crawling out," he said.

We reached Mrs. Dane's, to find that Miss Jeremy had already arrived, looking rather pale, as I had noticed she always did before a seance. Her color had faded, and her eyes seemed sunken in her head.

"Not ill, are you?" Sperry asked her, as he took her hand.

"Not at all. But I am anxious. I always am. These things do not come for the calling."

"This is the last time. You have promised."

"Yes. The last time."