Chapter XXII. At the Boarding-House
 

I had not been home for thirty-six hours, since the morning of the preceding day. Johnson was not in sight, and I let myself in quietly with my latchkey. It was almost midnight, and I had hardly settled myself in the library when the bell rang and I was surprised to find Hotchkiss, much out of breath, in the vestibule.

"Why, come in, Mr. Hotchkiss," I said. "I thought you were going home to go to bed."

"So I was, so I was." He dropped into a chair beside my reading lamp and mopped his face. "And here it is almost midnight, and I'm wider awake than ever. I've seen Sullivan, Mr. Blakeley."

"You have!"

"I have," he said impressively.

"You were following Bronson at eight o'clock. Was that when it happened?"

"Something of the sort. When I left you at the door of the restaurant, I turned and almost ran into a plain clothes man from the central office. I know him pretty well; once or twice he has taken me with him on interesting bits of work. He knows my hobby."

"You know him, too, probably. It was the man Arnold, the detective whom the state's attorney has had watching Bronson."

Johnson being otherwise occupied, I had asked for Arnold myself.

I nodded.

"Well, he stopped me at once; said he'd been on the fellow's tracks since early morning and had had no time for luncheon. Bronson, it seems, isn't eating much these days. I at once jotted down the fact, because it argued that he was being bothered by the man with the notes."

"It might point to other things," I suggested. "Indigestion, you know."

Hotchkiss ignored me. "Well, Arnold had some reason for thinking that Bronson would try to give him the slip that night, so he asked me to stay around the private entrance there while he ran across the Street and got something to eat. It seemed a fair presumption that, as he had gone there with a lady, they would dine leisurely, and Arnold would have plenty of time to get back."

"What about your own dinner?" I asked curiously.

"Sir," he said pompously, "I have given you a wrong estimate of Wilson Budd Hotchkiss if you think that a question of dinner would even obtrude itself on his mind at such a time as this."

He was a frail little man, and to-night he looked pale with heat and over-exertion.

"Did you have any luncheon?" I asked.

He was somewhat embarrassed at that.

"I - really, Mr. Blakeley, the events of the day were so engrossing - "

"Well," I said, "I'm not going to see you drop on the floor from exhaustion. Just wait a minute."

I went back to the pantry, only to be confronted with rows of locked doors and empty dishes. Downstairs, in the basement kitchen, however, I found two unattractive looking cold chops, some dry bread and a piece of cake, wrapped in a napkin, and from its surreptitious and generally hang-dog appearance, destined for the coachman in the stable at the rear. Trays there were none - everything but the chairs and tables seemed under lock and key, and there was neither napkin, knife nor fork to be found.

The luncheon was not attractive in appearance, but Hotchkiss ate his cold chops and gnawed at the crusts as though he had been famished, while he told his story.

"I had been there only a few minutes," he said, with a chop in one hand and the cake in the other, "when Bronson rushed out and cut across the street. He's a tall man, Mr. Blakeley, and I had had work keeping close. It was a relief when he jumped on a passing car, although being well behind, it was a hard run for me to catch him. He had left the lady.

"Once on the car, we simply rode from one end of the line to the other and back again. I suppose he was passing the time, for he looked at his watch now and then, and when I did once get a look at us face it made me - er - uncomfortable. He could have crushed me like a fly, sir."

I had brought Mr. Hotchkiss a glass of wine, and he was looking better. He stopped to finish it, declining with a wave of his hand to have it refilled, and continued:

"About nine o'clock or a little later he got off somewhere near Washington Circle. He went along one of the residence streets there, turned to his left a square or two, and rang a bell. He had been admitted when I got there, but I guessed from the appearance of the place that it was a boarding-house.

"I waited a few minutes and rang the bell. When a maid answered it, I asked for Mr. Sullivan. Of course there was no Mr. Sullivan there.

"I said I was sorry; that the man I was looking for was a new boarder. She was sure there was no such boarder in the house; the only new arrival was a man on the third floor - she thought his name was Stuart.

"'My friend has a cousin by that name,' I said. 'I'll just go up and see.'

"She wanted to show me up, but I said it was unnecessary. So after telling me it was the bedroom and sitting-room on the third floor front, I went up.

"I met a couple of men on the stairs, but neither of them paid any attention to me. A boarding-house is the easiest place in the world to enter."

"They're not always so easy to leave," I put in, to his evident irritation.

"When I got to the third story, I took out a bunch of keys and posted myself by a door near the ones the girl had indicated. I could hear voices in one of the front rooms, but could not understand what they said.

"There was no violent dispute, but a steady hum. Then Bronson jerked the door open. If he had stepped into the hall he would have seen me fitting a key into the door before me. But he spoke before he came out.

"'You're acting like a maniac,' he said. 'You know I can get those things some way; I'm not going to threaten you. It isn't necessary. You know me.'

"'It would be no use,' the other man said. 'I tell you, I haven't seen the notes for ten days.'

"'But you will,' Bronson said savagely. 'You're standing in your own way, that's all. If you're holding out expecting me to raise my figure, you're making a mistake. It's my last offer.'

"'I couldn't take it if it was for a million,' said the man inside the room. 'I'd do it, I expect, if I could. The best of us have our price.'

"Bronson slammed the door then, and flung past me down the hall.

"After a couple of minutes I knocked at the door, and a tall man about your size, Mr. Blakeley, opened it. He was very blond, with a smooth face and blue eyes - what I think you would call a handsome man.

"'I beg your pardon for disturbing you,' I said. 'Can you tell me which is Mr. Johnson's room? Mr. Francis Johnson?'

"'I can not say,' he replied civilly. 'I've only been here a few days.'

"I thanked him and left, but I had had a good look at him, and I think I'd know him readily any place."

I sat for a few minutes thinking it over. "But what did he mean by saying he hadn't seen the notes for ten days? And why is Bronson making the overtures?"

"I think he was lying," Hotchkiss reflected. "Bronson hasn't reached his figure."

"It's a big advance, Mr. Hotchkiss, and I appreciate what you have done more than I can tell you," I said. "And now, if you can locate any of my property in this fellow's room, we'll send him up for larceny, and at least have him where we can get at him. I'm going to Cresson to-morrow, to try to trace him a little from there. But I'll be back in a couple of days, and we'll begin to gather in these scattered threads."

Hotchkiss rubbed his hands together delightedly.

"That's it," he said. "That's what we want to do, Mr. Blakeley. We'll gather up the threads ourselves; if we let the police in too soon, they'll tangle it up again. I'm not vindictive by nature; but when a fellow like Sullivan not only commits a murder, but goes to all sorts of trouble to put the burden of guilt on an innocent man - I say hunt him down, sir!"

"You are convinced, of course, that Sullivan did it?"

"Who else?" He looked over his glasses at me with the air of a man whose mental attitude is unassailable. "Well, listen to this," I said.

Then I told him at length of my encounter with Bronson in the restaurant, of the bargain proposed by Mrs. Conway, and finally of McKnight's new theory. But, although he was impressed, he was far from convinced.

"It's a very vivid piece of imagination," he said drily; "but while it fits the evidence as far as it goes, it doesn't go far enough. How about the stains in lower seven, the dirk, and the wallet? Haven't we even got motive in that telegram from Bronson?"

"Yes," I admitted, "but that bit of chain - "

"Pooh," he said shortly. "Perhaps, like yourself, Sullivan wore glasses with a chain. Our not finding them does not prove they did not exist."

And there I made an error; half confidences are always mistakes. I could not tell of the broken chain in Alison West's gold purse.

It was one o'clock when Hotchkiss finally left. We had by that time arranged a definite course of action - Hotchkiss to search Sullivan's rooms and if possible find evidence to have him held for larceny, while I went to Cresson.

Strangely enough, however, when I entered the train the following morning, Hotchkiss was already there. He had bought a new note-book, and was sharpening a fresh pencil.

"I changed my plans, you see," he said, bustling his newspaper aside for me. "It is no discredit to your intelligence, Mr. Blakeley, but you lack the professional eye, the analytical mind. You legal gentlemen call a spade a spade, although it may be a shovel."

  "'A primrose by the river's brim
  A yellow primrose was to him,
  And nothing more!'"

I quoted as the train pulled out.