Chapter XXIX. In the Dining-Room
 

That was Saturday night, two weeks after the wreck. The previous five days had been full of swift-following events - the woman in the house next door, the picture in the theater of a man about to leap from the doomed train, the dinner at the Dallases, and Richey's discovery that Alison was the girl in the case. In quick succession had come our visit to the Carter place, the finding of the rest of the telegram, my seeing Alison there, and the strange interview with Mrs. Conway. The Cresson trip stood out in my memory for its serio-comic horrors and its one real thrill. Then - the discovery by the police of the seal-skin bag and the bit of chain; Hotchkiss producing triumphantly Stuart for Sullivan and his subsequent discomfiture; McKnight at the station with Alison, and later the confession that he was out of the running.

And yet, when I thought it all over, the entire week and its events were two sides of a triangle that was narrowing rapidly to an apex, a point. And the said apex was at that moment in the drive below my window, resting his long legs by sitting on a carriage block, and smoking a pipe that made the night hideous. The sense of the ridiculous is very close to the sense of tragedy. I opened my screen and whistled, and Johnson looked up and grinned. We said nothing. I held up a handful of cigars, he extended his hat, and when I finally went to sleep, it was to a soothing breeze that wafted in salt air and a faint aroma of good tobacco. I was thoroughly tired, but I slept restlessly, dreaming of two detectives with Pittsburg warrants being held up by Hotchkiss at the point of a splint, while Alison fastened their hands with a chain that was broken and much too short. I was roused about dawn by a light rap at the door, and, opening it, I found Forbes, in a pair of trousers and a pajama coat. He was as pleasant as most fleshy people are when they have to get up at night, and he said the telephone had been ringing for an hour, and he didn't know why somebody else in the blankety-blank house couldn't have heard it. He wouldn't get to sleep until noon.

As he was palpably asleep on his feet, I left him grumbling and went to the telephone. It proved to be Richey, who had found me by the simple expedient of tracing Alison, and he was jubilant.

"You'll have to come back," he said. "Got a rail-road schedule there?"

"I don't sleep with one in my pocket," I retorted, "but if you'll hold the line I'll call out the window to Johnson. He's probably got one."'

"Johnson!" I could hear the laugh with which McKnight comprehended the situation. He was still chuckling when I came back.

"Train to Richmond at six-thirty A.M.," I said. "What time is it now?"

"Four. Listen, Lollie. We've got him. Do you hear? Through the woman at Baltimore. Then the other woman, the lady of the restaurant" - he was obviously avoiding names - "she is playing our cards for us. No - I don't know why, and I don't care. But you be at the Incubator to-night at eight o'clock. If you can't shake Johnson, bring him, bless him."

To this day I believe the Sam Forbeses have not recovered from the surprise of my unexpected arrival, my one appearance at dinner in Granger's clothes, and the note on my dresser which informed them the next morning that I had folded my tents like the Arabs and silently stole away. For at half after five Johnson and I, the former as uninquisitive as ever, were on our way through the dust to the station, three miles away, and by four that afternoon we were in Washington. The journey had been uneventful. Johnson relaxed under the influence of my tobacco, and spoke at some length on the latest improvements in gallows, dilating on the absurdity of cutting out the former free passes to see the affair in operation. I remember, too, that he mentioned the curious anomaly that permits a man about to be hanged to eat a hearty meal. I did not enjoy my dinner that night.

Before we got into Washington I had made an arrangement with Johnson to surrender myself at two the following afternoon. Also, I had wired to Alison, asking her if she would carry out the contract she had made. The detective saw me home, and left me there. Mrs. Klopton received me with dignified reserve. The very tone in which she asked me when I would dine told me that something was wrong.

"Now - what is it, Mrs. Klopton?" I demanded finally, when she had informed me, in a patient and long-suffering tone, that she felt worn out and thought she needed a rest.

"When I lived with Mr. Justice Springer," she began acidly, her mending-basket in her hands, "it was an orderly, well-conducted household. You can ask any of the neighbors. Meals were cooked and, what's more, they were eaten; there was none of this 'here one day and gone the next' business."

"Nonsense," I observed. "You're tired, that's all, Mrs. Klopton. And I wish you would go out; I want to bathe."

"That's not all," she said with dignity, from the doorway. "Women coming and going here, women whose shoes I am not fit - I mean, women who are not fit to touch my shoes - coming here as insolent as you please, and asking for you."

"Good heavens!" I exclaimed. "What did you tell them - her, whichever it was?"

"Told her you were sick in a hospital and wouldn't be out for a year!" she said triumphantly. "And when she said she thought she'd come in and wait for you, I slammed the door on her."

"What time was she here?"

"Late last night. And she had a light-haired man across the street. If she thought I didn't see him, she don't know me." Then she closed the door and left me to my bath and my reflections.

At five minutes before eight I was at the Incubator, where I found Hotchkiss and McKnight. They were bending over a table, on which lay McKnight's total armament - a pair of pistols, an elephant gun and an old cavalry saber.

"Draw up a chair and help yourself to pie,' he said, pointing to the arsenal. "This is for the benefit of our friend Hotchkiss here, who says he is a small man and fond of life."

Hotchkiss, who had been trying to get the wrong end of a cartridge into the barrel of one of the revolvers, straightened himself and mopped his face.

"We have desperate people to handle," he said pompously, "and we may need desperate means."

"Hotchkiss is like the small boy whose one ambition was to have people grow ashen and tremble at the mention of his name," McKnight jibed. But they were serious enough, both of them, under it all, and when they had told me what they planned, I was serious, too.

"You're compounding a felony," I remonstrated, when they had explained. "I'm not eager to be locked away, but, by Jove, to offer her the stolen notes in exchange for Sullivan!"

"We haven't got either of them, you know," McKnight remonstrated, "and we won't have, if we don't start. Come along, Fido," to Hotchkiss.

The plan was simplicity itself. According to Hotchkiss, Sullivan was to meet Bronson at Mrs. Conway's apartment, at eight-thirty that night, with the notes. He was to be paid there and the papers destroyed. "But just before that interesting finale," McKnight ended, "we will walk in, take the notes, grab Sullivan, and give the police a jolt that will put them out of the count."

I suppose not one of us, slewing around corners in the machine that night, had the faintest doubt that we were on the right track, or that Fate, scurvy enough before, was playing into our hands at last. Little Hotchkiss was in a state of fever; he alternately twitched and examined the revolver, and a fear that the two movements might be synchronous kept me uneasy. He produced and dilated on the scrap of pillow slip from the wreck, and showed me the stiletto, with its point in cotton batting for safekeeping. And in the intervals he implored Richey not to make such fine calculations at the corners.

We were all grave enough and very quiet, however, when we reached the large building where Mrs. Conway had her apartment. McKnight left the power on, in case we might want to make a quick get-away, and Hotchkiss gave a final look at the revolver. I had no weapon. Somehow it all seemed melodramatic to the verge of farce. In the doorway Hotchkiss was a half dozen feet ahead; Richey fell back beside me. He dropped his affectation of gayety, and I thought he looked tired. "Same old Sam, I suppose?" he asked.

"Same, only more of him."

"I suppose Alison was there? How is she?" he inquired irrelevantly.

"Very well. I did not see her this morning."

Hotchkiss was waiting near the elevator. McKnight put his hand on my arm. "Now, look here, old man," he said, "I've got two arms and a revolver, and you've got one arm and a splint. If Hotchkiss is right, and there is a row, you crawl under a table."

"The deuce I will!" I declared scornfully.

We crowded out of the elevator at the fourth floor, and found ourselves in a rather theatrical hallway of draperies and armor. It was very quiet; we stood uncertainly after the car had gone, and looked at the two or three doors in sight. They were heavy, covered with metal, and sound proof. From somewhere above came the metallic accuracy of a player-piano, and through the open window we could hear - or feel - the throb of the Cannonball's engine.

"Well, Sherlock," McKnight said, "what's the next move in the game? Is it our jump, or theirs? You brought us here."

None of us knew just what to do next. No sound of conversation penetrated the heavy doors. We waited uneasily for some minutes, and Hotchkiss looked at his watch. Then he put it to his ear.

"Good gracious!" he exclaimed, his head cocked on one side, "I believe it has stopped. I'm afraid we are late."

We were late. My watch and Hotchkiss' agreed at nine o clock, and, with the discovery that our man might have come and gone, our zest in the adventure began to flag. McKnight motioned us away from the door and rang the bell. There was no response, no sound within. He rang it twice, the last time long and vigorously, without result. Then he turned and looked at us.

"I don't half like this," he said. "That woman is in; you heard me ask the elevator boy. For two cents I'd - "

I had seen it when he did. The door was ajar about an inch, and a narrow wedge of rose-colored light showed beyond. I pushed the door a little and listened. Then, with both men at my heels, I stepped into the private corridor of the apartment and looked around. It was a square reception hall, with rugs on the floor, a tall mahogany rack for hats, and a couple of chairs. A lantern of rose-colored glass and a desk light over a writing-table across made the room bright and cheerful. It was empty.

None of us was comfortable. The place was full of feminine trifles that made us feel the weakness of our position. Some such instinct made McKnight suggest division.

"We look like an invading army," he said. "If she's here alone, we will startle her into a spasm. One of us could take a look around and - "

"What was that? Didn't you hear something?"

The sound, whatever it had been, was not repeated. We went awkwardly out into the hall, very uncomfortable, all of us, and flipped a coin. The choice fell to me, which was right enough, for the affair was mine, primarily.

"Wait just inside the door," I directed, "and if Sullivan comes, or anybody that answers his description, grab him without ceremony and ask him questions afterwards."

The apartment, save in the hallway, was unlighted. By one of those freaks of arrangement possible only in the modern flat, I found the kitchen first, and was struck a smart and unexpected blow by a swinging door. I carried a handful of matches, and by the time I had passed through a butler's pantry and a refrigerator room I was completely lost in the darkness. Until then the situation had been merely uncomfortable; suddenly it became grisly. From somewhere near came a long-sustained groan, followed almost instantly by the crash of something - glass or china - on the floor.

I struck a fresh match, and found myself in a narrow rear hallway. Behind me was the door by which I must have come; with a keen desire to get back to the place I had started from, I opened the door and attempted to cross the room. I thought I had kept my sense of direction, but I crashed without warning into what, from the resulting jangle, was the dining-table, probably laid for dinner. I cursed my stupidity in getting into such a situation, and I cursed my nerves for making my hand shake when I tried to strike a match. The groan had not been repeated.

I braced myself against the table and struck the match sharply against the sole of my shoe. It flickered faintly and went out. And then, without the slightest warning, another dish went off the table. It fell with a thousand splinterings; the very air seemed broken into crashing waves of sound. I stood still, braced against the table, holding the red end of the dying match, and listened. I had not long to wait; the groan came again, and I recognized it, the cry of a dog in straits. I breathed again.

"Come, old fellow," I said. "Come on, old man. "Let's have a look at you."

I could hear the thud of his tail on the floor, but he did not move. He only whimpered. There is something companionable in the presence of a dog, and I fancied this dog in trouble. Slowly I began to work my way around the table toward him.

"Good boy," I said, as he whimpered. "We'll find the light, which ought to be somewhere or other around here, and then - "

I stumbled over something, and I drew back my foot almost instantly. "Did I step on you, old man I exclaimed, and bent to pat him. I remember straightening suddenly and hearing the dog pad softly toward me around the table. I recall even that I had put the matches down and could not find them. Then, with a bursting horror of the room and its contents, of the gibbering dark around me, I turned and made for the door by which I had entered.

I could not find it. I felt along the endless wainscoting, past miles of wall. The dog was beside me, I think, but he was part and parcel now, to my excited mind, with the Thing under the table. And when, after aeons of search, I found a knob and stumbled into the reception hall, I was as nearly in a panic as any man could be.

I was myself again in a second, and by the light from the hall I led the way back to the tragedy I had stumbled on. Bronson still sat at the table, his elbows propped on it, his cigarette still lighted, burning a hole in the cloth. Partly under the table lay Mrs. Conway face down. The dog stood over her and wagged his tail.

McKnight pointed silently to a large copper ashtray, filled with ashes and charred bits of paper.

"The notes, probably," he said ruefully. "He got them after all, and burned them before her. It was more than she could stand. Stabbed him first and then herself."

Hotchkiss got up and took off his hat. "They are dead," he announced solemnly, and took his note-book out of his hatband.

McKnight and I did the only thing we could think of - drove Hotchkiss and the dog out of the room, and closed and locked the door. "It's a matter for the police," McKnight asserted. "I suppose you've got an officer tied to you somewhere, Lawrence? You usually have."

We left Hotchkiss in charge and went down-stairs. It was McKnight who first saw Johnson, leaning against a park railing across the street, and called him over. We told him in a few words what we had found, and he grinned at me cheerfully.

"After while, in a few weeks or months, Mr. Blakeley," he said, "when you get tired of monkeying around with the blood-stain and finger-print specialist up-stairs, you come to me. I've had that fellow you want under surveillance for ten days!"