The windows being wide open, it was not long before a great moth came whirring in. He hurled himself at the light and then, dazzled and singed, began to beat with noisy thumps against the barrier of the ceiling. Finding no egress there, he was back at the lamp again, whirling in dizzy circles until at last, worn out, he dropped to the table, where he lay on his back, kicking impotently.
The room began to fill with tiny winged creatures that flung themselves headlong to destruction, so I put out the light and sat down near the window, with my cigar and my thoughts.
Miss Letitia's troubles I dismissed shortly. While it was odd that only ten pearls should have been taken, still—in every other way it bore the marks of an ordinary theft. The thief might have thought that by leaving the majority of the gems he could postpone discovery indefinitely. But the Fleming case was of a different order. Taken by itself, Fleming's disappearance could have been easily accounted for. There must be times in the lives of all unscrupulous individuals when they feel the need of retiring temporarily from the public eye. But the intrusion into the Fleming home, the ransacked desk and the broken money drawer—most of all, the bit of paper with eleven twenty-two on it—here was a hurdle my legal mind refused to take.
I had finished my second cigar, and was growing more and more wakeful, when I heard a footstep on the path around the house. It was black outside; when I looked out, as I did cautiously, I could not see even the gray-white of the cement walk. The steps had ceased, but there was a sound of fumbling at one of the shutters below. The catch clicked twice, as if some thin instrument was being slipped underneath to raise it, and once I caught a muttered exclamation.
I drew in my head and, puffing my cigar until it was glowing, managed by its light to see that it was a quarter to two. When I listened again, the house-breaker had moved to another window, and was shaking it cautiously.
With Miss Letitia's story of the pearls fresh in my mind, I felt at once that the thief, finding his ten a prize, had come back for more. My first impulse was to go to the head of my bed, where I am accustomed to keep a revolver. With the touch of the tall corner post, however, I remembered that I was not at home, and that it was not likely there was a weapon in the house.
Finally, after knocking over an ornament that shattered on the hearth and sounded like the crash of doom, I found on the mantel a heavy brass candlestick, and with it in my hand I stepped into the gloom of the hallway and felt my way to the stairs.
There were no night lights; the darkness was total. I found the stairs before I expected to, and came within an ace of pitching down, headlong. I had kicked off my shoes—a fact which I regretted later. Once down the stairs I was on more familiar territory. I went at once into the library, which was beneath my room, but the sounds at the window had ceased. I thought I heard steps on the walk, going toward the front of the house. I wheeled quickly and started for the door, when something struck me a terrific blow on the nose. I reeled back and sat down, dizzy and shocked. It was only when no second blow followed the first that I realized what had occurred.
With my two hands out before me in the blackness, I had groped, one hand on either side of the open door, which of course I had struck violently with my nose. Afterward I found it had bled considerably, and my collar and tie must have added to my ghastly appearance.
My candlestick had rolled under the table, and after crawling around on my hands and knees, I found it. I had lost, I suppose, three or four minutes, and I was raging at my awkwardness and stupidity. No one, however, seemed to have heard the noise. For all her boasted watchfulness, Miss Letitia must have been asleep. I got back into the hall and from there to the dining-room. Some one was fumbling at the shutters there, and as I looked they swung open. It was so dark outside, with the trees and the distance from the street, that only the creaking of the shutter told it had opened. I stood in the middle of the room, with one hand firmly clutching my candlestick.
But the window refused to move. The burglar seemed to have no proper tools; he got something under the sash, but it snapped, and through the heavy plate-glass I could hear him swearing. Then he abruptly left the window and made for the front of the house.
I blundered in the same direction, my unshod feet striking on projecting furniture and causing me agonies, even through my excitement. When I reached the front door, however, I was amazed to find it unlocked, and standing open perhaps an inch. I stopped uncertainly. I was in a peculiar position; not even the most ardent admirers of antique brass candlesticks indorse them as weapons of offense or defense. But, there seeming to be nothing else to do, I opened the door quietly and stepped out into the darkness.
The next instant I was flung heavily to the porch floor. I am not a small man by any means, but under the fury of that onslaught I was a child. It was a porch chair, I think, that knocked me senseless; I know I folded up like a jack-knife, and that was all I did know for a few minutes.
When I came to I was lying where I had fallen, and a candle was burning beside me on the porch floor. It took me a minute to remember, and another minute to realize that I was looking into the barrel of a revolver. It occurred to me that I had never seen a more villainous face than that of the man who held it—which shows my state of mind—and that my position was the reverse of comfortable. Then the man behind the gun spoke.
"What did you do with that bag?" he demanded, and I felt his knee on my chest.
"What bag?" I inquired feebly. My head was jumping, and the candle was a volcanic eruption of sparks and smoke.
"Don't be a fool," the gentleman with the revolver persisted. "If I don't get that bag within five minutes, I'll fill you as full of holes as a cheese."
"I haven't seen any bag," I said stupidly. "What sort of bag?" I heard my own voice, drunk from the shock. "Paper bag, laundry bag—"
"You've hidden it in the house," he said, bringing the revolver a little closer with every word. My senses came back with a jerk and I struggled to free myself.
"Go in and look," I responded. "Let me up from here, and I'll take you in myself."
The man's face was a study in amazement and anger.
"You'll take me in! You!" He got up without changing the menacing position of the gun. "You walk in there—here, carry the candle—and take me to that bag. Quick, do you hear?"
I was too bewildered to struggle. I got up dizzily, but when I tried to stoop for the candle I almost fell on it. My head cleared after a moment, and when I had picked up the candle I had a good chance to look at my assailant. He was staring at me, too. He was a young fellow, well dressed, and haggard beyond belief.
"I don't know anything about a bag," I persisted, "but if you will give me your word there was nothing in it belonging to this house, I will take you in and let you look for it."
The next moment he had lowered the revolver and clutched my arm.
"Who in the devil's name are you?" he asked wildly.
I think the thing dawned on us both at the same moment.
"My name is Knox," I said coolly, feeling for my handkerchief—my head was bleeding from a cut over the ear—"John Knox."
"Knox!" Instead of showing relief; his manner showed greater consternation than ever. He snatched the candle from me and, holding it up, searched my face. "Then—good God—where is my traveling-bag?"
"I have something in my head where you hit me," I said. "Perhaps that is it."
But my sarcasm was lost on him.
"I am Harry Wardrop," he said, "and I have been robbed, Mr. Knox. I was trying to get in the house without waking the family, and when I came back here to the front door, where I had left my valise, it was gone. I thought you were the thief when you came out, and—we've lost all this time. Somebody has followed me and robbed me!"
"What was in the bag?" I asked, stepping to the edge of the porch and looking around, with the help of the candle.
"Valuable papers," he said shortly. He seemed to be dazed and at a loss what to do next. We had both instinctively kept our voices low.
"You are certain you left it here?" I asked. The thing seemed incredible in the quiet and peace of that neighborhood.
"Where you are standing."
Once more I began a desultory search, going down the steps and looking among the cannas that bordered the porch. Something glistened beside the step, and stooping down I discovered a small brown leather traveling-bag, apparently quite new.
"Here it is," I said, not so gracious as I might have been; I had suffered considerably for that traveling-bag. The sight of it restored Wardrop's poise at once. His twitching features relaxed.
"By Jove, I'm glad to see it," he said. "I can't explain, but—tremendous things were depending on that bag, Mr. Knox. I don't know how to apologize to you; I must have nearly brained you."
"You did," I said grimly, and gave him the bag. The moment he took it I knew there was something wrong; he hurried into the house and lighted the library lamp. Then he opened the traveling-bag with shaking fingers. It was empty!
He stood for a moment, staring incredulously into it. Then he hurled it down on the table and turned on me, as I stood beside him.
"It's a trick!" he said furiously. "You've hidden it somewhere. This is not my bag. You've substituted one just like it."
"Don't be a fool," I retorted. "How could I substitute an empty satchel for yours when up to fifteen minutes ago I had never seen you or your grip either? Use a little common sense. Some place to-night you have put down that bag, and some clever thief has substituted a similar one. It's an old trick."
He dropped into a chair and buried his face in his hands.
"It's impossible," he said after a pause, while he seemed to be going over, minute by minute, the events of the night. "I was followed, as far as that goes, in Plattsburg. Two men watched me from the minute I got there, on Tuesday; I changed my hotel, and for all of yesterday—Wednesday, that is—I felt secure enough. But on my way to the train I felt that I was under surveillance again, and by turning quickly I came face to face with one of the men."
"Would you know him?" I asked.
"Yes. I thought he was a detective, you know I've had a lot of that sort of thing lately, with election coming on. He didn't get on the train, however."
"But the other one may have done so."
"Yes, the other one may. The thing I don't understand is this, Mr. Knox. When we drew in at Bellwood Station I distinctly remember opening the bag and putting my newspaper and railroad schedule inside. It was the right bag then; my clothing was in it, and my brushes."
I had been examining the empty bag as he talked.
"Where did you put your railroad schedule?" I asked.
"In the leather pocket at the side."
"It is here," I said, drawing out the yellow folder. For a moment my companion looked almost haunted. He pressed his hands to his head and began to pace the room like a crazy man.
"The whole thing is impossible. I tell you, that valise was heavy when I walked up from the station. I changed it from one hand to the other because of the weight. When I got here I set it down on the edge of the porch and tried the door. When I found it locked—"
"But it wasn't locked," I broke in. "When I came down-stairs to look for a burglar, I found it open at least an inch."
He stopped in his pacing up and down, and looked at me curiously.
"We're both crazy, then," he asserted gravely. "I tell you, I tried every way I knew to unlock that door, and could hear the chain rattling. Unlocked! You don't know the way this house is fastened up at night."
"Nevertheless, it was unlocked when I came down."
We were so engrossed that neither of us had heard steps on the stairs. The sound of a smothered exclamation from the doorway caused us both to turn suddenly. Standing there, in a loose gown of some sort, very much surprised and startled, was Margery Fleming. Wardrop pulled himself together at once. As for me, I knew what sort of figure I cut, my collar stained with blood, a lump on my forehead that felt as big as a door-knob, and no shoes.
"What is the matter?" she asked uncertainly. "I heard such queer noises, and I thought some one had broken into the house."
"Mr. Wardrop was trying to break in," I explained, "and I heard him and came down. On the way I had a bloody encounter with an open door, in which I came out the loser."
I don't think she quite believed me. She looked from my swollen head to the open bag, and then to Wardrop's pale face. Then I think, woman-like, she remembered the two great braids that hung over her shoulders and the dressing-gown she wore, for she backed precipitately into the hall.
"I'm glad that's all it is," she called back cautiously, and we could hear her running up the stairs.
"You'd better go to bed," Wardrop said, picking up his hat. "I'm going down to the station. There's no train out of here between midnight and a flag train at four-thirty A. M. It's not likely to be of any use, but I want to see who goes on that train."
"It is only half past two," I said, glancing at my watch. "We might look around outside first."
The necessity for action made him welcome any suggestion. Reticent as he was, his feverish excitement made me think that something vital hung on the recovery of the contents of that Russia leather bag. We found a lantern somewhere in the back of the house, and together we went over the grounds. It did not take long, and we found nothing.
As I look back on that night, the key to what had passed and to much that was coming was so simple, so direct—and yet we missed it entirely. Nor, when bigger things developed, and Hunter's trained senses were brought into play, did he do much better. It was some time before we learned the true inwardness of the events of that night.
At five o'clock in the morning Wardrop came back exhausted and nerveless. No one had taken the four-thirty; the contents of the bag were gone, probably beyond recall. I put my dented candlestick back on the mantel, and prepared for a little sleep, blessing the deafness of old age which had enabled the Maitland ladies to sleep through it all. I tried to forget the queer events of the night, but the throbbing of my head kept me awake, and through it all one question obtruded itself—who had unlocked the front door and left it open?