I had a tearful message from Hawes late that afternoon, and a little after five I went to the office. I found him offering late editions of the evening paper to a couple of clients, who were edging toward the door. His expression when he saw me was pure relief, the clients', relief strongly mixed with irritation.
I put the best face on the matter that I could, saw my visitors, and left alone, prepared to explain to Hawes what I could hardly explain to myself.
"I've been unavoidably detained, Hawes," I said, "Miss Jane Maitland has disappeared from her home."
"So I understood you over the telephone." He had brought my mail and stood by impassive.
"Also, her brother-in-law is dead."
"The papers are full of it."
"There was no one to do anything, Hawes. I was obliged to stay," I apologized. I was ostentatiously examining my letters and Hawes said nothing. I looked up at him sideways, and he looked down at me. Not a muscle of his face quivered, save one eye, which has a peculiar twitching of the lid when he is excited. It gave him a sardonic appearance of winking. He winked at me then.
"Don't wait, Hawes," I said guiltily, and he took his hat and went out. Every line of his back was accusation. The sag of his shoulders told me I had let my biggest case go by default that day; the forward tilt of his head, that I was probably insane; the very grip with which he seized the door-knob, his "good night" from around the door, that he knew there was a woman at the bottom of it all. As he closed the door behind him I put down my letters and dropped my face in my hands. Hawes was right. No amount of professional zeal could account for the interest I had taken. Partly through force of circumstances, partly of my own volition, I had placed myself in the position of first friend to a family with which I had had only professional relations; I had even enlisted Edith, when my acquaintance with Margery Fleming was only three days old! And at the thought of the girl, of Wardrop's inefficiency and my own hopelessness, I groaned aloud.
I had not heard the door open.
"I forgot to tell you that a gentleman was here half a dozen times to-day to see you. He didn't give any name."
I dropped my hands. From around the door Hawes' nervous eye was winking wildly.
"You're not sick, Mr. Knox?"
"Never felt better."
"I thought I heard—"
"I was singing," I lied, looking him straight in the eye.
He backed nervously to the door.
"I have a little sherry in my office, Mr. Knox—twenty-six years in the wood. If you—"
"For God's sake, Hawes, there's nothing the matter with me!" I exclaimed, and he went. But I heard him stand a perceptible time outside the door before he tiptoed away.
Almost immediately after, some one entered the waiting-room, and the next moment I was facing, in the doorway, a man I had never seen before.
He was a tall man, with thin, colorless beard trimmed to a Vandyke point, and pale eyes blinking behind glasses. He had a soft hat crushed in his hand, and his whole manner was one of subdued excitement.
"Mr. Knox?" he asked, from the doorway.
"Yes. Come in."
"I have been here six times since noon," he said, dropping rather than sitting in a chair. "My name is Lightfoot. I am—was—Mr. Fleming's cashier."
"I was terribly shocked at the news of his death," he stumbled on, getting no help from me. "I was in town and if I had known in time I could have kept some of the details out of the papers. Poor Fleming—to think he would end it that way."
"Shoot himself." He watched me closely.
"But he didn't," I protested. "It was not suicide, Mr. Lightfoot. According to the police, it was murder."
His cold eyes narrowed like a cat's. "Murder is an ugly word, Mr. Knox. Don't let us be sensational. Mr. Fleming had threatened to kill himself more than once; ask young Wardrop. He was sick and despondent; he left his home without a word, which points strongly to emotional insanity. He could have gone to any one of a half dozen large clubs here, or at the capital. Instead, he goes to a little third-rate political club, where, presumably, he does his own cooking and hides in a dingy room. Is that sane? Murder! It was suicide, and that puppy Wardrop knows it well enough. I—I wish I had him by the throat!"
He had worked himself into quite a respectable rage, but now he calmed himself.
"I have seen the police," he went on. "They agree with me that it was suicide, and the party newspapers will straighten it out to-morrow. It is only unfortunate that the murder theory was given so much publicity. The Times-Post, which is Democratic, of course, I can not handle."
I sat stupefied.
"Suicide!" I said finally. "With no weapon, no powder marks, and with a half-finished letter at his elbow."
He brushed my interruption aside.
"Mr. Fleming had been—careless," he said. "I can tell you in confidence, that some of the state funds had been deposited in the Borough Bank of Manchester, and—the Borough Bank closed its doors at ten o'clock to-day."
I was hardly surprised at that, but the whole trend of events was amazing.
"I arrived here last night," he said, "and I searched the city for Mr. Fleming. This morning I heard the news. I have just come from the house: his daughter referred me to you. After all, what I want is a small matter. Some papers—state documents—are missing, and no doubt are among Mr. Fleming's private effects. I would like to go through his papers, and leave to-night for the capital."
"I have hardly the authority," I replied doubtfully. "Miss Fleming, I suppose, would have no objection. His private secretary, Wardrop, would be the one to superintend such a search."
"Can you find Wardrop—at once?"
Something in his eagerness put me on my guard.
"I will make an attempt," I said. "Let me have the name of your hotel, and I will telephone you if it can be arranged for to-night."
He had to be satisfied with that, but his eagerness seemed to me to be almost desperation. Oddly enough, I could not locate Wardrop after all. I got the Maitland house by telephone, to learn that he had left there about three o'clock, and had not come back.
I went to the Fleming house for dinner. Edith was still there, and we both tried to cheer Margery, a sad little figure in her black clothes. After the meal, I called Lightfoot at his hotel, and told him that I could not find Wardrop; that there were no papers at the house, and that the office safe would have to wait until Wardrop was found to open it. He was disappointed and furious; like a good many men who are physical cowards, he said a great deal over the telephone that he would not have dared to say to my face, and I cut him off by hanging up the receiver. From that minute, in the struggle that was coming, like Fred, I was "forninst" the government.
It was arranged that Edith should take Margery home with her for the night. I thought it a good idea; the very sight of Edith tucking in her babies and sitting down beside the library lamp to embroider me a scarfpin-holder for Christmas would bring Margery back to normal again. Except in the matter of Christmas gifts, Edith is the sanest woman I know; I recognized it at the dinner table, where she had the little girl across from her planning her mourning hats before the dinner was half finished.
When we rose at last, Margery looked toward the music-room, where the dead man lay in state. But Edith took her by the arm and pushed her toward the stairs.
"Get your hat on right away, while Jack calls a cab," she directed. "I must get home, or Fred will keep the boys up until nine o'clock. He is absolutely without principle."
When Margery came down there was a little red spot burning in each pale cheek, and she ran down the stairs like a scared child. At the bottom she clutched the newel-post and looked behind fearfully.
"What's the matter?" Edith demanded, glancing uneasily over her shoulder.
"Some one has been up-stairs," Margery panted. "Somebody has been staying in the house while we were away."
"Nonsense," I said, seeing that her fright was infecting Edith. "What makes you think that?"
"Come and look," she said, gaining courage, I suppose, from a masculine presence. And so we went up the long stairs, the two girls clutching hands, and I leading the way and inclined to scoff.
At the door of a small room next to what had been Allan Fleming's bedroom, we paused and I turned on the light.
"Before we left," Margery said more quietly, "I closed this room myself. It had just been done over, and the pale blue soils so easily. I came in the last thing, and saw covers put over everything. Now look at it!"
It was a sort of boudoir, filled with feminine knickknacks and mahogany lounging chairs. Wherever possible, a pale brocade had been used, on the empire couch, in panels in the wall, covering cushions on the window-seat. It was evidently Margery's private sitting-room.
The linen cover that had been thrown over the divan was folded back, and a pillow from the window-seat bore the imprint of a head. The table was still covered, knobby protuberances indicating the pictures and books beneath. On one corner of the table, where the cover had been pushed aside, was a cup, empty and clean-washed, and as if to prove her contention, Margery picked up from the floor a newspaper, dated Friday morning, the twenty-second.
A used towel in the bath-room near-by completed the inventory; Margery had been right; some one had used the room while the house was closed.
"Might it not have been your—father?" Edith asked, when we stood again at the foot of the stairs. "He could have come here to look for something, and lain down to rest."
"I don't think so," Margery said wanly. "I left the door so he could get in with his key, but—he always used his study couch. I don't think he ever spent five minutes in my sitting-room in his life."
We had to let it go at that finally. I put them in a cab, and saw them start away: then I went back into the house. I had arranged to sleep there and generally to look after things—as I said before. Whatever scruples I had had about taking charge of Margery Fleming and her affairs, had faded with Wardrop's defection and the new mystery of the blue boudoir.
The lower floor of the house was full of people that night, local and state politicians, newspaper men and the usual crowd of the morbidly curious. The undertaker took everything in hand, and late that evening I could hear them carrying in tropical plants and stands for the flowers that were already arriving. Whatever panoply the death scene had lacked, Allan Fleming was lying in state now.
At midnight things grew quiet. I sat in the library, reading, until then, when an undertaker's assistant in a pink shirt and polka-dot cravat came to tell me that everything was done.
"Is it customary for somebody to stay up, on occasions like this?" I asked. "Isn't there an impression that wandering cats may get into the room, or something of that sort?"
"I don't think it will be necessary, sir," he said, trying to conceal a smile. "It's all a matter of taste. Some people like to take their troubles hard. Since they don't put money on their eyes any more, nobody wants to rob the dead."
He left with that cheerful remark, and I closed and locked the house after him. I found Bella in the basement kitchen with all the lights burning full, and I stood at the foot of the stairs while she scooted to bed like a scared rabbit. She was a strange creature, Bella—not so stupid as she looked, but sullen, morose—"smouldering" about expresses it.
I closed the doors into the dining-room and, leaving one light in the hall, went up to bed. A guest room in the third story had been assigned me, and I was tired enough to have slept on the floor. The telephone bell rang just after I got into bed, and grumbling at my luck, I went down to the lower floor.
It was the Times-Post, and the man at the telephone was in a hurry.
"This is the Times-Post. Is Mr. Wardrop there?"
"Who is this?"
"This is John Knox."
"Mr. Knox, are you willing to put yourself on record that Mr. Fleming committed suicide?"
"I am not going to put myself on record at all."
"To-night's Star says you call it suicide, and that you found him with the revolver in his hand."
"The Star lies!" I retorted, and the man at the other end chuckled.
"Many thanks," he said, and rang off.
I went back to bed, irritated that I had betrayed myself. Loss of sleep for two nights, however, had told on me: in a short time I was sound asleep.
I wakened with difficulty. My head felt stupid and heavy, and I was burning with thirst. I sat up and wondered vaguely if I were going to be ill, and I remember that I felt too weary to get a drink. As I roused, however, I found that part of my discomfort came from bad ventilation, and I opened a window and looked out.
The window was a side one, opening on to a space perhaps eight feet wide, which separated it from its neighbor. Across from me was only a blank red wall, but the night air greeted me refreshingly. The wind was blowing hard, and a shutter was banging somewhere below. I leaned out and looked down into the well-like space beneath me. It was one of those apparently chance movements that have vital consequences, and that have always made me believe in the old Calvinistic creed of foreordination.
Below me, on the wall across, was a rectangle of yellow light, reflected from the library window of the Fleming home. There was some one in the house.
As I still stared, the light was slowly blotted out—not as if the light had been switched off, but by a gradual decreasing in size of the lighted area. The library shade had been drawn.
My first thought was burglars; my second—Lightfoot. No matter who it was, there was no one who had business there. Luckily, I had brought my revolver with me from Fred's that day, and it was under my pillow; to get it, put out the light and open the door quietly, took only a minute. I was in pajamas, barefoot, as on another almost similar occasion, but I was better armed than before.
I got to the second floor without hearing or seeing anything suspicious, but from there I could see that the light in the hall had been extinguished. The unfamiliarity of the house, the knowledge of the silent figure in the drawing-room at the foot of the stairs, and of whatever might be waiting in the library beyond, made my position uncomfortable, to say the least.
I don't believe in the man who is never afraid: he doesn't deserve the credit he gets. It's the fellow who is scared to death, whose knees knock together, and who totters rather than walks into danger, who is the real hero. Not that I was as bad as that, but I would have liked to know where the electric switch was, and to have seen the trap before I put my head in.
The stairs were solidly built, and did not creak. I felt my way down by the baluster, which required my right hand, and threw my revolver to my left. I got safely to the bottom, and around the newel-post: there was still a light in the library, and the door was not entirely closed. Then, with my usual bad luck, I ran into a heap of folding chairs that had been left by the undertaker, and if the crash paralyzed me, I don't know what it did to the intruder in the library.
The light was out in an instant, and with concealment at an end, I broke for the door and threw it open, standing there with my revolver leveled. We—the man in the room, and I—were both in absolute darkness. He had the advantage of me. He knew my location, and I could not guess his.
"Who is here?" I demanded.
Only silence, except that I seemed to hear rapid breathing.
"Speak up, or I'll shoot!" I said, not without an ugly feeling that he might be—even probably was—taking careful aim by my voice. The darkness was intolerable: I reached cautiously to the left and found, just beyond the door frame, the electric switch. As I turned it the light flashed up. The room was empty, but a portière in a doorway at my right was still shaking.
I leaped for the curtain and dragged it aside, to have a door just close in my face. When I had jerked it open, I found myself in a short hall, and there were footsteps to my left, I blundered along in the semi-darkness, into a black void which must have been the dining-room, for my outstretched hand skirted the table. The footsteps seemed only beyond my reach, and at the other side of the room the swinging door into the pantry was still swaying when I caught it.
I made a misstep in the pantry, and brought up against a blank wall. It seemed to me I heard the sound of feet running up steps, and when I found a door at last, I threw it open and dashed in.
The next moment the solid earth slipped from under my feet, I threw out my hand, and it met a cold wall, smooth as glass. Then I fell—fell an incalculable distance, and the blackness of the night came over me and smothered me.