The Hole in the Mahogany Panel


Sir Henry paused a moment, his finger between the pages of the ancient diary.

"It is the inspirational quality in these cases" he said, "that impresses me. It is very nearly absent in our modern methods of criminal investigation. We depend now on a certain formal routine. I rarely find a man in the whole of Scotland Yard with a trace of intuitive impulse to lead him . . . . Observe how this old justice in Virginia bridged the gaps between his incidents."

He paused.

"We call it the inspirational instinct, in criminal investigation . . . genius, is the right word."

He looked up at the clock.

"We have an hour, yet, before the opera will be worth hearing; listen to this final case."

The narrative of the diary follows:

The girl was walking in the road. Her frock was covered with dust. Her arms hung limp. Her face with the great eyes and the exquisite mouth was the chalk face of a ghost. She walked with the terrible stiffened celerity of a human creature when it is trapped and ruined.

Night was coming on. Behind the girl sat the great old house at the end of a long lane of ancient poplars.

This was a strange scene my father came on. He pulled up his big red-roan horse at the crossroads, where the long lane entered the turnpike, and looked at the stiff, tragic figure. He rode home from a sitting of the county justices, alone, at peace, on this midsummer night, and God sent this tragic thing to meet him.

He got down and stood under the crossroads signboard beside his horse.

The earth was dry; in dust. The dead grass and the dead leaves made a sere, yellow world. It looked like a land of unending summer, but a breath of chill came out of the hollows with the sunset.

The girl would have gone on, oblivious. But my father went down into the road and took her by the arm. She stopped when she saw who it was, and spoke in the dead, uninflected voice of a person in extremity.

"Is the thing a lie?" she said.

"What thing, child?" replied my father.

"The thing he told me!"

"Dillworth?" said my father. "Do you mean Hambleton Dillworth?"

The girl put out her free arm in a stiff, circling gesture. "In all the world," she said, "is there any other man who would have told me?"

My father's face hardened as if of metal. "What did he tell you?"

The girl spoke plainly, frankly, in her dead voice, without equivocation, with no choice of words to soften what she said:

"He said that my father was not dead; that I was the daughter of a thief; that what I believed about my father was all made up to save the family name; that the truth was my father robbed him, stole his best horse and left the country when I was a baby. He said I was a burden on him, a pensioner, a drone; and to go and seek my father."

And suddenly she broke into a flood of tears. Her face pressed against my father's shoulder. He took her up in his big arms and got into his saddle.

"My child," he said, "let us take Hambleton Dillworth at his word."

And he turned the horse into the lane toward the ancient house. The girl in my father's arms made no resistance. There was this dominating quality in the man that one trusted to him and followed behind him. She lay in his arms, the tars wetting her white face and the long lashes.

The moon came up, a great golden moon, shouldered over the rim of the world by the backs of the crooked elves. The horse and the two persons made a black, distorted shadow that jerked along as though it were a thing evil and persistent. Far off in the thickets of the hills an owl cried, eerie and weird like a creature in some bitter sorrow. The lane was deep with dust. The horse traveled with no sound, and the distorted black shadow followed, now blotted out by the heavy tree tops, and now only partly to be seen, but always there.

My father got down at the door and carried the girl up the steps and between the plaster pillars into the house. There was a hall paneled in white wood and with mahogany doors. He opened one of these doors and went in. The room he entered had been splendid in some ancient time. It was big; the pieces in it were exquisite; great mirrors and old portraits were on the wall.

A man sitting behind a table got up when my father entered. Four tallow candles, in ancient silver sticks, were on the table, and some sheets with figured accounts.

The man who got up was like some strange old child. He wore a number of little capes to hide his humped back, and his body, one thought, under his clothes was strapped together. He got on his feet nimbly like a spider, and they heard the click of a pistol lock as he whipped the weapon out of an open drawer, as though it were a habit thus always to keep a weapon at his hand to make him equal in stature with other men. Then he saw who it was and the double-barreled pistol slipped out of sight. He was startled and apprehensive, but he was not in fear.

He stood motionless behind the table, his head up, his eyes hard, his thin mouth closed like a trap and his long, dead black hair hanging on each side of his lank face over the huge, malformed ears. The man stood thus, unmoving, silent, with his twisted ironical smile, while my father put the girl into a chair and stood up behind it.

"Dillworth," said my father, "what do you mean by turning this child out of the house?"

The man looked steadily at the two persons before him.

"Pendleton," he said, and he spoke precisely, "I do not recognize the right of you, or any other man, to call my acts into account; however" - and he made a curious gesture with his extended hands "not at your command, but at my pleasure, I will tell you.

"This young woman had some estate from her mother at that lady's death. As her guardian I invested it by permission of the court's decree." He paused. "When the Maxwell lands were sold before the courthouse I bid them in for my ward. The judge confirmed this use of the guardian funds. It was done upon advice of counsel and within the letter of the law. Now it appears that Maxwell had only a life interest in these lands; Maxwell is dead, and one who has purchased the interest of his heirs sues in the courts for this estate.

"This new claimant will recover; since one who buys at a judicial sale, I find, buys under the doctrine of caveat emptor - that is to say, at his peril. He takes his chance upon the title. The court does not insure it. If it is defective he loses both the money and the lands. And so," he added, "my ward will have no income to support her, and I decline to assume that burden."

My father looked the hunchback in the face. "Who is the man bringing this suit at law?"

"A Mr. Henderson, I believe," replied Dillworth, "from Maryland."

"Do you know him?" said my father.

"I never heard of him," replied the hunchback.

The girl, huddled in the chair, interrupted. "I have seen letters," she said, "come in here with this man's return address at Baltimore written on the envelope."

The hunchback made an irrelevant gesture. "The man wrote - to inquire if I would buy his title. I declined." Then he turned to my father. "Pendleton," he said, "you know about this matter. You know that every step I took was legal. And with pains and care how I got an order out of chancery to make this purchase, and how careful I was to have this guardianship investment confirmed by the court. No affair was ever done so exactly within the law."

"Why were you so extremely careful?" said my father.

"Because I wanted the safeguard of the law about me at every step," replied the man.

"But why?"

"You ask me that, Pendleton?"' cried the man. "Is not the wisdom of my precautions evident? I took them to prevent this very thing; to protect myself when this thing should happen!"

"Then," said my father, "you knew it was going to happen."

The man's eyes slipped about a moment in his head. "I knew it was going to happen that I would be charged with all sorts of crimes and misdemeanors if there should be any hooks on which to hang them. Because a man locks his door is it proof that he knows a robber is on the way? Human foresight and the experience of men move prudent persons to a reasonable precaution in the conduct of affairs."

"And what is it," said my father, "that moves them to an excessive caution?"

The hunchback snapped his fingers with an exasperated gesture. "I will not be annoyed by your big, dominating manner!" he cried.

My father was not concerned by this defiance. "Dillworth," he said, "you sent this child out to seek her father. Well, she took the right road to find him."

The hunchback stepped back quickly, his face changed. He sat down in his chair and looked up at my father. There was here suddenly uncovered something that he had not looked for. And he talked to gain time.

"I have cast up the accounts in proper form," he said while he studied my father, his hand moving the figured sheets. "They are correct and settled before two commissioners in chancery. Taking out my commission as guardian, the amounts allowed me for the maintenance and education of the ward, and no dollar of this personal estate remains."

His long, thin hand with the nimble fingers turned the sheets over on the table as though to conclude that phase of the affair.

"The real property," he continued, "will return nothing; the purchase money was applied on Maxwell's debts and cannot be followed. This new claimant, Henderson, who has bought up the outstanding title, will take the land."

"For some trifling sum," said my father.

The hunchback nodded slowly, his eyes in a study of my father's face.

"Doubtless," he said, "it was not known that Maxwell had only a life estate in the lands, and the remainder to the heirs was likely purchased for some slight amount. The language of the deeds that Henderson exhibits in his suit shows a transfer of all claim or title, as though he bought a thing which the grantees thought lay with the uncertainties of a decree in chancery."

"I have seen the deeds," said my father.

"Then," sand the hunchback, "you know they are valid, and transfer the title." He paused. "I have no doubt that Mr. Henderson assembled these outstanding interests at no great cost, but his conveyances are in form and legal."

"Everything connected with this affair," said my father, "is strangely legal!"

The hunchback considered my father through his narrow eyelids.

"It is a strange world;" he said.

"It is," replied my father. "It is profoundly, inconceivably strange."

There was a moment of silence. The two men regarded each other across the half-length of the room. The girl sat in the chair. She had got back her courage. The big, forceful presence of my father, like the shadow of a great rock, was there behind her. She had the fine courage of her blood, and, after the first cruel shock of this affair, she faced the tragedies that might lie within it calmly.

Shadows lay along the walls of the great room, along the gilt frames of the portraits, the empty fireplace, the rosewood furniture of ancient make and the oak floor. Only the hunchback was in the light, behind the four candles on the table.

"It was strange," continued my father over the long pause, "that your father's will discovered at his death left his lands to you, and no acre to your brother David."

"Not strange," replied the hunchback, "when you consider what my brother David proved to be. My father knew him. What was hidden from us, what the world got no hint of, what the man was in the deep and secret places of his heart, my father knew. Was it strange, then, that he should leave the lands to me?"

"It was a will drawn by an old man in his senility, and under your control."

"Under my care," cried the hunchback. "I will plead guilty, if you like, to that. I honored my father. I was beside his bed with loving-kindness, while my brother went about the pleasures of his life."

"But the testament," said my father, "was in strange terms. It bequeathed the lands to you, with no mention of the personal property, as though these lands were all the estate your father had."

"And so they were," replied the hunchback calmly. "The lands had been stripped of horse and steer, and every personal item, and every dollar in hand or debt owing to my father before his death." The, man paused and put the tips of his fingers together. "My father had given to my brother so much money from these sources, from time to time, that he justly left me the lands to make us even."

"Your father was senile and for five years in his bed. It was you, Dillworth, who cleaned the estate of everything but land."

"I conducted my father's business," said the hunchback, "for him, since he was ill. But I put the moneys from these sales into his hand and he gave them to my brother."

"I have never heard that your brother David got a dollar of this money."

The hunchback was undisturbed.

"It was a family matter and not likely to be known."

"I see it," said my father. "It was managed in your legal manner and with cunning foresight. You took the lands only in the will, leaving the impression to go out that your brother had already received his share in the personal estate by advancement. It was shrewdly done. But there remained one peril in it: If any personal property should appear under the law you would be required to share it equally with your brother David."

"Or rather," replied the hunchback calmly, "to state the thing correctly, my brother David would be required to share any discovered personal property with me." Then he added: "I gave my brother David a hundred dollars for his share in the folderol about the premises, and took possession of the house and lands."

"And after that," said my father, "what happened?"

The hunchback uttered a queerly inflected expletive, like a bitter laugh.

"After that," he answered, "we saw the real man in my brother David, as my father, old and dying, had so clearly seen it. After that he turned thief and fugitive."

At the words the girl in the chair before my father rose. She stood beside him, her lithe figure firm, her chin up, her hair spun darkness. The courage, the fine, open, defiant courage of the first women of the world, coming with the patriarchs out of Asia, was in her lifted face. My father moved as though he would stop the hunchback's cruel speech. But she put her fingers firmly on his arm.

"He has gone so far," she said, "let him go on to the end. Let him omit no word, let us hear every ugly thing the creature has to say."

Dillworth sat back in his chair at ease, with a supercilious smile. He passed the girl and addressed my father.

"You will recall the details of that robbery," he said in his complacent, piping voice. "My brother David had married a wife, like the guest invited in the Scriptures. A child was born. My brother lived with his wife's people in their house. One night he came to me to borrow money."

He paused and pointed his long index finger through the doorway and across the hall.

"It was in my father's room that I received him. It did not please me to put money into his hands. But I admonished him with wise counsel. He did not receive my words with a proper brotherly regard. He flared up in unmanageable anger. He damned me with reproaches, said I had stolen his inheritance, poisoned his father's mind against him and slipped into the house and lands. `Pretentious and perfidious' is what he called me. I was firm and gentle. But he grew violent and a thing happened."

The man put up his hand and moved it along in the air above the table.

"There was a secretary beside the hearth in, my father's room. It was an old piece with drawers below and glass doors above. These doors had not been opened for many years, for there was nothing on the shelves behind them - one could see that - except some rows of the little wooden boxes that indigo used to be sold in at the country stores."

The hunchback paused as though to get the details of his story precisely in relation.

"I sat at my father's table in the middle of the room. My brother David was a great, tall man, like Saul. In his anger, as he gesticulated by the hearth, his elbow crashed through the glass door of this secretary; the indigo boxes fell, burst open on the floor, and a hidden store of my father's money was revealed. The wooden boxes were full of gold pieces!"

He stopped and passed his fingers over his projecting chin.

"I was in fear, for I was alone in the house. Every negro was at a distant frolic. And I was justified in that fear. My brother leaped on me, struck me a stunning blow on the chest over the heart, gathered up the gold, took my horse and fled. At daybreak the negroes found me on the floor, unconscious. Then you came, Pendleton. The negroes had washed up the litter from the hearth where the indigo about the coins in the boxes had been shaken out."

My father interrupted:

"The negroes said the floor had been scrubbed when they found you."

"They were drunk," continued the hunchback with no concern. "And, does one hold a drunken negro to his fact? But you saw for yourself the wooden boxes, round, three inches high, with tin lids, and of a diameter to hold a stack of golden eagles, and you saw the indigo still sticking about the sides of these boxes where the coins had laid."

"I did," replied my father. "I observed it carefully, for I thought the gold pieces might turn up sometime, and the blue indigo stain might be on them when they first appeared."

Dillworth leaned far back in his chair, his legs `tangled under him, his eyes on my father, in reflection. Finally he spoke.

"You are far-sighted," he said.

"Or God is," replied my father, and, stepping over to the table, he spun a gold piece on the polished surface of the mahogany board.

The hunchback watched the yellow disk turn and flit and wabble on its base and flutter down with its tingling reverberations.

"To-day, when I rode into the county seat to a sitting of the justices," continued my father, "the sheriff showed me some gold eagles that your man from Maryland, Mr. Henderson, had paid in on court costs. Look, Dillworth, there is one of them, and with your thumb nail on the milled edge you can scrape off the indigo!"

The hunchback looked at the spinning coin, but he did not touch it. His head, with its long, straight hair, swung a moment uncertain between his shoulders. Then, swiftly and with a firm grip, he took his resolution.

"The coins appear," he said. "My brother David must be in Baltimore behind this suit."

"He is not in Baltimore," said my father.

"Perhaps you know where he is," cried the hunchback, "since you speak with such authority."

"I do know where he is," said my father in his deep, level voice.

The hunchback got on his feet slowly beside his chair. And the girl came into the protection of my father's arm, her features white like plaster; but the fiber in her blood was good and she stood up to face the thing that might be coming. After the one long abandonment to tears in my father's saddle she had got herself in hand. She had gone, like the princes of the blood, through the fire, and the dross of weakness was burned out.

The hunchback got on his feet, in position like a duelist, his hard, bitter face turned slantwise toward my father.

"Then," he said, "if you know where David is you will take his daughter to him, if you please, and rid my house of the burden of her."

"We shall go to him," said my father slowly, "but he shall not return to us."

The hunchback's eyes blinked and bated in the candlelight.

"You quote the Scriptures," he said. "Is David in a grave?"

"He is not," replied my father.

The hunchback seemed to advance like a duelist who parries the first thrust of his opponent. But my father met him with an even voice.

"Dillworth," he said, "it was strange that no man ever saw your brother or the horse after the night he visited you in this house."

"It was dark," replied the man. "He rode from this door through the gap in the mountains into Maryland."

"He rode from this door," said my father slowly, "but not through the gap in the mountains into Maryland."

The hunchback began to twist his fingers.

"Where did he ride then? A man and a horse could not vanish."

"They did vanish," said my father.

"Now you utter fool talk!" cried Dillworth.

"I speak the living truth," replied my father. "Your brother David and your horse disappeared out of sound and hearing - disappeared out of the sight and knowledge of men - after he rode away from your door on that fatal night."

"Well," said the hunchback, "since my brother David rode away from my door - and you know that - I am free of obligation for him."

"It is Cain's speech!" replied my father.

The hunchback put back his long hair with a swift brush of the fingers across his forehead.

"Dillworth," cried my father, and his voice filled the empty places of the room, "is the mark there?"

The hunchback began to curse. He walked around my father and the girl, the hair about his lank jaws, his fingers working, his face evil. In his front and menace he was like a weasel that would attack some larger creature. And while he made the great turn of his circle my father, with his arm about the girl, stepped before the drawer of the table where the pistol lay.

"Dillworth," he said calmly, "I know where he is. And the mark you felt for just now ought to be there."

"Fool!" cried the hunchback. "If I killed him how could he ride away from the door?"

"It was a thing that puzzled me," replied my father, "when I stood in this house on the morning of your pretended robbery. I knew what had happened. But I thought it wiser to let the evil thing remain a mystery, rather than unearth it to foul your family name and connect this child in gossip for all her days with a crime."

"With a thief," snarled the man.

"With a greater criminal than a thief," replied My father. "I was not certain about this gold on that morning when you showed me the empty boxes. They were too few to hold gold enough for such a motive. I thought a quarrel and violent hot blood were behind the thing; and for that reason I have been silent. But now, when the coins turn up, I see that the thing was all ruthless, cold-blooded love of money.

"I know what happened in that room. When your brother David struck the old secretary with his elbow, and the dozen indigo boxes fell and burst open on the hearth, you thought a great hidden treasure was uncovered. You thought swiftly. You had got the land by undue influence on your senile father, and you did not have to share that with your brother David. But here was a treasure you must share; you saw it in a flash. You sat at your father's table in the room. Your brother stood by the wall looking at the hearth. And you acted then, on the moment, with the quickness of the Evil One. It was cunning in you to select the body over the heart as the place to receive the imagined blow - the head or face would require some evidential mark to affirm your word. And it was cunning to think of the unconscious, for in that part one could get up and scrub the hearth and lie down again to play it."

He paused.

"But the other thing you did in that room was not so clever. A picture was newly hung on the wall - I saw the white square on the opposite wall from which it had been taken. It hung at the height of a man's shoulders directly behind the spot where your brother must have stood after he struck the secretary, and it hung in this new spot to cover the crash of a bullet into the mahogany panel!"

My father stopped and caught up the hunchback's double-barreled pistol out of the empty drawer.

The room was now illumined; the moon had got above the tree tops and its light slanted in through the long windows. The hunchback saw the thing and he paused; his face worked in the fantastic light.

"Yes," continued my father, in his deep, quiet voice, "this is your mistake to-night - to let me get your weapon. Your mistake that other night was to shoot before you counted the money. It was only a few hundred dollars. The dozen wooden boxes would hold no great sum. But the thing was done, and you must cover it."

He paused.

"And you did cover it - with fiendish cunning. It would not do for your brother to vanish from your house, alone and with no motive. But if he disappeared, with the gold to take him and a horse to ride, the explanation would have solid feet to go on. I give you credit here for the ingenuity of Satan. You managed the thing. You caused your brother David and the horse to vanish. I saw, on that morning, the tracks of the horse where you led him from the stable to the door, and his tracks where you led him, holding the dead man in the saddle, from the door to the ancient orchard where the grass grows over the fallen-down chimney of your grandsire's house. And there, at your cunning, they wholly vanished."

The mad courage in the hunchback got control, and he began to advance on my father with no weapon and with no hope to win. His fingers crooked, his body in a bow, his wizen, cruel face pallid in the ghostly light.

"Dillworth," cried my father, in a great voice, like one who would startle a creature out of mania, "you will write a deed in your legal manner granting these lands to your brother's child. And after that" - his words were like the blows of a hammer on an anvil - "I will give you until daybreak to vanish out of our sight and hearing - through the gap in the mountains into Maryland on your horse, as you say your brother David went, or into the abandoned cistern in the ancient orchard where he lies under the horse that you shot and tumbled in on his murdered body!"

The moon was now above the gable of the house. The candles were burned down. They guttered around the sheet of foolscap wet with the scrawls and splashes of Dillworth's quill. My father stood at a window looking out, the girl in a flood of tears, relaxed and helpless, in the protection of his arm.

And far down the long turnpike, white like an expanded ribbon, the hunchback rode his great horse in a gallop, perched like a monkey, his knees doubled, his head bobbing, his lose body rolling in the saddle - while the black, distorted shadow that had followed my father into this tragic house went on before him like some infernal messenger convoying the rider to the Pit.


facebook share button twitter share button reddit share button share on pinterest pinterest

Add The Hole in the Mahogany Panel to your library.

Return to the Melville Davisson Post library , or . . . Read the next short story; The House by the Loch

© 2022