HOWELLS DELIVERS HIMSELF TO THE ABANDONED ROOM
For a long time no one spoke. The body of Silas Blackburn had been alone in a locked room, yet before their eyes it lay, turned on its side, as if to inform them of the fashion of this murder. The tiny hole at the base of the brain, the blood-stain on the pillow, which the head had concealed, offered their mute and ghastly testimony.
Doctor Groom was the first to relax. He raised his great, hairy hand to the bed-post and grasped it. His rumbling voice lacked its usual authority. It vibrated with a childish wonder:
"I'm reminded that it isn't the first time there's been blood from a man's head on that pillow."
"What do you mean?" the detective snarled. "There's only one answer to this. There must have been a mechanical post-mortem reaction."
For a moment Doctor Groom's laugh filled the old room. It ceased abruptly. He shook his head.
"Don't be a fool, Mr. Policeman. At the most conservative estimate this man has been dead more than thirteen hours. Even a few instants after death the human body is incapable of any such reaction."
"What then?" the detective asked. "Some one of us, or one of the servants, must have overcome the locks again and deliberately disturbed the body. That must be so, but I don't get the motive."
"It isn't so," Doctor Groom answered bluntly.
Already the detective had to a large extent controlled his bewilderment.
"I'd like your theory then," he said dryly. "You and Mr. Paredes have both been gossiping about the supernatural. When you first came you hinted dark things. You said he'd probably died what the world would call a natural death."
"I meant," the doctor answered, "only that Mr. Blackburn's heart might have failed under the impulse of a sudden fright in this room. I also said, you remember, that the room was nasty and unhealthy. Plenty of people have remarked it before me."
Graham touched the detective's arm.
"A little while ago you admitted yourself that the room was uncomfortable."
Doctor Groom smiled. The detective faced him with a fierce belligerency.
"You'll agree he was murdered."
"Certainly, if you wish to call it that. But I ask for the sharp instrument that caused death. I want to know how, while Blackburn lay on his back, it was inserted through the bed, the springs, the mattress, and the pillow."
"What are you driving at?"
Doctor Groom pointed to the dead man.
"I merely repeat that it isn't the first time that pillow's been stained from unusual wounds in the head. Being, as you call it, a trifle superstitious, I merely ask if the coincidence is significant."
Katherine cried out. Bobby, in spite of his knowledge that sooner or later he would be arrested for his grandfather's murder, stepped forward, nodding.
"I know what you mean, doctor."
"Anybody," the doctor said, "who's ever heard of this house knows what I mean. We needn't talk of that."
The detective, however, was insistent. Paredes in his unemotional way expressed an equal curiosity. Bobby and Katherine had been frightened as children by the stories clustering about the old wing. They nodded from time to time while the doctor held them in the desolate room with the dead man, speaking of the other deaths it had sheltered.
Silas Blackburn's great grandfather, he told the detective, had been carried to that bed from a Revolutionary skirmish with a bullet at the base of his brain. For many hours he had raved deliriously, fighting unsuccessfully against the final silence.
"It has been a legend in the family, as these young people will tell you, that Blackburns die hard, and there are those who believe that people who die hard leave something behind them—something that clings to the physical surroundings of their suffering. If it was only that one case! But it goes on and on. Silas Blackburn's father, for instance, killed himself here. He had lost his money in silly speculations. He stood where you stand, detective, and blew his brains out. He fell over and lay where his son lies, his head on that pillow. Silas Blackburn was a money grubber. He started with nothing but this property, and he made a fortune, but even he had enough imagination to lock this room up after one more death of that kind. It was this girl's father. You were too young, Katherine, to remember it, but I took care of him. I saw it. He was carried here after he had been struck at the back of the head in a polo match. He died, too, fighting hard. God! How the man suffered. He loosened his bandages toward the end. When I got here the pillow was redder than it is to-day. It strikes me as curious that the first time the room has been slept in since then it should harbour a death behind locked doors—from a wound in the head."
Paredes's fingers were restless, as if he missed his customary cigarette.
The detective strolled to the window.
The detective strolled to the window.
"Very interesting," he said. "Extremely interesting for old women and young children. You may classify yourself, doctor."
"Thanks," the doctor rumbled. "I'll wait until you've told me how these doors were entered, how that wound was made, how this body turned on its side in an empty room."
The detective glanced at Bobby. His voice lacked confidence.
"I'll do my best. I'll even try to tell you why the murderer came back this afternoon to disturb his victim."
Bobby went, curiously convinced that the doctor had had the better of the argument.
For a moment Katherine, Graham, Paredes, and he were alone in the main hall.
"God knows what it was," Graham said, "but it may mean something to you, Bobby. Tell us carefully, Katherine, about the sounds that came to you across the court."
"It was just what I heard last night when he died," she answered. "It was like something falling softly, then a long-drawn sigh. I tried to pay no attention. I fought it. I didn't call at first. But I couldn't keep quiet. I knew we had to go to that room. It never occurred to me that the detective or the coroner might be there moving around."
"You were alone up here?" Graham said.
"I think so."
"No," Bobby said. "I was in my room."
"What were you doing?" Graham asked.
"I was asleep. Katherine's call woke me up."
"Asleep!" Paredes echoed. "And she didn't call at once—"
He broke off. Bobby grasped his arm.
"What are you trying to do?"
"I'm sorry," Paredes said. "Now, really, you mustn't think of that. I shouldn't have spoken. I'm more inclined to agree with the doctor's theory, impossible as it seems."
"Yesterday," Katherine said, "I would have thought it impossible. After last night and just now I'm not so sure. I—I wish the doctor were right. It would clear you, Bobby."
"Do you think any jury would listen to such a theory?"
Katherine put her finger to her lips. Howells and the doctor came from the corridor of the old wing. At the head of the stairs the detective turned.
"You will find it very warm and comfortable by the fire in the lower hall, Mr. Blackburn."
He waited until Katherine had slipped to her room until Graham, Paredes, the doctor, and Bobby were on the stairs. Then he walked slowly into the new corridor.
Bobby knew what he was after. The detective had made no effort to disguise his intention. He wanted Bobby out of the way while he searched his room again, this time for a sharp, slender instrument capable of penetrating between the bones at the base of a man's brain.
Paredes lighted a cigarette and warmed his back at the fire. The doctor settled himself in his chair. He paid no attention to the others. He wouldn't answer Paredes's slow remarks.
"Interesting, doctor! I am a little psychic. Always in this house I have responded to strange, unfriendly influences. Always, as now, the approach of night depresses me."
Bobby couldn't sit still. He nodded at Graham, arose, got his coat and hat, and stepped into the court. The dusk was already thick there. Dampness and melancholy seemed to exude from the walls of the old house. He paused and gazed at one of the foot-prints in the soft earth by the fountain. Shreds of plaster adhered to the edges, testimony that the detective had made his cast from this print. He tried to realize that that mute, familiar impression had the power to send him to his execution. Graham, who had come silently from the house, startled him.
"What are you looking at?"
"No use, Hartley. I was on the library lounge. I heard every word
"Perhaps it's just as well," Graham said. "You know what you face. But I hate to see you suffer. We've got to find a way around that evidence."
Bobby pointed to the windows of the room of death.
"There's no way around except the doctor's theory."
He laughed shortly.
"Much as I've feared that room, I'm afraid the psychic explanation won't hold water. Paredes put his finger on it. I would have had time to get back to my room before Katherine called—"
"Hartley! I'm afraid to go to sleep. It's dreadful not to know whether you are active in your sleep, whether you are evil and ingenious to the point of the miraculous in your sleep. I'm so tired, Hartley."
"Why should you have gone to that room this afternoon?" Graham asked. "You must get this idea out of your head. You must have sleep, and, perhaps, when you're thoroughly rested, you will remember."
"I'm not so sure," Bobby said, "that I want to remember."
He pointed to the footprint.
"There's no question. I was here last night."
"Unless," Graham said, "your handkerchief and your shoes were stolen."
"Nonsense!" Bobby cried. "The only motive would be to commit a murder in order to kill me by sending me to the chair. And who would know his way around that dark house like me? Who would have found out so easily that my grandfather had changed his room?"
"It's logical," Graham admitted slowly, "but we can't give in. By the way, has Paredes ever borrowed any large sums?"
Bobby hesitated. After all, Paredes and he had been good friends.
"A little here and there," he answered reluctantly.
"Has he ever paid you back?"
"I don't recall," Bobby answered, flushing. "You know I've never been exactly calculating about money. Whenever he wanted it I was always glad to help Carlos out. Why do you ask?"
"If any one," Graham answered, "looked on you as a certain source of money, there would be a motive in conserving that source, in increasing it. Probably lots of people knew Mr. Blackburn was out of patience with you; would make a new will to-day."
"Do you think," Bobby asked, "that Carlos is clever enough to have got through those doors? And what about this afternoon—that ghastly disturbing of the body?"
He smiled wanly.
"It looks like me or the ghosts of my ancestors."
"If Paredes," Graham insisted, "tries to borrow any money from you now, tell me about it. Another thing, Bobby. We can't afford to keep your experiences of last night a secret any longer."
He stepped to the door and asked Doctor Groom to come out.
"He won't be likely to pass your confidences on to Howells," he said.
"Those men are natural antagonists."
"Those men are natural antagonists."
After a moment the doctor appeared, a slouch hat drawn low over his shaggy forehead.
"What you want?" he grumbled. "This court's a first-class place to catch cold. Dampest hole in the neighbourhood. Often wondered why."
"I want to ask you," Graham began, "something about the effects of such drugs as could be given in wine. Tell him, will you, Bobby, what happened last night?"
Bobby vanquished the discomfort with which the gruff, opinionated physician had always filled him. He recited the story of last night's dinner, of his experience in the cafe, of his few blurred impressions of the swaying vehicle and the woods.
"Hartley thinks something may have been put in my wine."
"What for?" the doctor asked. "What had these people to gain by drugging you? Suppose for some far-fetched reason they wanted to have Silas Blackburn put out of the way. They couldn't make you do it by drugging you. At any rate, they couldn't have had a hand in this afternoon. Mind, I'm not saying you had a thing to do with it yourself, but I don't believe you were drugged. Any drug likely to be used in wine would probably have sent you into a deep sleep. And your symptoms on waking up are scarcely sharp enough. Sorry, boy. Sounds more like aphasia. The path you've been treading sometimes leads to that black country, and it's there that hates sharpen unknown. I remember a case where a tramp returned and killed a farmer who had refused him food. Retained no recollection of the crime—hours dropped out of his life. They executed him while he still tried to remember."
"I read something about the case," Bobby muttered.
"Been better if you hadn't," the doctor grumbled. "Suggestions work in a man's brain without his knowing it."
He thought for a moment, his heavy, black brows coming closer together. He glanced at the windows of the old room. His sunken, infused eyes nearly closed.
"I know how you feel, and that's a little punishment maybe you deserve. I'll say this for your comfort. You probably followed the plan that had been impressed on your brain by Mr. Graham. You came here, no doubt, and stood around. With an automatic appreciation of your condition you may have taken that old precaution of convivial men returning home, and removed your shoes. Then your automatic judgment may have warned you that you weren't fit to go in at all, and you probably wandered off to the empty house."
"Then," Bobby asked, "you don't think I did it?"
"God knows who did it. God knows what did it. The longer I live the surer I become that we scientists can't probe everything. Whenever I go near Silas Blackburn's body I receive a very powerful impression that his death in that room from such a wound goes deeper than ordinary murder, deeper than a case of recurrent aphasia."
His eyes widened. He turned with Graham and Bobby at the sound of an automobile coming through the woods.
"Probably the coroner at last," he said.
The automobile, a small runabout, drew up at the entrance to the court. A little wizened man, with yellowish skin stretched across high cheek bones, stepped out and walked up the path.
"Well!" he said shrilly. "What you doing, Doctor Groom?"
"Waiting to witness another reason why coroners should be abolished," the doctor rumbled. "This is the dead man's grandson, Coroner; and Mr. Graham, a friend of the family's."
Bobby accepted the coroner's hand with distaste.
"Howells," the coroner said in his squeaky voice, "seems to think it's a queer case. Inconvenient, I call it. Wish people wouldn't die queerly whenever I go on a little holiday. I had got five ducks, gentlemen, when they came to me with that damned telegram. Bad business mine, 'cause people will die when you least expect them to. Let's go see what Howells has got on his mind. Bright sleuth, Howells! Ought to be in New York."
He started up the path, side by side with Doctor Groom.
"Are you coming?" Graham asked Bobby. Bobby shook his head. "I don't want to. I'd rather stay outside. You'd better be there, Hartley."
Graham followed the others while Bobby wandered from the court and started down a path that entered the woods from the rear of the house.
Immediately the forest closed greedily about him. Here and there, where the trees were particularly stunted, branches cut against a pallid, greenish glow in the west—the last light.
Bobby wanted, if he could, to find that portion of the woods where he had stood last night, fancying the trees straining in the wind like puny men, visualizing a dim figure in a black mask which he had called his conscience.
The forest was all of a pattern—ugly, unfriendly, melancholy. He went on, however, hoping to glimpse that particular picture he remembered. He left the path, walking at haphazard among the undergrowth. Ahead he saw a placid, flat, and faintly luminous stretch. He pushed through the bushes and paused on the shore of a lake, small and stagnant. Dead, stripped trunks of trees protruded from the water. At the end a bird arose with a sudden flapping of wings; it cried angrily as it soared above the trees and disappeared to the south.
The morbid loneliness of the place touched Bobby's spirit with chill hands. As a child he had never cared to play about the stagnant lake, nor, he recalled, had the boys of the village fished or bathed there. Certainly he hadn't glimpsed it last night. He was about to walk away when a movement on the farther bank held him, made him gaze with eager eyes across the sleepy water.
He thought there was something black in the black shadows of the trees—a thing that stirred through the heavy dusk without sound. He received, moreover, an impression of anger and haste as distinct as the bird had projected. But he could see nothing clearly in this bad light. He couldn't be sure that there was any one over there.
He started around the end of the lake, and for a moment he thought that the shape of a woman, clothed in black, detached itself from the shadow. The image dissolved. He wondered if it had been more substantial than fancy.
"Who is that?" he called.
The woods muffled his voice. There was no answer. Nor was there, he noticed, any crackling of twigs or rustling of dead leaves. If there had been a woman there she had fled noiselessly, yet, as he went on around the lake, his own progress was distinctly audible through the decay of autumn.
It was too dark on the other side to detect any traces of a recent human presence in the thicket. He couldn't quiet, however, the feeling that he had had a glimpse of a woman clothed in black who had studied him secretly across the stagnant stretch of the lake.
On the other hand, there was no logic in a woman's presence here at such an hour, no logic in a stranger's running away from him. While he pondered the night invaded the forest completely, making it impossible for him to search farther. It had grown so dark, indeed, that he found his way out with difficulty. The branches caught at his clothing. The underbrush tangled itself about his feet. It was as if the thicket were trying to hold him away from the house.
As he entered the court he noticed a discoloured glow diffusing itself through the curtains of the room of death.
He opened the front door. Paredes and Graham alone sat by the fire.
"Then they're not through yet," Bobby said.
Graham arose. He commenced to pace the length of the hall.
"They've had Katherine in that room. One would think she'd been through enough. Now they've sent for the servants."
Paredes laughed lightly.
"After this," he said, "I'm afraid, Bobby, you'll need the powers of the police to keep servants in your house."
Muttering, frightened voices came from the dining-room. Jenkins entered, and, shaking his head, went up the stairs. The two women who followed him, were in tears. They paused, as if seeking an excuse to linger on the lower floor, to postpone as long as possible their entrance of the room of death.
Ella, a pretty girl, whose dark hair and eyes suggested a normal vivacity, spoke to Bobby.
"It's outrageous, Mr. Robert. He found out all we knew this morning.
What's he after now? You might think we'd murdered Mr. Blackburn."
What's he after now? You might think we'd murdered Mr. Blackburn."
Jane was older. An ugly scar crossed her cheek. It was red and like an open wound as she demanded that Bobby put a stop to these inquisitions.
"I can do nothing," he said. "Go on up and answer or they can make trouble for you."
Muttering again to each other, they followed Jenkins, and in the lower hall the three men waited.
Jenkins came down first. His face was white. It twitched.
"The body!" he mouthed. "It's moved! I saw it before."
He stretched out his hands to Bobby.
"That's why they wanted us, to find out where we were this afternoon, and everything we've done, as if we might have gone there, and disturbed—"
Angry voices in the upper hall interrupted him. The two women ran down, as white as Jenkins. At an impatient nod from Bobby the three servants went on to the kitchen. Howells, the coroner, and Doctor Groom descended.
"What ails you, Doctor?" the coroner was squeaking. "I agree it's an unpleasant room. Lots of old rooms are. I follow you when you say no post-mortem contraction would have caused such an alteration in the position of the body. There's no question about the rest of it. The man was clearly murdered with a sharp tool of some sort, and the murderer was in the room again this afternoon, and disturbed the corpse. Howells says he knows who. It's up to him to find out how. He says he has plenty of evidence and that the guilty person's in this house, so I'm not fretting myself. I'm cross with you, Howells, for breaking up my holiday. One of my assistants would have done as well."
Howells apparently paid no attention to the coroner. His narrow eyes followed the doctor with a growing curiosity. His level smile seemed to have drawn his lips into a line, inflexible, a little cruel. The doctor grunted:
"Instead of abolishing coroners we ought to double their salaries."
The coroner made a long squeak as an indication of mirth.
"You think unfriendly spooks did it. I've always believed you were an old fogy. Hanged if that doesn't sound modern."
The doctor ran his fingers through his thick, untidy hair.
"I merely ask for the implement that caused death. I only ask to know how it was inserted through the bed while Blackburn lay on his back. And if you've time you might tell me how the murderer entered the room last night and to-day."
The coroner repeated his squeak. He glanced at the little group by the fire.
"Out in the kitchen, upstairs, or right here under our noses is almost certainly the person who could tell us. Interesting case, Howells!"
Howells, who still watched the doctor, answered dryly:
The coroner struggled into his coat.
"Permits are all available," he squeaked. "Have your undertakers out when you like."
Graham answered him brusquely.
"Everything's arranged. I've only to telephone."
The coroner nodded at Doctor Groom. His voice pointed its humour with a thinner tone.
"If I were you, Howells, I'd take this hairy old theorist up as a suspicious character."
The doctor made a movement in his direction while Howells continued to stare. The doctor checked himself. He went to the closet and got his hat and coat.
"Want me to drop you, old sawbones?" the coroner asked.
Savagely the doctor shook his head.
"My buggy's in the stable."
The coroner's squeak was thinner, more irritating than ever.
"Then don't let the spooks get you, driving through the woods. Old folks say there are a-plenty there."
Bobby arose. He couldn't face the prospect of the man's squeaking again.
"We find nothing to laugh at in this situation," he said. "You're quite through?"
The coroner's eyes blazed.
"I'm through, if that's the way you feel. Goodnight." He added with a sharp maliciousness: "I leave my sympathy for whoever Howells has his eagle eye on."
Howells, when the doctor and the coroner had gone, excused himself with a humility that mocked the others:
"With your permission I shall write in the library until dinner."
He bowed and left.
"He wants to work on his report," Graham suggested.
"An exceptional man!" Paredes murmured.
"Has he questioned you?" Graham asked.
"I'd scarcely call it that," Paredes replied. "We've both questioned, and we've both been clams. I fancy he doesn't think much of me since I believe in ghosts, yet the doctor seems to interest him."
"Where were you?" Graham asked, "when Miss Perrine's scream called us?"
Paredes stifled a yawn.
"Dozing here by the fire. I am very tired after last night."
"You don't look particularly tired."
"Custom, I'm ashamed to say, constructs a certain armour. To-morrow, with a fresh mind, I hope to be able to dissect all I have seen and heard, all that has happened here to-day."
"The thing that counts is what happened to me last night, Carlos," Bobby said. "It's the only way you can help me."
As Paredes strolled to the foot of the stairs Bobby waited for a defensive reply, for a sign, perhaps, that the Panamanian was offended and proposed to depart. Paredes, however, went upstairs, yawning. He called back:
"I must make myself a trifle more presentable for dinner."
Graham faced Bobby with the old question:
"What can he want hanging around here unless it's money?" And after a moment: "He's clever—hard to sound. I have to leave you, Bobby. I must telephone—the ugly formalities."
"It's good of you to take them off my mind," Bobby answered.
He remained in his chair, gazing drowsily at the fire, trying, always trying to remember, yet finding no new light among the shadows of his memory.
Just before dinner Katherine joined him. She wore a sombre gown that made her face seem too white, that heightened the groping curiosity of her eyes.
Without speaking she sat down beside him and stared, too, at the smouldering fire. From her presence, from her tactful silence he drew comfort—to an extent, rest.
"You make me ashamed," he whispered once. "I've been a beast, leaving you here alone these weeks. You don't understand quite, why that was." She wouldn't let him go on. She shook her head. They remained silently by the fire until Graham and Paredes joined them.
When dinner was announced the detective came from the library, and, uninvited, sat at the table with them. His report evidently still filled his mind, for he spoke only when it was unavoidable and then in monosyllables. Paredes alone ate with a show of enjoyment, alone attempted to talk. Eventually even he fell silent before the lack of response.
Afterward he arranged a small card table by the fire in the hall. He found cards, and, with a package of cigarettes and a box of matches convenient to his hand, commenced to play solitaire. The detective, Bobby gathered, had brought his report up to date, for he lounged near by, watching the Panamanian's slender fingers as they handled the cards deftly. Bobby, Graham, and Katherine were glad to withdraw beyond the range of those narrow, searching eyes. They entered the library and closed the door.
Graham, expectant of a report from his man in New York as to the movements of Maria and the identity of the stranger, was restless.
"If we could only get one fact," he said, "one reasonable clue that didn't involve Bobby! I've never felt so at sea. I wonder if, in spite of Howells's evidence, we're not all a little afraid since this afternoon, of something such as Katherine felt last night—something we can't define. Howells alone is satisfied. We must believe in the hand of another man. Doctor Groom talks about indefinable hands."
"Uncle Silas was so afraid last night!" Katherine whispered.
"That," Bobby cried, "is the fact we must have."
"What's that?" he asked sharply.
They sat for some time, listening to the sound of wheels on the gravel, to the banging of the front door, and, later, to the pacing of men in the room of death overhead. They tried again to thread the mazes of this problem whose only conceivable exit led to Bobby's guilt. The movements upstairs persisted. At last they became measured and dragging, like the footsteps of men who carried some heavy burden.
They looked at each other then. Katherine hid her eyes.
"It's like a tomb here," Bobby said.
He arranged kindling in the fireplace and touched a match to it. It hadn't occurred to him to ring for Jenkins. None of them wished to be disturbed. Eventually it was the detective who intruded. He strolled in, glanced at them curiously for a moment, then walked to the door of the enclosed staircase. He grasped the knob.
"To-night," he announced, "I am trying a small experiment on the chance of clearing up the last details of the mystery. Since it depends on the courage of whoever murdered Mr. Blackburn I've small hope of its success."
He indicated the ceiling. "You've heard, I daresay, what's been going on up there. Mr. Blackburn's body has been removed to his own room. The room where he was killed is empty. I mean to go up and enter and lock the doors as he did last night. I shall leave the window up as it was last night. I shall blow out the candle as he did."
He lowered his voice. He looked directly at Bobby. His words carried a definite challenge.
"I shall lie on the bed and await the murderer under the precise conditions Mr. Blackburn did."
"What do you expect to gain by that?" Graham asked.
"Probably nothing," Howells answered, "because, as I have said, success depends upon the courage of a man who kills in the dark while his victim sleeps. I simply give him the chance to attack me as he did Mr. Blackburn. Of course he realizes it would be a good deal to his advantage to have me out of the way. I ask him to come, therefore, as stealthily as he did last night. I beg him to match his skill with mine. I want him to play his miracle with the window or one of the locks. But I'll wager he hasn't the nerve, although I don't see why he should hesitate. He's a doomed man. I shall make my arrest in the morning. I shall publish all my evidence."
Bobby wouldn't meet the narrow, menacing eyes, for he knew that Howells challenged him to a duel of slyness with the whole truth at stake. The detective's manner increased the hatred which had blazed in Bobby's mind when he had stood in the bedroom over his grandfather's body. For a moment he wished with all his heart that he might accept the challenge. He did the best he could.
"I gather," he said, "that you haven't unearthed the motive for disturbing the body. And have you found the sharp instrument that caused death?"
The detective answered tolerantly:
"I have found a number of sharp instruments. None of them, however, seems quite slender or round enough. I'll get all that out of my man when I lock him up. I'll get it to-night if he dares come."
"Why," Graham said, "do you announce your plans so accurately to us?"
The detective's level smile widened.
"You shouldn't ask that, Mr. Graham. I've caused the servants to know my plans. Mr. Paredes knows them. I wish every one in the house to know them. That is in order that the murderer, who is in the house, may come if he wishes."
Katherine arose abruptly.
"When you come down to it," she said, "you are accusing one of us. It's brutal, unfair—absurd."
"I am a detective, Miss," Howells answered. "I have my own methods."
Bobby stared at the slight protuberance in the breast pocket of the detective's coat. The cast of his footprint must be secreted there, and almost certainly the handkerchief which had been found beneath the bed. He shrank from his own thoughts.
If he had consciously committed this murder he could understand a desire to get that evidence.
Katherine had gone closer to the detective.
"In any case," she urged him, "I wish you wouldn't try to spend the night in that room. It isn't pleasant. After what the doctor has said, it—well, it isn't safe."
Howells burst out laughing.
"Never fear, Miss. I'm content to give Doctor Groom's spirits as much chance to take a fall out of me as anybody. I'll be going up now." He bowed. "Good-night to you all, and pleasant dreams."
He opened the door and slipped into the darkness of the private staircase. They heard him, after he had closed the door, climbing upward. Katherine shivered.
"He has plenty of courage, Hartley! If nothing happens to him to-night he'll finish Bobby in the morning. That mustn't happen. He mustn't go to jail. You understand. Things would never be the same for him again."
Graham spread his hands.
"What am I to do? I might go to New York and get after these people myself."
"Don't leave the Cedars," Bobby begged, "until he does arrest me. There'll be plenty of time for the New York end then. I've no faith in it. Watch Carlos if you want, but most important of all, find out—somehow you've got to find out—what my grandfather was afraid of."
"And if it does come to an arrest, Bobby, you're not to say a word to anybody without my advice. You ought to get to bed now. You must have rest, and Katherine, too. Don't listen to-night, Katherine, for messages from across the court."
"I'll try," she said, "but, Hartley, I wish that man wasn't there. I wish no one was in that room."
She took Bobby's hand.
"Good-night, Bobby, and don't give up hope. We'll do something. Somehow we'll pull you through."
Bobby waited, hoping that Graham would offer to share his room with him. For, as he had said earlier, the prospect of going to sleep, of losing control of his thoughts and actions, appalled him. Yet such an offer, he realized, must impress Graham as delicate, as an indication that he really doubted Bobby's innocence, as a sort of spying. He wasn't surprised, therefore, when Graham only said:
"I'll be in the next room, Bobby. If you're restless or need me you've only to knock on the wall."
Bobby didn't leave the library with them. The warmth with which Katherine had just filled him faded as he watched her go out side by side with Graham. Her hand was on Graham's arm. There was, he fancied, in her eyes an emotion deeper than gratitude or friendship. He sighed as the door closed behind them. He was himself largely to blame for that situation. His very revolt against its imminence had hastened its shaping.
He walked anxiously to the table. He had remembered the medicine Doctor Groom had prepared for him that afternoon to make him sleep. He hadn't taken it then. If it remained where he had left it, which was likely enough in the disordered state of the household, he would drink it now. Reinforced by his complete weariness, it ought to send him into a sleep profound enough to drown any possible abnormal impulses of unconsciousness.
The glass was there. He drained it, and stood for a time looking at the pinkish sediment in the bottom. That was all right for to-night, but afterward—he couldn't shrink perpetually from sleep. He shrugged his shoulders, remembering it would make little difference what he did in his sleep when they had him behind prison bars. Perhaps this would be his last night of freedom.
He found Paredes still in the hall. The Panamanian, with languid gestures, continued to play his solitaire. His box of cigarettes was much reduced.
"I thought you were tired, Carlos."
Paredes glanced up. His eyes were neither weary nor alert. As usual his expression disclosed nothing of his thoughts, yet he must have read in Bobby's tone a reproach at this indifference.
"The game intrigues me," he murmured, "and you know," he added dreamily.
"I sometimes think better while I amuse myself."
"I sometimes think better while I amuse myself."
Bobby nodded good-night and went on up to his room. Even while he undressed the effects of the doctor's narcotic were perceptible. His eyes had grown heavy, his brain a trifle numb.
Almost apathetically he assured himself that he couldn't accomplish these mad actions in his sleep.
"Yet last night—" he murmured. "That finishes me in the eyes of the law. The doctor will testify to aphasia. According to him I am two men—two men!"
He yawned, recalling snatches of books he had read and one or two scientific reports of such cases. He climbed into bed and blew out his candle. His drowsiness thickened. In his dulled mind one recollection remained—the picture of Howells coldly challenging him with his level smile to make a secret entrance of the old bedroom in a murderous effort to escape the penalty of the earlier crime. And Howells had been right. His death would give Bobby a chance. The destruction of the evidence, the bringing into the case of a broader-minded man, a man without a carefully constructed theory—all that would help Bobby, might save him. Howells, moreover, had indicated that he had so far withheld his evidence. But that was probably a bait.
In his drowsy way Bobby hated more powerfully than before this detective who, with a serene malevolence, made him writhe in his net. Thought ceased. He drifted into a trance-like sleep. He swung in the black pit again, fighting out against crushing odds. The darkness thundered as though informing him that graver forces than any he had ever imagined had definitely grasped him. Then he understood. He was in a black cell, and the thundering was the steady advance of men along an iron floor to take him—
He flung out his hands. He sat upright, opening his eyes. The blackness assumed the familiar, yielding quality of the night. The thunder, the footfalls, became a hurried knocking at his door.
"Bobby! You're there—" It was Katherine. Her tone made the night as frightening as the blackness of the pit.
"What's the matter?"
"You're there. I didn't know. Get up. Hartley's putting some clothes on.
Hurry! The house is so dark—so strange."
Hurry! The house is so dark—so strange."
"Tell me what's happened."
She didn't answer at first. He struck a match, lighted his candle, threw on a dressing gown, and stepped to the door. Katherine shrank against the wall, hiding her eyes from the light of his candle. He thought it odd she should wear the dress in which she had appeared at dinner. But it seemed indifferently fastened, and her hair was in disorder. Graham stepped from his room.
"What is it?" Bobby demanded.
"You wouldn't wake up, Bobby. You were so hard to wake." The idea seemed to fill her mind. She repeated it several times.
"It's nothing," Graham said. "Go back to your room, Katherine. She's fanciful—"
She lowered her hands. Her eyes were full of terror. "No. We have to go to that room as I went last night, as we went to-day."
Graham tried to quiet her. "We'll go to satisfy you."
Her voice hardened. "I know. I was asleep. It woke me up, stealing in across the court again."
Bobby grasped her arm. "You came out and aroused up at once?"
She shook her head. "I—I couldn't find my dressing gown. This dress was by the bed. I put it on, but I couldn't seem to fasten it."
Bobby stepped back, remembering his last thought before drifting into the trance-like sleep. She seemed to know what was in his mind.
"But when I knocked you were sleeping so soundly."
"Too soundly, perhaps."
"Come. We're growing imaginative," Graham said. "Howells would take care of himself. He'll probably give us the deuce for disturbing him, but to satisfy you, Katherine, we'll wake him up."
"If you can," she whispered.
They entered the main hall. Light came through the stair well from the lower floor. Graham walked to the rail and glanced down. Bobby followed him. On the table by the fireplace the cards were arranged in neat piles. A strong draft blew cigarette smoke up to them.
"Paredes," Graham said, amazed, "is still downstairs. The front door's open. He's probably in the court."
"It must be very late," Bobby said.
"Half-past two. I looked at my watch. The same time as last night."
With a gesture of resolution she led the way into the corridor. Bobby shrank from the damp and musty atmosphere of the narrow passage.
"Why do you come, Katherine?" he asked.
"I have to know, as I had to know last night."
Graham raised his hand and knocked at the door which again was locked on the inside. The echoes chattered back at them. Graham knocked again. With a passionate revolt Katherine raised her hands, too, and pounded at the panels. Suddenly she gave up. She let her hands fall listlessly.
"It's no use."
"Howells! Howells!" Graham called. "Why don't you answer?"
"When he boasted to-night," Katherine whispered, "the murderer heard him."
"Suppose he's gone down to the library?" Graham said.
Bobby gave Katherine the candle.
"No. He'd have stayed. We've got to break in here. We've got to find out."
Graham placed his powerful shoulder against the door. The lock strained. Bobby added his weight. With a splintering of wood the door flew open, precipitating them across the threshold. Through the darkness Graham sprang for the opposite door.
"It's locked," he called, "and the key's on this side."
Bobby took the candle from Katherine and forced himself to approach the bed. The flame flickered a little in the breeze which stole past the curtain of the open window. It shook across the body of Howells, fully clothed with his head on the stained pillow. His face, intricately lined, was as peaceful as Silas Blackburn's had been. Its level smile persisted.
Bobby caught his breath.
He set the candle on the bureau.
"It's no use. We must look at the back of his head."
"The back of his head!" Katherine echoed.
"It's illegal," Graham said.
"Look!" Bobby cried. "We've got to look!"
Graham tiptoed forward. He stretched out his hand. With a motion of abhorrence he drew it back. Bobby watched him hypnotically, thinking:
"I wanted this. I hated him. I thought of it just before I went to sleep."
Graham reached out again. This time he touched Howells's head. It rolled over on the pillow.
"Good God!" he said.
They stared at the red hole, near the base of the brain, at a fresh crimson splotch, straying beyond the edges of the darker one they had seen that afternoon.
Graham turned away, his hand still outstretched, as if it had touched some poisonous thing and might retain a contamination.
"He was prepared against it," he whispered, "expected it, yet it got him."
He glanced rapidly around the room whose shadows seemed crowding about the candle to stifle it.
"Unless we're all mad," he cried, "the murderer must be hidden in this room now. Don't you see? He's got to be, or Groom's right, and we're fighting the dead. Go out, Katherine. Stand by that broken door, Bobby. I'm going to look."
A STRANGE LIGHT APPEARS AT THE DESERTED HOUSE
Graham's intention, logical as it was, impressed Bobby as quite futile. Silas Blackburn had died in this ancient, melancholy room behind locked doors. This afternoon, with a repetition of the sounds that had probably accompanied his death, they had been drawn to find that, behind locked doors again, the position of the body had changed incredibly, as if to expose to them the tiny fatal wound at the base of the brain. Now for the third time those stealthy movements had aroused Katherine, and they had found, once more behind locked doors, the determined and malicious detective, murdered precisely as old Blackburn had been.
Of course Graham was logical. By every rational argument the murderer must still be in the room. Yet Bobby foresaw that, as always, no one would be found, that nothing would be unearthed to explain the succession of tragic mysteries. While Graham commenced his search, indeed, he continued to stare at the little round hole in Howells's head, at the fresh, irregular stain on the pillow, and he became absorbed in his own predicament. Again and again he asked himself if he could be responsible for these murders which had been committed with an inhuman ingenuity. He knew only that he had wandered, unconscious, in the vicinity of the Cedars last night; that he had been asleep when his grandfather's body had altered its position; that he had gone to sleep a little while ago too profoundly, brooding over Howells's challenge to the murderer to invade the room of death and kill him if he could. Howells had been confident that he could handle a man and so solve the riddle of how the room had been entered. Certainly Howells's challenge had been accepted, and Bobby knew that he had fallen into that deep sleep hating the detective, telling himself that the man's death might save him from arrest, from conviction, from an intolerable walk to a little room with a single chair.
"Recurrent aphasia." The doctor's expression came back to him. In such a state a man could overcome locked doors, could accomplish apparent miracles and retain no recollection. And Bobby had hated and feared Howells more than he had his grandfather.
Dully he saw Katherine go out at Graham's direction. As one in a dream he moved toward the door they had had to break down on entering.
"Stand close to it," Graham said. "We'll cover everything."
"You'll find no one," Bobby answered with a perfect assurance.
He saw Graham take the candle and explore the large closets. He watched him examine the spaces behind the window curtains. He could smile a little as Graham stooped, peering beneath the bed, as he moved each piece of furniture large enough to secrete a man.
"You see, Hartley, it's no use."
Graham's lack of success, however, stimulated his anger.
"Then," he said, "there must be some hiding place in the walls. Such devices are common in houses as old as this."
Bobby indicated the silent form of the detective.
"He believed I killed my grandfather. The only reason he didn't arrest me was his failure to find out how the room had been entered and left. Don't you suppose he looked for a hiding place or a secret entrance the first thing? It's obvious."
But Graham's savage determination increased. He sounded each panel. None gave the slightest revealing response. He got a tape from Katherine and measured the dimensions of the room, the private hall, and the corridor. At last he turned to Bobby, his anger dead, his face white and tired.
"Everything checks," he admitted. "There's no secret room, no way in or out. Logically Groom's right. We're fighting the dead who resent the intrusion of your grandfather and Howells."
He laughed mirthlessly.
"After all, we can't surrender to that. There must be another answer."
"From the first Howells was satisfied with me," Bobby said.
Graham flung up his hands.
"Then tell me how you got in without disturbing those locks. I grant you, Bobby, you had sufficient motive for both murders, but I don't believe you have two personalities, one decent and lovable, the other cruel and cunning to the point of magic. I don't believe if a man had two such personalities the actions of one would be totally closed to the memory of the other."
Bobby smiled wanly.
"It isn't pleasant to confess it, Hartley, but I have read of such cases."
"I wish to the devil I had shared your room with you to-night," Graham muttered. "I might have furnished you an alibi for this affair at least."
"Either that," Bobby answered frankly, "or you might have followed me and learned the whole secret. Honestly, isn't that what you were thinking of, Hartley? And I did go to sleep, telling myself it would help me if something of the sort happened to Howells. Now I'm not so sure that it will. I—I suppose you've got to notify the police."
Graham held up his hand.
"What's that? In the corridor!"
There were quiet footsteps in the corridor. Bobby turned quickly, Paredes strolled slowly through the passage, a cigarette held in his slender, listless fingers. Bobby stared at him, remembering his surprise a few minutes ago that the Panamanian should have sat up so late, should have been, probably, in the court when they had followed Katherine to the discovery of this new crime.
Paredes paused in the doorway. He took in the tragic picture framed by the sinister room without displaying the slightest interest. He continued to hold his cigarette until it expired. Then he crossed the threshold. Graham and Bobby watched the expressionless face. Gracefully Paredes raised his finger and pointed to the bed. When he spoke his voice was low and pleasant:
"Appalling! I feared something of the kind when I heard you come to this room."
He glanced at the broken door.
"The same unbelievable circumstance," he drawled. "I see you had to break in."
The colour flashed back to Graham's face.
"You have taken plenty of time to solve your misgivings."
"It hasn't been so long. I fancied everything was all right, and I was immersed in my solitaire. Then I heard a stirring upstairs. As I've told you, the house frightens me. It is not natural or healthy. So I came up to investigate this stirring, and there was Miss Katherine in the hall. She told me."
Graham faced him with undisguised enmity.
"Immersed in your solitaire! We were attracted by a light in the lower hall at such an hour. We looked down. You were not there. The front door was open."
Paredes glanced at his cold cigarette. He yawned.
"When Howells died precisely as Mr. Blackburn did," Graham hurried on, "you alone were awake about the house. Weren't you at that moment in the court?"
Paredes laughed tolerantly.
"It is clear, in spite of my apologies, that we are not friends, Graham; but, may I ask, are you accusing me of this strange—accident?"
"I should like to know what you were doing in the court."
"Perhaps," Paredes answered, "I was attracted there by the sounds that aroused Miss Katherine."
Graham shook his head.
"From her description I doubt if those sounds would have been audible in the hall."
"No matter," Paredes said. "I merely suggest that it's a case for Groom.
His hint of a spiritual enmity may be saner than you think."
His hint of a spiritual enmity may be saner than you think."
Katherine appeared in the doorway. She had evidently overheard Paredes's comment, for she nodded. The determination in her eyes suggested that she had struggled with the situation during these last moments and had reached a definite conclusions That quality was in her voice.
"At least, Hartley," she said, "you must send for Doctor Groom before you notify the police."
Graham waved his hand.
"Why?" he asked. "The man is dead."
With a movement, hidden from Paredes, she indicated Bobby.
"Last time there was a good deal of delay before the doctor came. If we get him right away he may be able to do something for this poor fellow. At least his advice would be useful."
Bobby realized that she was fighting for time for him. Any delay would be useful that would give them a chance to plan before the police with unimaginative efficiency should invade the house and limit their opportunities. Graham showed that he caught her point.
"Maybe it's better," he said. "Then, Bobby, telephone Groom to be ready for you, and take my runabout. It's in the stable. You'll get him here much faster than he could come in his carriage."
"While I'm gone," Bobby asked, "what will you do?"
"Watch this room," Graham jerked out. "See that no one enters or leaves it, or touches the body. I'll hope for some clue."
"You've plenty of courage," Paredes drawled. "I shouldn't care to watch alone in this room."
He followed Katherine into the corridor. Bobby looked at Graham.
"You'll take no chances, Hartley?"
Graham's smile wasn't pleasant.
"According to you and the dead detective there's no risk while you're out of the house. Still, I shall be nervous, but don't worry."
Bobby joined the others before they had reached the hall.
"Of course Hartley found nothing," Katherine said to him.
"Nothing," Paredes answered, "except a very bad temper."
Katherine's distaste for the man was no longer veiled.
"You don't like Mr. Graham," she said, "but he is our friend, and he is in this house to help us."
"I regret that the amusement Mr. Graham causes me sometimes finds expression. He is so earnest, so materialistic in his relation to the world. That is why he will see nothing psychic in the situation."
Paredes's easy contempt was like a tonic for Katherine. Her fear seemed to drop from her. She turned purposefully to Bobby, ignoring the Panamanian.
"I shall watch with Hartley," she said.
He was ashamed that jealousy should creep into such a moment, but her resolve recalled his amorous discontent. The prospect of Graham and her, watching alone, drawn to each other by their fright and uncertainty, by their surroundings, by the hour, became unbearable. It placed him, to an extent, on Paredes's side. It urged him, when Paredes had gone on downstairs, to spring almost eagerly to his defence.
"As Hartley says," Katherine began, "he makes you think of a snake. He must see we dislike and resent him."
"You and Hartley, perhaps," Bobby said. "Carlos says he is here to help me. I've no reason to disbelieve him."
A little colour came into Katherine's face. She half stretched out her hand as if in an appeal. But the colour faded and her hand dropped.
"We are wasting time," she said. "You had better go."
"I am sorry we disagree about Carlos," he commenced.
She turned deliberately away from him.
"You must hurry," she said. "Hurry!"
He saw her enter the corridor to join Graham. The obscurity of the narrow place seemed to hold for him a new menace.
He walked downstairs slowly. While he telephoned, instructing a servant to tell the doctor to be dressed and ready in twenty minutes, he saw Paredes go to the closet and get his hat and coat.
"I shall keep you company," the Panamanian announced.
Bobby was glad enough to have him. He didn't want to be alone. He was aware by this time that no amount of thought would persuade useful memories to emerge from the black pit. They walked to the stable, half gone to ruin like the rest of the estate. Bobby started Graham's car. The servants' quarters, he saw, were dark. Then Jenkins and the two women hadn't been aroused, were still ignorant of the new crime. As they drove smoothly past the gloomy house they glimpsed through the court the dimly lit windows of the old room that persistently guarded its grim secret. Bobby pictured the living as well as the dead there, and his mind revolted, and he shivered. He opened the throttle wider. The car sprang forward. The divergent glare from the headlights forced back the reluctant thicket. Paredes drawled unexpectedly:
"There is nothing as lonely anywhere in the world."
He stooped behind the windshield and lighted a cigarette.
"At least. Bobby," he said between puffs, "the Cedars has taken from you the fear of Howells."
And after a time, staring at the glow of his cigarette, he went on softly:
"Have you noticed anything significant about the discovery of each mystery at the Cedars?"
"Many things," Bobby muttered.
"Think," Paredes urged him.
Bobby answered angrily:
"You've suggested that to me once to-day, Carlos. You mean that each time
I have been asleep or unconscious."
I have been asleep or unconscious."
"I mean something quite different," Paredes said.
He hesitated. When he continued, his drawl was more pronounced.
"Then you haven't remarked that each time it has been Miss Katherine who has made the discovery, who has aroused the rest of the house?"
The car swerved sharply. Bobby's first impulse had been to take his hands from the wheel, to force Paredes to retract his sly insinuation.
"That's the rottenest thing I've ever known you to do, Carlos.
Take it back."
Take it back."
Paredes shrugged his shoulders.
"There is nothing to take back. I accuse no one. I merely call attention to a chain of exceptional coincidences."
"You make me wonder," Bobby said, "if Hartley isn't justified in his dislike of you. You'll kill such a ridiculous suspicion."
"Or?" Paredes drawled. "Very well. It seems my fate recently to offend those I like best. I merely thought that any theory leading away from you would be welcome."
"Any theory," Bobby answered, "involving Katherine is unthinkable."
"I didn't understand exactly how you felt. I rather took it for granted that Graham—Never mind. I take it back."
"Then drop it," Bobby answered sullenly, sorry that there was nothing else he could say.
They continued in silence through the deserted forest whose aggressive loneliness made words seem trivial. Bobby was asking himself again where he had stood last night when he had glimpsed for a moment the straining trees and the figure in a mask which he had called his conscience. If he could only prove that figure substantial! Then Graham would have some ground for his suspicion of Paredes and the dancer Maria. He glanced at Paredes. Could there have been a conspiracy against him in the New York cafe? Did Paredes, in fact, have some devious purpose in remaining at the Cedars?
The automobile took a sharp curve in the road. Bobby started, gazing ahead with an interest nearly hypnotic. The headlights had caught in their glare the deserted farmhouse in which he had awakened just before Howells had told him of his grandfather's death and practically placed him under arrest. In the white light the frame of the house from which the paint had flaked, appeared ghastly, unreal, like a structure seen in a nightmare from which one recoils with morbid horror. The light left the building. As the car tore past, Bobby could barely make out the black mass in the midst of the thicket.
Paredes had observed it, too.
"I daresay," he remarked casually, "the Cedars will become as deserted as that. It is just that it should, for the entire neighbourhood impresses one as unfriendly to life, as striving through death to drive life out."
"Have you ever seen that house before?" Bobby asked quickly.
"I have never seen it before. I do not care ever to see it again."
It was a relief when the forest thinned and fields stretched, flat and pleasant, like barriers against the stunted growth. Bobby stopped the car in front of one of a group of houses at a crossroads. He climbed the steps and rang. Doctor Groom opened the door himself. His gigantic, hairy figure was silhouetted against the light from within.
"What's the matter now?" he demanded in his gruff voice. "Fortunately I hadn't gone to bed. I was reading some books on psychic manifestations. Who's sick? Or—"
Bobby's face must have told him a good deal, for he broke off.
"Get your things on," Bobby said, "and I will tell you as we drive back, for you must come. Howells has been killed precisely as my grandfather was."
For a moment Doctor Groom's bulky frame remained motionless in the doorway. Instead of the surprise and horror Bobby had foreseen, the old man expressed only a mute wonder. He got his hat and coat and entered the runabout, Paredes made room for him, sitting on the floor, his feet on the running board.
Bobby had told all he knew before they had reached the forest. The doctor grunted then:
"The wound at the back of the head was the same as in your grandfather's case?"
"Then what good am I? Why am I routed out?"
"A formality," Bobby answered. "Katherine thought if we got you quickly you might do something. Anyway, she wanted your advice."
The woods closed about them. Again the lights seemed to push back a palpable barrier.
"I can't work miracles," the doctor was murmuring. "I can't bring men back to life. Such a wound leaves no ground for hope. You'd better have sent for the police at once. Hello!"
He strained forward, peering around the windshield.
"Funny!" Paredes called.
Bobby's eyes were on the road.
"What do you see?"
"The house, Bobby!" Paredes cried.
"No one, to my certain knowledge," the doctor said, "has lived in that house for ten years. You say it was empty and falling to pieces when you woke up there this morning."
Bobby knew what they meant then, and he reduced the speed of the car and looked ahead to the right. A pallid glow sifted through the trees from the direction of the deserted house.
Bobby guided the car to the side of the road, stopped it, and shut off the engine. At first no one moved. The three men stared as if in the presence of an unaccountable phenomenon. Even when Bobby had extinguished the headlights the glow failed to brighten. Its pallid quality persisted. It seemed to radiate from a point close to the ground.
"It comes from the front of the house," Bobby murmured.
He stepped from the automobile.
"What are you going to do?" Paredes wanted to know.
"Find out who is in that house."
For Bobby had experienced a quick hope. If there was a man or a woman secreted in the building the truth as to his own remarkable presence there last night might not be so far to seek after all. There was, moreover, something lawless about this light escaping from the place at such an hour. A little while ago, when Paredes and he had driven past, the house had been black. They had remarked its lonely, abandoned appearance. It had led Paredes to speak of the neighbourhood as the domain of death. Yet the strange, pallid quality of the light itself made him pause by the broken fence. It did come from the lower part of the front of the house, yet, so faint was it, it failed to outline the aperture through which it escaped. The doctor and Paredes joined him.
"When I was here," he said, "all the shutters were closed. This glow is too white, too diffused. We must see."
As he started forward Paredes grasped his arm.
"There are too many of us. We would make a noise. Suppose I creep up and investigate."
"There is one way in—at the back," Bobby told the doctor. "Let us go there. We'll have whoever's inside trapped. Meantime, Carlos, if he wishes, will steal up to the front; he'll find out where the light comes from. He'll look in if he can."
"That's the best plan," Paredes agreed.
But they had scarcely turned the corner of the house, beyond reach of the glow, when Paredes rejoined them. His feet were no longer careful in the underbrush. He came up running. For the first time in their acquaintance Bobby detected a lessening of the man's suave, unemotional habit.
"The light!" the Panamanian gasped. "It's gone! Before I could get close it faded out."
Bobby called to the doctor and ran toward the door at the rear. It was unhinged and half open as it had been when he had awakened to his painful and inexplicable predicament. He went through, fumbling in his pocket for matches. The damp chill of the hall nauseated him as it had done before, seemed to place about his throat an intangible band that made breathing difficult. Before he could get his match safe out the doctor had struck a wax vesta. Its strong flame played across the dingy, streaked walls.
"There's a flashlight, Carlos," Bobby said, "in the door flap of the automobile."
Paredes started across the yard with a haste, it seemed to Bobby, almost eager.
Striking matches as they went, the doctor and Bobby hurried to the front of the house. The rooms appeared undisturbed in their decay. The shutters were closed. The front door was barred. The broken walls from which the plaster hung in shreds leered at them.
Suddenly Bobby turned, grasping the doctor's arm.
"Did you hear anything?"
The doctor shook his head.
"Or feel anything?"
"I thought," Bobby said excitedly, "that there was some one in the hall. I—I simply got that impression, for I saw nothing myself. My back was turned."
Paredes strolled silently in.
"It may have been Mr. Paredes," the doctor said.
But Bobby wasn't convinced.
"Did you see or hear anything coming through the hall, Carlos?"
"No," Paredes said.
He had brought the light. With its help they explored the tiny cellar and the upper floor. There was no sign of a recent occupancy. Everything was as Bobby had found it on awakening. A vagrant wind sighed about the place. They looked at each other with startled eyes. They filed out with an incongruous stealth.
"Then there are ghosts here, too!" Paredes whispered.
"Who knows?" Doctor Groom mused. "It is as puzzling as anything that has happened at the Cedars unless the light we saw was some phosphorescent effect of decaying wood or vegetation."
"Then why should it go out all at once?" Bobby asked. "Is there any connection between this light and what has happened at the Cedars?"
"The house at least," Paredes put in, "is connected with what has happened at the Cedars through your experience here."
At Doctor Groom's suggestion they sat in the automobile for some time, watching the house for a repetition of the pallid light. After several minutes, when it failed to come, Bobby set his gears.
"Graham and Katherine will be worried."
They drove quickly away from the black, uncommunicative mass of the abandoned building. The woods were lonelier than before. They impressed Bobby as guarding something.
He drove straight to the stable. As they walked into the court they saw the uncertain candlelight diffused from the room of death. In the hall Bobby responded to a quick alarm. The Cedars was too quiet. What had happened since he and Paredes had left?
"Katherine! Hartley!" he called.
He heard running steps upstairs. Katherine leaned over the banister. Her quiet voice reassured him. "Is the doctor with you?"
He nodded. Paredes yawned and lighted a cigarette. He settled himself in an easy chair. Bobby and Doctor Groom hurried up. Katherine led them down the old corridor. Two chairs had been placed in the broken doorway. Graham sat there. He arose and greeted the doctor.
"Nothing has happened since I left?" Bobby asked.
Graham shook his head.
"Katherine and I have watched every minute."
Doctor Groom walked to the bed and for a long time looked down at
Howells. Once he put out his hand, quickly withdrawing it.
Howells. Once he put out his hand, quickly withdrawing it.
"It's simply a repetition," he said at last, and his voice was softer than its custom. "It may be a warning, for all we know, that no one may sleep in this room without attracting death. Yet why should that be? I miss this poor fellow's materialistic viewpoint. There's nothing I can do for him, nothing I can say, except that death must have been instantaneous. The police must seek again for a man to place in the electric chair."
Graham touched his arm with an odd reluctance.
"Sitting here for so long I've been thinking. I have always been materialistic, too. Tell me seriously, doctor, do you believe there is any psychic force capable of killing two men in this incisive fashion?"
"No one," the doctor answered, "can say what psychic force is capable of doing. Some scientists have started to explore, but it is still uncharted country. From certain places—I daresay you've noticed it—one gets an impression of peace and content; from others a depression, a sense of suffering. I think we have all experienced psychic force to that extent. Remember that this room has a history of intense and rebellious suffering. Some of it I have seen with my own eyes. Your father's fight for life, Katherine, was horrible for those of us who knew he had no chance. As I watched beside him I used to wonder if such violent agony could ever drift wholly into silence, and when we had to tell him finally that the fight was lost, it was beyond bearing."
"If these men had been found dead without marks of violence," Graham said, "I might consider such a possibility, irrational as it seems."
"Irrational," Doctor Groom answered, "must not be confused with impossible. The marks of a physical violence, far from proving that the attack was physical, strengthens the case of the supernatural. Certainly you have heard and read of pictures being dashed from walls by invisible hands, of objects moved about empty rooms, of cases where human beings have been attacked by inanimate things—heavy things—hurtling through the air. Some scientists recognize such irrational possibilities. Policemen don't."
"Very well," Graham said stubbornly. "I'll follow you that far, but you must show me in this room the sharp object with which these men were attacked, no matter what the force behind it."
The doctor spread his hands. His infused eyes nearly closed.
"That I can't do. At any rate, Robert, this isn't wholly tragic to you. I don't see how any one could accuse you of aphasia to-night."
"You've not forgotten," Bobby said slowly, "that you spoke of a recurrent aphasia."
"That's the trouble," Graham put in under his breath. "He has no more alibi now than he had when his grandfather was murdered."
Bobby told of his heavy sleep, of the delay in Katherine's arousing him.
The doctor's gruff voice was disapproving.
"You shouldn't have drunk that medicine. It had stood too long. It would only have approximated its intended effect."
"You mean," Bobby asked, "that I wasn't sleeping as soundly as I thought?"
"Probably not, but you're by no means a satisfactory victim. Men do unaccountable things in a somnambulistic state, but asleep they haven't wings any more than they have awake. You've got to show us how you entered this room without disturbing the locks. Now, Mr. Graham, we must comply with the law. Call in the police."
"There's nothing else to do," Bobby agreed.
So they went along the dingy corridor and downstairs. From the depths of the easy chair in which Paredes lounged smoke curled with a lazy indifference. The Panamanian didn't move.
While Graham and the doctor walked to the back of the hall to telephone, Katherine, an anxious figure, a secretive one, beckoned Bobby to the library. He went with her, wondering what she could want.
It was quite dark in the library. As Bobby fumbled with the lamp and prepared to strike a match he was aware of the girl's provocatively near presence. He resisted a warm impulse to reach out and touch her hand. He desired to tell her all that was in his heart of the division that had increased between them the last few months. Yet to follow that impulse would, he realized, place a portion of his burden on her shoulders; would also, in a sense, be disloyal to Graham, for he no longer questioned that the two had reached a definite sentimental understanding. So he sighed and struck the match. Even before the lamp was lighted Katherine was speaking with a feverish haste:
"Before the police come—you've a chance, Bobby—the last chance. You must do before the police arrive whatever is to be done."
He replaced the shade and glanced at her, astonished by her intensity, by the forceful gesture with which she grasped his arm. For the first time since Silas Blackburn's murder all of her vitality had come back to her.
"What do you mean?"
She pointed to the door of the private staircase.
"Just what Howells told you before he went up there to his death."
Bobby understood. He reacted excitedly to her attitude of conspirator.
"He said," she went on, "that the criminal had nothing to lose. That it would be to his advantage to have him out of the way, to destroy that evidence."
"I thought of it," Bobby answered, "just before I went to sleep."
"Don't you see?" she said. "If you had killed him you would have taken the cast and the handkerchief and destroyed them? Hartley has told me everything, and I could see his coat for myself. The cast and the handkerchief are still in Howells's pocket."
"Why should I have killed him if not to destroy those?" Bobby took her up with a quick hope.
"You didn't," she cried. "Nothing would ever make me believe that you killed him, but you will be charged with it unless the evidence—disappears. You'll have no defence."
Bobby drew back a little.
"You want me to go there—and—and take from his pocket those things?"
"You remember he suggested that he hadn't sent his report. That may be there, too."
Bobby shook his head. "He must have said that as a bait."
"At the worst," she urged, "a report without evidence could only turn suspicion against you. It wouldn't convict you as those other things may. You must get them. You must destroy them."
Graham slipped quietly in and closed the door.
"The district attorney is coming himself with another detective," he said. "I can guess what Katherine has been talking about. She's right. I'm a lawyer, an I know the penalty of tampering with evidence. But I don't believe you're a murderer, and I tell you as long as that evidence exists they can convict you. They can send you to the chair. They may arrest you and try you anyway on his report, but I don't believe they can convict you on it alone. You're justified in protecting yourself, Bobby, in the only way you can. No one will see you go in the room. We'll arrange it so that no one can testify against you."
Bobby felt himself at a cross roads. During the commission of those crimes he had been unconscious. If he had, in fact, had anything to do with them, his personality, his real self, had known nothing, had done no wrong. His body had merely reacted to hideous promptings whose source lurked at the bottom of the black pit. To tamper with evidence would be a conscious crime. All the more, because of his doubt of himself, he shrank from that. Katherine saw his hesitation.
"It's a matter of your life or death."
But although Katherine decided him it wasn't with that. She came closer. She looked straight at him, and her eyes were full of an affection that stirred him profoundly:
"For my sake, Bobby—"
He studied the dead ashes of the fire which a little while ago had played on Howells, vital and antagonistic, by the door of the private staircase. The man had challenged him to do just the thing from which he shrank. But Howells was no longer vital or antagonistic, and it occurred to him that a little of his shrinking arose from the thought of approaching and robbing the still thing upstairs, all that was left of the man who had not been afraid of the mystery of the locked room.
"For my sake," Katherine repeated.
Bobby squared his shoulders. He fought back his momentary cowardice. The affection in Katherine's eyes was stronger than that.
"All right," he said. "Howells never gave me a chance while he was alive.
He'll have to now he's dead."
He'll have to now he's dead."
Katherine relaxed. Graham's face was quite white, but he gave his instructions in a cold, even tone:
"We'll go to the hall now. Katherine will go on upstairs. She mustn't see you enter the room, but she will watch in the corridor while you are there to be sure you aren't disturbed. You and I will chat for awhile with the others, Bobby, then you will go up. You understand? Paredes mustn't even guess what you are doing. I'll keep him and Groom downstairs. If he spied, if he knew what you were at, he'd have a weapon in his hands I'd hate to think about. He may be all right, but we can't risk any more than we have to. We must go on tiptoe."
He opened the door. Katherine gave Bobby's hand a quick, encouraging pressure.
"Take the stuff to my room," Graham whispered. "The first chance, we'll destroy it so that no trace will be left."
They went to the hall. Without speaking, Katherine climbed the stairs. Graham drew a chair between Paredes and the doctor. Bobby lounged against the mantel, trying to find in the Panamanian's face some clue as to his real feelings. But Paredes's eyes were closed. His hand drooped across the chair arm. His slender, pointed fingers held, as if from mere habit, a lifeless cigarette.
"Asleep," Graham whispered.
Without opening his eyes Paredes spoke: "No; I feel curiously awake."
Doctor Groom glanced at his watch. "The powers of prosecution," he grumbled, "ought to be here within the next fifteen or twenty minutes."
Bobby glanced at Graham. Then it wasn't safe to delay too long. More and more as he waited he shrank from the invasion of the room of death. The prospect of reaching out and touching the still, cold thing on the bed revolted him. Was there anything in that room capable of forbidding his intention? Was there, in short, a surer, more malicious force for evil than his unconscious self, at work in the house? He was about to make some formal comment to the others, to embark on his distasteful adventure, when Paredes, as if he had read Bobby's mind, opened his eyes, languidly left his chair, and walked to the foot of the stairs.
"Where you going?" Graham asked sharply.
Paredes waved his hand indifferently and walked on up. There was something of stealth in his failure to reply, in his cat-like tread on the stairs. Graham and Bobby stared after him, unable to meet this new situation audibly because of Groom. Yet five minutes had gone. There was no time to be lost. Paredes mustn't rob Bobby of his chance. With a sort of desperation he started for the stairs. Graham held out his hand as if to restrain him, then nodded. Bobby had his foot on the first step when Katherine's cry reached them, shaping the moment to their use. For there was no fright in her cry. It was, rather, angry. And Bobby and Graham ran up while Doctor Groom remained in his chair, an expression of blank amazement on his face.
A candle burned on the table in the upper hall. Katherine and Paredes stood near the entrance of the old corridor. Paredes, as usual, was quite unruffled. Katherine's attitude was defensive. She seemed to hold the corridor against him. The anger of her cry was active in her eyes. Paredes laughed lightly.
"Sorry to have given the household one more shock. Fortunately no harm done."
"What is it, Katherine?" Graham demanded.
"I don't know," she answered. "He startled me. He entered the corridor."
"Quite right. She was there. I was on my way to my room. If your house had electricity, Bobby, this incident would have been avoided. I saw something dark in the corridor."
"You may not know," Graham said, "that ever since we found Howells, one of us has tried, more or less, to keep the entrance of that room under observation."
"Yet you were all downstairs a little while ago," Paredes yawned. "It's too bad. I might have taken my turn then. At any rate, since I was excluded from your confidence, I overcame my natural fear, and, for Bobby's sake, slipped in, and, I am afraid, startled Miss Katherine."
"Yes," she said.
His explanation was reasonable. There was nothing more to be said, but Bobby's doubt of his friend, sown by Graham and stimulated by the incidents of the last hour, was materially strengthened. He felt a sharp fear of Paredes. Such reserve, such concealment of emotion, was scarcely human.
"If," Graham was saying, "you really want to help Bobby, there is something you can do. Will you come downstairs with me for a moment? I'd like to suggest one or two things before the police arrive."
Without hesitation Paredes followed Graham down the stairs.
Katherine turned immediately to Bobby, her eyes eager, full of the tense determination that had dictated her plan in the library.
"Now, Bobby!" she whispered. "And there's no time to waste. They may be here any minute. I won't see you go, but I'll be back at once to guard you against Paredes if he slips up again."
She walked across the hall and disappeared in the newer corridor. Without witness he faced the old corridor, and with the attempt directly ahead his repugnance achieved a new power. The black entrance with its scarcely dared memories reminded him that what he was about to do was directed against more than human law, was an outrage against the dead man. He had to remind himself of the steely purpose with which Howells had marked him as the murderer; and the man's power persisted after death. In such a contest he was justified.
He took the candle from the table. Through the stair-well the murmur of Graham's voice, occasionally interrupted by Groom's heavy tones or the languid accents of Paredes, drifted encouragingly. Trying to crush his premonitions, Bobby entered the corridor. Instead of illuminating the narrow passage the candle seemed half smothered by its blackness. For the first time in his memory Bobby faced the entrance of the sinister room alone. He pushed open the broken door. He paused on the threshold. It impressed him as not unnatural that he should experience such misgivings. They sprang not alone from the fact that within twenty-four hours two men had died unaccountably within these faded walls. Nor did the evidence pointing to his own unconscious guilt wholly account for them. At the bottom of everything was the fact that from his earliest childhood he had looked upon the room as consecrated to death; had consequently feared it; had, he recalled, always hurried past the disused corridor leading in its direction.
Through its wide spaces the light of the candle scarcely penetrated. No more than an indefinite radiance thrust back the obscurity and outlined the bed. He could barely see the stark, black form outstretched there.
The dim, vast room, as he advanced, imposed upon him a sense of isolation. Katherine in the upper hall, the others downstairs, whose voices no longer reached him, seemed all at once far away. He stood in a place lonelier and more remote than the piece of woods where he had momentarily opened his eyes last night; and, instead of the straining trees and the figure in the black mask which he had called his conscience, he had for motion and companionship only the swaying of the curtains in the breeze from the open window and the dark, prostrate thing whose face as he went closer was like a white mask—a mask with a fixed and malevolent sneer.
The wind caught the flame of the candle, making it flicker. Tenuous shadows commenced to dance across the walls. He paused with a tightening throat, for the form on the bed seemed moving, too, with sly and scarcely perceptible gestures. Then he understood. It was the effect of the shaking candle, and he forced himself to go on, but a sense of a multiple companionship accompanied him—a sense of a shapeless, soundless companionship that projected an idea of a steady regard. There swept through his mind a procession of figures in quaint dress and with faces not unlike his own, remembered from portraits and family legends, men and women to whom this room had been familiar, within whose limits they had suffered, cried out a too-powerful agony, and died. It seemed to him that he waited for voices to guide him, to urge him on as Katherine had urged him, or to drive him back, because he was an intruder in a company whose habit was strange and terrifying.
He forced his glance from the shadows which seemed more active along the walls. He raised his candle and stared at the dead man. The cast was undoubtedly there. The coat, stretched tightly across the breast, outlined it. He stood at the side of the bed. He had only to bend and place his hand in the pocket which the cast filled awkwardly. The wind alone, he saw, wasn't responsible for the shaking of the candle. His hand shook as the shadows shook, as the thing on the bed shook. The sense of loneliness grew upon him until it became complete, appalling. For the first time he understood that loneliness can possess a ponderable quality. It was, he felt, potent and active in the room—a thing he couldn't understand, or challenge, or overcome.
His hand tightened. He thought of Katherine guarding the corridor; of Paredes and Doctor Groom, held downstairs by Graham; of the county authorities hurrying to seize this evidence that would convict him; and he realized that his duty and his excuse were clear. He understood that just now he had been captured by a force undefinable in terms of the world he knew. For a moment he eluded the stealthy fleshless hands of its impalpable skirmishers. He reached impulsively out to the dead man. He was about to place his fingers in the pocket, which, after all was said and done, held his life.
In the light of the candle the face seemed alive and more menacing than it had ever done in life. About the straight smile was a wider, more triumphant quality.
The candle flickered sharply. It expired. The conquering blackness took his breath.
He told himself it was the draft from the window which was strong, but the companionship of the night was closer and more numerous. The darkness wreathed itself into mocking and tortuous bodies whose faces were hidden.
In an agony of revolt against these incorporeal, these fanciful horrors, he reached in the pocket.
He sprang back with a choked, inaudible cry, for the dead thing beneath his hand was stirring. The dead, cold thing with a languid and impossible rebuke, moved beneath his touch. And the pocket he had felt was empty. The coat, a moment ago bulging and awkward, was flat. There sprang to his mind the mad thought that the detective, malevolent in life, had long after death snatched from his hand the evidence, carefully gathered, on which everything for him depended.
The Abandoned Room by Wadsworth Camp – Full Text (Chapters 5-6)