THE CRYING THROUGH THE WOODS
Bobby's inability to cry out alone prevented his alarming the others and announcing to Paredes and Doctor Groom his unlawful presence in the room. During the moment that the shock held him, silent, motionless, bent in the darkness above the bed, he understood there could have been no ambiguity about his ghastly and loathsome experience. The dead detective had altered his position as Silas Blackburn had done, and this time someone had been in the room and suffered the appalling change. Bobby's fingers still responded to the charnel feeling of cold, inactive flesh suddenly become alive and potent beneath his touch. And a reason for the apparent miracle offered itself. Between the extinction of his candle and the commencement of that movement!—only a second or so—the evidence had disappeared from the detective's pocket.
Bobby relaxed. He stumbled across the room and into the corridor. He went with hands outstretched through the blackness, for no candle burned in the upper hall, but he knew that Katherine was on guard there. When he left the passage he saw her, an unnatural figure herself, in the yellowish, unhealthy twilight which sifted through the stair well from the lamp in the hall below.
She must have sensed something out of the way immediately, for she hurried to meet him and her whisper held no assurance.
"You got the cast and the handkerchief, Bobby?"
And when he didn't answer at once she asked with a sharp rush of fear:
"What's the matter? What's happened?"
He shuddered. At last he managed to speak.
"Katherine! I have felt death cease to be death."
Later he was to recall that phrase with a sicker horror than he experienced now.
"You saw something!" she said. "But your candle is out. There is no light in the room."
He took her hand. He pressed it.
"You're real!" he said with a nervous laugh. "Something I can understand.
Everything is unreal. This light—"
Everything is unreal. This light—"
He strode to the table, found a match, and lighted his candle. Katherine, as she saw his face, drew back.
"My candle went out," he said dully, "and he moved through the darkness.
I tell you he moved beneath my hand."
I tell you he moved beneath my hand."
She drew farther away, staring at him.
"You were frightened—"
"No. If we go there with a light now," he said with the same dull conviction, "we will find him as we found my grandfather this afternoon."
The monotonous voices of the three men in the lower hall weaved a background for their whispers. The normal, familiar sound was like a tonic. Bobby straightened. Katherine threw off the spell of his announcement.
"But the evidence! You got—"
She stared at his empty hands. He fancied that he saw contempt in her eyes.
"In spite of everything you must go back. You must get that."
"Even if I had the courage," he said wearily, "it would be no use, for the evidence is gone."
"But I saw it. At least I saw his pocket—"
"It was there," he answered, "when my light went out. I did put my hand in his pocket. In that second it had gone."
"There was no one there," she said, "no one but you, because I watched."
He leaned heavily against the wall.
"Good God, Katherine! It's too big. Whatever it is, we can't fight it."
She looked for some time down the corridor at the black entrance of the sinister room. At last she turned and walked to the banister. She called:
"Hartley! Will you come up?"
Bobby wondered at the steadiness of her voice. The murmuring below
ceased. Graham ran up the stairs. Her summons had been warning enough.
Their attitudes, as Graham reached the upper hall, were eloquent of
ceased. Graham ran up the stairs. Her summons had been warning enough.
Their attitudes, as Graham reached the upper hall, were eloquent of
"You didn't get the cast and the handkerchief?" he said.
Bobby told briefly what had happened.
"What is one to do?" he ended. "Even the dead are against me."
"It's beyond belief," Graham said roughly.
He snatched up the candle and entered the corridor. Uncertainly Katherine and Bobby followed him. He went straight to the bed and thrust the candle beneath the canopy. The others could see from the door the change that had taken place. The body of Howells was turned awkwardly on its side. The coat pocket was, as Bobby had described it, flat and empty.
Katherine turned and went back to the hall. Graham's hand shook as
Bobby's had shaken.
Bobby's had shaken.
"No tricks, Bobby?"
Bobby couldn't resent the suspicion which appeared to offer the only explanation of what had happened. The candle flickered in the draft.
"Look out!" Bobby warned.
The misshapen shadows danced with a multiple vivacity across the walls. Graham shaded the candle flame, and the shadows became like morbid decorations, gargantuan and motionless.
"It's madness," Graham said. "There's no explanation of this that we can understand."
Howells's straight smile mocked them. As if in answer to Graham a voice sighed through the room. Its quality was one with the shadows, unsubstantial and shapeless. Bobby grasped one of the bed posts and braced himself, listening. The candle in Graham's hand commenced to flicker again, and Bobby knew that it hadn't been his fancy, for Graham listened, too.
It shook again through the heavy, oppressive night, merely accentuated by the candle—a faint ululation barely detaching itself from silence, straying after a time into the silence again. At first it was like the grief of a woman heard at a great distance. But the sound, while it gained no strength, forced on them more and more an abhorrent sense of intimacy. This crying from an infinite distance filled the room, seemed finally to have its source in the room itself. After it had sobbed thinly into nothing, its pulsations continued to sigh in Bobby's ears. They seemed timed to the renewed and eccentric dancing of the amorphous shadows.
Graham straightened and placed the candle on the bureau. He seemed more startled than he had been at the unbelievable secretiveness of a dead man.
"You heard it?" Bobby breathed.
"What was it? Where did you think it came from?" Bobby demanded. "It was like someone mourning for this—this poor devil."
Graham couldn't disguise his effort to elude the sombre spell of the room, to drive from his brain the illusion of that unearthly moaning.
"It must have come from outside the house," he answered "There's no use giving way to fancies where there's a possible explanation. It must have come from outside—from some woman in great agony of mind."
Bobby recalled his perception of a woman moving with a curious absence of sound about the edges of the stagnant lake. He spoke of it to Graham.
"I couldn't be sure it was a woman, but there's no house within two miles. What would a woman be doing wandering around the Cedars?"
"At any rate, there are three women in the house," Graham said, "Katherine and the two servants, Ella and Jane. The maids are badly frightened. It may have come from the servants' quarters. It must have been one of them."
But Bobby saw that Graham didn't believe either of the maids had released that poignant suffering.
"It didn't sound like a living voice," he said simply.
"Then how are we to take it?" Graham persisted angrily. "I shall question
Katherine and the two maids."
Katherine and the two maids."
He took up the candle with a stubborn effort to recapture his old forcefulness, but as they left the room the shadows thronged thickly after them in ominous pursuit; and it wasn't necessary to question Katherine. She stood in the corridor, her lips parted, her face white and shocked.
"What was it?" she said. "That nearly silent grief?"
She put her hands to her ears, lowering them helplessly after a moment.
"Where did you think it came from?" Graham asked.
"From a long ways off," she answered. "Then I—I thought it must be in the room with you, and I wondered if you saw—"
Graham shook his head.
"We saw nothing. It was probably Ella or Jane. They've been badly frightened. Perhaps a nightmare, or they've heard us moving around the front part of the house. I am going to see."
Katherine and Bobby followed him downstairs. Doctor Groom and Paredes stood in front of the fireplace, questioningly looking upward. Paredes didn't speak at first, but Doctor Groom burst out in his grumbling, bass voice:
"What's been going on up there?"
"Did you hear just now a queer crying?" Graham asked.
"I've heard nothing," Paredes answered, "except Doctor Groom's disquieting theories. It's an uncanny hour for such talk. What kind of a cry—may I ask?"
"Like a woman moaning," Bobby said, "and, Doctor, Howells has changed his position."
"What are you talking about?" the doctor cried.
"He has turned on his side as Mr. Blackburn did," Graham told him.
Paredes glanced at Bobby.
"And how was this new mystery discovered?"
Bobby caught the implication. Then the Panamanian clung to his slyly expressed doubt of Katherine which might, after all, have had its impulse in an instinct of self-preservation. Bobby knew that Graham and Katherine would guard the fashion in which the startling discovery had been made. Before he could speak for himself, indeed, Graham was answering Paredes:
"This crying seemed after a time to come from the room. We entered."
"But Miss Katherine called you up," Paredes said. "I supposed she had heard again movements in the room."
Bobby managed a smile.
"You see, Carlos, nothing is consistent in this case."
Paredes bowed gravely.
"It is very curious a woman should cry about the house."
"The servants may make it seem natural enough," Graham said. "Will you come, Bobby?"
As they crossed the dining room they heard a stirring in the kitchen. Graham threw open the door. Jenkins stood at the foot of the servants' stairs. The old butler had lighted a candle and placed it on the mantel. The disorder of his clothing suggested the haste with which he had left his bed and come downstairs. His wrinkled, sunken face had aged perceptibly. He advanced with an expression of obvious relief.
"I was just coming to find you, Mr. Robert."
"What's up?" Bobby asked. "A little while ago I thought you were all asleep back here."
"One of the women awakened him," Graham said. "It's just as I thought."
"Was that it?" the old butler asked with a quick relief. But immediately he shook his head. "It couldn't have been that, Mr. Graham, for I stopped at Ella's and Jane's doors, and there was no sound. They seemed to be asleep. And it wasn't like that."
"You mean," Bobby said, "that you heard a woman crying?"
Jenkins nodded. "It woke me up."
"If you didn't think it was one of the maids," Graham asked, "what did you make of it?"
"I thought it came from outside. I thought it was a woman prowling around the house. Then I said to myself, why should a woman prowl around the Cedars? And it was too unearthly, sir, and I remembered the way Mr. Silas was murdered, and the awful thing that happened to his body this afternoon, and I—you won't think me foolish, sirs?—I doubted if it was a human voice I had heard."
"No," Graham said dryly, "we won't think you foolish."
"So I thought I'd better wake you up and tell you."
Graham turned to Bobby.
"Katherine and you and I," he said, "fancied the crying was in the room with us. Jenkins is sure it came from outside the house. That is significant."
"Wherever it came from," Bobby said softly, "it was like some one mourning for Howells."
Bobby remembered that Jenkins hadn't been aroused by the discovery of
"You'd know in a few minutes anyway," he said. "Howells has been killed as my grandfather was."
Jenkins moved back, a look of unbelief and awe in his wrinkled face.
"He boasted he was going to sleep in that room," he whispered.
Bobby studied Jenkins, not knowing what to make of the old man, for into the awe of the wrinkled face had stolen a positive relief, an emotion that bordered on the triumphant.
"It's terrible," Jenkins whispered.
Graham grasped his shoulder.
"What's the matter with you, Jenkins? One would say you were glad."
"No. Oh, no, sir. It is terrible. I was only wondering about the policeman's report."
"What do you know about his report?" Bobby cried.
"Only that—that he gave it to me to mail just before he went up to the old room."
"You mailed it?" Graham snapped.
Jenkins hesitated. When he answered his voice was self-accusing.
"I'm an old coward, Mr. Robert. The policeman told me the letter was very important, and if anything happened to it I would get in trouble. He couldn't afford to leave the house himself, he said. But, as I say, I'm a coward, and I didn't want to walk through the woods to the box by the gate. I figured it all out. It wouldn't be taken up until early in the morning, and if I waited until daylight it would only be delayed one collection. So I made up my mind I'd sleep on it, because I knew he had it in for you, Mr. Robert. I supposed I'd mail it in the morning, but I decided I'd think it over anyway and not harrow myself walking through the woods."
"You've done a good job," Graham said excitedly. "Where is the report now?"
"In my room. Shall I fetch it, sir?"
Graham nodded, and Jenkins shuffled up the stairs.
"What luck!" Graham said. "Howells must have telephoned his suspicions to the district attorney. He must have mentioned the evidence, but what does that amount to since it's disappeared along with the duplicate of the report, if Howells made one?"
"I can fight with a clear conscience," Bobby cried. "I wasn't asleep when Howells's body altered its position. Do you realize what that means to me? For once I was wide awake when the old room was at its tricks."
"If Howells were alive," Graham answered shortly, "he would look on the fact that you were awake and alone with the body as the worst possible evidence against you."
Bobby's elation died.
"There is always something to tangle me in the eyes of the law with these mysteries. But I know, and I'll fight. Can you find any trace of a conspiracy against me in this last ghastly adventure?"
"It complicates everything," Graham admitted.
"It's beyond sounding," Bobby said, "for my grandfather's death last night and the disturbance of his body this afternoon seemed calculated to condemn me absolutely, yet Howells's murder and the movement of his body, with the disappearance of the cast and the handkerchief, seem designed to save me. Are there two influences at work in this house—one for me, one against me?"
"Let's think of the human elements," Graham answered with a frown. "I have no faith in Paredes. My man has failed to report on Maria. That's queer. You fancy a woman in black slipping through the woods, and we hear a woman cry. I want to account for those things before I give in to Groom's spirits. I confess at times they seem the only logical explanation. Here's Jenkins."
"If trouble comes of his withholding the report I'll take the blame,"
Graham snatched the long envelope from Jenkins' hand. It was addressed in a firm hand to the district attorney at the county seat.
"There's no question," Graham said. "That's it. We mustn't open it. We'd better not destroy it. Put it where it won't be easily found, Jenkins. If you are questioned you have no recollection of Howells having given it to you. Mr. Blackburn promises he will see you get in no trouble."
The old man smiled.
"Trouble!" he scoffed. "Mr. Blackburn needn't fret himself about me. He's the last of this family—that is Miss Katherine and he. I'm old and about done for. I don't mind trouble. Not a bit, sir."
Bobby pressed his hand. His voice was a little husky: "I didn't think you'd go that far in my service, Jenkins."
The old butler smiled slyly: "I'd go a lot further than that, sir."
"We'd better get back," Graham said. "The blood hounds ought to be here, and they'll sniff at the case harder than ever because it's done for Howells."
They watched Jenkins go upstairs with the report.
"We're taking long chances," Graham said, "desperately long chances, but you're in a desperately dangerous position. It's the only way. You'll be accused of stealing the evidence; but remember, when they question you, they can prove nothing unless the cast and the handkerchief turn up. If they've been taken by an enemy in some magical fashion to be produced at the proper moment, there's no hope. Meantime play the game, and Katherine and I will help you all we can. The doctor, too, is friendly. There's no doubt of him. Come, now. Let's face the music."
Bobby followed Graham to the hall, trying to strengthen his nerves for the ordeal. Even now he was more appalled by the apparently supernatural background of the case than he was by the material details which pointed to his guilt. More than the report and the cast and the handkerchief, the remembrance of that impossible moment in the blackness of the old room filled his mind, and the unearthly and remote crying still throbbed in his ears.
Katherine, Graham, and the doctor waited by the fireplace. They had heard nothing from the authorities.
"But they must be here soon," Doctor Groom said.
"Did you learn anything back there, Hartley?" Katherine asked.
"It wasn't the servants," he said. "Jenkins heard the crying. He's certain it came from outside the house."
Paredes looked up.
"Extraordinary!" he said.
"I wish I had heard it," Doctor Groom grumbled.
"Thank the good Lord I didn't. Perpetually, Bobby, your house reminds me that I've nerves sensitive to the unknown world. I will go further than the doctor. I will say that this house is crowded with the supernatural. It shelters things that we cannot understand, that we will never understand. When I was a child in Panama I had a nurse who, unfortunately, developed too strongly my native superstition. How she frightened me with her bedtime stories! They were all of men murdered or dead of fevers, crossing the trail, or building the railroad, or digging insufficient ditches for De Lesseps. Some of her best went farther back than that. They were thick with the ghosts of old Spaniards and the crimson hands of Morgan's buccaneers. Really that tiny strip across the isthmus is crowded with souls snatched too quickly from torn and tortured bodies. If you are sensitive you feel they are still there."
"What has all this to do with the Cedars?" Doctor Groom grumbled.
"It explains my ability to sense strange elements in this old house. There are in Panama—if you don't mind, doctor—improvised graveyards, tangled by the jungle, that give you a feeling of an active, unseen population precisely as this house does."
He arose and strolled with a cat-like lack of sound about the hall. When he spoke again his voice was scarcely audible. It was the voice of a man who thinks aloud, and the doctor failed to interrupt him again.
"I have felt less spiritually alarmed in those places of grinning skulls, which always seem trying to recite agonies beyond expression, than I feel in this house. For here the woods are more desolate than the jungle, and the walls of houses as old as this make a prison for suffering."
A vague discomfort stole through Bobby's surprise. He had never heard Paredes speak so seriously. In spite of the man's unruffled manner there was nothing of mockery about his words. What, then, was their intention?
Paredes said no more, but for several minutes he paced up and down the hall, glancing often with languid eyes toward the stairs. He had the appearance of one who expects and waits.
Katherine, Graham, and the doctor, Bobby could see, had been made as uneasy as himself by the change in the Panamanian. The doctor cleared his throat. His voice broke the silence tentatively:
"If this house makes you so unhappy, young man, why do you stay?"
Paredes paused in his walk. His thin lips twitched. He indicated Bobby.
"For the sake of my very good friend. What are a man's personal fears and desires if he can help his friends?"
Graham's distaste was evident. Paredes recognized it with a smile. Bobby watched him curiously, realizing more and more that Graham was right to this extent: they must somehow learn the real purpose of the Panamanian's continued presence here.
Paredes resumed his walk. He still had that air of expectancy. He seemed to listen. This feeling of imminence reached Bobby; increased his restlessness. He thought he heard an automobile horn outside. He sprang up, went to the door, opened it, and stood gazing through the damp and narrow court. Yet, he confessed, he listened for a repetition of that unearthly crying through the thicket rather than for the approach of those who would try to condemn him for two murders. Paredes was right. The place was unhealthy. Its dark walls seemed to draw closer. They had a desolate and unfriendly secretiveness. They might hide anything.
The whirring of a motor reached him. Headlights flung gigantic, distorted shadows of trees across the walls of the old wing. Bobby faced the others.
"They're coming," he said, and his voice was sufficiently apprehensive now.
Graham joined him at the door. "Yes," he said. "There will be another inquisition. You all know that Howells for some absurd reason suspected Bobby. Bobby, it goes without saying, knows no more about the crimes than any of us. I dare say you'll keep that in mind if they try to confuse you. After all, there's very little any of us can tell them."
"Except," Paredes said with a yawn, "what went on upstairs when the woman cried and Howells's body moved. Of course I know nothing about that."
Graham glanced at him sharply.
"I don't know what you mean, but you have told us all that you are
"Quite so. And I am not a spy."
He moved his head in his grave and dignified bow.
The automobile stopped at the entrance to the court. Three men stepped out and hurried up the path. As they entered the hall Bobby recognized the sallow, wizened features of the coroner. One of the others was short and thick set. His round and florid face, one felt, should have expressed friendliness and good-humour rather than the intolerant anger that marked it now. The third was a lank, bald-headed man, whose sharp face released more determination than intelligence.
"I am Robinson, the district attorney," the stout one announced, "and this is Jack Rawlins, the best detective I've got now that Howells is gone. Jack was a close friend of Howells, so he'll make a good job of it, but I thought it was time I came myself to see what the devil's going on in this house."
The lank man nodded.
"You're right, Mr. Robinson. There'll be no more nonsense about the case.
If Howells had made an arrest he might be alive this minute."
If Howells had made an arrest he might be alive this minute."
Bobby's heart sank. These men would act from a primary instinct of revenge. They wanted the man who had killed Silas Blackburn principally because it was certain he had also killed their friend. Rawlins's words, moreover, suggested that Howells must have telephoned a pretty clear outline of the case. Robinson stared at them insolently.
"This is Doctor Groom, I know. Which is young Mr. Blackburn?"
Bobby stepped forward. The sharp eyes, surrounded by puffy flesh, studied him aggressively. Bobby forced himself to meet that unfriendly gaze. Would Robinson accuse him now, before he had gone into the case for himself? At least he could prove nothing. After a moment the man turned away.
"Who is this?" he asked, indicating Graham.
"A very good friend—my lawyer, Mr. Graham," Bobby answered.
Robinson walked over to Paredes.
"Another lawyer?" he sneered.
"Another friend," Paredes answered easily.
Robinson glanced at Katherine.
"Of course you are Miss Perrine. Good. Coroner, these are all that were in the front part of the house when you were here before?"
"The same lot," the coroner squeaked.
"There are three servants, a man and two women," Robinson went on. "Account for them, Rawlins, and see what they have to say. Come upstairs when you're through. All right, Coroner."
But he paused at the foot of the steps.
"For the present no one will leave the house without my permission. If you care to come upstairs with me, Mr. Blackburn, you might be useful."
Bobby shrank from the thought of returning to the old room even with this determined company. He didn't hesitate, however, for Robinson's purpose was clear. He wanted Bobby where he could watch him. Graham prepared to accompany them.
"If you need me," the doctor said. "I looked at the body—"
"Oh, yes," Robinson sneered. "I'd like to know exactly what time you found the body."
Graham flushed, but Katherine answered easily:
"About half-past two—the hour at which Mr. Blackburn was killed."
"And I," Robinson sneered, "was aroused at three-thirty. An hour during which the police were left out of the case!"
"We thought it wise to get a physician first of all," Graham said.
"You knew Howells never had a chance. You knew he had been murdered the moment you looked at him," Robinson burst out.
"We acted for the best," Graham answered.
His manner impressed silence on Katherine and Bobby.
"We'll see about that later," Robinson said with a clear threat. "If it doesn't inconvenience you too much we'll go up now."
In the upper hall he snatched the candle from the table.
Katherine nodded to the old corridor and slipped to her room. Robinson stepped forward with the coroner at his heels. Bobby, Graham, and the doctor followed. Inside the narrow, choking passage Bobby saw the district attorney hesitate.
"What's the matter?" the doctor rumbled.
The district attorney went on without answering. He glanced at the broken lock.
"So you had to smash your way in?"
He walked to the bed and looked down at Howells.
"Poor devil!" he murmured. "Howells wasn't the man to get caught unawares. It's beyond me how any one could have come close enough to make that wound without putting him on his guard."
"It's beyond us, as it was beyond him," Graham answered, "how any one got into the room at all."
In response to Robinson's questions he told in detail about the discovery of both murders. Robinson pondered for some time.
"Then you and Mr. Blackburn were asleep," he said. "Miss Perrine aroused you. This foreigner Paredes was awake and dressed and in the lower hall."
"I think he was in the court as we went by the stair-well," Graham corrected him.
"I shall want to talk to your foreigner," Robinson said. He shivered.
"This room is like a charnel house. Why did Howells want to sleep here?"
"This room is like a charnel house. Why did Howells want to sleep here?"
"I don't think he intended to sleep," Graham said. "From the start Howells was bound to solve the mystery of the entrance of the room. He came here, hoping that the criminal would make just such an attempt as he did. He was confident he could take care of himself, get his man, and clear up the last details of the case."
Robinson looked straight at Bobby.
"Then Howells knew the criminal was in the house."
"Howells, I daresay," Graham said, "telephoned you something of his suspicions." Robinson nodded.
"He was on the wrong line," Graham argued, "or he wouldn't have been so easily overcome. You can see for yourself. Locked doors, a wound that suggests the assailant was close to him, yet he must have been awake and watchful; and if there had been a physical attack before the sharp instrument was driven into his brain he would have cried out, yet Miss Perrine was aroused by nothing of the sort, and the coroner, I daresay, will find no marks of a struggle about the body."
The coroner who had been busy at the bed glanced up.
"No mark at all. If Howells wasn't asleep, his murderer must have been invisible as well as noiseless."
Doctor Groom smiled. The coroner glared at him.
"I suggest, Mr. District Attorney," he squeaked, "that the ordinary layman wouldn't know that this type of wound would cause immediate death."
"Nor would any man," the doctor answered angrily, "be able to make such a wound with his victim lying on his back."
"On his back!" Robinson echoed. "But he isn't on his back."
The doctor told of the amazing alteration in the positions of both victims. Bobby regretted with all his heart that he had made the attempt to get the evidence. Already complete frankness was impossible for him. Already a feeling of guilt sprang from the necessity of withholding the first-hand testimony which he alone could give.
"And a woman cried!" Robinson said, bewildered. "All this sounds like a ghost story."
"You've more sense than I thought," Doctor Groom said dryly. "I never could get Howells to see it that way."
"What are you driving at?" Robinson snapped.
"These crimes," the doctor answered, "have all the elements of a ghostly impulse."
Robinson's laugh was a little uncomfortable.
"The Cedars is a nice place for spooks, but it won't do. I'll be frank. Howells telephoned me. He had found plenty of evidence of human interference. It's evident in both cases that the murderer came back and disturbed the bodies for some special purpose. I don't know what it was the first time, but it's simple to understand the last. The murderer came for evidence Howells had on his person."
Bobby couldn't meet the sharp, puffy eyes. He alone was capable of testifying that the evidence had been removed as if to secrete it from his unlawful hand. Yet if he spoke he would prove the district attorney's point. He would condemn himself.
"Curious," Graham said slowly, "that the murderer didn't take the evidence when he killed his man."
"I don't know about that," Robinson said, "but I know Howells had evidence on his person. You through, Coroner? Then we'll have a look, although it's little use."
He walked to the bed and searched Howells's pockets.
"Just as I thought. Nothing. He told me he was preparing a report. If he didn't mail it, that was stolen with the rest of the stuff. Rawlins's right. He waited too long to make his arrest."
Again Bobby wondered if the man would bring matters to a head now. He could appreciate, however, that Robinson, with nothing to go on but Howells's telephoned suspicions, might spoil his chances of a solution by acting too hastily. Rawlins strolled in.
"The two women were asleep," he said. "The old man knows nothing beyond the fact that he heard a woman crying outside a little while ago."
"I don't think we need bother about the back part of the house for the present," Robinson said. "Howells's evidence has been stolen. It's your job to find it unless it's been destroyed. Your other job is to discover the instrument that caused death in both cases. Then maybe our worthy doctor will desert his ghosts. Mr. Blackburn, if you will come with me there's a slight possibility of checking up some of the evidence of which Howells spoke. Our fine fellow may have made a slip in the court."
Bobby understood and was afraid—more afraid than he had been at any time since he had overheard Howells catalogue his case to Graham in the library. Why, even in so much confusion, had Graham and he failed to think of those tell-tale marks in the court? They had been intact when he had stood there just before dark. It was unlikely any one had walked across the grass since. He saw Graham's elaborate precautions demolished, the case against him stronger than it had been before Howells's murder. Graham's face revealed the same helpless comprehension. They followed Robinson downstairs. Graham made a gesture of surrender. Bobby glanced at Paredes who alone had remained below. The Panamanian smoked and lounged in the easy chair. His eyes seemed restless.
"I shall wish to ask you some questions in a few minutes, Mr. Paredes," the district attorney said.
"At your service, I'm sure," Paredes drawled.
He watched them until they had entered the court and closed the door. The chill dampness of the court infected Bobby as it had always done. It was a proper setting for his accusation and arrest. For Robinson, he knew, wouldn't wait as Howells had done to solve the mystery of the locked doors.
Robinson, while the others grouped themselves about him, took a flashlight from his pocket and pressed the control. The brilliant cylinder of light illuminated the grass, making it seem unnaturally green. Bobby braced himself for the inevitable denouement. Then, while Robinson exclaimed angrily, his eyes widened, his heart beat rapidly with a vast and wondering relief. For the marks he remembered so clearly had been obliterated with painstaking thoroughness, and at first the slate seemed perfectly clean. He was sure his unknown friend had avoided leaving any trace of his own. Each step in the grass had been carefully scraped out. In the confusion of the path there was nothing to be learned.
The genuine surprise of Bobby's exclamation turned Robinson to him with a look of doubt.
"You acknowledge these footmarks were here, Mr. Blackburn?"
"Certainly," Bobby answered. "I saw them myself just before dark. I knew
Howells ridiculously connected them with the murderer."
Howells ridiculously connected them with the murderer."
"You made a good job of it when you trampled, them out," Robinson hazarded.
But it was clear Bobby's amazement had not been lost on him.
"Or," he went on, "this foreigner who advertises himself as your friend!
He was in the court tonight. We know that."
He was in the court tonight. We know that."
Suddenly he stooped, and Bobby got on his knees beside him. The cylinder of light held in its centre one mark, clear and distinct in the trampled grass, and with a warm gratitude, a swift apprehension, Bobby thought of Katherine. For the mark in the grass had been made by the heel of a woman's shoe.
"Not the foreigner then," Robinson mused, "not yourself, Blackburn, but a woman, a devoted woman. That's something to get after."
"And if she lies, the impression of the heel will give her away," the coroner suggested.
"You'd make a rotten detective, Coroner. Women's heels are cut to a pattern. There are thousands of shoes whose heels would fit this impression. We need the sole for identification, and that she hasn't left us. But she's done one favour. She's advertised herself as a woman, and there are just three women in the house. One of those committed this serious offence, and the inference is obvious."
Before Bobby could protest, the doctor broke in with his throaty rumble:
"One of those, or the woman who cried about the house."
"One of those, or the woman who cried about the house."
Bobby started. The memory of that eerie grief was still uncomfortable in his brain. Could there have been actually a woman at the stagnant lake that afternoon and close to the house to-night—some mysterious friend who assumed grave risks in his service? He recognized Robinson's logic. Unless there were something in that far-fetched theory, Katherine faced a situation nearly as serious as his own. Robinson straightened. At the same moment the scraping of a window reached them. Bobby glanced at the newer wing. Katherine leaned from her window. The coincidence disturbed him. In Robinson's mind, he knew, her anxiety would assume a colour of guilt. Her voice, moreover, was too uncertain, too full of misgivings:
"What is going on down there? There have been no—no more tragedies?"
"Would you mind joining us for a moment?" Robinson asked.
She drew back. The curtain fell over her lighted window. The darkness of the court was disturbed again only by the limited radiance of the flashlight. She came hurriedly from the front door.
"I saw you gathered here. I heard you talking. I wondered."
"You knew there were footprints in this court," Robinson said harshly, "that Howells connected them with the murderer of your uncle."
"Yes," she answered simply.
"Why then," he asked, "did you attempt to obliterate them?"
"What do you mean? I didn't. I haven't been out of the house since just after luncheon."
"Can you prove that?"
"It needs no proof. I tell you so."
The flashlight exposed the ugly confidence of Robinson's smile.
"I am sorry to suggest the need of corroboration."
"You doubt my word?" she flashed.
"A woman," he answered, "has obliterated valuable testimony, I shall make it my business to punish her."
She laughed again. Without another word she turned and reentered the house. Robinson's oath was audible to the others.
"We can't put up with that sort of thing, sir," Rawlins said.
"I ought to place this entire household under arrest," Robinson muttered.
"As a lawyer," Graham said easily, "I should think with your lack of evidence it might be asking for trouble. There is Paredes who acknowledges he was in the court."
"All right. I'll see what he's got to say."
He started for the house. Bobby lingered for a moment with Graham.
"Do you know anything about this, Hartley?"
"Nothing," Graham whispered.
"Then you don't think Katherine—"
"If she'd done it she'd have taken good care not to be so curious. I doubt if it was Katherine."
They followed the others into the hall. Bobby, scarcely appreciating why at first, realized there had been a change there. Then he understood: Robinson faced an empty chair. The hall was pungent with cigarette smoke, but Paredes had gone.
Robinson pointed to the stairs.
"Get him down," he said to Rawlins.
"He wouldn't have gone to bed," Graham suggested. "Suppose he's in the old room where Howells lies?"
But Rawlins found him nowhere upstairs. With an increasing excitement Robinson joined the search. They went through the entire house. Paredes was no longer there. He had, to all appearances, put a period to his unwelcome visit. He had definitely disappeared from the Cedars.
His most likely exit was through the kitchen door which was unlocked, but Jenkins who had returned to his room had heard no one. With their electric lamps Robinson and Rawlins ferreted about the rear entrance for traces. The path there was as trampled and useless as the one in front. Rawlins, who had gone some distance from the house, straightened with a satisfied exclamation. The others joined him.
"Here's where he left the path right enough," he said. "And our foreigner wasn't making any more noise than he had to."
He flashed his lamp on a fresh footprint in the soft soil at the side of the path. The mark of the toe was deep and firm. The impression of the heel was very light. Paredes, it was clear, had walked from the house on tiptoe.
"Follow on," Robinson commanded. "I told this fellow I wanted to question him. I've scared him off."
Keeping his light on the ground, Rawlins led the way across the clearing. The trail was simple enough to follow. Each of the Panamanian's footprints was distinct. Each had that peculiarity that suggested the stealth of his progress.
As they continued Bobby responded to an excited premonition. He sensed the destination of the chase. He could picture Paredes now in the loneliest portion of the woods, for the trail unquestionably pointed to the path he had taken that afternoon toward the stagnant lake.
"Hartley!" he said. "Paredes left the house to go to the stagnant lake where I fancied I saw a woman in black. Do you see? And he didn't hear the crying of a woman a little while ago, and when we told him he became restless. He wandered about the hall talking of ghosts."
"A rendezvous!" Graham answered. "He may have been waiting for just that. The crying may have been a signal. Perhaps you'll believe now, Bobby, that the man has had an underhanded purpose in staying here."
"I've made too many hasty judgments in my life, Hartley. I'll go slow on this. I'll wait until we see what we find at the lake."
Rawlins snapped off his light. The little party paused at the black entrance of the path into the thicket.
"He's buried himself in the woods," Rawlins said.
They crowded instinctively closer in the sudden darkness. A brisk wind had sprung up. It rattled among the trees, and set the dead leaves in gentle, rustling motion. It suggested to Bobby the picture which had been forced into his brain the night of his grandfather's death. The moon now possessed less light, but it reminded him again of a drowning face, and through the darkness he could fancy the trees straining in the wind like puny men. Abruptly the thought of penetrating the forest became frightening. The silent loneliness of the stagnant lake seemed as unfriendly and threatening as the melancholy of the old room.
"There are too many of us," Robinson was saying. "You'd better go on alone, Rawlins, and don't take any chances. I've got to have this man. You understand? I think he knows things worth while."
The rising wind laughed at his whisper. The detective flashed his lamp once, shut it off again, and stepped into the close embrace of the thicket.
Suddenly Bobby grasped Graham's arm. The little group became tense, breathless. For across the wind with a diffused quality, a lack of direction, vibrated to them again the faint and mournful grief of a woman.
THE ONE WHO CREPT IN THE PRIVATE STAIRCASE
The odd, mournful crying lost itself in the restless lament of the wind. The thicket from which it had seemed to issue assumed in the pallid moonlight a new unfriendliness. Instinctively the six men moved closer together. The coroner's thin tones expressed his alarm:
"What the devil was that? I don't really believe there could be a woman around here."
"A queer one!" the detective grunted.
The district attorney questioned Bobby and Graham.
"That's the voice you heard from the house?"
"Perhaps not so far away."
Doctor Groom, hitherto more captured than any of them by the imminence of a spiritual responsibility for the mystery of the Cedars, was the first now to reach for a rational explanation of this new phase.
"We mustn't let our fancies run away with us. The coroner's right for once. No excuse for a woman hiding in that thicket. A bird, maybe, or some animal—"
"Sounded more like a human being," Robinson objected.
The detective reasoned in a steady unmoved voice: "Only a mad woman would wander through the woods, crying like that without a special purpose. This man Paredes has left the house and come through here. I'd guess it was a signal."
"Graham and I had thought of that," Bobby said.
"Howells was a sharp one," Robinson mused, "but he must have gone wrong on this fellow. He 'phoned me the man knew nothing. Spoke of him as a foreigner who lolled around smoking cigarettes and trying to make a fool of him with a lot of talk about ghosts."
"Howells," Graham said, "misjudged the case from the start. He wasn't to blame, but his mistake cost him his life."
Robinson didn't answer. Bobby saw that the man had discarded his intolerant temper. From that change he drew a new hope. He accepted it as the beginning of fulfilment of his prophecy last night that an accident to Howells and the entrance of a new man into the case would give him a fighting chance. It was clearly Paredes at the moment who filled the district attorney's mind.
"Go after him," he said shortly to Rawlins. "If you can get away with it bring him back and whoever you find with him."
"I'm no coward, but I know what's happened to Howells. This isn't an ordinary case. I don't want to walk into an ambush. It would be safer not to run him down alone."
"All right," Robinson agreed, "I don't care to leave the Cedars for the present. Perhaps Mr. Graham—"
But Graham wasn't enthusiastic. It never occurred to Bobby that he was afraid. Graham, he guessed, desired to remain near Katherine.
"I'll go, if you like," Doctor Groom rumbled.
It was probable that Graham's instinct to stay had sprung from service rather than sentiment. The man, it was reasonable, sought to protect Katherine from the Cedars itself and from Robinson's too direct methods of examination. As an antidote for his unwelcome jealousy Bobby offered himself to Rawlins.
"Would you mind if I came, too? I've known Paredes a long time."
"What do you think of that, Rawlins?"
But the detective stepped close and whispered in the district attorney's ear.
"All right," Robinson said. "Go with 'em, if you want, Mr. Blackburn."
And Bobby knew that he would go, not to help, but to be watched.
The others strayed toward the house. The three men faced the entrance of the path alone.
"No more loud talk now," the detective warned. "If he went on tiptoe so can we."
Even with this company Bobby shrank from the dark and restless forest. With a smooth skill the detective followed the unfamiliar path. From time to time he stooped close to the ground, shaded his lamp with his hand, and pressed the control. Always the light verified the presence of Paredes ahead of them. Bobby knew they were near the stagnant lake. The underbrush was thicker. They went with more care to limit the sound of their passage among the trees. And each moment the physical surroundings of the pursuit increased Bobby's doubt of Paredes. No ordinary impulse would bring a man to such a place in this black hour before the dawn—particularly Paredes, who spoke constantly of his superstitious nature, who advertised a thorough-paced fear of the Cedars. The Panamanian's decision to remain, his lack of emotion before the tragic succession of events at the house, his attempt to enter the corridor just before Bobby had gone himself to the old room for the evidence, his desire to direct suspicion against Katherine, finally this excursion in response to the eerie crying, all suggested a definite, perhaps a dangerous, purpose in the brain of the serene and inscrutable man.
They slipped to the open space about the lake. The moon barely distinguished for them the flat, melancholy stretch of water. They listened breathlessly. There was no sound beyond the normal stirrings of the forest. Bobby had a feeling, similar to the afternoon's, that he was watched. He tried unsuccessfully to penetrate the darkness across the lake where he had fancied the woman skulking. The detective's keen senses were satisfied.
"Dollars to doughnuts they're not here. They've probably gone on. I'll have to take a chance and show the light again."
Fresh footprints were revealed in the narrow circle of illumination. Testifying to Paredes's continued stealth, they made a straight line to the water's edge. Rawlins exclaimed:
"He stepped into the lake. How deep is it?"
The black surface of the water seemed to Bobby like an opaque glass, hiding sinister things. Suppose Paredes, instead of coming to a rendezvous, had been led?
"It's deep enough in the centre," he answered.
"Shallow around the edges?"
"Then he knew we were after him," Groom said.
Rawlins nodded and ran his light along the shore. A few yards to the right a ledge of smooth rock stretched from the water to a grove of pine trees. The detective arose and turned off his light.
"He's blocked us," he said. "He knew he wouldn't leave his marks on the rocks or the pine needles. No way to guess his direction now."
Doctor Groom cleared his throat. With a hesitant manner he recited the discovery of the queer light in the deserted house, its unaccountable disappearances their failure to find its source.
"I was thinking," he explained, "that Paredes alone saw the light give out. It was his suggestion that he go to the front of the house to investigate. This path might be used as a short cut to the deserted house. The rendezvous may have been there."
Rawlins was interested again.
"How far is it?"
"Not much more than a mile," Groom answered.
"Then we'll go," the detective decided. "Show the way."
Groom in the lead, they struck off through the woods. Bobby, who walked last, noticed the faint messengers of dawn behind the trees in the east. He was glad. The night cloaked too much in this neighbourhood. By daylight the empty house would guard its secret less easily. Suddenly he paused and stood quite still. He wanted to call to the others, to point out what he had seen. There was no question. By chance he had accomplished the task that had seemed so hopeless yesterday. He had found the spot where his consciousness had come back momentarily to record a wet moon, trees straining in the wind like puny men, and a figure in a mask which he had called his conscience. He gazed, his hope retreating before an unforeseen disappointment, for with the paling moon and the bent trees survived that very figure on the discovery of whose nature he had built so vital a hope; and in this bad light it conveyed to him an appearance nearly human. Through the underbrush the trunk of a tree shattered by some violent storm mocked him with its illusion. The dead leaves at the top were like cloth across a face. Therefore, he argued, there had been no conspiracy against him. Paredes was clean as far as that was concerned. He had wandered about the Cedars alone. He had opened his eyes at a point between the court and the deserted house.
Rawlins turned back suspiciously, asking why he loitered. He continued almost indifferently. He still wanted to know Paredes's goal, but his disappointment and its meaning obsessed him.
When they crept up the growing light exposed the scars of the deserted house. Everything was as Bobby remembered it. At the front there was no decayed wood or vegetation to strengthen the doctor's half-hearted theory of a phosphorescent emanation.
The tangle of footsteps near the rear door was confusing and it was some time before the three men straightened and glanced at each other, knowing that the doctor's wisdom was proved. For Paredes had been there recently; for that matter, might still be in the house. Moreover, he hadn't hidden his tracks, as he could have done, in the thick grass. Instead he had come in a straight line from the woods across a piece of sandy ground which contained the record of his direction and his continued stealth. But inside they found nothing except burnt-out matches strewn across the floor, testimony of their earlier search. The fugitive had evidently left more carefully than he had come. The chill emptiness of the deserted house had drawn and released him ahead of the chase.
"I guess he knew what the light meant," the detective said, "as well as he did that queer calling. It complicates matters that I can't find a woman's footprints around here. She may have kept to the grass and this marked-up path, for, since I don't believe in banshees, I'll swear there's been a woman around, either a crazy woman, wandering at large, who might be connected with the murders, or else a sane one who signalled the foreigner. Let's get back and see what the district attorney makes of it."
"It might be wiser not to dismiss the banshees, as you call them, too hurriedly," Doctor Groom rumbled.
As they returned along the road in the growing light Bobby lost the feeling he had had of being spied upon. The memory of such an adventure was bound to breed something like confidence among its actors. Rawlins, Bobby hoped, would be less unfriendly. The detective, in fact, talked as much to him as to the doctor. He assured them that Robinson would get the Panamanian unless he proved miraculously clever.
"He's shown us that he knows something," he went on. "I don't say how much, because I can't get a motive to make it worth his while to commit such crimes."
The man smiled blandly at Bobby.
"While in your case there's a motive at least—the money."
"That's the easiest motive to understand in the world. It's stronger than love."
Bobby wondered. Love had been the impulse for the last few months' folly that had led him into his present situation. Graham, over his stern principles of right, had already stepped outside the law in backing Katherine's efforts to save Bobby. So he wondered how much Graham would risk, how far he was capable of going himself, at the inspiration of such a motive.
The sun was up when they reached the Cedars. Katherine had gone to her room. The coroner had left. Robinson and Graham had built a fresh fire in the hall. They sat there, talking.
"Where you been?" Robinson demanded. "We'd about decided the spooks had done for you."
The detective outlined their failure. The district attorney listened with a frown. At the end he arose and, without saying anything, walked to the telephone. When he returned he appeared better satisfied.
"Mr. Paredes," he said, "will have to be a slick article to make a clean getaway. And I'm bringing another man to keep reporters out. They'll know from Howells's murder that Mr. Blackburn didn't die a natural death. If reporters get in don't talk to them. I don't want that damned foreigner reading in the papers what's going on here. I'd give my job to have him in that chair for five minutes now."
Graham cleared his throat.
"I scarcely know how to suggest this, since it is sufficiently clear, because of Howells's suspicions, that you have Mr. Blackburn under close observation. But he has a fair idea of Paredes's habits, his haunts, and his friends in New York. He might be able to learn things the police couldn't. I've one or two matters to take me to town. I would make myself personally responsible for his return—"
The district attorney interrupted.
"I see what you mean. Wait a minute."
He clasped his hands and rolled his fat thumbs one around the other. The little eyes, surrounded by puffy flesh, became enigmatic. All at once he glanced up with a genial smile.
"Why not? I haven't said anything about holding Mr. Blackburn as more than a witness."
His tone chilled Bobby as thoroughly as a direct accusation would have done.
"And," Robinson went on, "the sooner you go the better. The sooner you get back the better."
Graham was visibly puzzled by this prompt acquiescence. He started for the stairs, but the district attorney waved him aside.
"Coats and hats are downstairs. No need wasting time."
Graham turned to Doctor Groom.
"You'll tell Miss Perrine, Doctor?"
The doctor showed that he understood the warning Graham wished to convey.
The district attorney made a point of walking to the stable to see them off. Graham gestured angrily as they drove away.
"It's plain as the nose on your face. I was too anxious to test their attitude toward you, Bobby. He jumped at the chance to run us out of the house. He'll have several hours during which to turn the place upside down, to give Katherine the third degree. And we can't go back. We'll have to see it through."
"Why should he give me a chance to slip away?" Bobby asked.
But before long he realized that Robinson was taking no chances. At the junction of the road from Smithtown a car picked them up and clung to their heels all the way to the city.
"Rawlins must have telephoned," Graham said, "while we went to the stable. They're still playing Howells's game. They'll give you plenty of rope."
He drove straight to Bobby's apartment. The elevator man verified their suspicions. Robinson had telephoned the New York police for a search. A familiar type of metropolitan detective met them in the hall outside Bobby's door.
"I'm through, gentlemen," he greeted them impudently.
Graham faced him in a burst of temper.
"The city may have to pay for this outrage."
The man grinned.
"I should get gray hairs about that."
He went on downstairs. They entered the apartment to find confusion in each room. Bureau drawers had been turned upside down. The desk had been examined with a reckless thoroughness. Graham was frankly worried.
"I wonder if he found anything. If he did you won't get out of town."
"What could he find?" Bobby asked.
"If the court was planted," Graham answered, "why shouldn't these rooms have been?"
"After last night I don't believe the court was planted," Bobby said.
In the lower hall the elevator man handed Bobby the mail that had come since the night of his grandfather's murder. In the car again he glanced over the envelopes. He tore one open with a surprised haste.
"This is Maria's handwriting," he told Graham.
He read the hastily scrawled note aloud with a tone that failed toward the end.
"You must not, as you say, think me a bad sport. You were very wicked last night. Maybe you were so because of too many of those naughty little cocktails. Why should you threaten poor Maria? And you boasted you were going out to the Cedars to kill your grandfather because you didn't like him any more. So I told Carlos to take you home. I was afraid of a scene in public. Come around. Have tea with me. Tell me you forgive me. Tell me what was the matter with you."
"She must have written that yesterday morning," Bobby muttered. "Good
Lord, Hartley! Then it was in my mind!"
Lord, Hartley! Then it was in my mind!"
"Unless that letter's a plant, too," Graham said. "Yet how could she know there'd be a search? Why shouldn't she have addressed it to the Cedars where there was a fair chance of its being opened and read by the police? Why hasn't my man made any report on her? We've a number of questions to ask Maria."
But word came down from the dancer's apartment that Maria wasn't at home.
"When did she go out?" Graham asked the hall man.
"Not since I came on duty at six o'clock."
Graham slipped a bill in the man's hand.
"We've an important message for her. We'd better leave it with the maid."
When they were alone in the upper hall he explained his purpose to Bobby.
"We must know whether she's actually here. If she isn't, if she hasn't been back for the last twenty-four hours—don't you see? It was yesterday afternoon you thought you saw a woman at the lake, and last night a woman cried about the Cedars—"
"That's going pretty far, Hartley."
"It's a chance. A physical one."
A pretty maid opened the door. Her face was troubled. She studied them with frank disappointment.
"I thought—" she began.
"That your mistress was coming back?" Graham flashed.
There was no concealment in the girl's manner. It was certain that Maria was not in the apartment.
"You remember me?" Bobby asked.
"Yes. You have been here. You are a friend of mademoiselle's. You can, perhaps, tell me where she is."
Bobby shook his head. The girl spread her hands. She burst out excitedly:
"What is one to do? I have telephoned the theatre. There was no one there who knew anything at all, except that mademoiselle had not appeared at the performance last night."
Graham glanced at Bobby.
"When," he asked, "did you see her last?"
"It was before luncheon yesterday."
"Did she leave no instructions? Didn't she say when she would be back?"
The girl nodded.
"That's what worries me, for she said she would be back after the performance last night."
"She left no instructions?" Graham repeated.
"Only that if any one called or telephoned I was to make no appointments. What am I to do? Perhaps I shouldn't be talking to you. She would never forgive me for an indiscretion."
"For the present I advise you to do nothing," Graham said. "You can safely leave all that to her managers. I am going to see them now. I will tell them what you have said."
The girl's eyes moistened.
"Thank you, sir. I have been at my wits' end."
Apparently she withheld nothing. She played no part to confuse the dancer's friends.
On the way to the managers' office, with the trailing car behind them,
Graham reasoned excitedly:
Graham reasoned excitedly:
"For the first time we seem to be actually on the track. Here's a tangible clue that may lead to the heart of the case. Maria pulled the wool over the maid's eyes, too. She didn't want her to know her plans, but her instructions show that she had no intention of returning last night. She probably made a bee line for the Cedars. It was probably she that you saw at the lake, probably she who cried last night. If only she hadn't written that note! I can't get the meaning of it. It's up to her managers now. If they haven't heard from her it's a safe guess she's playing a deep game, connected with the crying, and the light at the deserted house, and the disappearance of Paredes before dawn. You must realize the connection between that and your condition the other evening after you had left them."
Bobby nodded. He began to hope that at the managers' office they would receive no explanation of Maria's absence destructive to Graham's theory. Early as it was they found a bald-headed man in his shirt sleeves pacing with an air of panic a blantantly furnished office.
"Well!" he burst out as they entered. "My secretary tells me you've come about this temperamental Carmen of mine. Tell me where she is. Quick!"
Graham smiled at Bobby. The manager ran his fingers across his bald and shining forehead.
"It's no laughing matter."
"Then she has definitely disappeared?" Graham said.
"Disappeared! Why did I come down at this ungodly hour except on the chance of getting some word? She didn't even telephone last night. I had to show myself in front of the curtain and give them a spiel about a sudden indisposition. And believe me, gentlemen, audiences ain't what they used to be. Did these ginks sit back and take the show for what it was worth? Not by a darn sight. Flocked to the box office and howled for their money back. If she doesn't appear to-night I might as well close the house. I'll be ruined."
"Unless," Graham suggested, "you get your press agent to make capital out of her absence. The papers would publish her picture and thousands of people would look her up for you."
The manager ceased his perplexed massage of his forehead. He shook hands genially.
"I'd thought of that with some frills. 'Has beautiful dancer met foul play? Millions in jewels on her person when last seen.' Old stuff, but they rise to it."
"That will help," Graham said to Bobby when they were in the car again. "The reporters will find Maria quicker than any detective I can put my hand on. My man evidently fell down because she had gone before I got him on the case." At his office they learned that was the fact. The private detective had been able to get no slightest clue as to Maria's whereabouts. Moreover, Bobby's description of the stranger who had entered the cafe with her merely suggested a type familiar to the Tenderloin. For purposes of identification it was worthless. Always followed by the car from Smithtown, they went to the hotel where Paredes had lived, to a number of his haunts. Bobby talked with men who knew him, but he learned nothing. Paredes's friends had had no word since the man's departure for the Cedars the day before. So they turned their backs on the city, elated by the significance of Maria's absence, yet worried by the search and the watchful car which never lost sight of them. When they were in the country Graham sighed his relief. "You haven't been stopped. Therefore, nothing was found at your apartment, but if that wasn't planted why should Maria have sent an incriminating note there?" "Unless," Bobby answered, "she told the truth. Unless she was sincere when she mailed it. Unless she learned something important between the time she wrote it and her disappearance from her home."
"Frankly, Bobby," Graham said, "the note and the circumstances under which it came to you are as damaging as the footprints and the handkerchief, but it doesn't tell us how any human being could have entered that room to commit the murders and disturb the bodies. At least we've got one physical fact, and I'm going to work on that."
"If it is Maria prowling around the Cedars," Bobby said, "she's amazingly slippery, and with Paredes gone what are you going to do with your physical fact? And how does it explain the friendly influence that wiped out my footprints? Is it a friendly or an evil influence that snatched away the evidence and that keeps it secreted?"
"We'll see," Graham said. "I'm going after a flesh-and-blood criminal who isn't you. I'm going to try to find out what your grandfather was afraid of the night of his murder."
After a time he glanced up.
"You've known Paredes for a long time, Bobby, but I don't think you've ever told me how you met him."
"A couple of years ago I should think," Bobby answered. "Somebody brought him to the club. I've forgotten who. Carlos was working for a big Panama importing firm. He was trying to interest this chap in the New York end. I saw him off and on after that and got to like him for his quiet manner and a queer, dry wit he had in those days. Two or three months ago he—he seemed to fit into my humour, and we became pretty chummy as you know. Even after last night I hate to believe he's my enemy."
"He's your enemy," Graham answered, "and last night's the weak joint in his armour. I wonder if Robinson didn't scare him away by threatening to question him. Paredes isn't connected with that company now, is he? I gather he has no regular position."
"No. He's picked up one or two temporary things with the fruit companies. More than his running away, the thing that worries me about Carlos is his ridiculous suspicion of Katherine."
He told Graham in detail of that conversation. Graham frowned. He opened the throttle wider. Their anxiety increased to know what had happened at the Cedars since their departure. The outposts of the forest imposed silence, closed eagerly about them, seemed to welcome them to its dead loneliness. There was a man on guard at the gate. They hurried past. The house showed no sign of life, but when they entered the court Bobby saw Katherine at her window, doubtless attracted by the sounds of their arrival. Her face brightened, but she raised her arms in a gesture suggestive of despair.
"Does she mean the evidence has been found?" Bobby asked.
Graham made no attempt to conceal his real interest, the impulse at the back of all his efforts in Bobby's behalf.
"More likely Robinson has worried the life out of her since we've been gone. I oughtn't to have left her. I set the trap myself."
When they were in the house their halting curiosity was lost in a vast surprise. The hall was empty but they heard voices in the library. They hurried across the dining room, pausing in the doorway, staring with unbelieving eyes at the accustomed picture they had least expected to see.
Paredes lounged on the divan, smoking with easy indifference. His clothing and his shoes were spotless. He had shaved, and his beard had been freshly trimmed. Rawlins and the district attorney stood in front of the fireplace, studying him with perplexed eyes. The persistence of their regard even after Bobby's entrance suggested to him that the evidence remained secreted, that the officers, under the circumstances, were scarcely interested in his return. He was swept himself into an explosive amazement:
"Carlos! What the deuce are you doing here?"
The Panamanian expelled a cloud of smoke. He smiled.
"Resting after a fatiguing walk."
In his unexpected presence Bobby fancied a demolition of the hope Graham and he had brought back from the city. He couldn't imagine guilt lurking behind that serene manner.
"Where did you come from? What were you up to last night?"
There was no accounting for Paredes's daring, he told himself, no accounting for his easy gesture now as he drew again at his cigarette and tossed it in the fireplace.
"These gentlemen," he said, "have been asking just that question. I'm honoured. I had no idea my movements were of such interest. I've told them that I took a stroll. The night was over. There was no point in going to bed, and all day I had been without exercise."
"Yet," Graham said harshly, "you have had practically no sleep since you came here."
"Very distressing, isn't it?"
"Maybe," Rawlins sneered, "you'll tell us why you went on tiptoe, and I suppose you didn't hear a woman crying in the woods?"
"That's just it," Paredes answered. "I did hear something like that, and it occurred to me to follow such a curious sound. So I went on tiptoe, as you call it."
"Why," Robinson exclaimed angrily, "you walked in the lake to hide your tracks!"
"It was very dark. That was chance. Quite silly of me. My feet got wet."
"I gather," Rawlins said, "it was chance that took you to the deserted house."
Paredes shook his head.
"Don't you think I was as much puzzled as the rest by that strange, disappearing light? It was as good a place to walk as any."
"Where have you been since?" Graham asked.
"When I had got there I was tired," Paredes answered. "Since it wasn't far to the station I thought I'd go on into Smithtown and have a bath and rest. But I assure you I've trudged back from the station just now."
Suddenly he repeated the apparently absurd formula he had used with Howells.
"You know the court seems full of unfriendly things—what the ignorant would call ghosts. I'm Spanish and I know." After a moment he added: "The woods, too. I shouldn't care to wander through them too much after dark."
Robinson stared, but Rawlins brushed the question aside.
"What hotel did you go to in Smithtown?"
"It's called the 'New.' Nothing could be farther from the fact."
"Shall I see if that's straight, sir?"
The district attorney agreed, and Rawlins left the room. Paredes laughed.
"How interesting! I'm under suspicion. It would be something, wouldn't it, to commit crimes with the devilish ingenuity of these? No, no, Mr. District Attorney, look to the ghosts. They alone are sufficiently clever. But I might say, since you take this attitude, that I don't care to answer any more questions until you discover something that might give you the right to ask them."
He lay back on the divan, languidly lighting another cigarette. Graham beckoned Robinson. Bobby followed them out, suspecting Graham's purpose, unwilling that action should be taken too hastily against the Panamanian; for even now guilty knowledge seemed incompatible with Paredes's polished reserve. When he joined the others, indeed, Graham with an aggressive air was demanding the district attorney's intentions.
"If he could elude you so easily last night, it's common sense to put him where you can find him in case of need. He's given you excuse enough."
"The man's got me guessing," Robinson mused, "but there are other elements."
"What's happened since we left?" Graham asked quickly. "Have you got any trace of Howells's evidence?"
Robinson smiled enigmatically, but his failure was apparent.
"I'm like Howells," he said. "I'd risk nearly anything myself to learn how the room was entered, how the crimes were committed, how those poor devils were made to alter their positions."
"So," Bobby said, "you had my rooms in New York searched. You had me followed to-day. It's ridiculous."
Robinson ignored him. He stepped to the front door, opened it, and looked around the court.
"What did the sphinx mean about ghosts in the court?"
They walked out, gazing helplessly at the trampled grass about the fountain, at the melancholy walls, at the partly opened window of the room of mystery.
"He knows something," Robinson mused. "Maybe you're right, Mr. Graham, but I wonder if I oughtn't to go farther and take you all."
Graham smiled uncomfortably, but Bobby knew why the official failed to follow that radical course. Like Howells, he hesitated to remove from the Cedars the person most likely to solve its mystery. As long as a chance remained that Howells had been right about Bobby he would give Silas Blackburn's grandson his head, merely making sure, as he had done this morning, that there should be no escape. He glanced up.
"I wonder if our foreigner's laughing at me now."
Graham made a movement toward the door.
"We might," he said significantly, "find that out without disturbing him."
Robinson nodded and led the way silently back to the house. Such a method was repugnant to Bobby, and he followed at a distance. Then he saw from the movements of the two men ahead that the library had again offered the unexpected, and he entered. Paredes was no longer in the room. Bobby was about to speak, but Robinson shook his head angrily, raising his hand in a gesture of warning. All three strained forward, listening, and Bobby caught the sound that had arrested the others—a stealthy scraping that would have been inaudible except through such a brooding silence as pervaded the old house.
Bobby's interest quickened at this confirmation of Graham's theory. There was a projection of cold fear, moreover, in its sly allusion. It gave to his memory of Paredes, with his tall, graceful figure, his lack of emotion, his inscrutable eyes, and his pointed beard, a suggestion nearly satanic. For the stealthy scraping had come from behind the closed door of the private staircase. Howells had gone up that staircase. None of them could forget for a moment that it led to the private hall outside the room in which the murders had been committed.
It occurred to Bobby that the triumph Graham's face expressed was out of keeping with the man. It disturbed him nearly as thoroughly as Paredes's stealthy presence in that place.
"We've got him," Graham whispered.
Robinson's bulky figure moved cautiously toward the door. He grasped the knob, swung the door open, and stepped back, smiling his satisfaction.
Half way down the staircase Paredes leaned against the wall, one foot raised and outstretched, as though an infinitely quiet descent had been interrupted. The exposure had been too quick for his habit. His face failed to hide its discomfiture. His laugh rang false.
"I'm afraid we've caught you, Paredes," Graham said, and the triumph blazed now in his voice.
What Paredes did then was more startling, more out of key than any of his recent actions. He came precipitately down. His eyes were dangerous. As Bobby watched the face whose quiet had at last been tempestuously destroyed, he felt that the man was capable of anything under sufficient provocation.
"Got me for what?" he snarled.
"Tell us why you were sneaking up there. In connection with your little excursion before dawn it suggests a guilty knowledge."
Paredes straightened. He shrugged his shoulders. With an admirable effort of the will he smoothed the rage from his face, but for Bobby the satanic suggestion lingered.
"Why do you suppose I'm here?" he said in a restrained voice that scarcely rose above a whisper. "To help Bobby. I was simply looking around for Bobby's sake."
That angered Bobby. He wanted to cry out against the supposed friend who had at last shown his teeth.
"That," Graham laughed, "is why you sneaked, why you didn't make any noise, why you lost your temper when we caught you at it? What about it, Mr. District Attorney?"
Robinson stepped forward.
"Nothing else to do, Mr. Graham. He's too slippery. I'll put him in a safe place."
"You mean," Paredes cried, "that you'll arrest me?"
"You've guessed it. I'll lock you up as a material witness."
Paredes swung on Bobby.
"You'll permit this, Bobby? You'll forget that I am a guest in your house?"
"Why have you stayed? What were you doing up there? Answer those questions. Tell me what you want."
Paredes turned away. He took a cigarette from his pocket and lighted it.
His fingers were not steady. For the first time, it became evident to
Bobby, Paredes was afraid. Rawlins came back from the telephone. He took
in the tableau.
His fingers were not steady. For the first time, it became evident to
Bobby, Paredes was afraid. Rawlins came back from the telephone. He took
in the tableau.
"What's the rumpus?"
"Run this man to Smithtown," Robinson directed. "Lock him up, and tell the judge, when he's arraigned in the morning, that I want him held as a material witness."
"He was at the hotel in Smithtown all right," Rawlins said.
He tapped Paredes's arm.
"You coming on this little joy ride like a lamb or a lion? Say, you'll find the jail about as comfortable as the New Hotel."
Paredes smiled. The evil and dangerous light died in his eyes. He became all at once easy and impervious again.
"Like a lamb. How else?"
"I'm sorry, Carlos," Bobby muttered. "If you'd only say something! If you'd only explain your movements! If you'd only really help!"
Again Paredes shrugged his shoulders.
"Handcuffs?" he asked Rawlins.
Rawlins ran his hands deftly over the Panamanian's clothing.
"No armed neutrality for me," he grinned. "All right. We'll forget the bracelets since you haven't a gun."
Puffing at his cigarette, Paredes got his coat and hat and followed the detective from the house.
Robinson and Graham climbed the private staircase to commence another systematic search of the hall, to discover, if they could, the motive for Paredes's stealthy presence there. Bobby accepted greedily this opportunity to find Katherine, to learn from her, undisturbed, what had happened in the house that morning, the meaning, perhaps, of her despairing gesture. When, in response to his knock, she opened her door and stepped into the corridor he guessed her despair had been an expression of the increased strain, of her helplessness in face of Robinson's harsh determination.
"He questioned me for an hour," she said, "principally about the heel mark in the court. They cling to that, because I don't think they've found anything new at the lake."
"You don't know anything about it, do you, Katherine? You weren't there?
You didn't do that for me?"
You didn't do that for me?"
"I wasn't there, Bobby. I honestly don't know any more about it than you do."
"Carlos was in the court," he mused. "Did you know they'd taken him? We found him creeping down the private stairway."
There was a hard quality about her gratitude.
"I am glad, Bobby. The man makes me shudder, and all morning they seemed more interested in you than in him. They've rummaged every room—even mine."
She laughed feverishly.
"That's why I've been so upset. They seemed—" She broke off. She picked at her handkerchief. After a moment she looked him frankly in the eyes and continued: "They seemed almost as doubtful of me as of you."
He recalled Paredes's suspicion of the girl.
"It's nonsense, Katherine. And I'm to blame for that, too."
She put her finger to her lips. Her smile was wistful.
"Hush! You mustn't blame yourself. You mustn't think of that."
Again her solicitude, their isolation in a darkened place, tempted him, aroused impulses nearly irresistible. Her slender figure, the pretty face, grown familiar and more desirable through all these years, swept him to a harsher revolt than he had conquered in the library. In the face of Graham, in spite of his own intolerable position he knew he couldn't fight that truth eternally. She must have noticed his struggle without grasping its cause, for she touched his hand, and the wistfulness of her expression increased.
"I wish you wouldn't think of me, Bobby. It's you we must all think of."
He accepted with a cold dismay the sisterly anxiety of her attitude. It made his renunciation easier. He walked away.
"Why do you go?" she called after him.
He gestured vaguely, without turning.
He didn't see her again until dinner time. She was as silent then as she had been the night before when Howells had sat with them, his moroseness veiling a sharp interest in the plan that was to lead to his death. Robinson's mood was very different. He talked a great deal, making no effort to hide his irritation. His failure to find any clue in the private staircase after Paredes's arrest had clearly stimulated his interest in Bobby. The sharp little eyes, surrounded by puffy flesh, held a threat for him. Bobby was glad when the meal ended.
Howells's body was taken away that night. It was a relief for all of them to know that the old room was empty again.
"I daresay you won't sleep there," Graham said to Robinson.
Robinson glanced at Bobby.
"Not as things stand," he answered. "The library lounge is plenty good enough for me tonight."
Graham went upstairs with Bobby. There was no question about his purpose. He wouldn't repeat last night's mistake.
"At least," he said, when the door was closed behind them, "I can see if you do get up and wander about in your sleep. I'd bet a good deal that you won't."
"If I did it would be an indication?"
"Granted it's your custom, what is there to tempt you to-night?"
Bobby answered, half jesting:
"You've not forgotten Robinson on the library sofa. The man isn't exactly working for me. Tonight he seems almost as unfriendly as Howells was."
"I ought to sleep now if ever. I've seldom been so tired. Two such nights!"
"But I am glad you're here, Hartley. I can go to sleep with a more comfortable feeling."
"Don't worry," Graham said. "You'll sleep quietly enough, and we'll all be better for a good rest."
For only a little while they talked of the mystery. While Graham regretted his failure to find any trace of Maria, their voices dwindled sleepily. Bobby recalled his last thought before losing himself last night. He tried to force from his mind now the threat in Robinson's eyes. He told himself again and again that the man wasn't actually unfriendly. Then the blackness encircled him. He slept.
Almost at once, it seemed to him, he was fighting away, demanding drowsily:
"What's the matter? Leave me alone."
He heard Graham's voice, unnaturally subdued and anxious.
"What are you doing, Bobby?"
Then Bobby knew he was no longer in his bed, that he stood instead in a cold place; and the meaning of his position came with a rush of sick terror.
"Get hold of yourself," Graham said. "Come back."
Bobby opened his eyes. He was in the upper hall at the head of the stairs. Unconsciously he had been about to creep quietly down, perhaps to the library. Graham had awakened him. It seemed to offer the answer to everything. It seemed to give outline to a monstrous familiar that drowned his real self in the black pit while it conducted his body to the commission of unspeakable crimes.
He lurched into the bedroom and sat shivering on the bed. Graham entered and quietly closed the door.
"What time is it?" Bobby asked hoarsely.
"Half-past two. I don't think Robinson was aroused."
The damp moon gave an ominous unreality to the room.
"What did I do?" Bobby whispered.
"Got softly out of bed and went to the hall. It was uncanny. You were like an automaton. I didn't wake you at once. You see, I—I thought you might go to the old room."
Bobby shook again. He drew a blanket about his shoulders.
"And you believed I'd show the way in and out, but the room was empty, so
I was going downstairs—"
I was going downstairs—"
"Good God! Then it's all true. I did it for the money. I put Howells out to protect myself. I was going after Robinson. It's true. Hartley! Tell me. Do you think it's true?"
Graham turned away.
"Don't ask me to say anything to help you just now," he answered huskily, "for after this I don't dare, Bobby. I don't dare."