I. KATHERINE HEARS THE SLY STEP OF DEATH AT THE CEDARS
II. THE CASE AGAINST BOBBY
III. HOWELLS DELIVERS HIMSELF TO THE ABANDONED ROOM
IV. A STRANGE LIGHT APPEARS AT THE DESERTED HOUSE
V. THE CRYING THROUGH THE WOODS
VI. THE ONE WHO CREPT IN THE PRIVATE STAIRCASE
VII. THE AMAZING MEETING IN THE SHADOWS OF THE OLD COURTYARD
VII. WHAT HAPPENED AT THE GRAVE
IX. BOBBY'S VIGIL IN THE ABANDONED ROOM
X. THE CEDARS IS LEFT TO ITS SHADOWS
THE ABANDONED ROOM
KATHERINE HEARS THE SLY STEP OF DEATH AT THE CEDARS
The night of his grandfather's mysterious death at the Cedars, Bobby Blackburn was, at least until midnight, in New York. He was held there by the unhealthy habits and companionships which recently had angered his grandfather to the point of threatening a disciplinary change in his will. As a consequence he drifted into that strange adventure which later was to surround him with dark shadows and overwhelming doubts.
Before following Bobby through his black experience, however, it is better to know what happened at the Cedars where his cousin, Katherine Perrine was, except for the servants, alone with old Silas Blackburn who seemed apprehensive of some sly approach of disaster.
At twenty Katherine was too young, too light-hearted for this care of her uncle in which she had persisted as an antidote for Bobby's shortcomings. She was never in harmony with the mouldy house or its surroundings, bleak, deserted, unfriendly to content.
Bobby and she had frequently urged the old man to give it up, to move, as it were, into the light. He had always answered angrily that his ancestors had lived there since before the Revolution, and that what had been good enough for them was good enough for him. So that night Katherine had to hear alone the sly stalking of death in the house. She told it all to Bobby the next day—what happened, her emotions, the impression made on her by the people who came when it was too late to save Silas Blackburn.
She said, then, that the old man had behaved oddly for several days, as if he were afraid. That night he ate practically no dinner. He couldn't keep still. He wandered from room to room, his tired eyes apparently seeking. Several times she spoke to him.
"What is the matter, Uncle? What worries you?"
He grumbled unintelligibly or failed to answer at all.
She went into the library and tried to read, but the late fall wind swirled mournfully about the house and beat down the chimney, causing the fire to cast disturbing shadows across the walls. Her loneliness, and her nervousness, grew sharper. The restless, shuffling footsteps stimulated her imagination. Perhaps a mental breakdown was responsible for this alteration. She was tempted to ring for Jenkins, the butler, to share her vigil; or for one of the two women servants, now far at the back of the house.
"And Bobby," she said to herself, "or somebody will have to come out here to-morrow to help."
But Silas Blackburn shuffled in just then, and she was a trifle ashamed as she studied him standing with his back to the fire, glaring around the room, fumbling with hands that shook in his pocket for his pipe and some loose tobacco. It was unjust to be afraid of him. There was no question. The man himself was afraid—terribly afraid.
His fingers trembled so much that he had difficulty lighting his pipe. His heavy brows, gray like his beard, contracted in a frown. His voice quavered unexpectedly. He spoke of his grandson:
"Bobby! Damned waster! God knows what he'll do next."
"He's young, Uncle Silas, and too popular."
He brushed aside her customary defence. As he continued speaking she noticed that always his voice shook as his fingers shook, as his stooped shoulders jerked spasmodically.
"I ordered Mr. Robert here to-night. Not a word from him. I'd made up my mind anyway. My lawyer's coming in the morning. My money goes to the Bedford Foundation—all except a little annuity for you, Katy. It's hard on you, but I've got no faith left in my flesh and blood."
His voice choked with a sentiment a little repulsive in view of his ruthless nature, his unbending egotism.
"It's sad, Katy, to grow old with nobody caring for you except to covet your money."
She arose and went close to him. He drew back, startled.
"You're not fair, Uncle."
With an unexpected movement, nearly savage, he pushed her aside and started for the door.
"Uncle!" she cried. "Tell me! You must tell me! What makes you afraid?"
He turned at the door. He didn't answer. She laughed feverishly.
"It—it's not Bobby you're afraid of?"
"You and Bobby," he grumbled, "are thicker than thieves."
She shook her head.
"Bobby and I," she said wistfully, "aren't very good friends, largely because of this life he's leading."
He went on out of the room, mumbling again incoherently.
She resumed her vigil, unable to read because of her misgivings, staring at the fire, starting at a harsher gust of wind or any unaccustomed sound. And for a long time there beat against her brain the shuffling, searching tread of her uncle. Its cessation about eleven o'clock increased her uneasiness. He had been so afraid! Suppose already the thing he had feared had overtaken him? She listened intently. Even then she seemed to sense the soundless footsteps of disaster straying in the decayed house, and searching, too.
A morbid desire to satisfy herself that her uncle's silence meant nothing evil drove her upstairs. She stood in the square main hall at the head of the stairs, listening. Her uncle's bedroom door lay straight ahead. To her right and left narrow corridors led to the wings. Her room and Bobby's and a spare room were in the right-hand wing. The opposite corridor was seldom used, for the left-hand wing was the oldest portion of the house, and in the march of years too many legends had gathered about it. The large bedroom was there with its private hall beyond, and a narrow, enclosed staircase, descending to the library. Originally it had been the custom for the head of the family to use that room. Its ancient furniture still faded within stained walls. For many years no one had slept in it, because it had sheltered too much suffering, because it had witnessed the reluctant spiritual departure of too many Blackburns.
Katherine shrank a little from the black entrance of the corridor, but her anxiety centred on the door ahead. She was about to call when a stirring beyond it momentarily reassured her.
The door opened and her uncle stepped out. He wore an untidy dressing-gown. His hair was disordered. His face appeared grayer and more haggard than it had downstairs. A lighted candle shook in his right hand.
"What are you doing up here, Katy?" he quavered.
She broke down before the picture of his increased fear. He shuffled closer.
"What you crying for, Katy?"
She controlled herself. She begged him for an answer to her doubts.
"You make me afraid."
He laughed scornfully.
"You! What you got to be afraid of?"
"I'm afraid because you are," she urged. "You've got to tell me. I'm all alone. I can't stand it. What are you afraid of?"
He didn't answer. He shuffled on toward the disused wing. Her hand tightened on the banister.
"Where are you going?" she whispered.
He turned at the entrance to the corridor.
"I am going to the old bedroom."
"Why? Why?" she asked hysterically. "You can't sleep there. The bed isn't even made."
He lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper:
"Don't you mention I've gone there. If you want to know, I am afraid. I'm afraid to sleep in my own room any longer."
"And you don't think they'd look for you there. What is it? Tell me what it is. Why don't you send for some one—a man?"
"Leave me alone," he mumbled. "Nothing for you to be worried about, except Bobby."
"Yes, there is," she cried. "Yes, there is."
He paid no attention to her fright. He entered the corridor. She heard him shuffling between its narrow walls. She saw his candle disappear in its gloomy reaches.
She ran to her own room and locked the door. She hurried to the window and leaned out, her body shaking, her teeth chattering as if from a sudden chill. The quiet, assured tread of disaster came nearer.
The two wings, stretching at right angles from the main building, formed a narrow court. Clouds harrying the moon failed quite to destroy its power, so that she could see, across the court, the facade of the old wing and the two windows of the large room through whose curtains a spectral glow was diffused. She heard one of the windows opened with a grating noise. The court was a sounding board. It carried to her even the shuffling of the old man's feet as he must have approached the bed. The glow of his candle vanished. She heard a rustling as if he had stretched himself on the bed, a sound like a long-drawn sigh.
She tried to tell herself there was no danger—that these peculiar actions sprang from the old man's fancy—but the house, her surroundings, her loneliness, contradicted her. To her over-acute senses the thought of Blackburn in that room, so often consecrated to the formula of death, suggested a special and unaccountable menace. Under such a strain the supernatural assumed vague and singular shapes.
She slept for only a little while. Then she lay awake, listening with a growing expectancy for some message to slip across the court. The moon had ceased struggling. The wind cried. The baying of a dog echoed mournfully from a great distance. It was like a remote alarm bell which vibrates too perfectly, whose resonance is too prolonged.
She sat upright. She sprang from the bed and, her heart beating insufferably, felt her way to the window. From the wing opposite the message had come—a soft, shrouded sound, another long-drawn sigh.
She tried to call across the court. At first no response came from her tight throat. When it did at last, her voice was unfamiliar in her own ears, the voice of one who has to know a thing but shrinks from asking.
The wind mocked her.
"It is nothing," she told herself, "nothing."
But her vigil had been too long, her loneliness too complete. Her earlier impression of the presence of death in the decaying house tightened its hold. She had to assure herself that Silas Blackburn slept untroubled. The thing she had heard was peculiar, and he hadn't answered across the court. The dark, empty corridors at first were an impassable barrier, but while she put on her slippers and her dressing-gown she strengthened her courage. There was a bell rope in the upper hall. She might get Jenkins.
When she stood in the main hall she hesitated. It would probably be a long time, provided he heard at all, before Jenkins could answer her. Her candle outlined the entrance to the musty corridor. Just a few running steps down there, a quick rap at the door, and, perhaps, in an instant her uncle's voice, and the blessed power to return to her room and sleep!
While her fear grew she called on her pride to let her accomplish that brief, abhorrent journey.
Then for the first time a different doubt came to her. As she waited alone in this disturbing nocturnal intimacy of an old house, she shrank from no thought of human intrusion, and she wondered if her uncle had been afraid of that, too, of the sort of thing that might lurk in the ancient wing with its recollections of birth and suffering and death. But he had gone there as an escape. Surely he had been afraid of men. It shamed her that, in spite of that, her fear defined itself ever more clearly as something indefinable. With a passionate determination to strangle such thoughts she held her breath. She tried to close her mind. She entered the corridor. She ran its length. She knocked at the locked door of the old bedroom. She shrank as the echoes rattled from the dingy walls where her candle cast strange reflections. There was no other answer. A sense of an intolerable companionship made her want to cry out for brilliant light, for help. She screamed.
"Uncle Silas! Uncle Silas!"
Through the silence that crushed her voice she became aware finally of the accomplishment of its mission by death in this house. And she fled into the main hall. She jerked at the bell rope. The contact steadied her, stimulated her to reason. One slender hope remained. The oppressive bedroom might have driven Silas Blackburn through the private hall and down the enclosed staircase. Perhaps he slept on the lounge in the library.
She stumbled down, hoping to meet Jenkins. She crossed the hall and the dining room and entered the library. She bent over the lounge. It was empty. Her candle was reflected in the face of the clock on the mantel. Its hands pointed to half-past two.
She pulled at the bell cord by the fireplace. Why didn't the butler come? Alone she couldn't climb the enclosed staircase to try the other door. It seemed impossible to her that she should wait another instant alone—
The butler, as old and as gray as Silas Blackburn, faltered in. He started back when he saw her.
"My God, Miss Katherine! What's the matter? You look like death."
"There's death," she said.
She indicated the door of the enclosed staircase. She led the way with the candle. The panelled, narrow hall was empty. That door, too, was locked and the key, she knew, must be on the inside.
"Who—who is it?" Jenkins asked. "Who would be in that room? Has Mr.
Bobby come back?"
Bobby come back?"
She descended to the library before answering. She put the candle down and spread her hands.
"It's happened, Jenkins—whatever he feared."
"Not Mr. Silas?"
"We have to break in," she said with a shiver. "Get a hammer, a chisel, whatever is necessary."
"But if there's anything wrong," the butler objected, "if anybody's been there, the other door must be open."
She shook her head. Those two first of all faced that extraordinary puzzle. How had the murderer entered and left the room with both doors locked on the inside, with the windows too high for use? They went to the upper story. She urged the butler into the sombre corridor.
"We have to know," she whispered, "what's happened beyond those locked doors."
She still vibrated to the feeling of unconformable forces in the old house. Jenkins, she saw, responded to the same superstitious misgivings. He inserted the chisel with maladroit hands. He forced the lock back and opened the door. Dust arose from the long-disused room, flecking the yellow candle flame. They hesitated on the threshold. They forced themselves to enter. Then they looked at each other and smiled with relief, for Silas Blackburn, in his dressing-gown, lay on the bed, his placid, unmarked face upturned, as if sleeping.
"Why, miss," Jenkins gasped. "He's all right."
Almost with confidence Katherine walked to the bed.
"Uncle Silas—" she began, and touched his hand.
She drew back until the wall supported her. Jenkins must have read everything in her face, for he whimpered:
"But he looks all right. He can't be—"
"Cold—already! If I hadn't touched—"
The horror of the thing descended upon her, stifling thought. Automatically she left the room and told Jenkins what to do. After he had telephoned police headquarters in the county seat and had summoned Doctor Groom, a country physician, she sat without words, huddled over the library fire.
The detective, a competent man named Howells, and Doctor Groom arrived at about the same time. The detective made Katherine accompany them upstairs while he questioned her. In the absence of the coroner he wouldn't let the doctor touch the body.
"I must repair this lock," he said, "the first thing, so nothing can be disturbed."
Doctor Groom, a grim and dark man, had grown silent on entering the room. For a long time he stared at the body in the candle light, making as much of an examination as he could, evidently, without physical contact.
"Why did he ever come here to sleep?" he asked in his rumbling bass voice. "Nasty room! Unhealthy room! Ten to one you're a formality, policeman. Coroner's a formality."
He sneered a little.
"I daresay he died what the hard-headed world will call a natural death.
Wonder what the coroner'll say."
Wonder what the coroner'll say."
The detective didn't answer. He shot rapid, uneasy glances about the room in which a single candle burned. After a time he said with an accent of complete conviction:
"That man was murdered."
Perhaps the doctor's significant words, added to her earlier dread of the abnormal, made Katherine read in the detective's manner an apprehension of conditions unfamiliar to the brutal routine of his profession. Her glances were restless, too. She had a feeling that from the shadowed corners of the faded, musty room invisible faces mocked the man's stubbornness.
All this she recited to Bobby when, under extraordinary circumstances neither of them could have foreseen, he arrived at the Cedars many hours later.
Of the earlier portion of the night of his grandfather's death Bobby retained a minute recollection. The remainder was like a dim, appalling nightmare whose impulse remains hidden.
When he went to his apartment to dress for dinner he found the letter of which Silas Blackburn had spoken to Katherine. It mentioned the change in the will as an approaching fact nothing could alter. Bobby fancied that the old man merely craved the satisfaction of terrorizing him, of casting him out with all the ugly words at his command. Still a good deal more than a million isn't to be relinquished lightly as long as a chance remains. Bobby had an engagement for dinner. He would think the situation over until after dinner, then he might go.
It was, perhaps, unfortunate that at his club he met friends who drew him in a corner and offered him too many cocktails. As he drank his anger grew, and it wasn't all against his grandfather. He asked himself why during the last few months he had avoided the Cedars, why he had drifted into too vivid a life in New York. It increased his anger that he hesitated to give himself a frank answer. But always at such moments it was Katherine rather than his grandfather who entered his mind. He had cared too much for her, and lately, beyond question, the bond of their affection had weakened.
He raised his glass and drank. He set the glass down quickly as if he would have liked to hide it. A big man, clear-eyed and handsome, walked into the room and came straight to the little group in the corner. Bobby tried to carry it off.
"'Lo, Hartley, old preacher. You fellows all know Hartley Graham? Sit down. We're going to have a little cocktail."
Graham looked at the glasses, shaking his head.
"If you've time, Bobby, I'd like a word with you."
"No preaching," Bobby bargained. "It isn't Sunday."
Graham laughed pleasantly.
"It's about money. That talks any day."
Bobby edged a way out and followed Graham to an unoccupied room. There the big man turned on him.
"See here, Bobby! When are you going out to the Cedars?"
"You're a dear friend, Hartley, and I've always loved you, but I'm in no mood for preaching tonight. Besides, I've got my own life to lead"—he glanced away—"my own reasons for leading it."
"I'm not going to preach," Graham answered seriously, "although it's obvious you're raising the devil with your life. I wanted to tell you that I've had a note from Katherine to-day. She says your grandfather's threats are taking too much form; that the new will's bound to come unless you do something. She cares too much for you, Bobby, to see you throw everything away. She's asked me to persuade you to go out."
"Why didn't she write to me?"
"Have you been very friendly with Katherine lately? And that's not fair. You're both without parents. You owe Katherine something on that account."
Bobby didn't answer, because it was clear that while Katherine's affection for him had weakened, her friendship for Graham had grown too fast. Looking at the other he didn't wonder.
"There's another thing," Graham was saying. "The gloomy old Cedars has got on Katherine's nerves, and she says there's been a change in the old man the last few days—wanders around as if he were afraid of something."
Bobby laughed outright.
"Him afraid of something! It's always been his system to make everybody and everything afraid of him. But you're right about Katherine. We have always depended on each other. I think I'll go out after dinner."
"Then come have a bite with me," Graham urged. "I'll see you off afterward. If you catch the eight-thirty you ought to be out there before half-past ten."
Bobby shook his head.
"An engagement for dinner, Hartley. I'm expecting Carlos Paredes to pick me up here any minute."
Graham's disapproval was belligerent.
"Why, in the name of heaven, Bobby, do you run around with that damned Panamanian? Steer him off to-night. I've argued with you before. It's unpleasant, I know, but the man carries every mark of crookedness."
"Easy with my friends, Hartley! You don't understand Carlos. He's good fun when you know him—awfully good fun."
"So," Graham said, "is this sort of thing. Too many cocktails, too much wine. Paredes has the same pleasant, dangerous quality."
A club servant entered.
"In the reception room, Mr. Blackburn."
Bobby took the card, tore it into little bits, and dropped them one by one into the waste-paper basket.
"Tell him I'll be right out." He turned to Graham.
"Sorry you don't like my playmates. I'll probably run out after dinner and let the old man terrorize me as a cure for his own fear. Pleasant prospect! So long."
Graham caught at his arm.
"I'm sorry. Can't we forget to-night that we disagree about Paredes? Let me dine with you."
Bobby's laugh was uncomfortable.
"Come on, if you wish, and be my guardian angel. God knows I need one."
He walked across the hall and into the reception room. The light was not brilliant there. One or two men sat reading newspapers about a green-shaded lamp on the centre table, but Bobby didn't see Paredes at first. Then from the obscurity of a corner a form, tall and graceful, emerged with a slow monotony of movement suggestive of stealth. The man's dark, sombre eyes revealed nothing. His jet-black hair, parted in the middle, and his carefully trimmed Van Dyke beard gave him an air of distinction, an air, at the same time, a trifle too reserved. For a moment, as the green light stained his face unhealthily, Bobby could understand Graham's aversion. He brushed the idea aside.
"Glad you've come, Carlos."
The smile of greeting vanished abruptly from Paredes's face. He looked with steady eyes beyond Bobby's shoulder. Bobby turned. Graham stood on the threshold, his face a little too frank. But the two men shook hands.
"I'd an idea until I saw Bobby," Graham said, "that you'd gone back to Panama."
"Each year I spend more time in New York. Business suggests it. Pleasure demands it."
His voice was deep and pleasant, but Bobby had often remarked that it, like Paredes's eyes, was too reserved. It seemed never to call on its obvious powers of expression. Its accent was noticeable only in a pleasant, polished sense.
"Hartley," Bobby explained, "is dining with us."
Paredes let no disapproval slip, but Graham hastened to explain.
"Bobby and I have an engagement immediately after dinner."
"An engagement after dinner! I didn't understand—"
"Let's think of dinner first," Bobby said. "We can talk about engagements afterward. Perhaps you'll have a cocktail here while we decide where we're going."
"The aperitif I should like very much," Paredes said. "About dinner there is nothing to decide. I have arranged everything. There's a table waiting in the Fountain Room at the C—— and there I have planned a little surprise for you."
He wouldn't explain further. While they drank their cocktails Bobby watched Graham's disapproval grow. The man glanced continually at his watch. In the restaurant, when Paredes left them to produce, as he called it, his surprise, Graham appraised with a frown the voluble people who moved intricately through the hall.
"I'm afraid Paredes has planned a thorough evening," he said, "for which he'll want you to pay. Don't be angry, Bobby. The situation is serious enough to excuse facts. You must go to the Cedars to-night. Do you understand? You must go, in spite of Paredes, in spite of everything."
"Peace until train time," Bobby demanded.
He caught his breath.
"There they are. Carlos has kept his word. See her, Hartley. She's glorious."
A young woman accompanied the Panamanian as he came back through the hall. She appeared more foreign than her guide—the Spanish of Spain rather than of South America. Her clothing was as unusual and striking as her beauty, yet one felt there was more than either to attract all the glances in this room, to set people whispering as she passed. Clearly she knew her notoriety was no little thing. Pride filled her eyes.
Paredes had first introduced her to Bobby a month or more ago. He had seen her a number of times since in her dressing-room at the theatre where she was featured, or at crowded luncheons in her apartment. At such moments she had managed to be exceptionally nice to him. Bobby, however, had answered merely to the glamour of her fame, to the magnetic response her beauty always brought in places like this.
"Paredes," Graham muttered, "will have a powerful ally. You won't fail me, Bobby? You will go?"
Bobby scarcely heard. He hurried forward and welcomed the woman. She tapped his arm with her fan.
"Leetle Bobby!" she lisped. "I haven't seen very much of you lately. So when Carlos proposed—you see I don't dance until late. Who is that behind you? Mr. Graham, is it not? He would, maybe, not remember me. I danced at a dinner where you were one night, at Mr. Ward's. Even lawyers, I find, take enjoyment in my dancing."
"I remember," Graham said. "It is very pleasant we are to dine together." He continued tactlessly: "But, as I've explained to Mr. Paredes, we must hurry. Bobby and I have an early engagement."
Her head went up.
"An early engagement! I do not often dine in public."
"An unavoidable thing," Graham explained. "Bobby will tell you."
"It's a nuisance, particularly when you're so condescending, Maria."
She shrugged her shoulders. With Bobby she entered the dining-room at the heels of Paredes and Graham.
Paredes had foreseen everything. There were flowers on the table. The dinner had been ordered. Immediately the waiter brought cocktails. Graham glanced at Bobby warningly. He wouldn't, as an example Bobby appreciated, touch his own. Maria held hers up to the light.
"Pretty yellow things! I never drink them."
She smiled dreamily at Bobby.
"But see! I shall place this to my lips in order that you may make pretty speeches, and maybe tell me it is the most divine aperitif you have ever drunk."
She passed the glass to him, and Bobby, avoiding Graham's eyes, wondering why she was so gracious, emptied it. And afterward frequently she reminded him of his wine by going through the same elaborate formula. Probably because of that, as much as anything else, constraint grasped the little company tighter. Graham couldn't hide his anxiety. Paredes mocked it with sneering phrases which he turned most carefully. Before the meal was half finished Graham glanced at his watch.
"We've just time for the eight-thirty," he whispered to Bobby, "if we pick up a taxi."
Maria had heard. She pouted.
"There is no engagement," she lisped, "as sacred as a dinner, no entanglement except marriage that cannot be easily broken. Perhaps I have displeased you, Mr. Graham. Perhaps you fancy I excite unpleasant comment. It is unjust. I assure you my reputation is above reproach"—her dark eyes twinkled—"certainly in New York."
"It isn't that," Graham answered. "We must go. It's not to be evaded."
She turned tempestuously.
"Am I to be humiliated so? Carlos! Why did you bring me? Is all the world to see my companions leave in the midst of a dinner as if I were plague-touched? Is Bobby not capable of choosing his own company?"
"You are thoroughly justified, Maria," Paredes said in his expressionless tones. "Bobby, however, has said very little about this engagement. I did not know, Mr. Graham, that you were the arbiter of Bobby's actions. In a way I must resent your implication that he is no longer capable of caring for himself."
Graham accepted the challenge. He leaned across the table, speaking directly to Bobby, ignoring the others:
"You've not forgotten what I told you. Will you come while there's time?
You must see. I can't remain here any longer."
You must see. I can't remain here any longer."
Bobby, hating warfare in his present mood, sought to temporize:
"It's all right, Hartley. Don't worry. I'll catch a later train."
"Ah! Bobby still chooses for himself."
"I'll have enough rumpus," Bobby muttered, "when I get to the Cedars.
Don't grudge me a little peace here."
Don't grudge me a little peace here."
Graham arose. His voice was discouraged.
"I'm sorry. I'll hope, Bobby."
Without a word to the others he walked out of the room.
So far, when Bobby tried afterward to recall the details of the evening, everything was perfectly distinct in his memory. The remainder of the meal, made uncomfortable by Maria's sullenness and Paredes's sneers, his attempt to recapture the earlier gayety of the evening by continuing to drink the wine, his determination to go later to the Cedars in spite of Graham's doubt—of all these things no particular lacked. He remembered paying the check, as he usually did when he dined with Paredes. He recalled studying the time-table and finding that he had just missed another train.
Maria's spirits rose then. He was persuaded to accompany her and Paredes to the music hall. In her dressing-room, while she was on the stage, he played with the boxes of make-up, splashing the mirror with various colours while Paredes sat silently watching.
The alteration, he was sure, came a little later in the cafe at a table close to the dancing floor. Maria had insisted that Paredes and he should wait there while she changed.
"But," he had protested, "I have missed too many trains."
She had demanded his time-table, scanning the columns of close figures.
"There is one," she had said, "at twelve-fifteen—time for a little something in the cafe, and who knows? If you are agreeable I might forgive everything and dance with you once, Bobby, on the public floor."
So he sat for some time, expectant, with Paredes, watching the boisterous dancers, listening to the violent music, sipping absent-mindedly at his glass. He wondered why Paredes had grown so quiet.
"I mustn't miss that twelve-fifteen," he said, "You know, Carlos, you weren't quite fair to Hartley. He's a splendid fellow. Roomed with me at college, played on same team, and all that. Only wanted me to do the right thing. Must say it was the right thing. I won't miss that twelve-fifteen."
"Graham," Paredes sneered, "is a wonderful type—Apollo in the flesh and
Billy Sunday in the conscience."
Billy Sunday in the conscience."
Then, as Bobby started to protest, Maria entered, more dazzling than at dinner; and the dancers swayed less boisterously, the chatter at the tables subsided, the orchestra seemed to hesitate as a sort of obeisance.
A man Bobby had never seen before followed her to the table. His middle-aged figure was loudly clothed. His face was coarse and clean shaven. He acknowledged the introductions sullenly.
"I've only a minute," Bobby said to Maria.
He continued, however, to raise his glass indifferently to his lips. All at once his glass shook. Maria's dark and sparkling face became blurred. He could no longer define the features of the stranger. He had never before experienced anything of the kind. He tried to account for it, but his mind became confused.
"Maria!" he burst out. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
Her contralto laugh rippled.
"Bobby looks so funny! Carlos! Leetle Bobby looks so queer! What is the matter with him?"
Bobby's anger was lost in the increased confusion of his senses, but through that mental turmoil tore the thought of Graham and his intention of going to the Cedars. With shaking fingers he dragged out his watch. He couldn't read the dial. He braced his hands against the table, thrust back his chair, and arose. The room tumbled about him. Before his eyes the dancers made long nebulous bands of colour in which nothing had form or coherence. Instinctively he felt he hadn't dined recklessly enough to account for these amazing symptoms. He was suddenly afraid.
"Carlos!" he whispered.
He heard Maria's voice dimly:
"Take him home."
A hand touched his arm. With a supreme effort of will he walked from the room, guided by the hand on his arm. And always his brain recorded fewer and fewer impressions for his memory to struggle with later.
At the cloak room some one helped him put on his coat. He was walking down steps. He was in some kind of a conveyance. He didn't know what it was. An automobile, a carriage, a train? He didn't know. He only understood that it went swiftly, swaying from side to side through a sable pit. Whenever his mind moved at all it came back to that sensation of a black pit in which he remained suspended, swinging from side to side, trying to struggle up against impossible odds. Once or twice words flashed like fire through the pit: "Tyrant!—Fool to go."
From a long immersion deeper in the pit he struggled frantically. He must get out. Somehow he must find wings. He realized that his eyes were closed. He tried to open them and failed. So the pit persisted and he surrendered himself, as one accepts death, to its hateful blackness.
Abruptly he experienced a momentary release. There was no more swaying, no more movement of any kind. He heard a strange, melancholy voice, whispering without words, always whispering with a futile perseverance as if it wished him to understand something it could not express.
"What is it trying to tell me?" he asked himself.
Then he understood. It was the voice of the wind, and it tried to tell him to open his eyes, and he found that he could. But in spite of his desire they closed again almost immediately. Yet, from that swift glimpse, a picture outlined itself later in his memory.
In the midst of wild, rolling clouds, the moon was a drowning face. Stunted trees bent before the wind like puny men who strained impotently to advance. Over there was one more like a real man—a figure, Bobby thought, with a black thing over its face—a mask.
"This is the forest near the Cedars," Bobby said to himself. "I've come to face the old devil after all."
He heard his own voice, harsh, remote, unnatural, speaking to the dim figure with a black mask that waited half hidden by the straining trees.
"Why am I here in the woods near the Cedars?"
And he thought the thing answered:
"Because you hate your grandfather."
Bobby laughed, thinking he understood. The figure in the black mask that accompanied him was his conscience. He could understand why it went masked.
The wind resumed its whispering. The figures, straining like puny men, fought harder. The drowning face disappeared, wet and helpless. Bobby felt himself sinking back, back into the sable pit.
"I don't want to go," he moaned.
A long time afterward he heard a whisper again, and he wondered if it was the wind or his conscience. He laughed through the blackness because the words seemed so absurd.
"Take off your shoes and carry them in your hand. Always do that. It is the only safe way."
He laughed again, thinking:
"What a careful conscience!"
He retained only one more impression. He was dully aware that some time had passed. He shivered. He thought the wind had grown angry with him, for it no longer whispered. It shrieked, and he could make nothing of its wrath. He struggled frantically to emerge from the pit. The quality of the blackness deepened. His fright grew. He felt himself slipping, slowly at first then faster, faster down into impossible depths, and there was nothing at all he could do to save himself.
* * * * *
"Go away! For God's sake, go away!"
Bobby thought he was speaking to the sombre figure in the mask. His voice aroused him to one more effort at escape, but he felt that there was no use. He was too deep.
Something hurt his eyes. He opened them and for a time was blinded by a narrow shaft, of sunlight resting on his face. With an effort he moved his head to one side and closed his eyes again, at first merely thankful that he had escaped from the black hell, trying to control his sensations of physical evil. Subtle curiosity forced its way into his sick brain and stung him wide awake. This time his eyes remained open, staring about him, dilating with a wilder fright than he had experienced in the dark mazes of his nightmare adventure.
He had never seen this place before. He lay on the floor of an empty room. The shaft of sunlight that had aroused him entered through a crack in one of the tightly drawn blinds. There were dust and grime on the wails, and cobwebs clustered in the corners.
In the silent, deserted room the beating of his heart became audible. He struggled to a sitting posture. He gasped for breath. He knew it was very cold in here, but perspiration moistened his face. He could recall no such suffering as this since, when a boy, he had slipped from the crisis of a destructive fever.
Had he been drugged? But he had been with friends. There was no motive.
What house was this? Was it, like this room, empty and deserted? How had he come here? For the first time he went through that dreadful process of trying to draw from the black pit useful memories.
He started, recalling the strange voice and its warning, for his shoes lay near by as though he might have dropped them carelessly when he had entered the room and stretched himself on the floor. Damp earth adhered to the soles. The leather above was scratched.
"Then," he thought, "that much is right. I was in the woods. What was I doing there? That dim figure! My imagination."
He suffered the agony of a man who realizes that he has wandered unawares in strange places, and retains no recollection of his actions, of his intentions. He went back to that last unclouded moment in the cafe with Maria, Paredes, and the stranger. Where had he gone after he had left them? He had looked at his watch. He had told himself he must catch the twelve-fifteen train. He must have gone from the restaurant, proceeding automatically, and caught the train. That would account for the sensation of motion in a swift vehicle, and perhaps there had been a taxicab to the station. Doubtless in the woods near the Cedars he had decided it was too late to go in, or that it was wiser not to. He had answered to the necessity of sleeping somewhere. But why had he come here? Where, indeed, was he?
At least he could answer that. He drew on his shoes—a pair of patent leather pumps. He fumbled for his handkerchief, thinking he would brush the earth from them. He searched each of his pockets. His handkerchief was gone. No matter. He got to his feet, lurching for a moment dizzily. He glanced with distaste at his rumpled evening clothing. To hide it as far as possible he buttoned his overcoat collar about his neck. On tip-toe he approached the door, and, with the emotions of a thief, opened it quietly. He sighed. The rest of the house was as empty as this room. The hall was thick with dust. The rear door by which he must have entered stood half open. The lock was broken and rusty.
He commenced to understand. There was a deserted farmhouse less than two miles from the Cedars. Since he had always known about it, it wasn't unusual he should have taken shelter there after deciding not to go in to his grandfather.
He stepped through the doorway to the unkempt yard about whose tumbled fences the woods advanced thickly. He recognized the place. For some time he stood ashamed, yet fair enough to seek the cause of his experience in some mental unhealth deeper than any reaction from last night's folly.
He glanced at his watch. It was after two o'clock. The mournful neighbourhood, the growing chill in the air, the sullen sky, urged him away. He walked down the road. Of course he couldn't go to the Cedars in this condition. He would return to his apartment in New York where he could bathe, change his clothes, recover from this feeling of physical ill, and remember, perhaps, something more.
It wasn't far to the little village on the railroad, and at this hour there were plenty of trains. He hoped no one he knew would see him at the station. He smiled wearily. What difference did that make? He might as well face old Blackburn, himself, as he was. By this time the thing was done. The new will had been made. He was penniless and an outcast. But his furtive manner clung. He didn't want Katherine to see him like this.
From the entrance of the village it was only a few steps to the station. Several carriages stood at the platform, testimony that a train was nearly due. He prayed that it would be for New York. He didn't want to wait around. He didn't want to risk Katherine's driving in on some errand.
His mind, intent only on escaping prying eyes, was drawn by a man who stepped from behind a carriage and started across the roadway in his direction, staring at him incredulously. His quick apprehension vanished. He couldn't recall that surprised face. There was no harm being seen, miserable as he was, dressed as he was, by this stranger. He looked at him closer. The man was plainly clothed. He had small, sharp eyes. His hairless face was intricately wrinkled. His lips were thin, making a straight line.
To avoid him Bobby stepped aside, thinking he must be going past, but the stranger stopped and placed a firm hand on Bobby's shoulder. He spoke in a quick, authoritative voice:
"Certainly you are Mr. Robert Blackburn?"
For Bobby, in his nervous, bewildered condition, there was an ominous note in this surprise, this assurance, this peremptory greeting.
"What's amazing about that?" he jerked out.
The stranger's lips parted in a straight smile.
"Amazing! That's the word I was thinking of. Hoped you might come in from New York. Seemed you were here all the time. That's a good one on me—a very good one."
The beating of Bobby's heart was more pronounced than it had been in the deserted house. He asked himself why he should shrink from this stranger who had an air of threatening him. The answer lay in that black pit of last night and this morning. Unquestionably he had been indiscreet. The man would tell him how.
"You mean," he asked with dry lips, "that you've been looking for me? Who are you? Please take your hand off."
The stranger's grasp tightened.
"Not so fast, Mr. Robert Blackburn. I daresay you haven't just now come from the Cedars?"
"No, no. I'm on my way to New York. There's a train soon, I think."
His voice trailed away. The stranger's straight smile widened. He commenced to laugh harshly and uncouthly.
"Sure there's a train, but you don't want to take it. And why haven't you been at the Cedars? Grandpa's death grieved you too much to go near his body?"
Bobby drew back. The shock robbed him for a moment of the power to reason.
"Dead! The old man! How—"
The stranger's smile faded.
"Here it is nearly three o'clock in the afternoon, and you're all dressed up for last night. That's lucky."
Bobby couldn't meet the narrow eyes.
"Who are you?"
The stranger with his free hand threw back his coat lapel.
"My name's Howells. I'm a county detective. I'm on the case, because your grandfather died very strangely. He was murdered, very cleverly murdered. Queerest case I've ever handled. What do you think?"
In his own ears Bobby's voice sounded as remote and unreal as it had through the blackness last night.
"Why do you talk to me like this?"
"Because I tell you I'm on the case, and I want you to turn about and go straight to the Cedars."
"This is—absurd. You mean you suspect—You're placing me under arrest?"
The detective's straight smile returned.
"How we jump at conclusions! I'm simply telling you not to bother me with questions. I'm telling you to go straight to the Cedars where you'll stay. Understand? You'll stay there until you're wanted—Until you're wanted."
The merciless repetition settled it for Bobby. He knew it would be dangerous to talk or argue. Moreover, he craved an opportunity to think, to probe farther into the black pit. He turned and walked away. When he reached the last houses he glanced back. The detective remained in the middle of the road, staring after him with that straight and satisfied smile.
Bobby walked on, his shaking hands tightly clenched, muttering to himself:
"I've got to remember. Good God! I've got to remember. It's the only way
I can ever know he's not right, that I'm not a murderer."
I can ever know he's not right, that I'm not a murderer."
THE CASE AGAINST BOBBY
Bobby hurried down the road in the direction of the Cedars. Always he tried desperately to recall what had occurred during those black hours last night and this morning before he had awakened in the empty house near his grandfather's home. All that remained were his sensation of travel in a swift vehicle, his impression of standing in the forest near the Cedars, his glimpse of the masked figure which he had called his conscience, the echo in his brain of a dream-like voice saying: "Take off your shoes and carry them in your hand. Always do that. It's the only safe way."
These facts, then, alone were clear to him: He had wandered, unconscious, in the neighbourhood. His grandfather had been strangely murdered. The detective who had met him in the village practically accused him of the murder. And he couldn't remember.
He turned back to his last clear recollections. When he had experienced his first symptoms of slipping consciousness he had been in the cafe in New York with Carlos Paredes, Maria, the dancer, and a strange man whom Maria had brought to the table. Through them he might, to an extent, trace his movements, unless they had put him in a cab, thinking he would catch the train, of which he had talked, for the Cedars.
Already the forest crowded the narrow, curving road. The Blackburn place was in the midst of an arid thicket of stunted pines, oaks, and cedars. Old Blackburn had never done anything to improve the estate or its surroundings. Steadily during his lifetime it had grown more gloomy, less habitable.
With the silent forest thick about him Bobby realized that he was no longer alone. A crackling twig or a loose stone struck by a foot might have warned him. He went slower, glancing restlessly over his shoulder. He saw no one, but that idea of stealthy pursuit persisted. Undoubtedly it was the detective, Howells, who followed him, hoping, perhaps, that he would make some mad effort at escape.
"That," he muttered, "is probably the reason he didn't arrest me at the station."
Bobby, however, had no thought of escape. He was impatient to reach the Cedars where he might learn all that Howells hadn't told him about his grandfather's death.
A high wooden fence straggled through the forest. The driveway swung from the road through a broad gateway. The gate stood open. Bobby remembered that it had been old Blackburn's habit to keep it closed. He entered and hurried among the trees to the edge of the lawn in the centre of which the house stood.
Feeling as guilty as the detective thought him, he paused there and examined the house for some sign of life. At first it seemed as dead as the forest stripped by autumn—almost as gloomy and arid as the wilderness which straggled close about it. He had no eye for the symmetry of its wings which formed the court in the centre of which an abandoned fountain stood. He studied the windows, picturing Katherine alone, surrounded by the complications of this unexpected tragedy.
His feeling of an inimical watchfulness persisted. A clicking sound swung him back to the house. The front door had been opened, and in the black frame of the doorway, as he looked, Katherine and Graham appeared, and he knew the resolution of his last doubt was at hand.
Katherine had thrown a cloak over her graceful figure. Her sunny hair strayed in the wind, but her face, while it had lost nothing of its beauty, projected even at this distance a sense of weariness, of anxiety, of utter fear.
Bobby was grateful for Graham's presence. It was like the man to assume his responsibilities, to sacrifice himself in his service. He straightened. He must meet these two. Through his own wretched appearance and position he must develop for Katherine more clearly than ever Graham's superiority. He stepped out, calling softly:
She started. She turned in his direction and came swiftly toward him. She spread her hands.
"Bobby! Bobby! Where have you been?"
There were tears in her eyes. They were like tears that have been too long coming. He took her hands. Her fingers were cold. They twitched in his.
"Look at me, Katherine," he said hoarsely. "I'm sorry."
Graham came up. He spoke with apparent difficulty.
"You've not been home. Then what happened last night? Quick! Tell us what you did—everything."
"I've seen the detective," he answered. "He's told you, too? Be careful.
I think he's back there, watching and listening."
I think he's back there, watching and listening."
Katherine freed her hands. The tears had dried. She shook a little.
"Then you were at the station," she said. "You must have come from New York, but I tried so hard to get you there. For hours I telephoned and telegraphed. Then I got Hartley. Come away from the trees so we can talk without—without being overheard."
As they moved to the centre of the open space Graham indicated Bobby's evening clothes.
"Why are you dressed like that, Bobby? You did come from town? You can tell us everything you did last night after I left you, and early this morning?"
Bobby shook his head. His answer was reluctant.
"I didn't come from New York just now. I was evidently here last night, and I can't remember, Hartley. I remember scarcely anything."
Graham's face whitened.
"Tell us," he begged.
"You've got to remember!" Katherine cried.
Bobby as minutely as he could recited the few impressions that remained from last night.
When he had finished Graham thought for some time.
"Paredes and the dancer," he said at last, "practically forced me away from you last night. It's obvious, Bobby, you must have been drugged."
Bobby shook his head.
"I thought of that right away, but it won't do. If I had been drugged I wouldn't have moved around, and I did come out somehow, I managed to get to the empty house to sleep. It's more as if my mind had simply closed, as if it had gone on working its own ends without my knowing anything about it. And that's dreadful, because the detective has practically accused me of murdering my grandfather. How was it done? You see I know nothing. Tell me how—how he was killed. I can't believe I—I'm such a beast. Tell me. If I was in the house, some detail might start my memory."
So Katherine told her story while Bobby listened, shrinking from some disclosure that would convict him. As she went on, however, his sense of bewilderment increased, and when she had finished he burst out:
"But where is the proof of murder? Where is there even a suggestion? You say the doors were locked and he doesn't show a mark."
"That's what we can't understand," Graham said. "There's no evidence we know anything about that your grandfather's heart didn't simply give out, but the detective is absolutely certain, and—there's no use mincing matters, Bobby—he believes he has the proof to convict you. He won't tell me what. He simply smiles and refuses to talk."
"The motive?" Bobby asked.
Graham looked at him curiously. Katherine turned away.
"Of course," Bobby cried with a sharpened discomfort. "I'd forgotten. The money—the new will he had planned to make. The money's mine now, but if he had lived until this morning it never would have been. I see."
"It is a powerful motive," Graham said, "for any one who doesn't know you."
"But," Bobby answered, "Howells has got to prove first that my grandfather was murdered. The autopsy?"
"Coroner's out of the county," Graham replied, "and Howells won't have an assistant. Dr. Groom's waiting in the house. We're expecting the coroner almost any time."
Bobby spoke rapidly.
"If he calls it murder, Hartley, there's one thing we've got to find out: what my grandfather was afraid of. Tell me again, Katherine, everything he said about me. I can't believe he could have been afraid of me."
"He called you," Katherine answered, "a waster. He said: 'God knows what he'll do next.' He said he'd ordered you out last night and he hadn't had a word from you, but that he'd made up his mind anyway. He was going to have his lawyer this morning and change his will, leaving all his money to the Bedford Foundation, except a little annuity for me. He grew sentimental and said he had no faith left in his flesh and blood, and that it was sad to grow old with nobody caring for him except to covet his money. I asked him if he were afraid of you, and all he answered was: 'You and Bobby are thicker than thieves.' Oh, yes. When I saw him for the last time in the hall he said there was nothing for me to worry about except you. That's all. I remember perfectly. He said nothing more about you."
"I wonder," Bobby muttered, "if a jury wouldn't think it enough."
Katherine shook her head.
"There seemed so much more than that behind his fear," she said. "As I've told you, he gave me a feeling of superstition. I never once was afraid of a murderer—of a man in the house. I was afraid of something queer and active, but not human."
"Would you," he asked, "call a man going about in an aphasia quite human? Somnambulists do unaccountable things—such as overcoming locked doors—"
"Don't, Bobby! Don't!" Katherine cried.
"Sh—h! Quiet!" Graham warned.
A foot scraped on gravel.
"Maybe the detective," Bobby suggested.
He stared at the bend, expecting to see the stiff, plain figure of the detective emerge from the forest. Instead with a dawning amazement he watched Carlos Paredes stroll into view. The Panamanian was calm and immaculate. His Van Dyke beard was neatly trimmed and combed. As he advanced he puffed in leisurely fashion at a cigarette.
"After last night he has the nerve—"
"Be decent to him," Bobby urged. "He might help me—might clear up last night."
"I wonder," Graham mused, "to what extent he could clear it up if he wished."
Paredes threw his cigarette away as he came closer. Solemnly he shook
hands with Katherine and Bobby, expressing a profound sympathy. Even then
Bobby remarked that those reserved features let slip no positive emotion.
The man turned to Graham.
hands with Katherine and Bobby, expressing a profound sympathy. Even then
Bobby remarked that those reserved features let slip no positive emotion.
The man turned to Graham.
"Our little difference of last evening," he said suavely, "will, I hope, evaporate in this atmosphere of unexpected sorrow. If I was in the wrong I deeply regret it. My one wish now is to join you in being of use to Bobby and Miss Katherine in their bereavement. I saw the account in a paper at luncheon. I came as quickly as possible."
Graham answered this smooth effrontery with a blunt question.
"Do you know that Bobby is in very real trouble, that he may be implicated in Mr. Blackburn's death?"
Paredes flung up his hands, but Bobby, looking for emotion in the sallow face then, found none. Paredes's features, it occurred to him, were exactly like a mask.
Bobby checked himself. In his unhealthy way Paredes had been a good friend. The man's voice flowed smoothly, demanding particulars.
"But this," he said, when they had told him what they could, "changes the situation. I must stay here. I must watch that detective and learn what he has up his sleeve."
Graham turned away.
"I've tried. Maybe you'll succeed better than I."
"Then you'll excuse me," Paredes said quickly. "I should like your permission to telephone to my hotel in New York for some clothing. I want to see this through."
The three looked at each other. Katherine and Graham seemed about to speak. Bobby wouldn't let them.
"Carlos," he said, "you might help me. I'm almost afraid to ask. What happened in the cafe last night? The last thing I remember distinctly is sitting there with you and Maria and a stranger she had introduced. I didn't get his name. What did I do? Did any one leave the place with me?"
Paredes smiled a little, shaking his head.
"You behaved as if Mr. Graham's earlier fears had been accomplished. You insisted you were going to catch your train. I didn't think it wise, so I went to the cloak room with you, intending to see you home. Somehow, just the same you gave me the slip."
"You oughtn't to have let him get away," Graham said.
Paredes shrugged his shoulders.
"You weren't there. You don't know how sly Bobby was."
"I suppose it's useless to ask," Graham said. "You saw nothing put in his wine?"
"Is it likely? Certainly not. I should have mentioned it. I should have stopped such a thing. What do you think I am, Mr. Graham?"
"Sorry," Graham said. "You must understand we can't let any lead slip.
This stranger Maria brought up?"
This stranger Maria brought up?"
"I didn't catch his name," Paredes answered.
"I'd never seen him before. I gathered he was a friend of hers—connected with the profession. Now I shall telephone with your permission, Miss Katherine; and don't you worry, Bobby. I will see you through; but we can't do much until the coroner comes, until the detective can be made to talk."
Katherine hesitated for a moment, then she surrendered.
"Please go with him, Hartley, and—and make him as comfortable as you can in this unhappy house."
Katherine detained Bobby with a nod. He saw the others go. He shrank, in his mental and physical discomfort, from this isolation with her. As soon as the door was closed she touched his hand. She burst out passionately:
"I don't believe it, Bobby. I'll never believe it no matter what happens."
"It's sweet of you, Katherine," he said huskily. "That helps when you don't know what to believe yourself."
"Don't talk that way. Such a crime would never have entered your head under any conditions. Only, Bobby, it ought never to have happened. You ought never to have been in this position. Why have you been friendly with people like—like that Spaniard? What can he want, forcing himself here? At any rate, you'll never lead that sort of life again?"
Her fingers sought his. He clasped them firmly.
"If I get past this," he said, "I'll always look you straight in the eye, Katherine. It was mad—silly. You don't quite understand—"
He broke off, glancing at the door through which Graham had disappeared.
"Then remember," she said softly, "I don't believe it."
She released his hand, sighing.
"That's all I can say, all I can do now. You're ill, Bobby. Go in. Rest for awhile. When you've had sleep you may remember something."
He shook his head. He walked slowly with her to the house.
As he climbed the stairs he heard Paredes telephoning. He couldn't understand the man's insistence on remaining where clearly he was an intruder.
He entered his bedroom which he had occupied only once or twice during the last few months. The place seemed unfamiliar. As he bathed and dressed his sense of strangeness grew, and he understood why. The last time he had been here he had stood in no personal danger. There had been no black parenthesis in his life during the stretch of which he might have committed an unspeakable crime. For he couldn't believe as firmly as Katherine did. Since he couldn't remember, he might have done anything.
"Come!" he called in response to a stealthy rapping at the door.
Stealth, it occurred to him, had, since last night, become a stern condition of his life.
Graham entered and noiselessly closed the door.
"I had a chance to slip in," he explained. "Paredes is wandering about the place. I'd give a lot to know what he's after at the Cedars. Katherine is in her room, trying to rest after last night, I fancy."
"And," Bobby asked, "the detective—Howells?"
"If he's back from the station," Graham answered, "he's keeping low. I wonder if it was he or Paredes who followed you through the woods?"
"Why should Carlos have followed me?" Bobby asked. "I've been thinking it over, Hartley. It isn't a bad scheme having him here, since you think he hasn't told all he knows."
"I don't say that," Graham answered. "I don't know what to think about Paredes. I've come to talk about just that. I'm a lawyer, and I've had some criminal practice. Since this detective will be satisfied with you for a victim, I'm going to take your case, if you'll have me. I'll be your detective as well as your lawyer."
Bobby was a good deal touched.
"That's kind of you—more than I deserve, for I have resented you at times."
Graham, it was clear, didn't guess he referred to his friendship for
Katherine, for he answered quickly:
Katherine, for he answered quickly:
"I must have seemed a nuisance, but I was only trying to get you back on the straight path where you've always belonged. I can't believe you did this thing, even unconsciously, until I'm shown proof without a single flaw. Until the autopsy the only thing we have to work on is that party last night. I've telephoned to New York and put a trustworthy man on the heels of Maria and the stranger. Meantime I think I'd better watch developments here."
"Please," Bobby agreed. "Stay with me, Hartley, until this man takes some definite action."
He picked at the fringe of the window curtain. "If the autopsy shows that my grandfather was murdered," he said, "either I killed him, or else some one has deliberately tried to throw suspicion on me, for with only a motive to go on this detective wouldn't be so sure. Why in the name of heaven should any one kill the old man, place all this money in my hands, and at the same time send me to the electric chair? Don't you see how absurd it is that Carlos, Maria, or any one else should have had a hand in it? There was nothing for them to gain from his death. I've thought and thought in such circles until I am almost convinced of the logic of my guilt."
He drew the curtain farther back and gazed across the court at the room where his grandfather lay dead. One of the two windows of the room was a little raised, but the blinds were closely drawn.
"I did hate him," he mused. "There's that. Ever since I can remember he did things to make me despise him. Have—have you seen him?"
"Howells took me in. He looked perfectly normal—not a mark."
"I don't want to see him," Bobby said.
He drew back from the window, pointing. The detective, Howells, had strolled into the court. His hands hung at his sides. They didn't swing as he walked. His lips were stretched in that thin, straight smile. He paused by the fountain, glancing for a moment anxiously downward. Then he came on and entered the house.
"He'll be restless," Graham said, "until the coroner comes, and proves or disproves his theory of murder. If he questions you, you'd better say nothing for the present. From his point of view what you remember of last night would be only damaging."
"I want him to leave me alone," Bobby said. "If he doesn't arrest me I won't have him bullying me."
Jenkins knocked and entered. The old butler was as white-faced as Bobby, more tremulous.
"The policeman, sir! He's asking for you."
"Tell him I don't wish to see him."
The detective, himself, stepped from the obscurity of the hall, smiling his queer smile.
"Ah! You are here, Mr. Blackburn! I'd like a word with you."
He turned to Graham and Jenkins.
"Alone, if you please."
Bobby mutely agreed, and Graham and the butler went out. The detective closed the door and leaned against it, studying Bobby with his narrow eyes.
"I don't suppose," he began, "that there's any use asking you about your movements last night?"
"None," Bobby answered jerkily, "unless you arrest me and take me before those who ask questions with authority."
The detective's smile widened.
"No matter. I didn't come to argue with you about that. I was curious to know if you'd tried to see your grandfather's body."
Bobby shook his head.
"I took it for granted the room was locked."
"Yes," the detective answered, "but some people, it seems, have skilful ways of overcoming locks."
He moved to one side, placing his hand on the door knob.
"I've come to open doors for you, to give you the opportunity an affectionate grandson must crave."
Bobby hesitated, fighting back his feeling of repulsion, his first instinct to refuse. The detective might take it as an evidence against him. On the other hand, if he went, the man would unquestionably try to tear from a meeting between the living and the dead some valuable confirmation of his theory.
"Well?" the detective said. "What's the matter? Thought the least I could do was to give you a chance. Wouldn't do it for everybody. Then everybody hasn't your affectionate nature."
"For God's sake, stop mocking me. I'll go, since you wish."
The detective opened the door and stood aside to let Bobby pass.
"Daresay you know the room—the way to it?"
Bobby didn't answer. He went along the corridor and into the main hall where Katherine had met Silas Blackburn last night. He fought back his aversion and entered the corridor of the old wing. He heard the detective behind him. He was aware of the man's narrow eyes watching him with a malicious assurance.
Bobby, with a feeling of discomfort, sprung in part from the gloomy passageway, paused before the door his grandfather had had the unaccountable whim of entering last night. The detective took a key from his pocket and inserted it in the lock.
"Had some trouble repairing the lock this morning," he said. "That fellow, Jenkins, entered with a heavy hand—a good deal heavier than whoever was here before him."
He opened the door.
"Queerest case I've ever seen," he mumbled. "Step in, Mr. Blackburn."
Because of the drawn blinds the room was nearly as dark as the corridor. Bobby entered slowly, his nerves taut. Against the farther wall the bed was like an enormous shadow, without form.
"Stay where you are," the detective warned, "until I give you more light. You know, I wouldn't want you to touch anything, because the room is exactly as it was when he was murdered!"
Bobby experienced a swift impulse to strangle the brutal word in the detective's throat. But he stood still while the man went to the bureau, struck a match, and applied it to a candle. The wick burned reluctantly. It flickered in the wind that slipped past the curtain of the open window.
"Come here," the detective commanded roughly.
Bobby dragged himself forward until he stood at the foot of the four-poster bed. The detective lifted the candle and held it beneath the canopy.
"You look all you want now, Mr. Robert Blackburn," he said grimly.
Bobby conquered the desire to close his eyes, to refuse to obey. He stared at his grandfather, and a feeling of wonder grew upon him. For Silas Blackburn rested peacefully in the great bed. His eyes were closed. The thick gray brows were no longer gathered in the frown too familiar to Bobby. The face with its gray beard retained no fear, no record of a great shock.
Bobby glanced at the detective who bent over the bed watching him out of his narrow eyes.
"Why," he asked simply, "do you say he was murdered?"
"He was murdered," the detective answered. "Murdered in cold blood, and, look you here, young fellow, I know who did it. I'm going to strap that man in the electric chair. He's got just one chance—if he talks out, if he makes a clean breast of it."
Across the body he bent closer. He held the candle so that its light searched Bobby's face instead of the dead man's, and the uncertain flame was like an ambush for his eyes.
In response to those intolerable words Bobby's sick nerves stretched too tight. No masquerade remained before this huntsman who had his victim trapped, and calmly studied his agony. The horror of the accusation shot at him across the body of the man he couldn't be sure he hadn't murdered, robbed him of his last control. He cried out hysterically:
"Why don't you do something? For God's sake, why don't you arrest me?"
A chuckle came from the man in ambush behind the yellow flame.
"Listen to the boy! What's he talking about? Grief for his grandfather.
That's what it is—grief."
That's what it is—grief."
"Stop!" Bobby shouted. "It's what you've been accusing me with ever since you stopped me at the station." He indicated the silent form of the old man. "You keep telling me I murdered him. Why don't you arrest me then? Why don't you lock me up? Why don't you put the case on a reasonable basis?"
He waited, trembling. The flame continued to flicker, but the hand holding the candlestick failed to move, and Bobby knew that the eyes didn't waver, either. He forced his glance from the searching flame. He managed to lower and steady his voice.
"You can't. That's the trouble. He wasn't murdered. The coroner will tell you so. Anybody who looks at him will tell you so. Since you haven't the nerve to arrest me. I'm going. I'm glad to have had this out with you. Understand. I'm my own master. I do what I please. I go where I please."
At last the candle moved to one side. The detective straightened and walked to Bobby. The multitude of small lines in his face twitched. His voice was too cold for the fury of his words.
"That's just what I want you to do, damn you—anything you please. I'm accusing nobody, but I'm getting somebody. I've got somebody right now for this old man's murder. My man's going to writhe and burn in the chair, confession or no confession. Now get out of this room since you're so anxious, and don't come near it again."
Bobby went. At the end of the corridor he heard the closing of the door, the scraping of the key. He was afraid the detective might follow him to his room to heckle him further. To avoid that he hurried to the lower floor. He wanted to be alone. He must have time to accustom himself to this degrading fate which loomed in the too-close future. Unless they could demolish the detective's theory he, Bobby Blackburn, would go to the death house.
A fire blazed in the big hall fireplace. Paredes stood with his back to it, smoking and warming his hands. A man sat in the shadow of a deep leather chair, his rough, unpolished boots stretched toward the flaming logs. As he came down the stairs Bobby heard the heavy, rumbling voice of the man in the chair:
"Certainly it's a queer case, but not the way Howells means. I daresay the old fool died what the world will call a natural death. If you smoke so much you will, too, before long."
Bobby tried to slip past, but Paredes saw him.
"Feeling better, Bobby?"
The boots were drawn in. From the depths of the chair arose a figure nearly gigantic in the firelight. The man's face, at first glance, appeared to be covered with hair. Black and curling, it straggled over his forehead. It circled his mouth, and fell in an unkempt beard down his waistcoat. The huge man must have been as old as Silas Blackburn, but he showed no touch of gray. His only concession to age was the sunken and bloodshot appearance of his eyes.
Bobby and Katherine had always been afraid of this great, grim country practitioner who had attended their childish illnesses. That sense of an overpowering and incomprehensible personality had lingered. Even through his graver fear Bobby felt a sharp discomfort as he surrendered his hand to the other's absorbing grasp.
"I'm afraid you came too late this time, Doctor Groom."
The doctor looked him up and down.
"Not for you, I guess," he grumbled. "Don't you know you're sick, boy?"
Bobby shook his head.
"I'm very tired. That's all. I'm on my way to the library to try to rest."
He freed his hand. The big man nodded approvingly.
"I'll send you a dose," he promised, "and don't you worry about your grandfather's having been murdered by any man. I've seen the body. Stuff and nonsense! Detective's an ass. Waiting for coroner, although I know he's one, too."
"I pray," Bobby answered listlessly, "that you're right."
"If there's any little thing I can do," Paredes offered formally.
"No, no. Thanks," Bobby answered.
He went on to the library. He glanced with an unpleasant shrinking from the door of the enclosed staircase leading to the private hall just outside the room in which his grandfather lay dead. There was no fire here, but he wrapped himself in a rug and lay on the broad, high-backed lounge which was drawn close to the fireplace, facing it. His complete weariness conquered his premonitions, his feeling of helplessness. The entrance of Jenkins barely aroused him.
"Where are you, Mr. Robert?"
"Here," Bobby answered sleepily.
The butler walked to the lounge and looked over the back.
"To be sure, sir. I didn't see you here."
He held out a glass.
"Doctor Groom said you were to drink this. It would make you sleep, sir."
Bobby closed his eyes again.
"Put it on the table where I can reach it when I want it."
"Yes, sir. Mr. Robert! The policeman? Did he say anything, if I might make so bold as to ask?"
"Go away," Bobby groaned. "Leave me in peace."
And peace for a little time came to him. It was the sound of voices in the room that aroused him. He lay for a time, scarcely knowing where he was, but little by little the sickening truth came back, and he realized that it was Graham and the detective, Howells, who talked close to the window, and Graham had already fulfilled his promise.
Bobby didn't want to eavesdrop, but it was patent he would embarrass Graham by disclosing himself now, and it was likely Graham would be glad of a witness to anything the detective might say.
It was still light. A ray from the low sun entered the window and rested on the door of the enclosed staircase.
Graham's anxious demand was the first thing Bobby heard distinctly—the thing that warned him to remain secreted.
"I think now with the coroner on his way it's time you defined your suspicions a trifle more clearly. I am a lawyer. In a sense I represent young Mr. Blackburn. Please tell me why you are so sure his grandfather was murdered."
"All right," the detective's level voice came back. "Half an hour ago I would have said no again, but now I've got the evidence I wanted. I appreciate, Mr. Graham, that you're a friend of that young rascal, and what I have to say isn't pleasant for a friend to hear. But first you want to know why I'm so sure the case is murder, in spite of the doctor who made his diagnosis without really looking."
"Go on," Graham said softly.
Bobby waited—his nerves as tense as they had grown in the presence of the dead man.
"Two days ago," the detective went on quietly, "old Mr. Blackburn came to the court house in Smithtown and asked for the best detective the district attorney could put his hand on. I don't want to blow my own trumpet, but I've got away with one or two pretty fair jobs. I've had good offers from private firms in New York. So they turned him over to me. It was easy to see the old man was scared, just as his niece says he was last night. The funny part was he wouldn't say definitely what he was afraid of. I thought he might be shielding somebody until he was a little surer of his ground. He told me he was afraid of being murdered, and he wanted a good man he could call on to come out here to the Cedars if things got too hot for him. I can hear his voice now as distinctly as if he was standing where you are.
"'My heart's all right,' he said. 'It won't stop awhile yet unless it's made to. So if I'm found cold some fine morning you can be sure I was put out of the way.'
"I tried to pump him, naturally, but he wouldn't say another word except that he'd send for me if there was time. He didn't want any fuss made, and he gave me a handsome present to keep my mouth shut and not to bother him with any more questions. I figured—you can't blame me, Mr. Graham—that the old boy was a little cracked. So I took his money and let it go at that. I didn't think much more about it until they told me early this morning he lay dead here under peculiar circumstances."
"Odd!" Graham commented. "It does make it more like murder, Howells. But he doesn't look like a murdered man."
"When you know as much about crime as I do, Mr. Graham, you'll realize that murders which are a long time planning are likely to take on one of two appearances—suicide or natural death."
"All right," Graham said. "For the purpose of argument let us agree it's murder. Even so, why do you suspect young Blackburn?"
"Without a scrap of evidence it's plain as the nose on your face," the detective answered. "If old Blackburn had lived until this morning our young man would have been a pauper. As it is, he's a millionaire, but I don't think he'll enjoy his money. The two had been at sword's points for a long time. Robert hated the old man—never made any bones about it. You couldn't ask for a more damaging motive."
"You can't convict a man on motive," Graham said shortly. "You spoke of evidence."
"More," the detective replied, "than any jury in the land would ask."
Bobby held his breath, shrinking from this information, which, however, he realized it was better he should know.
"When I got here," the detective said, "I decided on the theory of murder to make a careful search as soon as day broke. I didn't have to wait for day, though, to find one crying piece of evidence. For a long time I was alone in the room with the body. Queer feeling about that room, Mr. Graham. Don't know how to describe it except to say it's uncomfortable. Too old, maybe. Maybe it was just being there alone with the dead man before the dawn, although I thought I was hardened to that sort of thing. Anyway, I didn't like it. To keep my spirits up, as well as to save time, I commenced searching the place with a candle. Nothing about the bed. Nothing in the closets or the bureau."
He grinned sheepishly.
"You know I kind of was afraid to open the closet doors. Then I got on my knees and looked under the bed. The light was bad and I didn't see anything at first. After a minute, close against the wall, I noticed something white. I reached in and pulled it out. It was a handkerchief, and it had a monogram, Mr. Graham—R. B. in purple and green."
He paused. Graham exclaimed sharply. Bobby felt the net tighten. If that evidence was conclusive to the others, how much more so was it for him! He recalled how, after awaking in the empty house, he had searched unsuccessfully in all his pockets for his handkerchief, intending to brush the dirt from his shoes.
"I went to his room," the detective hurried on, "and found a lot of his clothes and his stationery and his toilet articles marked with the same cipher. I knew my man had made a big mistake—the sort of mistake every criminal makes no matter how clever he is—and I had him. But that isn't, by any means, all. Don't look so distressed, Mr. Graham. There isn't the slightest chance for him. You see I repaired the lock, and, as soon as it was day, closed the room and went outside to look for signs. Since nightfall no one had come legitimately through the court except Doctor Groom and myself. Our footprints were all right—making a straight line along the path to the front door. In the soft earth by the fountain I found another and a smaller print, made by a very neat shoe, sir, and I said to myself: 'There is almost certainly the footprint of the murderer.'
"There were plenty of others coming across the grass. He'd evidently avoided the path. And there was one directly under the open window where the body lies. It's still there. Perhaps you can see it. No matter. That's the last one I found. The prints ceased there. There wasn't a one going back, and I was fair up a stump. Then I saw a little undefined sign of pressure on the grass, and I got an idea. 'Suppose,' I says, 'my man took his shoes off and went around in his stockinged feet!' I couldn't understand, though, why he hadn't thought of that before. I went back to Robert Blackburn's room and got one of his shoes, and ran into a snag again. The sole of the shoe was a trifle larger than the footprints. Every one of his shoes I tried was the same way. I argued that the handkerchief was enough, but I wanted this other evidence. I simply had to clear up these queer footprints.
"I figured, since the murder had been made to look so much like a natural death, that he'd come out here some time to-day, expecting to carry it off. I wanted to go to the station, anyway, to find out if he'd been seen coming through last night or early this morning. While I was talking to the station agent I had my one piece of luck. I couldn't believe my eyes. Mr. Robert walks up from the woods. He'd been hiding around the neighbourhood all the time. Probably had missed his handkerchief and decided he'd better not take any chances. Yet it must have seemed a pretty sure thing that the station wouldn't be watched, and it's those nervy things, doing the obvious, that skilful criminals get away with all the time. I needed only one look at him, and I had the answer to the mystery of the footprints. I gave him plenty of time to come here and change his clothes, then I manoeuvered him out of his room and went there and found the pumps he'd worn last night and to-day. You see, they'd be a little smaller than his ordinary shoes. Not only did they fit the footprints exactly, but they were stained with soil exactly like that in the court. There you are, sir. I've made a plaster cast of one of the prints. I've got it here in my pocket where I intend to keep it until I clear the whole case up and turn in my report."
Graham's tone was shocked and discouraged.
"What more do you want? Why haven't you arrested him?"
In this room the detective's satisfied chuckle was an offence.
"No good detective would ask that, Mr. Graham. I want my report clean. The coroner will tell us how the old man was killed. I want to tell how young Blackburn got into that room. One of the windows was raised a trifle, but that's no use. I've figured on the outside of the wing until I'm dizzy. There's no way up for a normal man. An orangoutang would make hard work of it. His latch key would have let him into the house, and it would have been simple enough for him to find out that the old man had changed his room. I've got to find out how he got past those doors, locked on the inside."
He chuckled again.
"Almost like a sleep-walker's work."
Bobby shivered. Was that where the evidence pointed? Already the net was too finely woven. The detective continued earnestly:
"I'm figuring on some scheme to make him show me the way. I've a sort of plan for to-night, but it's only a chance."
"What?" Graham asked.
"Oh, no, sir," Howells laughed. "You'll learn about that when the time comes."
"I don't understand you," Graham said. "You're sure of your man but you keep no close watch on him. Do you know where he is now?"
"Haven't the slightest idea, Mr. Graham."
"What's to prevent his running away?"
"I'm offering him every opportunity. He wouldn't get far, and I've a feeling that if he confessed by running he'd break down and give up the whole thing. You've no idea how it frets me, Mr. Graham. I've got my man practically in the chair, but from a professional point of view it isn't a pretty piece of work until I find out how he got in and out of that room. The thing seems impossible, and yet here we are, knowing that he did it. Well, maybe I'll find out to-night. Hello!"
The door opened. Bobby from his hiding place could see Paredes on the threshold, yawning and holding a cigarette in his fingers.
"Here you are," he said drowsily. "I've just been in the court. It made me seek company. That court's too damp, Mr. Detective."
His laugh was lackadaisical.
"When the sun leaves it, the court seems full of, unfriendly things—what the ignorant would call, ghosts. I'm Spanish and I know."
The detective grunted.
"Funny!" Paredes went on. "Observation doesn't seem to interest you. I'd rather fancied it might."
He yawned again and put his cigarette to his lips. Puffing placidly, he turned and left.
"What do you suppose he means by that?" the detective said to Graham.
Without waiting for an answer he followed Paredes from the room. Graham went after him. Bobby threw back the rug and arose. For a moment he was as curious as the others as to Paredes's intention. He slipped across the dining room. The hall was deserted. The front door stood open. From the court came Paredes's voice, even, languid, wholly without expression:
"Mean to tell me you don't react to the proximity of unaccountable forces here, Mr. Howells?"
The detective's laugh was disagreeable.
"You trying to make a fool of me? That isn't healthy."
As Bobby hurried across the hall and up the stairs he heard
"You should speak to Doctor Groom. He says this place is too crowded by the unpleasant past—"
Bobby climbed out of hearing. He entered his bedroom and locked the door. He resented Paredes's words and attitude which he defined as studied to draw humour out of a tragic and desperate situation. He thought of them in no other way. His tired mind dismissed them. He threw himself on the bed, muttering:
"If I run away I'm done for. If I stay I'm done for."
He took a fierce twisted joy in one phase of the situation.
"If I was there last night," he thought, "Howells will never find out how I got into the room, because, no matter what trap he sets, I can't tell him."
His leaden weariness closed his eyes. For a few minutes he slept again.
Once more it was a voice that awakened him—this time a woman's, raised in a scream. He sprang up, flung open the door, and stumbled into the corridor. Katherine stood there, holding her dressing gown about her with trembling hands. The face she turned to Bobby was white and panic-stricken. She beckoned, and he followed her to the main hall. The others came tearing up the stairs—Graham, Paredes, the detective, and the black and gigantic doctor.
In answer to their quick questions she whispered breathlessly:
"I heard. It was just like last night. It came across the court and stole in at my window."
She shook. She stretched out her hands in a terrified appeal.
"Somebody—something moved in that room where he—he's dead."
"Nonsense," the detective said. "Both doors are locked, and I have the keys in my pocket."
Paredes fumbled with a cigarette.
"You're forgetting what I said about my sensitive apprehension of strange things—"
The detective interrupted him loudly, confidently:
"I tell you the room is empty except for the murdered man—unless someone's broken down a door."
Katherine cried out:
"No. I heard that same stirring. Something moved in there."
The detective turned brusquely and entered the old corridor.
The others followed. Katherine was close to Bobby. He touched her hand.
"He's right, Katherine. No one's there. No one could have been there. You mustn't give way like this. I'm depending on you—on your faith."
She pressed his hand, but her assurance didn't diminish.
The key scraped in the lock. They crowded through the doorway after the detective. He struck a match and lighted the candle. He held it over the bed. He sprang back with a sharp cry, unlike his level quality, his confident conceit. He pointed. They all approximated his helpless gesture, his blank amazement. For on the bed had occurred an abominable change.
The body of Silas Blackburn no longer lay peacefully on its back. It had been turned on its side, and remained in a stark and awkward attitude. For the first time the back of the head was disclosed.
Their glances focussed there—on the tiny round hole at the base of the brain, on the pillow where the head had rested and which they saw now was stained with an ugly and irregular splotch of blood.
Bobby saw the candle quiver at last in the detective's hand. The man strode to the door leading to the private hall and examined the lock.
"Both doors," he said, "were locked. There was no way in—"
He turned to the others, spreading his hands in justification. The candle, which he seemed to have forgotten, cast gross, moving shadows over his face and over the face of the dead man.
"At least you'll all grant me now that he was murdered."
They continued to stare at the body of Silas Blackburn. Cold for many hours, it was as if he had made this atrocious revealing movement to assure them that he had, indeed, been murdered; to expose to their startled eyes the sly and deadly method.