The Strange Adventure of the Staring Canvas
Author of "The Prairie Wife," "The Hand of Peril," "The Door of Dread," “The Silver Poppy," Etc.
THE COOL and quiet of midnight hung over the city. The narrow crossstreets, lonely defiles of brownstone and brick flanked by still lonelier lampstandards, dipped and fell away into the unbroken darkness of the East River.
I turned into one of these cross-streets, nettled and rowelled onward by that nervous unrest which is the offspring of over-wakeful hours. I paced disconsolately down a roadway that lay before me as desolate as a glacial crevasse. Its midnight emptiness reminded me of a flume run dry, of a conduit waiting for its current, of a tideway eaten out by its daily life. It undulated off into darkness so quiet and sullen that I swung about, quickly, at the sound of an opened door.
I could make out the figure of a little old man, lean and stoop-shouldered. He was waving an arm at me. So I turned back, reluctantly, still thinking of supper in some all-night chop-house that smelt of broiling steaks and hot coffee.
“Get me a policeman!” called the thin and stooped little figure, as I came to the foot of his house steps. Instead of doing what he commanded, I went calmly up the wide brownstone slabs.
“I want a policeman!” he snapped, like a terrier, blocking my advance, with one hand on his tarnished brass door-knob.
“Well, I’m one!” was my indifferent and quite mendacious answer.
T STOOD there, confronting him. He A made a strange figure, in his German felt slippers and his ragged old crimson dressing-gown held together at the waist by a piece of well-frayed window rope.
“No, no; an officer; a police officer!” he repeated, more impatiently.
“Didn’t I tell you I was an officer?” I retorted.
“Hey?” he squawked, to gain time, with his hand behind his ear.
“I’m a plain-clothes man, I say, from the City Detective Bureau!”
“You’re sure you’re a policeman?” he repeated.
“Of course! What’s wrong in here, anyway?”
“You stay there a minute,” retorted the little old man, instead of answering my question.
He withdrew from sight, with a preoccupied and swinish grunt, promptly locking the door in my face as he did so.
Just as promptly I got my ear against a panel of that door, to make sure he wasn’t ’phoning Headquarters. But the unmannerly little rat was engaged in some much more trivial task of his own, for the door was unlocked in a moment, and the shifty old eyes were again squinting out at me. I caught the sound of his second little grunt; this time it seemed almost one of satisfaction.
“You’re an honest officer?” he still parried, turning from me and peering up and down the deserted street. His eyes, I could see, were still furtive and frightened.
“Look here, you!” I cried, now in actual exasperation. “I’m getting tired of this!
Go back in there and ’phone Headquarters, and maybe they’ll take a night off and let you know my whole family history and who’s my second great aunt on my mother’s side-”
“That’s just it!” cut in the wizened little ogre, querulously. “I can’t telephone! I can’t call up anybody— I can’t get help! Something’s been done to my
Things were getting interesting, after all.
“W hat you want is a lineman then, not a policeman!”
I started down the steps.
He called me back, in alarm, as I felt he would do. He seemed afraid of being left there alone. I returned his stare, with a show of rising indifference.
“Come in !” he said, at last, with his odious an danimal-like grunt. “Come in !” He held the door back a foot or two, and I squeezed inside. Then he promptly turned the key in the lock.
T HAD time for only one glance about me. On an old-fashioned marble-topped table stood a small kerosene lamp, meanly lighting the dim and cavernous hallway. In the half-light, to the rear, I could see the steps of a carpetless stairway, and the shadow of a door-frame or two. But that was all. The place was as bare and silent as a tomb.
“Well?” I asked, and my own voice echoed back out of the quietness with startling clearness.
“You’re armed, of course, if you’re an officer?” he ventured, as he crept guardedly into the twilight room.
I took the Colt which Benson had recently suggested that I should carry out of its padded resting-place above my hip and dropped it loose into the side pocket of my coat. The frightened householder noticed the movement, with a guttural little sound of approval.
“You haven’t been robbed?” I asked, as he put the lamp down on a wide table of walnut black with age.
“Robbed?” he echoed. “What have I to be robbed of?”
“Then why d’you want me here?”
He peered about the gloom, from under his shaggy brows, meditatively. Then he turned and looked at me, almost fawningly, with his shoulders hunched up.
“I’ll see you’re paid for this,” he declared. “I’ll—I’ll see you get a couple of dollars for your night’s trouble!”
He wagged his head prodigiously, as though he’d just threatened me with a fortune.
“Cut it out!” I retorted. “The force can’t take money, and you know it!”
“Ah, good, good!” he wheezed, rubbing bis skinny old hands together. “It’s a rare treat, nowadays, to see a man above graft and greed, a rare treat!”
I was getting tired of his gibbering. “Give us some gas there!” I said, with a motion toward the huge, old-fashioned glass-prismed chandelier that cascaded incongruously down through the gloom.
“Gas!” cried the little old hypocrite. “D’you suppose I’d pour my money into the hands o’ robbers! Gas! There’ll be no gas burnt in my house!”
He must have observed my passing look of disgust.
“Oil-lamps are easier on the throat, you know—soothing to the tubes!” he explained. Then he added, with a touch of pride: “And I’ve got three of ’em!”
I LOOKED at the sly little figure in wonder, at the dissembling old face fretting under its burden of half-hidden fears. I began to hate the man, and to be almost afraid of him.
“But if nothing’s happened here, and you haven’t been robbed, what are you wasting my time for, anyway?” I demanded.
“It’s to see that I’m not robbed !” he cried, with a vehemence that startled me.
“Robbed?” I echoed.
“I’m an old man, and alone, but I will not be robbed !” he burst forth, with a sudden fury of defiance that made me think, for a moment, that I was alone in the house with a lunatic.
My eyes, grown accustomed to the meagre light, coasted about the great barrack-like room.
“Well, what do you want me to do?” I asked the owner of the house.
“I want you to go over this place with me, and see that it’s safe—every inch of it!"
My sudden laughter brought his furtive eyes back to my face. He peered up at me without the least sign of resentment.
“I can’t see what they’d be robbing you
“That’s just it!” cried the wizened little dissembler, with updrawn shoulders. “But this morning I found mv basement door tampered with! And what am I to think —with my wire cut off. and Weaver deserting me this way, without a word, and my old house-dog gone!”
“You’re alone in the house, you mean?”
He acknowledged, by a movement of the head, that he was.
“Who is Weaver?”
“Weaver’s my man—my house-ser-
I began to understand the situation a little. It was not without interest to me.
“Then the sooner we look things over, the better!” I said.
He wagged his head at this, and motioned for me to take up the lamp.
“Let’s have a look at that telephone of yours first!” I commanded. Without a word he took the lamp and preceded me through the gloom of the hallway. There,
under the stairs, he pointed out the transmitter, dark against the wall-paper of faded yellow'.
“Turn up that light!” He did as I ordered, grudgingly.
“Your doors and windows are all locked?” I asked him, as I worked over the transmitter.
“Every blessed one of them!” was his answer.
“No neglected cellar man-holes?”
HE chortled a little, down in his pendulous old throat. “I attend to that sort o’ thing myself!” he replied.
“Then what else is wrong?”
“I—er—had a few alarm-bells—had ’em put in years ago. An hour ago I found those bells wouldn’t work!”
“You mean you have an electric burglar-alarm system in the house?”
“A kind of a one!” he admitted.
Then there was reason for guarding that bald and seemingly empty old mansion! I began to feel that I was losing time over trivialities.
“I want to look over this house, right away. Get me down to the cellar first!” And as we made our way slowdy down through the chill gloom I kept firing my volley of questions.
“Tell me more about this man of yours, Weaver.”
“What is there to tell?” w'hined the figure with the lamp, in front of me. “He’s been a servant here for twenty-seven odd years. And a good man he was—though extravagant', at times, sinfully extravagant.”
I could quite imagine that!
“He was never known to leave this house for a day before, without good reason.”
T PAUSED, for a moment, to examine the ponderous chain-lock of a wellsealed coal-chute.
“Then you think something—a—unlikely has happened to him?”
“Something must have happened! Tomorrow was his pay-day!”
“How much was coming to him?” “Two dollars. A week’s wages!”
I stopped and stared at the man in amazement.
“Yes, I paid him that—two dollars a week and board and keep, month in and month out, year in and year out!”
“You have other servants?”
“Servants? What do I want with a pack o’ servants?” he whimpered.
“Who cooks for you? Who takes care of your place?”
“Weaver’s granddaughter used to look after things a bit, until she off and married. That was last spring. And a dollar a week she used to cost me, month in and month out. When the girl went, we shifted for ourselves.”
I remained silent, until I had control of myself again, though it took an effort.
“About your dog—you say he’s disappeared?” I finally inquired.
“Yes! He was a brindled bull—the lightest-sleeping watch-dog I ever raised —as good as an army o’ roundsmen, that dog.
DUILDING up my facts in this way, E) brick by brick, I explored the house from cellar to garret. And a cold and barren and ruinous house it was, with its dark and unventilated corridors, its dusty and disordered rooms, its bare and carpetless stairways, its old and moldy furniture, its general atmosphere of unalleviated decay and neglect.
It brought to me both a sense of de-
pression and a sense of disappointment, until, in the sleeping-room on the second floor, I made two discoveries.
The first was that on the wall above the squalid and disorderly bed stood an amazingly complete and efficient burglar alarm apparatus, quite worthy of a place in a Broad Street banking-house.
It was as I stepped across the room to examine this apparatus at closer range that I made my second discovery. A wall had been torn away, evidently, making two smaller roomsNinto one. The room stood, I assumed, directly above the dining-room. As I crossed its broken flooring, my steps fell hollow, of a sudden, and as I glanced down I could make out the faint outline of a small trap-door. What it led to, or what it was there for, I had no means of judging.
I felt, as w'e made our way back to the musty dining-room below-stairs, that I had found out too much on the one hand, or too little on the other. My companion, I noticed, appeared to be more satisfied, once safely back in the room. I suddenly remembered it W'as the only room I had not examined.
So I took the lamp, turned up the wick, and cast my eye about the huge chamber.
For the first time I made note of the great bricked-up fireplace against the farther wall. I could quite understand why its voracious throat had been m”zzled, why it had been supplanted by the meanly proportioned little marble grate at the end of the room.
A \Y wandering eye next made out three large canvases, in oil. From each of these I could see a painted figure staring out into the sombre room. But it was the largest canvas, directly above the brickedup fireplace, that caught and held my attention. I saw, as I approached it with the light, that it as an example of some bizarre school of anecdotal art, and bore on its gilt frame the title of “The Duelist.”
It was a remarkable figure—of that there could be no doubt. It seemed to dominate the room, to menace and threaten it, as that painted stare, concentrated, malignant, yet indescribably debonair, cut out with the keenness of a swordblade through the silence and the darkness. Once before, and once only, had I seen anything like it. That had been on the occasion of a certain interview in the Chicago office of the Pinkertons. There, in the great detective’s inner sanctum, had hung the life-sized painting of a highwayman wearing a mask, and pointing a revolver out of the canvas. I had noticed then, as I noticed now, that the eye seemed to follow me, no matter what position I took before the painting.
In fact, I slowly backed away, under the spell of those strange eyes, until I was on the opposite side of the great shabby dining-room.
Then I stopped abruptly, still gazing up at the picture. For'my back had come in contact with something unexpectedly hard and cold, something under an artfully arranged piece of drapery. It was a thing of metal, and a thing of massiveness: that much I knew after my first contact with it.
So I explored that massive thing of metal with one hand thrust carelessly behind my back, as I continued to hold the lamp aloft and peer up at the painting. It took me only a second or two to make sure that the thing I had so accidentlly backed into was a safe, set in the wall and draped with what must have been an old table-cover or two.
I could detect the furtive and uneasy
glanceof the little old householder as I stood there near his stronghold. I could see his look of relief as 1 stepped forward again. Both to gain time and to get better control of myself, I made a pretense of peering up at the painting to the left of “The Duelist.” This canvas, I saw, was a portrait of my host. But it had been painted many years before, showing him in the pride of his early manhood.
Every note of it ssemed a mockery of what he new was—• the highheld head pompous and domineering; the hand thrust airily into the bosom of the black frock coat the deepset eyes direct and uncompromising.
To the left of the fireplace again was the picture of a girl.
There was something so rich in the clear tones, that I made bold to lift the oil-lamp close to the canvas to catch a better glimpse of the
It was the portrait of a young woman of eighteen or nineteen years, perhaps even twenty; a clear-eyed red-lipped, Goldenhaired girl, teeming with the vigor and love of life, with audacity crowning the fresh young mouth, and some strange spirit of revolt resting warningly about the deep and shadowy eyes.
IT was none of these things, however, that compelled me to turn suddenly on the odious little figure behind me. For I had made my third discovery.
“Whose portrait is that?” I demanded.
There was a moment of absolute si-
“My daughter’s,” said the old man curtly, not even giving the canvas a glance. Instead, he was peerng at me, in wonder.
“When was it 11
“Eight—no—nine years ago. And it cost me six hundred dollars in good money. I was a fool in those days!”
“Does this daughter live with you?” The old man blinked at me, surprised at my interest. Then he slowly shook his head. There was something loathsome in his little mirthless laugh. “She was too pretty a butterfly for this dull house!” he whined, sobering of a sudden.
“Where is she now?” I demanded, still gazing up at the soft and girlish face all crowned with gold.
The old miser nursed up his flaccid lips, and shifted about uneasily.
“She was a wild girl!” he mumbled.
I turned on him with disgust.
“And you don’t know what became of that girl?” I broke out indignantly, resentfully knowing all I knew.
“She was always spending—spending —spending!” was all he would say. I could see it was useless to question him further.
But the canvas on the wall before me was a portrait of “Goldie Laurason,” the diamond smuggler and steamship
thief the fit-thrower whose simulation of psychic epilepsy had duped three Justices of Special Sessions and twice as many doctors, the missing heiress of the longnotorious “Todhunter Case," the fair and youthful confidence-woman and hotel-embezzler whom I had once seen with my own eyes, lined up for the “gallery inspection” at the Central Office. And I thought of Lieutenant Belton and how much I would like to have him there beside me.
“Look here,” I said, facing my opponent, “Fve been on duty since six this morning.
I’m all in! I’ve got to have something to eat and some sleep!”
“You don’t mean you’re going to leave me alone here?” cried the little old man, in sudden alarm.
“You’re still ali-Ve, aren’t you?” I retorted.
“Yes, yes; -but: I want this place watched to-night!”.
“Why?” I asked.
“I have my reasons!” he answered He squinted about, apparently weighing something in his mind.
“Wait here, and I’ll fetch you food,” he conceded. “Then you can make yourself comfortable on my sofa there for the night.”
He disappeared toward the back of the house. I moved a little nearer the hidden safe. While I stood there, hesitating, the little old man shuffled back into the room again, with a jug of cold tea and a plate of hard biscuits. ,
Two minutes of struggling over such a meal was enough for me. The other’s satisfaction was manifest as I pushed back the plate.
“So you want me to sleep here?” I queried.
“Are you a light sleeper?” he suddenly asked. I assured him I awakened at the slightest sound, whereat he fell to wagging his head, and pointed toward the high-backed old horsehair sofa and vowed I’d be as snug as a bug in a rug.
“Look here,” I said, swinging round square in front of him, “If I’m going to watch this room, I .want to know what I’m watching!”
“Hey?” he queried vacuously, with his hand behind his ear. It seemed his habitual rite of equivocation.
“Have you anything here you could be robbed of?” I repeated.
HE looked at me warily, rubbing his wrinkled chin between a meditative thumb and forefinger. Then he fell to shaking his head again.
“I’ve got nothing more than an old man needs to live on. A trifle—onlv a trifle.
“Then what do you use that safe for?” I demanded, whirling him about, and pointing straight at the ponderous steel vault hidden under its drapery.
He stood there, blinking hard and fast, with his mental engines reversed, sounding for some channel of evasion.
“That’s for a family trinket or two!” he confessed, with upthrust shoulders. “Odds and ends of old silver, and the like !”
“Is that all?”
He watched me covertly as I buttoned up my coat. I saw his moment of hesitation.
“Listen!” I whispered, creeping to the door. “Listen!” I stood there, peering out through the gloom.
What is it?” he wheezed.
I went back into the room.
“I thought I heard somebody” I explained.
“What’re you going to do?”
“You don’t suppose I’m going to waste time wet-nursing an iron box full of family junk, do you?” I retorted.
He caught at the slack of my sleeve with his shaking claw. Even before he spoke I knew I had won my point.
“I—I had some papers and things left on my hands here to-day! They’re in that safe now! That’s why this house has to be watched!”
“How long have they been there?” “Since three o’clock this afternoon,” he answered.
“From where? What are they?”
“A hodgepodge of stuff—things from a safety deposit vault.” ii “But what are they doing here?”
“The company sent a collector here, nagging and bulldozing me for more money. They do it every year. It’s robbery —it’s outrageous—eighty dollars for a little hole in the wall!”
“Ah, now I see! And you refused to pay?” v.
“It’s robbery, I tell you ! I won’t be robbed!”
“And -so they simply pre-empted your lock-box and dumped your precious papers back on your own hands?”
He wagged his head apprehensively. “And you say they’re now in that safe?” Again he wagged his head.
1 STRODE to the thing that harbored his wealth flung back the covering from its face, and looked over its hinges and lock dial.
“And it would take the right man about twenty minutes to get into that safe!” I said. It did not tend to make the old man any easier in mind. Then I looked about the room.
“I think this house does need watching!” I declared, with decision. And I intended to do that watching. The little old man’s eyes were following every move I made. I swung the high-backed safe round, so that it faced the wall. Over it I flung an old plaid shawl. Then I looked at the waiting householder, puzz•ling how to get him away.
“You might as well go to bed,” I advised, with a pretence at a yawn. “Yes, I guess I’d better turn in,” he agreed, playing second fiddle to a pretence at sleepiness, which I knew to be foreign to us both. “Don’t you think you’d better get that stuff of yours back into its vault to-morrow?” I asked him, as he took up his lamp.
“I suppose I’ll have to,” he admitted, wagging his head. “I’ll have to, even though it costs a hundred a year!”
ÍHAD done a good deal of yawning and stretching for a minute or two, as the little old man shuffled off through the darkness. But never in my life had I been more wide-awake than when at last I was quite alone in that sepulchral and silent room.
Lying there, waiting, I watched idly the broken light play on the features of the ever-compelling and ever-menacing Duelist. Even as I studied it the figure seemed to grow more lifelike in the uncertain light.
I began to wonder how long it would be best for me to wait, before beginning my investigation. My last chance would be gone with the break of day—and it was a chance that impressed me as being well worth the risk. My vague satisfaction with the dramatic irony of the situation began to give way to a growing feeling of irritation. For as time dragged slowly on and the fire burned down and the silence deepened, I seemed still prompted, even against my own wish, to wait longer, and yet a little longer.
I began to wonder if this were due to the feeling, so teasing and persistent, of that painted canvas being an actual presence in the room, a sentry-like and sentient being who might witness and resent any movement I essayed. Then it crept into my mind how wary and artful the little old miser had been, in reality; how there was now something more intimidating in his very absence than in his presence. Once beyond my range of vision, in that midnight house, he threat-
ened me from every imaginable quarter. Each silent door became a danger, each moving shadow a menace. The unseen enemy is the one we’re always afraid of.
VfY speculation ended unexpectedly.
A It was swept and tossed away on a sudden rushing tide of astonishment, on a release of apprehension that seemed to beat and eddy against every nerve in riiy startled body.
FOR ten feet away from where I lay I heard the distinct sound of a cracking door-hinge. It came to a stop, for a moment, and still again it sounded through the quietness.
Some one was standing on the threshold of the door, peering into the room. I could hear the noise of a trailing footstep, minute and muffled. Then came the all-enveloping silence again.
My first rational thought, as I drew out my Colt and huddled close down behind the shadow of the high-backed sofa, with its broken scrollwork of grape-clusters carved out of walnut wood, was that the owner of the house had surrendered to some final suspicion and was returning to watch over his threatened wealth—to watch with his own eyes. My next thought, however, was that the secrecy of that return seemed to imply some intention of which he wished me to remain ignorant. He was coming back for his precious fortune surreptitiously, to carry it away to some place of safety.
I crouched there, watching from under a corner of the shawl. I knew, suddenly, that the door had been opened wider. Then it was closed again quickly, almost without a sound. I don’t think I even breathed during those first few seconds of unbroken silence as the vague black shadow standing motionless beside the door defined itself to my startling eyes as a human figure.
It stood there, guardedly, apparently listening for some sound, apparently peering slowly about the darkness. Then something above and beyond my mere physical senses told me the figure was not that of the owner of the house.
MY breath returned to me as I saw the vague black blur creeping toward the safe. Then came still another pause, and still another minute of suspense. Then I heard a subdued rustle of clothing, and a moment later the thin shaft of light from an electric flash-lamp was fluttering and penciling interrogatively about the surface of the safe-door. Then the light went out as suddenly as it had appeared. Again I heard the rustle of clothing.
I sank flat down behind the horsehair sofa-back, for this time the narrow shaft of white light was circling the room, leaping from object to object, probing into corners, dancing and springing from side to side. I felt it flutter over my screening sofa-back for a critical second or two, and then shift and flash to the opposite
As it did so, I heard the sound of a sudden gasp, an involuntary little cry of astonishment. Looking up, I saw that the pencil of light rested flat on the face of “The Duelist" picture, making it stand out with the clearness of a cameo, until the combative and challenging eyes and the threatening, outstretched arm seemed those of an actual person. It was no wonder the intruder had gasped at the first glimpse of that strange canvas. Nor was it any wonder the little shaft of white light rested studiously and apprehensively on the painted face confronting it. 1
Continued on paye 94
Continued from page 30
could hear the quick breathing of the figure behind the light. Then I heard a deep-drawn sigh as the shaft of light swung to the left, falling on the portrait of the little old man himself. It seemed to rest there for only a contemptuous moment or two. Then it hovered to the right, to the portrait of the red-lipped and shadowy-eyed young girl. It hung on her face tremblingly, second by silent second. It fluttered about the girlish face crowned with gold, and went back to it, and lingered over it, I thought, a I. most 'affectionately.
Then came the sound of the throaty little gasp again—it seemed almost a moan—and the quick rustle of clothing. This was followed by the brisk and business-like chink of the revolving lockspindles, the clock of the wards, and I knew' the stooping figure was working over the combination of the safe. The light of the flash-lamp, as it steadied and shone on the burnished surface of the nickel dial, was reflected and diffused back into the face of the stooping figure. And I saw, as I peered through the gloom at it, that the softly, yet clearly outlined face was a woman’s face; and that woman was Goldie Laurason.
MY shock of surprise was lost and submerged in a second shock. A sudden sound broke through the stillness from the far end of the room. The light went out like a flash. I though I could hear the telltale click-click of a raised trigger. I knew the woman was standing there, with her back to the safe, waiting, ready for that unknown enemy. Yet the sound, apparently, had been nothing more than a coal cinder falling in the blackened grate.
It must have been two full minutes before she moved again. Yet I knew, by the little noises that followed her next movements, that the safe-door had been opened.
Only once did the woman stop in her work. I could not make out what prompted her to do so. All I knew was that she had suddenly drawn back from the safe, wheeled about, and after standing there listening for a minute or two, once more directed the light of her flashlamp across the room to the painted figure of the Duelist. She seemed to study it in bewilderment. Then she slowly turned back to the open safe. Her eyes must have caught sight of the early grey light at the windows, for she stooped quickly his time, and began flinging packages out on the floor beside her with feverish haste.
As I crouched there, watching her, there crept through me the feeling that
I was merely witnessing some scene in a drama. The intruder and the open safe and the vault-like room seemed things of the imagination, the figures and shadows of a nightmare.
It was a sudden audible gasp from the woman herself that brought me back to earth, reminding me where I was.
AGAIN I saw her stand upright and wheel quickly about. I let my gaze follow her line of vision, wonderingly. Still again it rested on the painted figure and face of the Duelist. There was something uncanny in the way that painted face seemed to challenge and hold her. Yet there was some shadow of reason for it, I felt, as I peered up at the malevolent and threatening eyes, deep-set and shadowy in the broken light. The very pistol-arm seemed to thrust itself out into the paling darkness of the room. More vividly than ever the figure took on its illusion of actuality, its suggestion of a living person watching and guarding the silence before it.
Then slowly the hair of my head began to stand on end. Through my body tingled a shock that all but brought a cry from my throat; for I realized for the first time why the woman was standing there, panting and trembling and swept with terror. She was being watched by something more than a mere painted figure. The peering and malignant eyes of that painted figure were alive.
Out from the canvas, into the halflighted room, stretched and reached an actual, a living arm. In the thin and clawlike hand at the end of that arm was balanced a long-barreled magazine revolver.
The woman had seen it all, even before I did. She must have seen, too, that the arm kept pointing at her, each move she made. For suddenly a scream broke from her lips and echoed and re-echoed through the quiet room.
She looked about, panic-stricken, in search of some place of refuge. Then she flung up one arm, across her eyes, as though to ward off the sight of that searching and sinister barrel-end.
Precisely at the moment she did so, the silence of the great high-ceilinged room was filled with an explosion of sound. It prolonged itself into a dully reverberating roar, and a cloud of dust rose from the prism-hung chandelier. This dust spread and mingled with the slowly curling, acrid-smelling powder-smoke, obscuring the vision. But I could see the still standing woman take two faltering steps forward, and crumple down to the floor. She clapped one hand to her side, with a moan,
1 as she fell. She had been wounded—she had been killed—was the first thought that registered itself on my disordered
Ï DIMLY felt the moment to be crucial, and yet I hesitated. I scarcely knew j what move to make. Again the utter and ; sepulchral silence of the house hung about me. Again I peered at the woman on the floor. She did not stir. Then I turned to the picture. The painted Duelist glowered down at me, intact—for all I could tell, a flat surface of canvas. Then I wheeled about to the door, for it had opened and closed again, as I stood there, with the quickness of a trap.
It was the little old man. In his left hand he held his low-turned bed-room lamp; in his right he carried a longbarreled magazine revolver. His face was now the bloodless, cadaverous yellow of unripened cheese, yet out of its pallor shone and glowed his deepest, furtive little eyes. They reminded me of a cat’s He stopped, and peered over at the woman I on the floor.
“What’s this?” he demanded.
“It means you are going to have a good deal of explaining to do, I told him, inwardly wondering how I was to manage the long-barreled thing in his hand.
; “What’s this?" he reiterated, unmoved. “There’s been a murder here!” I answered.
“A murder?” he echoed. I advanced toward the huddled figue on the floor. He followed me impassively, step by step.
“This woman’s been shot, here, in your house!”
“Shot? How?” he asked, looking me square in the eye.
“That’s what I intend to find out!” I retorted.
“You shot this woman!” he suddenly declared. I did not answer him, for my eye had caught sight of the woman’s gunmetal pistol on the floor beside her. I took it up and emptied it of its cartriges. Then I tossed it, with its fangs drawn, back to where I had found it.
“You shot this woman !” the old man repeated, meaningly, stubbornly “‘That’s not the point! She’s dying here—something must be done, at once!” “Then she’s not dead?” he muttered, holding his lamp over the motionless figure. The man almost nauseated me.
“Look at her face!” I cried, stepping back. “Look at her face and see.”
HE put the lamp down on the floor.
Then revoltingly, with the barrel-end of his revolver, he pried the woman’s body over, emitting an indifferent grunt as the relaxed shoulder fell back into its fermer position.
Then he peered down at the white face, vaguely outlined under the black mass of its crushed hat-brim. Again I heard his swinish little grunt of indifference. So 1 threw the flashlight’s glow full on the woman’s upturned face. It cut out each feature with the clearness of a calcium spotlight.
For the space of what must have been a dozen heart-beats there was not a sound in the room. But the squinting eyes of the man before me slowly dilated. His lower jaw fell away, and lifted again, noiselessly. His lips moved, but. for a moment no sound came from them. He drooped and wilted forward, staring weakly into the face before him.
“Alice!” 1 heard him breathe, in the ghost of a whisper.
I picked up the revolver that fell from his hand, and casually placed it ori the
high mantel of the bricked-up fireplace, well out of his reach.
“Alice!” he whispered wheezily. “My
He pushed back her tumbled hair with his shaking talon of a hand.
“I’ve killed her!” he gasped. “I’ve killed my own child!”
A sudden ague seized him.
“But she’s not dead yet!” I reminded the groaning man.
“No, she’s not dead yet!” he wheezed.
“Then get help; get a doctor!”
He looked about the room, dazedly. His old furtive look returned to him, but it was only for a moment.
“I’ve brandy up-stairs in my bed-room —wait here!”’he panted, as he struggled to his feet and ran across the room. I watched him shuffle out into the gloomy hall and disappear into the silence above-
I slipped over to the door, and made sure that the way was clear. Then I glanced hesitatingly at the safe, teased with a curiosity to know the nature of the wealth it harbored. Then I glanced questioningly down at the unconscious woman, who still lay along the bare floor-boards, as white and impassive as the dead. And from her my glance went back to the canvas of the Duelist. I watched that malignant face as I moved step by step towards the door.
Then I stopped short, frozen in my tracks by a sudden metallic snan that was repeated once, twice, three times.
What that sound meant I knew too well, even before I turned and saw the whitefaced woman standing there confronting me. The empty revolver in her hand was still pointed at me, I had a new enemy to
My startled brain had scarcely realized the meaning of the picture before she flung the useless pistol from her. Her fall had been a feint; the fit-thrower had merely made use of an old trick of her trade! Yet I wondered what her next move would be.
The call rang out, high and tense and clear, making the room echo and pulse with sound. It was enough to wake the
“Father, we’re being robbed!” the vibrating soprano called out into space. Then I saw her quick and restless eye travel to the mantel and the magazine revolver resting on it.
\\rE sprang for the gun together, and VV together we caught it up. But I was too much for her, and one quick wrench loosened her clutch and sent her staggering against the black walnut table. By the time she looked up I had her covered. We stood facing each other, breathing
“Father, quick!” she screamed through the quietness.
I lowered the gun-barrel to her breast and took one deliberate step forward. As I did so, I was dimly conscious of a sudden splintering of pine, of a sharp tearing of canvas. Then on my startled head and shoulders came the full weight of a falling body. I vaguely realized that this flying body had leaped out of the gilt frame above me, that it was the Duelist erupting into actual life. But beyond this I had no time for thought. The thin and bony figure clung to me chokingly, snarling and biting and tearing like a wildcat.
It took all my strength to get the talonlike hands away from my throat, to wrest the sleeve of my arm free from the locked
j teeth. So I grasped the long-barreled revolver by its muzzle, knowing that my only way out would be to club this wheezing fury into senselessness.
“Don’t! Don’t” pleaded the distraught woman close behind me. I could feel her 1 pulling and tugging at my body. Then she stopped suddenly, with a quick sidemovement of her hand. I knew she had found and taken the Colt from my pocket, even before she spoke, and that she had me covered.
“Don’t move!” she called, with quiet authority. The little old man slipped to the floor, panting and moaning, his scrawny hands nursing a helpless left
“Kill him!” he gasped mercilessly, malignantly, between his groans. But I did not look at him; I was too busy watching the woman. I began to feel that the game was almost up. I had the two of them united against me. The most I could hope for, now, was some chance of escape.
“Put that gun on the table!” commanded the woman. “Put it on the table, handle out, as you hold it!”
I did as she ordered. Even to get away was not going to be easy !
“Put up your hands and cross the room i until you come to the wall !” she commanded. “Now turn around!”
Her gun and her eyes followed me, every move I made. I stool facing her in grim silence. For one moment her gaze wavered between me and the man moaning on the floor.
“Father,” she ordered, “take that revolver from the table!”
“I can’t!” he groaned, nursing his knee. I moved an inch nearer the door.
“Take that revolver, or we may lose everything!” she cried shrilly. I saw the gasping and moaning old man rise on his right knee. Then he fell forward, on his side, apparently in a faint. There was now only the woman between me and the door. But not once did she take her eyes off mine as I stood there coercing myself to fling back at her a stare as belligerent 1 as her own.
“Father, the revolver!” she called in her tense, shrill tones. “I know this man is not to be trusted ! I can’t—oh, don’t make me kill him !”
TJER voice trailed off into a moan of
A helpless horror, but no answer came to her call for help. I could see her face contorted and twisted with contending fears, but the dominant one, I knew, was the horror of taking a human life.
“No!” she cried, “I can not—I can’t!” And again my quietly forced laugh seemed to harry and madden her.
“The revolver!” she burst out, in her tight-throated whisper. “Father, you— you must do it!”
I “Look at your father!” I said to her, as calmly as I could. “Look at him there. He’s dead !”
It was an arrant lie, but it served its purpose.
I The woman half turned as I spoke. It was only for a second, but in that precious second I had slid the bolt and shot out through the door. I could hear her cry of pity, of commiseration, and her abandoned wail of “Father!” as I turned the key in the lock and darted across the bare hallway. Twenty seconds later 1 had the front door open and was outside in the empty street and the gray light of early morning, rather bitterly conscious of the fact that I’d had quite enough excitement for one night.