THE TREACHEROUS DARK

CALEB WRATH June 1 1922

THE TREACHEROUS DARK

CALEB WRATH June 1 1922

THE TREACHEROUS DARK

CALEB WRATH

JOHN CADWALLADER woke suddenly from an oppressive sleep. All night he had been drowsing fitfully. At first it had been on account of the students who kept rollicking on the floor above; then, when their pranks had at length ceased, he had concluded that he was wakeful because it was his first night in a new apartment and a strange bed. But this time it was different; out of a leaden sleep he had awakened suddenly and completely with an overpowering feeling that there was someone in his room.

He lay tense. The old church clock in the next block sent three deliberate, resonant notes rolling over the roofs of the intervening houses. They were somehow reassuring. “Nerves,” he thought. “Perhaps a smoke will sooth them," He fumbled for a package of cigarettes which lay upon the night table and struck a match. Its flickering light revealed a woman standing motionless beside his bed.

The unlighted cigarette dropped from his lips. In his cramped, trembling fingers the flame danced uncertainly and set the shadows fluttering. He had never seen that face before. Young, pale, wide-eyed, its exquisite sensitiveness made him inhale a quick, involuntary breath.

He saw her only for the twenty or thirty seconds that it took the match to burn, but he observed the slim whiteness of her hand as it rose in a senes of spasmodic jerks to the white fichu in the neck of her dark travelling suit. Then, as the flame bit his fingers, there came a pathetic little gasp of terror from the woman. In the darkness that ensued he heard her moving swiftly and lightly toward the door into the hall. It opened and, while Cadwallader was wondering if he were yet thoroughly awake, it closed again with a sound as startlingly realistic as the report of a revolver.

Cadwallader sprang from bed with a suddenness that brought the covers trailing after him. Rushing into the hall, he leaned over the stair bannister.

From the black void below came the swift pat of slippers descending the stairs, then the click of a latch and the dull reverberation of the front door swung shut.

He hurried back into his room and, flinging up the window sash, looked down into the lamp-lit street. Like a black shadow against the house-fronts the woman was gliding along the sidewalk. Her shoulders were hunched slightly forward, her head lowered. Once she raised both hands to her face, then she disappeared around the corner.

Cadwallader gave a long shiver and closed the window. As he turned back into the silent room only a trace of perfume confirmed the corporeal existence of h is nocturnal visitant. He struck a match and lighted each of the three gas jets on the chandelier. With another shiver he turned half-apprehensively to the door.

A small black leather travelling case lay just inside it.

He picked up the bag, and, carrying it to a chair beneath the light, opened it. It was a “fitted” week-end bag with little straps and pockets for the ivory toilet accessories. The latter all bore in silver the initials “M. A.”; but he looked in'vain for a letter or card to disclose the name which those two letters represented. Then, in one of the little pockets in the lid of the travelling case, he found a leather gift edition of Sonnets From The Portuguese. He opened it eagerly. Upon the title page, in very feminine little characters that seemed to skip along, was inscribed the unfamiliar name “Marion Ashmeade.”

The rest of the case contained apparel—some gray and gold silk stockings, some filmy lingerie, a half dozen neatly folded little colored handkerchiefs, a pink silk nightgown. Cadwallader had rumpled the latter in his search; and as he picked it up, it unfolded in his unaccustomed hands. Wondering at the garment's lightness he iaid it gently over a chair back and sat down upon his bed to smoke a contemplative cigarette.

He puffed it slowly until it scorched his lips. Then he lighted another—and another. The mystery of this visit had blended for the moment with what was, to him, the almost greater mystery of femininity. The light perfume was quite perceptible in the room now, andin conjunction

with it the odor of tobacco seemed suddenly crass. Scarcely knowing why he did so, he extinguished his cigarette. The open travelling case, the subtle perfume that emanated from it, the soft garment thrown across the chair back—they were so intimately suggestive cf a charm and delicacy that in his homeless bachelor wanderings from one boarding house to another John Cadwallader had never known!

FOUR hours later Cadwallader sprang from his cold shower into the Spring sunlight that flooded his new apartment. Seizing a rough bath towel, he plied it until his flesh was pink and tinglingly alive. The incident of the night before had lent an intriguing zest to life: he was only thirty, yet it seemed to him that he was experiencing a return of youthful sap that he had not known in many years. Eagerly he drew on his clothes and hurried downstairs to the dining room.

It was his first meal in the house. Mrs. Wrenn, the obsequious, shrewd-eyed landlady, met him at the door and conducted him to a little sidetable that evidently had been reserved for him. As he followed her he swiftly surveyed the boarders in the room. His visitor of the night before was not among them.

But one thing he did observe; that a sudden hush fel 1 over the dining room upon his entrance and that he was regarded with more than the usual curiosity which a new

boarder excites. From his seat only one other table in the room was visible; yet he could hear a buzz of hushed conversation going on behind him and he felt as if a score of eyes were boring into his back.

At the table in front of him were seated three youngsters—evidently “the nice boys from the university" whom Mrs. Wrenn had mentioned when he engaged his room. To John Cadwallader they semed to be callow, feather-brained cubs; and he resolved that if their nightly roughhouse again disturbed him he would give them a verbal raking across the coals. As he unfolded his napkin he noticed that they were studying him with gleams of alert amusement in their eyes. Their voices suddenly dropped in muttered colloquy. Then, observing his self-consciousness, they began to speak naturally, gossiping of lectures, sports and various instructors. Yet every now and then one of them would propound beneath his breath what seemed to be some grim jest, and the heads of the others would snap back in a crack of laughter. Always, on these occasions, they eyed Cadwallader covertly; and once he caught the tag of some remark about “the old man’s ghost."

For an i n s t a n t he wondered if the instant of the night before could have been a boyish prank. But he dismissed that supposition as impossible; his visitor had not seemed the sort of woman who would let herself be inveigled into anything so undignified Moreov.-r tins hypothesis would not explain her bringing a t ravelling case and forgetting it. in her flight.

The travelling case! He had a sudden vision of iMrs. Wrenn or of some servant going to do his room while he sat breakfasting and of her discovering the open ease o feminine apparel, the silk nightgown draped across the chair back. He bolted the rest of his breakfast and dashed upstairs.

His bed had not been made. Apparently no one had entered the room during his absence.

He gave himself a congratulatory smile in the mirror, and with masculine clumsiness proceeded to fold the nightgown and to replace it in the bag. The latter he deposited in his wardrobe.

Would his visitor call again that night, he wondered, to reclaim her property?

Not likely. But as he left the house a few minutes later for his office he was hoping that the travelling case might prove a pledge of some further acquaintance with her.

He walked briskly until he came to a hotel in the next block. An idea grazed his mind. That was the only hotel in the neighborhood.

He wheeled resolutely into the lobby and approached the desk.

“Is there a lady by the name of Ashmeade staying here?”

“Arrived last night?” inquired the clerk.

“Yes.”

“Number 214.

Use the house phone, please.”

Cadwallader turned to the instrument upon the desk and gave the

number. He waited, his heart pounding against his ribs. “Yes?”

There was a note of delicious drowsiness in the voice. "This is Mr. Cadwallader speaking,” he began; and then suddenly silent, wondering what else he was to say.

“Do I know you, Mr. Cadwallader?” The voice was disconcertingly well-bred. “Your name is not—” “Probably you don’t,” he answered. “But I... .that is, I think I have some property of yours which I should like

to return.....It’s a travelling case!”

A buzzing in the instrument of which he had been scarcely conscious became suddenly audible; he could sense the woman growing tense at the other end of the wire. After an interminable interval, in a voice that struggled to be coldly deliberate, came her reply:—

“Thank you. Will you leave it at the desk?”

He had not reckoned on this. With sudden authoritativeness he answered:

“No. I should prefer to see you.”

For a moment he thought she must have hung up the receiver. Then in a low, reluctant voice she acquiesced: “Very well. But you must wait until I dress.”

Fifteen minutes later he saw her step from the elevator. A brunette with slight, girlish figure, she stood poised, surveying the hotel lobby. As Cadwallader approached she looked at him steadily out of very dark eyes.

“Mr. Cadwallader?”

He bowed.

“Suppose we go into the lounge.”

It was she who led the way. When they were seated she turned expectantly to him. Her expression was very different from the one he had surprised the night before; there was a cool self-possession about it now, and he had an odd feeling that she was putting him on the defensive. “Well?” she inquired.

“As I said over the phone,” he began, “I wish to return the travelling case you left in my apartment last night..” “In your apartment!” She cut in with an exclamation of genuine amazement. Then the sensitive wings of her nostrils dilated and he observed the proud lift of her head. “How long, pray, has it been your apartment?”

“Why, I rented it two days ago. I moved in last night.” i Her eyebrows shot up. Then they contracted into a ■ little frown. The pitch of her voice dropped suddenly, and her words came uncertainly:

“Then—then you’re not a friend of his?"

“Of whom?”

“My husband.”

Cadwallader stiffened. “I never heard of your husband until this minute,” he retorted. “I never heard of you nor saw you until I woke up at three o’clock this morning to

find you standing beside my bed in the boarding house.

“Oh— oh!” With a little tremor she shrank hack into her chair and eyed him steadily with a hurt, apprehensive look. Suddenly, although the expression of her face had scarcely changed, he saw that her eyes were brimming; tears began to trickle down her cheeks. Both hands rose convulsively to her face and her shoulders shook convulsively.

“Oh .1. I’m .....so

.... miserable!” she sobbed.

With an effort at control, she looked up. “Please don’t ask me to explain,” she pleaded. "You’re an utter stranger

and I... .1 just couldn’t!.... lady for _raising such Only I had no idea you were choice in the room when I came there.” Her glance roved nervously like that of a trapped animal. “You brought my bag?” she asked suddenly.

“As a matter of fact, I didn’t. It only occurred to me as I was passing the hotel that you might have come here.”

He drew out his watch. “I’ll be late at the office as it is.

Would it do if I brought the bag to-night?”

She nodded eagerly.

He rose slowly and looked doubtfully down at her.

“Miss—Mrs. Ashmeade, I don’t want to make you uncomfortable by prying into something that doesn’t concern me; but I do think you owe me more of an explanation than you've given.” He paused. “I’d be only too glad to help you if I could,” he added slowly, and felt his cheeks burning. "Perhaps tonight......”

She rose and held out her hand in an impulsive^ gesture.

“That’s awfully good of you—just to accept it like that,

I mean.” She gave his hand a convulsive little squeeze of gratitude. “Perhaps to-night I shall tell you.” N

He had started for the door when she called him back.

“Mr. Cadwallader!” Her eyes were pleading. “You— you won’t tell anybody that I’m staying here, will you?

Please!”

He promised.

But as he went out he wondered who under the sun she was afraid that he might tell.

JOHN CADWALLADER did not get « back from work that night until just in time for dinner. As he entered the dining room he saw Mrs. Wrenn glance reprovingly at some boarders who were engaged in excited conversation. He took his seat' amid a dead silence. Throughout the meal the students at the table in front of him kept up, as they had done at breakfast, a series of inaudible jests that seemed to be at his expense.

In very irritable mood Cadwallader went up to his room to change his collar before there came a crash of furniture in the room above that shook his ceiling. Then youthful voices rose in gleeful combat and there was a scuffle of feet upon the stairs.

Resolved to put a stop to this rough-housing once for all, he dashed up to the room above his own and knocked peremptorily upon its door. There was no answer.

He started up to the next floor.

But as he came around a bend in the stairs a muffled blow upon his head sent him reeling against the wall. He recovered himself and looked up to see the youngest of the students standing open-mouth ed, a pillow in his hand.

“Oh, say, I’m sorry!” the youth stammered. “I thought you were Tobey. He and Jiggs have the room below mine and I thought they were coming up to get me for setting their bed slats.”

There came a snicker from the stairs below, and Cadwallader looked back to see the other two students grinning provocatively at their discomfited companion.

“As a matter of fact,” Cadwallader retorted, “I was coming up to ‘get’ all three of you for raising such a rumpus. Last night you kept me awake for two hours with your racket and I don’t propose to have it repeated.”

The boys at the bottom of the stairs crowded nearer

with some mutter of apology. They seemed confused“Then you are living in the second floor front?” asked one of them. A t Cadwallader’s nod he turned to his companion with a glance that seemed to say, “I told you so.” “Will you kindly explain what you think’s the matter with me,” snapped Cadwallader. “or what there is peculiar about my living on the second floor front? I can’t go into the dining room without people looking at me as if I were a curiosity!”

The youth with the pillow coughed nervously.

“It’s nothing the matter with you, sir,” he replied. “We can’t very well explain without getting in wrong^with Mrs.

Wrenn; and since I’m behind with my rent----”

“Either you explain this fool mystery,” announced Cadwallader, “or I’ll see you get in wrong with your landa roughhouse. Now take your choice."

“You won’t tell Mrs. Wrenn we tipped you off?”

“No.”

“He’s all right, Kenneth. Let’s go up to your room.”

Cadwallader was ushered into a small front room whose walls were plastered with “pretty girl” pictures and college pennants. The host perched himself upon the desk while Cadwallader took the one upholstered chair and Jiggs and Tobey lounged upon the bed. Kenneth a pinkfaced stripling of eighteen, was really bristling with selfimportant eagerness to disclose his secret. He leaned toward Cadwallader impressively.

“The man who had your apartment befere was murdered in his bed last week!” He smiled in grim enjoyment of Cadwallader’s expression. “Mrs. Wrenn was afraid she couldn’t get any lodger to keep the apartment if he learned about the murder. That’s why she asked us not to talk about it in your hearing.. But we’ve all been wondering if you knew.”

Cadwallader shook his head. His tongue seemed strangely dry as he passed it accross his lips.

“The man’s name was Ashmeade and his wife murdered him while he was asleep. —What’s the matter: are you

cold?”

The boy slid down from his desk to light a gas heater attached by a rubber tube to a base plug in the wall.

“Tell me about it,” muttered Cadwallader.

“Well, there was this old swine Ashmeade. He was a swine, wasn’t he, Jiggs.”

“I’ll say so! Believe me, I’d have been willing to kill that guy myself if I could have done it without getting caught—just for the sake of his wife.”

“Any of us would. Anyhow this old brute Ashmeade used to live in your apartment with his wife. She certainly was a peach, but he treated her like a dog. We used to hear him yelling at her and sometimes he’d beat her. Gosh, but that made me mad!” The boy’s face was vivid with resentment. “It wasn’t her fault, you understand. Nobody could have lived with him. It would have been like” —Kenneth took up two fruit knives from hisdesk and violently rubbed their keen edges across each other at right angles, “it would have been like that, if you see how I mean.” “Get to the murder,” urged Cadwallader.

“It was eight days ago,” cut in one of theboys upon the bed.

“During supper this Ashmeade had b e e ngrousing about not being able to get to sleep; so as we were coming' upstairs I said to him-, why didn’t he take somebromide tablets and that I had some. So he cameup to my room and I gavehim the box. There were six tablets in it; but I told him only to take one or two. Jiggs testified to that afterwards. Well, young Jiggs and I were both studying for some exams and one of us made a remark about how dry all our courses were. Old Ashmeade gave a nasty laugh at that and asked us to give him the dullest book we had. He thought that between reading and taking the bromide he’d maybe get to sleep.”

“So he took my copy of John Stuart Mill,” cut in Jiggs.

“You know we have that in Freshman Economics, sir. I never did get it back. The coroner has it—”

The lad on the desk interrupted.

“After he’d gone downstairs I heard him quarreling with his wife. He was in a savage temper that night. I could hear him way up here. So I went down to Jigg’s and Tobey’s room and we got to pondering if there was anything we could do about it. We heard her cry out once. After that eveiything wras quiet. About half an hour later their door opened and I looked out the window just in time to see Mrs. Ashmeade go out with a little black travelling case. We all thought she’d left him.”

t “We never did get any work done that night,” added Jiggs. “For about two hours Kenneth kept talking about how he wished Mrs. Ashmeade had run off with him; and when Tobey and I threw him out and tried to study, he started a rough house that kept us going until almost two o’clock.” “And all the time we were carrying on,” broke in Kenneth, “that blue-jowled old brute was lying down there dead! Ugh! It wasn’t till next morning that we found out. I started down to breakfast and when I got to the second floor there was Mrs. Wrenn and a big cop just nside of Mrs. Ashmeade’s apartment. They had the door and all the windows open. Î went in and old Ashmeade was lying in bed in

his pyjamas, with both pillows stuck be-, hind his head and Jiggs’ copy of John Stuart Mill lying in his fat, hairy hand as if he’d just that minute put it down. The box of bromide tablets was on the night table, too, and only three of them were left.”

"But it wasn’t my bromide tablets that killed him,” interjected Tobey. “It was the gas. They found each of the three jets on the chandelier turned on full tilt and all the windows closed!”

“Sounds like suicide,” objected Cadwallader.

“That’s just what we tried to tell the inspector who came from the police deartment. But it was no go. Ashmeade ad just begun to make money hand over fist and nobody could see why he should kill himself. He hadn’t even locked the door, nor sealed up the keyhole, nor the cracks around the windows. But the thing that really fixed it on his wife was her beating it. Of course it all came out about their quarrels; and the police think she waited until the bromide put him to sleep and then turned out the gas and turned it on again, full head, without lighting it. By Jove, I hope they neve catch her!"

Cadwallader returned to his room. B[ for one would not disclose her whereá bouts! But if she expected to elude th police, it was asinine to register under he own name at. the hotel around the corner He seized his hat and dashed out.

MRS. ASHMEADE?” The desfi clerk looked quizzically at Cadwalla der and then tapped the ledger meditativa ly with his pen. His reply came with slo^S emphasis. “Mrs. Ashmeade was arrested a few hours ago upon a charge of murder.1 He eyed Cadwallader doubtfully. The® his gaze roved to a uniformed porter stand| ing beside the elevator. “I don’t know but what I ought..But Cadwalladej, had wheeled abruptly and was hurrying inj to the street.

Next morning and during the days thaï followed the papers' carried first pagt stories about the Ashmeade murder, and Mrs. Wrenn’s boarding house fairly seethed with gossip. Arraigned before the grand jury, Marion Ashmeade pleaded “not guilty” and told her story simply: \

“My husband and I never got on well together. On the evening of his death hf beat me and was so thoroughly insultinj that I said I was going to leave hin You’ll come sneaking back,’ he sneered* While I was packing, he undressed, tool some bromide tablets and, getting into bed^ began to read. He did not even look uj as I went out. ;

~“1 went directly to the station, tele graphed an old school friend who live about six hours distant'in the country, an took the next train. After about a week! visit, during which I-heard nothing abot Mr. Ashmeade’s death, my friend pel suaded me that it was my duty to retun I missed a train connection and didn’t go back until three o’clock in'the mornini Finding a stranger in my apartment, fled, embarrassed, to a hotel. Next mon ing Mr. Cadwallader came and said thi the apartment had been rented to him. concluded that my husband had reall wanted to be separated from me and thájj I would not humiliate myself by lettingj him know I had returned. That is whs I asked Mr. Cadwallader not to tell anyone where I was staying.” '

The three students, Mrs. Ashmeade} friend from the country and John Cad* wallader all substantiated this defence ii part. But since no other explanation Mr. Ashmeade’s death could be found, thi grand jury was obliged to return an in? dictment of murder in the first degree. , The jury trial that followed was a lon| anxious dream not only for Marion Ash meade, but for John Cadwallader. Sitting in the courtroom, hour after hour, day al) ter day, he watched her wince before j cross examination that probed every intim ate aspect of her domestic life. He watch ed the dark semi-circles deepen beneafi her eyes as a young district attorney witl a reputation to make wove the threads à circumstantial evidence into a halter. B$ fore the prosecutor’s fustian eloquences© seemed to shrink and her virtues to f»l from her. Her husband, on the contrary was made to assume in death an impor| ance he had never had in life; the prosfc curing attorney pictured him as long suffering and forbearing, a Colossus of tti public and domestic virtues. Except foi her old school chum, Marion Ashmeaw seemed to have no friends; but she sa) for minutes at a time with her dark ey& fixed gravely on John Cadwallader’s.

She adhered consistently to the stofj she first had told. Her last sight of he; husband, she insisted, had been of hin lying in bed, either reading or drowsiní over his book. When she had gone oy' the windows had been closed and all thr© gas jets had been burning. The studente however, all reluctantly admitted unde cross-examination .that at least half at hour had intervened between any conver sationin the room below which had beet audible to them and Mrs. Ashmeade’; departure. That, the district attornej pointed out, was sufficient time for Mr Ashmeade to have fallen so sound asleej under the influence of bromide that hi would not have been conscious of his wife’; putting out the light and turning the ga; on again as she was leaving.

The trial dragged on. After a momen tary regret that they had not arrange! their testimony in advance, the students volatile allegiance to Mrs.Ashmeade seem ed to vanish. Their youthful good spirit reasserted themselves and the nightl; roughhouses were resumed. This time Cadwallader made no protest. He rarely fell asleep until early in the morning now; Marion Ashmeade’s eyes and a conviction that she was being unjustly prosecuted obsessed him. Yet it was almost a foregone conclusion that the verdict would be “Guilty.”

One night he had dozed off to sleep over a book and a cigar. He was awakened suddenly by the glowing end of the cigar searing his thumb and forefinger. The light which he had left on was no longer burning and he was suffering from a nauseous headache. Staggering to his feet, he groped for the chandelier; from each of the three jets the unignited gas hissed out into the darkness!

He reeled out into the hall. The door of the room above his opened softly and he heard stealthy footsteps ascending. He dragged _ himself upstairs to the fourth floor. Jiggs and Tobey stood in whispered consultation outside Kenneth’s door. Silently one of them tried the knob; it turned and the door opened.

By the light of a single candle burning on the desk they saw Kenneth crouching, cheeks puffed out, one hand holding to his mouth the end of a rubber tube he had disconnected from his gas heater, the other hand upon the stop-cock near the base plug. He looked up, startled, like a small boy caught in mischief.

Jiggs and Tobey flung themselves upon him. “That’s the second time to-night you’ve filled our gas pipes full of air, you little..

But Cadwallader intervened. Seizing Kenneth by the shoulders, he fairly shouted; “Did you ever do that before?”

“Did he?” echoed Tobey. “Oh, mamma! Why it’s his favorite way of making a nuisance of himself.”

Cadwallader's next question killed all facetiousness.

“Did you do that the night Mr. Ashmeade died?”

Kenneth’s complacent smirk melted into an expression of vacuous amazement.

Then a glimmer of understanding played across his face. His mouth and eyes opened wide. In Cadwallader’s grip he had become suddenly pale and breathless,

little drops of sweat began to trickle down his hollow cheeks. Then his facial muscles shivered* and his lips worked convulsively without any words coming out.

“By Heavens, he did!” whispered Tobey in an awed voice. “Remember—after

we chucked him out of our room and tried to study?”

“But—but,”—Jiggs passed hishand confusedly across his brow—“that couldn’t have killed old Ashmeade. Kenneth’s done it a dozen times before! It never even puts out the hall light on the second floor.”

“It put out the light in my room just now,” announced Cadwallader grimly. “The hall lights are probably on another meter. All the other times he’s done it people have been in bed with their lights out—except you and Ashmeade. You had sense enough to turn the stop-cock or else stand by with a match until the gas pushed the air out of the pipes and came on again. But Ashmeade had drugged himself to sleep!”

Kenneth gulped. The whites of his eyes gleamed in the candle light. His chest heaved. “And I never thought.. Done it so often—never even remembered!” A dry tongue flickered across his gray lips. “And—and next morning, when Mrs. Ashmeade had beat it, everybody said that she... Oh, my God!” He collapsed miserably in a fit of hysterical weeping.

HpHEY were three very chastened boys whom Cadwallader accompanied to the court next morning, and who, after they had testified, stood up to face a reprimand from the bench. But as Marion Ashmeade came down the white steps of the court house she blinked happily in the Spring sunlight. She was going to her friend’s home to recuperate. John Cadwallader accompanied her to the train, and as he handed up the little black leather travelling case that had first been a pledge of their acquaintance, his hand closed over hers.

“Do you suppose,” he asked, “that if I came out for a week-end, your friends could put me up?”

She smiled. “I’m sure they could,” she answered.