The Mistake

LLEWELLYN HUGHES August 15 1929

The Mistake

LLEWELLYN HUGHES August 15 1929

The Mistake

“For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ"

LLEWELLYN HUGHES

AGAIN he looked at his watch. Amazingly steady, his hand. His mind, tranquil. Almost time he went. Everything according to schedule. At 10.8 he’d meet Watkins, the postal clerk, returning home from work. In the town he’d stop in at the ice cream parlor, leave an order. A minute or so after eleven he’d say ‘Hello’ to Patrolman Kahler, casually ask the hour. The man would be reporting in at the patrol box, corner of Mayberry Avenue. He’d see him as he came down Allen Lane. His usual nightly walk. All in proper order. He’d seen to that. For two months, rain or shine, he’d taken that walk. Everything all right there.

How smoothly his brain worked ! Thoughts flowing gently like a well-oiled machine. Gone about this thing intelligently, ingeniously. There wasn’t a flaw in it from beginning to end. Discovery? Not the slightest chance. Everything should work out exactly as he had planned it; mechanically, like the ticking of his watch. He could hear it. In his waistcoat pocket. The house was that silent. He hadn’t moved for an hour. Book on his lap. Pretending to read. Calm, though; remarkably calm. Why shouldn’t he be calm? Nothing to fear. Not a thing.

Three minutes more. Looking at his watch again. Not a tremor in the long, white fingers. Three minutes. Then he’d go. Down the backstairs, across the lawn, up the drive, along the road. “Good night, Watkins.

More rain. Bad for walking. Clear up by morning, possibly.”

Clear up by morning. It would—considerably. The inquest, arranging for the funeral, attending to her affairs. He’d be in possession of her money, property and bonds. Overnight. Like a miracle. And then? He and Miss Glazer—Madelaine. She’d be more inclined to favor his attentions—for all his gray hair, his lined face. She’d tormented him. A pale, voluptuous woman. Her calculating, gray-green eyes enslaved him; her kisses burned him. He had wanted her from the moment she entered the house. Three months ago, that was. The third or fourth companion-nurse his wife had had in a year. None of them could stand his wife and her ailments, her damnable, intermittent neurasthenia.

How he hated her! For years and years he’d hated her. She’d gone to her sister’s as usual. As usual, when for a day or so she forgot her megrims: a methodical lapse into health every whit as maddening as her neuroticism. Any time after ten she would return. As a rule between 10.15 and 10.45. Immediately on entering the room how many times, year in and year out, had he observed it? she would go to her escritoire, as she called it, pull at that little drawer, take out the key to her jewel-box, meticulously deposit her rings, necklaces, bracelets, hair combs, with which she adorned her thin and wizened body.

Well, it was from that methodical habit the idea had sprung. She had lost a neckpiece; an ugly, old-fashioned ornament of garnets. Accused Miss Glazer of taking it. The old fool. Probably mislaid it somewhere. Always mislaying things. So she had purchased a revolver; a little, pearl-handled one. To protect herself; since he, as she put it, no longer cared to protect her.

Well, it had all sprung from that. Just a little bit of thread attached to the trigger of the revolver Trigger perilously on edge. He’d been an expert on firearms in his younger days. Little did he know then how that knowledge was to serve him. Yes, just a simple little bit of thread. The revolver lying where it usually lay—in the pigeonhole just above the drawer; the drawer she systematically opened as soon as she came into the room; the little drawer that conveniently stuck, that gave an irritating squeak as it came open.

Well, tonight she’d tug at it for the last time. There wasn’t a doubt of that. He’d tried the thing out. Elsewhere. In a barn, far removed from hearing. It had worked like a charm. A tug at the drawer, the strain on the bit of thread—and a bullet speeding like a ravenous little messenger of death.

OUICIDE. Everything would ^ point to it. Her ten years’ pretense of suffering; her purchase of the revolver. He would be out of the house, taking his walk. And with the discharge of the bullet the gun would jump clear Either it would drop on the shelf of the escritoire or it would fall to the floor. In trying it out in the barn it had sprung clear to the ground six times out of ten. And not once was the bit of thread clinging to the trigger. Oh, it was neat, infernally neat!

Suicide. He knew exactly how she would approach that drawer. Seen her a thousand times in the past. She’d bend forward a little, presenting her flat, skinny chest to the blue barrel. The chances were she’d topple forward—upsetting the escritoire and scattering everything to right and left, further demolishing all signs of his handiwork. Anyway, it didn’t much matter. She could pitch to the side, if she wanted to. The coroner’s verdict would be the same. Besides, even if she . . .

Time to go. He rose. Calm; astonishingly calm, he was. Legs firm. Stop regular. Not a sound from below. Servants, at the south end of the rumbling old house. At 11.30 he’d return. Graves, the butler, would meet him in the hall. He could visualize the man’s aged and yellowing eye. “Oh, sir! how can I tell you? Your wife . . . that little revolver . . . with her own hand . .

He smiled, put out the light, moved to the stairway leading to the north hall. In the dark he felt for the stair-rail. Not a tremor of anxiety, nervousness, disturbed the calm poise of his tall, gaunt frame. He reached the hall. He was opening the door leading into the night, when he heard a shot! It stiffened him as though he were turned into stone.

Calm. Remain calm. An astonishing miscalculation—that was all. She’d come home earlier than he expected— that was all. She’d come home at ten. Strange. Why, strange? Between ten and eleven was her usual time, and possibly . . . She was dead. He was done with her, done with her irritating ways, her megrims, vapors, her neurotic disorders—done with them for ever and ever.

He stepped swiftly out into the rain, hurried down the drive. Then he ran. At the gate he looked back. No light in her room; that was odd. No light showing anywhere? Yes. A faint light in the centre hall—and, to the left, in the servants’ quarters. But hadn’t they gone upstairs? Was it possible that fool Graves hadn’t heard the shot? Were they too scared to investigate? Calm. Keep calm. Probably they were even now approaching her door—hovering outsideafraid to go in.

He couldn’t wait. He must hurry. Heading for the town he half ran, half walked through the drizzling rain, coat collar turned up, cap pulled down.

“Evening, Doctor Felling!”

A figure wrapped in oilskins and sou’wester loomed up to the right of him. Watkins, the postal clerk.

“Oh, good evening, Watkins. Bad for walking. Clear up by morning, I think.”

They had passed. “Afraid not,” doubted the man.

He reached the town, went to the ice cream parlor, gave an order to be delivered on the morrow.

“Taking the old walk as usual, doctor?”

“Yes. But think I’ll cut it short tonight. Raining pretty hard.”

Just as well. Nothing to be gained by establishing an alibi with that cop at the corner of Mayberry Avenue. The body had been discovered by now. They’d be looking for him everywhere. To break the news.

He retraced his steps up the road. Calm. He must take it calmly, intelligently; with the right proportion of astonishment, of course; profound regret, deep loss— and yet an inkling that he had feared her neurasthenic morbidity would get the better of her, sooner or later

Back at the gate now; going down the drive. Hadn’t taken him long. Fifteen minutes at the most. Perhaps he should have gone on past Mayberry Avenue as he had planned. It didn’t matter. Nothing to fear. He peered through the rain, the trees—then stood stock still.

The house was in total darkness. No. A faint light in the centre hall. Diffused lights, too, in the servants’ quarters. But hadn’t they . . .? Surely to God they must have heard the shot—found what it was—notified the police, the doctor?

Dr. Felling was conscious of a spot of cold in the pit of his stomach. It moved to his spine. Calm. Nothing to worry over. Nothing at all. Graves was waiting his return. That was it. Graves had kept the house in darkness. Respect for the dead. Yes, Graves would be waiting for him—in the hall. Dr. Felling went on, lifting his long legs automatically. Hand remarkably steady as he put his key in the lock, opened the door. He even whistled a little tune, softly, carelessly.

The hall was deserted. Graves was not waiting for him. lie wondered if he should call the man, acquaint him—in some casual way—of his return, remark on the rainy night? Calm. Keep calm. Nothing to fear. Just a slight miscalculation. Slight? Yes, they hadn’t heard the shot. Nobody had heard the . . .

A sudden anaesthesia of doubt, uncertainty, drugged him. For a second his brain went soggy. Then it cleared again. Calm. Better go upstairs to his room. As a rule he never called Graves. Managed without the old fool. The man must be stone deaf. All of them must be stone deaf. Yes, better go to his room—as if nothing had happened. Miss Glazer—Madelaine— would be along shortly. She’d make the discovery when she went to administer the sleeping powder. She’d alarm the house. They’d find him in his pyjamas, asleep. N othing to w-worry about. All the alibis in the w-world.

Her door was slightly open. About three inches or so. There was a heavy plush curtain back of it. He’d forgotten that. Of course it had dulled the sound of the shot. But then—he had heard it quite plainly, hadn’t he? Expecting it, though; keyed up for it. Yes, that was it. He’d been expecting to hear it. He reached his room, undressed, got into bed.

That damned watch of his—on the bureau. Like a trip hammer. How long had he lain there? Five— ten minutes? Calm. All he had to do was to wait, feign sleep. Any moment Miss Glazer might . . .

ALL at once he was -L*tense. His long, thin legs had gone rigid. With a hysterical movement he threw back the covers, got out of bed. One second’s further listening, and he was flat against the wall, arms outstretched, palms open, fingers spread wide apart, his ear pressed to the plaster.

Somebody—something—was moving about in the next room. He could hear the movements distinctly Listen. His ear was paining him from being pressed so hard to the wall. Prehensile fingers gripped the edge of the wainscot. A deep breath seemed only to draw a ccld draught up his windpipe. Calm. Somebody moving in there . . .

A little panic played up and down him, vanished, and left him ice cold. He acted, then, automatically. He groped for his bureau drawer, took out a loaded revolver, crept along the corridor. Again he listened; outside her door. A shuffling noise. Somebody crawling—crawling. Profound silence downstairs. He tightened his grip on the revolver, curved a tense finger round the trigger. His left hand went in snakily through the partly open door, felt for the switch, and turned it on as he stepped inside.

A short, thickset man was standing near the window. Dr. Felling had him covered with the revolver. In a flash he realized he had surprised a burglar. Again a delirious panic spread through him. He nearly pulled the trigger. Calm. Remain calm. Here—by some miraculous stroke of fortune—was the antidote to any flaw in the suicide plan. Not that there was a flaw in it. But here was something additional; something even better. Wait now. Was it better? Calm. Think quickly, think accurately.

The man’s face wore a sickly grin. His hands had gone up over his head. “Waiting for me, was ya? All right, doc—you got me. Guess I’m cooked.”

He spoke with the inane and wooden amiability of a ventriloquist’s dummy; his jaw lifted and dropped just as mechanically.

“Seen me coming, did ya? All right, doc. I’m clean.

I got no rod on me. A jimmy and a piece of leadpipe, that’s all.” He started to lower his hands.

“Keep them up!”

Dr. Felling remained where he stood. His legs seemed frozen. With his free hand he felt for and pressed a bell.

“Gonna jug me, are ya?”

With a single flick of his eyes, Dr. Felling searched the floor. The pearlhandled revolver was there. It had fallen clear. He couldn’t see if the little bit of thread . . . The escritoire was still

standing. He sensed that, rather than saw it. Had to keep his eyes on the man.

One swift, fearful glance to the right and . . . She had pitched on her face, fallen partly behind the sofa. All in shadow—over there. Only the feet were showing.

“God A’mighty!” The burglar’s jaw remained suspended. He was gaping in the direction of the body. “What’s all this? Who is she, doc?” He took a step backward to get a better view.

“Stay where you are!”

The fellow obeyed. “Who is she, doc?” he asked again.

Graves came in. Instantly, his aged old face went ashen. “What—what is it, sir?”

“Phone the police—the doctor. Ask detective-sergeant Grannett to come up here at once.”

Graves was pointing at the feet in the shadows. His finger trembled. “Is she ... is she . .?”

“Hurry, you fool!”

Silence. Dr. Felling hadn’t moved an inch. His throat was dry. He was trying to think clearly. He couldn’t. The man by the window was staring at him, staring stupidly, like a dummy. The wooden jaw commenced wagging again.

“Don’t think I done it, do ya? Seen me come in through the windy, didn’t ya? Didn’t hear no fireworks or nothing, did ya? Me—I ain’t got any use for a

shooting-iron. Never peddled one in my life, doc.”

Let him talk. Dr. Felling, revolver in hand, kept his eyes on him. Circumstantial evidence. The fellow hadn’t a chance. He had broken into the house with intent to rob, to kill. Caught like a rat in a trap. Let him talk.

“What’s the big idea, I’m asking ya? Trying to make out I done it? Well, I guess you know different. Minute I stepped in through the windy you switched on the light—stuck me up with that rod—didn’t ya? You can’t frame that on me. I’m no gunman. I’m a porch-climber—that’s all. I come up here to look around—only you never give me a chance.”

HE TALKED on, gradually breaking into foul language, violently defending himself, cursing his luck. Dr. Felling, saying nothing, watched the mechanical jaw movement without listening to what the fellow was saying. Suddenly, he heard a car arrive. The police had come, were tramping up the stairs. The door swung back. Detective-sergeant Grannett came in, two policemen behind him. “Why, Doctor Felling, what’s all this?”

“God only knows, Grannett. My wife —my poor wife. She’s been shot — murdered.”

“Murdered!”

“I heard a noise—it woke me up. I found this man in here ...”

Grannett jerked his square head to the policeman beside him. “Put the cuffs on him.”

The policeman did so; searched him vigorously; found nothing.

“I ain’t done it, sarg” the man protested. “I swear to God on it. He seen me come in by the windy. You know my record, sarg. You ain’t never found a rod on me, have ya? Gun-toting ain’t in my line. I’m a porch-climber—not a gunman. I’ll take what’s coming to me. I done time before—I know that. But nobody’s gonna frame murder on me . . .”

“All right, Smoky. I’ll tend to what you got to say in a minute. Looks like you stepped into a little trouble here. Eh?”

“I don’t know nothing about it, I tell ya.”

Grannett had gone over to the body, was kneeling beside it. He looked up, first at Dr. Felling, then at the man called Smoky. He rose, stood still, gazed thoughtfully at the floor. Then he walked very slowly to the pearl-handled revolver, picked it up, examined it. Dr. Felling observed that the little bit of thread was not attached to the trigger.

“Now tell me exactly what you saw, doctor—the moment you came in here?” Grannett didn’t look up; he was still gazing at the pearl-handled revolver.

“The room was in darkness. I’d heard strange sounds. I got suspicious. I switched on the light and found this man standing in the centre of the room. I took him completely by surprise—warned him that if he moved a step I’d drill a hole through him. He had a gun in his hand ...”

“That’s a stinkin’ lie!”

The rasp of the man’s voice made Dr. Felling wince.

“What gun, doctor? This one?” Grannett was gingerly wrapping it in a handkerchief.

“Yes. My wife’s.”

“It’s a blasted lie, I tell ya!”

“What did he do? Drop the gun?” “Yes. Or I’d have put a bullet through, him.”

“Hear the shot?” asked Grannett.

“No. But something woke me up. I was in bed. I can’t say if it was the shot. Anyway, I got suspicious, crept to my wife’s door . . ”

Grannet turned to the door, addressed himself to the quaking servants. “Anybody hear the shot?”

Inarticulate, terrified, they shook their heads. They were all downstairs, they managed to say, at the north end of the house. They hadn’t heard a thing until . . .

“Do you bring a charge against this man, doctor?”

Calm. Try to be calm. Nothing to fear. “I do. I charge him with breaking into my house and murdering—or attempting to murder—my poor, helpless wife . .”

The handcuffed man swore horribly. “He’s a blasted liar! What’s he trying to do, sarg? Pin that on me? Listen, sarg! You know my line of work. I’m a porchclimber. I don’t never handle a shootingiron, do I? I tell ya he was waiting for me. The minute I come in that windy he was here, waiting for me. I don’t work with a shooting-iron. You frisked me, didn’t ya? You didn’t find no rod on me, ! did ya?”

Dr. Felling continued to gaze at the ! jaw-wagging. Pie wanted to look over to the right; wanted to, desperately. He couldn’t.

“I’ll take what’s coming to me,” repeated Smoky. “But I ain’t gonna be framed for this job. Listen, sarg! Honest to God—I’m telling ya the truth. He was here, I tell ya, the minute I come in the room . . ”

The man wolfed in a breath of air. “What’s back of this?” he suddenly shouted. “What’s back of it? Eh? Me— I ain’t used a shooting-iron in my life. I don’t work that way. You know my record, sarg. . He tried to break free; his face agitated. “For God’s sake, what’s back of all this?” he screamed. “I tell ya I ain’t gonna be framed for murder. I tell ya he was in the room—waiting for me—”

Grannett said: “Take him to the station.”

Struggling, yelling, cursing, he was manhandled out of the room; the servants running like sheep to clear the way. A middle-aged, white-haired man came in. He carried a small black bag.

“What’s this I hear, Felling?” he asked anxiously.

“Kane—I don’t know. My wife—my wife—”

“Good God.” Dr. Kane went to the body, knelt down. Instantly he shot a puzzled look over his shoulder, was about to speak when Grannett interrupted him.

“I don’t want you to move the position of the body, Doctor Kane. The coroner will be here shortly. I want everything left just as it is. Make your examination as best you can without ” He

turned to Felling. “You don’t need that gun of yours any more. Better let me have it.”

He took it, examined it. “Now you’d etter lie down for a spell. This business nas hit you pretty hard. Lie down in your room, doctor. I’ll want a few more details from you—to complete my case.”

Grannett took his arm, led him out. Dr. Felling walked heavily. At the door of his room, Grannett said: “Just rest quiet for a spell—if you can. I’ll be with you in a second. Want to look at that window ...”

ALONE, Dr. Felling reached for the whisky; then desisted. He sat down on his bed, found a cigar, bit off the end. Calm. Nothing to worry over. Why did he wish to run away, creep down the back stairs? There was nothing to fear. Calm. It would all be over very shortly. And in a few months—he and Madelaine, married, would be sailing for the West Indies and . . .

Why had Grannett brought him in here? Felt sorry for him, possibly. But why had he taken his arm like that—and brought him in here? What was going on in there, anyway—in the other room. Dr. Felling rose—went to the door leading to the back stairs. What was he opening it for? Just to look down. He got a shock. There was a policeman there. Down in the south hall. Kahler! The patrolman he had planned to meet at the corner of Mayberry Avenue.

He sat down again. Calm. He must try and keep calm. What was he trembling for? Not his hands. His legs. They couldn’t, possibly, connect him with the thing. Not in any way. There wasn’t the ghost of a chance of that. He’d been too clever . . .

The door opened. Grannett and Dr. Kane came in. The latter, an old friend, was looking at him as though he were an utter stranger.

“Tell me, Kane. For God’s sake—is she—is there any chance?”

Dr. Kane shook his white head. “Bullet went through her heart. Death was instantaneous.”

Dr. Felling covered his face with his hands. He slumped back on the bed.

“Now, doctor, tell me again exactly what happened?” Grannett speaking. His voice was dry, toneless, cold.

“I’d been out taking my walk as usual.”

“Of course.”

“I returned about half-past ten. My wife’s room was in darkness. I presumed she was in bed.”

“Presumed?”

“Or that she hadn’t come back from her sister’s.”

“Go on, please.”

“I undressed—went to bed. I must have fallen asleep. Something woke me. I can’t say just what it was. Possibly— the shot. Anyway, I listened—heard a noise. Like somebody moving about. I went down the corridor—saw that her room was still in darkness—came back— got my revolver and . . .

“He was standing in the middle of the room. I took him by surprise. He—he dropped the revolver—dropped it on the floor. I had threatened him. He knew the game was up. I could see my wife lying there by the sofa. I was horrified. I rang for Graves—told him to phone for a doctor—the police ...”

“Did you know your wife had been shot, doctor?”

“Not at first. But I saw the revolver in the man’s hand—I took one look at her face ...”

“You didn’t know for sure if she was dead?”

“I felt she was. Something told me she was.”

Grannett said: “What did he say to you—the moment you covered him with your gun?”

“I can’t remember. My brain was in a whirl. I realized my wife was dead—I could see her lying there. I think he said something about “you’ve got me, all right; I’m cooked,” he said.

“He said that?”

“Something like that.”

“Then you called Graves. Told him to telephone me?”

“Yes.”

“Your wife has been sickly for years?” “Yes -poor thing.”

“Something of a trial to you?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. We were the best of pals. I tell you, Grannett—this is a cruel blow to me. I loved my wife. We’ve been married for twenty-six years —and when two people have been together as long as that, of course .

No, I can tell you, when I saw her lying there—with this brute standing over her —when I saw her white face . . .” Dr. Felling came to a stop.

Grannett’s eyes were jet black. They had no light in them. They seemed leaden. They were boring right through him. They were like—like two bullet holes.

And Grannett was saying something to him. What was it?

“You are making a mistake about something, Doctor Felling.”

Grannett was clipping off his words. They were leaving his thin lips like bits of flint.

“It is a very serious mistake—as Doctor Kane agrees with me. Your wife has not yet returned from her sister’s. The body in the next room is that of her companion — Miss Glazer.”