Strange Adventure of the Open Door
Fourth Story of “The Sleep Walker” Series
Author of “The Prairie Wife,” “The Hand of Pearl,” “The Door of Dread,” “The Silver Poppy.”
"SHALL I call the car, sir?” asked the solicitous-eyed Benson, covertly watching me as I made ready for the street.
“No,” was my studiously detached retort, “I intend to walk.”
“Latreille was asking, sir, if you would care to have the car laid up.”
The significance of that bland suggestion did not escape me. And it did not add to my serenity of mind.
“Just what business is that of Latreille’s?” I demanded, with a prickle of irritation. My patient-eyed old butler averted his glance, with a sigh which he didn’t seem quite able to control.
“And at the end of the month,” I went on, “I intend to discharge that man. I’m tired of his insolences.”
“Yes, sir,” Benson softly yet fervently agreed.
My nerves were on edge, I knew, but I wasn’t looking for sympathy from my hired help. And when I swung the door shut behind me I am afraid it was a movement far from noiseless.
I was glad to get out into the open, glad to get away from old Benson’s commisserative eyes, and have space about me, and cool air to breathe, and uncounted miles of pavement to weary my legs on.
T NOTICED, as I turned into Fifth Avenue, that the moving finger of light on the Metropolitan clock-dial pointed to
an hour pass midnight. So I veered about that delta of idleness, where the noontide turbulence of Broadway empties its driftwood into the quietness of the square, and pursued my way up the avenue.
No one can claim to know New York
EDITOR’S Note.—This is the fourth story in the series that Mr. Stringer has ivritten for MacLean’s—the divers strange adventures which befell one Parley Kempton when the latter, sorely troubled by sleeplessness, ventured forth at midnight along the highiùays and byways of Manhattan. Each story in the series is complete in itself but a connected train of incident runs through them, leading up to a concluding episode. Kempton while driving rapidly at night in his highpoivered car has run down and apparently killed a pedestrian and has run away, thereby placing himself in the clutches of his chauffeur. Worry over this incident drives sleep from him and he seeks solace in midnight rambles, in the course of which he meets with amazing adventures such as only Arthur Stringer could conceive and tell. The next story will be “The Strange Adventure of the Man from Medicine Hat,” perhaps the best so far.
who does not know its avenues in those mystical small hours that fall between the revolving street-sweeper and the robincall of the first morning paper. Fifth Avenue, above all her sisters, then lies as though tranquilized by death, as calm as the Coliseum under its Italian moon: light. She seems, under the stars, both mediaevalized and spiritualized. She speaks then in an intimate whisper foreign to her by day, veiling her earthlier loquacity in a dreaming wonder, softening and sweetening like a woman awaiting her lover. The great steel shafts enclosed in their white marble become turrets crowned with mystery. And the streetfloor itself, as clean and polished as a ballroom, seems to undulate off into outer kingdoms of romance. An occasional lonely motor-car, dipping up its gentleslopes like a ship threading a narrow sealane buoyed with pearls as huge as pumpkins, only accentuates the midnight soli-
So up this dustless and odorless and transmuted avenue I wandered, as passively as a policeman on his beat, asking of the quietness when and how I might capture that crown of weariness known as sleep.
I wandered on, mocked at by a thousand drawn blinds, taunted by a thousand somnolently closed doors. I felt, in that city of rest, as homeless as a prairie wolf. The very smugness of those veiled and
self-satisfied house-fronts began to get on my nerves. The very taciturnity of the great silent hostelries irritated me; everything about them seemed so eloquent of an interregnum of rest, of relaxed tension, of invisible reservoirs of life being softly and secretly filled.
YET as I came to the open width of the Plaza, and saw the wooded gloom of Central Park before me, I experienced an even stronger feeling of disquiet. There seemed something repugnant in its autumnal solitudes. That vague agoraphobia peculiar to the neurasthenic made me long for the contiguity of my own kind, however, unconscious of me and my wandering they might remain. I found myself. almost without thought, veering off eastward into one of the city’s sidestreets.
Yet along this lateral valley of quietness I wandered as disconsolately as before. What impressed me was the monotony of the house-fronts which shouldered together, block by block. Each front seemed of the same Indiana limestone, of the same dull grey, as though, indeed, the whole district were a quarry checkerboarded by eroding cross-currents out of the self-same rock. Each tier of windows seemed backed by the same blinds, each street-step barricaded by the same door. I stopped and looked up, wondering if behind those neutral-tinted walls and blinds were lives as bald and monotonous as the materials that screened them. I wondered if an environment so without distinction would not actually evolve a type equally destitute of individuality.
I turned where I stood, and was about to pass diffidently on, when one of the most unexpected things that can come to a man at midnight happened to me.
OUT of a clear sky, without a note or movement of warning, there suddenly fell at my feet a heavy bundle.
Where it came from I had no means of telling. The house above me was as silent and dark as a tomb. The street was as empty as a church. Had the thing been a meteor out of a star-lit sky, or a wildcat leaping from a tree-branch, it could not have startled me more.
I stood looking at it, in wonder, as it lay beside the very area-railing on which my hand had rested. Then I stepped back and leaned in over this railing more clearly to inspect the mystery. Whatever it was, it had fallen with amazingly little noise. There was no open window to explain its source. There had been no wind to blow it from an upper-storey sill. There was no movement to show that its loss hadbeen a thing of ponderable import. Yet there it lay, a mystery which only the deep hours of the night, when the more solemnly imaginative faculties come into play, could keep from being ridiculous.
I stood there for several minutes blinking down at it, as though it were a furred beast skulking in a corner. Then I essayed a movement which, if not above the commonplace, was equally related to commonsense. I. stepped in through the railing and picked up the parcel. I turned it over several times. Then I sat down on the stone steps and deliberately untied the heavy cord that baled it together.
I now saw why I had thought of that falling bundle as an animal’s leap. It was completely wrapped up in what I took to be a Russian squirrel motor-coat. The tightly tied fur had padded the parcel’s fall.
Enclosed in that silk-lined garment I found a smaller bundle, swather about
with several lengths of what seemed to be Irish point lace. Inside this again were other fragments of lacework. Through these I thrust m y exploring fingers with all the alert curiosity of a child investigating a Christmas-tree cornucopia.
There, in the heart of the parcel, I found a c o 11 e c tion which rather startled m e.
The first thing I examined was a chamois bag filled with women’s rings, a dozen or more of them, of all kinds. I next drew out a Florentine repousé handbag set with turquoises and see d-p earls, and then a moonstone necklace, plainly of antique Roman workmanship. Next came a black and white Egyptian scarab, and then, of all things, a snuff-box. It was oval and of gold, enameled en plein with a pastoral scene swarming with plump pink cupids.
Even in that uncertain light it required no second glance to assure me that I was looking down at a rare and beautiful specimen of Louis XV jeweler’s art.
Then came a small photograph in an oval gold frame. The remainder of the strange collection was made up of odds and ends of jewelry and 'a leather-covered traveling-clock stamped with gilt initials.
I did not take the time to look more closely over this odd assortment of valuables, for it now seemed clear that I had stumbled on something as disturbing as it was unexpected. The only explanation of an otherwise inexplicable situation was that a house-breaker was busily operating somewhere behind the grey-stone wall which I faced.
THE house behind that wall seemed to take on no new color at this discovery. Its inherent sobriety, its very rectangularly of outline, appeared a contradiction of any claim that it might be harboring a figure either picturesque or picaresque. It was no old mansion stained with time, dark with memories and tears. It carried no atmosphere of romance, no suggestion of old and great adventures, of stately ways and noble idlers, of intrigues and unremembered loves and hates, of silence
and gloom touched with the deeper eloquence of unrecorded history. It was nothing more than a new and narrow and extremelymodernhouse, in the very heart of a modern New York, simple in line and as obvious in architecture as the warehouses along an old-world water-front, as bare of heart as it was bald of face, a symbol of shrill materialities, of the day of utility. It could no more have been a harbor for romance, I told myself, than the stone curb in front of it could be translated into a mountain precipice threaded with brigand paths.
Yet I went slowly up those unwelcoming stone steps with the bundle under my arm. The thief at work inside the house, I assumed, had simply tied the heavier part of his loot together and dropped it from a quietly opened window, to be gathered as quickly up, once he had effected his escape to the street. The sudden afterthought that it might have been dropped for a confederate caused me to look carefully eastward and then as carefully westward. But not a sign of life met my gaze.
My figure standing puzzled before that unknown door was the only figure in the street.
Heaven only knows what prompted me to reach out and try that door. It was, I suppose, little more than the habit of a life-time, the almost unconscious habit of turning a knob when one finds oneself confronted by a door that is closed. The thing that sent a little thrill of excitement through my body was that the knob turned in my hand, that the door itself stood unlocked.
I stooped down and examined this lock as best I could in the uncertain light. I even ran a caressing finger along the edge of the door. There was no evidence that it had been jimmied open, just as there was nothing to show that the lock itself did not stand intact and uninjured. A second test of the knob, however, showed me that the door was unmistakably open.
My obvious course, at such a time would have been to wait for a patrolman or to slip quietly away and send word in to police headquarters. But, as I have already said, no man is wholly sane after midnight. Subliminal faculties, ancestral perversions, dormant and wayward tendencies, all come to the surface, emerging like rats about a sleeping mansion. And crowning these, again, was my own neurasthenic craving for activity, my hunger for the narcotizing influence of excitement.
And it has its zest of novelty, this stepping into an unknown and unlighted house at three o’clock in the morning. That novelty takes on a razor-edge when you have fairly good evidence that some one who has no business there has already preceded you into that house.
SO as I stepped inside and quietly closed the door after me, I moved forward with the utmost care. Some precautionary sixth sense told me the place was not unoccupied. Yet the darkness that surrounded me was absolute. Not a sound or movement came to my ears as I stood there listening, minute after minute. So I crept deeper into the gloom.
My knowledge of that sterotyped class of residence provided me with a very fair idea of where the stairway ought to stand. Yet it took much prodding and groping and pawing about before I came to it. One flicker of a match, I knew, would have revealed the whole thing to me. But to strike a light, under the circumstances, would be both foolish and dangerous. No house dog, I felt, would interrupt my progress; the mere remembrance of the intruder above me set my mind at rest on this point.
I came to a stop at the head of the first stairway, puzzled by the completeness of the quiet which encompassed me. I directed my attention to each quarter of the compass, point by point.
But I might have been locked and sealed in a cistern, so complete was the silence, so opaque was the blackness. Yet I felt that nothing was to be gained by staying where I was.
So I groped and shuffled my way onward, rounding the banister and advancing step by step up the second stairway. This, I noticed, was both narrower and steeper than the first. I was also not unconscious of the fact that it was leading me into a zone of greater danger, for the floor I was approaching, I knew, would be the sleeping floor.
I was half way up the stairway when something undefined brought me to a sudden stop. Some nocturnal adeptness of instinct warned me of an imminent pres-
ence, of a menace that had not yet disclosed itself. Once more I came to a stop, straining
Once more I came to a stop, straining my eyes through the darkness. Nothing whatever was to be seen. Along the floor of the hallway just above my head, however, passed a small but unmistakable sound. It was the soft frou-frou of a skirt, a skirt of silk or satin, faintly rustling as a woman walked the full length of the hall. I had just made a mental register of the deduction that this woman was dressed in street-clothes, and was, accordingly, an intruder from outside, rather than a sleeper suddenly awakened, when a vague suffusion of light filled the space above me and was as quickly quenched
I knew the moment I heard the soft thud of wood closing against wood that a door had been quietly opened and as quietly closed again. The room into which that door led must have been faintly lighted, for it was the flowering of this refracted light that had caught my attention.
T WENT silently up the stairs, step by •*step, listening every now and then as I advanced. Once I reached the floor level I kept close to the wall, feeling my way along until I came to the door I wanted!
There was no way whatever of determining what stood on the other side of that door without opening it. I knew what risks I ran in attempting any such movement. But I decided it was worth the
Now, if a door is opened slowly, if every quarter-inch of movement is measured and guarded, it can, as a rule, be done noiselessly. I felt quite sure there was not one distinguishable sound as I cautiously turned that bronze knob and even more cautiously worked back the door, inch by inch.
I came to a stop when it stood a little more than a foot from the jamb. I did not, at first, attempt to sidle in through the aperture; that would have been needlessly reckless. I stood there waiting, anticipating the effect the door-movement might have had on any occupant of the room, had it been seen.
While I waited I also studied that portion of the chamber which fell within my line of vision. I saw enough to convince me that the room was a bedroom. I could also make out that it was large, and from the rose pink of its walls to the ivorywhite of its furnishings it stood distinctly feminine in its note.
There was, I felt, a natural limit to that period of experimental inaction. The silence lengthened. The crisis of tedium approached, arriyed, and passed. Audaciousness re-conquered me, and I actually advanced a little into the room. Steadying myself with one hand on the door-frame,
I thrust my body through the narrow aperture until the whole four walls lay subject to my line of vision.
'T'HE first thing I noticed was a green-
shaded electric lamp burning on what seemed to be a boudoir writing-table. It left the rest of the room in little more than twilight. But after the utter darkness through which I had groped, this faint illumination was quite adequate for my purposes.
I let my gaze pivot about the room, point by point. Then, if I did not gasp, there was at least a sudden and involuntary cessation of breathing, for standing beside a second door at the farther end of the room was a woman dressed in black. On her head was a black hat, round which a veil was tightly wound, the front of it apparently thrust up hurriedly from her
face. But what startled me was the fact that both her attitude and her position seemed such an exact duplication of my
With one hand, I noticed, she clung to the frame of the door. With the other hand she held back a heavy portiere which hung across this frame. I could see the white half-oval of her intent face as she stood there. Something about her suggested not the spying intruder so much as the secret listener. Her attention seemed directed towards some object which her eyes were not seeing. It appeared as though she stood waiting to overhear a sound which meant much to her.
As I peered past her through the dim light I could catch a faint glimmer of green and white marble, with here and there the high-lights reflected from polished nickel. I knew then that the room into which she was peering was a bathroom, and this bath-room, I concluded, opened on a second sleeping-chamber which held the raison d’etre of her motionless apprehension.
I directed my glance once more at the woman. Something almost penitential in her attitude brought the sudden thought to my mind that she had committed a crime at the mere memory of which she was already morally stricken. Unexpected discovery, I began to suspect, had driven her to an extreme which she was already beginning to regret. There was, in fact, something so pregnant and portentous in that unchanging attitude of hers that I began to feel it would be a mean surrender on my part to evade the issue in which I had already risked so much. So I moved silently into the room, crossing it without a sound, until I dropped into a high-backed fauteuil upholstered in embossed and pale green leather.
I SAT there studying her, unaccountably
at my ease, fortified by the knowledge that I was the observer of an illicit intrusion and that my own presence, if impertinent, might at least be easily explained. I saw her sigh deeply and audibly, and then gently close the door, dropping the curtain as she turned slowly
I watched her as she crossed to the dresser, looked over the toilet articles on it, and then turned away. She next skirted a heavy cheval mirror, crossed to the writing-table with her quick yet quietly restless movements, and from this table caught up what seemed to be a metal paper knife. She moved on to an ivory and mother-of-pearl desk, which, apparently, she already knew to be locked. For after one short glance towards the curtained door again, she inserted the edge of the knife in a crack of this desk and slowly pried on the lock-bar that held it
I saw her second apprehensive glance towards the curtained door as the lock sprung with a snap. She sank into a chair before it, breathing quickly, obviously waiting a minute or two to make sure she had not been overheard. Then with quick and dextrous fingers she rummaged through the desk. Just what she swept from one of the drawers into her open hand-bag I could not distinguish. (But I plainly saw the package of letters which she took up in her hand, turned over and over, then carefully and quietly secreted within the bosom of her dress.) She looked deeper into the desk, examined an additional paper or two which appeared not to interest her, and slowly swung back the cover.
Then she slowly rose to her feet, stand-
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ing beside the desk. She let her gaze, as she stood there, wander about the room. I could distinctly see the look on her face, the hungry and unhappy look of unsatisfied greed. I sat motionless, waiting for that expression to change. I knew that it must change, for it would be but a moment or two before she caught sight of me. But I had seen enough. I felt sure of my position—in fact, I found a wayward relish in it, an almost enjoyable anticipation of the shock which I knew the discovery of my presence there would bring to her. I even exulted a little in that impending dramatic crisis, rejoicing in the slowness with which the inevitable yet epochal moment was approaching.
Her eyes must have dwelt on my figure for several seconds before her mind became convinced of my actual presence there. She did not scream, as I thought she was about to do when I saw one terrified hand go up to her partly opened lips. Beyond that single hand-movement there was no motion whatever from her. She simply stood there, white-faced and speechless, staring at me out of wide and vacant eyes.
“Good evening—or, rather, good morning!” I said, with all the calmness at my command.
For one brief second she glanced back towards the curtained door, as though behind it lay a sleeper my words might awaken. Then she stared at me again.
She did not speak. She did not even move. The intent and staring face, white as a half-moon in a misty sky, seemed floating in space. The faint light of the room swallowed up the lines of her blackclad figure, encircling the face in the unbroken gloom of a Rembrandt-like background, making it stand out as though it were luminous.
It was a face well worth studying. What first struck me was its pallor. Across this the arched, faintly interrogative eyebrows gave it a false air of delicacy. The eyes themselves had a spacious clarity which warned me my enemy would not be without a capable enough mind, once she regained possession of her wits. Her mouth, no longer distorted by terror, was the nervous, full-lipped mouth of a once ardent spirit touched with rebellion.
SHE was, I could see, no every-day thief of the streets, no ordinary offender satisfied with mean and petty offences. There would, I told myself, always be a largeness about her wrong-doing, a sinister brilliance in her illicit pursuits. And even while I decided this, I was forced to admit that it was not precisely
terror I was beholding on her face. It seemed to merge into something more like a sense of shame, the same speechless horror which I might have met with had I intruded on her bodily nakedness. I could see that she was even beginning to resent my stare of curiosity. Then, for the first time, she spoke.
“Who are you?” she asked. Her voice was low; in it was the quaver of the frightened woman resolutely steeling herself to courage.
“That’s a question you’re first going to answer for me,” was my calmly deliberate retort.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded, still confronting me from the same spot. I remembered the bundle of loot which I had dropped just outside the
“I can answer that more easily than you can,” I replied, with a slight headmovement towards the broken desk-top.
Once more her glance went back to the curtained door. Then she studied me from head to foot, each sartorial detail and accessory of clothing, hat, gloves, and shoes, as though each must figure in the resolution of some final judgment.
“What do you want?” she demanded. I preferred to leave that question unanswered. “What do you intend to do?” she demanded, once more searching my
T RESENTED the way in which she * anticipated my own questions. I could see, from the first, that she was going to be an extraordinarily adept and circuitous person to handle. I warned myself that I would have to be ready for every trick and turn.
“What do you suppose I’m going to do?” I equivocated, looking for some betraying word to put me on firmer ground. I could see that she was slowly regaining her selfpossession.
“You have no right in this house,” she had the brazenness to say to me.
“Have you?” I quickly retorted. She was silent for a second or two.
“No,” she admitted, much as she would like to have claimed the contrary.
“Of course not! And I imagine you realize what your presence here implies, just as what your discovery here entails?”
“Yes,” she admitted.
“And I think you have the intelligence to understand that I’m here for motives somewhat more disinterested than your
“What are they?” she demanded, letting her combative eyes meet mine.
“That,” I calmly replied, “can wait until you’ve explained yourself.”
“I’ve nothing to explain.”
There was a newer note in her voice again—one of stubbornness. I could see that the calmness with which I pretended to regard the whole affair was a source of bewilderment to her.
“You’ve got to explain,” was my equally obdurate retort.
Her next pose was one of frigidity. “You are quite mistaken. We have nothing whatever to do with each other.” “Oh, yes we have. And I’m going to prove it.”
“By putting an end to this play-acting.” “That sounds like a threat.”
“It was meant for one.”
“What right have you to threaten me?”
CHE looked about as she spoke, almost ‘7 wearily. Then she sank into the chair that stood beside the ravaged writingdesk. It was all diverting enough, but I was beginning to lose patience with her.
“I’m tired of all this side-stepping,” I told her. I saw the answering look of anger that flashed from her.
“I object to your presence here,” she had the effrontery to explain.
“You mean, I suppose, that I’m rather interfering with your night’s operations?” “Those operations,” she answered in a fluttering dignity, “are my own affair.” “Of course they are,” I scoffed. “They have to be! But you should have kept them your own affair. When you drop a bundle of swag out of a window you shouldn’t come so perilously near to knocking a man’s hat off.”
“A bundle of swag?” she echoed, with such a precise imitation of wonder that I could plainly see she was going to be the astutest of liars.
“The loot you intended carrying off,” I calmly explained. “The stuff you dropped down beside the house-step, to be ready for your get-away.”
“Your escape. And it was rather clever.”
“I dropped nothing,” she protested, with a fine pretence of bewilderment on her
“Nor let it roll quietly off a front window-ledge?” I suggested.
“I was near no window—it would be impossible for me to open a window,” she protested. Her words in themselves were a confession.
“You seem to know this house pretty well,” I remarked.
‘7 ought (o—it’s my otvn.” was her quick retort.
“It’s your own?” I repeated, amazed at the woman’s mendacity.
“It was my own,” she corrected.
I PEERED quickly about the room. It held three doors, one behind the woman, opening into the bath-room, a second opening into the hallway, and a third to the rear, which plainly opened into a clothes closet. There had been too much of this useless and foolish argument.
“Since your claim to proprietorship is so strong,” I said as I crossed to the hall door, and, after locking it, pocketed the key, “there are certain features of it I want you to explain to me.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, once more on her feet.
“I want to know,” I said, moving towards the curtained door beside her, “just who or what is in that front room?” The look of terror came back to her
white face. She even stood with her back against the door, as though to keep me from opening it, making an instinctive gesture for silence as I stood facing her.
“I’m going to find out what is in that room," I proclaimed, unmoved by the agony I saw written on her guilty face.
“Oh, believe me,’’ she said, in supplicatory tones, a little above a whisper, “it will do no good. It will only make you sorry you interfered in this.’’
“But you’ve made it my duty to interfere.”
“No; no; you’re only blundering into something where you can do no good, where you have no right.”
“Then I intend to blunder into that room!” And I tore the portiere from her grasp and flung it to one side.
“Wait,” she whispered, white-faced and panting close beside me. “I'll tell you everything. I’ll explain it—everything."
THE tragic solemnity of that low-toned relinquishment brought me up short. It was my turn to be bewildered by an opponent I could not understand.
“Sit down,” she said, with a weary and almost imperious movement of the hand as she advanced into the room and again sank into the chair beside the writingdesk.
“Now what is it you want to know?" she asked, with only too obvious equivocation. Her trick to gain time exasperated me.
“Don’t quibble and temporize that way."
I cried. “Say what you’ve got to, and say it quick.”
She directed at me a look which I resented, a look of scorn, of superiority, of resignation in the face of brutalities which I should never have subjected her to. Yet, when she spoke again her voice was so calm as to seem almost colorless.
“I said this was my home—and it’s true. This was once my room. Several weeks ago I left it.”
“Why?” I inquired, resenting the pause which was plainly giving her a chance to phrase ahead of her words.
“I quarreled with my husband. I went
away. I was angry. II——. There’s
no use explaining what it was about.” “You’ve got to explain what it was about,” I insisted.
“You couldn’t possibly understand. It’s impossible to explain,” she went quietly on. “I discharged a servant who was not honest. Then he tried to blackmail me. He lied about me. I had been foolish, indiscreet, anything you care to call it. But the lie he told was awful, unbelievable. That my husband should ask me to disprove it was more than I could endure. We quarreled, miserably, hopelessly. I went away. I felt it would be humiliating to stay under the same roof with him."
“Wait,” I interposed, knowing the weak link was sure to present itself in time. “Where is your husband now?”
She glanced toward the curtained door. “He’s in that room asleep,” she quietly replied.
“And knowing him to be asleep you came to clean out the house?” I prompted.
“No,” she answered without anger. “But when service was begun for an interlocutory decree I knew I could never come back openly. There were certain things of my own I wanted very much.”
“And just how did you get into the house?”
“The one servant I could trust agreed to throw off the latch after midnight, to leave the door unlocked for me when I knew I would never be seen.”
“Then why couldn’t that trusted ser-
vant have secured the things, the things you came after without all this foolish risk of your forcing your way into a house at midnight?”
Her head drooped a little.
“I wanted to see my husband,” was the quiet-toned response. Just how, she did not explain. I had to admit to myself that it was very good acting. But it was not quite convincing; and the case against her was too palpably clear.
“This is a fine cock-and-bull story,” I calmly declared. “But just how are you going to make me believe it?”
“You don’t have to believe it,” was her impassive answer. “I’m only telling what ! you demanded to know.”
“To know, yes—but how am I to know?” She raised her hand with a movement of listless resignation.
“If you go to the top drawer of that dresser you will see my photograph in a silver frame next to one of my husband. That will show you at a glance.”
L'OR just a moment it flashed through 1 me as I crossed the room that this might be a move to give her time for some attempted escape. But I felt, on second thought, that I was master enough of the situation to run the risk. And here, at last, was a point to which she could be most definitely pinned down.
“The other drawer,” she murmured as my hand closed on the fragile ivory-tinted knob. I moved on to the second drawer and opened it. I had thrust an interrogative finger down into its haphazard clutter of knicknacks, apparently thrown together by a hurried and careless hand, when from the other end of the room came a quick movement which seemed to curdle the blood in my veins. It brought me wheeling about, with a jump that was both grotesque and galvanic.
I was just in time to see the figure that darted out through the suddenly opened door of the clothes-closet.
I found myself confronted by a man, a thin-lipped, heavy-jawed man of about thirty-five, with black pin-point pupils to his eyes. He wore a small-rimmed derby hat and a double-breasted coat of blue cheviot. But it was not his clothes that especially interested me. What caught and held my attention was the uglyshort-barreled revolver which was gripped in the fingers of his right hand. This revolver, I noticed, was unmistakably directed at me as he advanced into the room.
I could not decide which was uglier, the blue-metalled gun or the face of the ’man behind it.
“Get back against that wall,” he commanded. “Then throw up your hands. Get ’em up quick!”
I had allowed her to trap me after all1 I had even let myself half believe that pleasant myth of the slumbering husband in the next room. And all the while she was guarding this unsavory-looking confederate who, ten to one, had been slinking about and working his way into a wall-safe even while I was wasting time with diverting but costly talk.
AND with that gun-barrel blinking at 7 1 me I had no choice in the matter—I was compelled to assume the impotent and undignified attitude of a man supplicating the unanswering heavens. The woman turned and contemplated the newcomer, contemplated him with a fine pretence of surprise.
“Hobbs,” she cried, “how did you get
“You shut up!” he retorted over his shoulder.
“What are you doing in this house?” she repeated, with a sustained show of amazement.
“Oh, I’ll get round to you, all right, all right,” was his second rejoinder.
Hobbs’ left hand, in the meanwhile, had lifted my watch from its pocket and with one quick jerk tore watch and chain away from its waistcoat anchorage.
“You’re a sweet pair, you two!” I ejaculated, for that watch was rather a decent one and I hated to see it ill-treated.
“Shut up!” said Hobbs, as his hand went down in my breast-pocket in search of a wallet. I knew, with that gun-barrel pressed close against my body, that it would be nothing short of suicidal to try to have it out with him then and there. I had to submit to that odious pawing and prodding about my body. But if my turn ever came I told myself it would be a sorry day for Hobbs—and an equally sorry one for that smooth-tongued confederate of his.
“You’re a sweet pair!” I repeated, hot to the bone, as that insolent hand went down into still another pocket.
But it did not stay there. I saw a sudden change creep over the man’s face. He looked up with a quick and bird-like side-movement of the head. It was not until he wheeled about that I realized the reason of the movement.
rPHE actual motive behind the thing I A could not fathom. The real significance of the tableau was beyond my reach. But as I looked up I saw that the woman had crept noiselessly to the hall door, and with a sudden movement had thrust out her hand and tried to open this door. But as I had already locked it, and still carried the key in my pocket, her effort was a useless one. Just why it should enrage her confederate was more than I could understand. He ignored me for the time being, crossing the room at a run and flinging the woman in black away from the door-knob. She, in turn, was making a pretence to resent that assault. Why she should do this I did not wait to ask. I saw my chance and took it.
Half-a-dozen quick steps brought me to the bath-room door, one turn of the knob threw it open, and another step put me through it and brought the door closed after me. There was, I found, a key in the lock, on the inside. Another second of time saw that key turned. A quick pad or two about the cool marble wall brought my hand in contact with the light switch.
The moment the light came on I darted to the inner door and tried it. But this, to my dismay, was locked, although I could catch sight of no key in it. I ran back for the key of the first door, tried it, and found it useless. At any moment, I knew, a shot might come splintering through those thin panels. And at any moment, should they decide on that move, the two of them might have their own door into the hallway forced open and be scampering for the street.
I reached over and wrenched a nickelled towel-bar away from the wall opposite me. One end of this I deliberately jabbed into the white-leaded wood between the frame and the jamb of the second door.
I was about to pry with all my force, when the sound of yet another voice came from the room before me. It was a disturbed yet sleepy voice, muffled, apparently. by a second portiere hung on the outside of this second door.
“Is that you, Simmonds?” demanded this voice.
CONTINUED to pry, for I felt like a rat in a corner, in that bald little bathroom, and I wanted'space about me, even though that meant fresh danger. The mysteries were now more than I could decipher. I no longer gave thought to them. The first thing I wanted was liberation, escape. But my rod-end bent under the pressure to which I subjected it, and I had to reverse it and try for a fresh hold.
I could hear, as I did so, the sudden sound of feet crossing a floor, the click of a light-switch, and then the rattle of the portiere-rings on the rod above the door at which I stood.
“Who locked this door?” demanded the startled voice on the other side. For answer, I threw my weight on the rod and forced the lock. I still kept the metal rod in my hand, for a possible weapon, as I half-stumbled out into the larger room.
Before me I saw a man in pajamas. He was blonde and big and his hair was rumpled—that was all I knew about him, beyond the fact that his pajamas were a rather foolish tint of baby-blue. We stood there, for a second or two, staring at each other. We were each plainly afraid of the other, just as we were each a little reassured, I imagine, at the sight of the other.
“For the love of God,” he gasped, wideeyed, “who are you?”
“Quick, I cried, “is this your house?”
“Of course it’s my house,” he cried back, retreating as I advanced. He suddenly side-stepped and planted his thumb on a call-bell.
“Good !” I said. “Get your servants here quick. We’ll need them!”
“Who’ll need them? What’s wrong? What’s up?”
“I’ve got two burglars locked in that “Burglars?”
“Yes, and they’ll have a nice haul if they get away. Have you got a revolver?” “Yes,” he answered, jerking open a drawer. I saw that his firearm was an automatic.
“Where’s the telephone?” I demanded, crossing the room to the door that opened into the hall.
“On the floor below,” he answered. He pulled on a brown blanket dressing-gown, drawing the girdle tight at the waist.
“You can get to it quicker than I can,”
I told him. “Give me the gun, and throw on the lights as you go down. Then get the police here as soon as you can.” “What’ll you do?” he demanded.
“I’ll guard the door,” I answered as I all but pushel him into that hallway. Then I swung to the door after me, and locked it from the outside. “Quick, the gun,” I said. There was no fear on his face now, yet it was natural enough that he should hesitate.
“What are you? An officer?”
There was no time for an explanation. “Plain-clothes man,” was my glib enough answer, as I caught the pistol from his hand. He switched on the hall
UE was half way to the top of the stairs when a woman’s scream, high pitched and horrible, echoed out of the room, the room where I had the two confederates trapped. It was repeated, shrill and sharp. The face of the big blonde man went as white as chalk.
“Who is that?” he demanded, with staring eyes, facing the locked door of the second room. Then he backed off from the door.
I flung a cry of warning at him, but it did not stop his charge. His great shoulder went againt the panelled wood like a battering-ram. Under the weight of that huge body the entire frame-facing gave way; he went lunging and staggering from sight into the dimly-lit inner
I waited there, with my gun at halfarm, feeling the room would suddenly erupt its two prisoners. Then, at a cry from the man, I stepped quickly in after
T HAD fortified myself for the unexA pected, but the strangeness of the scene took my breath away. For there I beheld the man called Hobbs engaged in the absurd and extraordinary and altogether brutal occupation of trying to beat in his confederate’s head with the butt of his heavy revolver. He must have struck her more than once even before the man in the hairy brown dressing-gown and the blue pajamas could leap for him and catch the uplifted arm as it was about to strike again.
The woman, protected by her hat and veil and a great mass of thick hair, still showed no signs of collapse. But the moment she was free she sat back, white and panting, in the same high-armed fauteuil which I myself had occupied a half-hour before. I made a leap for her companion’s fallen revolver, before she could get it, though I noticed that she now seemed indifferent to both the loss of it and the outcome of the struggle which was taking place in the centre of that pink and white abode of femininity.
And as I kept one eye on the woman and one on the gun in my hand,
I, too, caught fleeting glimpses of that strange struggle. It seemed more like a combat between wild-cats than a fight between two human beings. It took place on the floor, for neither man was any longer on his feet, and it wavered from one side of the room to the other, leaving a swath of destruction where it went. A table went over, a fragile-limbed chair was crushed, the great cheval glass was shattered, the writing-desk collapsed with a leg snapped off, a shower of toilet articles littered the rugs, a reading-lamp was overturned and went the way of the other things. But the fight went on.
I no longer thought of the woman. All my attention went to the two men struggling and panting about the floor. The fury of the man in the shaggy and bearlike dressing-gown was more than I could understand. The madness of his onslaught seemed incomprehensible. This,
I felt, was the way a tigress might fight for her brood, the way a cave man might battle for his threatened mate. Nor did that fight end until the big blonde form towered triumphant above the darker clad
Then I looked back at the woman, startled by her stillness through it all. She was leaning forward, white, intent, with parted lips. In her eyes I seemed to see both uneasiness and solicitude and desolation, but above them all slowly flowered a newer look, a look of vague exultation as she gazed from the defeated man gasping and choking for breath to the broad back of the shaggyhaired dressing gown.
T HAD no chance to dwell on the puzzle ■* of this, for the man enveloped in the shaggy-haired garment was calling out to
“Tie him up,” he called. “Take the curtain-cords—but tie him tight!”
“Do you know this man?” something
in his tone prompted me to ask, as I struggled with the heavy silk curtaincords.
“I know that, but who’s Hobbs?”
“A servant dismissed a month ago,” was the other’s answer.
“Then possibly you know the woman?” I asked, looking up.
“Yes, possibly I know the woman,” he repeated, standing before her and staring into her white and desolate face. It took me a moment or two to finish my task of trussing the wrists of the sullen and sodden Hobbs. When I looked up the woman was on her feet, several steps nearer the
“Watch that woman!” I cried. She’s got a load of your loot on her!”
My words seemed merely to puzzle him. There was no answering alarm on his
“What do you mean?” he inquired. He seemed almost to resent my effort in his behalf. The woman’s stare, too, seemed able to throw him into something approaching a comatose state, leaving him pale and helpless, as though her eye had the gift of some hypnotic power. It angered me to think that some mere accidental outward husk of respectability could make things so easy for her. Her very air of false refinement, I felt, would always render her viciousness doubleedged in its danger.
“Search her!” I cried. “See what she’s got under her waist there!”
TTE turned his back on me, deliberately, Y as though resenting my determination to dog him into an act that was distasteful to him.
“What have you there?” he asked her, without advancing any closer.
There was utter silence for a moment or
“Your letters,” she at last answered, scarcely above a whisper.
“What are they doing there?” he asked. “I wanted them,” was all she said. “Why should you want my letters?” was his next question.
She did not answer it. The man in the dressing-gown turned and pointed to the inert figure of Hobbs.
“What about him? How did he get here?”
“He must have followed me in from the street when the door was unlocked. Or he may have come in before I did, and kept in hiding somewhere.”
“Who left the door unlocked?” “Simmonds.”
“Because he could trust me!”
There was a muffled barb in this retort, a barb which I could not understand. I could see, however, that it had its effect on the other man. He stared at the woman with suddenly altered mien, with a foolish drop of the jaw which elongated his face and widened his eyes at the same moment. Then he wheeled on the sullen Hobbs.
“Hobbs, you lied about her!’’ he cried, like a blind man at last facing the light.
He had his hand on the bound and helpless burglar’s throat.
“Tell me the truth, or by the living God, I’ll kill you! You lied about her?” “About what?” temporized Hobbs.
“You know what!”
Hobbs, I noticed, was doing his best to shrink back from the throttling fingers. “It wasn’t my fault!” he equivocated. “But you lied?”
Hobbs did not answer in words. But the man in the dressing-gown knew
the answer, apparently, before he let the inert figure fall away from his grasp. He turned, in a daze, back to the waiting and watching woman, the white-faced woman with her soul in her eyes. His face seemed humbled, suddenly aged with some greying blight of futile contrition.
The two staring figures appeared to sway and waver towards each other. Before I could understand quite what it all meant the man had raised his arms and the woman had crept into them.
“Oh, Jim, I’ve been such a fool !” I heard
her wail. And I could see that she was going to cry.
I knew, too, that that midnight of blunders had left me nothing to be proud of, that I had been an idiot from the first— and to make that idiocy worse I was now an intruder.
“I’ll slip down and look after that ’phoning,” I mumbled, so abashed and humiliated that as I groped wearily out through the door I stumbled over the Russian-squirrel bundle which I had placed there with my own hands.,