The Story: Near the town of Montfort, John Gaunt, mill owner, lives in a wall-enclosed country home with his beautiful wife, Lisa. Francis O'Neill, an explorer, guest of the Gaunts, wants a secretary to help him write a book. Marcia Stafford is engaged.
Other members of the household are Gordon Curran, Gaunt’s cousin, who manages the mills; Mrs. Carver, Lisa's mother ; Bobby, the young Gaunt heir; Sarah Ives, an elderly English nurse; Reeves, the butler ; Mrs. Harris, the housekeeper ; and a Japanese chauffeur.
Walking alone on the estate near a lake one evening, Marcia is astonished to find John Gaunt clutching the chauffeur by the throat and demanding, “Tell me where she got it. If you gave it to her, I'll kill you." The chauffeur refuses to answer, and Gaunt orders him to leave the estate.
At the edge of the lake, Marcia receives a still greater shock when site finds the nurse lying partly in the water. She calls Gaunt, who tries to resuscitate the woman, but she is dead.
That night a dark figure glides into Bobby’s room from the balcony. Marcia, who is guarding the boy, rouses the household with her screams. The door to the balcony is found locked on the inside. Gaunt and the rest appear to accept the explanation that she must have dreamed her experience.
Next day, Lisa's brother, Nicholas Carver, arrives at the house. He has just been released from penitentiary. John Gaunt engages Peter Devaney, a private detective, whose real name is Peter Devaney Holgate, to act as Bobby’s tutor, and Griggs, a personal friend, as chauffeur.
The doctors decide that Nurse Ives died of natural causes, but Peter informs Marcia that she was murdered. Reeves, the butler, tells Peter that the dead nurse distrusted someone in the house, but just as he is about to reveal the name, he is called away and a few minutes later is found lying in the halt with a knife in his back.
Colonel Truax arrives with policemen to take charge of the investigation. Mrs. Gaunt announces that her jewels have been stolen from a safe in her suite of rooms, and Griggs discloses that Lisa met the Japanese ex-chauffeur downtown that afternoon. Later it is revealed that Lisa is a drug addict.
John Gaunt goes to town to see the Jap. He doesn't return, and later is found badly injured in a cabin that belongs to Bill Griggs. The latter, severely questioned by Colonel Truax, states that Gaunt had intended to disappear, to lie low in the cabin to await developments.
A new butler, Kennedy, is found stabbed to death. Doris, a maid, is found behind an adjacent curtain, listening, and she slumps to the floor when discovered.
The knife that killed Kennedy had been chained to the trail in the gun room. When this room is broken into, the chain is found to have been eaten through by an acid.
It is learned that, in town, the Japanese ex-chauffeur has been found stabbed to death; and Lisa faints at the news.
Lisa consents to tell all she knows to Peter, and the latter asks Marcia to hide behind a curtain and record the conversation in shorthand.
FROM BEHIND the library screen, where I had hidden myself at Peter's request, I could hear him moving about, putting things to his liking, I imagined. The door opened, but it was only Mrs. Harris come for the tray.
"Oh, by the way,” Peter said, his voice carrying pleasantly, “if you happen to see Miss Stafford, ask her if she’d mind coming back here for a moment. There are a few things I forgot to tell her.”
Neat, I thought exultantly. That disposed of the mystery of my disappearance should Mrs. Harris feel any curiosity as to what had happened to me. On the other hand, the request was safe enough, since I was well beyond her reaching.
Mrs. Harris agreed without enthusiasm, and then there was silence save for a vague stirring among the papers of the desk. Peter, I thought maliciously, giving his imitation of a busy detective. Then the door clicked for the second time and I forgot to be malicious, I forgot all about everything except the fact that Lisa Gaunt stood in the room and that Peter believed that she carried the key to the murders locked somewhere in her brain.
She came in with a little rush. The quickened rhythm of her breathing penetrated to my hiding place.
Peter had risen. I could hear his voice. It sounded soothing.
“You are frightened?”
“Heavens, no!” she said petulantly. “I never realized before how large this house is and how very few of us there are in it. It was an endless journey coming through those empty halls. I’m afraid I miss Reeves. Poor Reeves. How Johnny would laugh at that.”
"Because you miss Reeves?” Peter asked politely.
"Yes. I'd hated him so.” There was a moment's silence broken by the click as a metal case closed. Then Lisa Gaunt said. "A light, please,” and Peter's voice came at once, saying pleasantly, “Darn this lighter! Wouldn’t you think that some time someone by mistake would invent one that worked?”
I looked in disgust at the cabalistic symbols with which I had recorded this much of their conversation. If Peter or Colonel Truax really thought they'd get anything out of gibberish like this, it was not mine to reason why. I set my teeth and held my pencil poised ready.
A match cracked. Peter's voice had a laugh in it.
“There you are, Mrs. Gaunt. After all, there's something reassuringly old-fashioned and competent about a match.”
“Like Reeves,” said Lisa Gaunt musingly. “Strange how Reeves and his virtues haunt me tonight.”
“Perhaps there’s a reason,” Peter suggested.
That remark, innocent as it sounded, was a mistake. It struck the wrong note. Even I, in my corner, sensed that.
When Lisa Gaunt spoke again, her voice was withdrawn, remote.
“What do you mean by that?”
I think Peter must have shrugged then.
"Mrs. Gaunt, have you been straight with us so far?”
She was a long time answering.
“And if I have not?”
“Nothing, since I think you now realize that the time has come when it's wisest to lay all your cards on the table.”
“Suppose I tell you, Mr. Holgate, that I will lay down my cards only at the call of those who play in this game. I do not recognize your right to a hand.”
heard Peter’s hand slap down on the desk top.
"I am to understand then that you have decided not to confide in me?”
“I have never had any intention of confiding in you Mr. Holgate.”
“Then doubtless,” Peter said, heavily sarcastic, “I was dreaming when I imagined you asked me to meet you in here tonight.”
“No, you were not dreaming,” Lisa Gaunt said. “I asked you to meet me here.”
“I’m glad you confirm it,” Peter said. Some of the sarcasm was gone. He only sounded grave. “Mrs. Gaunt, why has it taken the death of Moto to make you willing to tell what you know?”
WELL, I thought as my pencil raced over the paper, if it's fireworks you want, that question ought to awake plenty. I was wrong. It did not. Her voice was calm and cool.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Oh, yes, I think you do,” Peter said. “Shall I put it this way: why didn’t your husband’s disappearance make you talk?”
“I don’t have to answer that question, Mr. Holgate.” Lisa Gaunt said slowly. “You have no right to ask it. But I think that I will answer it. There are times when words like loyalty become meaningless. I did not believe that Johnny was alive. If I’d had any reason to believe that he was not dead, I might have talked before. Now—”
“Now?” prompted Peter softly.
Something queer and hard came into her voice.
“Just this, Mr. Peter Devaney Holgate, or whatever you call yourself—I’ve been a fool too long. You can call your friend Truax and tell him to be over here early. I want to talk to him.”
Peter’s voice coaxed her.
“Why wait until morning? Let me call Truax tonight.” He waited a second and then went on more softly. “If you won’t talk to me.”
She laughed a little, an ugly laugh. I felt that it was a pity there were no shorthand symbols to describe degrees of laughter.
“I won’t talk to you, Mr. Holgate. That’s definite. I don’t recognize your authority here. Johnny hired you, not I.”
I heard Peter walk across to the desk, heard the buzz as he took down the telephone receiver.
“As you wish,” he said courteously. “Will you talk to him?”
“Tomorrow morning, Mr. Holgate. As early as he pleases.”
I heard Peter dial the number. He was angry. The staccato of the clicks told me that. And it was impossible to reach Colonel Truax. He was not at headquarters. Nor at his house. Eventually Peter left a message. It was a most uninforming one. Lisa Gaunt was angry.
“That wasn’t what I told you to say,” she said sharply.
“No? But I think Truax will understand.”
“I’m afraid you overestimate his intelligence, Mr. Holgate.”
“And I think you underrate it, Mrs. Gaunt. He is a very clever man. Sometimes a man plays safest who pretends to be a fool.”
I heard her teeth come together.
“I dislike simulated stupidity as much as I do omnipotent wisdom.”
I think Peter must have winced a bit at that. But, when he spoke, it was evenly and quietly. “Believe me, Mrs. Gaunt, if the form of the message displeased you, I was thinking of your own safety.”
“My safety? You think that I am in danger?”
“I don’t know,” she said slowly. “Really I hadn't thought about it.”
“Then please do think about it,” Peter said. “Murder has been done in this house. You know that. Have you never heard that telephone wires can be tapped and extensions used to gain information too boldly spoken?”
There was a little pause. Peter told me afterward that for a moment even her lips had paled. Then she shrugged.
“So be it !”
“Mrs. Gaunt,” Peter said persuasively, “won’t you tell me what it is you mean to tell Colonel Truax?”
She stood up. I heard her chair being pushed back.
“I’ve thrown the dice, Mr. Holgate. Let them lie!”
AFTER Lisa Gaunt had left the room I came out from behind the screen. Peter looked beaten and discouraged.
“Changed her mind,” he muttered. “Woman’s privilege, of course.”
“Do you think she’ll really tell Colonel Truax what she knows?”
“Maybe. But why didn’t she tell me? Something happened. Something that frightened her. And she decided to talk. Then she thought it over, got over her scare.”
Nothing was to be gained by talking about it. I decided to go to bed. Pete explained that the house was guarded not only by the police but by half a dozen trained dogs that would be turned loose in the grounds after midnight.
“In case of balcony climbers,” he said grimly. “And these dogs are guaranteed neither to play with the baby nor come to the kitchen door to beg scraps from the cook.”
He made a tour of inspection before I went up. Lisa Gaunt had taken a sleeping tablet and gone to her room. Nick was in bed, reading the Police Gazette, with Bobby sleeping peacefully near by. Francis O’Neill was in bed reading—of all things—“Great Cases of Scotland Yard.” Mrs. Carver was in bed. Gordon Curran had gone to Montfort. “Called to the mill by the night superintendent — something wrong with some of the machinery,” Pete explained. “He plans to sleep there. I think, too, he wants to be handy when Gaunt comes to. He’s got some crazy idea that Johnny will want to see him right away.”
So I went to bed. But not to sleep. I lay there, quaking. Pete had left me a revolver, which rested under my pillow, but the weapon gave me no confidence.
I must have dozed off, because I remember sitting up in bed with a start. What time it was, I do not know. And for a moment I did not realize what had aroused me. Then I knew.
It was the soft closing of a door.
The house was so silent and my nerves so acute that the slight sound had snatched me back to quivering wakefulness.
I slipped out of bed. If I had been lying awake all the time, conjuring up all sorts of fears from every creak and rustle, I would have been too frightened to do what I did then. But my mind seemed numbed. I snatched the revolver from beneath the pillow, flicked the key in the lock of my door and stepped out into the hall.
Normally, a night light glowed at the end of the hall. Now it was out. The hall was in pitch blackness, broken only by the light which shone from my own doorway.
And in this unreal twilight I saw a man walking.
He was walking away from me, quite silently, his footfalls making no sound on the heavy carpet. I saw him for no more than a few seconds, but I had time to distinguish that there was something strange about his head—something that looked like a bandage.
Then he stopped in front of the door of John Gaunt’s room. The door opened and he vanished.
And the man, I was sure, was John Gaunt himself.
I went back into my own room and closed the door. I sat down on the bed, staring at the revolver in my hand. Then I began to tremble. I shook uncontrollably. After a while the spasm passed and I remembered that I had left my door unlocked. I reached out swiftly and turned the key.
John Gaunt—in his own house ! Impossible !
And then I began to wonder. We had only the colonel’s word for it that John Gaunt was lying unconscious in the hospital. Even Lisa Gaunt had not been allowed to see him. The man had disappeared voluntarily, had hidden in Griggs’ cabin—couldn’t this be part of his scheme too? Hiding in his own home!
My first impulse had been to arouse the household. Now I decided that my best course was to hold my tongue. The police—the dogs— perhaps they were for the express purpose of guarding John Gaunt, and Colonel Truax and Peter knew all about his presence in the house, had connived at it, arranged it.
Dawn was pink beyond the curtains before I fell into an exhausted sleep.
I FOUND Peter eating bacon and eggs in the breakfast room. He looked at me and put down his knife and fork.
“Good heavens, girl ! Go back to bed. Perhaps you can get a little sleep. It’s daylight now— nothing to be afraid of. One look at you and no self-respecting cat would bother to drag you in. Sweetheart, to put it plainly, you look like the devil.”
Mrs. Harris, coming in with coffee, was shocked. She planked a silver coffeepot down beside me and stalked out.
“I didn’t sleep well.” I was wondering how to let Peter know I had stumbled on his secret. But Peter had news of his own. He leaned toward me.
“Doris departed. In the middle of the night. Quietly.”
I thrust my orange juice aside.
“Doris! How could she?”
“As a matter of fact, I believe she let herself down from the window. We have the rope.”
“But how did she get out of the grounds? The dogs?”
Peter folded his arms along the table top.
“They were dead. They were foolish enough to eat some meat. Poisoned. So, of course, Doris didn’t do all that by herself. Someone helped her. So it’s just as I thought. Doris knew something.”
"But if you can’t find her—”
“Ah, but we have found her. One of the bright lads on my pay roll recognized her having coffee in an all-night eating place and rang me up wanting to know how come. He's shadowing her now. If the somebody who helped her get away tries to get in touch with her later, we may get some information.”
Peter looked at me very triumphantly.
“Peter,” I said, “I think I should tell you I know about Mr. Gaunt. About him not being in the hospital, I mean . .."
He stared at me so incredulously that it struck me like a blow then that Peter didn’t know !
“Not in the hospital ! Of course he’s in the hospital. What in the world are you talking about?”
I told him. Peter got to his feet so swiftly that he knocked over his chair.
"What room? What room did he come from?”
"Why l don’t know—it may have been Mrs. Gaunt’s room —” Peter’s face was twisted with anxiety as he plunged out into the hall. I ran after him.
There never was any doubt where we were going. Peter paused for a second at the entrance door to blow a police whistle. An officer materialized instantly, and Peter jerked his head at him with a curt "Come on."
Blessedly the man asked no questions. He laid one hand on his gun and followed.
The halls above were quiet. Our footfalls were muffled by the thick pile of the carpet that reached to the baseboards. Unconsciously our pace began to slacken.
Before Lisa Gaunt’s door we formed a hesitating group.
“Let me,” I said with a half sob.
“Knock first,” Pete decreed. He raised his hand. It thudded upon the thick oak of the door. Loud enough, I thought, to wake the dead. And at once put my hand across my mouth. Oh, not the dead.
“No good,” Peter said. “She doesn’t answer.” He looked at me. “Can you—” he began doubtfully.
“Yes,” I said.
"We may have to break down the door," he warned me. But the knob was turning under my fingers.
"No,” I said. "It’s not locked.” I think that I had known it wouldn't be. "Wait here.”
I slipped inside.
I do not think that I shall ever forget the still horror of that room: the heavy velvet curtains that some hand had drawn across the windows, sable notes in the prevailing motif of cream and gold and rose; the candles in their silver holders standing upon small tables at the bed's head and foot—tall cathedral candles whose flames flickered and bent in the draft I had created when I opened the door; the onyx clock whose quiet tick in that stillness was louder than the clamor of a brassy gong striking through the shadows; even the mirrors in whose murky depths I had an instant’s glimpse of my white and stricken face before my eyes were drawn irresistibly to that low divanlike bed with its incongruously gleaming candles and its counterpane whose lace, I now realized, was strangely, horribly flowered with crimson.
Even before I comprehended the meaning of those hideous scarlet stains, I think I knew that Lisa Gaunt was dead. I had known it long before I opened that door; we all had known it. For that reason we had clustered outside that door and talked in hushed tones. As if the sound of our voices mattered ! We could have shouted, screamed aloud. Lisa Gaunt would not have heard us.
I HAVE said that it was tacitly understood by all of us. Once within that door, the presence of the candles confirmed it. You lit no candles for the living. Only for the dead. The words of a very old ballad began to run through my head:
"Oh Death has laid for my Love a bed;
Set candles at her feet, set candles at her head.”
Who had lighted those candles? Who had set them in their branched candelabra, moved the tables so they might burn at her head and feet? The murderer? Surely not. Surely this service, a last service, must have been performed by someone who loved her I remembered John Gaunt’s shadowy figure in the hall a husband perhaps. Or Mrs. Carver? It was not beyond reason that it was her mother’s hand that tipped those candles into flame.
I do not know how long I stood there. The candle flames had ceased to flicker; in the still air they burned straightly with a clear radiance. There was no sound save the steady relentless tick of the onyx clock. And yet the clock itself seemed to exert no claim upon time. With me, time stood still, tranced. Peter and the policeman, the rest of Treeholme, separated from me merely by the thickness of so much wood, were the spread of an eternity away.
I did not move. I could not.
The door opened behind me. I heard the sharp exhalation of Peter’s breath, saw the policeman fumble for his cap. Then I began to shake.
Whenever nerves are strung high to hysteria, it is a tossup as to whether tears or laughter will come out on top. I began to laugh, a horrible high screeching sort of a laugh.
"Stop it!” Peter ordered. He slapped me. I gasped, caught my breath.
“Let me go," I said. I sounded normal again. "I’m all right.”
Strangely enough. I was. Except for my legs, which were suddenly weak. I reached out, found a chair and sank into it.
“Get Truax on the phone.” Peter was saying. "No. not here, you idiot! Don’t touch anything in this room. There’s a telephone in an alcove at the head of the stairs. Use that.”
The policeman hung on his heel.
"Shall I tell the colonel what's happened?”
“Know the code? What is it? Forty-six for murder? Use that. Tell him to get over here.”
He was gone. Peter stood for a moment, his cheeks sucked in thoughtfully. Then he crossed toward the bed. He walked delicately, as a cat walks.
With Peter beside me, some of the horror departed. I was able to look at her with a degree of calm although my fingers were tight upon Peter’s wrist. She lay as if asleep. Her head was turned away, pillowed against the masses of her loosened hair. Her incredible eyelashes made shadows upon the pallor of her cheek. One hand, lying lightly along the counterpane, was curled a little, heartbreakingly like a child’s. Only the red blotches that bloomed like ominous flowers across her breast.
I gave a sob.
"She might be asleep, Pete.”
"Yes,” Peter said sombrely. “She was asleep,” he went on significantly.
"You said she meant to take a sleeping tablet, Pete.”
"It would simplify things for a murderer, wouldn’t it? I mean, if she had taken a sleeping tablet?”
Peter was watching me.
"If he knew it--yes.”
“You knew it, Pete, and I knew it--because you told me and Doris knew it. And Doris is gone.”
"Got there, haven’t you?” Peter asked. There was a sort of satisfaction in his voice. He looked at me curiously. "Do you think that Doris did it?”
I looked, shivered.
“You’d have to hate someone terribly, wouldn’t you, to kill her while she slept? Or have an awfully good reason? What I mean is that murder like this would have to be premeditated, wouldn’t it? And if a person hates you, you’d be apt to know it. I don’t think Lisa Gaunt would have taken a sleeping tablet if she had been afraid of Doris.”
The last vestige of my self-control went. I began to cry. Once started, I couldn’t stop. Even Peter’s arms didn’t help. But, when the policeman returned after telephoning, I withdrew from them long enough to make a suggestion.
"Can’t I go?”
Peter shook his head.
COLONEL TRUAX arrived in a few minutes. The sight of me seemed to infuriate him. He shot me an angry look, said, "Young lady, I’m afraid you reduce Holgate’s efficiency by about one half,” and strode across to the bed. He gestured to the officer. “Pull back those curtains.”
"Not quite fair,” Peter said mildly, "to blame Miss Stafford for my failures.”
“Well, this does seem to have been bungled a bit,” the colonel said with some satisfaction. “This the way you found her? These candles lit?”
“Incredible!” said the colonel. “All right—who found her?”
“I did,” I said.
He gave me a quick, frowning look.
“I would have been willing to gamble money on that, Miss Stafford. I suppose there’s no doubt that she’s dead?”
“None at all,” Peter said gravely.
“You have no idea how long?”
"Oh, well, the medical examiner’ll be here shortly,” the colonel said. He pushed a chair forward. "Sit down, won’t you, Miss Stafford?” he said more kindly. “And tell me all about it.”
The chair’s back was to the bed. I sat down, gripped the brocaded arms and drew a long breath.
“Where shall I start?”
"Let me start it for you,” Peter suggested. “There’s a lot of preliminary information you'd better have, Truax.”
“Very well,” Colonel Truax said gravely. “Let’s have it.”
There was no doubt that Peter made it easier. When his story was done, I went on with it. I was surprised to find that my voice was steady. It faltered only once—when I told of seeing John Gaunt in the hall. For once, the colonel appeared nonplussed. His eyebrows shot upward.
"Gaunt, eh? Checked on that, Holgate?”
"I’ve done nothing.” Peter said quietly, “but stay here. I made up my mind I’d keep out of it until you came—give you a free hand, every chance.”
“You can’t get hold of a thread anywhere,” the colonel said irrelevantly. “Almost anything unwinds if you can find an end. This doesn’t. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Or it makes too much,” Peter said. “Take it this way: Sarah Ives and Reeves and Kennedy and the Japanese and Lisa Gaunt have been murdered. Each murder has been apparently purposeless. Yet they’ve been deliberate murders. I’m not saying that I believe they were all premeditated. I don’t. I think that Sarah Ives and Reeves and Kennedy were all killed upon the spur of the moment. As for the others, Mrs. Gaunt and the Japanese—” He shook his head. “I’m not so sure.”
“Part of some monstrous plan, no doubt,” the colonel said heavily. “A plan that’s working out neatly and nicely to its conclusion in spite of you and me. It’s a pity that you couldn’t have persuaded Mrs. Gaunt to talk last night.”
“No one on earth could have done that. I’m afraid,” Peter said slowly. “Unless it were John Gaunt.”
“And you say he was here, eh?”
“I saw him.”
“I don’t understand it.”
He was silent, frowning. Outside, sirens swelled.
“You were faster yourself,” Peter observed.
“I didn’t have so far to come. I was at the lodge. Olsen had telephoned me about the dogs.” He sighed. “Another mystery.” He got heavily to his feet. “Curran’s not here, you say, and the maid’s skipped out? Better get her back. Phone Curran too; ask him to come up to the house. And call the hospital; see what you can find out about Griggs and Gaunt. Better not mention Mrs. Gaunt’s death—yet.”
“Right,” Peter said. “And the rest of the household?”
“Oh, the mother and brother? You’d better tell them. But keep every body downstairs. I’ll see them as soon as we’ve finished here. Ah, Corliss, you’re prompt.”
The medical examiner nodded curtly, put down a leather bag and bent over the bed. We watched him, fascinated, as he raised Lisa Gaunt’s arm, let it drop again. He peered sharply at the wound.
“Straight to the heart. No variety to this murderer,” he remarked callously. “Death must have been practically instantaneous.”
“Any idea how long she’s been dead?” Colonel Truax asked.
Dr. Corliss pursed his lips. He lifted an eyelid, laid his fingertips momently along the marble flesh.
“How about three o’clock?” Peter asked quietly. “That fit in?”
“Possibly. Three o’clock—let me see— it’s eight now. That would give us five hours. Not bad. Quite probable. Got any particular reason for thinking it might be three o’clock?” No one answered and he gazed at us shrewdly. “Lot of guesswork— this figuring out the time of death. You know that. I'll tell you better later on.” Once more he bent over the bed. “Killed in her sleep—um-m—weapon removed. By the way, where is the weapon?”
The colonel looked at Peter.
"The weapon is here?”
“At the foot of the bed.” Peter’s voice was expressionless. Then, as no one moved, he took a clean handkerchief from his pocket, shook it out. “There won’t be any fingerprints on it—I’ll guarantee that,” he said quietly, “but it's just as well to be careful.”
When he came back to us. he was holding something between thumb and forefinger through the folds of his handkerchief.
I didn’t want to look but I couldn’t help myself. My eyes went inescapably toward it. It mattered not a whit that a dreadful foreboding told me what I was about to see.
The knife in Peter’s hand, free of blood or stain of any kind, was the missing Mayan sacrificial knife!
BUT it couldn’t have been John Gaunt,” Peter said in despair, later.
“But it was,” I insisted.
Peter walked back and forth across the library a half dozen times.
“But you heard me call the hospital. Outside of the fact that he’s still unconscious and couldn’t possibly do it in a physical sense, there were two policemen in the hall and a nurse on duty and Bill Griggs in the same room with him.”
I got up and walked in my turn.
“Yes. And the nurse fell asleep she admits it—and it was four o’clock when she woke, and the policemen stayed right out in the hall, and the room next to John Gaunt’s is empty and I don’t care if it was locked because locks are nothing to a clever man, and the empty room has two doors and one of them leads into a narrow hall and at the end of the hall is a door that says fire escape.” I finished breathless but triumphant.
"Ye gods!” said Peter. “It seems to me that you possess a remarkable amount of information about that hospital.”
“I do,” I said. “As it happens, they took my appendix out and I had that room— the empty one, not John Gaunt’s. That’s how I know about the fire escape. I made them show me where it was.”
"You always have the most plausible reasons for everything,” Peter said helplessly.
“I'm a woman,” I reminded him. “and a woman's never satisfied until she knows just why two and two make four. And you know yourself, Pete, that the hospital said John Gaunt wasn't so well this morning and they couldn’t understand why.”
“Sheer coincidence,” Peter grumbled. “Good lord, Marcia, you’d think you were trying to hang this thing on Gaunt.”
"What,” I said stubbornly, “was he doing in the hall last night?”
"Please don't tell anyone that you think you saw John Gaunt in the hall last night.” Peter said.
"There was no think about it,” I said scornfully. “I saw him.”
"All right, you saw him.” Peter didn’t sound polite. “It wasn’t broad daylight, and people have been known to make mistakes.”
"I was not mistaken,” I was beginning in measured tones, but Peter raised his hand. “Skip it.” he said. “I know you saw John Gaunt.”
We stared at one another. I gave in first.
“All right," I said. “I won’t tell anyone, but I don't see what earthly good my keeping quiet will do.”
“Look here." Peter said, coming over to sit on the edge of the desk, “we kept things spread wide open around here. You know that. You and everyone in Treeholme had all the information the police did. All but one person. The murderer. He had more.”
“Two persons,” I said thoughtfully. “You forget Doris.”
“Two persons. I stand corrected. Well that was the policy and you know what came of it. It seems to me that we’re entitled to a few secrets this time.”
"Was that why Colonel Truax questioned each of us separately?”
"The general idea.” Peter agreed.
“So that I don’t know what Mrs. Carver said, and Mrs. Carver doesn’t know what I said, and Francis O'Neill doesn’t know what either of us said. I think that’s perfectly ridiculous, Pete.”
Peter fixed me with a cold eye.
“The trouble with you is that you can’t get through your head that these murders are the result of the machinations of some person here. You’ve got the common idea that because the people in this house belong to the class we term ‘nice people’ they wouldn't commit murder. You’d like to believe that murderous impulses come only to the lower classes of society, the classes to whom you’d know, if you stopped to think, that murder is fundamentally the most dangerous. Well, they know it if you don’t. It’s your nice person, whom you refuse to suspect because he is nice, who goes blithely on his murdering way until some astute police officer, less blinded by his ‘niceness’ than you are, shows him up in his true colors and leaves you gasping because lie was the very last person in the world you’d imagine could have done it.”
“The very last person I’d imagine,” I said promptly, “is John Gaunt.”
“I wish someone would kick me,” Peter said reflectively. “I laid myself wide open for that one. Marcia, if John Gaunt’s the last person you’d pick for the murderer, do you mind telling me who’d be the first?”
“You mean just intuition? Oh, Nicholas Carver, I think.”
“I knew it,” Peter sounded disgusted. “Because you know he’s got a record. ‘Oh, he’s been in the pen,’ you’d say”—Peter’s voice went startlingly into falsetto—“ ‘so of course he’s the man !’ ”
“I don’t talk that way,” I said, nettled. “And besides, once a criminal always a criminal.”
“That’s not so,” Peter said, gripping my shoulder so that it hurt. “Get that out of your head right now. But here’s something to put in its place and you can take it for gospel: once a murderer, always a murderer. And that’s what’s the matter with this fellow here. Murder has, by successful repetition, become an ordinary thing to him, the simple means of attaining a desired end. And because thus far he has been clever enough to elude us, he believes himself omnipotent. He has become God. Anyone who gets in his way . . He made an expressive gesture.
I shivered. “You make him sound a little mad, Pete.”
HE DIDN’T answer. He went across the room and stood brushing his fingers along the edge of a bookshelf. When I came up behind him, he showed me his hand with a little smile.
"Needs dusting in here.”
I wasn't going to let him change the subject. I caught his arm.
“Pete! Is he mad?”
“Aren’t we all? A little bit. And even a psychiatrist will tell you of the difficulty of trying to separate the sheep from the goats with any degree of certainty. Madness depends on so many things, and there are plenty of borderline cases in circulation. Nobody knows or guesses until something like this happens.”
It was the most horrible idea that I had met yet.
“And then? After a thing like this does happen? Do you know then?”
“Oh, let it go. Marcia,” Peter said. “I was a fool to talk about it.”
“I suppose”--I was striving to be casual-- “that a blow on the head for example could make a man crazy?”
No subtlety is wasted on Peter. He surveyed me, grimly amused.
“Oh, yes, it could, darling. But I don’t think it did.”
I sighed. For the thousandth time, we had been going around in circles. To be sure. I had been presented with the brand new thought that we might be dealing not only with a murderer but also with a madman. It was not an idea that appealed to me. I came closer to Peter.
“Isn’t there some way of finding out?” I asked in a very small voice. “I thought detectives and police got records about people.”
“They do. We have.”
“You have? Pete! You didn’t tell me! About everyone in this house? About me?”
His lips twitched a little.
“Certainly about you. Why not?” “Pete!” I was shocked. “I think that’s horrible. What did you find out?”
Peter kept his eyes on a top section of the bookcase. He began to recite in an expressionless voice. “You are twenty-four years old. Height, five foot, four. Weight, one hundred and fifteen pounds. Hair, auburn. Eyes, grey. Coloring, fair. You were born in Montfort. You have lived here all your life. You attended Glen Arden School, probably would have gone on to college if your father hadn’t died. You went to work for Carter Danbridge. At present you are nominally Francis O’Neill’s secretary, but to my certain knowledge you have done no secretarial work for some time. Nor will be apt to, since you are to marry a brilliant young detective. There is apparently no reason for connecting you with the murders at Treeholme since no motive can be established, and alibis for the approximate times of the murders are vouched for by the aforesaid brilliant young detective. However, your introduction at Treeholme was so casual as to suggest connivance on the part of John Gaunt, and the undisputed fact that you have been discoverer or co-discoverer of all the murders with the exception of that of the Japanese, Moto—”
“I’m not going to listen to any more,” I said and put my hands over my ears. “You haven’t told me one thing I didn’t know.”
COLONEL TRUAX came in. He closed the door carefully. “Well?” he said.
Peter gave him an expressive glance. “She still insists the man was John Gaunt.”
Colonel Truax patted my shoulder encouragingly.
“Miss Stafford, we believe that you saw the murderer last night. You insist that the person you saw was John Gaunt. It could not have been John Gaunt. Therefore it was somebody else, someone who used John Gaunt’s identity as a shield for himself. Yet the fact that you are so positive in your identification must mean that it is not idle guesswork on your part. You had some reason for thinking it was John Gaunt. Won’t you try and think back? What was it that made you so certain that you saw John Gaunt?”
“His head was bandaged.” I said slowly. “Oh, and he walked right. He looked right. And he went into Mr. Gaunt’s room.”
"Association, eh?” said the colonel. He looked keenly at me. “That and the obvious fact that no one but John Gaunt had the right to leave or enter those rooms. But Holgate tells me that the light was dim in the halls. You could not have seen him clearly. Don’t you think you might have been mistaken? That the person you saw was Bill Griggs, for example, with a bandage around his head?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m all mixed up.”
“Of course you are.” Peter said, as indignant as if he had not been an hour trying to accomplish the same thing. “Get on with it, can’t you?”
The colonel drew himself up and looked at Peter as if he disliked him. It was no new attitude. They’d been like that from the very moment Colonel Truax and his policemen crossed the threshold of Treeholme. Peter himself assured me that it meant nothing; it was merely the antagonism that must exist between the free lance who within certain limits may do as he pleases, and the man who as the representative of law and order is bound by regulations.
“Have you told her what we wanted?” the colonel asked stiffly.
“What you wanted?” Peter sounded bitter. “I told you I’d have nothing to do with it. We set one trap here—you know what happened. I’ve no great desire to see the girl I love the next victim.”
I began to understand what they were talking about. I looked at Peter’s angry face and then at the colonel’s stern one.
“Peter means that there is something you’d like me to do—something you think would help solve these murders?”
The colonel bowed. “Y'es.”
“Then that means—it must mean—that you are close to a solution? Perhaps even that you know who . . . ”
Again the colonel bowed. There was a little silence. Peter had gone to stand at the window. His back was toward us. A hostile back. Even his shoulder blades registered disapproval. Those shoulder blades dominated the room. The colonel seemed to have difficulty tearing his eyes from them.
“You see,” he said at last, “Mr. Holgate and I are convinced that we know who the murderer is. But in spite of that conviction we have not as yet one shred of evidence that will support our theory.”
I had the feeling that something was being thrust upon me, something I would not dare decline, something that was terribly important to me and at the same time horrible and menacing and dangerous.
“And you think that I could help you get this evidence?”
“You don’t need to have anything to do with it,” Peter said sharply. “It’s not fair—Truax, will you tell her ...”
But neither the colonel nor I were listening to him. It was as if we had reached some high point that mattered only to ourselves.
“Can you tell me whom you suspect?” I asked.
The colonel shook his head.
“I’m sorry. It will be better if you do not know.”
Again there was that little pregnant silence. I could hear my heart beat. Peter, at the window, did not move. Neither did the colonel. They stood up and waited.
It was up to me. I knew that. I knew too that I didn’t want to do one thing that would endanger the beautiful bright future that I had seen opening up before me these last few days. Death would put an end to that future, blot it out as if it never had existed. Yet neither would I want to live if, in my living, I had failed Peter. And something told me that if I failed Colonel Truax, I would be failing Peter as well.
I raised my eyes.
“What is it you want me to do?”
I heard Peter’s sharply indrawn breath, and then the colonel spoke.
“You, my dear.” he said softly, “are to be the cheese in our mousetrap!”
I WAS still gasping over this when I discovered that I had something else to gasp over. And that something was Peter. You’ve seen the device sometimes used on the screen—as if the page of a book were turned. There is no fade out. no blending. It is change, sharp and clear cut. One moment you are on one side of a page, the next, abruptly, on the other. Peter’s metamorphosis was like that. He had been glowering out of the window. Now that my decision was reached he ceased to glower. His eyes became cold and considering.
“All right,” he said crisply. “I’ll get things going.”
“Just a moment.” the colonel said. “By my orders the others have been kept in the hall. It is now,” he consulted his watch, “twelve o’clock. It might be well to have the servants prepare lunch, and you will have an opportunity then to work from the front of the house without arousing any comment.”
“Yes,” Peter said. He had halted in his course toward the door. “Halted,” was the word. “Stopping” implies a gradual slowing down. There was nothing gradual about Peter. He was moving and then he wasn’t.
“Besides,” said the colonel as if to clinch it, “the--er-- pregnant announcement to those people out there will come better from you.”
“Won’t one of you tell me what I’m to do?” I asked plaintively.
They told me. Or, rather, Peter did. since the colonel did not appear to hear my request. Peter was beautifully impersonal. No one listening to him would have guessed that what I was to do meant any more to him than the chance move of a pawn in a well-planned game of chess. This game had bigger stakes, that was all.
What I was to do didn’t sound so difficult or so dangerous. I was to sit in this room, the library, all afternoon with the door open. I was to talk to every person who came into the room. Some time during the afternoon, they were certain the murderer would come.
"He'll have to, you see,” Peter said evenly. “He’ll try to find out if you saw him last night.”
“And I suppose,” I said with a resignation I was far from feeling, “that if I tell him I did, he’ll kill me too.”
“Try to, you mean,” Peter corrected me. I looked at him hopelessly. He must be as cold-blooded as a fish.
It was the colonel. I was not to be afraid. There would not be the slightest danger to me. I was not to think it. It was simply a matter of making the murderer admit that he had been in the hall during the night. Obviously no one but the murderer knew that my recognition of him was the thing that would split the case wide open.
The police would be withdrawn after lunch, with the exception of those who were stationed about Treeholme to guard it against curiosity seekers. There must be nothing suspicious about the proceedings. I’d have to be careful about that. I must not give the plan away in any detail to anyone. I’d always worked in the library, hadn’t I? All right, work there this afternoon as if nothing had happened.
"Likely,” I said scornfully. “All right. Suppose I do. What good will it do you? You don't expect me to take this conversation down in shorthand, do you?”
“Hardly.” Peter was once more aloof. That contingency too had been taken care of. While we were at lunch a dictaphone would be installed. And in the room above, Peter and Colonel Truax would establish themselves.
I was getting fed up.
“And I suppose," I said scornfully, “that if I need help I'm to call and the two of you will swing down the wires to my assistance.”
There'd be an officer in the room with me, Peter told me impassively. Sergeant Corcoran. A crack shot. They’d push back that corner French window so that it made an angle with the bookshelves. It was the way the window stood customarily. By keeping the velvet hangings drawn and the inner net curtains intact, his presence in the room was almost certain to go unnoticed.
The colonel was glancing at his watch.
“Are you--er done. Holgate? Doubt less Miss Stafford knows all that is necessary by this time, and it's getting late."
So we trailed doorward. At the door, Peter paused and looked at Colonel Truax. I think that if I had been the recipient of that look I would have dropped dead on the spot. The colonel didn’t. He said, “What now?” He sounded annoyed.
Peter’s grasp on my elbow hurt.
“There must be no slips—remember !"
The colonel did not answer. He opened the door and we went out.
THE OTHERS were gathered near the * fireplace end of the hall. Noone looked up as we approached. They sat there and stared straight ahead of them and I thought, Why, they’re frightened. For the first time. Because those others-Reeves and Kennedy and Sarah Ives didn’t belong to them. But Lisa Gaunt did. And now she’s dead.
Colonel Truax did not go near them. He walked straight out of the front door without a glance to right or left. I was surprised but Peter didn’t seem to be. He looked over to where the little group of servants were huddled.
“Do you think we could have some lunch, Mrs. Harris?” he asked.
She stood up and I saw that her eyes were red-rimmed.
“Will it be all right?” she asked unsteadily.
“Certainly,” Peter said. “Go ahead.”
Mary, Jaynes and Mrs. Harris left with what looked like a good interpretation of the word “alacrity.” I noticed that a policeman unobtrusively followed.
After the servants had gone, things rapidly became more normal. I heard Mrs. Carver give a long wavering sigh. O’Neill, with a sound that was half a grunt, produced a pipe and began to stuff it with tobacco. Gordon Curran leaped to his feet, his face truculent.
“Well?” he snapped.
Peter’s look was deceptively mild.
“You know what I mean. There’s one more of us dead, isn’t there? When’s this ghastly farce to be played out? Which of us is to lx* the next, tell me that?”
“And if I did,” Peter said coolly, “you’d scarcely believe me.”
I think that Peter said that deliberately, and certainly the effect upon all of them was startling. Mrs. Carver blanched. She made queer gurgling sounds deep in her throat. Francis O’Neill suspended momentarily the business of lighting his pipe. Gordon Curran turned away with a muffled word that might have been an oath. As for Nicholas Carver, whom I hadn’t noticed before, he pushed forward until he stood directly in front of Peter.
“Aw, Pete,” he said plaintively, “ain’t you and the police getting anywhere? Honest?”
Only after Peter’s match had scratched along the chimney bricks did he condescend to reply.
“Get somewhere?” he repeated slowly. “Why, yes, I think so. In fact, acting on information just acquired, we expect to be able to break things wide open in a short time.”
"I hope so,” Gordon Curran said shortly.
The rest of us said nothing.
I don’t think any of us really enjoyed our food that noon. We sat at the long table in the formal dining room a table far too large for the few who sat about it and looked sombrely one at the other and talked not at all. What was there to talk about? For myself, I was thinking too much of the part I was expected to play that afternoon to be interested in talk for the talking’s sake. I couldn’t get the colonel’s expression, “the cheese in the mousetrap,” out of my head. It was all very well to remind myself that a mousetrap was the instrument commonly used for the catching of mice; I seemed to remember that the cheese frequently was gobbled up before the mouse was caught.
As we rose to leave the table, Peter called to me.
“Oh, Marcia, I’m going to be busy this afternoon. Think you can look out for yourself for a while?”
“Why, of course, Pete,” I said innocently and clearly. “I think I’ll write some letters.”
We had reached the hall by this time. As nearly as I could tell, no one was listening to us. Mrs. Carver was halfway up the stairs on her way to take a nap. The men were lighting the first of their after-luncheon cigarettes. Nicholas Carver had a cigar. He cut the end of it and grumbled, “Still in jail around here, I suppose?”
“How about it, Holgate?” Francis O’Neill said nastily.
“Oh, I think I’d stick around,” Peter said. “Colonel Truax will be back later. No doubt you’ll be free to go where you please after that.”
“There go the police,” Gordon Curran said from a window embrasure.
All of us, with the exception of Peter, immediately came to see. He was right. The police were loading their paraphernalia into half a dozen cars.
From the taut interest we were displaying, an outsider might have guessed that we watched a ceremony as portentous as the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. And, in a sense, it was. As the last policeman’s hand shut the last door of the last car, we breathed a simultaneous sigh of relief. At least that much was over.
But for me, my breath already tightening in my throat, it was only beginning.
SINCE I had announced my plans, it was up to me to follow them out. I ran up to my room, got a handful of my personal stationery and established myself in the library. The whole house seemed deadly still, but I tried to allay my qualms with the knowledge that in the top drawer of the desk, almost under my fingers, reposed Peter’s little gun. And then I decided that my qualms would be easier allayed if I had the gun in my lap. I put it there. I opened my pen, spread a sheet of paper before me and wrote. “Dear Marjorie.” And then I didn’t write any more.
I couldn’t. I sat and stared at that paper and listened for sounds.
After twenty minutes of it, I decided this would not do. If I were writing letters, I ought to have something to show for it. Inspiration came. I folded paper and stuffed it into envelopes which I addressed and stamped. At the end of a half hour I would place one apparently finished letter on the end of the desk. At the end of the second half hour, another. And so on.
The seconds dragged by. Was no one coming? I wondered. Incredible, as the colonel had said. There I sat like the proverbial spider in my parlor—or library — waiting for the fly to walk in, and there was no fly. Which made me wonder a little acidly why the colonel hadn’t thought of this pleasant simile instead of the less agreeable one of the “cheese in the mousetrap.” The spider had a fine dignity of its own; the cheese had none. The spider was the menace; the cheese the menacee.
A little reluctantly, I gave up my contemplation of that side of it and drew my sheet of paper closer. Beneath the salutation, “Dear Marjorie,” I achieved a second line: “You have no idea what--"
“Hi!” said a voice, and I dropped my pen so that ink ran in a splattering line across the page.
The first mouse was circling about the trap, and the cheese was panic-stricken. I snatched at a blotter, and then looked reproachfully at Bill Griggs, who was sauntering toward me.
“Scared you, huh?” He sounded pleased.
“Well,” I said with dignity, “the present atmosphere at Treeholme is not one to make a person appreciate being surprised.”
“Gosh, no,” he agreed. He lounged across to perch on the desk corner. “For the luvva Mike, what did happen here last night?”
The beat of my heart rose in my throat, choking me. Was this what Peter had meant? But Bill Griggs . . .
“You know as much as I do.”
“Yeah,” he said sombrely, “maybe I do. But knowing things don’t help in this mess. She knew something. Look what happened to her.”
Was this a warning? Cold to my fingertips, I leaned forward.
“You mean Lisa?”
“Sure. If she hadn’t sent that message to Colonel Truax—”
“How,” I interrupted sharply, “did you know about that message?”
“Me? Oh, Pete told me this morning. Or Nick. Why? What difference does that make?”
“Maybe somebody listened outside the library window and heard that message to Colonel Truax,” I said slowly.
“But you see it didn’t do him much good because he was seen as he came through the hall last night. And recognized.”
He studied me thoughtfully. “So you think you know who did it, huh? Want to know something for sure? Okay, here it is. It wasn’t me.”
“Oh, Bill, I never thought it was.”
He was not to be appeased. He gave a snort and stalked out of the room, leaving me at my desk half-laughing, half-dismayed. As an object of suspicion, my first visitor appeared to be a good deal of a flop.
I RESUMED my letter writing in a spirit of despondency. I got as far as, “You have no idea how much has happened the last while, and I’m not sure I should tell you about it for fear you will want me to pack my bags and start for Vancouver ...”
The “Vancouver” trailed off a little because I heard a clatter in the hall as if something were set down hard, and then, almost on the heels of that. Francis O’Neill walked in. In his right hand he clutched a brassie. I stared at it dumbly and wondered if Sergeant Corcoran would consider a golf club a dangerous weapon, and if perhaps, in some subtle fashion, I could call attention to it just in case the sergeant wasn’t noticing.
And then I saw Francis O’Neill’s face, and all thought that the golf club might be intended for use against me vanished from my head.
“Don’t look like that.” I said. “Please don't. You—you loved her, didn’t you?”
“How did you know?”
“I guessed.” Not strictly true, to be sure, but what of that? The pallor of his face frightened me. “Mr. O'Neill, hadn't you better sit down for a minute?”
“Sitting or standing, sleeping or waking, from now on it'll all be the one to me,” he said dully. But he put down the golf dub, sank into a chair and promptly buried his head in his hands.
“I'd better get you a drink,” I said after an interval
He waved that aside.
“I'm past the wanting,” he told me sadly. I believed him.
He remained there so long and sunk in such abysmal sorrow that I began to wonder if I should make some attempt to get rid of him. Certainly, if he took up permanent headquarters in the library, there would be little chance of anyone else coming in. Then, just as I was becoming definitely worried, he raised his head and looked at me.
“If Gaunt had died, she’d have married me,” he said simply.
I gasped. I felt as if the ground had dropped out beneath me. That was a nice thing to tell anyone.
“But he didn’t die,” I said firmly.
“No. She was the one who died.”
“But do you really think she would have married you?” I asked.
“What do you mean by that?” He jumped to his feet and glared at me. If arousing him was what I wanted, I had done my work well.
I had gone this far. Very well, I would go farther.
“I think there were other men who’d thought she loved them. Even John Gaunt. She wasn’t the sort of woman who’d be satisfied with having just one man in love with her. She”—I was remembering Gordon Curran’s bitter speech on the terrace—“wanted every man in the world at her feet. I tell you it was the way she was made. It wasn’t just one man she wanted; it was all men. You and John Gaunt and Gordon Curran; even Peter.”
“Peter!” His voice rose to a shout. “So it was you !”
His excitement infected me. “It was I what?” I shouted back.
“Blind, all of us,” he said as if to himself. “The police worst of all—and the motive, barefaced, staring at us. A jealous woman ! What is it they say? ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’ ”
“I think you’re mad,” I said. “If you’re trying to make out that I was jealous of Lisa Gaunt and killed her because of Peter—”
"I think you did,” he said. His voice had become soft and deadly. “If you didn’t kill her, what were you doing in the hall last night?”
That everlasting hall! I could have shrieked, and perhaps might have had I not remembered that it was upon the knowledge of my being in the hall that Peter’s whole case turned. I leaned forward in my turn.
‘‘How do you know that I was in the hall?” I demanded, and at once got the answer that I least expected.
“I heard you,” O’Neill said simply.
To be Concluded