Story type: Literature
“I’m willing to wager you a box of cigars that you don’t know the most fascinating story in your own paper to-night,” remarked Kennedy, as I came in one evening with the four or five newspapers I was in the habit of reading to see whether they had beaten the Star in getting any news of importance.
“I’ll bet I do,” I said, “or I was one of about a dozen who worked it up. It’s the Shaw murder trial. There isn’t another that’s even a bad second.”
“I am afraid the cigars will be on you, Walter. Crowded over on the second page by a lot of stale sensation that everyone has read for the fiftieth time, now, you will find what promises to be a real sensation, a curious half-column account of the sudden death of John G. Fletcher.”
I laughed. “Craig,” I said, “when you put up a simple death from apoplexy against a murder trial, and such a murder trial; well, you disappoint me–that’s all.”
“Is it a simple case of apoplexy?” he asked, pacing up and down the room, while I wondered why he should grow excited over what seemed a very ordinary news item, after all. Then he picked up the paper and read the account slowly aloud.
JOHN G. FLETCHER, STEEL MAGNATE, DIES SUDDENLY
SAFE OPEN BUT LARGE SUM OF CASH UNTOUCHED
John Graham Fletcher, the aged philanthropist and steelmaker, was found dead in his library this morning at his home at Fletcherwood, Great Neck, Long Island. Strangely, the safe in the library in which he kept his papers and a large sum of cash was found opened, but as far as could be learned nothing is missing.
It had always been Mr. Fletcher’s custom to rise at seven o’clock. This morning his housekeeper became alarmed when he had not appeared by nine o’clock. Listening at the door, she heard no sound. It was not locked, and on entering she found the former steel-magnate lying lifeless on the floor between his bedroom and the library adjoining. His personal physician, Dr. W. C. Bryant, was immediately notified.
Close examination of the body revealed that his face was slightly discoloured, and the cause of death was given by the physician as apoplexy. He had evidently been dead about eight or nine hours when discovered.
Mr. Fletcher is survived by a nephew, John G. Fletcher, II., who is the Blake professor of bacteriology at the University, and by a grandniece, Miss Helen Bond. Professor Fletcher was informed of the sad occurrence shortly after leaving a class this morning and hurried out to Fletcherwood. He would make no statement other than that he was inexpressibly shocked. Miss Bond, who has for several years resided with relatives, Mr. and Mrs. Francis Greene of Little Neck, is prostrated by the shock.
“Walter,” added Kennedy, as he laid down the paper and, without any more sparring, came directly to the point, “there was something missing from that safe.”
I had no need to express the interest I now really felt, and Kennedy hastened to take advantage of it.
“Just before you came in,” he continued, “Jack Fletcher called me up from Great Neck. You probably don’t know it, but it has been privately reported in the inner circle of the University that old Fletcher was to leave the bulk of his fortune to found a great school of preventive medicine, and that the only proviso was that his nephew should be dean of the school. The professor told me over the wire that the will was missing from the safe, and that it was the only thing missing. From his excitement I judge that there is more to the story than he cared to tell over the ‘phone. He said his car was on the way to the city, and he asked if I wouldn’t come and help him–he wouldn’t say how. Now, I know him pretty well, and I’m going to ask you to come along, Walter, for the express purpose of keeping this thing out of the newspapers understand?–until we get to the bottom of it.”
A few minutes later the telephone rang and the hall-boy announced that the car was waiting. We hurried down to it; the chauffeur lounged down carelessly into his seat and we were off across the city and river and out on the road to Great Neck with amazing speed.
Already I began to feel something of Kennedy’s zest for the adventure. I found myself half a dozen times on the point of hazarding a suspicion, only to relapse again into silence at the inscrutable look on Kennedy’s face. What was the mystery that awaited us in the great lonely house on Long Island?
We found Fletcherwood a splendid estate directly on the bay, with a long driveway leading up to the door. Professor Fletcher met us at the porte cochere, and I was glad to note that, far from taking me as an intruder, he seemed rather relieved that someone who understood the ways of the newspapers could stand between him and any reporters who might possibly drop in.
He ushered us directly into the library and closed the door. It seemed as if he could scarcely wait to tell his story.
“Kennedy,” he began, almost trembling with excitement, “look at that safe door.”
We looked. It had been drilled through in such a way as to break the combination. It was a heavy door, closely fitting, and it was the best kind of small safe that the state of the art had produced. Yet clearly it had been tampered with, and successfully. Who was this scientific cracksman who had apparently accomplished the impossible? It was no ordinary hand and brain which had executed this “job.”
Fletcher swung the door wide, and pointed to a little compartment inside, whose steel door had been jimmied open. Then out of it he carefully lifted a steel box and deposited it on the library table.
“I suppose everybody has been handling that box?” asked Craig quickly.
A smile flitted across Fletcher’s features. “I thought of that, Kennedy,” he said. “I remembered what you once told me about finger-prints. Only myself has touched it, and I was careful to take hold of it only on the sides. The will was placed in this box, and the key to the box was usually in the lock. Well, the will is gone. That’s all; nothing else was touched. But for the life of me I can’t find a mark on the box, not a finger-mark. Now on a hot and humid summer night like last night I should say it was pretty likely that anyone touching this metal box would have left finger-marks. Shouldn’t you think so, Kennedy?”
Kennedy nodded and continued to examine the place where the compartment had been jimmied. A low whistle aroused us: coming over to the table, Craig tore a white sheet of paper off a pad lying there and deposited a couple of small particles on it.
“I found them sticking on the jagged edges of the steel where it had been forced,” he said. Then he whipped out a pocket magnifying-glass. “Not from a rubber glove,” he commented half to himself. “By Jove, one side of them shows lines that look as if they were the lines on a person’s fingers, and the other side is perfectly smooth. There’s not a chance of using them as a clue, except–well, I didn’t know criminals in America knew that stunt.”
“Why, you know how keen the new detectives are on the finger-print system? Well, the first thing some of the up-to-date criminals in Europe did was to wear rubber gloves so that they would leave no prints. But you can’t work very well with rubber gloves. Last fall in Paris I heard of a fellow who had given the police a lot of trouble. He never left a mark, or at least it was no good if he did. He painted his hands lightly with a liquid rubber which he had invented himself. It did all that rubber gloves would do and yet left him the free use of his fingers with practically the same keenness of touch. Fletcher, whatever is at the bottom of this affair, I feel sure right now that you have to deal with no ordinary criminal.”
“Do you suppose there are any relatives besides those we know of?” I asked Kennedy when Fletcher had left to summon the servants.
“No,” he replied, “I think not. Fletcher and Helen Bond, his second cousin, to whom he is engaged, are the only two.”
Kennedy continued to study the library. He walked in and out of the doors and examined the windows and viewed the safe from all angles.
“The old gentleman’s bedroom is here,” he said, indicating a door. “Now a good smart noise or perhaps even a light shining through the transom from the library might arouse him. Suppose he woke up suddenly and entered by this door. He would see the thief at work on the safe. Yes, that part of reconstructing the story is simple. But who was the intruder?”
Just then Fletcher returned with the servants. The questioning was long and tedious, and developed nothing except that the butler admitted that he was uncertain whether the windows in the library were locked. The gardener was very obtuse, but finally contributed one possibly important fact. He had noted in the morning that the back gate, leading into a disused road closer to the bay than the main highway in front of the house, was open. It was rarely used, and was kept closed only by an ordinary hook. Whoever had opened it had evidently forgotten to hook it. He had thought it strange that it was unhooked, and in closing it he had noticed in the mud of the roadway marks that seemed to indicate that an automobile had stood there.
After the servants had gone, Fletcher asked us to excuse him for a while, as he wished to run over to the Greenes’, who lived across the bay. Miss Bond was completely prostrated by the death of her uncle, he said, and was in an extremely nervous condition. Meanwhile if we found any need of a machine we might use his uncle’s, or in fact anything around the place.
“Walter,” said Craig, when Fletcher had gone, “I want to run back to town to-night, and I have something I’d like to have you do, too.”
We were soon speeding back along the splendid road to Long Island City, while he laid out our programme.
“You go down to the Star office,” he said, “and look through all the clippings on the whole Fletcher family. Get a complete story of the life of Helen Bond, too–what she has done in society, with whom she has been seen mostly, whether she has made any trips abroad, and whether she has ever been engaged–you know, anything likely to be significant. I’m going up to the apartment to get my camera and then to the laboratory to get some rather bulky paraphernalia I want to take out to Fletcherwood. Meet me at the Columbus Circle station at, say half-past-ten.”
So we separated. My search revealed the fact that Miss Bond had always been intimate with the ultra-fashionable set, had spent last summer in Europe, a good part of the time in Switzerland and Paris with the Greenes. As far as I could find out she had never been reported engaged, but plenty of fortunes as well as foreign titles had been flitting about the ward of the steel-magnate.
Craig and I met at the appointed time. He had a lot of paraphernalia with him, and it did not add to our comfort as we sped back, but it wasn’t much over half an hour before we again found ourselves nearing Great Neck.
Instead of going directly back to Fletcherwood, however, Craig had told the chauffeur to stop at the plant of the local electric light and power company, where he asked if he might see the record of the amount of current used the night before.
The curve sprawled across the ruled surface of the sheet by the automatic registering-needle was irregular, showing the ups and downs of the current, rising sharply from sundown and gradually declining after nine o’clock, as the lights went out. Somewhere between eleven and twelve o’clock, however, the irregular fall of the curve was broken by a quite noticeable upward twist.
Craig asked the men if that usually happened. They were quite sure that the curve as a rule went gradually down until twelve o’clock, when the power was shut off. But they did not see anything remarkable in it. “Oh, I suppose some of the big houses had guests,” volunteered the foreman, “and just to show off the place perhaps they turned on all the lights. I don’t know, sir, what it was, but it couldn’t have been a heavy drain, or we would have noticed it at the time, and the lights would all have been dim.”
“Well,” said Craig, “just watch and see if it occurs again to-night about the same time.”
“All right, sir.”
“And when you close down the plant for the night, will you bring the record card up to Fletcherwood?” asked Craig, slipping a bill into the pocket of the foreman’s shirt.
“I will, and thank you, sir.”
It was nearly half-past eleven when Craig had got his apparatus set up in the library at Fletcherwood. Then he unscrewed all the bulbs from the chandelier in the library and attached in their places connections with the usual green silk-covered flexible wire rope. These were then joined up to a little instrument which to me looked like a drill. Next he muffed the drill with a wad of felt and applied it to the safe door.
I could hear the dull tat-tat of the drill. Going into the bedroom and closing the door, I found that it was still audible to me, but an old man, inclined to deafness and asleep, would scarcely have been awakened by it. In about ten minutes Craig displayed a neat little hole in the safe door opposite the one made by the cracksman in the combination.
“I’m glad you’re honest,” I said, “or else we might be afraid of you–perhaps even make you prove an alibi for last night’s job!”
He ignored my bantering and said in a tone such as he might have used before a class of students in the gentle art of scientific safe-cracking: “Now if the power company’s curve is just the same to-night as last night, that will show how the thing was done. I wanted to be sure of it, so I thought I’d try this apparatus which I smuggled in from Paris last year. I believe the old man happened to be wakeful and heard it.”
Then he pried off the door of the interior compartment which had been jimmied open. “Perhaps we may learn something by looking at this door and studying the marks left by the jimmy, by means of this new instrument of mine,” he said.
On the library table he fastened an arrangement with two upright posts supporting a dial which he called a “dynamometer.” The uprights were braced in the back, and the whole thing reminded me of a miniature guillotine.
“This is my mechanical detective,” said Craig proudly. “It was devised by Bertillon himself, and he personally gave me permission to copy his own machine. You see, it is devised to measure pressure. Now let’s take an ordinary jimmy and see just how much pressure it takes to duplicate those marks on this door.”
Craig laid the piece of steel on the dynamometer in the position it had occupied in the safe, and braced it tightly. Then he took a jimmy and pressed on it with all his strength. The steel door was connected with the indicator, and the needle spun around until it indicated a pressure such as only a strong man could have exerted. Comparing the marks made in the steel in the experiment and by the safe-cracker, it was evident that no such pressure had been necessary. Apparently the lock on the door was only a trifling affair, and the steel itself was not very, tough. The safe-makers had relied on the first line of defence to repel attack.
Craig tried again and again, each time using less force. At last he got a mark just about similar to the original marks on the steel.
“Well, well, what do you think of that?” he exclaimed reflectively. “A child could have done that part of the job.”
Just then the lights went off for the night. Craig lighted the oil-lamp, and sat in silence until the electric light plant foreman appeared with; the card-record, which showed a curve practically identical with that of the night before.
A few moments later Professor Fletcher’s machine came up the driveway, and he joined us with a worried and preoccupied look on his face that he could not conceal. “She’s terribly broken up by the suddenness of it all,” he murmured as he sank into an armchair. “The shock has been too much for her. In fact, I hadn’t the heart to tell her anything about the robbery, poor girl.” Then in a moment he asked, “Any more clues yet, Kennedy?”
“Well, nothing of first importance. I have only been trying to reconstruct the story of the robbery so that I can reason out a motive and a few details; then when the real clues come along we won’t have so much ground to cover. The cracksman was certainly clever. He used an electric drill to break the combination and ran it by the electric light current.”
“Whew!” exclaimed the professor, “is that so? He must have been above the average. That’s interesting.”
“By the way, Fletcher,” said Kennedy, “I wish you would introduce me to your fiancee to-morrow. I would like to know her.”
“Gladly,” Fletcher replied, “only you must be careful what you talk about. Remember, the death of uncle has been quite a shock to her–he was her only relative besides myself.”
“I will,” promised Kennedy, “and by the way, she may think it strange that I’m out here at a time like this. Perhaps you had better tell her I’m a nerve specialist or something of that sort–anything not to connect me with the robbery, which you say you haven’t told her about.”
The next morning found Kennedy out bright and early, for he had not had a very good chance to do anything during the night except reconstruct the details. He was now down by the back gate with his camera, where I found him turning it end-down and photographing the road. Together we made a thorough search of the woods and the road about the gate, but could discover absolutely nothing.
After breakfast I improvised a dark room and developed the films, while Craig went down the back lane along the shore “looking for clues,” as he said briefly. Toward noon he returned, and I could see that he was in a brown study. So I said nothing, but handed him the photographs of the road. He took them and laid them down in a long line on the library floor. They seemed to consist of little ridges of dirt on either side of a series of regular round spots, some of the spots very clear and distinct on the sides, others quite obscure in the centre. Now and then where you would expect to see one of the spots, just for the symmetry of the thing, it was missing. As I looked at the line of photographs on the floor I saw that they were a photograph of the track made by the tire of an automobile, and I suddenly recalled what the gardener had said.
Next Craig produced the results of his morning’s work, which consisted of several dozen sheets of white paper, carefully separated into three bundles. These he also laid down in long lines on the floor, each package in a separate line. Then I began to realise what he was doing, and became fascinated in watching him on his hands and knees eagerly scanning the papers and comparing them with the photographs. At last he gathered up two of the sets of papers very decisively and threw them away. Then he shifted the third set a bit, and laid it closely parallel to the photographs.
“Look at these, Walter,” he said. “Now take this deep and sharp indentation. Well, there’s a corresponding one in the photograph. So you can pick them out one for another. Now here’s one missing altogether on the paper. So it is in the photograph.”
Almost like a schoolboy in his glee, he was comparing the little round circles made by the metal insertions in an “anti-skid” automobile tire. Time and again I had seen imprints like that left in the dust and grease of an asphalted street or the mud of a road. It had never occurred to me that they might be used in any way. Yet here Craig was, calmly tracing out the similarity before my very eyes, identifying the marks made in the photograph with the prints left on the bits of paper.
As I followed him, I had a most curious feeling of admiration for his genius. “Craig,” I cried, “that’s the thumb-print of an automobile.”
“There speaks the yellow journalist,” he answered merrily. “‘Thumb Print System Applied to Motor Cars’–I can see the Sunday feature story you have in your mind with that headline already. Yes, Walter, that’s precisely what this is. The Berlin police have used it a number of times with the most startling results.”
“But, Craig,” I exclaimed suddenly, “the paper prints, where did you get them? What machine is it?”
“It’s one not very far from here,” he answered sententiously, and I saw he would say nothing more that might fix a false suspicion on anyone. Still, my curiosity was so great that if there had been an opportunity I certainly should have tried out his plan on all the cars in the Fletcher garage.
Kennedy would say nothing more, and we ate our luncheon in silence. Fletcher, who had decided to lunch with the Greenes, called Kennedy up on the telephone to tell him it would be all right for him to call on Miss Bond later in the afternoon.
“And I may bring over the apparatus I once described to you to determine just what her nervous condition is?” he asked. Apparently the answer was yes, for Kennedy hung up the receiver with a satisfied, “Good-bye.”
“Walter, I want you to come along with me this afternoon as my assistant. Remember I’m now Dr. Kennedy, the nerve specialist, and you are Dr. Jameson, my colleague, and we are to be in consultation on a most important case.”
“Do you think that’s fair?” I asked hotly, “to take that girl off her guard, to insinuate yourself into her confidence as a medical adviser, and worm out of her some kind of fact incriminating someone? I suppose that’s your plan, and I don’t like the ethics, or rather the lack of ethics, of the thing.”
“Now think a minute, Walter. Perhaps I am wrong; I don’t know. Certainly I feel that the end will justify the means. I have an idea that I can get from Miss Bond the only clue that I need, one that will lead straight to the criminal. Who knows? I have a suspicion that the thing I’m going to do is the highest form of your so-called ethics. If what Fletcher tells us is true that girl is going insane over this thing. Why should she be so shocked over the death of an uncle she did not live with? I tell you she knows something about this case that it is necessary for us to know, too. If she doesn’t tell someone, it will eat her mind out. I’ll add a dinner to the box of cigars we have already bet on this case that what I’m going to do is for the best–for her best.”
Again I yielded, for I was coming to have more and more faith in the old Kennedy I had seen made over into a first-class detective, and together we started for the Greenes’, Craig carrying something in one of those long black handbags which physicians use.
Fletcher met us on the driveway. He seemed to be very much affected, for his face was drawn, and he shifted from one position to another nervously, from which we inferred that Miss Bond was feeling worse. It was late afternoon, almost verging on twilight, as he led us through the reception-hall and thence onto a long porch overlooking the bay and redolent with honeysuckle.
Miss Bond was half reclining in a wicker chair us we entered. She started to rise to greet us, but Fletcher gently restrained her, saying, as he introduced us, that he guessed the doctors would pardon any informality from an invalid.
Fletcher was a pretty fine fellow, and I had come to like him; but I soon found myself wondering what he had ever done to deserve winning such a girl as Helen Bond. She was what I should describe as the ideal type of “new” woman,–tall and athletic, yet without any affectation of mannishness. The very first thought that struck me was the incongruousness of a girl of her type suffering from an attack of “nerves,” and I felt sure it must be as Craig had said, that she was concealing a secret that was having a terrible effect on her. A casual glance might not have betrayed the true state of her feelings, for her dark hair and large brown eyes and the tan of many suns on her face and arms betokened anything but the neurasthenic. One felt instinctively that she was, with all her athletic grace, primarily a womanly woman.
The sun sinking toward the hills across the bay softened the brown of her skin and, as I observed by watching her closely, served partially to conceal the nervousness which was wholly unnatural in a girl of such poise. When she smiled there was a false note in it; it was forced and it was sufficiently evident to me that she was going through a mental hell of conflicting emotions that would have killed a woman of less self-control.
I felt that I would like to be in Fletcher’s shoes–doubly so when, at Kennedy’s request, he withdrew, leaving me to witness the torture of a woman of such fine sensibilities, already hunted remorselessly by her own thoughts.
Still, I will give Kennedy credit for a tactfulness that I didn’t know the old fellow possessed. He carried through the preliminary questions very well for a pseudo-doctor, appealing to me as his assistant on inconsequential things that enabled me to “save my face” perfectly. When he came to the critical moment of opening the black bag, he made a very appropriate and easy remark about not having brought any sharp shiny instruments or nasty black drugs.
“All I wish to do, Miss Bond, is to make a few, simple little tests of your nervous condition. One of them we specialists call reaction time, and another is a test of heart action. Neither is of any seriousness at all, so I beg of you not to become excited, for the chief value consists in having the patient perfectly quiet and normal. After they are over I think I’ll know whether to prescribe absolute rest or a visit to Newport.”
She smiled languidly, as he adjusted a long, tightly fitting rubber glove on her shapely forearm and then encased it in a larger, absolutely inflexible covering of leather. Between the rubber glove and the leather covering was a liquid communicating by a glass tube with a sort of dial. Craig had often explained to me how the pressure of the blood was registered most minutely on the dial, showing the varied emotions as keenly as if you had taken a peep into the very mind of the subject. I think the experimental psychologists called the thing a “plethysmograph.”
Then he had an apparatus which measured association time. The essential part of this instrument was the operation of a very delicate stop-watch, and this duty was given to me. It was nothing more nor less than measuring the time that elapsed between his questions to her and her answers, while he recorded the actual questions and answers and noted the results which I worked out. Neither of us was unfamiliar with the process, for when we were in college these instruments were just coming into use in America. Kennedy had never let his particular branch of science narrow him, but had made a practice of keeping abreast of all the important discoveries and methods in other fields. Besides, I had read articles about the chronoscope, the plethysmograph, the sphygmograph, and others of the new psychological instruments. Craig carried it off, however, as if he did that sort of thing as an every-day employment.
“Now, Miss Bond,” he said, and his voice was so reassuring and persuasive that I could see she was not made even a shade more nervous by our simple preparations, “the game–it is just like a children’s parlour game–is just this: I will say a word–take ‘dog,’ for instance. You are to answer back immediately the first word that comes into your mind suggested by it–say ‘cat.’ I will say ‘chain,’ for example, and probably you will answer ‘collar,’ and so on. Do you catch my meaning? It may seem ridiculous, no doubt, but before we are through I feel sure you’ll see how valuable such a test is, particularly in a simple case of nervousness such as yours.”
I don’t think she found any sinister interpretation in his words, but I did, and if ever I wanted to protest it was then, but my voice seemed to stick in my throat.
He was beginning. It was clearly up to me to give in and not interfere. As closely as I was able I kept my eyes riveted on the watch and other apparatus, while my ears and heart followed with mingled emotions the low, musical voice of the girl.
I will not give all the test, for there was much of it, particularly at the start, that was in reality valueless, since it was merely leading up to the “surprise tests.” From the colourless questions Kennedy suddenly changed. It was done in an instant, when Miss Bond had been completely disarmed and put off her guard.
“Night,” said Kennedy. “Day,” came back the reply from Miss Bond.
Did I detect or imagine a faint hesitation?
Yes, it was plain that time. But the words followed one another in quick succession. There was no rest. She had no chance to collect herself. I noted the marked difference in the reaction time and, in my sympathy, damned this cold; scientific third degree.
“Quartier Latin.” “Students.”
“Apaches.” Craig gave it its Gallicised pronunciation, “Apash.” “Really, Dr. Kennedy,” she said, “there is nothing I can associate with them–well, yes, les vaches, I believe. You had better count that question out. I’ve wasted a good many seconds.”
“Very well, let us try again,” he replied with a forced unconcern, though the answer seemed to interest him, for “les vaches” meant “the cows,” otherwise known as the police.
No lawyer could have revelled in an opportunity for putting leading questions more ruthlessly than did Kennedy. He snapped out his words sharply and unexpectedly.
“Electric light,” he emphasised. “Broadway,” she answered, endeavouring to force a new association of ideas to replace one which she strove to conceal.
“Safe.” “Vaults.” Out of the corner of my eye I could see that the indicator showed a tremendously increased heart action. As for the reaction time, I noted that it was growing longer and more significant. Remorselessly he pressed his words home. Mentally I cursed him.
“Steel.” “Pittsburg,” she cried at random.
“Strong-box,” No answer.
“Lock.” Again no answer. He hurried his words. I was leaning forward, tense with excitement and sympathy.
“Key.” Silence and a fluttering of the blood pressure indicator.
As the last word was uttered her air of frightened defiance was swept away. With a cry of anguish, she swayed to her feet. “No, no, doctor, you must not, you must not,” she cried with outstretched arms. “Why do you pick out those words of all others? Can it be–” If I had not caught her I believe she would have fainted.
The indicator showed a heart alternately throbbing with feverish excitement and almost stopping with fear. What would Kennedy do next, I wondered, determined to shut him off as soon as I possibly could. From the moment I had seen her I had been under her spell. Mine should have been Fletcher’s place, I knew, though I cannot but say that I felt a certain grim pleasure in supporting even momentarily such a woman in her time of need.
“Can it be that you have guessed what no one in the world, no, not even dear old Jack, dreams Oh, I shall go mad, mad, mad!”
Kennedy was on his feet in an instant, advancing toward her. The look in his eyes was answer enough for her. She knew that he knew, and she paled and shuddered, shrinking away from him.
“Miss Bond,” he said in a voice that forced attention–it was low and vibrating with feeling–“Miss Bond, have you ever told a lie to shield a friend?”
“Yes,” she said, her eyes meeting his.
“So can I,” came back the same tense voice, “when I know the truth about that friend.”
Then for the first time tears came in a storm. Her breath was quick and feverish. “No one will ever believe, no one will understand. They will say that I killed him, that I murdered him.”
Through it all I stood almost speechless, puzzled. What did it all mean?
“No,” said Kennedy, “no, for they will never know of it.”
“Never–if in the end justice is done. Have you the will? Or did you destroy it?”
It was a bold stroke.
“Yes. No. Here it is. How could I destroy it, even though it was burning out my very soul?”
She literally tore the paper from the bosom of her dress and cast it from her in horror and terror.
Kennedy picked it up, opened it, and glanced hurriedly through it. “Miss Bond,” he said, “Jack shall never know a word of this. I shall tell him that the will has been found unexpectedly in John Fletcher’s desk among some other papers. Walter, swear on your honour as a gentleman that this will was found in old Fletcher’s desk.”
“Dr. Kennedy, how can I ever thank you?” she exclaimed, sinking wearily down into a chair and pressing her hands to her throbbing forehead.
“By telling me just how you came by this will, so that when you and Fletcher are married I may be as good a friend, without suspicion, to you as I am to him. I think a full confession would do you good, Miss Bond. Would you prefer to have Dr. Jameson not hear it?”
“No, he may stay.”
“This much I know, Miss Bond. Last summer in Paris with the Greenes you must have chanced to hear, of Pillard, the Apache, one of the most noted cracksmen the world has ever produced. You sought him out. He taught you how to paint your fingers with a rubber composition, how to use an electric drill, how to use the old-fashioned jimmy. You went down to Fletcherwood by the back road about a quarter after eleven the night of the robbery in the Greenes’ little electric runabout. You entered the library by an unlocked window, you coupled your drill to the electric light connections of the chandelier. You had to work quickly, for the power would go off at midnight, yet you could not do the job later, when they were sleeping more soundly, for the very same reason.”
It was uncanny as Kennedy rushed along in his reconstruction of the scene, almost unbelievable. The girl watched him, fascinated.
“John Fletcher was wakeful that night. Somehow or other he heard you at work. He entered the library and, by the light streaming from his bedroom, he saw who it was. In anger he must have addressed you, and his passion got the better of his age–he fell suddenly on the floor with a stroke of apoplexy. As you bent over him he died. But why did you ever attempt so foolish an undertaking? Didn’t you know that other people knew of the will and its terms, that you were sure to be traced out in the end, if not by friends, by foes? How did you suppose you could profit by destroying the will, of which others knew the provisions?”
Any other woman than Helen Bond would have been hysterical long before Kennedy had finished pressing home remorselessly one fact after another of her story. But, with her, the relief now after the tension of many hours of concealment seemed to nerve her to go to the end and tell the truth.
What was it? Had she some secret lover for whom she had dared all to secure the family fortune? Or was she shielding someone dearer to her than her own reputation? Why had Kennedy made Fletcher withdraw?
Her eyes dropped and her breast rose and fell with suppressed emotion. Yet I was hardly prepared for her reply when at last she slowly raised her head and looked us calmly in the face.
“I did it because I loved Jack.”
Neither of us spoke. I, at least, had fallen completely under the spell of this masterful woman. Right or wrong, I could not restrain a feeling of admiration and amazement.
“Yes,” she said as her voice thrilled with emotion, “strange as it may sound to you, it was not love of self that made me do it. I was, I am madly in love with Jack. No other man has ever inspired such respect and love as he has. His work in the university I have fairly gloated over. And yet–and yet, Dr. Kennedy, can you not see that I am different from Jack? What would I do with the income of the wife of even the dean of the new school? The annuity provided for me in that will is paltry. I need millions. From the tiniest baby I have been reared that way. I have always expected this fortune. I have been given everything I wanted. But it is different when one is married–you must have your own money. I need a fortune, for then I could have the town house, the country house, the yacht, the motors, the clothes, the servants that I need–they are as much a part of my life as your profession is of yours. I must have them.
“And now it was all to slip from my hands. True, it was to go in such a way by this last will as to make Jack happy in his new school. I could have let that go, if that was all. There are other fortunes that have been laid at my feet. But I wanted Jack, and I knew Jack wanted me. Dear boy, he never could realise how utterly unhappy intellectual poverty would have made me and how my unhappiness would have reacted on him in the end. In reality this great and beneficent philanthropy was finally to blight both our love and our lives.
“What was I to do? Stand by and see my life and my love ruined or refuse Jack for the fortune of a man I did not love? Helen Bond is not that kind of a woman, I said to myself. I consulted the greatest lawyer I knew. I put a hypothetical case to him, and asked his opinion in such a way as to make him believe he was advising me how to make an unbreakable will. He told me of provisions and clauses to avoid, particularly in making benefactions. That was what I wanted to know. I would put one of those clauses in my uncle’s will. I practised uncle’s writing till I was as good a forger of that clause as anyone could have become. I had picked out the very words in his own handwriting to practise from.
“Then I went to Paris and, as you have guessed, learned how to get things out of a safe like that of uncle’s. Before God, all I planned to do was to get that will, change it, replace it, and trust that uncle would never notice the change. Then when he was gone, I would have contested the will. I would have got my full share either by court proceedings or by settlement out of court. You see, I had planned it all out. The school would have been founded–I, we would have founded it. What difference, I said, did thirty millions or fifty millions make to an impersonal school, a school not yet even in existence? The twenty million dollars or so difference, or even half of it, meant life and love to me.
“I had planned to steal the cash in the safe, anything to divert attention from the will and make it look like a plain robbery. I would have done the altering of the will that night and have returned it to the safe before morning. But it was not to be. I had almost opened the safe when my uncle entered the room. His anger completely unnerved me, and from the moment I saw him on the floor to this I haven’t had a sane thought. I forgot to take the cash, I forgot everything but that will. My only thought was that I must get it and destroy it. I doubt if I could have altered it with my nerves so upset. There, now you have my whole story. I am at your mercy.”
“No,” said Kennedy, “believe me, there is a mental statute of limitations that as far as Jameson and myself are concerned has already erased this affair. Walter, will you find Fletcher?”
I found the professor pacing up and down the gravel walk impatiently.
“Fletcher,” said Kennedy, “a night’s rest is all Miss Bond really needs. It is simply a case of overwrought nerves, and it will pass off of itself. Still, I would advise a change of scene as soon as possible. Good afternoon, Miss Bond, and my best wishes for your health.”
“Good afternoon, Dr. Kennedy. Good afternoon, Dr. Jameson.”
I for one was glad to make my escape.
A half-hour later, Kennedy, with well-simulated excitement, was racing me in the car up to the Greenes’ again. We literally burst unannounced into the tete-a-tete on the porch.
“Fletcher, Fletcher,” cried Kennedy, “look what Walter and I have just discovered in a tin strong-box poked off in the back of your uncle’s desk!”
Fletcher seized the will and by the dim light that shone through from the hall read it hastily. “Thank God,” he cried; “the school is provided for as I thought.”
“Isn’t it glorious!” murmured Helen.
True to my instinct I muttered, “Another good newspaper yarn killed.”
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