Story type: Literature

We found the Novella Beauty Parlour on the top floor of an office-building just off Fifth Avenue on a side street not far from Forty-second Street. A special elevator, elaborately fitted up, wafted us up with express speed. As the door opened we saw a vista of dull-green lattices, little gateways hung with roses, windows of diamond-paned glass get in white wood, rooms with little white enamelled manicure-tables and chairs, amber lights glowing with soft incandescence in deep bowers of fireproof tissue flowers. There was a delightful warmth about the place, and the seductive scents and delicate odours betokened the haunt of the twentieth-century Sybarite.

Both O’Connor and Leslie, strangely out of place in the enervating luxury of the now deserted beauty-parlour, were still waiting for Kennedy with a grim determination.

“A most peculiar thing,” whispered O’Connor, dashing forward the moment the elevator door opened. “We can’t seem to find a single cause for her death. The people up here say it was a suicide, but I never accept the theory of suicide unless there are undoubted proofs. So far there have been none in this case. There was no reason for it.”

Seated in one of the large easy-chairs of the reception-room, in a corner with two of O’Connor’s men standing watchfully near, was a man who was the embodiment of all that was nervous. He was alternately wringing his hands and rumpling his hair. Beside him was a middle-sized, middle-aged lady in a most amazing state of preservation, who evidently presided over the cosmetic mysteries beyond the male ken. She was so perfectly groomed that she looked as though her clothes were a mould into which she had literally been poured.

“Professor and Madame Millefleur–otherwise Miller,”–whispered O’Connor, noting Kennedy’s questioning gaze and taking his arm to hurry him down a long, softly carpeted corridor, flanked on either side by little doors. “They run the shop. They say one of the girls just opened the door and found her dead.”

Near the end, one of the doors stood open, and before it Dr. Leslie, who had preceded us, paused. He motioned to us to look in. It was a little dressing-room, containing a single white-enamelled bed, a dresser, and a mirror. But it was not the scant though elegant furniture that caused us to start back.

There under the dull half-light of the corridor lay a woman, most superbly formed. She was dark, and the thick masses of her hair, ready for the hairdresser, fell in a tangle over her beautifully chiselled features and full, rounded shoulders and neck. A scarlet bathrobe, loosened at the throat, actually accentuated rather than covered the voluptuous lines of her figure, down to the slender ankle which had been the beginning of her fortune as a danseuse.

Except for the marble pallor of her face it was difficult to believe that she was not sleeping. And yet there she was, the famous Blanche Blaisdell, dead–dead in the little dressing-room of the Novella Beauty Parlour, surrounded as in life by mystery and luxury.

We stood for several moments speechless, stupefied. At last O’Connor silently drew a letter from his pocket. It was written on the latest and most delicate of scented stationery.

“It was lying sealed on the dresser when we arrived,” explained O’Connor, holding it so that we could not see the address. “I thought at first she had really committed suicide and that this was a note of explanation. But it is not. Listen. It is just a line or two. It reads: ‘Am feeling better now, though that was a great party last night. Thanks for the newspaper puff which I have just read. It was very kind of you to get them to print it. Meet me at the same place and same time to-night. Your Blanche.’ The note was not stamped, and was never sent. Perhaps she rang for a messenger. At any rate, she must have been dead before she could send it. But it was addressed to–Burke Collins.”

“Burke Collins!” exclaimed Kennedy and I together in amazement.

He was one of the leading corporation lawyers in the country, director in a score of the largest companies, officer in half a dozen charities and social or ganisations, patron of art and opera. It seemed impossible, and I at least did not hesitate to say so. For answer O’Connor simply laid the letter and envelope down on the dresser.

It seemed to take some time to convince Kennedy. There it was in black and white, however, in Blanche Blaisdell’s own vertical hand. Try to figure it out as I could, there seemed to be only one conclusion, and that was to accept it. What it was that interested him I did not know, but finally he bent down and sniffed, not at the scented letter, but at the covering on the dresser. When he raised his head I saw that he had not been looking at the letter at all, but at a spot on the cover near it.

“Sn-ff, sn-ff,” he sniffed, thoughtfully closing his eyes as if considering something. “Yes–oil of turpentine.”

Suddenly he opened his eyes, and the blank look of abstraction that had masked his face was broken through by a gleam of comprehension that I knew flashed the truth to him intuitively.

“Turn out that light in the corridor,” he ordered quickly.

Dr. Leslie found and turned the switch. There we were alone, in the now weird little dressing-room, alone with that horribly lovely thing lying there cold and motionless on the little white bed.

Kennedy moved forward in the darkness. Gently, almost as if she were still the living, pulsing, sentient Blanche Blaisdell who had entranced thousands, he opened her mouth.

A cry from O’Connor, who was standing in front of me, followed. “What’s that, those little spots on her tongue and throat? They glow. It is the corpse light!”

Surely enough, there were little luminous spots in her mouth. I had heard somewhere that there is a phosphorescence appearing during decay of organic substances which once gave rise to the ancient superstition of “corpse lights” and the will-o’-the-wisp. It was really due, I knew, to living bacteria. But there surely had been no time for such micro-organisms to develop, even in the almost tropic heat of the Novella. Could she have been poisoned by these phosphorescent bacilli? What was it–a strange new mouth-malady that had attacked this notorious adventuress and woman of luxury?

Leslie had flashed up the light again before Craig spoke. We were all watching him keenly.

“Phosphorus, phosphoric acid, or phosphoric salve,” Craig said slowly, looking eagerly about the room as if in search of something that would explain it. He caught sight of the envelope still lying on the dresser. He picked it up, toyed with it, looked at the top where O’Connor had slit it, then deliberately tore the flap off the back where it had been glued in sealing the letter.

“Put the light out again,” he asked.

Where the thin line of gum was on the back of the flap, in the darkness there glowed the same sort of brightness that we had seen in a speck here and there on Blanche Blaisdell’s lips and in her mouth. The truth flashed over me. Some one had placed the stuff, whatever it was, on the flap of the envelope, knowing that she must touch her lips to it to seal it She had done so, and the deadly poison had entered her mouth.

As the light went up again Kennedy added: “Oil of turpentine removes traces of phosphorus, phosphoric acid, or phosphoric salve, which are insoluble in anything else except ether and absolute alcohol. Some one who knew that tried to eradicate them, but did not wholly succeed. O’Connor, see if you can find either phosphorus, the oil, or the salve anywhere in the shop.”

Then as O’Connor and Leslie hurriedly disappeared he added to me: “Another of those strange coincidences, Walter. You remember the girl at the hospital? ‘Look, don’t you see it? She’s afire. Her lips shine–they shine, they shine!’”

Kennedy was still looking carefully over the room. In a little wicker basket was a newspaper which was open at the page of theatrical news, and as I glanced quickly at it I saw a most laudatory paragraph about her.

Beneath the paper were some torn scraps. Kennedy picked them up and pieced them together. “Dearest Blanche,” they read. “I hope you’re feeling better after that dinner last night. Can you meet me to-night? Write me immediately. Collie.”

He placed the scraps carefully in his wallet. There was nothing more to be done here apparently. As we passed down the corridor we could hear a man apparently raving in good English and bad French. It proved to be Millefleur–or Miller–and his raving was as overdone as that of a third-rate actor. Madame was trying to calm him.

“Henri, Henri, don’t go on so,” she was saying.

“A suicide–in the Novella. It will be in all the papers. We shall be ruined. Oh–oh!”

“Here, can that sob stuff,” broke in one of O’Connor’s officers. “You can tell it all when the chief takes you to headquarters, see?”

Certainly the man made no very favourable impression by his actions. There seemed to be much that was forced about them, that was more incriminating than a stolid silence would have been.

Between them Monsieur and Madame made out, however, to repeat to Kennedy their version of what had happened. It seemed that a note addressed to Miss Blaisdell had been left by some one on the desk in the reception-room. No one knew who left it, but one of the girls had picked it up and delivered it to her in her dressing- room. A moment later she rang her bell and called for one of the girls named Agnes, who was to dress her hair. Agnes was busy, and the actress asked her to get paper, a pen, and ink. At least it seemed that way, for Agnes got them for her. A few minutes later her bell rang again, and Agnes went down, apparently to tell her that she was now ready to dress her hair.

The next thing any one knew was a piercing shriek from the girl. She ran down the corridor, still shrieking, out into the reception-room and rushed into the elevator, which happened to be up at the time. That was the last they had seen of her. The other girls saw Miss Blaisdell lying dead, and a panic followed. The customers dressed quickly and fled, almost in panic. All was confusion. By that time a policeman had arrived, and soon after O’Connor and the coroner had come.

There was little use in cross-questioning the couple. They had evidently had time to agree on the story; that is, supposing it were not true. Only a scientific third degree could have shaken them, and such a thing was impossible just at that time.

From the line of Kennedy’s questions I could see that he believed that there was a hiatus somewhere in their glib story, at least some point where some one had tried to eradicate the marks of the poison.

“Here it is. We found it,” interrupted O’Connor, holding up in his excitement a bottle covered with black cloth to protect it from the light. “It was in the back of a cabinet in the operating-room, and it is marked ‘Ether phosphore”.’ Another of oil of turpentine was on a shelf in another cabinet. Both seem to have been used lately, judging by the wetness of the bottoms of the glass stoppers.”

“Ether phosphore, phosphorated ether,” commented Kennedy, reading the label to himself. “A remedy from the French Codex, composed, if I remember rightly, of one part phosphorus and fifty parts sulphuric ether. Phosphorus is often given as a remedy for loss of nerve power, neuralgia, hysteria, and melancholia. In quantities from a fiftieth to a tenth or so of a grain free phosphorus is a renovator of nerve tissue and nerve force, a drug for intense and long-sustained anxiety of mind and protracted emotional excitement–in short, for fast living.”

He uncorked the bottle, and we tasted the stuff. It was unpleasant and nauseous. “I don’t see why it wasn’t used in the form of pills. The liquid form of a few drops on gum arabic is hopelessly antiquated.”

The elevator door opened with a clang, and a well-built, athletic looking man of middle age with an acquired youngish look about his clothes and clean-shaven face stepped out. His face was pale, and his hand shook with emotion that showed that something had unstrung his usually cast-iron nerves. I recognised Burke Collins at once.

In spite of his nervousness he strode forward with the air of a man accustomed to being obeyed, to having everything done for him merely because he, Burke Collins, could afford to pay for it and it was his right. He seemed to know whom he was seeking, for he immediately singled out O’Connor.

“This is terrible, terrible,” he whispered hoarsely. “No, no, no, I don’t want to see her. I can’t, not yet. You know I thought the world of that poor little girl. Only,” and here the innate selfishness of the man cropped out, “only I called to ask you that nothing of my connection with her be given out. You understand? Spare nothing to get at the truth. Employ the best men you have. Get outside help if necessary. I’ll pay for anything, anything. Perhaps I can use some influence for you some day, too. But, you understand–the scandal, you know. Not a word to the newspapers.”

At another time I feel sure that O’Connor would have succumbed. Collins was not without a great deal of political influence, and even a first deputy may be “broke” by a man with influence. But now here was Kennedy, and he wished to appear in the best light.

He looked at Craig. “Let me introduce Professor Kennedy,” he said. “I’ve already called him in.”

“Very happy to have the pleasure of meeting you,” said Collins, grasping Kennedy’s hand warmly. “I hope you will take me as your client in this case. I’ll pay handsomely. I’ve always had a great admiration for your work, and I’ve heard a great deal about it.”

Kennedy is, if anything, as impervious to blandishment as a stone, as the Blarney Stone is itself, for instance. “On one condition,” he replied slowly, “and that is that I go ahead exactly as if I were employed by the city itself to get at the truth.”

Collins bit his lip. It was evident that he was not accustomed to being met in this independent spirit. “Very well,” he answered at last. “O’Connor has called you in. Work for him and–well, you know, if you need anything just draw on me for it. Only if you can, keep me out of it. I’ll tell everything I can to help you–but not to the newspapers.”

He beckoned us outside. “Those people in there,” he nodded his head back in the direction of the Millefleurs, “do you suspect them? By George, it does look badly for them, doesn’t it, when you come to think of it? Well, now, you see, I’m frank and confidential about my relations with Blan–er–Miss Blaisdell. I was at a big dinner with her last night with a party of friends. I suppose she came here to get straightened out. I hadn’t been able to get her on the wire to-day, but at the theatre when I called up they told me what had happened, and I came right over here. Now please remember, do everything, anything but create a scandal. You realise what that would mean for me.”

Kennedy said nothing. He simply laid down on the desk, piece by piece, the torn letter which he had picked up from the basket, and beside it he spread out the reply which Blanche had written.

“What?” gasped Collins as he read the torn letter. “I send that? Why, man alive, you’re crazy. Didn’t I just tell you I hadn’t heard from her until I called up the theatre just now?”

I could not make out whether he was lying or not when he said that he had not sent the note. Kennedy picked up a pen. “Please write the same thing as you read in the note on this sheet of the Novella paper. It will be all right. You have plenty of witnesses to that.”

It must have irked Collins even to have his word doubted, but Kennedy was no respecter of persons. He took the pen and wrote.

“I’ll keep your name out of it as much as possible,” remarked Kennedy, glancing intently at the writing and blotting it.

“Thank you,” said Collins simply, for once in his life at a loss for words. Once more he whispered to O’Connor, then he excused himself. The man was so obviously sincere, I felt, as far as his selfish and sensual limitations would permit, that I would not have blamed Kennedy for giving him much more encouragement than he had given.

Kennedy was not through yet, and now turned quickly again to the cosmetic arcadia which had been so rudely stirred by the tragedy.

“Who is this girl Agnes who discovered Miss Blaisdell?” he shot out at the Millefleurs.

The beauty-doctor was now really painful in his excitement. Like his establishment, even his feelings were artificial.

“Agnes?” he repeated. “Why, she was one of Madame’s best hair- dressers. See–my dear–show the gentlemen the book of engagements.”

It was a large book full of girls’ names, each an expert in curls, puffs, “reinforcements,” hygienic rolls, transformators, and the numberless other things that made the fearful and wonderful hair- dresses of the day. Agnes’s dates were full, for a day ahead.

Kennedy ran his eye over the list of patrons. “Mrs. Burke Collins, 3:30,” he read. “Was she a patron, too?”

“Oh, yes,” answered Madame. “She used to come here three times a week. It was not vanity. We all knew her, and we all liked her.”

Instantly I could read between the lines, and I felt that I had been too charitable to Burke Collins. Here was the wife slaving to secure that beauty which would win back the man with whom she had worked and toiled in the years before they came to New York and success. The “other woman” came here, too, but for a very different reason.

Nothing but business seemed to impress Millefleur, however. “Oh, yes,” he volunteered, “we have a fine class. Among my own patients I have Hugh Dayton, the actor, you know, leading man in Blanche Blaisdell’s company. He is having his hair restored. Why, I gave him a treatment this afternoon. If ever there is a crazy man, it is he. I believe he would kill Mr. Collins for the way Blanche Blaisdell treats him. They were engaged–but, oh, well,” he gave a very good imitation of a French shrug, “it is all over now. Neither of them will get her, and I–I am ruined. Who will come to the Novella now?”

Adjoining Millefleur’s own room was the writing room from which the poisoned envelope had been taken to Miss Blaisdell. Over the little secretary was the sign, “No woman need be plain who will visit the Novella,” evidently the motto of the place. The hair- dressing room was next to the little writing-room. There were manicure rooms, steam-rooms, massage-rooms, rooms of all descriptions, all bearing mute testimony to the fundamental instinct, the feminine longing for personal beauty.

Though it was late when Kennedy had finished his investigation, he insisted on going directly to his laboratory. There he pulled out from a corner a sort of little square table on which was fixed a powerful light such as might be used for a stereopticon.

“This is a simple little machine,” he explained, as be pasted together the torn bits of the letter which he had fished out of the scrap-basket, “which detectives use in studying forgeries. I don’t know that it has a name, although it might be called a ‘rayograph.’ You see, all you have to do is to lay the thing you wish to study flat here, and the system of mirrors and lenses reflects it and enlarges it on a sheet.”

He had lowered a rolled-up sheet of white at the opposite end of the room, and there, in huge characters, stood forth plainly the writing of the note.

“This letter,” he resumed, studying the enlargement carefully, “is likely to prove crucial. It’s very queer. Collins says he didn’t write it, and if he did he surely is a wonder at disguising his hand. I doubt if any one could disguise what the rayograph shows. Now, for instance, this is very important. Do you see how those strokes of the long letters are–well, wobbly? You’d never see that in the original, but when it is enlarged you see how plainly visible the tremors of the hand become? Try as you may, you can’t conceal them. The fact is that the writer of this note suffered from a form of heart disease. Now let us look at the copy that Collins made at the Novella.”

He placed the copy on the table of the rayograph. It was quite evident that the two had been written by entirely different persons. “I thought he was telling the truth,” commented Craig, “by the surprised look on his face the moment I mentioned the note to Miss Blaisdell. Now I know he was. There is no such evidence of heart trouble in his writing as in the other. Of course that’s all aside from what a study of the handwriting itself might disclose. They are not similar at all. But there is an important clue there. Find the writer of that note who has heart trouble, and we either have the murderer or some one close to the murderer.”

I remembered the tremulousness of the little beauty-doctor, his third-rate artificial acting of fear for the reputation of the Novella, and I must confess I agreed with O’Connor and Collins that it looked black for him. At one time I had suspected Collins himself, but now I could see perfectly why he had not concealed his anxiety to hush up his connection with the case, while at the same time his instinct as a lawyer, and I had almost added, lover, told him that justice must be done. I saw at once how, accustomed as he was to weigh evidence, he had immediately seen the justification for O’Connor’s arrest of the Millefleurs.

“More than that,” added Kennedy, after examining the fibres of the paper under a microscope, “all these notes are written on the same kind of paper. That first torn note to Miss Blaisdell was written right in the Novella and left so as to seem to have been sent in from outside.”

It was early the following morning when Kennedy roused me with the remark: “I think I’ll go up to the hospital. Do you want to come along? We’ll stop for Barron on the way. There is a little experiment I want to try on that girl up there.”

When we arrived, the nurse in charge of the ward told us that her patient had passed a fairly good night, but that now that the influence of the drug had worn off she was again restless and still repeating the words that she had said over and over before. Nor had she been able to give any clearer account of herself. Apparently she had been alone in the city, for although there was a news item about her in the morning papers, so far no relative or friend had called to identify her.

Kennedy had placed himself directly before her, listening intently to her ravings. Suddenly he managed to fix her eye, as if by a sort of hypnotic influence.

“Agnes!” he called in a sharp tone.

The name seemed to arrest her fugitive attention. Before she could escape from his mental grasp again he added: “Your date-book is full. Aren’t you going to the Novella this morning?”

The change in her was something wonderful to see. It was as though she had come out of a trance. She sat up in bed and gazed about blankly.

“Yes, yes, I must go,” she cried as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Then she realised the strange surroundings and faces. “Where is my hat–wh-where am I? What has happened?”

“You are all right,” soothed Kennedy gently. “Now rest. Try to forget everything for a little while, and you will be all right. You are among friends.”

As Kennedy led us out she fell back, now physically exhausted, on the pillow.

“I told you, Barron,” he whispered, “that there was more to this case than you imagined. Unwittingly you brought me a very important contribution to a case of which the papers are full this morning, the case of the murdered actress, Blanche Blaisdell.”

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