Story type: Literature
“My husband has such a jealous disposition. He will never believe the truth–never!”
Agatha Seabury moved nervously in the deep easy chair beside Kennedy’s desk, leaning forward, uncomfortably, the tense lines marring the beauty of her fine features.
Kennedy tilted his desk chair back in order to study her face.
“You say you have never written a line to the fellow nor he to you?” he asked.
“Not a line, not a scrap,–until I received that typewritten letter about which I just told you,” she repeated vehemently, meeting his penetrating gaze without flinching. “Why, Professor Kennedy, as heaven is my witness, I have never done a wrong thing–except to meet him now and then at afternoon dances.”
I felt that the nerve-racked society woman before us must be either telling the truth or else that she was one of the cleverest actresses I had ever seen.
“Have you the letter here?” asked Craig quickly.
Mrs. Seabury reached into her neat leather party case and pulled out a carefully folded sheet of note paper.
It was all typewritten, down to the very signature itself. Evidently the blackmailer had taken every precaution to protect himself, for even if the typewriting could be studied and identified, it would be next to impossible to get at the writer through it and locate the machine on which it was written among the thousands in the city.
Kennedy studied the letter carefully, then, with a low exclamation, handed it over to me, nodding to Mrs. Seabury that it was all right for me to see it.
“No ordinary fellow, I’m afraid,” he commented musingly, adding, “this thief of reputations.”
I read, beginning with the insolent familiarity of “Dear Agatha.”
“I hope you will pardon me for writing to you,” the letter continued, “but I find that I am in a rather difficult position financially. As you know, in the present disorganized state of the stock market, investments which in normal times are good are now almost valueless. Still, I must protect those I already have without sacrificing them.
“It is therefore necessary that I raise fifty thousand dollars before the end of the week, and I know of no one to appeal to but you–who have shared so many pleasant stolen hours with me.
“Of course, I understand all that you have told me about Mr. Seabury and his violent nature. Still, I feel sure that one of your wealth and standing in the community can find a way to avoid all trouble from that quarter. Naturally, I should prefer to take every precaution to prevent the fact of our intimacy from coming to Mr. Seabury’s knowledge. But I am really desperate and feel that you alone can help me.
“Hoping to hear from you soon, I am,
“Your old tango friend,
“H. MORGAN SHERBURNE.”
I fairly gasped at the thinly veiled threat of exposure at the end of the note from this artistic blackmailer.
She was watching our faces anxiously as we read.
“Oh,” she cried wildly, glancing from one to the other of us, strangers to whom in her despair she had been forced to bare the secrets of her proud heart, “he’s so clever about it, too. I–I didn’t know what to do. I had only my jewels. I thought of all the schemes I had ever read, of pawning them, of having paste replicas made, of trying to collect the burglary insurance, of–“
“But you didn’t do anything like that, did you?” interrupted Craig hastily.
“No, no,” she cried. “I thought if I did, then it wouldn’t be long before this Sherburne would be back again for more. Oh,” she almost wailed, dabbing at the genuine tears with her dainty lace handkerchief while her shoulders trembled with a repressed convulsive sob, “I–I am utterly wretched–crushed.”
“The scoundrel!” I muttered.
Kennedy shook his head at me slowly. “Calling names won’t help matters now,” he remarked tersely. Then in an encouraging tone he added, “You have done just the right thing, Mrs. Seabury, in not starting to pay the blackmail. The secret of the success of these fellows is that their victims prefer losing jewelry and money to going to the police and having a lot of unpleasant notoriety.”
“Yes, I know that,” she agreed hastily, “but–my husband! If he hears, he will believe the worst, and–I–I really love and respect Judson–though,” she added, “he might have seen that I liked dancing and–innocent amusements of the sort still. I am not an old woman.”
I could not help wondering if the whole truth were told in her rather plaintive remark, or whether she was overplaying what was really a minor complaint. Judson Seabury, I knew from hearsay, was a man of middle age to whom, as to so many, business and the making of money had loomed as large as life itself. Competitors had even accused him of being ruthless when he was convinced that he was right, and I could well imagine that Mrs. Seabury was right in her judgment of the nature of the man if he became convinced for any reason that someone had crossed his path in his relations with his wife.
“Where did you usually–er–meet Sherburne?” asked Craig, casually guiding the conversation.
“Why–at the Vanderveer–always,” she replied.
“Would you mind meeting him there again this afternoon so that I could see him?” asked Kennedy. “Perhaps it would be best, anyhow, to let him think that you are going to do as he demands, so that we can gain a little time.”
She looked up, startled. “Yes–I can do that–but don’t you think it is risky? Do you think there is any way I can get free from him? Suppose he makes a new demand. What shall I do? Oh, Professor Kennedy, you do not, you cannot know what I am going through–how I hate and fear him.”
“Mrs. Seabury,” reassured Craig earnestly, “I’ll take up your case. Clever as the man is, there must be some way to get at him.”
Sherburne must have exercised a sort of fascination over her, for the look of relief that crossed her face as Kennedy promised to aid her was almost painful. As often before, I could scarcely envy Kennedy in his ready assumption of another’s problems that seemed so baffling. It meant little, perhaps, to us whether we succeeded. But to her it meant happiness, perhaps honor itself.
It was as though she were catching at a life line in the swirling current of events that had engulfed her. She hesitated no longer.
“I’ll be there–I’ll meet him–at four,” she murmured, as she rose and made a hurried departure.
For some time after she had gone, Kennedy sat considering what she had told us. As for myself, I cannot say that I was thoroughly satisfied that she had told all. It was not to be expected.
“How do you figure that woman out?” I queried at length.
Kennedy looked at me keenly from under knitted brows. “You mean, do I believe her story–of her relations with this fellow, Sherbourne?” he returned, thoughtfully.
“Exactly,” I assented, “and what she said about her regard for her husband, too.”
Kennedy did not reply for a few minutes. Evidently the same question had been in his own mind and he had not reasoned out the answer. Before he could reply the door buzzer sounded and the colored boy from the lower hall handed a card to Craig, with an apology about the house telephone switchboard being out of order.
As Kennedy laid the card on the table before us, with a curt “Show the gentleman in,” to the boy, I looked at it in blank amazement.
It read, “Judson Seabury.”
Before I could utter a word of comment on the strange coincidence, the husband was sitting in the same chair in which his wife had sat less than half an hour before.
Judson Seabury was a rather distinguished looking man of the solid, business type. Merely to meet his steel gray eye was enough to tell one that this man would brook no rivalry in anything he undertook. I foresaw trouble, even though I could not define its nature.
Craig twirled the card in his fingers, as if to refresh his mind on a name otherwise unfamiliar. I was wondering whether Seabury might not have trailed his wife to our office and have come to demand an explanation. It was with some relief that I found he had not.
“Professor Kennedy,” he began nervously, hitching his chair closer, without further introduction, in the manner of a man who was accustomed to having his own way in any matter he undertook, “I am in a most peculiar situation.”
Seabury paused a moment, Kennedy nodded acquiescence, and the man suddenly blurted out, “I–I don’t know whether I’m being slowly poisoned or not!”
The revelation was startling enough in itself, but doubly so after the interview that had just preceded.
I covered my own surprise by a quick glance at Craig. His face was impassive as he narrowly searched Seabury’s. I knew, though, that back of his assumed calm, Craig was doing some rapid thinking about the ethics of listening to both parties in the case. However, he said nothing. Indeed, Seabury, once started, hurried on, scarcely giving him a chance to interrupt.
“I may as well tell you,” he proceeded, with the air of a man who for the first time is relieving his mind of something that has been weighing heavily on him, “that for some time I have not been exactly–er–easy in my mind about the actions of my wife.”
Evidently he had arrived at the conclusion to tell what worried him, and must say it, for he continued immediately: “It’s not that I actually know anything about any indiscretions on Agatha’s part, but,–well, there have been little things–hints that she was going frequently to thes dansants, and that sort of thing, you know. Lately, too, I have seen a change in her manner toward me, I fancy. Sometimes I think she seems to avoid me, especially during the last few days. Then again, as this morning, she seems to be–er–too solicitous.”
He passed his hand over his forehead, as if to clear it. For once he did not seem to be the self-confident man who had at first entered our apartment. I noticed that he had a peculiar look, a feeble state of the body which he was at times at pains to conceal, a look which the doctors call, I believe, cachectic.
“I mean,” he added hastily, as if it might as well be said first as last, “that she seems to be much concerned about my health, my food–“
“Just what is it that you actually know, not what you fear?” interrupted Kennedy, perhaps a little brusquely, at last having seen a chance to insert a word edgewise into the flow of Seabury’s troubles, real or imaginary.
Seabury paused a moment, then resumed with a description of his health, which, to tell the truth, was by no means reassuring.
“Well,” he answered slowly, “I suffer a good deal from such terrible dyspepsia, Professor Kennedy. My stomach and digestion are all upset–bad health and growing weakness–pain, discomfort–vomiting after meals, even bleeding. I’ve tried all sorts of cures, but still I can feel that I am still losing health and strength, and, so far, at least, the doctors don’t seem to be doing me much good. I have begun to wonder whether it is a case for the doctors, after all. Why, the whole thing is getting on my nerves so that I’m almost afraid to eat,” he concluded.
“You have eaten nothing today, then, I am to understand?” asked Craig when Seabury had finished with his minute and puzzling account of his troubles.
“Not even breakfast this morning,” he replied. “Mrs. Seabury urged me to eat, but–I–I couldn’t.”
“Good!” exclaimed Kennedy, much to our surprise. “That will make it just so much easier to use a test I have in mind to determine whether there is anything in your suspicions.”
He had risen and gone over to a cabinet.
“Would you mind baring your arm a moment?” he asked Seabury.
With a sharp little instrument, carefully sterilized, Craig pricked a vein in the man’s arm. Slowly a few drops of darkened venous blood welled out. A moment later Kennedy caught them in a sterile test tube and sealed the tube.
Before our second visitor could start again in retailing his suspicions which now seemed definitely, in his own mind at least, directed in some way against Mrs. Seabury, Kennedy skillfully closed the interview.
“I feel sure that the test I shall make will tell me positively, soon, whether your fears are well grounded or not, Mr. Seabury,” he concluded briefly, as he accompanied the man out into the hall to shake hands farewell with him at the elevator door. “I’ll let you know as soon as anything develops, but until we have something tangible there is no use wasting our energies.”
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