The X-Ray Detective by Arthur B Reeve

Story type: Literature

“I want to consult you, Professor Kennedy, about a most baffling case of sudden death under suspicious circumstances. Blythe is my name–Dr. Blythe.”

Our visitor spoke deliberately, without the least perturbation of manner, yet one could see that he was a physician who only as a last resort would appeal to outside aid.

“What is the case, Doctor?” queried Craig.

The Doctor cleared his throat. “It is of a very pretty young art student, Rhoda Fleming, who returned to New York from France shortly after the outbreak of the war and opened a studio in the New Studio Apartments on Park Avenue, not far from my office,” began Dr. Blythe, pausing as if to set down accurately every feature of the “case history” of a patient.

“Yes,” prompted Craig.

“About a week ago,” the Doctor resumed, “I was called to attend Miss Fleming. I think the call came from her maid, Leila, but I am not sure. She had suddenly been taken ill about an hour after dinner. She was cyanotic, had a rapid pulse, and nausea. By means of stimulants I succeeded in bringing her around, however, and she recovered. It looked like acute gastritis.

“But last night, at about the same time, I was called again to see the same girl. She was in an even more serious condition, with all the former symptoms magnified, unconscious, and suffering severe pains in the abdominal region. Her temperature was 103. Apparently there had been too great a delay, for she died in spite of everything I could do without regaining consciousness.”

Kennedy regarded the Doctor’s face pointedly. “Did the necropsy show that she was–er–“

“No,” interrupted the Doctor, catching his glance. “She was not about to become a mother. And I doubt the suicide theory, too.” He paused and then after a moment’s consideration, added deliberately, “When she recovered from the first attack she seemed to have a horror of death and could offer no explanation of her sudden illness.”

“But what other reason could there have been for her condition?” persisted Kennedy, determined to glean all he could of the Doctor’s personal impressions.

Dr. Blythe hesitated again, as if considering a point in medical ethics, then suddenly seemed to allow himself to grow confidential. “I’m very much interested in art myself, Professor,” he explained. “I suppose you have heard of the famous ‘Fete du Printemps,’ by Watteau?”

Kennedy nodded vaguely.

“The original, you know,” Dr. Blythe went on hurriedly, “hung in the chateau of the Comtesse de la Fontaine in the Forest of Compiegne, and was immensely valuable–oh–worth probably a hundred thousand dollars or more.”

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A moment later Dr. Blythe leaned over with ill-suppressed excitement. “After I brought her around the first time she confided to me that it had been entrusted to her by the Comtesse for safe-keeping during the war, that she had taken it first to London, but fearing it would not be safe even there, had brought it to New York.”

“H’m,” mused Kennedy, “that is indeed strange. What’s your theory, then,–foul play?”

Dr. Blythe looked from Kennedy to me, then said slowly, “Yes–but we can’t find a trace of poison. Dr. Leslie–the Coroner–I believe you know him–and I can find nothing, in fact. It is most incomprehensible.”

I noticed that Kennedy was watching Dr. Blythe rather keenly and, somehow, I fell to trying to fathom both his story and himself, without, I confess, any result.

“I should like to look her apartment over,” remarked Craig with alacrity, needing no second invitation to take up a mystery that already promised many surprises.

The New Studio Apartments were in a huge twelve-story ornate Renaissance affair on upper Park Avenue, an example of the rapidly increasing co-operative idea which the impractical artistic temperament has proved soundly practical.

It was really a studio building, too, designed for those artists who preferred luxury and convenience to the more romantic atmosphere of the “Alley”–which is the way the initiated refer to the mews back of Washington Square, known as Macdougal’s Alley, famous in fact and fiction.

Rhoda Fleming’s was a most attractively arranged suite, with a large studio commanding the north light and having a ceiling twice as high as the ordinary room, which allowed of the other rooms being, as it were, on two floors, since their ceilings were of ordinary height. On every side, as we entered, we could see works of art in tasteful profusion.

Since the removal of the body of the beautiful but unfortunate young art student, no one had been left there, except the maid, Leila. Leila was herself a very pretty girl, one of those who need neither fine clothes nor expensive jewels to attract attention. In fact she had neither. I noticed that she was neatly and tastefully dressed, however, and wore a plain gold band on the ring finger of her left hand. She seemed to be heartbroken over the death of her mistress, but how much of it was genuine, I could not say, though I am frank to admit that even before I saw her I had determined that she was worth watching.

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“Show me just how you discovered Miss Fleming,” asked Kennedy of Dr. Blythe, getting down to work immediately.

“Why,” he replied, “when I got here she was lying half across that divan, as if she had fallen there, fainting. Each time a little table had been set for a light dinner and the dinner had been eaten. The remains were on the table. And,” Blythe added significantly, “each time there was a place set for another person. That person was gone.”

Kennedy had turned inquiringly to Leila.

“I was engaged only for the day,” she answered modestly. “Evenings when Mademoiselle had a little party she would often pay me extra to come back again and clean up. She liked to prepare little chafing-dish dinners–but disliked the cleaning.”

Dr. Blythe nodded significantly, as though that accounted for the reason why it had seemed to be Leila who had called him in both times.

Kennedy and I had found the little pantry closet in the kitchenette where the maid kept the few housekeeping utensils. He took a hasty inventory of the slender stock, among which, for some reason, I noted a bottle of a well-known brand of meat sauce, one of those dark-colored appetizers, with a heavy, burnt-grain odor.

Craig’s next move was to ransack the little escritoire in the corner of the studio room itself. That was the work of but a few moments and resulted in his finding a packet of letters in the single drawer.

He glanced over them hastily. Several of an intimately personal nature were signed, “Arnold Faber.” Faber, I knew, was a young art collector, very wealthy and something more than a mere dilettante. Other letters were of business dealings with well-known Fifth Avenue art galleries of Pierre Jacot & Cie., quite natural in view of Miss Fleming’s long residence in France.

The letters had scarcely been replaced when the door of the studio opened and I caught sight of a tastefully gowned young woman, quite apparently a foreigner acclimated to New York.

“Oh, I beg pardon,” she apologized. “I heard voices and thought perhaps it was some of Rhoda’s relatives from the West and that I could do something.”

“Good-evening, Miss Tourville,” greeted Dr. Blythe, who was evidently well-known to this colony of artists. A moment later he introduced us, “This, by the way, is Miss Rita Tourville, an intimate friend of Miss Fleming, who has the studio above.”

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We bowed, exchanged the conventional remarks that such a tragedy made necessary, and Rita Tourville excused herself. Somehow or other, however, I could not resist the impression that she had come in purposely to see what was going on.

On our way out, after promising Dr. Blythe to meet him later in the night at the office of the Coroner, Kennedy, instead of going directly to the street, descended to the basement of the apartment and sought the janitor, who lived there.

“I’d like very much to see the rubbish that has come down from Miss Fleming’s apartment,” he asked, slipping into the janitor’s hand a large silver coin.

“It’s all mixed up with rubbish from all the apartments on that side of the house,” replied the janitor, indicating a bulging burlap bag.

“Miss Tourville’s, also?” queries Craig.

The janitor nodded assent.

Kennedy surely obtained his money’s worth of junk as the janitor spread the contents of the bag on the cellar floor. With his walking stick he pawed over it minutely, now and then stooping to examine something more or less carefully. He had gone through somewhat more than half of the rubbish that had come from the apartments when he came upon what looked like the broken remains of a little one-ounce dark-colored, labelless bottle.

Kennedy picked it up and sniffed at it. He said nothing, but I saw his brow knit with thought. A moment later he wrapped it in a piece of tissue paper, thanked the janitor, and we mounted the cellar steps to the street.

“I think I’ll try to see Faber tonight,” he remarked as we walked down the avenue. “It will do no harm at any rate.”

Fortunately, we found the young millionaire art connoisseur at home, in a big house which he had inherited from his father, on Madison Avenue, in the Murray Hill section.

“The death of Miss Fleming has completely upset me,” he confessed after we had introduced ourselves without telling too much. “You see, I was quite well acquainted with her.”

Kennedy said nothing, but I could feel that he was longing to ask questions leading up to whether Faber had been the mysterious diner in the Fleming Studio the night before.

“I suppose you are acquainted with Watteau’s ‘Fete du Printemps’?” shot out Craig, after a few inconsequential questions, watching Faber’s face furtively.

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“Indeed I am,” replied the young man, apparently not disconcerted in the least.

The fact was that he seemed quite willing, even eager to discuss the painting. I could not make it out, unless it might be that any subject was less painful than the sudden death of Miss Fleming.

“Yes,” he continued voluntarily, “I suppose you know it represents a group of dancers. The central figure of the group, as everyone believes, is reputed to be the passionate and jealous Madame de Montespan, whom the beautiful Madame de Maintenon replaced in the affections of Louis XIV.

“Why, no one thinks of Watteau, with his delightful daintiness and many graceful figures on such masterfully disposed backgrounds as a portrait painter. But the Fete shows, I have always contended, that he drew on many real faces for his characters. Yes, he could paint portraits, too, wonderfully minute and exact little miniatures.”

Faber had risen as he discoursed. “I have a copy of it,” he added, leading the way into his own private gallery, while Craig and I followed him without comment.

We gazed long and intently at the face of the central figure. Small though it was, it was a study in itself, a puzzle, distracting, enigmatical. There was a hard, cruel sensuousness about the beautiful mouth which the painter seemed to have captured and fixed beneath the very oils. Masked cleverly in the painted penetrating dark eyes was a sort of cunning which, combined with the ravishing curves of the cheeks and chin, transfixed the observer.

Something in the face reminded me of a face I had once seen. It was not exactly Rita’s face, but it had a certain quality that recalled it. I fancied that there was in both the living and the painted face a jealousy that would brook no rivalry, that would dare all for the object of its love.

Faber saw that we had caught the spirit of the portrait, and seemed highly gratified.

“What crimes a man might commit under the spell of a woman like that!” exclaimed Craig, noticing his gratification. “By the way, do you know that Miss Fleming was said to have had the original–and that it is gone?”

Faber looked from one to the other of us without moving a muscle of his face.

“Why, yes,” he replied steadily. I could not make out whether he had expected and been prepared for the question or not. At any rate he added, half serious, half smiling, “Even for her portrait someone was ready to risk even life and honor to kidnap her!”

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Evidently in his ardor he personified the picture, felt that the thief must have been moved by what the psychologists call “an imperative idea” for the mere possession of such a treasure.

“Still,” Craig remarked dryly, “the wanderings of the lost Duchess by Gainsborough for a quarter of a century stuffed into a tin tube, to say nothing of the final sordid ending of the capture of Mona Lisa, might argue a devotion among art thieves a bit short of infatuation. I think we’ll find this lady, too, to be held for ransom, not for love.”

Faber said nothing. He was evidently waiting for Kennedy to proceed.

“I may photograph your copy of the Fete?” queried Craig finally, “so as to use it in identifying the real one?”

“Surely,” replied the collector. “I have no objection. If I should happen to be out when you came, I’ll leave word with my man to let you go ahead.”

Just then the telephone rang and Faber reached for it before we could thank him and say good-night.

“Hello–oh, Miss Tourville, how do you do? Why–er–yes–yes, I’m listening.”

They chatted for several minutes, Faber answering mostly in monosyllables. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I thought the conversation, at least at his end of the line, constrained. As he hung up the receiver, I fancied, too, that Faber seemed to look on us with a sort of suspicion. What was his connection with Rita, I wondered? What had Rita told him?

A moment later we had said good-by and had gained the street, Kennedy still making no comment on the case.

“There’s nothing more that we can do tonight,” remarked Craig, looking at his watch finally as we walked along. “Let us go over to the City Laboratory and see Dr. Leslie, as I promised Blythe.”

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