Did She Fall?
DEATH'S FIRST SELECTION
SOMETIMES a well-executed murder clears the air. This observation is in no sense suggestively advanced. But the fact is that in virtually all groups, communities, and gatherings of human beings there are certain members who would be far, far better out of the way . . . persons whose speedy absence would result in more actual good than would their continued presence.
It is even doubtful if the introduction of reason, which immediately suggests all sorts of inhibitions, would produce any permanently ameliorating results.
More than one poor mortal has decorated a rope end, sat fleetingly but finally in a hot chair, or moldered for life in a cell, whose single act of violence has really benefited society or some part of it. The worst that can be said of him is that he has set it a questionable example. Of course life could not continue to muddle along under a regime of murder at random, a system of salutary but unsolicited removals. This cannot be for the simple reason that almost every one of us during the course of his or her life deserves to be murdered at least once. . . .
The fact remains, however, that murder is not always just that—murder. Sometimes it is murder and more, such as the manifestation of inherent decency. Murder is not always so simple and explicable as a mere bash on the head, a knife in the neck, a shot from a gun, or a dose of poison. Nor can its germ always be easily isolated. Sometimes its motives are so remote and yet so urgent, so involved yet so delicately balanced, that it becomes the height of futility to expect twelve other potential but as yet uninitiated murderers to sit justly in judgment.
The situation—society itself—should first be judged before the murderer is even placed on trial. And a situation, an atmosphere, a hidden conflict involving the lives and happiness of human beings, is frequently as difficult to grasp as smoke . . . as dangerous to handle as dynamite.
So it well may be that in this particular situation things had got themselves so involved, so out of hand, that the death of someone was inevitable—that the sudden removal of some human obstruction was the only happy way out.
Yet, if so, it certainly seemed the least inevitable possibility in the world that that someone was destined to be so fair a creature as Emily-Jane Seabrook.
Most certainly no one seeing this young woman swinging her shapely legs over the smooth turf of the Coastal Golf Club would have suspected that even then the shadow of Death was settling round her feet, and that the eyes of Death were watching her intently as she teed off at the first hole. On this fair morning it would have been hard to convince any one of her many friends and followers that within the brief span of thirteen hours the warm life would go shatteringly to fragments in the ruins of her highly desirable young body.
Who could have predicted such an ending for Emily-Jane? Who could have desired for her such a hideous fate? Had she not everything to live for, this girl, this child of fortune? Perhaps—perhaps; but also other persons had a little living to do for themselves, and perhaps this idea had not even occurred to Emily-Jane Seabrook. She would distribute happiness on all sides —up to a point, a point where the distribution interfered with the life of Emily-Jane.
This is a bad way to be.
Sometimes, but not always, does one get quite away with it. And in the case of Emily-Jane that quite made all the difference between her living and her dying. It made a lot of difference to Emily-Jane, and profoundly influenced the lives of several human beings. Of course, this was not new to Emily-Jane. She had always influenced human lives, but she would have never given her own to do so. The idea had never entered her competent little mind. Far from it. Her competent little mind was too firmly fixed on her body. It was a fine body. But, after all, the finest body can be broken most unattractively.
At the famous old Crewe mansion that night the engagement of Barney Crewe and Emily-Jane was to be announced. This did not matter much. The engagement had been known from the early days of the summer—exactly two weeks after Barney had met Emily-Jane for the first time.
What did matter, however, was the party. Masks and everything, the everything principally consisting of well-filled bottles and punch bowls. High revelry in honor of Emily-Jane, and perfectly promoted by that same efficient young woman. She did so enjoy seeing young people have a good time.
Barney, himself, would have been considered no mean catch for any other girl save Emily-Jane. In this event Barney was the lucky man. This, in spite of the fact that he was young, wealthy, interesting enough, and a painter who worked with such utter disregard of his medium that already he had won some degree of recognition among the more eccentric artists who created with fine but futile frenzy, yet who totally lacked the impish irrelevance that Barney brought to even his most abominable work.
What good, then, could result from the death of this fine girl? Who could be her enemy? Who could wish this apparently healthy-minded, stimulating, care-free creature anything but health, happiness, and success? To murder her would be an act of wanton vandalism. Brutal passion or jealousy could be the only possible motives for stopping her triumphal progress through life.
So thought the world after the event. Of course, no one could have thought it before. Yet several persons were thinking things right now.
Her light-hearted laughter floated back to the ears of Barney's elder brother Daniel, who from his easy chair on the club-house veranda was following her every move. And Daniel Crewe in turn was being watched from a pair of dark, intense eyes set deep in the head of Scott Munson. This man's intuitive suspicion of impending events had been keenly alert for the past six weeks of his stay with the two brothers. It was more than ever alert today.
Yet there was nothing occult about Scott Munson. Hard facts, a deep insight, and close observation ruled his judgment. He had watched human beings in conflict for many years of his life, and in this present situation he recognized all the elements of serious trouble.
Occasionally his eyes would shift to the girl on the golf-course, then return unobtrusively to the face and the hands of the man whose thoughts he was trying to read. Hands meant much to Scott Munson. Daniel Crewe was his friend, his good companion and, at present, his greatest problem. A problem that filled him with a keen sense of trouble and regret. All unconscious of the interest of these two motionless figures on the veranda—and a third, had it only been known—Emily-Jane tucked her arm under that of her partner and hurried him down the green slopes of the fairway.
Lane Holt looked down at her with admiring but frankly unwholesome eyes. He made a remark in a quick low voice, and the girl did not look at all displeased.
"Why, Lane," she said, "what a thing to say!"
"But it would be, wouldn't it?" replied Lane. "Perhaps," she answered. "And a great deal more dangerous."
"That would add spice and relish, my dear."
"Listen, statuesque slave of your senses, you must bear in that evil mind of yours that up here in my new environment you are not supposed to know me one-hundredth part as well as you do—even less than that." Her laughter was not quite so innocent as she added: "You're playing golf with me this morning merely as a favor to my beloved Barney, who is doing bad things with his brushes."
"Damn Barney," exclaimed Holt. "Damn him always and eternally."
"Why damn Barney as much as all that? He does deserve considerable damning at times, but not such a generous portion."
"Why the devil do you want to fling yourself away on him?"
"Oh that!" said Emily-Jane carelessly. "Why not? He fills all the requirements. He's dumb, rich, and idealistic—head over heels." She paused a moment and looked enigmatically at her companion, then added : "And I'm clever, Lane my buck, but not quite so rich. Cheer up, life isn't over yet, not by a long sight it isn't."
But in this Emily-Jane with all her youthful confidence was slightly in error, to put it mildly. Her life, had she but realized it, was almost over. The best or the worst part of it already lay behind. Little lay ahead save a crash, a moment of agony—and liberating darkness.
"Unscrupulous woman," murmured Lane Holt, slipping his hand up her arm.
"Nice woman," retorted Emily-Jane. "An exceptionally charming girl."
She was just that. An exceptionally charming girl in many of the essentials. Beautifully built and alluringly poised. Hair of the sleek golden quality. It reflected light in yellow bars which slid attractively when she moved her head, so bobbed as effectively to show its shape. One felt like taking Emily-Jane's head between one's hands and holding it, feeling the smooth, fresh cheeks and looking into the large, blue, disarmingly innocent eyes. In the depth of those eyes lurked something slightly disturbing and exciting. Her face though small was broad. It ended in a surprisingly sharp little chin, lending to her a delightful impression of helplessness. Hers was that peculiar quality of innocence that subtly invited enlightenment. Her body, which at times could look so frail, was sinuous, swift with life and motion. Her torso moved with the endless variety of charm of a trained dancer. One could easily believe that Emily-Jane was completely unconscious of the effect she created when on the beach or dancingfloor. She might have been. Grace, strength, and freedom characterized her every movement. She was tireless, resilient, yet possessed of an abiding languor, an altogether captivating promise of eventual capitulation.
Beyond doubt Emily-Jane had many things to live for, the most important of which were her senses and herself, but few realized this, for Emily-Jane had already lived and acquired wisdom if not merit.
Lane Holt knew and understood her. Seven years ago in the propinquity of a college town their interests had coincided. Emily-Jane had graced a school for young ladies at that time. Although Holt had been in his senior year at the college the discrepancy in years and educational progress had made no difference in their mutual attraction. It was of a biological nature which was simple if not pure. They had belonged to a select little group of, let us say for the sake of charity, high-spirited boys and girls who loved fun.
It was at this time and with these companions that Emily-Jane received the fundamentals of an exceedingly liberal education. It was at this time, likewise, that she had perfected the art of concealing an essentially vicious nature behind a refreshingly healthy and admirable exterior. A no mean art to master although it has a diversity of minor devotees.
At college, too, Lane Holt had come to know Daniel Crewe. Barney being several classes lower had known Holt only distantly yet devotedly, as underclassmen should and will, although the reason is rather obscure to appreciate in most cases.
The friendship between Daniel and Holt had been based on a mutual appreciation of literature and a bent for investigation which had carried them along on many an impossible intellectual exploration.
About Lane Holt there had been an atmosphere of romance and intrigue. His dark brooding silences, his splendid, careless carriage, his indifference to public opinion, and his quick brain marked him out from his fellows. In short, he had been a selfish poseur with an eye open for easy opportunity. Daniel had known and liked him. Even envied him a little. They had never been companions. Toward the close of their final year they had entirely lost track of each other without even being aware of the fact.
A few weeks ago they had met for the first time since those days. Since that meeting Holt, like Scott Munson and Emily-Jane, had become permanent if casual fixtures at the Crewe's hospitable establishment. There were others there, too, who also became involved in the timely obliteration of Emily-Jane.
Far out on the links now the girl was saying to her partner in that lilting voice of hers: "And tonight, my fervid devastator, you must be more careful than you were in that last hollow."
"You are losing your old fondness for taking chances. The approach of prosperity. What, my girl?"
"My life has been composed of taking chances," she replied. "I love to take them, but also I detest being foolhardy except when I know I'm safe. There's a difference, a vast difference."
"Wisdom in wickedness," suggested Holt. Makes wickedness a virtue," added Emily-Jane. "Safety first, then," agreed Holt, "but keep your eyes on that Scott Munson chap and also on big brother. Both have a restless, inquiring air about them."
"I can easily dispose of Daniel," she observed. "In fact, I have done so quite effectively already. But Munson is a different matter altogether."
"I'm told he's a sort of super-finder-out-of-things. Too intelligent to be human. Is he?"
"All of that and more," she replied. "Last year he was drafted to sit on some silly old national crime commission. He played the active part. He's done things in this state—they're called big. The governor and district attorney and all the powers that be just eat out Of his bloodless hand and like it. He's been resting up here with the brothers all summer on the strength of past relations in parts unknown."
"I hope he continues to rest and does nothing more than that," said Holt fervently.
If Munson had heeded this pious hope, Holt's life might have been radically different.
"For some reason," said Emily-Jane, "I'd like to break his resistance down and then torture him. Drive him mad. I can see it and feel it. God!"
Emily-Jane permitted very few persons to look upon the expression then on her face. It was hot, voracious, strangely cruel. Her teeth were a trifle bared.
And she was such a nice girl was Emily-Jane. Good company and all that. A real sport.
At that moment even Lane Holt was just a wee bit skeptical. He had his doubts about Emily-Jane—his fears, also.