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Did She Fall?
DEATH TAKES STEPS
MUNSON paused a moment before Daniel's door and listened. Two persons were speaking, but he could hardly distinguish between their voices. He knew that one was Daniel's, but which? Then suddenly for the first time he realized the remarkable similarity in the voices of the erstwhile roommates, Sam Stoughten and Daniel Crewe. During their four years at college one of them had either consciously or unconsciously taken on the vocal expression and mannerisms of the other.
"Soft pedal that stuff," Daniel was saying, as Munson entered without knocking. "After all, you did make a damn fool of yourself, but things could have been worse."
Appearing not to have caught the full significance of what Daniel had just said, Munson swiftly crossed the room. Opening one of the smaller drawers in the bureau, he unconcernedly tossed out its contents. Collars and handkerchiefs, incontinently bereft of their accustomed shelter, found themselves on the floor.
"I say," cried Barney, sitting on the bed by his brother, "Daniel here has just been wounded, perhaps mortally, and you barge in and start a rough house. Why that?"
Munson merely smiled somewhat grimly and holding up the knife, still wet with blood, deliberately dropped it in the deflowered drawer, locking it and pocketing the key. Both Daniel and Stoughten watched him moodily from the bed.
Maintaining a preoccupied silence, Munson turned and keenly inspected Daniel, noting the drawn lines in his pale face. Sam had risen and was attempting to remove his wounded friend's garments. Barney was doing futile things with his hands. Munson seemed to be totally unimpressed by the fact that Daniel had just been stabbed, an attempt made on his life.
"Just where did he get it?" he demanded shortly.
"In the arm, Scott," said Daniel apologetically. "At least I think so. Feels more or less that way."
Still Munson did not move.
"You should know if anyone," he remarked. "Do you realize that I did my best to prevent all this? And do you further realize that the Scott Munson you have known is now gone? From now on I am out to get someone anyone who attempts to arrange matters through a stupid and, I say, cruel recourse to bloodshed and brutality. I gave you all a chance, and you've treated me like a damn fool. I'm not a nice man."
Sam Stoughten flinched at his words. Barney only looked slightly amazed. But Daniel regarded him out of stolid, indifferent eyes.
"In the meantime you're going to let me bleed to death so you'll have a nice little murder on your hands to solve," he answered bitterly.
"Oh, you won't die quite yet," said Munson, "although that stab was intended to murder . . . someone. And that someone was not necessarily you, Daniel."
He crossed the room quickly, and brushing Barney aside, ran his hand along the sleeve of Daniel's domino. Looking at his fingers he found them red with blood.
"A nice piece of work," he observed in a cold, impersonal voice. "Well conceived, but poorly executed. And it would be the left arm. Tell me one thing. After the lights went out did you move at all from your places?"
"We all seemed to lurch," replied Barney innocently. "Not much, but I know we lurched."
"That explains the mistake," said Munson, addressing his remark to Sam.
Stoughten turned red and refused to meet his eyes.
"Well, Sam," continued Munson, "let's do our best to correct the error. Snap to it! If Dr. Manning is not too drunk by this time get him up here. If he is, telephone to Woods at the village. Use the phone in the pantry and don't shout. Barney, do something else with your hands. Sit on them. Put them in your pockets. Go over by the window and take a chair. Try to think exactly what happened after the lights went out. And, Sam," added Munson, "I want June Lansing. Send her here quietly, but quickly."
He had already stripped off Daniel's domino, coat, and vest. With a pair of nail scissors, snatched from the bureau, he deftly cut away the crimson sleeve and laid the wound bare. Casting one dismayed glance at the wound, from which the blood was freely welling, Stoughten hastened from the room, but not before he heard Munson remark, "Suppose it had found your back, Daniel, where would you be now?"
Munson found a towel and twisted it tightly round Daniel's arm. "Faint?" he asked in a slightly kinder voice.
"A trifle light, Scott," admitted Daniel. He hesitated a moment, then continued with an appealing glance at the impassive face of Munson; "I suppose you couldn't forget all this, Scott? For old times' sake couldn't you let it drop?"
Munson looked at him thoughtfully. "Dan," he said, "you're not talking to a friend now, but to one whose offer of help you deliberately rejected. But maybe I could let it drop officially if this is the worst—the end."
Hearing the word "end," Barney turned from the window and looked tragically at the pair on the bed. "My God, Scott," he faltered, "what's all this talk about the end? Is Dan really in a bad way?"
"You should be locked up, Barney," replied Munson gravely. "Locked up or deported."
"But I had no hand in the affair," protested Barney.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Munson rejoined sarcastically. "I was sure you had."
"Don't let him kid you, Barney," advised his brother weakly.
"Then you know who did do it." Munson's easy voice had grown suddenly hard.
Barney looked startled.
"Lay off Barney," said Daniel. "He's not in on this. None of us knows a thing about it. It was too damn dark. You know that yourself."
"I think I know who did it," came amazingly from Barney.
"Who?" inquired Munson.
"For God's sake, Barney!" frantically interrupted Daniel.
"I'm fairly sure I can explain the whole thing," went on the unheeding Barney, in a tone of complacency. "Aunt Matty did it. It was just a piece of carelessness. You know Aunt Matty always has a knife in her hand, always slashing at things. Well, she just passed by in the dark and happened to slash poor Daniel by mistake. That's all."
"And who had she intended to slash?" demanded Munson, showing no signs of astonishment.
"Who?" exclaimed Barney. "Why, no one, ofcourse. A loaf of bread, or some sort of dead animal such as a ham, or chicken, or even a pâté de foies. The sandwiches were running low. I know that sad fact myself."
"You would, Barney, you would," said Daniel, grinning in spite of his growing weakness. "Stick to that story, boy. It's a slick solution. What do you think, Scott?"
In Munson's eyes there was a hint of good-natured disgust. "It all depends on what Aunt Matty thinks," he observed dryly, and added, "after I have talked with her."
"Oh, Aunt Matty will agree to anything," said Barney cheerfully, as he rose from his chair and started for the door.
Munson smiled in spite of himself at this piece of effrontery.
"Wait!" he commanded sharply. "The ordinary criminal, the low-down type is merely immoral. He's not such a difficult problem. But you people of some pretense to social standing are totally unmoral. You are the hardest class with which to deal. You band together and stick. Now, there has been an attempted murder here. If that knife had found its mark one of you three standing there in the dark against that curtain would now be dead. Quite bloodily extinguished. And," he added slowly, "it's by no means certain which one of you it would have been. That isn't a nice thought to carry round with you, is it?" Without waiting for an answer he went on : "So please sit down, Barney, and do try not to complicate matters any more than they are. You might actually be helping to kill the thing you most love. There's a potential murderer at large among us, tonight, and there may be more than one."
Barney sat down promptly with a look of horrified amazement on his face. "The devil there is," he said.
"Yes," replied Munson. "Where the deuce is Manning?"
The door opened, and Manning, followed by June Lansing and Sam Stoughten, came into the room. Manning was by no means too drunk, but contained just the right quantity of liquor to lend inspiration to his hand. He was a man of some forty odd years, dapper, handsome, and possessed of a head of remarkably white hair. An unfailing attraction. Men could trust Manning, but not women, so they did and seemed to enjoy it. Manning, also. His practice had been so punctuated with scandals that he had practically abandoned the practice the better to apply himself to the scandals. A good doctor when he could be located. Independently rich.
"Sam had the devil of a time finding me," he announced, "and when he did . . . well . . ." The doctor left his sentence eloquently unfinished.
Going up to Daniel he rapidly examined the wound.
"Clean enough," he remarked, "but, Dan, my boy, you're going to have one hell of a fine arm for several weeks. All the way through. A good jab, that. Required strength." Turning to Munson, he added, "I thought something was up."
"You called for the light?" asked the latter.
"Yes," replied Manning. "Thought I detected a certain note in Daniel's voice. Made me nervous. Hand me my bag, Stoughten."
"Notice anything?" went on Munson.
"Altogether too dark. Not a cat." Manning was busy with Daniel's arm.
"It was an accident, doc," said Daniel significantly. "A piece of sheer carelessness. Aunt Matty just happened to have a knife in her hand and—"
"I understand perfectly," said Manning. "Those things happen every day, but" — and here he gave Daniel a look of comprehension — "Aunt Matty should not be allowed to play with knives."
"It's a habit," proclaimed Barney. "A menace. One must keep dodging her all the time. A very careless and near-sighted woman, and has been so from birth."
"Your nerves are shot to pieces, Dan," said the doctor, stepping back and critically regarding his handiwork. "Here," he went on, "I'm going to leave you a bottle of these. Take two in a half a glass of water in about half an hour. I always carry them to parties in case some woman gets laughing or crying or cursing too much. Nice girls we have with us these days." With one of his rapid changes he turned to Barney and said : "Just slip down the back way with this bag and get it into my car as quietly as you can."
A few minutes later the astute Barney had dragged Aunt Matty into the privacy of the pantry.
"You just stabbed Daniel in the arm," he informed her. "It was when the lights went out. Then you stabbed him with a long knife through the curtain. All a mistake, you understand. No hard feeling, no fits of passion."
"I'd rather have done it in a rage than through sheer carelessness," complained Aunt Matty. "Then I wouldn't have seemed such a fool."
"Well, just say anything you like," urged Barney. "Bayonet practice, for instance."
"Or merely a girlish whim," suggested Aunt Matty. "Is he really bad?"
"Not at all," Barney assured her. "He's just stabbed. That's all."
"Anything short of murder you can blame on me," she said. "I'm too old for things to make much difference now one way or the other, but I draw the line at murder for some quaint reason."
As Barney hurried away the old lady looked pensively at the gently swinging door. "There's something wrong going on in this house," she thought to herself, "but I can't put my finger on it, although I feel I'm getting hot."
Back in the room Barney assumed an unnatural and unconvincing air of briskness. "Got safely through the lines, Dr. Manning," he announced, "without anyone seeing me."
"Except Aunt Matty," remarked Munson.
"How did you know that?" asked Barney, and was outraged when everyone laughed.
"All out now," commanded Manning, "except June Lansing. Ever put a man to bed, June?"
"Yes," she assented calmly. "Often." "Who?" demanded Daniel.
"Father," smiled June. "At times mother would have nothing to do with him."
Munson unlocked the bureau drawer and gingerly withdrew the knife. At the sight of the stained blade an inimical presence seemed to have entered the room. All pretense of light-heartedness died out. The little group looked serious and defensive. Scott Munson was no longer one of them, but to this attitude he appeared entirely indifferent. He confronted Barney and pointed with one long finger to the hilt of the knife.
"Aunt Matty's," he remarked unsmilingly. "Her finger-prints. Don't mind if I just make sure? Hand me one of those glasses, Sam. I'd like a bit of a night-cap."
Realizing how suspicious it would appear not to comply with Munson's request, Stoughten obeyed. Scott Munson watched him closely, noting the exact position of his fingers. Then he poured himself adrink. With the glass in one hand and the knife in the other, he turned to the door. Then he halted and looked at Barney. That dismayed young man, as if fascinated, followed the direction of Munson's eyes and obediently opened the door for him. With a curt good night, Munson left the room.
"That is what I call a real cheery exit," remarked Manning.
"It's his way," replied Daniel. "When he's once started he turns into a torturer. Seems to check his heart until called for. May I have a shot, doctor? I'm damn well tired now."
"Haven't the heart to refuse."
"Pour out the drinks, Sam," said Daniel.
"Come, cheer up everybody," suggested Barney, trying to be helpful. "The worst is yet to come."
Both Daniel and Stoughten looked at him with hostile eyes.
"What are you looking at me like that for?" he asked nervously. "Why the devil is everyone so subdued and jumpy? Feel like going down and getting foaming drunk myself."
"Do," urged Daniel smoothly. "Get good and drunk, and then go to bed. It wouldn't be a bad idea."
"Sweet advice from a brother," retorted Barney. "Come along, Sam, and get me drunk."
Stoughten finished his drink and followed Barney from the room. At the door Barney looked back. "Too bad it wasn't your throat," he said.
"On your way, baby," called Daniel. "Outside."
For the past half-hour Daniel had been sleeping quietly. June attributed his restful slumber to the tablets she had given him. Had she but known it, the contents of the glass now lay; on the floor in a neat little pool between the wall and the bed. Daniel had no idea of indulging in sleeping potions that night. There was still a thing to do.
Munson came quietly into the room and stood looking down at the sleeping man's averted face.
"You gave him the tablets?" he asked.
"Half an hour ago," said June.
"Then he's through for the night," he remarked in a tone of relief.
He departed as noiselessly as he had entered and sought the privacy of his own room. Yes, Daniel was through for the night, he reflected. This little stabbing incident had perhaps settled many problems. He was content it had been no worse. Lighting a cigarette, he sat down in a comfortable chair. Sam Stoughten had tried and failed. Apparently in addition to her other gifts Emily-Jane also possessed a charmed life. Munson wondered if she suspected the intended destination of that long searching blade or whose hand had held the knife. Stoughten would now be afraid to act further. Munson held the evidence against him. The finger-prints on the knife were identical to those on the glass. He had assured himself of that. Both exhibits were now locked up in a safe place. Scott Munson relaxed and enjoyed his cigarette.
June Lansing rose quietly and picked up Daniel's vest, which had slipped to the floor from the arm of a chair. On the matting beneath the vest lay a scattering of letters. Without hesitation she opened one of the letters and began to read. Perhaps this letter might help her to discover what all the trouble was about. It was no time to stand on ceremony. As she read a slow red flush gradually mounted to her face. Seating herself, she glanced at Daniel and returned once more to the letter.
At the end of half an hour she rose slowly, slipped the letters into Daniel's pocket and mechanically hung up the garment in the closet. The last lingering traces of girlhood seemed to have left her face. For a long time she stood looking down at the man she loved, whose secret she now held, whose problem she understood. A wave of sympathy for him went out from her. He was momentarily free from his burden. Peace after weeks of heart-eating worry was with him. Peace and helplessness. For tonight, at least, he was safe. But Daniel, she knew, would never let Barney marry Emily-Jane.
The orchestra was playing "Home, Sweet Home." Its strains drifted up to the listening girl. She glanced at her wrist-watch . . . two-thirty. The close of Emily-Jane's dance, a huge personal triumph and a greedily received display. Emily-Jane must be quite well satisfied. Pleased with herself, in fact. At the thought of the girl, June's face became hard and set. In her eyes lay a frozen light, impersonal, cold, inscrutable. There was something about her at that moment that suggested the aloof, unapproachable magnificence of a statue of justice. Something huge and unalterable.
Once more she looked down at the sleeping man, stretched out one hand, hesitated and withdrew it.
Then she turned slowly, very slowly away from the bed. And she left the room.
Daniel was at the door listening.
Just outside in the hall Barney was bidding good night to Emily-Jane.
"I love you, Emily-Jane," Barney was saying, in a pathetically inadequate voice considering the depth of his emotions. "To me you are the most beautiful damn creature in the world."
Emily-Jane laughed softly, a trifle impatiently, the listening man thought. "Be a good boy, Barney," he heard her say. "Trot off to bed and go to sleep. I must run down now and see some of the gang off. You're not so good at that."
A moment later, when Barney thrust his head in at his brother's door, Daniel was back in bed. Satisfied he was safely asleep, Barney's head was withdrawn, and the door closed softly.
Daniel, in spite of his wounded arm, slipped into his domino. To hell with the pain. A drink, must have a drink. He found the bottle and drank. Then he went to the window and waited, looking out over the night.
A late moon, like an overripe cantaloup badly damaged in shipment, was rising over the Cliff Path. Daniel regarded it without either interest or appreciation.
Presently he saw two figures detach themselves from the shadows and pass down the path in the direction of High Point Rock. One figure was unmistakable. Its slim legs flashed out from the kimono. An attractive effect in the moonlight. Still Daniel waited. At the end of ten minutes he rose from his crouching position and went to another window, climbed carefully through it and seized the limb of the old tree. Already his wound was open and bleeding. Along his, left arm ran a moist, burning sensation. Daniel was indifferent to it. Indifferent now to everything. Once on the ground, he sought the protection of the trees and moved through the darkness in a direction parallel with the Cliff Path but more protected from observation.
But Daniel was not the only nocturnal stalker on that particular night; there were others, and Death was guiding their feet.
From behind a thicket of wind-worried bushes Daniel listened and watched. He saw Emily-Jane drink from a small container that flashed in the sad moonlight and he heard her reckless laughter as she returned it to her companion. Blood was now trickling from Dan's fingers, but he was unconscious of it. The night wind was cool on his forehead, and from the base of High Point Rock the sea spread on and on to God knows where. How pleasant it was to be there and to smell the scent of the salt mingling with that of the shrubs and earth still moist from yesterday's rain. For a moment Dan was once more a child with little Barney. They were looking for berries and birds' nests, and Daniel did most of the finding. At the thought of Barney his eyes returned to the figures standing on the edge of the great rock.
They had become merged now. They were one. And Lane Holt's triumphant laughter smote his ears. It was hateful to hear—unbearable. Then Daniel heard Emily-Jane speaking, unabashed and unafraid. "No, Lane, no," she was saying, "he doesn't matter in the least. It will make no difference, my man. You are my man, aren't you, Lane? My unholy, unfaithful lover?"
And Holt: "That last crack, honey, goes two ways."
"In what else is the joy of life?" came the voice of Emily-Jane.
And that was the last word she ever uttered.
Breaking from the bushes Daniel slipped between them. Hot with drink, Emily-Jane flung herself upon the intruder. Daniel had her by the naked shoulder with his one good hand. His bloody hand smashed into the face of Holt. It was not a fist, just a red mangled flail. From the bushes another black figure came at the group. Its gaze was directed not at the swaying figures, but rather on the ground at the edge of the rock. Still violently holding Emily-Jane, Daniel turned to Holt. The man was no longer there. He was slinking along the Cliff Path, peering back over his shoulder. Then he vanished from view. The other black figure, sobbing quietly to itself, backed into the bushes. With a strange sensation of sudden release, Daniel turned back to Emily-Jane. She, too, had vanished.
And Daniel stood alone, peering down into the blackness where lay the great broken rocks upon which he and Barney had played in bygone years.
A lone, black figure in the dwindling moonlight, high up against an unresponsive sky . . . peering, peering, peering down to where a shattered figure lay all unheedful of the low nervous mouthings of the surf.
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