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Did She Fall?


Thorne Smith



HOW he succeeded in reaching the foot of the cliff Daniel never remembered. For a short time his mind was blank, numb, incapable of recording external impressions. He wanted to know. He wanted to be sure. With his own eyes he wanted to see his terrible handiwork lying there in the darkness.

And as he staggered, bruised and aching, among the broken rocks, he found her, the shattered mass once known as Emily-Jane. Then, there alone in the darkness he knelt by the body of the girl and laid a hand on her upturned face. A bloody end of the bandage fell against her cheek. He was forgetful of his own danger. His only desire was to be alone with his victim . . . to brood there beside her in the damp and dark.

Sea waves washing and sea mist rising. A solitary figure crouched over the twisted body of a dead girl. Far, far away, over there somewhere in a dump of black trees, an old, weary moon, once as glorious as Emily-Jane, was going out, its pale face merely a memory of brighter nights gone by. And above all, the great black cliff, a threatening, watching mass of bitter stone.

God ! What had he done? Put a period to an evil life. Yes, but perhaps even the most distorted life had rights of its own. Gone now his assurance of rectitude. Gone now the desperate courage that had seen him through the act. He was merely Daniel now, Daniel alone and afraid.

As his eyes grew accustomed to the shadows at the base of the cliff, he could see more distinctly the distorted figure of Emily-Jane. Her bare legs lay sprawled and twisted, lending to the nearly nude body a suggestion of obscenity. One arm was crushed unnaturally beneath the naked back, and Daniel saw with dilated eyes how frightfully the skull had been smashed. There was a black stain around the hair.

This thing he had done. This ruin he had created.

With back-drawing hands he did what he could for the grotesque body of the girl he had hated so intensely in life. Now that she was incapable of further evil, now that she was helpless, no longer an object of envy and admiration, his former loathing was gone. He straightened the outflung limbs and removed the arm from beneath the shattered back. It was a rough job, but at the end Emily-Jane looked a little more as she would have preferred to look when found. She was now not quite so defenseless.

Then Daniel did a strange thing for this age of rationalism. Moved by some unknown chord in his nature, he lifted up his hands to the dripping blackness and offered a numbed, formless prayer. He prayed for himself and for Barney. He prayed blindly, voicelessly, for all mankind and even for Christ himself, who must suffer along with man. Then he rose and left the rocks and walked through the sand. Emily-Jane lay behind him, beyond all good and evil.

He had done the thing he had planned. She was dead, and now Barney must suffer. The boy would suffer. Perhaps, if he ever found out he would come to hate the brother who had eternally sacrificed the peace of his soul to save him from inevitable sorrow and humiliation.

Daniel was mortally weak. The long beach stretched ahead of him. Beneath his feet the sand resisted hisfumbling tread. If only June were there to help him on. Then silently out of the darkness, like black wings from the sea, fear came to Daniel. Panic-fear, blind and selfish, the fear of death, the fear of detection, and of the consequences of detection.

Like a wild, hunted thing he stopped and sought to penetrate the night with his terror-stricken eyes. A bloody, trembling hand smeared his lips. His head moved grotesquely from side to side, and slowly, as if reluctantly, he sank lower and lower until he found himself crouching in the sand like some hateful beast.

The body on the rocks whose blood he had splashed, was it following him silently down the beach? Hideous dead eyes that cared not for darkness. Reaching hands that plucked. And laughter ! God ! The laughter of the revengeful, maddened dead. He rose and lurched for-ward. But what lay before him? Discovery, capture, and death set by the clock. Not sudden death, but death that sits and waits with you and studies your face with assured but averted eyes. Yet, anything was better than this awful beach and the body on the rocks.

Daniel shambled onward, his red bandage slipping down his arm and trailing from his sleeve.

Would Barney ever know the deaths his brother died for him that night? Dazedly Daniel wondered if his own soul lay behind him, shattered upon the rocks with Emily-Jane.

"Peace, God, peace. For a moment let me forget." Daniel staggered and fell. The sand gave rest to his body, but God did not speak.

* *

From a sound sleep Scott Munson suddenly awoke. He wondered why. What had called him? Looking at his watch, he placed the hour at three-thirty. Pitch-black outside. A silent house. Munson knew that for some good reason he was awake. Then he became aware of the reason. Through the open window a mist was driving in from the sea. His hair and face were wet.

Something else, however, had happened to claim his activity. Within the last few hours some new misfortune had come to the old house. Scott Munson felt this vaguely, as a person awaking suddenly in a dark room sometimes feels the presence of a stranger, unseen but close at hand.

He snapped a cigarette into action and tightened the belt of his smoking jacket. Yet even now, as he stood smoking reflectively before his door, Scott Munson was not sure of the exact nature of the trouble nor what line to take.

"Just smouse round a bit," he decided, "is the best I can do at present."

With this somewhat vague line of action in mind he opened the door he had been looking at as if for some helpful suggestion, and stepped out into the dim light of the silent hall.

From the head of the stairs he discovered Sam Stoughten on the point of making the ascent.

"Things are looking up," was Munson's thought as he studied Stoughten's white face.

Sam looked as if he had just been tossed in a blanket by all the fiends in hell. The expression of strain and horror round his eyes particularly interested Munson, who was studying him intently behind a mask of genial surprise. Also, he noted that the longer he maintained that genial mask, the more Sam's hand trembled on the banister below. So Munson maintained the mask and quietly took note until at last he feared his poor victim would fall in a swoon or else become an idiot, in either of which cases he would lose his usefulness for Munson.

"Well," he said, as Sam was actually about to collapse, "why don't you come on up? You look as if you'd seen a ghost."

It was an unfortunate way to open a conversation with Sam that night.

"Ghost?" croaked Sam, promptly sitting down on the stairs with his back to Munson. "Ghost? I don't understand. Don't let's talk. It's much too late."

"Never too late for ghosts," observed Munson heartily. "Especially for new ghosts."

He had the satisfaction of seeing Sam's broad back give a violent lurch. Also, he observed that to the lurching back clung several wet leaves.

"Well, if you don't want to talk with me about ghosts," he continued, "why don't you come upstairs?"

"Haven't made up my mind," Sam had the wit to reply. "I've been drinking and I'm a little worried about seeing Sue."

"Sporting of you to admit it," said Munson. "Where have you been holding your revels?"

"In there," declared Sam, pointing to the dining-room. "Alone. Heavily. That's why I'm this way. Goofy."

"I hate to stand here talking to your back," observed Munson, "so I think I'll skip down and talk to your face until you've made up your mind."

"Oh, I'm coming right up," declared Sam, rising as promptly as he had sat down. "Don't trouble yourself about me."

But it was much too late. Munson had literally skipped down and seized Sam by the arm with a friendly but firm grasp.

"Too drunk to talk," objected Sam, making a pretense of reaching for the stairs with a wavering foot.

"Not sure," said Munson. "Let me smell your breath."

Sam drew back as if the very idea revolted him to the marrow.

"I was merely considering your wife," explained Munson. "Come in, and show me where dwelleth this drink."

Attempting a crablike mode of progress, Sam allowed himself to be forcibly conducted to the dining-room where Munson gently eased him into a chair.

"Now, Sam," he said cheerfully, "we'll both have a slight nip. Where is the stuff ?"

Receiving no reply, he searched busily round the room, then returned to the despondent Sam and stood looking reproachfully down at him.

"Why, Sam," he said, "there isn't a dram in the place."

"Drank it all," replied Sam moodily.

"What did you do with the bottle?"

"Threw it away."

"Where, Sam?"

Sam was staggered. "Through the window," he said at last.

"Which window?"

"That one," replied Sam with a sweep of his arm that included all the windows in the room.

"You lush," proclaimed Munson admiringly. "It's terrible," admitted Sam.

"And where did all those leaves come from, sticking to your back?" suddenly demanded Munson.

Sam began to think he was really drunk. "Fell into a plant," he offered.

"What plant, Sam?" Munson's voice went on. "There isn't a plant in the room."

"Threw it away, too," said Sam with decision.

"That was rather rough," observed Munson. "Just where did you throw it, Sam?"

Oh, God, would this devil never cease?

"Through the same window," said Sam in a whisper. "Sure you didn't carry it out?" continued Munson. "Certain," replied Sam.

"Then why the mud on your shoes? Look at them." Sam refused to look. "Mud from the plant," he announced triumphantly. "I was watering it. Felt sorry for the thing."

"And then you thoughtfully wiped up all traces of mud from the floor," said Munson approvingly. "That was nice of you, Sam."

"The least I could do," modestly replied Sam. "Too bad you split your domino while doing it," observed Munson sympathetically.

"Doesn't matter," said Sam. "Sue'll mend it."

"Well, I wouldn't tell her the same pack of lies you've told me," said Munson, his voice losing its easy banter and taking on a keen edge of irony. "I wouldn't do that, Sam, because it will only make matters worse. Make you look er—guilty, Sam, if you get what I mean. As a matter of fact, it's none of my damn business . . . yet. You'd better go to bed, old man, and don't worry about staggering."

Sam raised an ashen face to Munson. His eyes were filled with fever. Tragedy lay therein, and looking at him Munson felt a twinge of pity. His heart was heavy, for to some extent, Sam's lies had confirmed his worst suspicions.

Without attempting an answer, Sam rose slowly and left the room. He climbed the stairs and made his way directly to Daniel's room. He opened the door and looked in. Daniel's bed was empty. "Christ !" muttered Sam helplessly. "Oh, Christ, he's done for!"

He sought his own room and sat down in the dark to wait. His door was slightly open to permit him to see the hall. Sue, the complete sleeper, continued her gentle tribute to one of her favorite occupations. Sam sat and waited.

* *

Alone in the dining-room, Munson wandered about restlessly. He was deeply disturbed now. Sam's conduct had sharpened the edge of his fear. As he passed the door to the pantry he stopped and peered through the glass. Suddenly he realized that there was a light in the kitchen. Why the light? More smousing.

Quietly he passed through the pantry, and standing in the dark, looked into the kitchen. No luck this time. It was only June Lansing sitting by the stove. With her usual composure she was sipping a cup of tea. The teapot stood on a nearby table.

Tea was a good idea. Why not some tea?

"May I have a cup, too?" he asked, entering the kitchen noiselessly.

For a moment June looked at him unseeingly as if still caught in the web of her thoughts. Then she shook herself slightly and smiled. "You're just in time," she replied. "The tea is in the full flavor of its youth."

Munson drew up a chair and accepted the proffered cup. "How's your patient?" he asked.

"Dreamless," said June. "A perfect patient."

"A strange happening," suggested Munson.

"It's one of those things that is better left untouched," she replied, looking at him frankly. "Like a hot coal," she added.

"But don't you think attempted murder demands some investigation?" he asked.

"I prefer to regard it in the light of an accident," said June enigmatically. "And accidents don't count."

For the first time he noticed that one of her slippers was missing. Interesting. June, following the direction of his gaze, smiled and extended her stockinged foot; at the same time withdrawing the other.

"Corns," she announced briefly.

Munson smiled in turn. "These modern shoes," he remarked. "Inventions of the devil."

"They certainly play the devil with one's feet," agreed June.

"June," said Munson after a meditative silence, "I'm worried. I've the strangest feeling something has happened."

"Something always does," she replied.

"But not something terrible," said Munson. "What is it all about?"

For a moment or so she considered him thoughtfully, and Munson felt that he detected an unfamiliar expression in her eyes and a new maturity about her face. She was somehow different. "I've noticed it, too, Scott," she replied at last. "I've felt things going on and remarked changes in people, but no one takes me into his confidence. I have my suspicions, and, Scott, I believe they're the same as yours."

"Emily-Jane?" said Munson.

June nodded.

"There's more to that young lady than meets the eye," observed Munson.

"Not much if you saw her tonight," said June with a smile.

"Daniel is out of luck about something," said Munson. "I'd do anything to help him, June."

"So would I," the girl replied. "And you know that, Scott."

"I do," he said, then added, "Damn that girl."

"I guess she's pretty well damned herself already," said June, "but I doubt if she knows it."

"That's what makes me afraid," said Munson, and the two of them sat regarding each other with thoughtful eyes.

* *

When Daniel rose from the sand he had driven off his unreasoning, brutish panic. Fear was still with him, had been added to his other emotions, but it was the fear of the intelligent man calculating and weighing the chances of escaping the consequences of a rash and terrible deed.

His arm had not become stiff for the reason that he had given it no opportunity, but it ached and burned so intensely that he felt he was carrying a flame at his side. Stubbornly refusing to think of anything save ways and means of getting back to his room undetected, he plodded on down the beach and, circling the embankment, made his way into the security of the trees. He had decided to return to his room by the same way he had left it, regardless of the damage the exertion might do to his arm. Quietly he moved through the darkness, swaying as he went, like a drunkard trying to escape observation. He little realized that his brain was not functioning with its customary accuracy. It was skipping the essential details.

* *

Munson, poised at the head of the stairs, drew back quickly. Someone was coming out of Emily-Jane's room, and the person was not Emily-Jane. The watching man waited with indrawn breath as the door slowly opened. Lane Holt, after a quick look along the hall, slid through the partly opened door which he quickly locked behind him. Carrying the key in his hand he tip-toed to his room.

"If the door had been locked from the inside after his guilty exit, I could see some sense in the business," thought Scott Munson. "As it is, I am greatly perplexed—deeply interested."

From the darkness of his doorway Sam Stoughten was watching Munson. When he saw him approach Daniel's room, his heart sank and his brain began to work at top speed. Anything to help Dan. He slipped from his room and locked himself in the nearby bath-room, where he waited. It was merely a chance, a futile attempt, perhaps, but it might give Daniel time or an alibi.

Munson looked into Daniel's room and found the bed empty. Odd. How could that be? Perhaps the effects of the drug had worn off. Perhaps— He closed the door and walked down the hall to the bathroom. The door was locked.

"Dan," he called in a low voice.

"Yes, Scott," came Daniel's voice.

"What the devil are you doing out of bed?"

"Don't ask foolish questions," came the reply.

"How do you feel . . . how's the arm?"

"Both doing well, thank you. Want to come in and have a nice little chat?"

"No," said Munson, slightly nettled. "But you'd better get back to bed as quickly as possible."

"I never linger, Scott," came the voice. "Good night, old man."

Munson continued on to his room, where he sat down to consider things. He went over the scanty gleanings of the night, but some disturbing thought kept cutting across his reflections. Why, damn it all, he had it. Their voices sounded alike, remarkably so. And the similarity could be made almost perfect if deliberately attempted. What a fool he had been. Well, he deserved it. Only a short time ago he had rather shamefully made a fool of Sam. He had even decided from Sam's futile attempts to lie that he really was a bit of a fool. Evidently not.

Munson rose swiftly and returned to the bathroom. It was unoccupied. Sam had returned to his own room after having waited a little more than a reasonable length of time. He did not know whether or not his effort had been of help to Daniel, but he hoped for the best.

When Munson opened Daniel's door he experienced an odd conflict of emotions. He was both disgusted and relieved to find him back in bed. But as his eyes strayed to the open window, the feeling of relief vanished.

On the white woodwork of the sill was the mark of a bloody hand—four dark red fingers and the lower part of the palm. The missing section failed to show on the darker wood of the sill proper.

Sam had done his best, but his best had not been good enough.

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