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Did She Fall?


Thorne Smith



SCOTT MUNSON was on a spot that interested him strangely. It was a lone narrow ledge about three feet wide, jutting out from High Point Rock four feet from its summit. Officers Shad and Red, flat on their respective stomachs, were following Munson's movements with eyes filled with alarm. Vicariously they were dying a thousand deaths as their chief, apparently indifferent to his unenviable position, twisted his way round the uneven face of the cliff. In some places the ledge narrowed to the width of a foot. When Munson approached these perilous crossings, the Shays automatically closed their eyes, and with indrawn breath listened acutely for the crash which to them was now merely a matter of moments.

"With all the places on this neck of land to investigate," observed Red, "he would pick out this one."

"I thought I'd pass out when he tried to lure us down there," commented his colleague.

"My resignation was trembling on the tip of my tongue," replied Red.

"He's mad," said Shad mildly, but with conviction.

"Mad Munson," amplified the redder Shay, who had a flair for rugged names.

This was Scott's third visit to the ledge, his third minute, inch by inch inspection. He had nothing to go on, nothing but his imagination, a memory that constantly eluded recapture, and a wild unsubstantial theory. And he had found nothing to justify his efforts. In one spot, which just so happened to be the right one, the moss had been disturbed. There were certain indentations. Along the ledge he found other similar marks, but these were so faint and undefined that he feared their discovery was due more to hope than to their actual presence. Nevertheless, this ledge and its possibilities fascinated him. It formed an essential part of this wild theory which in turn was based on nothing more definite than an unwarranted suspicion.

His staff watched him return from the ledge with mingled emotions. It had enjoyed being horrified and at the same time it was relieved to find their leader still among them.

"From now on," said Munson, brushing the earth from his hands, "your business will be to watch. Got guns?"

"We have," replied Shad. "Mine seems awful heavy."

"Bear up under your burden," said Munson, "and keep your eyes open. No one is to leave the grounds without my permission."

It struck both Shad and his associate, who were at heart good-natured, sociably inclined spirits, that this new duty was going to be highly uncongenial. It presented so many opportunities for unpleasantness and friction, strained relations and mean looks. However, they accepted their new assignment with a fortitude worthy of the profession they so gracefully adorned.

On leaving the point, Munson spoke to the local guard.

"Bronson," he said, "you can go home now, and stay there if they'll let you. Tell them at the lockup. Mr. Munson suggested you take a couple of days off. Make sure that your chief hears you. I've finished with this place now. It's open to the public."

"Thank you, sir," said Bronson, smiling broadly upon the Shays. "I'll carry out your instructions to the letter."

"A couple of days off," muttered Red, as he followed Munson along the Cliff Path. "Did you hear that? What do we get? Nothing but dangerous and disagreeable duty."

"After he's through with us," said Shad, "I'm going to put in for a life pension."

"If you have any life left to pension," amended his brother officer.

* *

"Now," said Munson to himself, "it's high time I did the conventional thing. I am satisfied about her feet. They could easily have been the feet I'm looking for."

He found old Griggs in the orchard, doing helpful things to a peach tree.

"Griggs," he said, coming at once to the point, "was your helper out on the night of the murder or the accident or whatever it was?"

"He was, sir," replied Griggs. "I've been waiting for this, Mr. Munson. He was out late, and he hasn't been the same lad since. Got something on his mind, but I'd stake my life he had no hand in it."

"Certainly not," agreed Munson heartily, experiencing a strange sensation. Did he really want to hear the boy's story? He had to hear it. Nothing left for him to do. "What's his name, Griggs? I want to see him. Will you get him for me?"

"His name's Tom," said Griggs, as he went in search of his assistant.

Munson knew Tom although Tom was not aware of that fact. To put it accurately, Munson did not actually know the boy, but he knew the most important thing about him and that had to do with Betty, the maid. Tom was in love with this healthy wench, and very much in love at that. He was a boy with bangs, Tom. A boy with freckles and bangs. Good blue eyes that made up for everything, including a slight stoop and a pronounced tendency to stammer.

"Tom," said Munson, leading the boy aside, "there's no trouble in this for you unless you fail to tell the exact truth. Stick to that and I'm your friend. It's all very simple and easy. All you have to do is to answer my questions. Here's the first one. Why were you and Betty out so late on the night of the accident?"

"T-t-t—" Tom swallowed and began things afresh. "T-t-t-'t weren't no accident, Mr. Munson." His words fell out in fragments.

With one question Munson had covered a lot of ground. But Tom, willing as he was to talk, was handicapped by nature. Munson did not like to listen to him. It made him feel spasmodic. He considered the situation a moment, then looked about the orchard. Far down toward the salt marshes were a bench and an old battered wicker rocking-chair. A pleasant, secluded, unassuming retreat. There he would hear the story.

"Listen, Tom," he said. "We all ought to be in on this, you, Betty, and I. It's important. Now just run up to the house and bring Betty back to me. I'll meet you down there." He pointed to the bench.

Betty, her vital young eyes bright although her cheeks had lost some of their color, showed no reluctance to talk once she was assured that the state of her virtue was not under investigation, that it was, in fact, taken for granted.

"We were out late, Mr. Munson," she admitted readily enough, "because the party didn't break up until half past two, and I was helping to serve."

Munson, sitting, insecurely in the rain-warped wicker chair, nodded and continued to think. Might as well skip a lot of ground, he decided. Why lead up to it by dramatic stages? Get the worst over at once—the confirmation of his suspicions, of his convictions, by eye-witnesses. Then he would do what had to be done, and the case would be over. Over, yes, but not before he had had a talk with young Barney and brought him back to poor Dan. His brother would need him now.

"Then you actually stood under those high bushes ?" he asked.

"We did, sir," replied Betty, and Tom nodded. "We were afraid of being seen and misunderstood."

"Go on, Betty," said Munson in a low voice.

Betty settled herself on the bench and cast Tom a look of importance as if she suspected the poor boy of not understanding what it was all about. It was a look that meant, "What I saw you saw and there's no two ways about it." Tom seemed to understand.

"It was late," began Betty, "and I was so hot from running here and there that I wanted to cool off before going to bed. Tom took me down to the Rock. We started out right away, about half past two. Well, we got there all right and the moon was just rising. Not much of a moon, though."

"Meet anyone on the way?"

"Not a soul," replied Betty. "We walked to the edge of the Rock and stood looking out awhile, looking and talking and wondering sort of. Then we walked round the point to get a view of the marshes. Terribly mysterious they looked in the moonlight. When we came back we were scared stiff to see Miss Emily-Jane and that man Holt—"

"Wait a minute, Betty," Munson broke in. He had detected a note of anger in the girl's voice. "You don't seem to like Mr. Holt. Why?"

"He hasn't let me alone since the first day he arrived," replied Betty. "Doesn't ever seem to get wise to himself. He just can't believe I won't fall for him."

Tom shifted restlessly on the bench and muttered some brief, private observation about a dog.

"Well, you saw them standing there," said Munson. "Then what, Betty ?"

"We didn't want to pass them," she continued, "so we stopped behind those high bushes. They were having a long argument, and drinking. He was urging her to give up Mr. Barney and go away with him. She just laughed. Then, suddenly, his arms went out and he grabbed her. They were swaying there on the edge of the cliff.

"At that moment there was a thrashing in the bushes, and out comes a black figure with a hood on its head. It rushed over to Holt and tried to drag him away. Then out pops another black figure and starts for the scramble, but it stops, this figure does. Stops sudden, just like it saw something unexpected. From where we stood, looking round the edge of the bushes, we could see plain enough, but we didn't see what that second figure saw. All we saw was the first figure slashing at that man Holt, trying to get him away from the girl, and Holt pushing with all his might. He swung round suddenly, and Miss Emily-Jane went over the edge of the cliff."

"Did she scream?" asked Munson.

"She made no sound."

"Funny, that," thought Munson, "if she saw it coming." Aloud he asked, "Did you recognize either of the hooded figures, Betty? Think well. It doesn't mean anything, but I'd just like to get an idea."

Apparently this question was not to Betty's liking.

She looked everywhere but into Munson's dark, steady eyes, which never left her face.

"It can do no harm, Betty," he said quietly, "and it might help me a lot."

Betty considered. "It's just a guess," she said, "so you can't hold it against me, and if it will help, I'll tell. The figure that tried to save Miss Emily-Jane was just about the size of Mr. Dan. The one that scuttled back into the bushes was heavy like Mr. Stoughten. That's the best I can do."

"And after that, Betty?"

"Holt split off through the darkness," the girl went on, "and left the tall black figure standing alone on the rock. And it stripped off its hood, Mr. Munson"—here Betty's voice took an an overtone of awe and she hesitated a moment—"and it was Mr. Dan. I lied about that. It was Mr. Dan and I saw his face. It was terrible, so full of pain and suffering it was. Just like he was being nailed to some invisible cross. He just stood there all the while on the rock, then he left the rock and went down into the darkness below."

"By the pathway, you mean?"

"Yes, Mr. Munson."

The three of them sat in silence awhile, each one picturing the scene, then Munson spoke. "And after that, Betty ?"

"We waited about ten minutes and went home."

"Did you meet anybody on the way, or see anybody about the house?"

"Only Miss June. She was just coming out of the pantry. Said she was having a cup of tea for herself. Had one shoe off. Said her feet hurt her."

"And was that what you saw, Tom ?"

Betty's glance seemed to set off some mechanism in Tom's anatomy which in turn started his head nodding in violent agreement.

"All except the Miss June part," corrected Betty, "Tom sleeps in one of the outhouses with the men. It's the same house where you've lodged those two queer officers that keep following you about."

Munson smiled. "And why didn't you tell me about this before?" he asked.

"We were both afraid we might lose our places," replied Betty. "We like it here together and all. It didn't seem to matter much about Miss Emily-Jane. I didn't like her."

"But suppose we should have convicted an innocent man? What would you have done then?"

"I'd have snitched long before that," the girl explained.

"And in the meantime you were perfectly willing to let me work my head off looking for the murderer?"

"We decided it would give you something to do. We were interested to see if you'd guess right. Did you?"

Once more Munson smiled, this time in spite of his irritation. "I don't guess," he said. "I have to know."

"What are you going to do, Mr. Munson? Do you mind telling?"

"This," said Munson. "I'm going to let you go now with the strict understanding that you'll say nothing. You've really placed yourselves within the reach of the law by withholding this information. You'll have to make up for it now. When I'm ready I'll let you know and then I want you to repeat your story before Mr. Holt and probably in the presence of Sergeant Bennett. Will you do that for me?"

They readily agreed and departed almost on tiptoe, like sobered children. Munson remained where he was. He was lost in thought. He was very much afraid that Betty's story wouldn't quite wash. It was true enough as far as it went. She believed she had seen what she had told him, but unconsciously she had been biased in her vision.

As a result she had presented Lane Holt in the light shed by her own opinion of him. She had seen him as the murderer and Daniel as the hero rushing to the rescue. No, it wouldn't wash; at least, Munson was not so sure. Her narrative of the actual killing had been too confused. Either one of them might have pushed the girl off, in spite of the fact that Betty claimed Holt had deliberately tried to do so, while Daniel had done just the opposite and attempted to save Emily-Jane. After all, Betty's story might go with a jury, particularly when corroborated by the enslaved Tom. Strong evidence, if properly rehearsed and presented. Why not go ahead with it? Lane Holt was no good. What was his life worth compared with Daniel's or Sam's? Munson was sorely tempted. It would be so very easy with the clues he had in hand, and the situation would be saved. Certainly of the three Holt acted the guiltiest. Well, all he could do was to put Betty's story to the test, to confront Lane Holt with it and to study his reactions. In the face of such overwhelming direct evidence he might, if he were guilty, break down and confess.

Rising from his chair, he walked slowly back to the house through the old orchard. He skirted the side of the house and came out on the lawn. He wondered if Emily-Jane's body had been sent away yet, and seeing June Lansing sitting alone under the shade of a tree, he strolled over and asked her.

"Yes," said June calmly. "Emily-Jane has seen the last of Crewe House. A most unbereaved-looking old lady arrived while you were off somewhere, and carried her back to Ohio. Strange thing, that. Never even knew she came from Ohio. Somehow she didn't act as if she had come from there."

"Did you receive the old lady, or Aunt Matty?"

"The pair of us did. She was an odd old thing. Some sort of an aunt or other. She didn't seem to know what it was all about or to care a rap. Just duty. She was doing it."

"Say anything about Emily-Jane?"

"Hardly knew her, she said. Emily-Jane rarely came home. Couldn't drag her back except for a few weeks at a time."

"How did Barney act?"

"He didn't act. Just kept on painting. He's mad." June lit another cigarette. "He's funny. The body was taken out the back way, so he didn't even see it leave. Anyway he hasn't been interested in Emily-Jane's body since the life went out of it. Looked at it once, then hurried away. For him Emily-Jane had ceased to exist. The body didn't matter. And all he said when he looked at her was, `And back of all that beauty—' He never finished his sentence." June tossed her cigarette away and lit another one. "Wish it was all over," she said. "Our Emily-Jane left a lot of trouble behind. She ran true to form to the last, Scott."

"You're smoking too much, June," said Munson. "I've been noticing it of late."

He rose and walked away. June's ale-colored eyes with their little speckles dwelt on him thoughtfully. She held out one hand and watched it. The fingers trembled slightly.

"Guess he's right," she said to herself. "My nerves are going, too."

Munson started for his room. On his way up he met Aunt Matty, who had evidently sought refuge in trifles, for she was fussing about a lost domino, one that had never been worn.

"There were six of them," she was telling Betty,who gave the impression of being only mildly interested, "and now there are only five. The new one's gone."

The old lady managed to cram so much tragedy into this last statement that Munson smiled as he mounted the stairs. Then suddenly he stopped, his foot half raised for the next step. Where was that lost domino, he wondered. That was it. Was that domino actually lost or— A great shouting somewhere outside interrupted this interesting line of thought. Munson ran down the stairs and out to the veranda.

At the far end of the lawn, the end nearest the road, he made out a long pair of legs frantically raised aloft. Upon approaching these legs he discovered they were joined to the attenuated trunk of Officer Shad. Clutched in the officer's arms as if it were a pearl of great price, was the head of Lane Holt. On the fringe of this grotesque struggle, Officer Red was capering excitedly, revolver in hand.

"You hold him, and I'll shoot him," he was shouting for the benefit of the prostrate Shay.

"For God's sake, don't shoot," cried Shad. "Things are bad enough as they are. This devil's trying to bite my ear clean offen my head."

Munson silently enjoyed the scene until he saw Officer Red take deliberate aim at the beautifully exposed though earnestly animated rear section of Mr. Lane Holt. It was an irresistible target. Munson appreciated the fact, but felt called upon to intervene.

"Sorry, Red," he remarked. "I'd like to take a try myself, but the situation doesn't justify it, I'm afraid. Put your gun away." Then he addressed Officer Shad. "Let him up, Shad," he said. "You have done well."

Shad seemed to think so himself, as he released the head and arose from the scene of battle.

"He was trying to do a bunk," he announced, pointing to a partially strangled Holt. "We told him to stop, but he wouldn't. So," concluded Shad with modest satisfaction, "we stopped him."

"How about it, Holt?" asked Munson.

"They're crazy as hell," exclaimed Holt. "I was mooning about down here after Emily-Jane had gone—I'd seen the last of her going down the road—and I wasn't paying much attention to anything, when all of a sudden these two lunatics rushed out from behind a bush and told me to stop. Naturally I told them to go to hell, and kept on walking. Then without word of warning they jumped on my back and down I went. Ever since then I've just been trying to get up. That's all."

"He damn well near bit my ear off," said Officer Shad, applying a tender hand to the left side of his long head.

"You would have been well avenged if Mr. Munson hadn't stopped me," said Officer Red.

"There seems to have been a general misunderstanding," Munson observed, "but I must admit you boys did well. I'm proud of you. Carry on."

Taking Holt by the arm he led him back across the lawn.

"Holt," he said, "if you feel up to it, I'd like to have you meet me in the little study at the far end of the house in about half an hour." He looked at his watch. "It's eleven-thirty now and luncheon is not until one. Think you can make it ?"

The man shrugged his drooping shoulders rather hopelessly.

"Oh, hell, what does it matter anyway?" he said in a flat voice. "I'll be there. . . . Might as well get it over. I don't care a damn now one way or anotherbut I suggest you have a little talk with your good friend Daniel."

He broke away from Munson and went into the house. Munson found Bennett, who had just returned from making inquiries at the neighboring houses in an endeavor to ascertain if any of the servants had been near High Point Rock on the night of the murder. He had had no luck. When Munson told him his story his eyes lighted up.

"Then that settles everything," he said. "We'll drill a confession out of his hide and I'll take him to the lockup right off. You've got the case on ice, Mr. Munson."

But Scott only smiled wearily as he turned toward the house. "I'm not so sure, Bennett," he said. "Sometimes you can't depend on the accuracy of eye-witnesses even."

"But their story would convince any jury."

"Yes," replied Scott, "and that's what irks me."

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