|Previous Chapter||Contents||Next Chapter|
Did She Fall?
DEATH COMES INDOORS
DANIEL'S study was like a happy thought on a dull day. It was an unexpected relief. At the extreme left end of the house, it was approached by way of a long crazy corridor that ambled past a series of pleasant rooms, each of which invited the passer to enter and linger awhile. It was not so much a study as it was a retreat—an escape from boredom when life turned drab. Here there were books and comfortable chairs and the smell of tobacco. Its front windows gave to the lawn and the broad sweep of the Sound; those at the side commanded a view of the orchard with the glinting streams of the salt marshes caught in the arms of the trees. From the study a door led directly to the veranda where it curved round the house, and here there were several easy chairs. It was like a private deck on an ocean liner, an essential part of the whole, yet cut off and remote.
It was by way of the veranda door that Munson and Bennett now entered. The room seemed lost to the world, so still and tranquil it was. And Daniel was a part of its stillness. At one of the side windows he was standing in an attitude of tense immobility. Deep in thought, he stood with his sunken eyes brooding out over the salt marshes where the sluggish streams twisted through the reeds. On his face was an expression of utter weariness and defeat. His was the face of a man who was very much alone with himself.
The two men were in the room before he turned from the window. He regarded them in silence for amoment; then an expression of resignation came into his eyes.
"Well, gentlemen," he said in a quiet voice, "I suppose you want me?"
"Why should we want you, Dan?" asked Munson quickly.
"For murder," he replied in level tones. "That's all you want anyone for these days, Scott."
"Well, this time, Daniel, we're not after you, but your room. Mr. Lane Holt has promised to meet us here for a chatty half-hour. I've a feeling he's got an interesting story to tell. I've the same feeling about you and Sam, and I've promised myself the pleasure of listening to those stories within the next few days."
Daniel slightly inclined his head. "I shall try to make mine as interesting as possible and as unenlightening."
Munson smiled rather sadly. "Things have gone far beyond that, Daniel," he said. "We'll have to have a showdown soon. You know I can't keep stalling on the job forever."
Holt entered the room by way of the corridor. Daniel faced him squarely. Their eyes met, and those of Holt were filled with an insane hatred. He looked upon Daniel as the cause of all the misery through which he had passed, the nights and days of cold, pursuing fear. But for Daniel, Emily-Jane would be alive today, and he, Holt, would be safe . . . and happy.
His lips bared his white, even teeth as he uttered one word, "Murderer!"
On the silence of the room the word fell jarringly, accusingly. Daniel received it with an expressionless face. He seemed to be considering the man before him as if he were some microscopic specimen. Presently he spoke. His voice was quiet and well controlled.
"I'm beginning to wonder about that," he said, and walked to the veranda door where he stopped and looked back. "Holt," he continued, "you don't deserve to live, and I've a strange feeling that you won't live much longer." He grinned and passed through the door. His tall figure could be seen stalking across the lawn.
"What the devil did he mean by that?" asked Holt nervously.
"Nothing good for you," said Sergeant Bennett, with a grim smile. "I wouldn't be alone with him if I were in your place."
Munson was looking worried. Just what had Daniel meant, anyway? His remark had made Scott feel jumpy. He shrugged his shoulders. Probably Daniel had only wanted to throw a scare into Holt. Well, Holt was scared enough as it was. No need to paint the lily. He turned to the rather pitiful object of his thoughts and studied his fear-haunted, feverish eyes with their thinly veiled depths of hate. His scrutiny convinced him that Holt's mind was sick, that the man had already departed from the rational ways of thinking and was keeping to the tracks merely through fear and force of habit. A thin ray of pity momentarily touched Munson. Perhaps, after all, Emily-Jane's going out had left an empty place in the life of this creature who stood dejectedly before him, as rotten as he was.
"Sit down," he said in a kindly voice, for he realized that Lane Holt was about to be subjected to a test that would tax the strongest nerves, and he had grave doubts regarding the man's ability to stand it.
Holt, without speaking, slumped lethargically into an easy chair and kept his eyes on the floor. The kindly tone affected by Munson had increased rather than diminished his fear. It was suggestive of a bountiful meal just previous to execution. Munson could afford to be kindly only when things were going his way. Holt entertained the morbid impression that the two men were looking at him as if he were already dead. He moved uneasily in his chair. His gaze strayed over the floor—anywhere but up.
"Well," he said at last, irritably, "did you get me here just to look at me? Let's get this over."
"All right, Bennett," said Munson. "You can bring Betty and Tom here now. You'll find them at the back of the house."
Bennett was not long in returning with the maid and her lumbering but obedient slave. Munson saw them comfortably seated and made them feel at ease. The expression of fear deepened in Holt's eyes. He had given the pair one quick glance, but had refused to meet Betty's accusing gaze.
"Now, Betty," said Munson in an easy voice, "all you have to do is to sit there and tell your story just as if you were telling it to someone in no way concerned with the case. Understand? Make everything clear, but be sure about your details, and don't for the love of Pete imagine things. Just stick to what you know, what you actually heard and saw."
The girl had her story clearly briefed in her mind by this time, and she told it with a simple conviction that left no room for doubting her sincerity. As her participation in the events of the night unfolded, Holt's eyes gradually crept up from the floor until they rested on Betty's full red lips as if held there by some terrible attraction. Occasionally Munson interrupted the story to ask Holt a question.
"Did you quarrel, Holt, while you were standing there near the edge of the cliff?"
"No," came Holt's unsteady voice, "we didn't quarrel at all. At first we argued a little, but after a while we gave that up."
"All right, Betty, go on."
And Betty went on to the ghastly climax, which seemed more ghastly still because of the stark simplicity with which she narrated it. Holt was on his feet, his face working and lips dry. There was a kind of hopeless desperation in his eyes. He spoke like a man who had no expectation of being believed, yet his words were urgent, pleading.
"She's wrong," he said. "They didn't see that. The whole thing was confused. How could she tell what happened? Right up to the end of her story she sticks to the facts, except about our quarreling. Then at the most important part she deliberately reverses what actually happened. It doesn't make sense. What reason had I for killing Emily-Jane? I tell you I was fond of her in my way, and she was fond of me. I had nothing to fear from her. You have Sam Stoughten's letters. There's a motive for you, stronger than any you can pin on me."
"But you wanted those letters, Holt," Munson quietly reminded him.
"Oh, hell, yes!" cried Holt. "Perhaps I did, but that was after the thing had happened. I only thought of them then. I'm a rotter, if you want to have it that way, but I didn't murder Emily-Jane."
"Then you mean you won't confess?" asked Ben-nett. "You're going through with it? What's the sense, man, in the face of all this evidence–two eyewitnesses, your flask at the scene of the crime, your actions after the crime, and your admitted relationship with the dead girl? Why drag out the misery, Holt? It will come to the same thing in the end."
Munson had remained silent. He preferred to let Bennett try his hand. He was more convinced than ever that Lane Holt was innocent, yet he could not brush aside the testimony of two obviously sincere eyewitnesses. Everything was unsatisfactory about this case. Munson heartily wished he was out of it. Holt turned to him.
"Are you going to arrest me on that?" he asked.
Munson considered while Bennett watched him eagerly. "I don't know," he said at last. "I'm not sure, but stick around, Holt. We might be wanting you at any minute."
Holt started to say something, then gave it up as if the effort were too hopeless. His whole being was dipped in a clinging hatred of Daniel Crewe. Everyone was on Daniel's side. If he could only get back at Daniel. If he could only pin the guilt on him. Holt felt that he would willingly sacrifice anything for that. He left the room unsteadily, holding on to the frame of the door for support. In the library he sat down at Daniel's great desk and thought. With the hounds of fear rushing across his brain he found that he could still think clearly and to some purpose. Gradually an evil smile twisted his white lips. "They'll have to believe that," he said to himself. "There will be no getting round it."
Daniel found June in her favorite chair on the lawn. She was doing nothing, absolutely nothing. Her thoughts were adrift in space. And although her expression was calm and composed, Daniel felt that her spirit was tense and waiting. He could not account for this feeling. Yet he knew that June was passing through her own little private hell and that be was responsible. The realization of this was almost more than he could bear. How could he confess when she was fighting silently with the truth in her heart? What was Holt saying to Munson back there in the study? Was he telling what he knew, and would Scott Munson believe him?
June looked up and smiled. "There's a chair," she said, pointing to one with her foot. "Drag it over here and fold up your great length in it."
"Munson has collared Holt," said Daniel, doing as he was bidden. "They've got him in there now."
"I'd like to hear his story, Dan."
"So would I, and then again I wouldn't."
She turned in her chair and looked at him in a way that was unusual for her. Her eyes were so tender and unhappy . . . they were lonely, those eyes of June's. Daniel felt himself powerless to help her.
"You have nothing to fear, Daniel," she told him. "Don't mind what lies Holt may tell. Munson will deal with him."
"Do you believe that, June?"
"Yes, Dan. Stick it out."
"Together we'll see it through."
"We'll see it through and farther."
"How about our yacht?"
"Is there such a thing?"
"Yes, June. It's a swell yacht."
She pondered awhile in silence, then, "Well, keep the yacht in mind, Dan." Her voice broke and she turned her head away. "Although it may be only a crazy hunch."
His hand was gripping hers. "Come back and fight, June," he pleaded.
"Half a minute, old dear. I'll fight."
"And you know ?"
Her head sank on her breast. "Dan," she whispered, "I've always known."
"Sorry, June." His voice was dead.
She turned on him fiercely. "Then don't be sorry. I'm only sorry for you."
"And me for you, dear."
A long silence, then June, "We'll make the grade somehow."
"In our yacht?"
"Sure," she smiled. "That yacht's gotten the best of you."
"I've always been fond of the sea, June, you know."
She was holding everything back now. Her teeth were set, and her hands gripped the arms of her chair. "I know, Dan. I like it, too."
"All the world and places," he murmured, his eyes on the broad blue Sound. "Clear of this dismal damn mess."
"That's the way I like to hear you talk. Your old face looks so worn."
And he rested his head on her shoulder, but he wasn't very comfortable. Neither was June.
Since the death of Emily-Jane, meals at Crewe House had been rather sketchy affairs. Attendance had been unreliable. For a long time now Aunt Matty hadn't known what the world was ever coming to. And no matter how often and thoroughly she washed her hands of everything she was still very much involved.
At luncheon both Holt and Daniel were absent, which, according to Aunt Matty, made it a pretty state of affairs. The head of the house not sitting down at his own table, and his own blood brother gnawing away like a dog and saying never a word.
"But what's the use of being head of the house unless you can do as you please?" asked June.
Aunt Matty cast her an indignant look. "There isn't any head to this house," she pronounced, "and still less tail."
Sue Stoughten laughed so earnestly over this that Aunt Matty thought she had really been funny. The old lady felt much better.
Munson endeavored to lead Sam into the ways of speech, but Sam, suspecting a trap, was sparing of his words. Bennett, who had stayed for luncheon at Munson's invitation, gave an admirable demonstration of well-controlled but effective eating. Barney, as Aunt Matty had put it, just gnawed away in stubborn silence.
Then came the shot—the sound of a shot.
White faces lifted and forks suspended. For what were they waiting? No one seemed to know. They were held there because all their instincts told them urgently that they did not want to know. There had been enough of tragedy—enough of death. Keep out of it. Don't know. Don't try to find out.
Bennett, however, wanted to know and intended to find out. The sound of the shot had hardly died away before he was out of the dining-room and up the stairs. For only a moment he paused, then ran down the hall to an open door. Daniel was standing in it, a piece of paper crushed in his hand.
"Come back in here with me, Mr. Crewe," said Bennett in a quietly commanding voice, as he brushed past Daniel and entered the room. Daniel, like a person in a hypnotic condition, turned and followed the detective. Below at the foot of the stairs, Scott Munson sarcastically excused himself as he passed between Officers Shad and Red, each politely insisting that the other ascend first.
Bennett stood in the middle of the room and took in the situation. At a large table Lane Holt sat. He was sprawled out and his head was flung back and he was dead. In his right hand he held a pen, and in his left temple there was a hole made by a bullet fired at close range.
Munson was there now. Mechanically he felt the man's heart. It would never again harbor hate or fear.
"Well, he's out of the case," said Munson, looking regretfully down at the grotesque figure. "This leaves us about half-way up a tree."
For a moment he looked about him, then he deliberately placed a chair against the wall where he commanded a full view of the room, and sat down.
"Sit down, Daniel," he said, his voice sounding tired and strained. "Bennett, go to the door and ask those two faces please to withdraw. They confuse me. Tell one of them to telephone the coroner and tell him to bring a doctor. Then come back here and stand by my chair. I want you to see with me."
When Bennett had dispatched the stunned Shays he returned to Munson's chair and once more looked about the room.
"Take notes," said Munson. "I want you to remember everything. Daniel, you say, was just leaving the room when you reached the door. He had a piece of crumpled paper in his hand. Put that down. Now just make brief notes as I go along. Pen in dead man's right hand. Wound in left temple fired at close range. Handkerchief on floor at left side. Ink bottle open. Service revolver at far end of room under window. Probably thrown there by murderer. Is it your gun, Daniel?" His eyes met Daniel's and Daniel nodded. "Go on with the notes, Bennett," said Munson. "Service revolver the admitted property of Daniel Crewe. Now draw a line." Munson looked up. "All right, Daniel," he said, then added, "Get this, Bennett."
"My story's so simple," replied Daniel, "it sounds foolish."
"Tell it," said Munson.
"I was in my room." Daniel spoke in a detached, matter-of-fact voice. "Lane Holt called me. His words were : `Daniel, please come here.' He sounded urgent. I got up from the bed and walked across the hall. There was a shot. As I opened the door I thought I heard something scraping across the floor. I entered the room but saw nothing moving. Holt was as he is now. I went to him and saw he was dead. Then I saw what he had been writing and I took the sheet of paper, hoping to get away with it. Bennett stopped me at the door. And"— Daniel smiled sardonically—"that's all."
"Bring me the paper, Bennett."
Daniel relinquished his hold on the paper. It dropped into Bennett's outstretched hand. He brought it over to Munson, who smoothed it out and read:
Dear Munson :
I am going to hand you this statement to read, because whenever I try to tell you the truth I can see you don't believe me and then I lose my nerve.
Everything that Betty said was true. I agree in every detail with two exceptions. We did not quarrel. I did not touch Emily-Jane. Daniel Crewe deliberately murdered her, and if you want to find out the facts I dare you to grill Sam Stoughten. At the same time ask him who did the stabbing.
If you're so damned honest think this over. Daniel Crewe is the murd
At the point where the statement broke off there was a small splash of ink. The lower part of the letter was smeared where the writing had not yet dried.
"Are you ready to go, Daniel?" Munson's voice was toneless.
"I didn't do it, Scott."
"It's better to be arrested for this murder than the other one." There seemed to be some hidden significance in Scott's words.
Daniel left the room with Bennett. Munson sank back in his chair. When Judson, the coroner, arrived with the doctor he was still sitting in the same position.
"Another killing, Judson," he said. "I'd like to hold the inquest at four tomorrow. Let me see." He looked at his watch. "That will give me a little less than twenty-seven hours."
"It looks like a fairly simple case," Judson observed after he had heard the details. "I'm sorry as hell for Daniel Crewe. He's a fine lad." He paused and looked round the room, then said in a puzzled voice, "I wonder what the devil's got into this old house anyway?"
"You tell me," said Munson.
"I didn't do it, June." Daniel spoke rapidly while Bennett stood by. He admired Daniel Crewe.
"Can you prove it, Dan?" June's face was deathly pale, but her voice was as calm as ever and her eyes held no hint of fear.
Daniel shook his head and grinned from complete frustration. "It's silly," he said. "It's so damned pat. Why, it couldn't look more convincing if I'd dragged him into the dining-room and strangled him before your eyes."
"What does Scott think?"
"What can he think?" Daniel hesitated, remembering Munson's words. "He acted sort of funny, though," he added. "Seemed to have something on his mind."
"It's all right," said June.
"Think so?" said Daniel.
"It's all right," she repeated, and kissed him. Then she turned to Bennett and smiled, "Take him away, officer."
Daniel stepped into the waiting car and was driven down the road. June stood there waving to him until the trees dosed over the car.
Barney at his easel watched his brother depart. Save for a slight tightening round the lips his expression did not change.
June sank into a chair and let the tears chase each other down her freckled cheeks. Barney tried to pretend he did not notice her. He began to fidget fretfully on his stool. Finally he put down his brushes and looked at her uncomfortably.
"Don't do that," he commanded explosively. "What are you doing?"
"I'm crying, you young fool. Crying like hell." "Why?"
"They've arrested Daniel."
"They claim he shot Lane Holt."
"What's he doing, anyway—making a hobby of it?"
"Barney, I could kill you."
"Wish you would, June." Barney's voice was sufficiently bitter. He regarded June speculatively for a moment. "Did he do him in?" he asked.
"Holt's dead," she replied.
"Good," said Barney, with undisguised satisfaction. June smiled in spite of her tears. "You have no soul, Barney."
For the remainder of the day Barney was unable to paint. He passed most of the time sitting on his brother's bed.
Only June Lansing knew where he was. She left him entirely alone.
|Previous Chapter||Contents||Next Chapter|