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Did She Fall?
MUNSON SITS ALONE
GOOD-BY, Barney." Sally Brent extended a timid hand. "Silly, isn't it? We haven't even said hello ... and now it's good-by."
The inquest was over, and people were flocking around them on the veranda. Barney was completely dazed. He was experiencing a high state of uselessness. He had to do something about this girl's hand, but instead of doing anything he contented himself by peering at the small, outstretched palm as if it were some novel specimen of fish.
"It's a hand, Barney," said Sally solemnly. "You're supposed to shake it."
Barney knew all about shaking hands, but it struck him as being rather foolish to be shaking Sally's. Sally was always around somewhere if he wanted her. Nevertheless, he permitted himself to be inveigled into accepting the proffered fingers.
"I'm glad about Daniel," Sally went on, hoping she might at last hear the sound of Barney's voice.
Barney stiffened. His expression, the girl thought, had suddenly grown a little bitter. "There are too many people," he complained. "I don't like all these people. How's your motorboat?"
One might have thought he was inquiring about an ailing aunt or mother. However, Sally's motorboat deserved a certain amount of respectful solicitude. It was one of the fastest on the Sound, and with little Sally at the wheel one of the maddest.
"Swell," replied Sally. "Come over and take a ride with me soon."
"Perhaps," said Barney vaguely. "One of these days."
"Well, good-by, then, Barney." Sally's eyes were at their brightest.
"So long, Sally."
The small creature turned away. Well, that was a start, at any rate. Not much, but a start. It would have to do for now. Barney was still woefully confused. She would have to wait until he was a little more like himself. Sally was quite willing to wait. Fundamentally she was a sensible girl. Most women are, when it comes to getting what they want. And Sally knew what she wanted. Also she knew how to set about getting it.
Barney looked after her as she threaded her pert little way neatly down the veranda. That was Sally Brent. Barney decided he did not dislike the girl. Rather a nice little thing. No brain, but harmless. Then he turned and regarded everybody reproachfully. "Please hurry away from here," was clearly expressed in his eyes. And when at last the house had relapsed into its accustomed tranquillity, he hurried indoors and returned with his easel. In front of this he crouched, his eyes caressing the canvas. Presently he began to paint as if prompted by some inner voice.
When Scott Munson left the room after demonstrating the method and manner of Lane Holt's death, he did not return to the library. At the moment of triumph he was in a bitter mood. There was still another murder to be solved, and this time he would not be on the side of his friend Daniel Crewe. He would be out to get Daniel, and Munson felt that the time was drawing near. A moment of freedom again, then darkness and despair. What a tough break. What a miserable situation.
He moved to one of the French windows and looked into the library. There was Manning, the libidinous old fool, looking as if he'd just swallowed the canary. What was he smirking at, anyway? Munson idly shifted his gaze. Oh, yes, that was it. Not a bad leg either. One could depend on Manning's good taste in these matters. The jury was back now. There could be only one verdict. Evidently so thought the jury for, without any further taking of testimony, it attributed the death of Lane Holt to a self-inflicted wound from a bullet entering the brain through the left temple.
As Daniel's friends gathered round him, extending hands and offering congratulations, Munson witnessed the scene ironically. He wondered what Daniel was thinking deep down in his heart. These good people believed that everything was over now, everything but the shouting, when in reality everything was just beginning. And there was Sam Stoughten, suspect number two. Sam was not looking so cheerful as the occasion might seem to warrant. As a matter of fact, Sam was relieved but feeling far from hilarious. "If that devil Munson is as clever as all that," he was thinking to himself, "what chance have we got against him? He'll have us all strung up before the end of the week." He did not bother Daniel at the moment, but picked his way to the veranda, where to his ill-concealed disgust he encountered the object of his thoughts. Munson favored Sam with a long, deep, and penetrating scrutiny, under the intensity of which his depression became even more depressed.
"Been getting drunk lately?" asked Munson.
"Chuck it, Scott," said Sam. "Don't crow. You turned a neat trick this time. Things looked bad for Daniel."
"Looked?" replied Munson.
To Sam's relief he was joined by his wife, June, and Daniel. June Lansing was the happiest one of the group. Scott found himself wondering about that.
"Scott Munson," she said, "you're a wizard. I feel almost as if you'd saved Dan's life."
"Dan saved his own life this time," replied Munson, looking unsmilingly at Daniel. "I hope he'll be as successful in the future."
"Thanks," said Daniel dryly. "I'll do my damnedest, Scott."
"I'm afraid you'll need it," responded Munson. He was actually angry with Daniel for having placed him in the position in which he found himself. If Daniel hadn't been so hopelessly pig-headed, everything might have been different. And Munson had given him every chance, practically begged him for his confidence.
June did not relish the element of grimness underlying the exchange of remarks between the two men. "How do you mean Daniel saved himself?" she asked Munson.
"He told me he heard something scraping across the floor," replied Munson. "That piece of gratuitous information kept turning up in my mind. I was continually hearing that scraping. If I hadn't been so dumb I'd have figured out the whole thing the moment I saw the strand of thread attached to the revolver. What puzzled me was that Daniel didn't mention hearing a bump when the revolver fell back to the floor. You must have heard a bump, Dan."
"I heard it," said Dan, "but at the time I didn't think it important. It was just by good luck I happened to mention the scraping."
"Well, you scraped yourself out with your ears this time," observed Munson sardonically, as he turned from the group. "And," he added, looking back, "you've gotten to know what the inside of a cell looks like."
"I can't get over the feeling that he's a mean man," said Sam Stoughten. "A wise-cracking snake in the grass."
After dinner that evening Munson sat alone. For his cogitations he had selected a secluded section of the veranda. When daylight came, a large collection of stubs from methodically and occasionally irritably smoked cigarettes could be seen sprinkling the lawn in the neighborhood of the chair in which Munson had sat.
Scott realized with a sinking sensation that the time for a final showdown was at hand. Yet some nebulous, vaguely revealed idea at the back of his mind was warning him to go slow. It was like a voice urging him to take one more look before he leaped finally and irrevocably.
Lane Holt was eliminated. That was flat. And the elimination of Lane Holt immediately suggested a simple, attractive, and highly dishonorable way out of an appalling situation, one that might eventually prove to be even more appalling than Munson cared to admit to himself.
Lane Holt was out of the way, but Tom and Betty remained behind to damn his name eternally. The story of these two eye-witnesses was made ready to hand for Scott Munson's purposes, should he be weak enough to take the easy way out of his difficulties. However, Scott Munson was not so constituted. He had said he was going to go through with this case regardless of whom it affected. He had given his word to the district attorney he would play no favorites. But stronger than any promptings of honor, any considerations of friendship or professional achievement, was a grim element in his spiritual as well as intellectual composition that forced him to go through with a job once he had tackled it. Consequences did not count. If the true solution of a certain problem would have resulted in the destruction of the human race, Munson would have been an extremely uncomfortable person to have around. In spite of the restraining influence of common sense and kindness, his strongest instincts would have driven him at that problem even though its solution involved his own elimination together with the remainder of less inquisitive mankind.
Munson had never attached much importance to Lane Holt's part in the tragedy of Emily-Jane. He had never credited the man with sufficient emotional drive to enable him to commit the act. The murder of Emily-Jane had been no easy task. It had been, as a matter of fact, far more difficult psychologically, far more opposed to a man's natural instincts, than a murder done in the heat of passion. The cowardly element involved in her murder must have been recognized and overcome by the person contemplating the deed. The murder, when considered apart from the circumstances surrounding it and the motives leading up to it, was of a particularly cruel and brutal nature. Just the right kind of murder for such a creature as Emily-Jane.
Nor did Munson place any great reliance in the obviously biased story of Betty Harrison. Up to a certain point the girt had remained veracious, but at the critical moment her natural honesty had cracked under the strain of her loyalty to Daniel and her ill will against Lane Holt. Her vision had become considerably impaired. Tom Shanks, her slave, was hopeless. He saw through the eyes of Betty and thought with Betty's brain.
Although Scott Munson was morally certain that Daniel had murdered Emily-Jane, he found it more difficult to eliminate Sam Stoughten from his thoughts. Sam had already to his credit one attempted murder. Beyond any question of doubt it had been his hand that had driven the knife through the curtain and into Daniel's arm on the night of the dance. Sam had intended that knife to put a very definite and speedy end to the triumphal but ruthless progress of Emily-Jane. He had been alone and unobserved in the dining-room with immediate access to a diversity of knives. He had had control of the light switches. He had a clear mental picture of the group of three and of Emily-Jane's exact position in that group. A long-bladed dinner knife had been used. Sam's forger-prints had been found on its handle.
Sam had motives enough and more to energize his hand. His loyalty to Daniel was not the least of them. That motive was, perhaps, even stronger than any personal consideration. Stoughten was Daniel's confidant. Better than anyone else he had known what dark, unhappy thoughts were troubling his friend's mind. So strong was his affection for Daniel he had proved himself capable of attempting murder himself rather than to let Daniel become involved. He knew that his old roommate was snared in the net so skilfully cast by Emily-Jane. Sam further knew that Daniel would never let her marry Barney. Step by step Sam had seen the situation mounting to a climax. He had been on the inside all along. He had shared Daniel's thoughts and had been aware of his unsuccessful attempts to persuade Emily-Jane to give up Barney.
Munson recalled that brief passage at arms between Emily-Jane and Sam Stoughten on the veranda of the club-house. That conversation had dealt with letters—Sam's letters to Emily-Jane. The existence of those letters alone constituted sufficient motive for murder. As long as that slim packet remained in possession of Emily-Jane there would not be a care-free minute in Sam Stoughten's life. And Sam had not been in his room at the time of the murder. He had been out in the night and had lied most uneffectually about his movements.
Scott Munson realized that he could present such a strong case against Stoughten to any jury that a conviction of first degree murder would result on the first ballot.
Yet, in spite of this, in spite of all the damning evidence Munson could so easily produce, he knew in his heart that Sam Stoughten had not murdered Emily-Jane. But he was also equally certain that Sam had been present at the time of the murder, that he had been close at hand and witnessed the whole thing. Sam had been the figure that had backed into the bushes. Munson was sure of this, and he was no less sure that within a few days now he would force Sam to say what he had seen.
With Sam out of it there remained only Daniel, and several times since the murder he had tacitly admitted his guilt. There was hardly anything left for him to do. The trail he had left behind him could have been picked up and followed by the veriest novice. Daniel had gone out of his way to supply an abundance of clues. His motive for murdering Emily-Jane had been even stronger than Sam's. And ever since the murder Daniel had conducted himself like a man whose soul had been forfeited to the devil. Previous to the death of Emily-Jane, Scott Munson had clearly seen murder in Daniel's eyes. After her death, Munson had seen in the eyes of his friend the tortured conscience of a man who had taken a human life against all his natural instincts; forno matter how strongly convinced of the rightness of his act Daniel might have been intellectually, it was plain to Scott Munson that his being cried out against it.
Once more Munson saw Daniel standing rigid and horror bound before that accusing picture being painted by Barney. There stood a murderer if Munson had even seen one. An open confession of his guilt was stamped on his drawn face.
Daniel Crewe a murderer! Munson rose abruptly and in the darkness paced the veranda. Murder with premeditation, and yet when viewed in a certain light Daniel's mad act had been about the greatest sacrifice one man can make for another. It had been a sacrifice greater than death itself, for even if Daniel escaped the chair he would carry his guilt in his heart with him through life. And the awful memory of that night on High Point Rock would always linger in his eyes and dwell deep in his thoughts. There would be nights when Emily-Jane would return to Daniel to taunt and torture him, and Daniel in his dreams would become a murderer again.
Pacing there in the darkness, Munson realized all this, and he understood the subtle ramifications of this so-called crime. What a rotten hand for life to have dealt to a decent player like Dan.
The cigarette Munson tossed aside was one of those most irritably smoked. It had been a thoroughly unsatisfactory cigarette. Munson stopped pacing long enough to contemplate its tiny light glowing in the grass. He was well rid of that cigarette. He continued down the veranda to the far end. When he returned to his chair he found it occupied by a dark, motionless figure.
"Who's that?" he demanded sharply.
"Stoughten," came the quiet reply. "Didn't know I had taken your chair, Munson. I wanted to be alone to think."
"Well, you've a devil of a lot to think about, Sam," said Munson. "I wouldn't care to be entertained by the thoughts that are passing through your mind at this moment."
"Nor I by yours," rejoined Stoughten. "Draw up a chair and sit down, Scott."
Munson found a chair for himself, and for some minutes the two men sat smoking in silence.
"Well," asked Sam at last, "who did it, Munson?"
"Either you did it or Dan," replied Scott bluntly.
"Any particular preference?" Sam inquired.
"I'm playing no favorites," said Munson. "The both of you look guilty as hell to me."
"Scott"—Sam's voice was serious—"suppose I should tell you that Daniel had no hand in the affair. Suppose I could convince you that I was present at the time of the murder. Suppose I could prove to your entire satisfaction that, although he may have intended to murder Emily-Jane, he did not actually do it. Would you, under those circumstances, lay off of Dan?"
"You'd have some damn tall proving to do, Sam," replied Munson, "and if you did succeed in convincing me, I'd have only one choice left."
"And that choice?" Sam had lowered his voice. "To arrest you on a charge of murder," said Munson.
Sam stiffened slightly in his chair. When he spoke again it was almost as if he were speaking to himself.
"It would be the better choice, at that," he remarked, "but perhaps there doesn't need to be any arrest at all. I saw the whole affair and I'm not at all sure that the death of Emily-Jane wasn't purely accidental." Suddenly he came to life and regarded Munson triumphantly. "I think I've got you, Scott," he continued slowly. "No matter which way you move I think I've got you blocked. Both Betty and Tom are ready to swear themselves blue in the face that Lane Holt did it. Now, I am the only other eye-witness and I can do either one of two things—swear that Emily-Jane's death was due to an accident, or substantiate the evidence of Betty and Tom. In either case you'd be left high and dry."
"You seem to have overlooked, Sam," replied Munson quietly, "several small but important details. Earlier in the evening an attempt was made on the life of Emily-Jane, who later was found dead. I happen to know the person who made that first attempt. As for motive I have some letters. And just to give you a little surplus food for thought, I'm not at all sure that I may not be able to unearth still another eye-witness."
Sam sank back hopelessly in his chair, his inspiration drained. For a minute he had been foolish enough to believe he had discovered a way out of the difficulty for both Daniel and himself. He saw now that there was no way out.
"What are you going to do with those letters, Scott?" he asked.
"We'll talk about them," replied Munson, rising from his chair, "when you are a little more willing to talk . . . sensibly."
He left Sam sitting despondently in his chair and went directly to his room. Here he produced his note-book and thoughtfully studied the little design he had copied from the sand. Just what was he trying to prove and how was he going to set about doing it at this late date? He closed the book and slipped it back into his pocket.
"Another eye-witness," he said to himself, "or the whole truth from Sam. Must get one or the other, and I might need both."
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