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Did She Fall?
THE INEVITABLE DRAWS NEARER
DANIEL and June were idling along the Cliff Path. They had little to say to each other. There was little that required saying. Both were smoking nervously. Daniel was scarring the toes of his boots by kicking stones from the path. He was conscientious about it. Apparently his idea was to leave no stone unturned. June was impartially slashing at weeds and wild flowers with a thin stick. It made a swishing sound that was satisfying to the ear. A serious, industrious pair they made . . . and miserable.
Ahead of them High Point Rock rose against the sky. Neither June nor Daniel turned to look in that direction. Instinctively their gaze avoided the spot from which Emily-Jane had dropped out of life. Daniel halted and leveled his eyes on the waters of the Sound. June came and stood beside him.
"It would be that way," remarked Daniel.
"The old trail, the old trail, the trail that is always new!" she murmured. "I'd like to take it, Dan."
"All the world and places," replied Daniel. "Gad, if we could only make it!"
She took his hand, which was hanging impotently at his side. "Trust me, Dan," she said. "I'll get you by."
He made no reply other than giving her hand a friendly squeeze.
"Wish Barney would give up that damn picture," he said presently. "It's got on my nerves terribly for some reason. Feel as if I wouldn't be able to stand it much longer."
"Poor old mule-faced Dan"—June's voice was sympathetic—"you've been having a pretty tough time of late. For your sake I hope things look up a bit."
"For the both of us," he said, his eyes still straining out across the water.
As if by common consent they turned and started to retrace their steps. Neither of them had any desire to stand on High Point Rock. Then they stopped. Scott Munson was swinging along the path. When he drew up in front of them they noticed that his dark eyes were unusually sharp and searching.
"Came along," he said in a friendly voice, taking Daniel by his uninjured arm. "I want you both to help me out with a little idea of mine."
"More wizardry, Scott?" June inquired.
"No," said Munson briefly. "Merely the application of common sense to a given set of circumstances."
He was leading them in the direction of High Point Rock. Daniel moved with reluctance. His nerve seemed to have deserted him. The old inner trembling had re-turned. He felt that he would not be responsible for his actions if he set foot on that spot again. Little beads of sweat stood out on his forehead. He tried to force himself forward, but his feet dragged.
"It's hot," he said, stopping and fumbling for his handkerchief. "We were just going home, Scott."
"Well, this won't take you long," replied Munson easily. "And I really do need your help."
Daniel allowed himself to be led along. Under Munson's hand his arm quivered slightly. June said nothing. She was furtively regarding Munson, and there was a strange probing expression in her eyes. It was as if she were endeavoring to read the man's mind, to anticipate his next move.
"You're getting lazy, Dan," she remarked. "The walk will do you good—stretch those long legs of yours."
They were on the cliff now, and Munson was directing their steps toward the exact spot on which Daniel had stood when Emily-Jane had gone twisting down into the black void opening up at his feet. They had reached the place. Daniel stood rooted to it. He felt that at any moment he would point to the bushes and explain to Munson exactly where he had hidden while watching Holt and Emily-Jane. The temptation was well-nigh irresistible. It would be a relief to get the whole thing off his chest, to be done with it and to know the worst rather than to be expecting it with every intake of his breath. The idea grew in fascination. It was as much as he could do to prevent himself from raising his arm and pointing to the bushes. Scott Munson's face would make an interesting study. Daniel wondered what he would say, how he would look.
Munson was examining the ground with the professional interest of a stage manager. He had no eyes for either Daniel or June, and Daniel was just as well pleased. By this time Daniel's state of agitation was only too apparent in his face. So greatly was he affected by the spot that he felt again the hot moist trickle of blood running down his left arm from the knife wound. All his previous sensations returned to him. He was unable to ward them off.
Scott Munson was speaking. His voice seemed distant and indistinct. "Now, June," he was saying, placing the girl at the edge of the cliff, "you stand right here and hold that position. As I figure it out that's where Emily-Jane must have stood."
June's face was colorless. Her eyes had taken on a hard, defiant expression. She looked steadily at Munson.
"You're showing us a good time, Scott," she said. "You wouldn't like me to jump off, would you?"
Apparently too preoccupied to answer, Munson turned to Daniel. "Stand close to June," said Munson. "and put your hand on her arm or her shoulder."
Stiffly, automatically, Daniel did as he was bidden. Munson stepped back a few paces and studied the pair.
"Yes," he said, as if to himself, "that's just about how it must have been. Now please hold it, both of you, until I give the word." He hurried away, and June found herself alone with Daniel, looking into his fixed, staring eyes. But Daniel did not seem to see her. Emily-Jane was standing there between them. Daniel could feel her presence.
Suddenly June screamed piercingly. She flung her arms round Daniel and for a moment they swayed at the edge of the cliff over which a hand had slid noiselessly and seized her by the ankle. A moment of cold terror. Then Daniel broke the spell, and dragged June back, breaking the clutch of the hand. Almost immediately Munson was with them. Solicitous apologies to June, to which she did not listen. She was leaning against Daniel's breast. Her head was on his shoulder. Little shudders ran through her body. She was very still. Daniel's lips were twisted in a white grin. His eyes, tired and sunken, never left Munson's face
"Scott," he said, with a calmness that held a note of finality, "you excelled yourself this time. My congratulations and contempt."
Munson was equally calm as he returned Daniel's gaze. "I am sorry you feel that way about it," he replied. He was angry with himself and the world in general. "Emily-Jane must have had an even more trying experience."
"Emily-Jane deserved it. June has done nothing." Daniel's voice was harsh.
Suddenly Munson smiled and took a hesitating step toward them. He looked old and tired. "Forgive me, both of you," he said, his low voice holding a note of warmth. "I couldn't keep myself from making the experiment. It was devilish of me, I realize now, but I wanted to find out if it could have been done that way, and now I know that it could."
June released herself from Daniel's arms and turned to Munson with lips that were trying to smile.
"You're a devil, Scott," she told him, "a devil straight from hell, but I think I understand. You're forgiven."
"They don't come any gamer than you, June," said Munson.
June's eyes were resting on Daniel, who was standing by lost in thought. This business couldn't go on much longer. He would have to confess. June uttered a little cry.
A stream of blood was running freely down his hand and dripping to the ground from his fingers.
"Strip off that coat," said Munson, and stepped quickly to Daniel's side. As he stanched the flow of blood with a clean white handkerchief, his gaze strayed over the water. "Evidently," he said rather bitterly, although his lips were smiling, "the gods don't expect a man in my shoes to be much of a human being."
When Munson returned to Crewe House he addressed himself to the Shays.
"It is more important than ever, he told them, that no one leave these grounds. You don't have to worry about the back of the house, because in that direction escape is effectually cut off by the marshes. A person would be a damn fool to risk the quagmires and quick-sand there. And you don't have to watch the Cliff Path. Nobody is going to jump off High Point Rock, or at least I don't think so. If they do"—he shrugged his shoulders—"we're saved a lot of trouble and unpleasantness. Just keep your eye on the road and the gardens at the east end of the house, and for God's sake don't pull your guns unless you are damn well sure you can't carry on without them. As a matter of fact, I don't think anyone is going to try to get away, but we can't afford to take any chances. We're just about ready now to put the handles on this case."
"Did you notice he said 'we'?" asked Officer Shad, as Munson strode across the lawn and descended the steps to the beach.
"That's as it should be," replied Officer Red, "considering what we've been through."
Munson laid hands on the first canoe he could find and unceremoniously dragged it across the sand to the water's edge. He shoved off from the beach with a dexterity bred of experience and soon was paddling easily over the gently marcelled surface of the Sound.
Scott Munson was not at all pleased with the events of the morning and the part he had played in them. He had succeeded in throwing June Lansing, usually so hard-boiled and imperturbable, into a state of white terror, and he had been instrumental in opening the wound in Daniel's arm. Funny thing about that wound. It was almost as if it had opened itself under the influence of auto-suggestion. Yet in spite of these contretemps, as regrettable as they were, Munson had proved to his own satisfaction that Emily-June could have been thrown off her balance by a hand tugging at her ankle from the ledge. To this extent the theory he had been holding in reserve was not so wild, not so impossible of practical application. He was now following up that theory—not hopefully, but with characteristic thoroughness.
About a mile and a half ahead of him, three low rocky islands lay somnolently in the water washing against them. Munson was bound for these islands, upon one of which he had good reason to believe Pete Clark was reclining in Olympian isolation. Munson skirted the outer island and found it unadorned by the picturesque person of his quarry. Neither had Pete Clark selected the second island for his philosophic re-pose, but upon the third and last rocky retreat there lay Pete Clark. He was resting easily. Beneath his head a gunny-sack, redolent of fish at their worst, had been nicely adjusted at exactly the desired angle, enabling the recumbent figure to view both sea and sky with the minimum of bodily effort and fatigue. Hard by on the rocks, within easy reach of the most languid hand, rested a battered tin box. Pete regarded with disapproval the method employed by some deep thinkers of conducting their meditations on an empty stomach. And from the position of the sun, Pete was seriously considering the advisability of disturbing himself to the extent of appeasing his appetite. He sighed and considered the box out of the corner of his eyes.
When Munson scrambled over the rocks and stood above him, Pete evinced no surprise. Maybe Munson would do something about the midday meal, open the box and distribute its contents, or something.
"Hello, Mr. Munson," said Pete. "What brings you to this God-forsaken place?"
"You do," replied Munson, sitting down beside him. "You do, Pete."
The occasional fisherman looked a little disturbed. "And what can I do for you, Mr. Munson?" he asked.
"Nothing violent," Munson hastened to assure him. "Just a little help, that's all."
He looked so long at Pete's feet that their owner, as if for the first time in his life, became aware of their presence. He, too, regarded his feet with mild interest not unmixed with a little surprise. Those were his feet, those large, still objects down there. Well, they would never be able to say he had not spared them as much as possible. As far as use was concerned they were virtually new.
"Are these the same shoes you were wearing when you found the body of Miss Seabrook on the rocks?" asked Munson.
"I always wear the same shoes," answered Pete with deliberation, "except when I go barefooted."
"A good idea," said Munson approvingly. "'Makes everything so much simpler. I thought they were the same shoes because they've been in my mind a good deal lately."
Pete Clark permitted himself a momentary glow of pride. He even went so far as to wiggle his feet almost playfully.
"The way it must have been," continued Munson, as much for his own benefit as his listener's, "was that you were walking along the beach just before you discovered the body of the girl lying on the rocks. And you weren't thinking much, Pete, about anything in particular. You were just sort of grazing along. Then your eyes must have been attracted by some small bright object lying in the sand. After considering the pros and cons of the situation you no doubt decided that the object was sufficiently interesting to justify your picking it up. And you did pick that object up, Pete. You picked it up, examined it, slipped it into your pocket and forgot all about it. Am I right?"
"Where were you hiding?" demanded Pete.
"Under the bedclothes in my room," replied Munson. "I was still sleeping, but it just had to be that way. I read the whole story in the sand, Pete."
"Well I'm not cockeyed myself when it comes to seeing things along beaches," said Clark, "but you're a damned sight more seeing than me. That's just exactly the way it was. I saw the bright little gadget sparkling there in the sand. I picked it up and slipped it into my pocket. When you asked me if I had seen or found anything, I'd clean forgotten about it."
"And where is that bright little object now?" inquired Munson.
Pete thought for some time. Presently his contorted features relaxed, and his natural face, looking a little overworked, once more reappeared. "Last time I saw it," he said, "one of the kids was playing with it."
"Didn't know you had any children, Pete. Congratulations."
Pete accepted the felicitation rather cynically, Munson thought. "Oh, yes, I've got children right enough," he replied. "Several sets of them."
"Where do they live?" asked Munson.
"Different places," was Pete's evasive reply. "Round about. Might run into one of them most anywhere."
"Oh, it's that way," said Munson. "I see." "Yes, it's that way," admitted Pete.
"And where does the child who was playing with that gadget live?"
"At home," said Pete. "My regular home. She's official."
"That's nice," replied Munson. "Suppose you take me there." He produced several crumpled bills, which Pete regarded without any great show of interest. "Some for you and some for her," Munson added.
"Got to eat first," Pete replied. "You eaten ?"
"Not yet," said Munson. "Lost my appetite this morning."
"Well, try one of these," the other suggested, as he opened the battered tin box and fingered out a handful of sandwiches, a suspicious-looking chunk of cheese, and two pitifully bruised peaches.
Munson gladly accepted the provender Pete allotted him with scrupulous fairness, and together they made a silent but satisfactory meal.
"Usually sleep after eating," Pete observed tentatively, when the last gulp of food had ceased to distend his throat. "How about you, Mr. Munson?"
"Usually, Pete, but nothing doing today. Got a lot of trouble on my hands. No time for sleep now." Munson helped Pete to rise, helped him to launch his boat, and virtually lifted him into it. After this he shoved off in his canoe and followed Pete's leisurely progress landward.
The Clarks had a marsh exposure. A small, unlovely frame building housed an indeterminate number of them. Mrs. Clark gave the appearance of a woman who did as well as she could for herself and for any-one else who happened to be around at the time of doing. She showed no surprise at the unexpected return of her husband. She was neither elated nor depressed. He was there. She accepted the situation.
After a lame introduction Pete led Munson off to search for the child last seen playing with the gadget. She was found, and her name turned out to be May. She was playing with a new gadget now and she had no idea where the other one could be unless it had worked its way into the depth of a towering pile of oyster-shells to which she pointed with a languor characteristic of her sire. Munson regarded the pile and thirsted for his staff. The Shays would have been invaluable at this moment, but the Shays were otherwise engaged. The pile was up to Munson. After subsidizing both May and her father and intimating the probability of a suitable reward upon the successful conclusion of their joint efforts, Munson removed his coat, and the three of them became intimately involved with oyster-shells.
At the end of two painful hours, hours that always lingered in the mind of Pete Clark, the searchers among the shells were no nearer success, but much nearer total exhaustion.
"Never knew I owned so many shells," said Pete at last, in an effort to look on the bright side of things.
"Well, you certainly own a lot, pa," replied his daughter, not without satisfaction.
"If you ask my opinion," announced Munson, his fatigue-drawn face appearing over the rim of the pile, "you own exactly one too many shells, Pete."
Mrs. Clark issued from the back door and stood for a while contemplating the activities of the searching party. "What do you all want to be doing that for?" she asked.
"It's a gadget, mother," said Pete. "A bright little gadget with stones and all. May claims she lost it here or hereabouts."
"Oh, that !" exclaimed the lady, with a depreciating wave of her right hand. "Why didn't you say so before? I picked it up and tucked it away in my bureau drawer. You should of asked."
Slowly Munson's face once more rose above the shells. It was a sad face and a weary one. For a while he looked at May, then shifted his gaze to Pete. Finally he raised his eyes to the sky as if seeking strength and refuge in prayer. Apparently he derived some benefit from this, for when he spoke his voice was calm.
"She's right," he said. "I guess we should have asked."
Barney's easel was standing in the hall. A single lamp above it shed a soft glow over the canvas. Before the picture Daniel was standing, and in his hand he held a knife. The ship's clock in the library had just sounded two bells—an hour past midnight. The silence in the old house was almost liquid. Like a stream it moved through the hall. From the beach came the slow, low, methodical break and wash of the surf. The sound rose and fell painfully in the back of Daniel's mind.
And his face was like a mask of pain. The experience of the morning on the cliffs had left its traces there. Then to come home to this—this reproduction of horror. There it stood waiting for a few swift brush strokes—ten minutes' work—to reveal his crime to the world, to perpetuate it.
Daniel's eyes clouded as he raised the knife. It would be like cutting a part out of his own life, destroying something of himself. If he did it he might sleep. But he could not do it. His hand was powerless to strike. The picture was not completed. A low gasp escaped from his lips as the knife dropped to the floor. He turned away.
Scott Munson did not pause as he slowly descended the stairs. Across the silence their eyes met—a wordless exchange of mutual regret and understanding.
"You'd better get back to bed, Daniel," said Munson quietly. "You need some sleep."
"All right, Scott," said Daniel. "I'll try again. If I don't get some sleep soon, something is going to crack."
He passed Munson and continued on up the stairs.
Gradually he merged into the darkness that lay on the upper hall. A low "good night" drifted down to Munson.
"Good night, Daniel," he called back softly.
Daniel let himself into June's room and lay down beside her on the top of the light coverings. Her arms drew him to her.
"Keep on fighting, Daniel," she whispered. "We mustn't give up now."
Gradually Daniel's inner trembling ceased, and presently he slept, but June remained awake, her wide eyes looking up into the darkness that lay upon them.
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