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Did She Fall?
THE BREAKING POINT
SAM STOUGHTEN was sweating. Munson was sweating him. It was a cool evening. A fresh breeze fingered the curtains at the open windows and searched through the room. Yet Sam's pale face in the lamp-light glistened with perspiration. Scott Munson, sitting idly in front of him, resembled some weird, sinister visitant from outer darkness. All his life-forces seemed to be concentrated in his eyes. Relaxed in his chair, he sat without moving. All power and energy had deserted his body and streamed upward to his eyes and to the brain behind those eyes.
For three hours now this thing had been going on. Munson patient and probing, bitter at times, mocking, cruel and unscrupulous. Then, suddenly, bewilderingly, another Munson—subtle, kind, almost sympathetic. Sam was unable to understand it. These swift changes confused him, upset the unstable balance of his already weary mind. For three miasmal hours the very core of his being had been alternately lashed and bullied by the tongue and eyes of this man who sat so untiringly before him. But Sam had not yet been broken. Stubborn, rebellious, and deathly sick, his stomach nauseated and his brain a ball of aching lead, he still stuck to his guns. He would not tell. No human being would ever torture from his lips the story of the murder of Emily-Jane. He no longer had the power to force his eyes to meet those of his inquisitor. However, he could still resist him. No agony of mind or body could make him speak, no fear of punishment nor hope of escape.
Sam sat with lowered head. He was like a spent and blinded bull unable to shake off his tormentor. His limp, moist hands were too spiritless now to grip the arms of his chair. And all the time he was conscious of Munson's eyes watching him. A desire to drive the light forever from those eyes took possession of him. It would have to be something sharp—something thin and sharp and long enough to reach into the brain. Sam would be able to face him then . . . to look into his sightless eyes and laugh.
Munson was speaking now. That voice, always that voice, going on and on and on. Would Munson never grow weary of the sound of his own voice? Would he never stop asking the same monotonous questions, repeating them over and over? Would he never realize all his trickery was lost on Sam? He should know by this time that Sam had no intention of answering his damn questions. Why didn't he let up and give a fellow a chance to rest, to gather his scattered wits and to think things out?
"Sam," came the calm voice, "in your heart you know that you're going to talk before you leave this room. Why not get it over?"
"Go to hell, Munson." Sam spoke with lowered head. He would not meet those eyes.
"Go to hell, Munson."
"Go to hell, Munson. Go to hell. Go to hell. Go to hell."
Munson cast the lowered head a covert glance of admiration, then his face hardened. "You've asked for it, Sam," he said.
From an inside coat pocket he produced a thin packet of letters. Selecting a letter, he opened it and began to read. At Munson's first words a sensation of suffocation washed over the huddled figure. His body stiffened in the chair, and his hot eyes, filled with shame and self-loathing, darted from side to side as if seeking some means of escape. Scott Munson's voice was quiet and unhurried. Sam shrank from the words. The girl was dead now. Why had she left her past behind her to confront the living? Why had she not carried it down into the oblivion of the grave? Surely, she could want no more of him.
Munson had finished the letter and now was opening another one. Sam could see from beneath his brows the man's long, slim fingers sliding into the envelope. They moved with calculated deliberateness. Like snakes, thought Sam, those fingers. Then Munson's voice again, but the words were Sam's words and the thoughts were his. Poisoned memories winging about his ears, beating their way into his brain. And Munson's voice, steadily sounding on, stripping Sam of the last shred of self-esteem as it picked its way fastidiously through filth.
Sam buried his head in his arms and tried not to hear. To drown out the words he kept repeating under his breath, "Go to hell. Go to hell. Go to hell," but Munson's voice went on, the words still drilled in Sam's ears and festered in his brain. Then the reading ceased and Sam heard the faint rustle of paper. He waited. Would it all begin again? Yes, Munson was opening another letter. Sam's endurance snapped.
"Damn your soul to hell," he said, getting to his feet and confronting Munson. "Must you do that, Munson—keep hitting a guy below the belt?"
Munson considered him coldly. "Any worse than trying to stab a girl from behind a curtain?" he asked, and continued on with the reading.
"Stop," pleaded Sam. "For God's sake. Don't do it, Scott."
But Munson's voice kept implacably on until he had read the letter through. Then he carefully replaced the letter in the packet, slipped it into his inside pocket and sat looking up at Sam with an inscrutable expression in his eyes. Sam sank back in his chair. For a blessed moment the room was still, then Munson began to speak.
"You wrote those letters, Sam," he said, "and later you made a cowardly attempt to stab in the back the girl to whom they were written. You did that, Sam. I have the knife with your finger-prints on it. You had the motive and the opportunity. And there's the letter about the kid in college. I can see pretty clearly what happened. but it might not be so clear to a jury. I could charge you right now with attempted murder if not something a damn sight more serious. Now listen, Sam." Munson leaned forward in his chair and forced the other's attention. "Have you any idea what that would mean? It would mean that those letters would pass into the hands of some jury. Your own defense would read them—Sue. Reporters would read them, mouth over them, chuckle over them, parts of those letters would find their way into every paper in this country. Millions of eyes would be looking—reading your letters, Sam. In railway trains commuters would be passing remarks back and forth about them. `Hot stuff, Bill!' `Say, listen to this.' Your name and Emily-Jane's would be forever linked, and Sue's life pretty much smeared. Get me, Sam? That's just a part of the picture. I'm not laying it on thick either. You're intelligent enough to know that. And all because you stupidly refuse to speak. Think it over, Sam. Your silence is helping no one, protecting no one. Just the opposite. It's doing a hell of a lot of harm." He reached in his pocket and brought out the letters. "Sam," he went on in a matter-of-fact voice, "I'll give you these letters if you will tell me what I want to know. What do you say to that?"
This time the silence lasted several minutes. Once Sam reached blindly for the letters, then slowly withdrew his hand. God, how he wanted to do it ! The picture that Munson had partially painted danced before his eyes. He could hear people talking, whispering, and chuckling obscenely, as they read the papers in public places. Munson was not playing fair. He had no right to place a man in such a position. Then Sam thought of Sue. He saw her hurt, bewildered face. At this thought his anger surged within him, and he faced his enemy.
"Go to hell, Munson," he said, stedfastly keeping his eyes off the extended packet of letters. "You can disgrace me, arrest me, and do any damn thing you please, but you can't lick me. Keep your damn letters."
He covered his face with his hands and tried to muffle the choking sound's which in spite of his efforts broke from his lips. Munson rose slowly from his chair and stood looking down at the stooped figure. For the first time in his life he felt himself defeated. Yet, as he stood there looking at Sam, a strange expression came to his eyes—a mixture of approval and regret.
"All right, Sam," he said, his voice sounding unexpectedly natural and sincere. "I'll give you these letters anyway. You've earned them, but I'm very much afraid you're sending your best friend to inevitable death . . . and it's not so nice to die, Sam."
He tossed the packet to the floor between Sam's feet and, crossing the room, quietly closed the door be-hind him. For a few seconds Sam looked uncomprehendingly at the letters. What was that Munson had just said? Something about death—death and Daniel "it's not nice to die." And he, Sam, was sending his own friend to his death. Munson had sounded in earnest. No tricks this time. Suddenly Sam seized the letters and hurried down the room. In the hall he met Sue. She was just coming up to bed.
"What did Scott want with you?" she asked, half fearful and half suspicious.
"Nothing much," lied Sam, cupping the letters in his hand as well as he could. "He just loves to hear himself talk. Did you happen to see where he went?"
"He's in his lair," she said, then placing a hand on his arm, added a trifle timidly: "You're not looking at all well, Sam. I hope you'll manage to get yourself back to a non-lying basis soon. She paused and looked into her husband's eyes. They seemed so world-weary and harassed. "Tell him to go away, Sam," she added, and in spite of himself Sam smiled.
"That's just what I've been doing," he replied. "All night long I've been telling him. I even named the place."
Munson was standing at the window with his back to the door when Sam burst into the room without stopping even to knock. The man at the window swung about sharply, then stood facing his visitor, a question in his eyes. They studied each other silently. Sam seemed to have nothing to say.
"Well?" inquired Munson. "Aren't the letters all there?"
"You can have them back, Scott," said Sam huskily, and he extended the letters. "If they'll help Dan you can have them."
"They won't help Daniel," said Munson. "You're the only one who can do that ... and you refuse. For that I now tell you to go to hell."
He deliberately turned his back on Sam and continued to stare out of the window.
"Listen," went on the voice behind him. "I'll tell now. What you said about Dan . . . got me . .. I won't hold out any more. Listen, Scott, do you want to hear?"
"Sit down," said Munson, "and take it easy. You've fought like a fool tonight. If I were in your place I'd burn those letters up." He turned from the window and, going to the closet, produced a bottle of whisky. "Here," he continued, handing Sam a drink. "Swallow that down and give me those letters. We'll burn them now before I change my mind."
He struck a match to a bundle of newspapers in the fireplace and carefully distributed the letters among the flames. Together they watched them burn, and for the first time in weeks a feeling of freedom stirred in Sam's heart. For some reason he felt cleaner.
"Well, that little chapter in Emily-Jane's life will never be read again," Munson remarked, as he pulverized the ashes. "Let's get this over, Sam."
"God, how I hate doing this," muttered Sam. "It's going to be even worse than I thought."
"And it might be even worse than that," replied Munson, "if you don't come clean."
Sam started abruptly as if afraid to give himself any more time to think.
"You're right about the knife," he began. "I wanted to kill her. I wanted to kill her, Scott, for several reasons—for myself, for Daniel, for Barney, for all of us nearly—Sue and June. I feel that the person who did it was a public benefactor. You see she wouldn't give up, wouldn't listen to reason. That afternoon Daniel had pleaded with her in her room. He offered her a pile of money. She laughed at him. She even tried to vamp him then and there. After that I knew she was going to die. I knew it, Scott. I saw it in Daniel's eyes. But somehow I didn't want him to be the one to do it. I wanted it done, but I didn't want Dan to do it. See what I mean?"
Munson nodded sympathetically. "A tough situation," he said, "I can see it."
"Yes," continued Sam. "It was tough. So, I decided to do it myself, and I'd have succeeded if they hadn't moved after the lights went out."
"You nearly succeeded in killing Dan," Munson observed.
"The very one I wanted to help most," Sam went on regretfully. "Scott, you might not believe me, but I'm sorry right now I didn't succeed in killing Emily-Jane that time."
"I would have had you behind the bars within fifteen minutes, and you'd never have come out alive, Sam."
"Perhaps it would have been the better way," he answered dispiritedly. "It couldn't be worse than it is now. Well, that clears up that part of it, anyway. When I went into the dining-room I had it all doped out. I knew the exact fold in the curtain. I picked up the knife from the table and switched off the lights. Then I felt for the fold and stabbed. When the signal came for the lights, I was back again at the switch."
"In the eyes of whatever God there is I dare say you're as much of a murderer, Sam, as the person who actually did succeed."
"I'm afraid I'm even worse." Sam spoke with conviction. "My motives were more selfish. When I saw Dan's arm that night, I became even more determined to go through with the thing. I thought he was out of commission, and that put it up to me. And Daniel knew I had tried to stab Emily-Jane. He told me not to be a damn fool. For the rest of the night I watched her. When she went down the Cliff Path with Lane Holt, I followed them. Oh, I gave them plenty of time. and kept well out of the way. I was still hooded, too. When I got to High Point Rock I crouched down in some bushes and waited. I don't know how long it was—more than ten minutes, anyway. And I didn't quite know what I was going to do, but of course, the place naturally suggested one thing. By that time I was all prepared to push them both off if Holt put up a fight. Then they strolled into view and stood near the edge of the rock. They were laughing and drinking and mixing it up."
"Did you suspect anyone else's presence?" asked Munson.
"An army might have been encamped right behind me, and I wouldn't have known it. I was too busy thinking and watching and nerving myself for that short, quick dash."
Once more Munson nodded.
"Then a thing happened, Scott," Sam resumed, "that spoiled all my plans and scared me stiff for a moment. Another hooded figure broke from the bushes and made for the pair at the edge of the rock. I started to follow. Got well out in the open, then stopped in my tracks. Emily-Jane had gone over. I saw her go. So, I backed into the bushes again, feeling pretty sick."
Sam stopped as if he had finished his story and looked hopefully into Munson's hard, scornful eyes. No hope there. Sam lowered his gaze.
"Give the unimportant details, Sam," said Munson. "Those ashes in there bear witness to my good faith."
Sam gulped and the color slowly left his face. Once more his face and hands grew moist.
"What do you mean, Scott? That's just what I saw."
"You know damn well what I mean. Who was the man--that second figure?"
"Daniel." The name came with a gasp.
"Then you saw him?"
"I recognized him right off. Later I saw his face. It was after Holt ran away. I saw Dan's face. There was moonlight on it." Sam stopped and a shudder ran through his body. "He was suffering, Scott," he added simply. "Suffering there alone. It was as much as I could do to keep from going to him, but I knew he wouldn't want me then."
Munson rose from his chair and walked to the window.
"Much obliged," he said with his back to Sam. "I'm glad you got that off your chest. Then you're morally certain that Dan did it, eh? I knew all along, but I needed your story. You see, if I can get him to make a confession, I'll be able to spare the lot of you no end of scandal and publicity. It will be better for Dan in the end."
Munson stretched wearily and turned yawning from the window. Sara remained in his chair. His eyes were filled with trouble. He was breathing rapidly.
"Sam," continued Scott, "it's about time we hit the hay. It's been a devil of a strain on you, and you don't look any too damn well. But you'll sleep better tonight with a clean conscience and those letters out of the way."
Sam looked at him dully and gave a short mirthless laugh. "I'm going," he said. "Give me a drink first."
Munson poured him a drink and stood watching him as he gulped it down. The empty glass fell to the floor with a little crash. Sam sprang to his feet and faced Munson. His eyes were in torment, pierced with utter misery.
"That isn't all, Scott," he said in a low voice. "I saw something else."
"Oh, you did," replied Munson casually. "What?"
"A hand," Sam whispered. "It slipped over the edge of the cliff and clutched Emily-Jane by the ankle."
"Was it a man's hand, Sam?"
Sam shook his head.
"Right hand or left?"
"And was there a ring on it—a large solitaire?"
"Let me go, Scott. I've told you enough."
"You saw it ?"
Sam bowed his head and walked unsteadily to the door. For a moment their eyes met, but neither man spoke. There was nothing left to say.
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