Previous ChapterContentsNext Chapter

Did She Fall?


Thorne Smith



MUNSON stood there looking wearily at the door. It had been a fight—a tough one. Scott felt that it had been a fight. He felt it as much spiritually as he did physically. The fact that he had won brought him scant elation. To the contrary. He was now faced with a situation he would have gone a long way to avoid. God, what a case! What a mess of misdirected loyalty and idealism ! And to what good end? He shrugged his shoulders and turned from the door.

This time when he stretched his long frame and indulged in a yawn it was honestly. There was no strain for an effect. He was tired—fed up with himself and with humanity in general.

"I don't know the oriental mind," he mused, "but damn if these people aren't all Chinese to me. Still there's something terribly human about them. A generous murder. Now who in hell ever heard of a paradox like that?"

The fact that his night's work was not yet over made him feel even more weary. Longingly he eyed his bed. One of the most all around satisfactory beds in which he had ever slept. From the bed his eyes traveled to his easy chair. He felt himself longing for this source of comfort and repose. Then his gaze sought the table on which stood the bottle of whisky.

"Damn if I have to long for that," he muttered with a faint smile. "That's one thing I can do at least."

He did. He was even lavish about it, which was unusual for Scott Munson.

"Might get myself drunk for a couple of months,"` he reflected. "Just stay drunk and go dotty and forget who I am. That would be one way out."

He finished his drink and left the room abruptly. No answer was forthcoming to his knock on Barney's door. He turned the knob and entered. When he switched on the lights he received a start. The wreck of a small male creature was sitting up in bed. Out of two vaguely inquiring eyes it regarded Munson. Young Barney had selected for his sleeping attire a tattered, paint-smeared smock. This, together with his casually straying hair and his lined face, gave him the appearance of an exceedingly ancient infant.

"What do you want to wear that thing to bed for?" demanded Munson in a tone of disgust.

"Couldn't find my tops and I can't stand bottoms," said Barney cryptically. "Can you stand bottoms, Scott?"

"If you are referring to pajamas," replied Munson, "it's purely a personal matter. Only God and myself know the answer."

"How about Betty?" came the surprising inquiry. "You seem to be forever chasing her about. I don't think it's nice. For a man of your—"

"And for a person who never seems to be looking at anything," cut in Munson, "you seem to be able to observe one hell of a lot. And your mind, Barney, is about as evil as your eye."

"That's the usual detective's line," replied Barney, "and it doesn't help at all about the tops. If you'll believe it, that drawer over there is just bursting with bottoms—practically new bottoms—and there's not one top among them. Aunt Matty used to supply me with tops, but she's off me now on account of that picture. Anyway, what does it matter to you whether I sleep in my bare skin or in a suit of armor?"

"You can sleep in a dress suit so far as I am concerned," replied Munson, sitting down near the bed and suddenly becoming grave. "It's about that painting of yours that I want to talk. Like Aunt Matty, I'm off you, too, Barney. I'm off you because of that damn picture and the way you're treating Daniel. Somehow it's not like you, Barney, and it's rotten. Daniel needs you now. He's always stood by you."

A strange look came into Barney's eyes, but he remained silent.

"But," continued Munson, "I'm not going to tell you why you're all wrong. You're going to find that out for yourself. Then you'll just have to believe. And it's not going to be easy, Barney. It's going to hurt like hell . . . knock down your house of cards and scatter your beautiful dreams."

Munson paused for a moment. When he resumed speaking his voice was unusually gentle.

"But I won't mind hurting you, Barney," he said, "if it will only help you to see the truth, which in this sad affair is more beautiful and more terrible than any dreams your brain will ever weave. I won't mind hurting you if it will bring you back to Daniel, who for your sake has made a sacrifice even greater than death itself. I won't mind hurting you, Barney, if it will help you to see through the maze of stupidity and despair clouding this case—to see behind it all the essential love and loyalty of the thing. I tell you frankly that during all the years of my dealings with misguided humanity I have never encountered such a poignantly sorrowful situation."

"Listen, Scott," said Barney. "I don't mind being hurt either. Most of my life I've been pretty much sat on, but I never minded before because Daniel . . well, you see, Daniel was always around. He used to be a big help in the old days."

Barney stopped speaking and sat staring into space. Munson knew that memories were stealing back from the past. He could almost feel their presence in the room.

"You know, Scott," continued Barney in a low voice, "sometimes I watch kids and wonder if any of them are as decent as Dan must have been when he was their age. Without anyone knowing it much, he must have been a remarkable youngster . . . fearless, generous, and understanding." Barney smiled rather sheepishly at Munson and added, "He was awfully damn good to me, Scott."

"Then," said Munson, "for the sake of the old days are you willing to find out the truth now?"

"Yes, Scott, if it will help any."

"And you'll take it like a man?"

Barney slowly nodded. "I'll take my medicine," he replied with a faint smile. "I've been in a gray murk lately, but when you took Dan away that day, I received a bit of a shock. Since then I've been asking myself a few questions."

"I'm still in a gray murk," replied Munson, producing one of the letters Emily-Jane had written to Daniel and extending it to Barney. "Do you recognize that handwriting?"

Once more Barney nodded, and this time his face was white. "Emily-Jane wrote that to him," he said, as if speaking to himself. "It must have been years ago."

"It was," replied Munson. "All you heed to do is to skip through it. Then think of Daniel and the situation he was in—and he wasn't alone either. I'll be back in about ten minutes."

Barney made no answer as Munson rose and left the room, His eyes were fixed on the letter, and the hand that held it was shaking so violently that he was forced to clamp it between his knees.

When Munson returned to the room some fifteen minutes later, Barney was sitting up in bed, in the same position, but the letter had fallen from his hand. A change had come over his face. During Munson's absence young Barney had grown fast. The eyes that greeted Munson were no longer vague and visionary. They were alert, confident, and at the same time disconcertingly unfathomable. Only a slight tenseness around the corners of his mouth gave evidence of the strong control he was exerting over his emotions.

"Thanks, Scott," he said in a calm voice. "I have pictured the whole situation. Why didn't Daniel show me this before-before it happened?"

"There were other letters," Munson replied. "Sam's. She had them and she was going to use them."

"What a mess," mused Barney. "And a creature so utterly lovely . . . God's mind must have been straying." His voice trailed off into silence, and he sat there with his chin on his knees.

"But Daniel should have shown you that letter," came Munson's voice. "That would have been the sane and rational thing to do . . . only people don't do the sane and rational things. He wanted to spare you, Barney."

"He knows my old weakness, Scott," said Barney. "I'm a great dodger of facts. If I don't like a fact I alter it to suit my own ideas. If I can't alter it, I ignore it—banish it from my mind. I've never been a great hand at lifting up my voice and declaiming about the hard facts of life, its grimness, its realness, and all that jargon. From the first time a baby falls down on its nose it begins to know about the hard facts of life and its grimness. What I've always tried to do is to ungrim life a little, and to do that successfully, one must be pretty clever at self-deception."

He paused and considered Scott Munson thoughtfully.

"I suppose you've noticed that I've never asked you any questions about this case. Apparently I've been indifferent. But I haven't. I haven't wanted to know. I've been dodging facts and making up facts—false ones-of my own. And all the time I've been painting that picture a question has been buzzing round in the back of my mind, Scott. I was afraid of the answer. I didn't want to know why Emily-Jane was out with Lane Holt at that time of night. So I just kept on painting. The more I painted the angrier I became, until finally the thing fastened on me like an obsession. I only knew that a beautiful thing had been snatched out of my life ... the most beautiful thing that had ever come into it. That beauty had been denied me and I wanted to make someone else suffer. God help me. I picked on Dan. Now that I look back on it all, I can see that she never really cared for me. Little incidents stand out—things I refused to admit at the time. I couldn' talk to anyone else like this, Scott, not even to Daniel. Beauty must have made me drunk and now—oh, well, I sobered up to find a lot of facts that can be neither altered nor dismissed. I'll just have to face them, Scott, that's all. I must think about Dan. How do things stand with him?"

"Not so good, Barney," said Munson slowly.

"God. What a tragic jam," mused Barney. "There seems to be no way out and I'm responsible for it all."

"The situation was," replied Munson. "You were merely a part of it."

"I know. I know," said Barney. "That doesn't help any, Scott."

Munson rose and Barney handed him the letter. "I wish you could destroy it," he said, "but I suppose it's a bit of evidence. We must all of us lose our dreams now."

"Nothing else you want to know, Barney?" asked Munson, slipping the letter into his pocket. He was frankly puzzled by Barney's attitude, his baffling mixture of common sense and visionary ideas. He was puzzled and at the same time pleased.

"No, Scott," Barney replied. "I owe you a lot as it is. Don't tell Dan I know."

When Munson had left, Barney lay back on his pillows and looked sightlessly up at the ceiling. Presently two glistening drops gathered in his eyes and trembled there until they broke from his lashes. That was all . . . two tears for Emily-Jane, or, rather, for what Emily-Jane had meant to him.

* *

Several hours later he rose and, dressing about as carefully as he ever did, went quickly downstairs. All quiet in the old house. Dawn was trembling on the fringe of night. From the hall he collected his easel and painting equipment and staggered with them to his brother's study, the first room to catch the light. The noise this occasioned aroused the shadowing instincts of Officer Red. Breathing heavily, he creaked down the corridor in the wake of Barney. Between them they made the night lively with sound. To such an extent, in fact, that Officer Shad awoke and dogged the heels of Red.

Both officers stood peering into the study. Some minutes passed.

"You might as well get the hell out of here," said Barney, without troubling to turn around. "Those faces of yours behind me give me the creeps. Take them away."

Whereupon the faces, wearing a slightly injured look, were withdrawn. It didn't matter about Mr. Bar-

ney. Too bad, though. A nice young man like that going clean off his head.

While Crewe House slept Barney sat before his easel. Occasionally he rose and going out to the veranda, studied the eastern sky. And when at last the comfortable old study was filled with the light of a new day, Barney took up his brushes and began to paint with swift, sure strokes.

* *

Munson returned to his room and quite willingly accepted the invitation of his easy chair by the window. Barney had not proved difficult. A surprising character.

Scott had wanted to see Daniel but he did not feel up to it now.

"Come in," he called, as a knock sounded on the door.

Daniel came quietly into the room. At the sight of the thin, lined face and the eyes sunken from watching too many long nights through, Munson felt a trifle downed. He wanted to escape from the room.

"Want a drink, Dan?" he asked.

"I do," said Dan, pouring out a drink and tossing it off. "I did. Badly."

Seating himself on the bed, he looked silently at Munson. "Almost over now?" Dan asked.

"Almost, Dan."

"What are you waiting for?"

"For the most natural thing in the world."

"Meaning what?"

"For someone to say something, Dan. I've had a talk with Sam."

"Did he say something?"

"More than enough."

Daniel rose from the bed. "Then that pretty well leaves it up to me," he remarked.

"Yes," replied Munson. "And to me, also."

Daniel walked to the door. "I'm glad it's all over, Scott. It will be—"

"I said almost over," interrupted Munson.

"Almost over," Daniel corrected himself. "Don't feel too low about it, Scott. It started out to be a rather decent summer. I'll talk to you in the morning."

"We'll have to go through with it then," replied Munson. "Sam isn't all clear yet."

He hated himself for the lie, but it was necessary to play these people against each other. And Munson knew how to play them.

* *

The sun was well up when Daniel opened his eyes. He had slept deeply and forgotten something. What was it? Oh, hell, yes. Scott had said they would have to go through with it today. Well, here was today. Daniel was ready for it. As he rolled from his bed a thrill of excitement ran through him. No more skulking now. That was all over. He would make a confession and Scott would do the rest. And the yacht? Too bad. He tried not to think of the yacht. "Keep on fighting," June had said. To what good end that? Scott still thought that Sam was involved. His mind must be disabused. No need to make too many people suffer needlessly. There would be enough.

He bathed and dressed quickly and went downstairs. He would have liked to see Barney just then, but Barney was not to be seen. Perhaps things could be patched up, now that Daniel was going away.

He wandered about the lawn as if seeing the place for the last time. He kept telling himself that this could not be so, but deep down in his heart he knew that when he took that ride with Munson or Bennett he would never return to his old home again. Crewe House would see the last of him.

Look, trees, look! Here comes your old friend. Take a good look at him now before he goes away. He. used to climb you once. Remember? The two little boys? No more climbing now. Daniel has become a murderer. He murdered a beautiful girl, and now he, too, must die.

Daniel shivered and went down to the beach. For a while he stood idly tossing stones into the water. Not such bad sport, that. There was quite a knack in skimming stones. Better than being locked behind bars. Oh, hell !

Daniel turned from the beach and looked in at the boathouse. There were the canoes and there was Barney's crazy motorboat. Daniel recalled the first ride he had ever taken in it. It had also been his last. Only Barney knew how to make the engine work, and at times it failed even Barney.

Daniel returned to the lawn and sought his study. At the door he stopped suddenly, his eyes transfixed. Bowed and motionless Barney was sitting before the canvas, and the picture was finished. Daniel saw himself standing at the edge of the cliff and behind his head the yellow moonlight radiated like a nimbus. His arms were outspread and from his left hand blood was dripping. And the face was not the face of a murderer. All the pain of suffering humanity seemed to be centered there. Tenderness and deep regret looked out of the deep-set eyes.

The minutes passed unheeded as Daniel studied the painting and the intention of the painter. A wave of relief and thankfulness swept over Daniel. Unconsciously a deep sigh escaped his lips. Barney looked up and met the gaze of his brother. Daniel nodded silently.

"Yes," he said quietly, "I did it, Barney."

"I know, Dan. Forgive me—" and Barney knelt at his brother's feet.

Daniel put his hand on Barney's head. "I'm going to confess, Barney."

"Don't, Dan. Don't!"

In Barney's excited imagination he saw what lay ahead for Daniel . . . the trial and humiliation of it all, then the waiting alone in a cell, and finally Daniel in the chair. Good God, that couldn't be! His brother, Dan, alone and convulsed in death. His arms went up to Daniel, to this man who had always stood for the fine things of life, the decent, generous things.

"Don't, Dan," he repeated.

Silence a moment, then "Is it all right with you, Barney ?"

"Yes, Dan, and you?"

"It's always been all right with me, kid. We've had a tough break—that's all."

He stood with his hand on his brother's head, and his face was the face in the picture. His eyes were filled with pain and infinite tenderness.

Previous ChapterContentsNext Chapter