The Gold Pince-Nez
The Gold Pince-Nez
BURKE! Burke! For God’s sake!”
I do not know how long in the borderland of sleep this hail had come to me, accompanied as it was by a soft tap-tapping on the shutter door of my stateroom. I became conscious of it all of a sudden—sat up in my bunk broad awake.
“Burke, wake up and let me in! Oh, Burke!”
A man’s poignant agony was in that low, cautious cry. I thought I recognized the voice as Mather’s. With bound I was at the stateroom screen door and had thrown it back. A whiff of fog, damp and clammy, whisked in from the dark; also the body of a man—of Pierce Mather. He stumbled over the brass-capped baseboard and fell against me drunkenly. I heard him sigh. His dead weight was against my shoulder. I fumbled for the light switch, but his hand groped in the dark and checked mine.
“No, no!” he croaked. “No light, Burke! The dark-the dark is better. Where’s the couch?"
I took his hand to guide him to the divan that ran the width of the deck stateroom which I, fortunately, had by myself; the hand was cold, and a twitching came down from the elbow to make all the fingers jerk and flex. Though I could not see Mather’s face, this clawlike hand, the whistling of his breath, told me that the man was in the last extremity of fear or nervous exhaustion under strain. I had him on the divan in an instant, could see the vague shape of his head and shoulders outlined against the lighter dark of my window. My brandy flask was handy; I gave him a shot.
“Take a bracer, man! What’s got into you since I left you in the smoke room an hour ago?"
Mather did not answer directly, but kept mumbling under his breath: “Burke! Burke! For God’s sake!” During a busy life with the news I had never seen a person more completely prostrated mentally. Waking out of a sound sleep to find in the dark a fellow passenger and comrade of the voyage thus on the verge of collapse; why, it was a blood-chilling business! I shook him roughly—even slapped his cheeks soundly with my open palm. At this latter treatment he pulled himself together with a faint gasp of protest and held up a checking hand.
“It’s all right now—all right,” he said in an altered and steadied voice. “Find a seat where I can feel you near me—and listen.”
I drew up the camp stool to a position where, sitting, my pajama-clad knees brushed his. I could not see his features-only the blurred outline of his head and shoulders, but I could guess what was the heavy stamp of fear that rested on his face.
“Listen, Burke. I’ve been robbed!”
“Such things happen even on Pacific mail liners,” I answered shortly, wondering how the loss of a watch or even of a considerable sum of money could so completely subvert a man’s mind.
“But—but you don’t know all—the terrible feature of it,” he answered in the petulance of rasped nerves. “This robbery means sure death to one man and—and disgrace to another.”
“Well?” I waited for Mather to explain in his own good time.
“I—I’m about at the end of my string, Burke; this thing’s almost put me off my dot; I’ve simply got to get advice, and so—and so I come to you. I’ve come right to, you—didn’t know until fifteen minutes ago that I’d been robbed. You—you’re almost one of us in the diplomatic service—you’re a diplomat of the news, which is the next thing; you’ve lived in Japan; you know, of course, the situation between the two countries—Japan and America. Burke, I’ve simply got to tell you the whole thing.”
Mather seemed ready to slip back into his first hysteria. I fumbled for his hand in the dark, found it, and gripped it to steady him. The marvel that this suave, self-centered, young Bostonian with his Harvard veneer heightened to a ruby gloss by several years on the emery wheel of official Washington life could thus be stripped bare of all his reserve and come begging for a confidant was still strong with me. We had known each other just a week. A deck-chair acquaintance on the Siberia had ripened with more than usual speed because I was an old resident of Japan, and he, outward bound for the islands on his first trip, was eager to know much of the land. The fact that I was head of the Central Press Agency in the Far East, with headquarters at Tokyo, gave my word on things Japanese authority in his eyes, I suppose. All that I knew of Pierce Mather on the night he came crying to my stateroom door was what he had told me—that he was in the state department at Washington and was traveling to Tokyo on government business.
“I need not pledge you to secrecy, Burke,” my visitor in the dark began in a voice again controlled. “You know that I would not be coming to you in this extremity if I did not trust you—did not have to trust you in this terrible situation. I——”
“You remember what T. Roosevelt once said about reposing confidences in newspaper men,” I interrupted somewhat dryly. “Next to himself, he said, he’d trust——”
“Yes, yes; excuse me if I boggle things to-night. I’m—I’m—— But this is the way of it, Burke. Three weeks ago I was detached from duty in the state department and assigned temporarily as secretary to the legation at Tokyo to take the place vacated by the promotion of Edgerton Miles. The secretary of state took the opportunity of my mission to send to the ambassador some confidential reports which could not be intrusted to cable code or the mails. I know the contents of those reports. They have tremendous bearing on the present relations between the two countries—in fact, they convey to the ambassador information upon which the immediate relations—and very serious consequences—of the two nations hang. I will have to leave you to guess which international problem they bear upon.”
“Perhaps I can guess,” I put in shortly.
“But more than that,” the shadow before me continued in a shaken voice, “in those reports was mentioned the name of a certain person—one connected with the secret-service bureau of the state department who has been in Japan for more than a year without the knowledge of the ambassador or any one else beside the president and the secretary of state. The reports not only reveal the identity of this agent, but convey to the ambassador the information this agent has secured which bears on the pressing problem confronting the two countries. You, who’ve lived in Japan, can understand how perilous is the position of this secret agent once his identity is known to the Japanese government. Washington cannot take official cognizance of the agent’s presence in Japan—could never even protest if he should drop out of sight. Tokyo does not know officially that such a citizen of the United States is in the empire; Tokyo, therefore, could not know officially of his disappearance. Do you see it, Burke? Once his name is known to the Japanese secret police, that agent’s life is on a spider web—there wouldn’t be a bubble on the surface to mark his passing.”
I saw it only too well—I, who was thoroughly schooled to the ways of the Japanese police system. Where foreigners are concerned every ricksha man, every house servant is a potential spy; espionage seems to be ingrained in the nature of the lower-caste Japanese. Well I remember the petty annoyances of observation to which I was subjected when I first took up my duties in Tokyo. Mather’s words instantly brought to my mind comprehension of the American agent’s peril. A man detached by very virtue of his calling from his government’s protection—one walking blindfolded amid the pitfalls of an Oriental jungle.
“So you have been robbed of those reports?” I asked unnecessarily.
“Yes, Burke.” A shiver gripped the limbs of my companion of the dark. “Some time—it must have been to-night—the leather wallet—out of the very pocket of my coat—the inside pocket. It is beyond explaining.”
“You had carried the wallet on your person all the time aboard here?"
“Every minute—even in the pocket of my pajamas when I slept,” the wretched young man answered. “To-night after you left me on deck I went to the smoke room for an hour or so and watched the poker game; then to my stateroom. When I started to undress I took the wallet from my pocket and laid it on the bunk. Something—somehow it didn’t look right—looked smaller. I picked it up to examine it—opened it. Nothing inside but two Pacific Mail folders from the writing room. I——”
"Then it wasn’t the same wallet you started from Washington with?" I interrupted. “Somebody worked a substitution on you?"
“It was not the same—not quite,” Mather whispered. “Same leather—same fold and leather tongue clasp, but a shade smaller than the one containing the confidential reports; I’m sure of that.”
“When had you last examined the papers in the original wallet?” I asked, striving to find some corner to grip in the mystery.
“Why—ah—night before last. I usually looked over the papers every night before I retired to be sure; but last night I think—yes, I’m sure—I went to bed without looking in the wallet. Those three-legged races on deck, you know—they rather took it out of me; I was dog tired.”
“Then the substitution might have been made yesterday or to-day,” I summarized. “Any time in the last forty-eight hours. You have no idea when or how the trick was done?”
“Positively none,” Mather groaned hopelessly. “Some one of the four hundred odd people on this ship is a robber; somewhere on this ship is that bundle of papers upon which a man’s life—the dignity of my country—my own honor hang, and—and they might as well be five hundred fathoms down for all my power to recover them.”
“Buck up, man!” I said, trying to put into my voice an element of hope I did not feel. “We’re five days out of Yokohama and much can be done in that time. You can be sure your reports won’t be destroyed; the thief wants them for the information they contain, but he must also save them to lay before his superiors—visible proof of their contents. Of course we can guess the nationality of the thief.”
"But there are thirty-odd Japanese gentlemen aboard,” Mather protested. “And we took on some forty or fifty coolies at Honolulu, didn't we? How can we accuse one at random?”
“Well, at least,” I put in defensively, “the nature of the case permits us to limit our suspicions to seventy or so out of four hundred; that’s a start. Let’s build up the hypothesis something like this: The Japanese government keeps one or more secret agents at Washington—that’s regular enough, for every country does it and we have ours abroad. One of these agents learns you are going to Tokyo—perhaps he even knows definitely what he would reasonably suspect: that the state department takes the opportunity of your going to send by you certain messages which it would not care to intrust to cable or mail. Of course it is his duty to accompany you and watch his chance to lift that valuable information. It does not take a very sharp eye to see, day by day, the shape of a wallet inside your coat; anybody, he reasons, who carries a stiff and bulky wallet constantly in his coat pocket—and even sticks to the habit when he changes to summer whites as you did on leaving Honolulu—must value the contents of that wallet highly. So, knowing where his game lies, he has only to contrive a substitution—either while you slept, which is improbable; or by some sleight-of-hand work in broad day and right under your nose, which is more likely. Now if you can remember just which of the Japanese passengers you have talked with—strolled about the deck with—we’ve got a flying start on the search for the thief.”
I do not pride myself on any peculiar, analytical traits of the Sherlock Holmes variety, and I am frank to admit that in building up this all too-obvious hypothesis I was leaving holes in it big enough to drive a sprinkling cart through; but my single aim was to try to lift the unfortunate Mather out of a despond which threatened to be a real menace to his sanity. I realized that there in the dark of my stateroom in mid-Pacific I had been called upon to doctor a man’s soul and my dose was not homeopathic. He, poor devil, was ready enough to snatch at it.
“Well, I’ve associated with a good many of them,” my companion faltered, evidently straining to focus his recollection. “Thought I’d like to get acquainted with as many as possible because of future relations in Tokyo, you know. There’s little Doctor Tokonoku; I’ve had a couple of games of chess in the smoke room with him and——"
“Tokonoku’s harmless; I know him,” I cut in. “Played with him myself.”
“——and that little chap who says he’s been studying cotton raising in Texas—little Something-or-other Matsu. A couple of games of shuffleboard with him.”
“Shuffleboard sounds harmless,” I ventured.
“And—by the Lord, Burke; it couldn’t be!” Mather trembled afresh, and his lowered voice squeaked and cracked under a sudden thrust of excitement. “That fellow Mad—Madatoya—the silk agent from London; he was showing me some jujutsu holds after the games on deck yesterday afternoon, and——”
“Steady now, Mather!” I cautioned. “Tell just what he did; how he did it; how many people were looking on; everything.”
I heard the shadowy shape before me take a long breath.
“After the finish of the three-legged race I dropped into a chair up forward by the saloon door, and this chap Madatoya came and sat down beside me. He congratulated me on winning one of the prizes, and our talk ran to athletics in Japan. He told me about the training the schoolboys get and how all candidates for the police force are put through a jujutsu course. I asked him some questions about how a jujutsu wrestler could stand up before an expert boxer, and he, laughing, offered to demonstrate a defense against fists.
“As a joke, of course, I took him up. We stood up, and I squared off at him.”
“Wait a minute,” I broke in, “who were in the chairs thereabouts—any spectators?”
“Only old Mrs. Jenkins, as I remember. She was doing some crocheting in the chair next to mine, and——”
“And Mrs. Jenkins is nearsighted,” I reminded Mather. “Remember the day she thought the alligator pear at your plate was her grandson’s rubber ball?”
“Madatoya crouched in front of me, his hands spread out at the level of his knees. I feinted with my left and swung a light right cross to his face, and like a flash he was under my guard, with one elbow under the chin, forcing my head back, and the other arm around my waist with the fingers pressing against my spine. He could have thrown me or broken my back. He held me that way a second or so, as I remember, laughingly taunting me to break the grip; then he let me go.”
“Was your head thrown back so that you could not see him during all the time he held you?" I asked.
“As I remember, yes. I thought at the time how helpless I was.”
“Oh, he showed me one or two other simple tricks of tripping, and we went down to the smoke room for a cocktail. I thought nothing more of it until this minute.”
I put another question:
“And that night—the night after the jujutsu lesson—when you went to bed you didn't examine to see if you had your wallet?”
“No, Burke, I didn’t. I was so dog tired I just fell into my bunk.”
For several minutes we sat there in the dark, no word between us. Finally I spoke the result of my deliberations:
"Mather, on principal I’d say you would be foolish to take this matter to the captain. If you had no suspicion to work on it would be simply letting another person into the secret of your loss to do so. But I think what you’ve told me about the jujutsu lesson justifies you in having a very well-founded suspicion of this fellow Madatoya and that the captain will have excuse to exercise his authority in a search of the man’s stateroom and person, at least. Even if we are wrong the gravity of the case and the strength of the evidence will excuse the mistake.”
The young secretary of legation was on his feet instantly, eager to follow my suggestion. I threw a raincoat over my pajamas, slipped my feet into straw sandals, and we went out onto the dripping deck. Seven bells were just being struck when we climbed to the shadowy bridge. The second officer, on watch there, demurred at first against rousing Captain Kendall, but upon my assuring him that it was a matter of the gravest importance that needed the captain’s attention, and one that couldn’t wait, he disappeared into the murk toward the door of the captain’s cabin back of the bridge. He soon returned to tell us Captain Kendall awaited us in his cabin, and he guided us to the door.
We found the skipper sitting on the edge of his berth, his uniform jacket hastily thrown over his sleeping clothes. He received us somewhat brusquely—a manner we could well pardon under the circumstances—but when Mather began in his nervous, slightly hysterical manner to detail the circumstances of the robbery Captain Kendall’s first flash of irritation was quickly dissipated by acute interest. The gray old master of the Siberia leaned eagerly forward, his hands clutching the raised side of his berth and the eyes under his heavy white brows never leaving Mather’s face. When the tale was finished Captain Kendall bent his head for a minute and seemed to be studying the pattern of the Chinese rattan “mules” he had on his bare feet.
“Mr. Mather, sir,” he began, “the captain of a ship at sea has wide responsibilities and unusual police powers, but he hesitates to use them except in the most extreme circumstances because he will be held to account for his actions by his owners, and, like as not, the government whose protection an arrested passenger may claim. In this case a mistake would be peculiarly unfortunate for me, running as I do into three Japanese ports; these Japanese are very touchy on points of honor. Moreover, I would not care to have word of a scandal pass among my passengers. I think the best way to do would be to have this Japanese gentleman summoned here now; we can then question him, and, if necessary, detain him while his room is being searched.”
He brought a passenger list out of a drawer and studied it a minute; then pressed an electric button. A petty officer appeared in the door and saluted.
“Banks,” said the captain, “go down to stateroom No. 141, present the captain’s compliments to Mr. Madatoya, and ask him to come to my room as soon as he can.”
The man at the door slipped into the gloom, and we were left in an embarrassing silence. I began to feel very poignant unrest; doubts as to the soundness of my snap deduction against the Japanese jutjutsu demonstrator pattered against my consciousness fast as the congealing drops of fog on the panes of the stateroom windows. I began to wonder how far into the halter I had thrust my head out of impulsive sympathy for the distress of another man. Surely if this Madatoya should prove a man of some consequence in Japan and we should be unable to pin the theft on him swift vengeance would be taken against the representative in Tokyo, of the Central Press, for one.
Hurried footsteps sounded outside the cabin, the door Was hastily jerked open, and the captain’s messenger thrust a white face into the square of radiance cut out of the night.
“I think you’d better come below, sir,” he stuttered. “Somethin’s happened to the gent’mun you sent me to fetch.”
“What’s that! What’s that!” Captain Kendall was already reaching for his greatcoat. Mather and I leaped to our feet. The three of us burst out of the door and were stumbling down the ladder to the boat deck the next instant. The fog was cold and gray; the deck seemed an interminable wet alley leading to blank space; the feel of vast ocean spaces and the mysteries they brew was in the air—charged it with a pricking sense of the Weird. We hurried down the grand staircase to the saloon, then followed the lead of the bos’n down a long alley of staterooms—an alley dim and sleep heavy. The noises of sleepers sounded all about us—stirrings, mutterings, the whimper of a child, the stilling coo of a mother.
Beyond a linen closet and the shield of a bulkhead three stateroom doors opened from the passage—three state-rooms isolated in part from the rest by the bulkhead shield. Two of the doors were hooked back so that the unoccupied space of the staterooms showed beyond them; the third was shut, and before this the bos’n paused.
“I had to bust it in with my shoulder, sir, when the gent’mun didn’t answer my knock,” he said and opened the door. He put his arm in and turned the light switch.
The blaze of light showed the figure of a Japanese in a blue crape kimono sprawled on the floor; his bare legs straddled out from under the cloud of flying storks on the garment in an attitude of a runner thunderbolted in full flight. Just below one shoulder the carved ivory handle of a Japanese dagger stuck up abruptly from the body. Near an outstretched hand—a hand that seemed vainly gripping for the thing just beyond reach—lay a black leather wallet.
Mather swooped upon it, pawed through its pockets, then turned to the captain and me a face gray green and ghastly.
“M-mine,” he stammered, “but I—I’m too late! Empty!”
For more than a minute, I think, we three stood there over that grotesque thing the flying storks covered, stricken cold and dumb. Then——
“Gentlemen, this is a murder,” Captain Kendall said sententiously, and at the moment nothing redundant in his statement appealed to us. Mather, still gripping the empty wallet convulsively, sank weakly to the couch and covered his eyes. The man was shaking as in an ague; for an instant I feared he was going to scream like a woman.
“Anything I c’n do, sir?” the bos’n nervously inquired from the alleyway outside the door.
“Go at once and wake up the surgeon,” commanded the captain. “Bring him here, then take your station outside the bulkhead door and let no one else pass.”
We heard the soft padding of the bos’n’s feet on the carpeted alleyway; then silence fell. None of us moved or spoke; there was only the sobbing respiration of Mather on the couch. Perhaps five dreadful minutes passed thus before footfalls again sounded without, and Doctor Sparks, the Siberia's surgeon, crossed the baseboard of the stateroom. He was in his pajamas and with feet slippered; the sleep was not yet out of his eyes. Captain Kendall merely pointed to the bundle of blue and white crape on the floor as the surgeon entered. A sharp gasp from Doctor Sparks and he was on his knees beside the body, his ready, professional hands at their exploring almost out of instinct.
With some effort he drew the short sword or one-edged Japanese dagger out of the wound and laid it carefully on a towel. Then he rolled the body of Madatoya over so that the narrow, crescent eyes stared unwinkingly at the cluster of electrics on the ceiling. Perfunctorily he laid a hand over the heart, a finger on the jugular, and shook his head.
“The stab from below the shoulder reached the man’s heart,” he said, “and he was dead before he struck the floor. There wasn’t any struggle as far as I can see. Hello—what’s this?”
The surgeon suddenly reached down the length of the murdered man’s right arm, which had been folded under the body when we discovered the tragedy, but had fallen limply to one side under Doctor Sparks’ manipulations. The hand was all but covered by a fold of the kimono; only the tips of the fingers remained visible. Sparks carefully disengaged the fingers from some small object they grasped, and held it up to the light. It was a gold-mounted pince-nez with a two-inch fragment of very fine gold chain depending from the tiny hole in the upper corner of the left-hand lens. The surgeon passed the glasses to Captain Kendall and began pawing about on the floor near the body. With a satisfied grunt he held up to our view a small gold hoop such as is worn behind the ear of those affecting the pince-nez; the companion fragment of the broken gold chain dangled from the loop.
“These were not the dead man’s,” the surgeon said as he pointed to the base of Madatoya’s nose. “No pinch marks here; there would be if he was a wearer of glasses.”
Doctor Sparks rose, took the glasses from the captain’s hand, and carefully examined them under the light.
“I’m not a sharp on optics, captain,” he said, “but I should say these lenses were built to rectify a fairly pronounced myopia. The man who wore these will miss them.”
“He can come to me for them,” Captain Kendall grimly remarked as he wrapped the glasses and the ear loop in his handkerchief and tucked the bundle carefully into the pocket of his great-coat. As he did so I saw him cast a sudden shrewd glance at Mather, who had removed his hands from his face and now sat staring blankly up at the frosted incandescents. With a quick catching of the breath I noted that the secretary of legation had on either side of his rather sharply bridged nose an indented mark—the mark of pince-nez. In my brief ship acquaintance with him I had not noticed before that he was a user of glasses; such a minor detail of a man’s appearance naturally would not register one time in a hundred with the ordinary individual meeting so many people as I do in the course of affairs. I looked at my friend’s waistcoat, hoping to see pinned there the little spring coil many slaves of the pince-nez prefer to the ear loop; there was none.
Of course, so it came to me in a flash, this scrutiny of mine was wild and extravagant and induced by the clap of tragedy just broken on us by the bewildering turn given to the affair of the missing state papers. But why that sudden searching glance of Captain Kendall’s? Captain Kendall had no bias to pull him to partisanship in Mather’s favor, such as I had; he merely saw facts as fate played them on the table. The facts, as so far revealed, pointed inexorably to Pierce Mather of all the four-hundred-odd souls aboard the Siberia the single one possessing a motive compelling enough to lead to murder. Was all this hysteria of his—the visit to my stateroom and the subsequent repetition of his tale to the captain—mere play acting to cover a grisly back trail of murder, and had the cunning intelligence of a slayer overlooked the one inevitable telltale circumstance said to exist to confound every taker of life—in this instance the pince-nez? Of course, I had known this man but twelve days, and I might have been deceived by his personable surface character. One does not sound the depths of a man in twelve days.
“Doctor,” I asked, vaguely laying a foundation of defense for my friend against accusation only hinted at in the captain’s sharp look, “how long would you say this man has been dead?”
“Not more than an hour—two at the most,” the surgeon answered. “Rigor mortis has not yet set in.”
I looked at my watch; the hour was twelve-fifteen. It had been just about an hour since I was roused from sleep by Mather’s frantic summons at my lattice door.
“I should think the scabbard of that sword should be around somewhere,” I volunteered, and I moved over to the couch where Mather sat and began pawing behind some of the dead man’s effects piled there.
“The matter of searching for evidence is entirely the duty of the ship’s officers, Mr. Burke,” Captain Kendall stopped me with a sharp tone of command. “I think you may assist Mr. Mather to his stateroom now. Surgeon Sparks and I will take charge, and we would rather act alone. I must command you both that you say nothing of what you have seen and heard here to any of the other passengers. If we are to lay hands on the murderer it is imperative that as little as possible of the events of this night shall be noised about decks. Now, if you please, gentlemen——’
There was no gainsaying the captain’s orders even though I strongly desired to share in probing the mystery of the Japanese passenger's death. Mather rose mechanically at my beckon, and we went out into the alleyway together. I accompanied him to his stateroom, which opened from the starboard deck a few doors from mine. No word passed between us until we paused at the door of his quarters. Then he put a hand falteringly on my shoulder and spoke in a low, tense voice:
“Burke, my dear fellow, I am a little child in the dark just now, and—and horribly afraid. You’ll stand by me—you’ll help me, Burke! I—I need a hand—to grip.”
He fumbled for my hand, clasped it convulsively, then was gone. I heard his door, shut, and waited for a minute before. I went to my own room, but not to sleep. With me in the dark was the shape of something straddled out under a tumbled blue and white kimono covered with flying storks—something whose outstretched hand groped for a leather wallet as if for a precious thing, and in the fingers of whose other hand was gripped a delicate gold frame and two lenses. Came to me the picture, too, of Pierce Mather’s strained and ghastly pale face, the starting eyes, and between them,'on either side of the sharply bridged nose, deep red creases.
Angrily I accused myself of being disloyal to a friend as I tossed in my berth; reproached myself as one so old in knowledge of the evil things of the world that instantly I prejudged one as guilty upon the first appearance of evidence bearing against him. But how could cold facts be avoided? Was it conceivable that there was anybody else among the Siberia's passengers—or even among the crew—who possessed a motive for murdering the Japanese so strong as Mather’s, or who had any motive whatever for doing Madatoya harm? To what other man besides the young secretary of legation was given the knowledge that in the leather wallet stolen from him lay secrets of tremendous value in a certain quarter? Who other than Madatoya himself, the secret-service agent who had paid for his zeal with his life, could know that this thing of great price had passed from Mather to Madatoya in that instant of legerdemain when the Japanese held the American in the jujutsu grip on deck? Would any one but the man whose loss of the wallet meant the ruin of a career and the jeopardizing of a nation’s diplomatic interests take the tremendous risk of murdering for the recovery of the papers when the limits of flight were set by the rails of the Siberia?
No, the case was clear. Mather, missing the wallet after Madatoya’s clever ruse of the day of the deck games, had suspected the thief, awaited his opportunity, and then struck the Japanese to the heart in a desperate moment of encounter. But why, then, his hysterical outpouring to me and Captain Kendall of the robbery tale and his naming of Madatoya as the man he suspected of the theft; why the placing of himself deliberately in the path of a pointing finger? Either the hysterical reaction of a high-strung nature drawn by the unaccountable fascination of blood lust to a secret gloating over the crime, or supreme criminal ingenuity, daring all by deliberately placing hope of safety against the weight of circumstantial evidence unprovable. Some of the most notorious murderers, I reflected, had almost escaped the consequences of their crimes by permitting suspicion to fall upon them unhindered—even by aiding by their own acts the logical sequence of damning circumstance to a certain point.
But here was I, building up a gallows to hang Pierce Mather on when at the coming of day he would meet me on deck wearing gold pince-nez—his accustomed property. Then scaffold, crosstree, and halter would fall to the ground and I would be caught in my own treasonable folly. For if that bit of gold and quartz crystal clenched in the dead man’s fingers could not be proved to be Mather’s property, then Mather was innocent of any guilt. Plainly as if an inanimate thing could be given a mouth and speech, that pince-nez in the murdered Madatoya's hand called: “I was snatched from the nose of the slayer; his eyes alone match mine!”
No sleep was mine, and the dawn came chill and dour. For an hour before the breakfast gong I walked the fog-draped decks, turning over and over for the hundredth time the baffling circumstances of the night’s mystery. It seemed, as I looked out into the impenetrable wall of the fog, that the genius of the great water wilderness whose paths the Siberia coursed by sufferance had laid its mocking hand on the ship to confound puny mortals thereon with unfathomable craft. The flat, white wall of fog was the face of this evil wraith of the sea—blind, expressionless, inexorable to will and to do.
Mather was not in his seat at the captain's table. Captain Kendall gave me just a nod of recognition as he took his place, and he had no word for any of his favorites at right and left; he ate his breakfast hurriedly, and left his seat before most of the passengers had come to table. I was quite as brief about my fruit and fish, anxious as I was to learn how Mather had passed the night and what was his present frame of mind. I went from the saloon straight to his stateroom. He answered my knock with a languid “Come!” I found him sitting in his pajamas before a tray of food, which was untouched; an empty whisky glass by the side of the tray told of the man’s unwise fortifying against a new day of strain. Mather’s face was drawn and pinched like the face of a fever patient; a trembling was in his limbs.
“What news, Burke?” he shot at me before I was hardly in his door. “Has the captain found—anything?”
I shook my head.
“I had hoped—hoped——” (His hands fumbled over the jacket of his pajamas as if searching automatically for something that should be there, and a little furrow came between his eyes—telltale of eye strain. He wore no pince-nez. I saw his hand reach for a bit of toast on the tray—and overreach. His eyes were serving him badly. Had I dared trust myself to put the question casually I would have asked him what had become of his glasses, but—and here again I was acting on the hypothesis that Pierce Mather was guilty of murder—I could not bring myself to voice a leading question which would be sure index of my suspicion.
“Burke,” he said in a dead voice, “there’s just one chance for me. I’ve figured it all out-balanced the chances and taken account of the human equation. The one who murdered Madatoya did not do it for possession of my papers—there was something else he expected to find in that wallet—something nobody but himself and the man he killed knew about presumably. When he found instead of the thing he wanted a mere official envelope sealed with the seal of the state department and addressed to the American ambassador in Tokyo there’s a chance—a good chance, don’t you think, Burke?—that he threw the packet of papers overboard. He’d be furious at missing the thing he’d done murder for—money—letters involving an affair between himself and Madatoya—any one of a score of things which might have great value in his eyes. He’d be afraid to keep the incriminating papers, and it would be quite natural for him to pitch them over the rail in the dark.”
“Without even reading them?" I put in.
Again that hard wrinkle between Mather’s eyes as he leaned forward to bring them the better to bear on my face.
“Don’t knock my only prop out from under me, Burke,” he pleaded, a bit petulantly. “Grant that he does read them; is there any reason to suppose that anybody on this ship besides Madatoya would know the value of that sealed package? Wouldn't the thief and killer throw the batch over the rail after he’d read them nevertheless?”
“If he was a Japanese—a thinking Japanese who knows the trend of the times—I’m afraid not, Mather,” I answered. “If those reports contain information so vital to the interests of the United States, as you say they do, I think the man who possesses them now will consider it his patriotic duty to turn them over to his government. He need not explain how they came to be in his hands.”
Was all this speculation on Mather’s part—this grasping for straws of hope in a maelstrom of disaster—but part and parcel of a grim farce of deception? Were the papers he had recovered at the price of a dagger stroke in a man’s back in reality somewhere safely concealed within the very walls of the stateroom where I sat? These questions hammer—hammered at my brain even as my sympathies went out to the distracted fellow before me. Well enough, I reassured myself, to allow one’s heart to be moved by suffering; but reason is cold and inflexible—has to do with facts, not furbelows of emotion. Why was Pierce Mather without his glasses? That was a question in the realm of fact that must be answered.
“Listen, my friend,” said Mather, shifting on his camp chair so as to bring his straining eyes closer to my face, “I have puzzled out my position here in the dark of the night—have tried to build some little raft to hold me up and keep the waters from closing over my head. Here is my scheme and I ask you to help me—I beg you like a drowning man begs for help. We are five days out of Yokohama still; those five days are precious, for we know that during that time the papers are never. more than a few yards from us—maybe a few feet at times; in fact, we may walk right over them as we pace the deck. During those five days—and nights—I must move heaven and earth to recover that sealed envelope, and if I fail before we drop anchor at Yokohama——”
Mather winced, and in his eyes stood tears of weakness—of mental exhaustion.
“If I fail in these five days; Burke, there’s only one course open for me—continue the search in Japan. Find a candle flame in the Milky Way, you might say! How I’ll do it—where I’ll begin I haven’t the least idea, I only know that I must.”
“But, my dear fellow,” I interposed, “your position; as secretary of legation you cannot be sleuthing after stolen documents in Tokyo.”
“I have thought of that, too. There’s just one point in my favor in that connection. The legation does not know that I have been appointed to fill the vacancy; does not know, in fact, that any one has been assigned by the department in Washington. The department has a way of boggling along and filling positions in its own good time without advance notification of its actions. So the American ambassador at Tokyo does not know that Pierce Mather is coming to join his staff and does not know, either, that Pierce Mather is supposed to be bringing with him an important communication from the secretary. In the natural course of events he would not know either fact, if I should fail to appear, for two months or more. You, Burke, will be the only person in Japan who will know that such a man as Pierce Mather debarked from the steamship Siberia, because from the moment the first landing boat touches the pier at Yokohama until such time as the communications from the secretary of state to the ambassador are laid in his hands with seals unbroken Pierce Mather will cease to exist to all but you.”
"Why, you’re mad, man!” I could not help exclaiming. “You—a stranger in a land full of the most impossible contradictions and surprises—you try single-handed, or even with my help, to find a packet small enough to be carried in a wallet? Absurd! Better go straight to the ambassador and make a clean report of it all. No blame can be attached to you. You were not lax in your duty. Besides, the ambassador must be prepared to shape his position to meet any move the Japanese government may make in the light of the information it gains from the stolen papers.”
“When—when that information is known to the Japanese cabinet,” he faltered, “there will be no position left for the ambassador to take. Three years of diplomacy will be undone—Washington’s hand will be spread on the table, and there will be nothing but for Japan to take the tricks. Then that secret agent whose name is revealed to the Japanese government—his life——”
A knock came at the door. It was opened at Mather’s bidding, and a sailor saluted.
“Captain Kendall’s compliments,” he said, “and will Mr. Mather kindly step to the captain‘s quarters on the bridge?”
Mather hurriedly dressed and went forward. I passed out on deck, where the long lines of shawl-muffled passengers stretched in their chairs, unaware of the coils of mystery tightening about the ship. My mind was geared as high as the revolutions of the Siberiia’s propellers; it raced unconscionably. My every impulse was to grip the hand of that likable young fellow from Washington and tell him I would see him through his trouble at any price; all my instinct of sympathy was enlisted in unquestioning service in his behalf, and the lure of the mystery fired all my journalistic enthusiasm to the core. If only Pierce Mather would clear himself of the black suspicion circumstances had thrown over him, then would I launch with him on any quest. This hour, when he was before the captain and undergoing the examination that odd light in the captain’s eyes on the night before had presaged—this was the hour of test for Pierce Mather.
Perhaps it was an hour—an interminable hour—I paced the deck alone, waiting to know the outcome of Mather’s interview with Captain Kendall. In my furious mental wrestling with the elusive mystery of the night, I was oblivious to all surroundings. The chattering, yellow-haired flirt who plied her campaign of conquest at shuffleboard; the buzzing knot of missionaries in the ingle by the after ventilators; those romping youngsters of the Nagasaki consul’s—they were all manikins to me. I must have jumped when a deck steward touched my arm and murmured: "Captain Kendall asks to see you in his quarters, sir.” I followed him up to the bridge, and was admitted to the commodious cabin behind the chart room.
Mather sat there, and Doctor Sparks. Captain Kendall paused in his pacing the floor to nod at me and jerk his head toward a swivel chair by the side of his desk. Mather raised his face—the face of one dead—to launch a mute appeal with his eyes as I passed him. His aspect was terrible; utter hopelessness was written on his linen-white countenance.
“Mr. Burke,” Captain Kendall began brusquely, “please tell me everything that transpired between Mr. Mather and yourself last night, from the time he came to your stateroom and roused you.”
I did as he bid, carefully recalling, as nearly as possible, the conversation between us, as I have set it down here. Mather listened with jaw tight set and eyes straining as if to read the thoughts lying behind my speech.
“Did you notice whether Mr. Mather wore his glasses—his pince-nez—when he came to your stateroom to tell you he had been robbed?” queried the skipper searchingly.
“I did not know Mr. Mather wore glasses,” I answered, “until Doctor Sparks called attention to the absence of pinch marks on the dead man’s nose; then I saw the red marks indicating the pince-nez habit.”
“So you could not identify these?” Here Captain Kendall extended in his palm the damning evidence of gold and crystal the ship’s surgeon had found between Madatoya’s fingers. “You could not say whether or not this is the property of Mr. Mather?”
“I should think Mr. Mather himself could give the best answer to that question,” I answered.
Kendall scowled slightly and tightened his lips under his severe, close-cropped beard.
“I am asking you, Mr. Burke,” he said shortly.
“No, I could give no opinion on that matter.”
The captain turned suddenly to Mather. There was in the tone of his voice something almost bullying, “You say, Mr. Mather, that you last had your glasses on just before you went to bed last night, and that you didn’t miss them until just before I summoned you here this morning.”
“I may have unconsciously missed them when we were—were down there in the dead man’s stateroom last night,” Mather began hesitatingly. “I was so excited I did not get an impression of their absence. It was not until this morning, when I started to dress, that I could not find them. I—ah—they were not where I think I put them when I took them off before I discovered the robbery. I looked all over my state-room for them this morning, but failed to find them.”
“Where did you put them when you took them off last night?" Kendall queried.
“On the edge of my washstand.”
“Hum! And was your port open—the port opening to the deck by the right side of your washstand?”
“I cannot recollect. I think it was.” Mather passed a trembling hand over his eyes as if to brush away shadows clouding his memory.
“There was a light in your stateroom, then?” Captain Kendall pressed him. “One standing in the dark of the deck could see you put your pince-nez on the edge of your washstand—if you did.”
“Yes, it was lighted. I had not yet switched off the light before undressing. I always undress in the dark—on shipboard, at least.”
“And after you discovered you had been robbed, as you say—when you ran to Mr. Burke’s room to tell him of it, you left your light on?”
“Yes,” said Mather.
“And your glasses still lying where you had placed them?”
“I believe so. Yes. I must have.”
“Did you lock your door behind you?” Captain Kendall was shooting the questions like a trained prosecutor.
“Yes—no! I must have left the door wide open. I was so thunderstruck, you know. I acted blindly.”
The skipper summed up:
“Then you laid your pince-nez on the washstand within reach of the open port in your lighted stateroom and ran out, leaving the door unlocked behind you?”
"That must be the way of it, captain,” Mather answered dully.
“But how do you account for these glasses, which you say must be yours, being gripped in a murdered Japanese gentleman’s fingers an hour after you laid them down?"
“I have told you I cannot account for it,” Mather exclaimed pettishly. “It is utterly beyond me.”
“You feel some discomfort without your glasses, Mr. Mather,” the surgeon broke in. “You have difficulty——”
“I suffer from an astigmatism which throws the focus of my eyes out of whack,” the embassy secretary replied. “At the present moment my eyes are weak from strain.”
Captain Kendall passed the glasses to the young man with a quick gesture of apology.
“Excuse me, sir, for causing you needless discomfort,” he said. “Put on your glasses, and we will go down and look at that washstand of yours. There might be finger marks which would throw some light——”
“Why! These are not mine!”
The exclamation came sharply from Mather. He sat blinking owlishly behind the lenses hung from his nose. Through them his eyes took on a swollen, fishy look. We three started.
Mather snatched the fragile bow from his nose and began to titter. A shrill note of hysteria was in his laugh.
“Ho, ho!” he cackled. “Saved by a pair of specs! Ho, ho! Two bits of glass and a dinky gold frame an alibi!”
The overwrought chap was rocking in his seat, tittering and mumbling like any defective. It was a jarring thing to see.
“Look here!” The skipper had him by the shoulder, and was shaking him smartly. “What do you mean?. Didn’t you say these glasses were yours when I showed them to you first off after you came in here?”
Mather was on his feet. He tried to spread the bow of the pince-nez over the captain’s nose, his hands trembling so that the broken gold chain writhed like a live thing against the skippers beard.
“See for yourself!” he cried. “Look through them! They’re ground for a man almost blind—strong as a telescope refractor! Why, man, I couldn't wear such lenses; they’d eat my eyes out.”
Captain Kendall, with a brusque movement, took the glasses from Mather’s shaking fingers and fitted them to his nose. He glared stupidly through the lenses.
“Strong enough for a horse!” he muttered. Then:
“Doctor Sparks, have you got anything like a chart of eyeglass lenses—something that’ll give us a line on what kind of eyes these are supposed to fit?”
The surgeon thought he had, and went to his room to get it. We were silent during his absence. I confess I could not speak, so bewildered I was by this sudden new twist to the mystery. Out of the jumble of my thoughts lifted one clearly, exultantly: come what might in the development of this baffling case, suspicion was for all time snatched from Pierce Mather. The logic of circumstance which had first pointed to this clean, personable young chap had been hateful to me. I was as sure of his innocence as if I had just heard an expert optician declare from the witness stand that these all-important specs were made for a Numidian dromedary and none other.
Doctor Sparks returned with a heavy book on optics, in the appendix of which was a chart of numbered lenses with prescriptions according. With his pen-knife tip he carefully let the right-hand lens out of its frame and examined its beveled edge for a number. On one side of the edge, very fine, was scratched, or etched, not numbers but this legend: “Von Z—Berlin.”
“Must mean,” the surgeon hazarded, after searching in vain for more tangible identification, “that these glasses were specially prescribed. By a specialist in Berlin, I should say—Von Zome-body or other.”
Mather produced a cardcase, and from it took a small, folded paper. “My prescription for glasses,” he said, extending the bit of script to Captain Kendall. “Always have it with me in case I break them.”
Kendall glanced at the paper, and passed it to Sparks, who, noting the numbers on the prescription, ran a finger down the chart.
“Here you are!” he exclaimed. “Number D-150; S-100—simple astigmatism. Mr. Mather, that’s your case.”
The, skipper reached for the young secretary’s hand. He hesitated on the edge of speech, confused.
“Mr. Mather, sir, I am glad. Perhaps I may have appeared——”
“It’s all right, captain,” Mather interrupted, returning the other’s grip with a hearty clasp. “I am too happy to be out of the woods to remember anything unpleasant against you. It was natural—quite natural. You should follow the way signs pointed. But here’s a facer: Who stole my glasses, and why?"
“That’s only part of the question,” answered the captain. “Did the man who took your glasses off your wash-stand murder Madatoya, intending to put them in the dead man’s hand to incriminate you?”
“And left his own there by mistake?” I supplemented.
“Or had his snatched off by the death lunge of Madatoya’s hand and didn’t dare wait to make the substitution—or forgot to do so,” Mather suggested.
The surgeon, who had been thumbing the pages of his reference work as we speculated, broke in eagerly. “Listen to this!” he commanded:
“The remarkable operation of removing the lens from the eyeball in cases where that delicate part of the visual mechanism has been rendered useless by congenital cause, by cataract, or as the result of accident, has been achieved with success only in recent years. Doctor Karl von Zumholst, of Berlin, not only has performed this master essai with universally favorable results, but has perfected a spectacle lens which restores to the patient full use of his optic organs. The operation entails the removal——
“But pshaw! No need of going into those details.” The surgeon looked up from his book with the kindling of enthusiasm in his eyes and the humorous lines of his wide mouth. “Here you have ‘Von Z—Berlin’ on the bevel of this lens, and you get ‘Von Zumholst, of Berlin, oculist and surgeon,’ in the book. What does that convey to you?”
Captain Kendall’s weather-stained face was breaking into an eager smile. “I don’t want to whistle to false signals again,” he exclaimed, “but I should say we want to look for a man with no lenses in his eyes.”
“Big contract, captain,” Doctor Sparks warned. “Nearly three hundred men on this ship, counting Chinos, and you can’t tell by looking at a man’s eyes whether——”
“We can cut it down to the men in the saloon,” I put in. “Sailors and steerage passengers are not given to gold-rimmed pince-nez.”
"Limit it further to the Japanese in the first cabin,” Mather added. “I’m convinced nobody but a Japanese could know the value of what Madatoya took from me.”
“I think you’re right, Mr. Mather,” Kendall affirmed. “Madatoya was killed with a Japanese short sword, not his own—at least the scabbard is not among his effects.”
“And that narrows the search to how many, captain?” Mather asked. “There are thirty-two Japanese men and one woman in the saloon,” he replied. “Madatoya was the thirty-third.”
I can conceive what had been the mental torture of Pierce Mather when he entered Captain Kendall’s cabin for his examination an hour or so before. Then he stood alone before the cunning snare of circumstance diabolically set against him; he knew that in the eyes of authority, which at sea is vested without appeal in the ship’s captain, he had been pushed under the shadow of a homicide without a single saving gleam in the dark. Now he came out into the sunlight cleared of suspicion, with his former prosecutor as well as Doctor Sparks and myself allies in the combat with blind mystery. A wedge had been driven into that mystery by the strange intervention of two bits of rock crystal and a thin bow of gold; the anonymity of the thief and murderer had been whittled down from the four hundred-odd souls aboard the Siberia to thirty-two. More than that, among those thirty-two was one who could not long escape detection by the helplessness imposed upon him through the loss of his mechanical eyes; him we must inevitably detect before the Siberia passed the forts at the entrance of Yeddo Bay.
Mather, raised by the reaction from his ordeal to the height of nervous exultation and alertness, stepped buoyantly out ahead of us and led the way to his stateroom. We passed down the windward deck, deserted by the chair loungers because of the biting sting of the wind, and came to Mather’s stateroom without attracting the attention of any. There the young secretary demonstrated how he had removed his pince-nez and placed it on the edge of the washstand before retiring; showed just how he stood in reference to the frosted incandescent globe in the panel overhead as he removed the gold loop from behind his ear. Captain Kendall heard him through without comment. When he had finished he stepped through the stateroom door and out onto the deck.
Now Mather’s stateroom did not open directly on the deck, but to an alley-way which gave onto the deck a few inches beyond his stateroom door. The port was let into the deck side of his room a few feet above the narrow couch screwed against the deckward wall of the stateroom; the heavy round circle of brass-rimmed glass swung on a lateral hinge.
The Siberia’s master stepped around the corner from the alley door to the long bench riveted to the deck boards with its back against the iron wall of the deck house. He stood on this and thrust his arm through Mather’s open port. We who remained in the stateroom saw his fingers easily sweep the corner of the washstand; nor were Kendall’s arms unusually long. It was, then, sufficiently demonstrated that one standing on the deck bench could have lifted Mather’s pince-nez from the washstand ledge, even with no great reach of arm.
Captain Kendall came back to the stateroom.
“Well, even that doesn’t prove much,” he said, “when Mather admits he ran out in his panic and left the door open. The person who wanted his glasses probably hardly dared reach for them when he was in the room, even though he had the light off—might just as well have come through the door when Mather ran to your room, Mr. Burke.”
I did not answer, for something—call it blind inspiration or a newspaper man’s intuition for turning over every rock in the path of investigation—led me to draw nearer the port. I thought I saw a tiny crack in the brass frame by the hinge, ran my hand over it, and brought away a single long hair. It snapped as I pulled; a short filament stayed in the crack of the lateral hinge where it had been caught. What remained between my fingers was probably sixteen or eighteen inches in length. I stretched it between thumb and forefinger of both hands and turned to show the others.
“Exhibit B,” I said shortly.
“Relic of a previous tenant, Burke,” Mather laughed. “Don’t try to complicate a mystery sufficiently abstruse already.”
“I hardly think so,” Captain Kendall objected. “Your room boy polished your porthole brasswork yesterday or shirked his job. He was at work when I made the inspection of the ship at noon. He wouldn’t have overlooked even a hair, for I’ve jumped the fear of God into those heathen recently. Let’s have a closer look at that hair.”
I stretched it out on the white counterpane of the bunk, and we four bent our heads over it. The hair was black—glossy black, fibrous, and more coarse than the average woman’s. There was no tendency to curl or twist in it; for texture and lifelessness it might have come from a fiddle bow.
“The Chinos on this ship all wear their hair short now,” said Kendall, a furrow of perplexity deepening between his brows. “Unusually coarse—might have come from a horse’s tail—if we had a horse aboard.”
The absurdity of the skipper’s speculation did not strike us; we were too alert to the new element in the mystery this single strand of black hair had injected.
“A Japanese woman,” I ventured. “You know the coarseness and sleekness of their hair—always oiling and brushing it—no curl in it. Perhaps——”
“Absurd!” Kendall spluttered. “Only one lap woman aboard—in the first cabin, at least. Little Miss Tokonoku—funny little brown mouse—she sits at the first officer’s table, you remember. Her father’s that little chap who carries a chess-problem board around in his pocket and picks at it twelve hours a day. As well suspect the Queen of England climbing that bench outside and slipping any arm in this porthole to snatch a pair of glasses. I think we can disregard this hair, Mr. Burke, unless we find a woman aboard with more of its kind on her head and a character to fit the part of murderess better than the little Tokonoku lady.”
“I have been surprised more than once by Japanese women with the faces of carved idols,” I retorted, a bit warmly, nettled at the captain’s cock-sureness. “If it is true that Mather’s room boy polished this porthole brass yesterday, then the presence of this hair caught in the hinge is more than a coincidence in the light of last night’s happenings.”
“Have it your way, Mr. Burke,” Captain Kendall stiffly answered. “When you bring me the woman whose head lost this hair, I’ll consider the question of holding her for the Yokohama authorities.”
The rumble of the luncheon gong came down the deck just then, putting a period to further discussion. The commander turned, with his hand on the door.
“Remember, gentlemen, not a word of this on deck, please. The less known about this, the better progress we’ll make in getting to the bottom of this unusual affair. And”—this with a slight stiffening of his tone—“if either of you has any suggestion to make, I will be glad to hear it. No private sleuthing, however, gentlemen. I need not remind you that my position as commander of the Siberia gives me sole jurisdiction over police matters at sea.”
He left us, Surgeon Sparks following. Mather and I went down to the saloon separately. When I entered I could not help casting a quick glance over to the first officer’s table. Little Miss Tokonoku was in her place, demurely and with hands folded, awaiting the service of the first course by the blue-frocked Chinese waiter. The seat beside her, which was her father’s, was swung around; he had not come down to his meal. My place was at a table farther on; from it I could see her profile without being observed by her. I freely indulged my curiosity.
It would not be exaggeration to say that Miss Tokonoku possessed no more distinction of personality than the swivel chair she perched on—perched is the word; she was balanced on the stool like a timorous brown wren on the verge of flight. Pale brown was her skin; brown the clumsily cut waist she wore. Above the sharp oval of her face lay, piled high in semi-Japanese fashion, the black cables of her hair. Glossy black it was, coarse, heavy; the comb had left lines in the shining backward sweep of it like the grain in heavy wood. As with most Japanese women who find themselves in the unaccustomed presence of foreigners, Miss Tokonoku hid behind veiled eyes the worriments of embarrassment, looked not at all at her neighbors, seemed constantly in a fever of doubt less she blunder in her table manners.
Looking at this little brown statuette of shrinking self-effacement, I could not help laughing inwardly at the farce of my elaborate sealing of that long black hair from the port hinge in the pocket of my cardcase—so I had disposed of it before leaving Mather’s room.
Yet there was hair that duplicated this treasured single strand exactly. Of all the coiffures in the saloon—brassy, blond, gray, chestnut, and red—none but that of the Japanese woman against which that telltale hair could lie matched. Away back in the hall bed-room of my mind a little, thought persisted: “Explain that hair sticking to Mather’s port hinge before you dismiss the little Tokonoku person.”
My first move after luncheon was to go to the surgeon’s quarters and moil over with him the complexities of the mystery. Sparks was a garrulous chap; all the love of the unrevealed in his simple soul had leaped to the spur of the grim riddle popped at us by the sphinx of the ocean spaces. I asked to read further the note his optical treatise had on the eye surgery of the famous Von Zumholst, of Berlin. Disappointment there; nothing about the effect on vision of the removal of the vitreous lens from the eye. Not a hint which might serve to mark the probable disabilities of one so operated upon and deprived of his special glasses. Could such a one see at all without his aids? If he could, what would be the abnormalities of his vision? The book was mute on these points.
Restless under the fruitlessness of our talk, I left Sparks in a high state of conjecture, and made a couple of loops of the deck. My eye was keen for Mather, but not finding him among the chairs, I dropped into the smoke room to see if he was there. The usual poker game was on in the center of the room, with its fringe of spectators; Mather was not among them. Over in a far corner I spied a wispy little figure curled up on a couch behind a chess-board—Doctor Tokonoku.
Sudden impulse sent me over to him.
“Solitaire again, doctor?” I called. He looked up, with a nervous start. “Wouldn’t it be more interesting to beat me, as you did the other day, than ‘dummy’?”
“Ah, yiss, yiss!” The little doctor bobbed his gray head and motioned me to a seat opposite. “I play much the game,” he ‘added. “It is like the go game, yet not so interesting.”
As I reached out to set the pieces in place, I glanced casually at the little doctor’s face. He wore gold-rimmed pince-nez on a gold chain and with an ear loop. The visor of his soft traveling cap was pulled down well over his eyes. I gave my opponent the black men and kept the red. The table we played on had a peg hole in each square; each piece was pegged to fit the holes-this a precaution against the pitching of the vessel. Doctor Tokonoku took first move. With true chess player’s deliberation, he kept his hands off his piece until he was sure of his strategy, then moved. His second was a neat gambit play I was not anticipating. The pawn would not, somehow, find the peg hole in the adjacent square; I had to pick it up where it fell and ram the peg home. The doctor whispered thanks.
Play went on without a word from either of us. The Japanese, easily my master, made a relentless drive for my intrenched bishops, moving his forces forward with perfect generalship. I had almost forgotten, in the absorption of the game, the motive that had launched me in it when, of a sudden, an incident, trivial in itself, set all the alarm nerves of my reporter’s instinct thrumming.
Doctor Tokonoku moved one of my red knights instead of his black one. My first impulse was to correct his mistake, but instantly I checked it. Instead I deliberately ‘moved’ his black knight to a protecting station; the opposing knights were in contiguous positions, and my deliberate mistake, was no more noticeable in point of relative board positions than his.
Doctor Tokonoku made no correction, but, after due pause, played again—this time with his own piece. I thought I saw his fingers tremble as he boggled the peg of a castle into its hole. Thrilling under the triumph of a discovery I was all too ready to accept without further and unassailable proof, I made a jump to the rear with the very knight he had shifted as his own.
In the next three plays Doctor Tokonoku twice moved red pieces instead of black. The game was inextricably tangled. I had my proof.
The man was nearly blind! Or absolutely color blind.
He knew this was so, but did he know he had blundered, and did he realize that I knew he had blundered? Yet Doctor Tokonoku wore glasses—gold-rimmed pince-nez with a chain and loop over his ear. Like Mather’s, stolen, and the one found in the murdered Madatoya’s grip. If he wore glasses, why was he still groping for vision like one in the dark?
What that bizarre game would have come to, tangled as it was by the little doctor’s erratic moves, I cannot guess. Interruption came startlingly. Doctor Tokonoku’s hand was hovering over his black line to make a move when, with a smothered sigh, he fell forward on the board, scattering the chessmen to the floor. As he fell, his pince-nez slipped off his nose and clattered across the board to my lap.
I think I must have exclaimed, for at once we were surrounded by men from the poker table, excitedly asking what had happened. I directed them to help me stretch the doctor out on the couch. Somebody began to fan him with a cap; somebody else ran to the bar in one corner of the smoke room and returned with a glass of brandy. The liquor revived Doctor Tokonoku. He opened his eyes, muttering something in Japanese which I could not catch.
“Ah, excoose!” he murmured, when he saw the ring of faces above him. “For making trouble, excoose, pliss. It iss a sickness—sometimes ver’ sudden she comes to me.”
“All right, doctor; you’re all O. K. now,” big Henderson, the mining man, boomed as he laboriously swung his cap back and forth over the recumbent one’s face. “Somebody get busy here and help me carry him to his stateroom.”
Doctor Tokonoku protested weakly, but Henderson was one of those men who glory in rising to an emergency whether their remedy is right or wrong, and he would not be denied. He lifted the doctor by the shoulders; another took him by the feet, and they bundled him down the stairs to the main stateroom deck. I started to follow with the vague notion of returning to the stricken man the pince-nez that had fallen in my lap. I was conscious as I walked of the tip, tip of the golden ear loop against the back of my hand. Somehow this inanimate thing seemed to my highly sensitized mind to be signaling a message; each tap against my hand of the swinging loop was a call from an imprisoned intelligence in the gold filament. The fantastic conceit finally conquered. Instead of following to Doctor Tokon0ku’s stateroom and giving up the pince-nez, I slipped them in my pocket and went up on deck.
Mather I found in desultory chat with the wife of the Nagasaki consul. I signaled an S. O. S. call with my eyes, and he soon found excuse to join me down by the turn in the deck forward where the sharp wind from starboard had made this spot untenable by the chair warmers.
In a breath I told Mather of the occurrence in the smoke room. He followed me with widened eyes.
“It was eye strain that did it!” he exclaimed excitedly. “Excessive eye strain brings on a vertigo that knocks you out completely. I’ve had it, and I know what it is—haven’t read a line since my glasses disappeared for that very reason.”
“But why eye strain when the man was wearing specs?” I queried.
“You’ve just told me that his glasses didn’t do him a bit of good,” Mather countered, with eagerness in voice and gesture. “Couldn’t tell a red chessman from a black one—his men from yours. Why, man, that little Japanese fellow’s practically blind.”
Inspiration pounced down on me.
“Then his pince-nez is a bluff!” I cried. “Those lenses don’t fit his eyes —never were meant to. He’s trying to cover the loss of his proper glasses by wearing somebody’s else!”
Mather looked at me, his face drawn into a pucker of excitement. Without a word I drew Doctor Tokonoku’s pince-nez from my pocket and put it in Mather’s hand. He slipped the bow over his nose, patted it into place, then looked down the deck, out to sea, into my eyes. He slowly nodded his head with an eloquence stronger than speech.
“Make sure,” I cautioned. “Look at the numbers on the lenses.”
With the tip of his knife blade Mather deftly loosened the tiny screws bolting the lenses to the frame and held up the lenses, edge on, for me to examine. There on the bevels of them I found the prescription numbers—“D-105; S-100.” I read the legends aloud to him.
“Mine—mine!” he whispered.
“We’ll have to tell the captain about this,” my companion added. “Looks to-me as if the murderer has been uncovered.”
“Easy, easy!” I cautioned. “This isn’t proof that Doctor Tokonoku killed Madatoya; it only tends to fix the theft of your glasses on him. Besides, Captain Kendall feels himself thoroughly competent to do the police work on this ship”—this a savage whack at Kendall’s bumptiousness on my part—“and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t let him. Perhaps before this time to-morrow you and I can turn over the slayer of Madatoya to the skipper, neatly bound and tagged—and have your precious papers back as well. Now just set those lenses back in place, and I’ll take them down to Doctor Tokonoku.”
“Certainly!” I interrupted. “He mustn’t for a minute suspect that his pitiful bluff with your pince-nez is suspected.”
Mather tightened the screws on the lenses, and I went down to Doctor Tokonoku’s stateroom. The door opened a crack in answer to my knock, and the little mouse face of Miss Tokonoku appeared there. It was a gray yellow, and the moon eyes were narrowed to two little white slits. Even through the Oriental mask of impassivity the stamp of fear leered horribly.
“Your father’s' glasses, which he dropped in the smoke room,” I explained, as I slipped the pince-nez into her hand. “And how is he feeling now?”
The tiny figure at the door shrank back, and the crack between door and jamb was narrowed as if to fend off intrusion. Her mouth tried to frame itself for words, but they would not come.
“I—am—well, thenk you,” came the voice of Doctor Tokonoku from within. “For the glasses many thenks.”
The door closed instantly.
To me, knowing something of the Japanese character, that grudging crack of the door; the ghost of terror that fought with the starched induration of the woman’s face spoke volumes.
I went back to the deck, there to coil up in my chair and do some heavy thinking. What was to be the next move? That was the hard knot that faced me in every essay at the center of the mystery. Fate had played a favoring trump just once, when I was allowed to uncover Doctor Tokonoku’s subterfuge of the substitute pince-nez. But fate could scarcely be relied upon to lead again; it was up to me to take the initiative. Find the murderer of Madatoya? Hadn’t I done so? It was credible—almost as moral certainty—that the one who would steal Mather’s pince-nez with the evident intention of leaving them as damning evidence in the fingers of the slain man was the same who had plunged a short sword into the back of the secret-service agent. Here was Doctor Tokonoku wearing Mather’s specs in an attempt to cover the loss of his own—a ruse which might have succeeded had he not risked safety for his chess passion; his artificial eyes were those found in the murdered man’s grip; there had been some fatal miscarriage at the moment of the crime. How, then, could little Tokonoku have been guilty of a blunder which marked him as a murderer when he had taken such infinite precaution as to provide, by the stolen pince-nez, evidence of Mather’s guilt? Wasn't this very blunder sufficient proof of the participation of a second individual in the murder? Some one, say, who wasn’t aware of Tokonoku’s provision of the stolen pince-nez, or who didn’t give him time to arrange the substitution of Mather’s glasses for his own after the blow had fallen.
That long black hair stuck in the hinge of Mather’s port! A Japanese woman’s hair. The hair that was matched only on the head of Miss Tokonoku.
Was this frail little brown wren the second party to the assassination of the spy? Was not hers the hand that was slipped through Mather’s opened port;-her arm being so short that she had to push her head through also to reach the washstand—and was it not her blunder that had left her father's pince-nez in the grip of dead fingers?
Those chilled eyes of fear I had seen in the crack of the stateroom door seemed to answer this question. Some tremendous urge of filial duty, such as is ingrained in. the Japanese woman above all women in the world, had whirled this mite of femininity into the grim business of killing. Japanese legend is replete with just such instances. Many heroines of Nippon had hands like the Lady Macbeth’s.
Granting this hypothesis, where was that packet of state-department secrets upon which hung the safety of the American secret-service agent in Japan and the honor of Pierce Mather? Where but in the possession of Doctor Tokonoku and his daughter? Why one Japanese had murdered another to gain possession of something profitable to their common country-this was absolutely beyond guessing.
How to get it—another crux!
Did I know enough—have a big enough grip on truth to go boldly to Doctor Tokonoku and demand the restoration of the packet? That would be to accuse him of murder, and my chain of circumstantial evidence was not strong enough to withstand any sudden twist he might put upon it. Where would I stand if I couldn’t bluff him into surrendering what I thought he had—if he defied me to fasten murder and theft upon him?
Two curiously ground lenses in a gold frame and a single black hair sixteen or eighteen inches long—all my evidence!
Oh, that was a wretched day of indecision! A dozen times I determined to go down and face the little doctor, and as many times I was halted by the saving grace of prudence. What irked me greatest was that I saw no way of initiating other action. My hands were tied. Neither Doctor Tokonoku nor his daughter was at table for the luncheon and dinner call. I saw trays going to their stateroom after both meals had been served. Mather, who shared my restlessness, and whom I restrained from spoiling things by going to Captain Kendall with the story of our suspicions only by constant persuasion, ranged the decks like a caged creature. He finally gained my promise that if nothing developed before noon next day—nothing could eventuate but another fortuitous move by fate—I would tell the captain what I knew about Tokonoku’s eyes.
What made our futile waiting for blind chance all the more unbearable was the knowledge that Madatoya’s disappearance had become common among the Japanese saloon passengers. I overheard a group back of the ventilators by the smoke room discussing it in lowered voices; though their speech was in their native tongue, I understood enough to discover that to them the death of the spy was not so great a mystery as it appeared to me. A single word, “Dido,” popped out of the murmur of their conversation several times. Eavesdropping as long as I dared, I quickly turned the corner of the deck house when the scuffling of feet told me the conference was dissolving.
Rack my brain as I would, the word “Dido” conveyed nothing to me. Somewhere in the back pigeonholes of my mind lurked the aura of comprehension; I knew I had once heard the word and understood its significance, and I suffered that exasperation which comes to every one on occasions when the backward trail of recollection leads to a black rabbit hole.
Night came, and the desertion of the decks. About the saloon and the smoke room, the two oases of life in the desert of the ocean dark, rallied the Siberia’s passengers; in the one to listen to bad music and chatter, and in the other to eddy around the card tables. Mather, whose eyes bothered him increasingly, went to bed early with a bad headache. I climbed into a cave of rugs on the deck forward to nurse a brier and moil over once more the endless chain of the ship’s mystery.
Through the lateral pipes of the rail I could see the eerie lift of the Pacific, vague white hands reaching in appeal to the veiled genius of the water waste. In the face of_ this immensity of ocean, I drifted away from myself and out onto the void beyond the ship’s rail.
How long I was thus detached I do not know. The thinking part of me flew back with the swiftness of light when Miss Tokonoku, padding on noiseless sandals, passed me on the way to the steps leading down to the forward deck. She would have passed without recognition had it not been that a stray beam of light from a deck stateroom’s porthole caught her fair in the face as she slipped by. My heart gave a bound, and I was burrowing out of my rugs in an instant. I gained the side of the stairs, screening my retreat just in time to see her head disappearing down the flight to the deck below, which was the domain of the steerage passengers.
Silently I crept to the head of the companionway, whose flanking sides were canvas-covered. It was dark where I crouched, but the foot of the companionway was dimly lighted by a flare from somewhere forward of the hatch covers. I heard the Japanese woman’s voice and another, pitched in a rough guttural—a man’s. She spoke in the coolie class patois, as a gentle-woman addresses an inferior in japan. He answered respectfully with monosyllables. By bringing my eye to a crack between laced breadths of canvas, I could see them—the woman tiny as a midget before a huge bulk of a man whose head seemed covered by some curiously shaped cap. The fellow was without doubt one of the steerage Japanese who had boarded the boat at Honolulu.
“I am sure, Tamatsu, that father’s eyes will be discovered,” she quavered, in a broken whisper. “Do you know, worthless one, what that will mean? His death for killing a man he did not kill.”
“I am not worthy to raise my eyes to the soles of your feet,” the man mumbled. “It is my fault.”
My hands against the canvas sides of the companionway trembled so that a little creaking came from the binding cords.
“My father’s message to you, unthinking wood block, is that if he is accused you shall keep silence. He can explain much to a court in Japan that this American captain would not understand.”
“A noble master whom I will serve with my life,” came the answer in the thick speech of the Tokyo streets.
Followed something from the woman I could not understand, and the big man’s unintelligible reply. Then:
“You have the American’s papers you got from Madatoya?”
“Yes, honorable daughter of my master.”
“You have them here—with you?”
“As you say.”
“Then throw them in the sea," came the quiet command.
“But, gracious one, the seal is not broken. Your reverend father has not seen them to know what they are.” The man’s voice was a whine.
“His orders. Throw them in the sea—now!”
just a flash I had through the crack in the canvas laps, of the man’s hand withdrawing from the breast of his kimono with a heavy brown packet between his fingers. Then I yelled and leaped over the rail, down ten feet onto his back.
What happened immediately thereafter I never have been able fully to recall. I have only a dim recollection of the sudden twist of writhing muscles under me, of an arm thick as an anaconda tightening about my throat—then plunging stars and flames of aurora borealis.
When my senses cleared I was sitting on the lowest step of the companionway with Sparks passing something pungent under my nose. In a circle of coolies and sailors before me stood a giant with arms bound behind him. His face was like a war mask of old Japan, made more hideous by the coarse black hair that streamed down all around it even as far as his breast. Captain Kendall stood beside him, in one hand a heavy brown envelope splashed with red sealing wax. Miss Tokonoku was not of the group.
“Ah, Mr. Burke, you’re back!” came the_captain’s dry greeting, faint under the roaring in my ears. “I see you’ve matched that hair you found on Mather’s port.” He jerked his finger toward the fearsome figure of the bound man. “It isn’t everybody who’ll tackle a Japanese wrestler. I congratulate you.”
I looked again at the hideous face and huge shape of the prisoner. Then I knew the clew of the single black hair in the port hinge had led home. It had come from the head of the wrestler, who, true to the traditions of his clan, wore his hair long after the ancient fashion in headdressing of feudal Japan. None but a wrestler in Nippon allows his thatch to grow like a woman’s.
“Lock this fellow up in the brig until we want him!” Kendall ordered a bos’n. “And, Mr. Burke, who was the Japanese woman we saw running away from here when we answered your cry for help?”
“Miss Tokonoku,” I answered.
“Go fetch her to my quarters,” the skipper directed one of the stewards. “Bring her father, too.”
Very weak and shaky from the throttling I had experienced at the hands of the wrestler, I followed Kendall and Sparks to the former’s cabin behind the chart room. I was tremendously pleased with myself—why not admit it?—for having saved Mather’s precious documents from the sea as well as from the hands of the Japanese. Also I realized that the mystery of the pince-nez was trembling on dénouement. Mather came in shortly and fell upon the envelope Kendall handed him with a stifled cry of joy. Tears were in his eyes when he shook my hand and pointed to the seals on the flap of the envelope, unbroken.
“The secretary of state will hear of this, old man,” he whispered ecstatically.
Then a petty officer entered the cabin, his hand under Miss Tokonoku’s arm. The woman appeared more pinched and birdlike than ever. Her face was ashy white, and her eyes, under narrowed, uptilting lids, were set in a moveless stare.
“Doctor Tokonoku was not in his stateroom, sir,” the bos’n said. “I could not understand where the lady said he’d gone.”
Little Miss Tokonoku stood in the circle of men, seeing none of us. I mustered my best Japanese, limp and halting at that:
“Miss Tokonoku, the captain would like to speak to your father.”
“Honorably pardon,” she answered mechanically, cleaving to her native tongue. “The captain cannot see my father. He has augustly departed.”
“If you will tell us where we can find him,” I began, failing to grasp the meaning of her words, “we will send after——”
“Honorably pardon,” she repeated, in a squeaking voice, “the captain cannot find my father. He has augustly departed—there.” She turned and pointed out the door to the black ocean.
I understood then, and translated to Captain Kendall. His lips clapped tight in surprise, and into his eyes leaped pity.
“Ask the lady to sit down, Mr. Burke, and tell her we are ready to listen to explanations if she cares to make any.”
I put his words into Japanese. I saw a sob rise in the w0man’s throat, but she choked it back. The Japanese habit of repression mastered, though her little body was wracked with grief.
“For the sake of the law—when we arrive at Yokohama—-this much,” she began, her eyes still looking into nothingness. “When my father discovered that Madatoya had taken the American gentleman’s papers—to possess them he himself had traveled all the way from Washington—he knew he must take them from Madatoya. He was a patron of Tamatsu, the wrestler, who boarded this ship at Honolulu. He told Tamatsu his desire to get the papers.
“Tamatsu is faithful, but he has little intelligence. He planned to kill Madatoya. He stole the glasses from the American gentleman’s room to put them in the hand of Madatoya when he was dead. That was very clever of Tamatsu. My father knew nothing of Tamatsu’s plan to kill. My father was in Madatoya’s room. Tamatsu came in behind my father and killed Madatoya. Madatoya snatched the glasses from my father’s eyes when he fell, and my father ran to his room, afraid.
“Tamatsu saw the glasses in Madatoya’s hand. They looked like the glasses he had stolen from the American gentleman. He is a fool. One pair of glasses is like another, he thought, so he left my father’s glasses there and brought the American gentleman’s to my father with the papers he found in Madatoya’s bag. We did not dare change the glasses when my father discovered the mistake; besides the door had locked with a spring from the inside. My father was nearly blind, but he wore the American gentleman’s glasses to avoid suspicion.”
She finished abruptly.
“Why did your father order Tamatsu, through you, to throw the papers into the sea?” I asked.
“He knew his eyes had betrayed him and he would be caught. He could not read them without his glasses. I cannot read English.”
“Do you know why your father augustly departed, Miss Tokonoku?” I asked, as gently as I could. “He was not the murderer.”
“He thought it best to do so,” Miss Tokonoku answered.
I had been nearly a year back at my post in Tokyo before the last puzzle of the pince-nez mystery was cleared up to my satisfaction. Then through a Japanese a little bit the worse for sake I learned of the Dido Club’s plot against the government. The Dido Club was a group of radicals in Tokyo whose sole object was to embarrass the Seiyukai ministry. Doctor Tokonoku was the club’s chief mover. The lever which the Dido Club hoped to use against the ruling power was the California land-law crisis.
Doctor Tokonoku, in Washington with his daughter to spy upon the moves of the state department anent the California problem, learned of Mather's mission, and followed him in the hope of lifting his secret dispatches. Madatoya, a regular government secret-service agent, beat Tokonoku at his game.
I have always thought it was Tokonoku’s failure to accomplish his mission that led to his “august departure” rather than unexpected complicity in the murder of Madatoya. The Japanese take their responsibilities seriously.