THE GUARDED HOUSE
By ARTHUR STRINGER
Author of "The Silver Poppy," "The Wire Tappers," etc.
THE cool and quiet of midnight hung over the city. The narrow cross-streets, lonely defiles of brownstone and brick flanked by still lonelier gas-lamps, dipped and fell away into the unbroken darkness of the East River.
I turned into one of these cross-streets. It lay before me as desolate as a glacial crevasse. Its midnight emptiness reminded me of a flume run dry, of a conduit waiting for its current, of a tideway eaten out by its daily life. It undulated off into darkness so quiet and sullen that I swung about, quickly, at the sound of an opened door.
I could make out the figure of a little old man, lean and stoop-shouldered. He was waving an arm at me. So I turned back, reluctantly, still thinking of supper in my all-night chop-house that smelt of broiling steaks and hot coffee.
"Get me a policeman!" called the thin and stooped little figure, as I came to the foot of his house steps. Instead of doing what he commanded, I went calmly up the wide brownstone slabs.
"I want a policeman!" he snapped, like a terrier, blocking my advance, with one hand on his tarnished brass door-knob.
"Well, I'm one!" was my indifferent answer.
I stood there, confronting him. He made a strange figure, in his German felt slippers and his ragged old crimson dressing-gown, held together at the waist by a piece of well-frayed window rope.
"No, no; an officer; a police officer!" he repeated, more impatiently. And still he blocked the door.
"Didn't I tell you I was an officer?" I retorted.
"Hey?" he squawked, to gain time, with his hand behind his ear.
"I'm a plain-clothes man, I say, from the City Detective Bureau!"
"Where's your badge, then?" he demanded, squinting out at me. I turned back my coat-lapel and showed the nickel shield I'd wheedled out of "Lefty" Boyle, the stool-pigeon, three weeks before.
"What's wrong in here?" I asked. The man's eyes were still on the badge.
"Take it off and let me see it," he insisted, stretching out a clawlike band. I unpinned the nickel trinket, and dropped it in the waiting palm. The man withdrew from sight, with a preoccupied and swinish grunt, promptly locking the door in my face as he did so.
Just as promptly I got my ear against a panel of that door, to make sure he wasn't 'phoning Headquarters. In two minutes they could have told him my nickel shield had been out of service since the days of McAdoo.
Hut the unmannerly little rat was merely satisfying himself that it was a police-shield. The door was unlocked in a moment, and the shifty old eyes were once more squinting out at me. I caught the sound of his second little grunt; this time it seemed almost one of satisfaction, as he returned the shield.
"You're an honest officer?" he still parried, turning from me and peering up and down the deserted street. His eyes, I could see, were still furtive and frightened.
"Look here, you!" I cried, now in actual exasperation. "I'm getting tired of this! Go back in there and 'phone Headquarters, and maybe they'll take a night off and let you know my whole family history and who's my second great-aunt on my mother's side——"
That's just it!" cut in the wizened little ogre, querulously. "I can't telephone! I can't call up anybody—I can't get help! Something's been done to my wire!"
Things were getting interesting, after all.
"What you want is a lineman then, not a policeman!" I started down the steps.
He called me back, in alarm, as I felt he would do. He seemed afraid of me. But he seemed even more afraid of being left there alone. I returned his stare, with a show of rising indifference.
"Come in!" he said at last, with his odious and animal-like little grunt. "Come in!"
He held the door back a foot or two, and I squeezed inside. Then he promptly turned the key in the lock. That done, he slid the heavy bolt beneath it back into its socket, and hooked the wrought-iron chain that still further guarded his house entrance.
I had time for only one glance about me. On an old-fashioned marble-topped table stood a small kerosene lamp, meanly lighting the dim and cavernous hallway. In the half-light, to the rear, I could see the steps of a carpetless stairway, and the shadow of a door-frame or two. But that was all. The place was as bare and silent as a tomb.
"Well?" I asked, and my own voice echoed back out of the quietness with startling clearness.
The owner of the house peered through the surrounding darkness for a minute or two. Then he motioned for me to follow him. It wasn't until he took the lamp up in his shaking hand, and the light fell full on his face, pinched and wizened and pebbled with wrinkles and beaded with little drops of perspiration, that I realized the stress of feeling under which he was struggling. He stood there, wheezing heavily, with his head on one side, like an old crow, still listening for some sound or movement. Then he shuffled across the uncarpeted boards of the hallway, and cautiously swung back a great door of oak. I noticed, as he did so, that he carefully turned down the wick of the lamp. The door opened into what seemed a dining-room, a musty-smelling chamber of quietness.
"You're armed, of course, if you're an officer?" he ventured, as he crept guardedly into the twilight room.
I took my Colt out of its padded resting-place above my hip and dropped it loose into the side pocket of my coat. The frightened householder noticed the movement, with a guttural little sound of approval.
"You haven't been robbed?" I asked, as he put the lamp down on a wide table of walnut, black with age.
"Robbed?" he echoed. "What have I to be robbed of?"
"Then why d'you want me here?"
He peered about the gloom, from under his shaggy brows, meditatively. Then he turned and looked at me, almost fawningly, with his shoulders hunched up.
"I'll see you're paid for this," he declared. "I'll—I'll see you get a couple of dollars for your night's trouble!"
He wagged his head prodigiously, as though he'd just threatened me with a fortune.
"Cut it out!" I retorted "The force can't take money, and you know it!"
"Ah, good, good!" he wheezed, rubbing his skinny old hands together. "It's a rare treat, nowadays, to see a man above graft and greed, a rare treat!"
I was getting tired of his gibbering.
"Give us some gas there!" I said, with a motion toward the huge, glass-prismed chandelier that cascaded incongruously down through the gloom.
"Gas!" cried the little old hypocrite. "D'you suppose I'd pour my money into the hands o' robbers! Gas! There'll be no gas burnt in my house!"
He must have observed my passing look of disgust.
"Oil-lamps are easier on the throat, you know—soothing to the tubes!" he explained. Then he added, with a touch of pride: "And I've got three of 'em!"
I could make out the mockery of an open fire smoldering in a little mockery of a marble grate, at the far end of the room. And as I looked at it, through the cold and the silence, the truth of it all came home to me. The man was a miser, a mean and penurious-minded old harpy, a niggardly-souled old lickpenny, a Harpagon out of his time!
I had never dreamed, in a city of such over-swollen fortunes and riotous living, of such loose-handed and prodigal wealth, that a person like this could still exist! I had thought such things belonged to the Middle Ages, to old women's tales, to the extravagance of comic opera.
I looked at the sly little figure in wonder, at the dissembling old face fretting under its burden of half-hidden fears. I began to hate the man, and to be afraid of him.
"But if nothing's happened here, and you haven't been robbed, what are you wasting my time for, anyway?" I demanded.
The earlier look of unguarded terror came back into his face. Still again he blinked apprehensively about the room, and shuffled to the door and peered furtively out.
"It's to see that I'm not robbed!" he cried, with a vehemence that startled me. I noticed his bony knuckles tremble against the black walnut table-top as be spoke. It seemed, almost as though he were addressing, not me, but the silence about him.
"I'm an old man, and alone, but I will not be robbed!" he burst forth, with a sudden fury of defiance that made me think, for a moment, that I was alone in the house with a lunatic.
My eyes, grown accustomed to the meager light, coasted about the great barrack-like room. It seemed as comfortless and sepulchral as the hall,with here and there a piece of somber horsehair furniture, and a ghostly armchair or two in soiled ticking.
"Well, what do yon want me to do?" I asked the owner of the house.
"I want you to go over this place with me, and see that it's safe—every inch of it!"
My sudden laughter brought his furtive eyes back to my face. He peered up at me without the least sign of resentment.
"I cant see what they'd be robbing you of!"
"That's just it" said the wizened little dissembler, with updrawn shoulders. "But this morning I found my basement door tampered with! And what am I to think—with my wire cut off, and Weaver deserting me this way, without a word, and my old house-dog gone!"
"You're alone in the house, you mean?"
He acknowledged, by a movement of the head, that he was.
"Who is Weaver?"
"Weaver's my man—my house-servant."
I began to understand the situation a little. It was not without interest to me.
"Then the sooner we look things over, the better!" I said.
He wagged his head at this, and motioned for me to take up the lamp. I had to smile at the look on his sly old face, as he drew back and waited. Then our eyes met; and I felt that he was either an arrant coward, or that he knew of some peril he had not seen fit to explain. So instead of taking up the light, I stepped back and drew out my Colt, and looked it over carefully. Then I advanced toward the door and waited. He understood the movement.
"Let's have a look at that telephone of yours first!" I commanded. Without a word he took the lamp and preceded me through the gloom of the hallway. There, under the stairs, he pointed out the transmitter, dark against the wall-paper of faded yellow.
"Turn up that light!" He did as I ordered, grudgingly.
I quickly inspected the installation wires, examined the diaphragm, unscrewed and tested the receiver. The wire was "dead"; it had obviously been cut somewhere outside the house.
"Your doors and windows are all linked?" I asked him, as I worked over the transmitter.
"Every blessed one of them!" was his answer.
"No neglected cellar manholes?"
He chortled a little, down in his pendulous old throat. "I attend to that sort o' thing myself!" he replied.
"Then what else is wrong?"
"I—er—had a few alarm-bells—had 'em put in years ago. An hour ago I found those bells wouldn't work!"
"You mean you have an electric burglar-alarm system in the house?"
"A kind of a one!" he admitted.
Then there was reason for guarding that bald and seemingly empty old mansion! I began to feel that I was losing time over trivialities.
"I want to look over this house, right away. Get me down to the cellar first!" And as we made our way slowly down through the chill gloom I kept firing my volley of questions.
"Tell me more about this man of yours, Weaver."
"What is there to tell?" whined the figure with the lamp, in front of me. "He's been a servant here for twenty-seven odd years. And a good man he was—though extravagant, at times, sinfully extravagant."
I could quite imagine that!
"He was never known to leave this house for a day before, without good reason."
I paused, for a moment, to examine the ponderous chain-lock of a well-sealed coal-chute.
"Then you think something—a—unlikely has happened to him?"
"Something must have happened! To-morrow was his pay-day!"
"How much was coming to him?"
"Two dollars. A week's wages!"
I stopped and stared at the man in amazement.
"Yes. I paid him that—two dollars a week and board and keep, month in and month out, year in and year out!"
"You have other servants?"
"Servants? What do I want with a pack o' servants?" he whimpered.
"Who cooks for you? Who takes care of your place?"
"Weaver's granddaughter used to look after things a bit, until she off and married. That was last spring. And a dollar a week she used to cost me, month in and month out. When the girl went, we shifted for ourselves."
"About your dog—you say he's disappeared?"
"Yes! He was a brindled bull—the lightest-sleeping watch-dog I ever raised—as good as an army o' roundsmen, that dog!"
Building up my facts, in this way, brick by brick. I explored the house from cellar to garret. And a cold and barren and ruinous house it was, with its dank and unventilated corridors, its dusty and disordered rooms, its bare and carpetless stairways, its old and moldy furniture, its general atmosphere of unalleviated decay and neglect.
It brought to me both a sense of depression and a sense of disappointment, until, in the sleeping-room on the second floor, I made two discoveries.
The first was that on the wall above the Squalid and disorderly bed stood an amazingly complete and efficient burglar-alarm apparatus, worthy of a place in a Broad Street banking-house. It was not only equipped with the usual buzzers and alarm-gongs, but beyond this it possessed a dial-indicator that would promptly register any given point of disturbance. It meant that the slightest movement of any window or door in that entire house was at once telegraphed and recorded at the bedside of the owner.
It was as I stepped across the room to examine this apparatus at closer range that I made my second discovery. A wall had been torn away, evidently, making two smaller rooms into one. The room stood, I assumed, directly above the dining-room. As I crossed its broken flooring, my steps fell hollow, of a sudden, and as I glanced down I could make out the faint outline of a small trap-door. What it led to, or what it was there for, I had no means of judging.
I felt, as we made our way back to the musty dining-room below-stairs, that I had found out too much on the one hand, or too little on the other. My companion, I noticed, appeared to be more satisfied, once safely back in the room. I suddenly remembered it was the only room I had not examined.
So I took the lamp, turned up the wick, and cast my eye about the huge chamber.
For the first time I made note of the great locked-up fireplace against the farther wall. I could quite understand why its voracious throat had been muzzled, why it had been supplanted by the meanly proportioned little marble grate at the end of the room.
My wandering eye next made out three large canvases, in oils. From each of these I could see a painted figure staring out into the somber room. But it was the largest canvas, directly above the bricked-up fireplace, that caught and held my attention. I saw, as I approached it with the light, that it was an example of some bizarre school of anecdotal art, and bore on its gilt frame the title of "The Duelist."
It was well named. For it showed the tense and waiting figure of a man in middle life, his shoulders stripped to his white shirt, peering straight out of the canvas. The man's right hand—and it was a very tricky and effective bit of foreshortening—was held straight before him. And in this hand was balanced a dueling pistol, the barrel pointed directly out of the canvas, so that a round "O" of menacing steel was all that could be seen of it. Above this arm glowed the wary and guarded eyes of the duelist, looking out into space as though determined to lose no slightest movement on the part of some unseen enemy.
It was a remarkable figure—of that there could be no doubt. It seemed to dominate the the room, to menace and threaten it, as that painted stare, concentrated, malignant, yet indescribably debonair, cut out with the keenness of a sword-blade through the silence and the darkness. Once before, and once only, had I seen anything like it. That had been on the occasion of a certain more or less painful interview in the Chicago office of the Pinkertons. There, in the great detective's inner sanctum, had hung the life-sized painting of a burglar, wearing a black mask, and pointing a revolver out of the canvas. I had noticed then, as I moved now, that the eyes seemed to follow me, no matter what position I took before the painting.
In fact, I slowly backed away, under the spell of those strange eyes, until I was on the opposite side of the great shabby dining-room.
Then I stopped abruptly, still gazing up at the picture. For my back had come in contact with something unexpectedly hard and cold, something under an artfully arranged piece of drapery. It was a thing of metal, and a thing of massiveness: that much I knew after my first contact with it.
So I explored that massive thing of metal, with one hand thrust carelessly behind my back, as I continued to hold the lamp aloft and peer up at the painting. It took me only a second or two to make sure that the thing I had so accidentally backed into was a safe, set in the wall and draped with what must have been an old table-cover or two.
I could detect the furtive and uneasy glances of the little old householder as I stood there near his stronghold. I could see his look of relief as I stepped forward again. Both to gain time and to get better control of myself, I made a pretense of peering up at the painting to the left of "The Duelist." This canvas, I saw, was a portrait of my host. But it had been painted many years before, showing him in the pride of his early manhood. Every note of it seemed a mockery of what he now was—the high-held head pompous and domineering, the hand thrust airily into the bosom of the black frock coat, the deep-set eyes direct and uncompromising.
To the left of the fireplace again was the picture of a girl. There was something so fine in the drawing, something so rich in the clear tones, that I made bold to lift the oil-lamp close to the canvas, to catch a better glimpse of the face.
It was the portrait of a young woman of eighteen or nineteen years, perhaps even twenty; a clear-eyed, red-lipped, golden-haired girl, teeming with the vigor and love of life, with audacity crowning the fresh young mouth, and some strange spirit of revolt renting warningly about the deep and shadowy eyes.
It was none of these things, however, that compelled me to turn suddenly on the odious little figure behind me. For I had made my third discovery.
"Whose portrait is that?" I demantled.
There was a moment of absolute silence.
"My daughter's!" said the old man curtly, not even giving the canvas a glance. Instead, he was peering at me, in wonder.
"When was it painted?"
"Eight—no—nine years ago. And it cost me six hundred dollars in good money. I was a fool in those days!"
"Does this daughter live with you?"
The old man blinked at me, surprised at my interest. Then he slowly shook his head. There was something loathsome in his little mirthless laugh.
"She was too pretty a butterfly for this dull house!" he whined, sobering of a sudden.
I looked back at the picture. I tried to imagine the meanness and penury, the misery and starvation of soul against which that spirit must have struggled before the bonds of her chrysalis had broken. A strange and nameless sense of tragedy seemed to haunt the silent room, I stood there gating up at the portrait.
"Where is she now?" I demanded, still gazing up at the soft and girlish face all crowned with gold.
The old miser pursed up his flaccid lips, and shifted about uneasily.
"She was a wild girl!" he mumbled.
I turned on him with disgust.
"And you don't know what became of that girl?" I broke out indignantly, resentfully, knowing what I knew.
"She was always spending—spending—spending!" was all he would say. I could see it was useless to question him further.
But the canvas on the wall before me was a portrait of "Goldie Laurason," the diamond-smuggler and steamship thief, the fit-thrower and dummy-chucker whose simulation of psychic epilepsy had duped three Justices of Special Sessions and twice as many doctors, the missing heiress of the long-notorious "Todhunter Case," the fair and youthful confidence woman, mining swindler, and hotel embezzler that I had seen, seen with my own eyes, lined up for "gallery inspection" at the Central Office!
"Look here," I said, facing my opponent, "I've been on duty since six o'clock this morning. I'm all in! I've got to have something to eat and some sleep!"
"You don't mean you're going to leave me alone here?" cried the little old man, in sudden alarm.
"You're still alive, aren't you?" I retorted.
"Yes, yes; but I want this place watched to-night!"
"I have my reasons!" he answered. He squinted about, apparently weighing something in his mind.
"Wait here, and I'll fetch you food," he conceded. "Then you can make yourself comfortable on my sofa there for the night."
He disappeared toward the back of the house. I moved a little nearer the hidden safe. But those staring and watching eyes of the duelist seemed to intimidate and hold me back, as the presence of a living person might. While I stood there, hesitating, the little old man shuffled back into the room again, with a jug of cold tea and a plate of hard biscuits. He spread out a newspaper, before putting these down on one end of the walnut table. Then he stood off and eyed the food mournfully.
Two minutes of struggling over such a meal was enough for me. The other's satisfaction was manifest as I pushed back the plate.
"So you want me to sleep here?" I queried.
"Are you a light sleeper?" he suddenly asked. I assured him I wakened at the slightest sound, whereat he fell to wagging his head, and pointed toward the high-backed old horsehair sofa and vowed I'd be as snug as a bug in a rug.
"Look here," I said swinging round square in front of him. "If I'm going to watch the room, I want to know what I'm watching!"
"Hey?" he queried vacuously, with his hand behind his ear. It seemed his habitual rite of equivocation.
"Have you anything here you could be robbed of?" I repeated.
He looked at me warily, rubbing his wrinkled chin between a meditative thumb and forefinger. Then he fell to shaking his head again.
"I've got nothing more than an old man needs to live on. A trifle—only a trifle!"
"Then what do you use that safe for?" I demanded, whirling him about, and pointing straight at the ponderous steel vault hidden under its drapery.
He stood there, blinking hard and fast, with his mental engines reversed, sounding for some channel of evasion.
"That's for a family trinket or two!" he confessed, with upthrust shoulders. "Odds and ends of old silver, and the like!"
"Is that all?"
He watched me covertly as I buttoned up my coal. I saw his moment of hesitation.
"Listen!" I whispered, creeping to the door. "Listen!" I stood there, peering out through the gloom. The movement seemed to throw him into a second sudden panic of fear. His forehead moistened once more. He passed his tongue over his thin lips.
"What is it?" he wheezed.
I went back into the room.
"I thought I heard somebody!" I explained, slipping my Colt back into my pocket. He watched me, staring-eyed, as I put my hat on my head.
"What're you going to do?"
"You don't suppose I'm going to waste time wet-nursing an iron box full o' family junk, do you?" I retorted.
He caught at the slack of my sleeve with his shaking claw. Even before he spoke I knew I had won my point.
"I—I had some papers and things left on my hands here to-day! They're in that safe now! That's why this house has to be watched!"
"How long have they been there?"
"Since three o'clock this afternoon," he answered.
"From where? What are they?"
"A hodgepodge of stuff—things from a safety-deposit vault."
"But what are they doing here?"
"The company sent a collector here, nagging and bulldozing me for more money. They do it every year. It's robbery—it's outrageous—eighty dollars for a little hole in the wall!"
"Ah, now I see! And you refused to pay?"
"it's robbery, I tell you! I won't be robbed!"
"And so they simply preempted your lock-box and dumped your precious papers back on your own hands?"
He wagged his head apprehensive!y.
"And you say they're now in that safe?"
Again he wagged his head.
I strode to the thing that harbored his wealth, flung back the covering from its face, and looked over its hinges and lock-dial.
"And it would take the right man about twenty minutes to get into that safe!" I said. It did not tend to make the old man any easier in mind. Then I looked about the room
"I think this house does need watching!" I declared, with decision. And I intended to do that watching. The little old man's eyes were following every move I made. I swung the high-backed sofa round, so that it faced the wall. Over it I flung an old plaid shawl. Then I looked at the waiting householder, puzzling how to get him away.
"You might as well go to bed," I advised, with a pretense at a yawn. I found, to my astonishment, that he was ready enough to do as I suggested. So I pushed the sofa close up to the wall, dumped the entire scuttle of coal on the grate, and poked it vigorously. I noticed the little old man wince as he beheld this lavish waste of fuel. Then he brought out a tiny bedroom lamp, lighted it from the fire, by a spill, and carefully lowered the wick. "Don't you think you'd better get that stuff of yours back into its vault to-morrow?" I asked him, sleepily, as he took up his lamp.
"I suppose I'll have to," he admitted, wagging his head. "I'll have to, even though it costs a hundred a year!"
And be shuffled off through the gloom, and up the echoing stairs, with his lamp in his talonlike clutch, pausing every few steps, with his head on one side, to listen. His elfish figure, as I watched it, seemed rather one of the Dark Ages, of the days of the thumbscrew and the stake, than of modern and machinery-ridden New York. And the house about which I stared seemed rather the grotto of some fabulous ogre than the brownstone habitation of a twentieth-century human being.
I had done a good deal of yawning and stretching, for a minute or two, as the little old man shuffled off through the darkness. But never in my life had I been more wide-awake than when at last I was quite alone in that sepulchral and silent room.
I lay there, boxed in on the high-backed old horsehair sofa, blinking meditatively about me. It was that dead hour when midnight begins to drag on toward waiting daylight, when the sleeper who awakens is uneasy, when life is in some ways at its lowest. Now and then a cinder fell in the grate. Now and then the purr of a breaking flame disturbed the silence, and threw shadows across the half-lit room.
Lying there, waiting, I watched idly the broken light play on the features of the ever-compelling and ever-menacing duelist. Even as I studied it, the figure seemed to grow more lifelike in the uncertain light. It termed to loom above me with the malignancy of an actual enemy, mysteriously challenging, sentinel-like. I began to wonder if there might not be something hypnotic in its set and staring eyes. Time and time again they seemed to coerce my attention, to hold me, almost against my own will.
I began to wonder how long it would be best for me to wait. My last chance would be gone with the break of day—and it was a chance well worth the risk. My vague satisfaction with the dramatic irony of the situation began to give way to a growing feeling of irritation. For as time dragged slowly on and the fire burned down and the silence deepened, I seemed still prompted, even against my own wish, to wait longer, and yet a little longer.
I began to wonder if this were due to the feeling, so teasing and persistent, of that painted canvas being an actual presence in the room, a sentry-like and sentient being who might witness and resent any movement I essayed. Then it crept into my mind how wary and artful the little old miser had been, in reality; how there was now something more intimidating in his very absence than in his presence. Once beyond my range of vision, in that midnight house, he threatened me from every imaginable quarter. Each silent door became a danger, each moving shadow a menace. The unseen enemy is the one we're always afraid of.
My speculation ended unexpectedly. It was swept and tossed away on a sudden rushing tide of astonishment, on a release of apprehension that seemed to beat and eddy against every nerve in my startled body.
For ten feet away from where I lay I heard the distinct sound of a creaking door-hinge. It came to a stop, for a moment, and still again it sounded through the quietness. I could make out the slow and guarded movement of the black mass of the door itself, as it swung back, inch by inch. Then it stopped.
Some one was standing on the threshold of the door, peering into the room. I could hear the noise of a trailing footstep, minute and muffled. Then came the all-enveloping silence again
My first rational thought, as I drew out my Colt and huddled close down behind the shadow of the high-backed sofa, with its broken scrollwork of grape clusters carved out of walnut wood, was that the owner of the house had surrendered to some final suspicion and was returning to watch over his threatened wealth—to watch with his own eyes. My next thought, however, was that the secrecy of that return seemed to imply some intention of which he wished me to remain ignorant. He was coming back for his precious fortune surreptitiously, to carry it away to some place of safety.
I saw that my arm was free, and lay there, waiting. Such a procedure would suit my purpose remarkably well. It would save me a great deal of dangerous and difficult work. For, once the safe was open, my plan of action could be both simple and decisive.
I crouched there, watching from under a corner of the shawl. I knew, suddenly, that the door had been opened wider. Then it was closed again quickly, almost without a sound. I don't think I even breathed during those first few seconds of unbroken silence, as the vague black shadow standing motionless beside the door defined itself to my staring eyes as a human figure.
It stood there, guardedly, apparently listening for some sound, apparently peering slowly about the darkness. Then something above and beyond my mere physical senses told me the figure was not that of the owner of the house.
My breath returned to me as I saw the vague black blur creeping toward the safe. Then came still another pause, and still another minute of suspense. Then I heard a subdued rustic of clothing, and a moment later the thin shaft of light from an electric flash-lamp was fluttering and penciling interrogatively about the surface of the safe door. Then the light went out as suddenly as it had appeared. Again I heard the rustling of clothing.
I sank flat down behind the horsehair sofa-back, for this time the narrow shaft of white light was circling the room, leaping from object to object, probing into corners, dancing and springing from side to side. I felt it flutter over my screening sofa-back for a critical second or two and then shift and flash to the opposite wall.
As it did so, I heard the sound of a sudden gasp, an involuntary little cry of astonishment. Looking up, I saw that the pencil of light rested flat on the face of "The Duelist" picture, making it stand out with the clearness of a cameo, until the combative and challenging eyes and the threatening, outstretched arm seemed those of an actual person. It was no wonder the intruder had gasped at the first glimpse of that strange canvas. Nor was it any wonder the little shaft of white light rested studiously and apprehensively on the painted face confronting it. I could hear the quick breathing of the figure behind the light. Then I heard a deep-drawn sigh as the shaft of light swung to the left, falling on the portrait of the little old man himself. It seemed to rest there for only a contemptuous moment or two. Then it hovered to the right, to the portrait of the red-lipped and shadowy-eyed young girl. It hung on her face tremblingly, second by silent second. It fluttered about that girlish face crowned with gold, and went back to it, and lingered over it, I thought, almost affectionately.
Then came the sound of the throaty little gasp again—it seemed almost a moan—and the quick rustle of clothing. This was followed by the, brisk and businesslike chink of the revolving lock spindles, the click of the wards, and I knew the stooping figure was working over the combination of the safe. The light of the flash-!amp, as it steadied and shone on the burnished surface of the nickel dial, was reflected and diffused back into the face of the stooping figure. And I saw, as I peered through the gloom at it, that the softly yet clearly outlined face was a woman's face; and that woman was Goldie Laurason!
My shock of surprise was lost and submerged in a second shock. A sudden sound broke through the stillness from the far end of the room. The light went out like a flash. I could hear the telltale click-click of a raised trigger. I knew the woman was standing there, with her back to the safe, waiting, ready for that unknown enemy. Yet the sound had been nothing more than a coal cinder falling in the blackened grate.
It must have been two full minutes before she moved again. Yet I knew, by the little noises that followed her next movements, that the safe-door had been opened. I could hear the sound of her hurriedly padding hand feeling about the inside of the safe, and the pregnant rustling of papers. Even as I did so, I noticed for the first time that the night was passing away. The heavily barred windows at the back of the room showed the earliest faint gray of coming morning, a leaden twilight more oppressive and phantasmal than darkness itself.
Only once did the woman stop in her work. I could not make out what prompted her to do so. All I knew was that she had suddenly drawn back from the safe, wheeled about, and after standing there listening for a minute or two, once more directed the light of her flash-lamp across the room to the painted figure of the duelist. She seemed to study it in bewilderment. Then she slowly turned back to the open safe. Her eyes must have caught sight of the early gray light at the windows, for she stooped quickly this time, and began flinging packages out on the floor beside her with feverish haste.
As I crouched there, watching her, there crept through me the feeling that I was merely witnessing some scene in a drama. The intruder and the open safe and the vault-like room seemed things of the imagination, the figures and shadows of a nightmare.
It was a sudden audible gasp from the woman herself that brought me back to earth, reminding me where I was.
Again I saw her stand upright and wheel quickly about. I let my gaze follow her line of vision wonderingly. Still again it rested on the painted figure and face of the duelist. There was something uncanny in the way that painted face seemed to challenge and hold her. Yet there was some shadow of reason for it, I felt, as I peered up at the malevolent and threatening eyes, deep-set and shadowy in the broken light. The very pistol-arm seemed to thrust itself out into the paling darkness of the room. More vividly than ever the figure took on its illusion of actuality, its suggestion of a living person watching and guarding the silence before it.
Then slowly the hair of my head began to stand on end. Through my body tingled a shock that all but brought a cry from my throat; for I realized for the first time why the woman was standing there, panting and trembling and swept with terror. She was being watched by something more than a mere painted figure. The peering and malignant eyes pf that painted figure were alive.
Out from the canvas, into the half-lighted room, stretched and reached an actual, living arm. In the thin and clawlike hand at the end of that arm was balanced a long-barreled magazine revolver.
The woman had seen it all, even before I did. She must have seen, too, that the arm kept pointing at her, each move she made. For suddenly a scream broke from her lips, and echoed and reechoed through the quiet room.
She looked about, panic-stricken, in search of some place of refuge. Then she flung up one arm, across her eyes, as though to ward off the sight of that searching and sinister barrel-end.
Precisely at the moment she did so, the silence of the great high-ceilinged room was filled with an explosion of sound. It prolonged itself into a dully reverberating roar, and a cloud of dust rose from the prism-hung chandelier. This dust spread and mingled with the slowly acrid-smelling powder smoke, obscuring the vision. But I could see the still standing woman take two faltering steps forward, and crumple down to the floor. She clapped one hand to her side, with a moan, as she fell. She had been wounded—she had been killed—was the first thought that registered itself on my disordered brain.
I dimly felt the moment to be crucial, and yet I hesitated. I scarcely knew what move to make. Again the utter and sepulchral silence of the house hung about me. Again I peered at the woman on the floor. She did not stir. Then I turned to the picture. The painted duelist glowered down at me, intact—for all I could tell, a flat surface of canvas. Then I wheeled about to the door, for it had opened and closed again, as I stood there with the quickness of a trap.
It was the little old man. In his left hand he held his low-turned bedroom lamp; in his right he carried a long-barreled magazine revolver. His face was now the bloodless, cadaverous yellow of unripened cheese, yet out of its pallor shone and glowed his deep-set, furtive little eyes. They reminded me of a cat's. He stopped, and peered over at the woman on the floor.
"What's this?" he demanded.
"It means you are under arrest!" I told him, inwardly wondering how I was to manage the long-barreled thing in his hand.
"What's this?" he reiterated, unmoved.
"There's been a murder here!" I answered.
"A murder?" he echoed. I advanced toward the huddled figure on the floor. He followed me impassively, step by step.
"This woman's been shot, here, in your house!"
"Shot? How?" he asked, looking me square in the eye. There seemed something more than malignant in his new deadly calm of assurance. I still bent over the woman, but I began to feel vaguely afraid of the impassive little ogre at my side, as he repeated his question.
"That's what I intend to find out!" I retorted.
"You shot this woman!" he suddenly declared. I did not answer him, for my eye had caught sight of the woman's gun-metal pistol on the floor beside her. I quietly caught up and "broke" that ugly little toy, dropping the cartridges into my pocket.
"You shot this woman!" the old man repeated meaningly.
"That's not the point! She's dying here—something must be done, at once!"
"Then she's not dead?" he muttered, holding his lamp over the motionless figure. The man almost nauseated me.
"Look at her face!" I cried, stepping back. "Look at her face and see."
He put the lamp down on the floor. Then revoltingly, with the barrel-end of his revolver, he pried the woman's body over, emitting an indifferent grunt as the relaxed shoulder fell back into its former position. I stooped and picked up the fallen flash-light, and as I did so the muscular little scoundrel slipped an arm under the woman's waist and turned the inert figure completely over.
Then he peered down at the white face, vaguely outlined under the black mass of is crushed hat-brim. Again I heard his swinish little grunt of indifference. So I threw the flash-light's glow full on the woman's upturned face. It cut out each feature with the clearness of a calcium spot-light. It showed the lidded and shadowy eyes, the once wilful and audacious upper lip drawn close across the teeth, the tumbled and heavily massed golden-brown hair, shot through with red, the soft lines of the blue-veined neck.
For the space of what must have been a dozen heart-beats there was not a sound in the room. But the squinting eyes of the man before me slowly dilated. His lower jaw fell away, and lifted again, noiselessly. His lips moved, but for a moment no sound came from them. He drooped and wilted forward, Staring weakly into the face before him. Then a long and thin-noted groan, a groan so shrill and ludicrous that it seemed almost a squeak, burst from him.
I picked up the revolver that fell from his hand, and casually placed it on the high mantel of the bricked-up fireplace, well out of his reach.
"Alice!" he whispered wheezily. "My Alice!"
He pushed back her tumbled hair with his shaking talon of a hand.
"I've killed her!" he gasped. "I've killed my own child!"
A sudden ague seized him. His bony frame shook and trembled; his teeth began to chatter, like those of a man with a chill; a sob broke from his pendulous old throat.
"I've killed my own daughter!" he moaned, feeling senselessly about her body, as though in search for the wound. Then he lifted the woman's head, until it lay across his knees, and kept calling out her name. I had not looked for any such fire under the hardened lava of his penurious old life. Yet I gave it little thought at the moment; for as I looked down at the woman I could make out the slow, pulsing movement of the external jugular, in the soft hollow of her blue-veined neck, just under the white ear-lobe.
"But she's not dead yet!" I reminded the groaning man.
"No, she's not dead yet!" he wheezed.
"Then get help here; get a doctor!"
He looked about the room, dazedly. His old furtive look returned to him, but it was only for a moment.
"I've brandy up-stairs in my bedroom—wait here!" he panted, as he struggled to his feet and ran across the room. I watched him shuffle out into the gloomy hall and disappear into the silence above-stairs. My way was at last clear.
I slipped over to the door, and quietly closed and bolted it. Then I darted back to the safe. The unconscious woman still lay on the bare floor. She was as white and impassive as the dead.
I stooped to the tape-tied packets that lay about the opened vault door, bending over the carelessly scattered wealth for which more lives than one had been hardened and embittered. And still the way seemed clear. Turning to the safe itself, I reached an exploring arm well into its shadowy recesses. I would make that haul pay for what I had gone through.
Then I stopped short, frozen in my tracks by a sudden metallic snap that was repeated, once, twice, three times.
What that sound meant I knew too well, even before I turned and saw the white-faced woman standing there confronting me. The empty revolver in her hand was still pointed at me; I had a new enemy to face.
My startled brain had scarcely realized the meaning of the picture before she flung the useless pistol from her. Her fall had been a feint; the dummy-chucker had merely made use of an old trick of her trade! Yet I wondered what her next move would be.
"Father!" The call rang out, high and tense and clear, making the room echo and pulse with sound. It was enough to wake the dead.
"Father, we're being robbed!" the vibrating soprano called out into space. Then I saw her quick and restless eye travel to the mantel and the magazine revolver resting on it.
We sprang for the gun together, and together we caught it up. But I was too much for her, and one quick wrench loosened her clutch and sent her staggering against the black walnut table. By the time she looked up I had her covered. We stood facing each other, breathing hard.
"Father quick!" she screamed into the quietness of the room where we stood locked in, alone.
I lowered the gun-barrel to her breast and took one deliberate step forward. As I did I was dimly conscious of a sudden splintering of pine, of a sharp tearing of canvas. Then upon my startled head and shoulders came the full weight of a fulling body. I vaguely realized that this flying body had leaped out of the gilt frame above me. But beyond this I had no time for thought. The thin and bony figure clung to me chokingly, snarling and biting and tearing like a wildcat.
It took all my strength to get the talon-like hands away from my throat, to wrest the sleeve of my gun-arm free from the locked teeth. So I grasped the long-barreled revolver by its muzzle, knowing that my only way out would be to club this wheezing fury into senselessness.
"Don't! Don't!" pleaded the distraught woman close behind me. I could feel her pulling and tugging at my body. Then she stopped suddenly, with a quick side movement of her head. I knew she had found and taken the Colt from my pocket, even before she spoke, and that she had me covered.
"Don't move!" she called, with quiet authority. The little old man slipped to the floor, panting and moaning, his scrawny hands nursing a helpless left knee.
"Kill him!" he gasped mercilessly, malignantly, between his groans. But I did not look at him: I was too busy watching the woman. I began to feel that the game was almost up. I had the two of them united against me. The most I could hope for, now, was some chance of escape. To get away, empty-handed, would be luck enough,
"Put that gun on the table!" commanded the woman. "Put it on the table, handle out, as you hold it!"
I did as she ordered. I could see her lip curl with scorn as she caught sight of my nickel police shield. Even to get away was not going to he easy!
"Put up your hands and cross the room until you come to the wall!" she commanded. "Now turn around!"
Her gun and her eyes followed me, every move I made. I stood facing her in grim silence. For one moment her gaze wavered between me and the man moaning on the floor.
"Father," she ordered, "take that revolver from the table."
"I can't!" he groaned, nursing his knee. I moved an inch nearer the door.
"Take that revolver, or we may lose everything!" she cried shrilly. She was still afraid of me, of some sudden play on my part. I moved another inch or two nearer my door. Then I stopped short, for I saw the drooping revolver barrel lift and steady, directly between my eyes, and the woman's lips compress significantly. At the same time I saw the gasping and moaning old man rise on his right knee. He struggled and tottered there for one moment of anguish, and then fell back in a dead faint, face upward on the floor. I could see that his leg was broken just below the left knee. There was now only the woman between me and the door. But not once did she take her eyes off mine as I stood there coercing myself to fling back at her a stare as belligerent as her own.
"Father, the revolver!" she called in her tense, shrill tones. "I know this man: I know he is not to be trusted! I can't—oh, don't make me kill him!"
Her voice trailed off into a moan of helpless horror, but no answer came to her call for help. I compelled myself to a display of laughter; the sound of it seemed to worry and terrify her more than ever. Still again she steadied her gun-barrel so that it pointed directly between my squinting eyebrows. I could see her face contorted and twisted with contending fears, but the dominant one, I knew, was the horror of taking a human life. That discovery left me brave enough to laugh at her again, and she fell back a step or two, with a gasp of frustration.
"No!" she cried, "I can not—I can not kill him! I can not murder!" And again my quietly forced laugh seemed to harry and madden her.
"The revolver!" she burst out, in her tight throated whisper. "Father, you—you must do it! I can not—I dare not—oh, quick—kill him before it's too late!"
"Look at your father!" I said to her, as calmly as I could. "Look at him there. He's dead!"
It was an arrant lie, but it served its purpose.
The woman half turned as I spoke. It was only for a second, but in that precious second I had slid the bolt and shot out through the door. I could hear her cry of pity, of commiseration. and her abandoned wail of "Father!" as I turned the key in the lock and darted across the bare hallway. Twenty seconds later I had the front door open and was outside in the empty street and the gray light of early morning!
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1950, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 72 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.
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