The Man in Lower Ten/Chapter 31
AND ONLY ONE ARM
HOTCHKISS was the first to break the tension.
"Mr. Sullivan," he asked suddenly, "was your sister left-handed?"
Hotchkiss put away his note-book and looked around with an air of triumphant vindication. It gave us a chance to smile and look relieved. After all, Mrs. Curtis was dead. It was the happiest solution of the unhappy affair. McKnight brought Sullivan some whisky, and he braced up a little.
"I learned through the papers that my wife was in a Baltimore hospital, and yesterday I ventured there to see her. I felt if she would help me to keep straight, that now, with her father and my sister both dead, we might be happy together.
"I understand now what puzzled me then. It seemed that my sister went into the next car and tried to make my wife promise not to interfere. But Ida—Mrs. Sullivan—was firm, of course. She said her father had papers, certificates and so on, that would stop the marriage at once.
"She said, also, that her father was in our car, and that there would be the mischief to pay in the morning. It was probably when my sister tried to get the papers that he awakened, and she had to do—what she did."
It was over. Save for a technicality or two, I was a free man. Alison rose quietly and prepared to go; the men stood to let her pass, save Sullivan who sat crouched in his chair, his face buried in his hands. Hotchkiss, who had been tapping the desk with his pencil, looked up abruptly and pointed the pencil at me.
"If all this is true, and I believe it is,—then who was in the house next door, Blakeley, the night you and Mr. Johnson searched? You remember, you said it was a woman's hand at the trap door."I glanced hastily at Johnson, whose face was impassive. He had his hand on the knob of the door and he opened it before he spoke.
"There were a number of scratches on Mrs. Conway's right hand," he observed to the room in general. "Her wrist was bandaged and badly bruised."
He went out then, but he turned as he closed the door and threw at me a glance of half-amused, half-contemptuous tolerance.
McKnight saw Alison, with Mrs. Dallas, to their carriage, and came back again. The gathering in the office was breaking up. Sullivan, looking worn and old, was standing by the window, staring at the broken necklace in his hand. When he saw me watching him, he put it on the desk and picked up his hat.
"If I can not do anything more—" he hesitated.
"I think you have done about enough," I replied grimly, and he went out.
I believe that Richey and Hotchkiss led me somewhere to dinner, and that, for fear I would be lonely without him, they sent for Johnson. And I recall a spirited discussion in which Hotchkiss told the detective that he could manage certain cases, but that he lacked induction. Richey and I were mainly silent. My thoughts would slip ahead to that hour, later in the evening, when I should see Alison again.
I dressed in savage haste finally, and was so particular about my tie that Mrs. Klopton gave up in despair.
"I wish, until your arm is better, that you would buy the kind that hooks on," she protested, almost tearfully. "I'm sure they look very nice, Mr. Lawrence. My late husband always—"
"That's a lover's knot you've tied this time," I snarled, and, jerking open the bow knot she had so painfully executed, looked out the window for Johnson—until I recalled that he no longer belonged in my perspective. I ended by driving frantically to the club and getting George to do it.
I was late, of course. The drawing-room and-library at the Dallas home were empty. I could hear billiard balls rolling somewhere, and I turned the other way. I found Alison at last on the balcony, sitting much as she had that night on the beach,—her chin in her hands, her eyes fixed unseeingly on the trees and lights of the square across. She was even whistling a little, softly. But this time the plaintiveness was gone. It was a tender little tune. She did not move, as I stood beside her, looking down. And now, when the moment had come, all the thousand and one things I had been waiting to say forsook me, precipitately beat a retreat, and left me unsupported. The arc-moon sent little fugitive lights over her hair, her eyes, her gown.
"Don't—do that," I said unsteadily. "You—you know what I want to do when you whistle!"
She glanced up at me, and she did not stop. She did not stop! She went on whistling softly, a bit tremulously. And straightway I forgot the street, the chance of passers-by, the voices in the house behind us. "The world doesn't hold any one but you," I said reverently. "It is our world, sweetheart. I love you."
And I kissed her.
A boy was whistling on the pavement below. I let her go reluctantly and sat back where I could see her.
"I haven't done this the way I intended to at all," I confessed. "In books they get things all settled, and then kiss the lady."
"Settled?" she inquired.
"Oh, about getting married and that sort of thing," I explained with elaborate carelessness. "We—we could go down to Bermuda—or—or Jamaica, say in December."
She drew her hand away and faced me squarely.
"I believe you are afraid!" she declared. "I refuse to marry you unless you propose properly. Everybody does it. And it is a woman's privilege: she wants to have that to look back to."
"Very well," I consented with an exaggerated sigh. "If you will promise not to think I look like an idiot, I shall do it, knee and all."
I had to pass her to close the door behind us, but when I kissed her again she protested that we were not really engaged.
I turned to look down at her. "It is a terrible thing," I said exultantly, "to love a girl the way I love you, and to have only one arm!" Then I closed the door.
From across the street there came a sharp crescendo whistle, and a vaguely familiar figure separated itself from the park railing.
"Say," he called, in a hoarse whisper, "shall I throw the key down the elevator shaft?"