The October Blight
“Will you paint a portrait of me? I am not in a hurry. In fact, I'd much prefer, if you're not too crowded down there, to come up to town and stay with you for a short time. You can paint me whenever you have sufficient time off from your other work.”
If Crosby Braithwaite had asked me to come out and whitewash his chicken coop, I would not have been more astounded. I do portraits often, while I have devoted little time to the decoration of chicken coops; but to have a blunt, masculine man like Crosby so anxious for his picture that he is willing to come to town and wait around for it—well, it took my breath away. I scarcely could believe the phone receiver.
“Why—why,” I sputtered, “of course! Come right along. I have a place for you here, and I'd enjoy having you here tremendously. I haven't much work on hand, and I can finish you up in two or three sittings.”
“Thanks, Bert, old man!” he answered gratefully. “Don't plan on hurrying, though. I don't care if it takes you a month.”
“A month?” I echoed, scenting something back of it all. “All right, Crosby. I'll take a month to it if you wish. I know you well enough to realize that it's not the portrait you're after, though. Come right along, however, and bring your suitcases—or your trunks if you prefer!”
The cordiality of this last was unfeigned, for Crosby Braithwaite always had been one of the men whose intimate friendship I would have cultivated if I had remained in New York after college days. My training abroad, however, had cut away the bonds I had formed; and when I returned, it had been necessary for me to work every minute. As a result I had seen Crosby only twice since graduation.
The nine years had not even straightened one kink in his curly thatch of reddish brown hair. As he strode into the studio an hour later, I almost could have thought him raiding my room for dormitory hazing. His shoulders were an inch or two wider, perhaps, and the broad smile came and went again instead of hovering constantly on his lips, but otherwise he was the same big−handed, big−hearted aristocrat. Even the light Scotch suit he wore was almost identical with some of the clothes I had envied in his college wardrobe.
His greetings were a trifle sheepish. “I'm not much of a bluffer, am I, Bert?” he asked, after shaking hands.
“Sit down and tell me about it,” I commanded, smiling. “You have my curiosity aroused now, and if you are really going to stay with me for a time, you might just as well start at the beginning.”
He stretched his heavy frame on the couch I indicated, but thought better of it immediately and sat upright on the edge. I saw all the lightness of expression and all the bluff heartiness vanish together from his face.
“I'm not going to apologize any more, Bert,” he said quietly, albeit with a deadly seriousness that I could not mistake. “If you think me a coward or a fool, just tell me so to my face, and I'll try to swallow it. I have come to you because I know you're not tactful.”
“Thanks,” I broke in wryly.
“Oh, don't take offense. It is the most wearisome thing in the world to be with people who smile and are polite all of the time they talk to you, and then jeer behind your back. I know your tongue and your fists, too. One is as blunt as the other; I have run into both in times past, and while I don't fear either, I respect both.”
“Well, just what is wrong? If you'll tell me, perhaps we can settle the difficulty.” My voice was stilted, for the one thing I cannot stand is to be complimented to my face.
Braithwaite colored a trifle, but plunged into his story. It was plain to be seen that he had learned to expect ridicule. “Tomorrow is—is the first of October,” he began.
“Yes,” I encouraged, unimpressed as yet. “My father died suddenly on the fourth of October, five years ago. Four years ago Tim—my eldest brother—died; that was on the eighteenth. Three years ago Jesse—you knew him—met a sudden and peculiar death on the thirteenth of October. Then for a year no one lived in Braithwaite Grange, and there were no deaths in our family. Last year the servants stayed; I packed up and came down to the McAlpin. Esther Stearns—she was an old lady who had been my mother's maid for twenty years, and we had kept her because she had become a sort of fixture— died suddenly and mysteriously on the twenty− seventh of October. Now there is not a servant left; they won't stay in the house, and I cannot say that I blame them. I have come down to you because I know that you will know what to do. Max Morton said—”
The explanation of Braithwaite's visit flashed across my mind as the big chap before me stopped suddenly and bit his lip. I felt myself growing hot about the ears and under the collar, an unfortunate habit of mine when anything displeases me mightily. “What did Max tell you?” I asked, glaring savagely at my caller.
Braithwaite shifted uncomfortably. “Not much of anything,” he admitted.
“He was as mysterious as a sphinx—said that you could put me in touch with a man who could clear up my difficulties if anyone could. I suppose he meant a detective, though what good that would do is beyond me, for I have employed the very best men in this country and England already. Being at my wits' end, I thought to come down here and stay on your hospitality, and then, if you—”
“Did Max tell you who this man is?”
“No; I couldn't pry anything more out of him with a crowbar. In fact, he said that he was violating a confidence even in mentioning you.”
“He was,” I said tersely. “Not that I really care so very much, but this chap once did a favor for Max and myself that we are repaying poorly when we disobey that simple request of his.”
“Well—” Braithwaite looked puzzled. “Do you think it would do me any good to consult this secretive friend of yours? Is it worth while to bother him?”
“He isn't what you'd call a friend,” I said slowly. “He isn't a public investigator, either. He is a sort of super−detective whom a few chiefs of police and big business men call on for solving their most tangled problems. Is this trouble of yours really worth his while?”
Braithwaite regarded me soberly. “So far as I am concerned it is all−important. The servants— and I, too, I must confess—call this something which hangs over our house 'The October Blight.' I am convinced that it is going to get me sometime if I don't get it first.” His voice held conviction.
“Has it occurred to you to sell Braithwaite Grange?” I queried, almost sarcastically.
The man before me straightened perceptibly. “Yes!” he snapped. “But I have had health experts of all kinds out to examine the place. They have gone over it from top to bottom and declare that everything is in superb condition; there isn't a healthier country home in New York State! If I am going to admit that there is something wrong, don't you think it my duty to find out just what that something is? If it is supernatural or of human agency, will the mere fact of moving separate it from me? Anyway, I have run away enough now. If I could find some way of fighting, I'd—I'd—”
“I must ask you to step down to the street while I phone,” I interrupted. Braithwaite started to obey with alacrity.
“Wait! I must also ask your pledge that you will not try to find out anything more about J. M. than he chooses to tell you; that you never will mention your meeting with him.”
Braithwaite raised his right hand. “I promise!” he said quietly.
“All right. Now if you'll go, I'll see if he'll take you on.”
Over the wire I explained the matter just as it had been told to me, and dwelt upon the fact that my caller did not know anything of Masters' identity. “You can trust Crosby Braithwaite,” I concluded. “There isn't a yellow atom in him. I've known him for years, and I am sure that you will find him satisfactory and his case worthy of your talent.”
The man at the other end of the wire grumbled a little, but acquiesced. “So long as this is not a habit, Hoffman,” he said, “I don't mind obliging. Has he had any others on the case?”
“Yes, so he says. I believe he has employed several, some from this country and some from England.”
“Hm! Sounds like coincidence. Well, I'll be up.” The receiver clacked the close of our connection. I ran to the window, threw up the sash, and signaled to Braithwaite below.
“Will he come?” inquired the latter breathlessly, bursting in. He had run up the three flights, without waiting for the elevator.
“Yes, in five or ten minutes,” I replied. I did not find it necessary to explain to my caller that the short delay would be something in the nature of camouflage, since Jigger Masters occupied the third−floor apartment at the north end of the same building in which we then were sitting. “I can only repeat my previous warning,” I went on seriously. “Don't be too curious about this man, because keeping his identity and personality from the public knowledge is a life−and−death matter with him!”
Crosby nodded solemnly and sat down, attempting to achieve composure. His attitude was strained, however, and I knew that doubts were beginning to assail him. I had felt just the same way the first time I ever met Masters, for Morton had been even more finicky than I in laying our case before Masters.
“Do you think—” began Braithwaite; but he did not finish. I saw his eyes widen as they gazed past me at the door, and I knew that Masters had entered.
It always had been a puzzle to me how the man had succeeded in keeping so much to himself, for no one who encountered him on serious business ever could forget him. Besides his extraordinary height and leanness, he had an air of dignity and capability most impressive. I knew just how he would appear, but I turned my head instinctively.
Masters stood in the hall just at the opening of my studio, with his long arms crossed behind him, hands clasping his elbows. He wore a plain blue serge suit, high collar and blue bow tie. His chin, broad but curiously pointed, rested over the edge of his collar in such a way as to reduce, almost to invisibility, what I knew to be a long, homely neck. He was clean− shaven, except for his upper lip. This, as I found out later, he fondly imagined to carry a mustache—his only foible—but the few scraggly black hairs only succeeded in giving the broad lip a smudged appearance.
I arose deferentially. There was nothing of pose in this, for at that time I knew him only well enough to respect him; the liberties I took later were due to steadily increasing familiarity.
“Mr. Masters, this is my old friend, Mr. Crosby Braithwaite,” I began. Masters strode across the room so quickly that it startled me, and Crosby told me afterward that the handshake had so taken him off his guard that his right hand was numb for a half−hour afterward.
“Glad to meet you, indeed!” rumbled Masters, the voice seeming to start very naturally from the depths of his great chest. “Sit down!”
Braithwaite started to speak, muttered a rather confused acknowledgment, then obeyed. To my relief, Jigger Masters started in immediately with Crosby's problem, evidently crediting my estimate of my friend.
“As I understand it,” he said, slapping back a lock of his thick black hair from his forehead with a sweep of his long, knotted fingers, “your father, Anson Braithwaite, and two of your brothers met similar and peculiar deaths while living at your country home?”
“Yes,” answered Braithwaite quickly, “and Esther Stearns also. She was a servant—not related in any way, you understand.”
Masters straightened a little at this, and I could see that this statement had collided with some forming assumption in his brain. “Not a relative, eh?” he said reflectively.
“Tell me all you can about the manner of death of all these people. Were the cases in any way similar?”
“No one else beside the servants and myself can see any connection.” Crosby's tone was pinged with a sarcasm so unlike him that I could imagine what he must have been through with the other detectives whom he had employed to handle the case.
“Father,” he continued, “was quite a strict old Puritan, so far as his personal life was concerned. I guess he wasn't as scrupulous in business, but that doesn't matter to us. The point is that he had every expectation of living to be a hundred; instead of that, he dropped off at sixty−two.”
“How did he die?”
Braithwaite shrugged his shoulders. “No one knew much of anything about it. Even the inquest didn't clear up the situation. You see, Dad used to get up at five−thirty every morning, drink a cup of coffee, and then go out and play nine holes of golf. He'd return in time to have breakfast with the rest of us. On that morning, Collins—he used to make the coffee—said that Dad complained of feeling stuffy and peculiar. He had said something about the house not being well ventilated, but that was nonsense, of course, because Dad had three windows in his bedchamber, and these always were open at night.”
Masters nodded slightly. “It is certain, I suppose,” he remarked, “that these windows were open on that night?”
“Oh yes. Dad was something of a crank on the subject of fresh air. It would be hard to imagine anyone climbing in through them, however, for copper−wire screens still were locked in place in the morning. You see the flies get rather pesky up there about the first of October, so we always keep the screens on until snow falls.”
I was watching Masters closely, and saw a blank look come into his eyes. For all the world it seemed as if he had suddenly lost all interest in the details of the case, but from what I learned of him afterward, knew that this simply was a symptom of concentration.
Crosby looked at him doubtfully, but kept on with his story. “That's about all, so far as Father was concerned. He didn't show up for breakfast, so I went out to call him. I found him beside the fifth tee, all doubled up and dead! His ball was all ready for a drive, and his driver lay beside him, so whatever it was that struck him must have come suddenly.”
“Was his mouth open?” The question came from Masters like a flash off lightning from a cloud, and it took Crosby unawares.
“Why—yes—I don't know,” he stammered. “Dad's face was bluish and convulsed—I rather think his mouth was open, though I couldn't swear to it now.”
“Where were his hands?”
“Clutching at his chest and stomach.” Crosby shuddered. “Oh, he looked terrible!”
“Who examined him?”
“Dr. Watry, our old physician, and then the coroner. Both were puzzled, but Watry seemed to think heart failure the cause, and after examining Dad's stomach the coroner gave that as his decision.”
“Heart failure?” Masters' tone held a hint of sarcasm. “Everyone dies of that dread disease, I'm afraid. What made his heart fail? Did they state?”
“No. I think that they were a little loath to go into the matter as thoroughly as a city inquest would have done.” Crosby smiled grimly. “You see, we lived in what is practically a rural community, and whatever a Braithwaite has done in the past has been considered au fait—even when it comes to dying mysteriously.”
Masters frowned. “Well, how about the others? Did they all die playing golf?”
“No, and it's this part that—well, that makes my story seem a trifle absurd to most people. Both of my brothers seemed to have met accidents, but—”
“I never will believe it!” Crosby plunged on with something like desperation. “Even the detectives I employed ended up by assuring me that there was nothing in my suspicions. You see, Tim got up on the morning of the eighteenth of October, and for no particular reason ran out the roadster, and made off hell−bent−for−election up the pike toward Mowrey. He was found about noon by a party on the road. His car had crashed into a telephone pole, and he was lying there dead; his skull was fractured. The reason I never could swallow it all was that Tim was a good and a careful driver, and besides, his face looked bluish, just the way Dad's had looked!”
“Might have been caused by the rupture of blood vessels,” commented Masters.
“Yes, I suppose so.” Braithwaite's voice was heavy with disappointment. “I took the doctor's say−so then.”
“Yes. Why, do you suspect him?” Masters shook his head indifferently.
“No,” he said, “I've run across Watry before—that is, if it's Charles Watry of Phelps.”
“And I just am disappointed; I don't credit him with much intelligence. Go on.”
“Well—” Braithwaite hesitated.
“Hang it, Masters,” he broke out impetuously, “I hope you're not just going to tell me that my family is a victim of coincidences, because I never will believe that as long as I live!”
I shivered a little, for I feared that Masters might take offense at this, but he did not. Instead a slight smile curved his mouth. “No, Mr. Braithwaite,” he answered with a slight drawl, “I shall not tell you that unless I can make you believe it too!”
“Call your car,” interrupted Masters. “I presume you have one in town with you?”
“Yes, at the McAlpin garage.” Crosby stepped to the phone and gave the necessary orders.
“Now, while it's coming, tell me about your other brother and the servant.”
Crosby resumed his seat with alacrity; I could see that the prospect of action pleased him.
“The only striking difference in the death of Jesse that I have been able to see,” he began, sobering immediately, “is that he died up at Mangan Hills in the evening instead of the morning. He had gone up to a town dance with Esther Duntley, to whom he was engaged. It was about eight−thirty in the evening—the dance had just started—when he complained of feeling sick, left Esther and went outside, and was found dying there about twenty minutes later. He was unconscious when help reached him, and he never came to at all. His case seemed a little like poisoning, for he was terribly convulsed; but after another inquest they called it apoplexy, for they could find no traces of poison. Then people began talking about a 'disease that ran in our family.'”
“Did his face get bluish?”
“Yes, just the same as Dad's and Tim's. That's what made me connect them one with another.”
“I think that your car is outside, Crosby,” I interrupted.
“Yes, it is,” he answered, glancing down. “We'll just run out,” directed Masters. “You can tell me about the servant on the way out.”
Crosby led the way down and gave crisp orders to his driver. Then the three of us climbed in the tonneau and were off.
“Esther Stearns' case was really not remarkable in itself,” Crosby continued, after we had wormed our way out of the heavy traffic. “She was over seventy years of age and feeble; in the ordinary course of events we would have expected her to pass on in a year or two, anyway. If she had died any time except in the month of October—” Crosby paused and shook his head.
“What were the circumstances?” The baffling dullness had crept into Masters' eyes again, but Braithwaite was too much aroused now to notice.
“Simple, very simple!” he retorted, with a tinge of sarcasm. “Like all the rest, natural causes. Everyone but those confounded superstitious servants and myself think she died of plain, unadulterated old age. I don't, though! She had the same room hat Tim occupied the night before he died.”
“Hm!” Masters' eyebrows shot up. “May I ask if that was the same room which your father and brother also slept in?”
“No. Those have been unused ever since.” A long silence ensued in which I gave up the case for the time being, and watched the scenery.
“Tell me about your servants,” Masters finally broke in. “Have you had the same set all the time?”
“No, confound them!” answered Crosby angrily. “Servants are the dickens of a problem out in the country! We haven't had a single one, except Esther Stearns, more than eight or nine months. They all get lonesome for the city. The last I had quit in a body after Esther died; they said the house was haunted, and that some one would have to die every October! There are none out there now.”
“Well, how about visitors? Do you have many regular visitors? I mean those who have been coming to see you for years.”
Braithwaite considered a moment. “Yes, several,” he answered. “We have a great many cousins, aunts and uncles who make it their habit to drop in on us once or twice a year. You see, it's a regular summer resort for them; we always have kept a sort of an open house, so whenever a family of our relatives decided on a week in the country, all they had to do was to bring their effects right out.”
“Do they usually come any particular times?”
“Oh yes, the Caldwells usually come in July and spend their time fishing over at Lake Chatonki; Cousin Kate and Cousin Eleanor come in for Christmas and New Year's, and sometimes the Ramsgates from Ohio.”
“Does anyone come regularly in August?”
“Yes. Thomas Braithwaite, Dad's brother, usually spends his vacation with his wife at Braithwaite Grange during August. He hasn't been out this year because no one has been there.”
“Anyone else elect August or September?”
“Well, Cousin Hal drops around once in a while in September, but I haven't encouraged him very much because he's poor company—a soured individual.”
The car turned suddenly into the wide portals of Braithwaite Grange. I recognized the place though I had seen it but once before. The grounds, ill−kept now, still showed traces of the magnificent care the bulging Braithwaite pocketbook had been able to give them. The house, a huge, rambling, rough log bungalow, built in the form of a Greek cross, was as evidently uncared for, yet all had an open−handed look of generous hospitality.
Crosby led the way in, and after carrying in a little kindling, lighted a fire in the big hearth. Masters was not in the mood for sitting down; as soon as Crosby arose, the detective nodded to him. “Let me have a small hatchet and show me the three rooms that have been occupied by your father, brothers and Esther Stearns,” he said. “While I am looking around, you and Hoffman sit in there and get warm. I'll call you if I need you.”
Crosby bustled out and procured the required article, handed it over, and then led the way back, pointing out the rooms as he did so. I had not been invited, so I remained beside the fire. In a moment Crosby rejoined me. “Unsociable devil, isn't he?” whispered the latter, seating himself beside me.
For twenty minutes we listened to the taptap−tap of Masters' hatchet—he was using the hammer part of the head. Then came a long silence, and I felt myself getting nervous. Crosby's face was drawn and white also; neither of us had the faintest idea of what Masters expected to find, yet both of us knew the importance of the detective's investigation.
The sudden impacts of Masters' heavy strides made us sit up quickly, but it was only to see him disappear into one of the other rooms. The tapping was repeated; this time it was of short duration. Then he stepped out and repeated the performance in the third and last chamber.
This time he returned to the living−room, and Crosby and I rose anxiously to meet him.
“Do you think we are likely to have a heavy frost tomorrow night?” he questioned affably, turning his back to the fire, and eyeing the distraught Braithwaite seriously.
“I haven't an idea! Why, what difference does it make?” cried Crosby. “Have you found out anything?” “Enough to hang a regiment!” retorted Masters calmly. “But how about the frost?” He turned to me.
“We have a little every night now,” I ventured.
“Well, how near is the closest observatory?”
“Down at Mangan Hills,” snapped Crosby with what I deemed pardonable irritation.
“Well, gentlemen?” Masters dropped his mask and sat down on the bench before us, rubbing his long fingers together. “I am not chaffing you. If you will allow me to direct your actions for the next day or two, I think we can put a pinch of salt on the tail of this October ghost, or whatever you call it. Don't bother me to explain now; all I can tell you is that the same agency probably killed all four of the people who died here, and that there was nothing supernatural about it.”
“Well, what shall we do?” Crosby's eyes were wide now, but there was a grim look of anticipation there also.
Masters turned quickly to him. “You telephone to those relatives who usually visit you in August and September. Tell them you are getting fixed up here now and that you would like to have them run down any time they found convenient. Mention the fact that the weather is getting crisp, and that if they don't mind breaking the law a little, they might rouse a few partridges.”
“But I have no servants here!”
“Yes, you have—two of them!” Masters indicated himself and me with a sweep of his hand. “I'll get a third, a woman I know and can depend upon who will cook the meals.”
Crosby's face lighted up with pleasure, and he made for the telephone.
“While he's doing that, you run down to Mangan Hills observatory and find out whether by any happy chance there is a cold wave coming within a day or two, and also get the temperature records hour by hour, for all the days in each October for the past five years.”
I bowed my complete understanding of the orders if not of the reasons for them, and started for Crosby's car.
“Get back as quickly as possible,” admonished Masters. “We're servants when anyone arrives, you understand.”
I need dwell little upon my trip to Mangan Hills. Suffice it to say that I obtained the desired records and returned in time to put on a greasy old dress−suit that Crosby had unearthed from some part of the wardrobe of his old staff of servants.
“You're to be door−man, Masters says,” Crosby informed me. “You can put on all the dog you wish.”
“Thanks!” I said dryly. “What is Masters going to do?”
“He has elected himself gardener. I believe he is out now with an old ladder, trimming the vines. He has a Mrs. Jessup coming up here in an hour. She's going to cook our meals; I've ordered everything I could think of from the grocery.”
“But how about our visitors?”
Crosby hesitated. “I don't like to cast any reflections on your friend, and I am willing to play this string out the way he says, but I can't see for the life of me why he wants Uncle Tom and Cousin Hal out here! He surely can't suspect either of them of the murders. Why, neither of them were within ten miles of this place within two weeks of the time when any one of the affairs happened.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “If we knew more about what he did with that hatchet, we could tell better,” I remarked. “Don't imagine, though, for one instant, that J. M. is wasting his time or ours. There'll be music in the air just about as quickly as you can say 'Jack Robinson!' after he gets the stage set to his satisfaction.”
Mrs. Jessup arrived on the three−twelve train and was delivered at Braithwaite Grange by the station bus fifteen minutes later. I saw the gardener go down to meet her and knew that Masters was giving her full instructions.
They must have been simple, for the woman, a rather sharp−featured but solid woman of forty or thereabouts, went immediately to the kitchen and began preparations for dinner just as though she had been in the household a year.
When Crosby drove up with the three visitors, I must admit that I mentally accused, judged and hanged Hal Marquis and acquitted Tom Braithwaite and his wife, all while the three were removing their wraps. Marquis was a villainous, dissipated−appearing youth, with blotchy pimples on his face and a stoop to his shoulders that spoke loudly of hours spent over card and billiard tables, while Tom Braithwaite was enough like Crosby in appearance so that no one ever would suspect him of a meanness. His wife was not so attractive; she had a snippiness of manner that seemed small when compared to the easy−going generosity of the Braithwaites, but I dismissed her as not mattering much one way or the other.
Crosby, acting on instructions, took the three to their rooms. On the way he showed them the room he intended to occupy, expatiating long about a set of antlers above his bed which he had acquired since seeing them. He dropped many dark hints of what he intended to do in getting a buck deer when the weather grew crisper. “You know, they come in even this close to town to feed on the rutabaga patches,” he said. “If anyone would like to come out with me tonight and take a chance with the law—”
“I would!” exclaimed Hal.
“I would too,” said Tom Braithwaite regretfully, “except that Sal and I have to hurry back right after dinner. We're catching the nine− four train; you see, I have some business appointments that I must see to very early tomorrow morning.”
Crosby protested, explaining volubly that he was sure there would be a heavy frost that night, and that was an excellent time to go after deer, but the Braithwaites were firm.
“No, Crosby dear, we'll be out again sometime this winter,” said the snippy one. “You really aren't very well settled yet, anyway. We just came out because we are so afraid that awful October curse might get you, and then we'd never see you again.”
I saw the close−set black eyes bore into Crosby with an expression that was far from either affection or sympathy. At that moment Mrs. Braithwaite's lean face seemed cast in hard lines like the profile of a vulture. I revised my mental disposal of her somewhat.
Crosby laughed heartily, not noticing. “It will never get me!” he boasted. “I'm not afraid of any ghost that walks!” With that the company dispersed to dress for dinner.
I kept an eye on Masters, not knowing what he would wish me to do; and sure enough, a moment later he came into the kitchen, wiping his hands, and dropped a slip of paper on the table beside me. “Keep out of sight but see if anyone goes into Crosby's room after he leaves,” it read.
I tiptoed to the back hall and waited there patiently until Crosby, Hal and Mrs. Braithwaite had gone into the dining−room. I could hear all footsteps, and by peering around the casement I could see well, though exposing myself to detection if not particularly careful.
There was not long to wait. The moment that the three had closed the sliding doors of the dining−room behind them, I heard a stealthy step. Chancing being seen, I bobbed my head around in time to see Tom Braithwaite disappearing into the room Crosby had just left. I did not see details clearly, but he seemed to be carrying a package, part of which looked like a bottle.
Without waiting an instant, I stepped back and reported the intrusion to Masters. He nodded jerkily and motioned to me to follow.
Tiptoeing as quietly as two cats, we crept up to the half−closed door of Crosby's room. Just the second we arrived, Braithwaite emerged. I needed no tip from Masters; the man was our “meat.”
Masters and I hit him together and carried him backward through the doorway, crashing to the floor.
Then ensued a kicking, scrambling fight, which was not nearly as unequal as it might appear, because of the cramped quarters.
Braithwaite writhed about on the floor and succeeded in dislodging Masters. I had a solid grip on his legs like a football tackler delights to secure, but at that moment I saw Braithwaite's revolver come out. As quickly as I could, I deserted my hold and seized his wrist. Masters jumped back and sat on his head while I wrested the weapon out of his grasp and hit him on the head with the butt. This made Braithwaite go limp, and I stood up to allow Masters to adjust the bracelets.
At that moment a screaming woman burst through the door. I scarcely realized she was Mrs. Braithwaite, however; all I could see was the nickel−plated revolver she leveled at Masters. I seized a brass smoking−stand which had fallen over in the struggle, and lunged wildly at the revolver. As luck would have it, this impromptu weapon struck her wrist just as she pulled the trigger, and the bullet crashed into the glass mirror on Crosby's chiffonier. Before she had time to fire again, I took the revolver away, and held her wrists behind her in such a way that she could not move. Vixen−like she dug her fingernails deep into my left hand.
She changed her tactics as soon as she realized her inability to do serious harm, and screamed for help. Crosby appeared in the doorway with Hal, white−faced, and she appealed to him to kill us immediately for insulting her and her husband.
Hal moved forward as if to comply, but Crosby, pale as his cousin, interposed. “This is all cooked up, Hal,” he said, “so keep out of it.”
“Cooked up, eh?” shrilled Mrs. Braithwaite, approaching what I presume was a hysteria of hate and terror.
“I should say it is! Ha! Ha! Fine sort of hospitality I call it! Invite us here and then have us manhandled by the servants! Oh, we'll have satisfaction for it!”
“Shut up, Sal!” commanded Braithwaite gruffly. He had come to consciousness quickly, but had given up all idea of resistance; Masters was busy coiling a rope about his ankles. When this was finished he turned to me. I know he did not intend to tie his other prisoner the same way, for Masters always was chivalrous; but at that moment he received a vicious kick from the woman, so he had to put bonds on Mrs. Braithwaite also, despite her screaming and anathema.
“Now help me here, Bert,” directed Masters, indicating our captives' feet. I seized Braithwaite's bound legs, and then helped Masters carry him over and place him on the bed. His wife was also placed beside him; this operation stilled all her cries. I saw ghastly terror replace all the pseudo anger on her unpleasant countenance.
“Come in and have chairs,” invited Masters pleasantly, motioning to Hal and Crosby. He took a seat himself as did I. “Don't get near the bed; there is a real reason to keep away.” We all pushed back to the opposite walls at this.
“Now I am sure that we are all ready for a very pleasant little party,” he continued. “The gardener is conducting it. First on the program will be the reading of the report of the United States Weather Observatory at Mangan Hills.” He drew out the report I had brought. “A severe frost may be expected this evening, with a possibility of light snow flurries toward morning. North to northwest winds.”
Tom Braithwaite turned his head in our direction. “Well, what is it all about?” he queried in the tone of a man who is rapidly getting intolerant. “Explain this mummery; I am sure I have had all I want of it. I pretty nearly peppered your gardener, thinking he was a burglar. Now you have me here, and you are reading weather reports to me! At least let my wife up; you can keep me here if you want to, but she is nervous.”
“I noticed that!” commented Masters dryly, glancing at the nickel−plated revolver which now lay on the table. “However, I think she had better stay with you through this little program. You can call it off any time you wish, though. I have a little paper here that deals with some very unpleasant things which happened during the past five years; if both of you wish to sign it, I won't insist upon your remaining on that bed all night.”
“All night!” Both of the captives shuddered, and their eyes turned upward to the wall above. I would have pitied the woman except for her evident guilt—and my smarting left hand.
“Yes, I have reason to believe that neither of you would care much to remain just as you are many hours—you know, it's going to freeze hard tonight!”
“He's got us, Tom! He's got us!” broke in Mrs. Braithwaite hysterically.
“Shut up, you fool!” the man interrupted savagely. “I don't know what the devil you are talking about, sir,” he went on rapidly, turning to Masters, “but if you don't let us up and in a hurry—”
Masters held up his hand. “You have the choice of death by means of your own devilish contrivance or according to the usual processes of the law. Take your choice!”
A gasp escaped Crosby, but other than that and the heavy breathing of the two on the bed, no other sound broke the silence for a full minute. Then Masters arose and walked quietly to the window. “The thermometer says that it is now thirty degrees above zero.”
A scream answered him. Mrs. Braithwaite had turned and was facing us. “I'll confess!” she cried, her voice quivering with terror. “Take me away quick! Move the bed!”
Masters quickly unfolded a paper he had been holding in his hand, uncapped a fountain pen, and then, releasing one of Mrs. Braithwaite's arms, held it over for her to sign. “This is a confession of the murders of three of the Braithwaite family and one servant,” he said solemnly. Mrs. Braithwaite seized the pen and scratched her name rapidly on the paper.
“Curse you, Sal!” groaned the man beside her, “you are sending us to the gallows!” “You did it! You did it!” sobbed the woman in answer.
“Will you sign it now?” queried Masters calmly, addressing Braithwaite.
“I suppose I might as well,” the latter answered heavily, and complied. Masters handed the paper to Crosby Braithwaite, jerked out the bed from the outside wall, and then reaching up slightly above his head, pried out what seemed to be a solid piece of log from its place. Reaching his hand into the space made, he drew out a flask which contained a little white powder and metal scrapings, and then followed it with an ordinary teacup and a flask of yellow liquid which seemed to have been set above the flask in the teacup. “It hadn't started to freeze yet,” commented Masters.
“What's that?” asked Crosby, eyeing the strange apparatus with horror.
“That's your 'October Blight,'“ replied Masters grimly. “Nothing in the world but arsine!”
“What is arsine?” I asked, pardonably curious.
“The most deadly gas in the world. It's the ghastly stuff the Germans used at Armentieres. Its formula is simply AsH3; one good whiff of it kills a man in from six hours to six days, depending on the size of the whiff and the man's constitution. There is no known antidote.” Masters turned suddenly to his captive. “Where'd you get the idea?” he asked. “Was the Lefevre Can Company really shipping through Sweden all of the time?” “None of your business!” growled Braithwaite savagely through his set teeth.
“Oh, but it is my business!” retorted Masters. “I think that they'll bear investigating. When they hear that their sales−manager has been using arsine—yes, I think we can make them come through!”
He turned and stepped to the door−way of the room. “You just see that nothing happens that might aid these people to escape, Mr. Hal,” he said to the young chap who had been sitting like one stupefied, gazing in wide−eyed horror at the apparatus Masters held carelessly in his hands. The detective indicated the little revolver which had belonged to Mrs. Braithwaite, and Hal seized this feverishly.
“Now you call up the station at Mangan Hills and have a wagon call for our guests, Crosby,” directed Masters. Crosby hastened to comply, while Masters and I walked into the front of the house again.
“I guess I have you to thank, Bert,” said Masters in a low tone. “To tell the truth I hadn't counted on Mrs. Braithwaite; I thought it was the job of her devil of a husband alone. I admire your aim with the ash−stand; if you had missed, I guess we both would be wearing wings now. Would you—” He colored a trifle, and I waited, astounded, for what might be coming. I had never seen Masters in the least embarrassed before.
“Would you care, once in a while to—to come along, when I have something extraordinary on hand? I know—if you care about compensation—”
“Compensation be damned!” I exclaimed with delight. “Nothing would suit me better!”
Crosby Braithwaite burst in just then, serious of face but with a set to his jaw that meant no mercy for his scheming relatives. “The devils!” he exclaimed in a low tone. “I'll have the wagon here in ten minutes. I hope they get the chair. Lord! That's too good for them!”
“Yes, it is,” I concurred. “But tell me how you did it, Mr. Masters!” asked Crosby. “How on earth did you tumble to that hellish contrivance? I had LePape and Sensibaugh of the Pinkertons, and Jeremy Tunbull from England all on the case, and they all thought me crazy. How did you do it?”
Masters smiled slowly. “Luck—and the law of averages; that's all!” he said. “You see, about a year ago, the Government was investigating the Germans' source of supply in one peculiar type of ammunition—I guess it's no particular breach of confidence to say that the British prompted the investigation, and that the ammunition in question was a type of gas bomb which we all knew the Germans couldn't make themselves—the arsine bomb. The reason why they could not make it was because there isn't enough arsenic in all Germany to kill a regiment; it simply had to come from the mines over here. Well, we suspected a few of the shell−making companies in New York, but we never fastened it on them. I got pretty well acquainted with the heads of the concerns, however, so after I had been thinking of this case for a moment, the coincidence in names furnished me with a clue.”
“But how—I don't understand how the law of averages came in,” said Crosby slowly. “Well, I can't understand how LePape failed to get it,” returned Masters, smiling. “If one person in a house dies peculiarly—has his face turn blue and seeks the outside air, and goes off in convulsions—natural causes might possibly get the blame; that is, of course, always supposing the natural cause is established. When two do it very similarly, it looks like more than nasty coincidence; in fact, I'd call the odds at least two to one against that probability. When four people in the same house die that way, however, I give up all ideas of coincidence. The odds against it mount into the hundreds to one.
“The only thing left to look for are the motive and the method employed. The motive was easy to find; your family possesses three or four millions, and that is enough ever to make the host of your poor relations quite comfortable.
“The method was harder. It was inconceivable that anyone could enter the house and administer any sort of poison at night; the fact that you had changed servants often eliminated them from consideration. That the deed had been done at night was fairly simple; all except Esther Stearns had sought the air, and she, being feeble, might easily have tried and failed to rise from bed, even. Your father and one brother had complained of feeling stuffy; your other brother felt the same symptoms come on later in the day.
“Now what kind of poison and what kind of apparatus could bring about such a result? The stuffy feelings pointed directly at gas. What kind of gas, then, would kill but not until some time after inhaling? There is practically only one answer—arsine. One good whiff of this horrible agent is fatal, and it does not kill until six hours, at least, after taking—that is, unless the person happens to be in a very weak condition. Sometimes it takes as long as six days. You see, that accounted for the game of golf, the automobile accident and the desire of your last brother to get out into the air when he was dancing.
“I remembered then that Tom Braithwaite, the regular August visitor you mentioned, had been one of the men in that can company case. Arsine! The connection was almost too obvious!
“Then only remained the apparatus used and the manner of its placing. Clockwork first occurred to me, but I dismissed it even before we arrived out here; clocks won't run from August to October without stopping.
“Bbut why had it all happened in October? I could think of no reason at all unless the first frosts had something to do with it. That is why I sent for the weather reports. During each of the years of the murders, the fatal nights were the nights of the first severe frosts!”
“My God!” ejaculated Crosby. “Well, the rest was simple. I knew that the expansion of some fluid must have been the 'alarm clock' I was looking for, and so it was. The little beaker with sulphuric acid was balanced in the teacup in such a way that the contents, when the water in the cup froze, were splashed into the little flask. The flask contained just a very little pure arsenic and zinc shavings. This generated arsine gas for about five minutes—more than enough to kill fifty men. Because the gas is so heavy, it filtered out through tiny crevices and fell down to the bed below. The sleeper inhaled it without even knowing that he had been poisoned, and then the gas crept along the floor until it was diffused and gone. I knew that there must be a place for it in the outside wall above the bed; the rough log walls made that part of it very easy for your estimable uncle. There is one of those little cupboards of death in each of the three chambers.
“I had you invite these people out because I knew they would try to get rid of you—the only remaining obstacle—just as quickly as they could. Your cousin Hal is no criminal; he is just rather simple. Well, that's about all. I guess.”
“And there comes the Mangan Hills Black Maria for the murderers, I believe,” I said, motioning at an official wagon, swinging in on the gravel.
“May God have mercy on their souls!” said Crosby solemnly.