The Question Mark

The Question Mark  (1924) 
by Octavus Roy Cohen
Extracted from Collier's magazine, 23 Feb. 1924, pp. 5-6, 33-35. Accompanying illustrations by E. F. Ward omitted.

Born a gentleman, reared a gentleman—a good fellow withal—sought socially, member of the city's three best clubs, fairly prominent in the business world, single, popular … that was Walter McBride at thirty-two years of age; that was Walter McBride as he was this day when he set calmly out to kill Dennis Morgan.

The Question Mark

By Octavus Roy Cohen

IN one hand Walter McBride held a 38-caliber revolver; in the other, five cartridges. He placed the cartridges on the table, spun the cylinder of the revolver, and pulled the trigger five times on the empty chambers. Five sharp metallic clicks rewarded his efforts, and he nodded in grim satisfaction.

McBride was rather amazed at his freedom from emotion in view of the fact that within an hour he planned to take a human life. Two or three times in the past he had permitted his imagination to amuse him with speculation regarding his reactions should homicidal necessity ever arise, and until this stern moment he had firmly believed that his nerves would be jumpy, his heart action uneven, and himself thoroughly frightened.

Now, however, he found himself experiencing no particular internal seethe. His hand was steady, his thought processes crystal-clear, his brain normally receptive to impressions. Perhaps, he reflected, this condition was fathered by the fact that the homicide which he proposed to commit was ethically justifiable.

Walter McBride did not plan to do murder. He realized, of course, that a cold-blooded jury, reviewing the facts some months later, might decide that he had exceeded his authority as a citizen and a gentleman by ridding the earth of a person whose existence he knew to be a positive detriment to the community, but just at the moment McBride was not weighing consequences. Circumstances—and a rigid code of decency—had forced upon him the extremely distasteful rôle of executioner, and he completed his preparations with scrupulous attention to detail.

He replaced in the bathroom medicine cabinet the small bottle of machine oil which he had used in cleaning the revolver, threw into the waste basket the piece of flannel which had been employed in the same task. He broke the weapon, slipped the freshly greased cartridges into their chambers, snapped the catch again, held the thing in his palm, and regarded it speculatively before slipping it unemotionally into his hip pocket. Then he donned hat and overcoat, stepped from his apartment into the elevator, and thence into the street, where he elected to walk the twelve blocks which separated his apartment house from that of the man whom he was about to kill.

THE little old man at the corner news stand greeted McBride cheerily, and received a smile and a nod in answer. And the little old man gazed rather affectionately after the trim, well-tailored figure, never dreaming that the young man was doing anything more portentous than indulging in an afternoon walk.

Certainly there was nothing in the appearance or demeanor of young McBride to indicate that the mission upon which he was bent was other than innocuous. Rather good to look appearance or demeanor of young McBride to indicate that the mission upon which he was bent was other than innocuous. Rather good to look upon, there was yet little in his physical appearance to differentiate him from scores of other successful young business men. He was of medium height, athletic in appearance, quietly and tastefully dressed, clean-shaven, and—altogether—absolutely without distinctiveness. His friends and associates knew that he possessed marked strength of character and decidedly individual characteristics; but to the casual observer of indifferent acquaintance he was merely another young American business man who was, perhaps, rather more idealistic than the run of his fellows, yet whose chief claim to distinction was his amazing normalcy. Born a gentleman, reared a gentleman—a good fellow withal—sought socially, member of the city's three best clubs, fairly prominent in the business world, single, popular … that was Walter McBride at thirty-two years of age; that was Walter McBride as he was this day when he set calmly out to kill Dennis Morgan.

He walked swiftly, with a free-hipped, swinging stride. He reached the rather ornate and pretentious apartment house in which Morgan maintained a bachelor suite. Morgan lived on the second floor; the elevator was not at the moment in evidence, so McBride mounted the stairs, tried the knob of Morgan's door, felt it give to the touch—and walked in.

He found Morgan in the rather too luxuriously furnished living room. At sight of the large, pudgy man in his flowered dressing gown, a cigarette held loosely between pursy lips, colorless eyes blinking at him over the top of an evening newspaper, McBride's original sensation of disgust and unappeasable outrage came again upon him, and he knew that he was glad he had undertaken the task immediately before him.

Morgan too was well-born; he too was a bachelor, a member of good clubs, but he was a thorough rotter. Men despised and women feared him. He was a lecher, a philanderer; a smooth, unctuous, obtrusive individual who was a disgrace to the family name, which stood well upon the city's social register.

Morgan was much given to friendships in the underworld; he claimed as intimates a score or more of men and women whose means of livelihood were exceedingly shady, and they fed upon him like leeches. He was a man utterly without morals of any sort, devoid of ethical standards, and for a year or more McBride had known that it was Dennis Morgan who supplied to a shrieking local scandal sheet some of its most unsavory morsels.

This publication—Blair's 'Spotlight'—was a particularly obnoxious thing; a stench in the nostrils of a decent community. Its publisher delighted to devastate and seldom resorted to blackmail or accepted hush money. And he was usually so nearly right in his presentation of facts and so diabolically clever in his skirting of the libel laws that his sheet flourished. It was Blair's boast that his nasty little magazine could be found in the city's best homes—and it was his boast, too, that he was the most feared man in the State.

MORGAN lowered his paper slowly. A slight pallor bleached his red dish complexion. His fishlike eyes blinked uncertainly beneath the level, uncompromising stare of his unannounced visitor. He fidgeted uncomfortably and struggled to make his greeting casual. “Hello, Mac.”

McBride's head inclined slowly, but McBride's eyes did not waver. “Good evening, Morgan.”

Then came a pregnant silence: once returned more the redness to Morgan's cheeks.

The heavy-set man seemed to feel the tensity of the situation; a peculiar chill pervaded the room.

“Have a seat,” invited Morgan, with attempted casualness. McBride shook his head slowly. “No. I didn't come for that.”

“What—what did you come for?”

Walter McBride's lips pressed against each other to the point of physical pain. He became conscious of the fact that his astounding calm was deserting him now that the moment for action had come. He realized that his heart was thumping like that of a runner at the end of a long, heartbreaking grind, that his eyes were curtained and that it was necessary to spread his legs slightly to control the swaying tendency of his body.

That was all: beyond that he gave evidence of no emotion; he seemed calm and unperturbed and rather deadly. Nor was there any instinct to turn back or to reconsider the step which he was about to take. Mere sight of the beet-faced man in the easy-chair fanned the flames of his bitter hatred and unquenchable contempt; a sense of righteousness pervaded him and, quite unconsciously, he hunched his shoulders slightly and thrust his head forward the merest fraction of an inch.

“I've read to-day's issue of the 'Spotlight,'” he announced in a voice curiously flat and even.

Again the color drained from Morgan's cheeks. “Well,” he said with a pallid attempt at belligerence: “What of it?”

“They are carrying a story about Mary and Dick Bonham: it is a rotten, putrid thing.”

“I don't know what you're talking about.”

“That's a lie—and you know I know it's a lie. The circumstances were peculiar: very. On that sort of evidence Mary hasn't a chance. And, Morgan, aside from Mary and Bonham, there are only two persons in the world who knew of that perfectly innocent occurrence: one is myself and the other is you.”


“Yes—you. It was you and I who stumbled across them in the hotel where they had been driven by a storm and a puncture. I was rather amused; you were apparently not interested. But the story in the 'Spotlight' details absolutely what you and I saw. Mary's reputation is a choice morsel on the tongue of every scandalmonger in the city this afternoon. Everybody who knows her knows that the thing is a lie. But that does not deter them from mouthing it around. The fact that there is not a scintilla of truth behind the rotten innuendo makes no difference.”

Walter McBride paused. Beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead, and he felt his nerves jumping like electric wires.

“Before I go any farther let me tell you that the minute the story appeared Bonham went to Mary and asked her to marry him. She refused. Less than an hour later I asked her to marry me. Again she refused. It may interest you to know also that Mary and I have been engaged secretly for more than six months. But she refused to marry me to-day because she thought my renewed proposal was a desperate attempt to save some shred of her reputation. I'm merely telling you about our engagement so you will understand that I have come to you to-day as a matter of duty and of right.”

Dennis Morgan cleared his throat—his question came weakly and through dry lips. “I really don't see, Walter, what I have to do with all of this.”

“That too is a lie. I have known for some time that you were the source of a great many of the particularly rotten stories which the 'Spotlight' printed: why, God only knows. You have money and position. It's probably just that nasty, perverted twist to your mind. And if that alone had not been sufficient to arouse my suspicion, you forget that you—and only you—in addition to myself, knew the circumstances published in the 'Spotlight.' We saw Bonham in Mary's room—and we both knew that there was nothing in the situation that there should not be. You're a rotter, Dennis; a worse rotter and a more contemptible coward than I ever believed a man could be. Now, tell me: why did you pass that story over to the 'Spotlight?'”

“I haven't admitted that I did.”

“That isn't necessary.”

Morgan rose slowly from his chair. He was not a physical coward—couldn't, as a matter of fact, understand why he had been so excessively nervous since McBride's entrance. His fat lips curled back into a sneer. “Well, if you're so damned wise—”

“You passed that story along to Blair, didn't you?”

“You say that I did.”

“Are you afraid to admit it?”

Anger mounted in Morgan's breast. His face grew purplish with a sudden fury which was more confounding because it was unaccountably late in coming. “I'm not afraid to admit anything, Walter. It's none of your damned business what I did or what I do. Yes, I saw Mary down there with Bonham; and yes, I gave the facts to Blair. Blair printed nothing but the facts: he left it to the public to draw its own conclusions. I have no doubt Mary was deliciously innocent, hut it didn't look that way. And now”—he poked his head forward as he fired the question—“what in hell are you going to do about it?”

McBride stared amazedly. It was inconceivable that even consuming anger could drive the man to such an admission. His voice was quite steady as he answered Morgan's question. “I'm going to kill you,” he said evenly.

Morgan laughed. “Don't make me sick,” he sneered. “You talk like a dime novel. Going to kill me! …” Then his eyes opened wide and he stepped away in sudden horror. “Put that damned gun away, Mac. Put it away!”

THE eyes of the two men met, and at the message which Dennis Morgan read he cringed; slumped like a wet towel which has been flung in the corner.

“Wait—Mac! For God's sake! Think of the consequences.”

“I've thought of them: I don't care.”

“But, Mac—” …

Walter McBride was very much surprised that the revolver made no greater noise: he had expected a terrific amount of reverberation in such a small room. And he remembered long afterward the expression of surprise on the face of Dennis Morgan as he turned slowly and then pitched forward. He remembered too—remembered vividly—the pungent odor of gunpowder—and then he found himself staring at the gun and wondering what to do with it.

He decided to place it on the table, then changed his mind and slipped it back into his hip pocket.

Peculiar that he was no more excited over the taking of a human life. He stood in the middle of the room waiting for the other residents of the apartment to come charging in. He was glad that it had seen done this way: it would be better for them to take the revolver from him and summon the police.

He was a trifle ill in the presence of the body. Ill, but not regretful. Even yet he did not see that he could have done otherwise. The man on the floor was worse than a wrecker of homes: he was a destroyer of reputations, a man who had worked devastatingly from ambush.

And so Walter McBride awaited the coming of neighbors: waited for them with a peculiarly detached and impersonal curiosity. What would they say? What would they do? When they questioned him—well, he'd ask them to phone the police. Better tell the police about it—he was surprised to realize that he hadn't considered what he was going to tell the police. Rotten thing to bandy Mary's name around police headquarters. Filthy mess, anyway. But it was necessary, not for himself—to the devil with the consequences so far as he was concerned: he had appointed himself executioner and was indifferent to results. Morgan had merely gotten what was coming to him—just deserts, and all that sort of thing. But as to Mary—well, the public was talking, talking vilely, tearing the girl's reputation to pieces on the rack of circumstantial evidence. Better, perhaps, to tell what was what and insert a wedge of doubt in the bitter condemnation of the public. Only he and the dead man knew of the thing—barring only Bonham, and even Bonham didn't know that Dennis Morgan had been an underworld intimate of Blair's.

Now the neighbors were coming. … Why the devil didn't they come? McBride grew impatient. Five minutes—fifteen maybe—passed, and there was no commotion in the apartment building: no rapping at the door, no surge of excited witnesses into the room. A faint doubt assailed him. Was it possible that the shot had not been heard? No, that was impossible. It must have been heard.

Another five minutes. Ten. Fifteen. It was mighty awkward and uncomfortable in the room: one does not overly relish the society of the body of the man whom one has just killed—no matter how justifiable that killing. McBride found it necessary to take a grip upon his overwrought nerves. They were leaping and crawling—now that the thing was over.

SO the neighbors had not heard. Perhaps he'd better tell them. No—that was silly: cheap. Thing to do was telephone the police. Hello—headquarters: this is Walter McBride—I've just shot Dennis Morgan. … He walked unsteadily across the room to the telephone, turning the words over in his mind. Wonder what police headquarters number is? Not necessary: book says just ask for police. He'd do that. Picked up the telephone; then without thought he put it down. Difficult to deliver oneself to the authorities. Quite all right for them to take him—he hadn't committed a moral crime, no matter what any jury might decide. But certainly it was not up to him to invite the police.

He determined that he would wait until the police came for him. It was inevitable that they would do so. Then he'd smile and admit the deed. Of course I killed him: somebody had to do it, and I did. Self-defense? No—just a plain execution. Why? Well, that was easily explained. …

He decided definitely he would wait for the police—but not here. The room was close and stifling and unbearable. Best thing to do: get out. No hiding—they'd find him all right enough. … He walked down the hall, out of the door. He descended the stairs. The (illegible text)mmagem lobby was empty. He reached the street and turned homeward. Nobody anywhere around. Queer about that. Then he passed two men, but they didn't even glance his way. A policeman on the second corner apparently didn't know he was there. Funny! Seemed as though a policeman must know instinctively that he had just killed a man. He walked on, his thoughts chaotic; awfully queer the sense of relief which pervaded him: he had killed Dennis Morgan anticipating arrest and trial. Without pausing to weigh his chances of safety, he had yet realized that the possibility of conviction was slight, for juries are ever ready to applaud the man who acts as executioner under the unwritten law—and in this particular case the unwritten law came into play more forcibly than usual, for Mary was innocent: in a hotel room with Dick Bonham—seen there by Morgan and McBride—both Bonham and Mary so innocent of even the evil thought of others that they had laughed about it: automobile trip, rainstorm, puncture, hotel—and Bonham had gone to her room to see if she was ready for dinner.

A certain number of those facts printed starkly and insinuatingly in Blair's “Spotlight” had effectually robbed the girl of all shred of character. And Walter McBride had killed the man who was responsible.

HE reached his apartment and sat stiffly in a chair. Thoughts were beginning to right themselves: to become ideas rather than impressions. He lighted a pipe. He reviewed again the details of the case and the impulse which had actuated him. As yet no tinge of regret had come: unwritten law or no unwritten law; conviction by jury or no conviction. As Mary's fiancé he had done only what he believed any man would have done.

Of course they would connect him with the case, and then he'd tell. Very simple. Or else the body would be found and some one suspected: he'd step forward then with the truth. But somehow, while he did not fear the consequences of his deed, the instinct of self-preservation deterred him from voluntarily handing himself over to the police.

He dined alone that night at the City Club. His favorite waiter hovered about solicitously until he irritably informed the man that he wasn't ill; merely not hungry. But he did take vast quantities of black coffee and he smoked innumerable cigars. He waited at the club until ten o'clock, when the morning newspaper issued its bulldog edition, and felt relieved and surprised that it contained no mention of the shooting.

He slept that night with the aid of an anodyne. He telephoned for his coffee and the regular morning edition. That too proved barren of news. He had slept late and on his way to the office he obtained a noon edition of one of the evening papers, and there, shrieking at him across eight columns of the first page, was the announcement of Dennis Morgan's death.

He bought a copy of the other evening paper and secluded himself in his private office, denying himself to visitors on plea of important business. And there he read the details.

Morgan's body had been discovered by the maid who was employed to keep his apartment and cook his meals. She let herself into the apartment at the usual time and proceeded directly to the kitchen. It was not until she went into the dining room to set the breakfast table that she had seen the huddled thing on the floor. …

The best detectives in the city were on the case, but already they confessed themselves baffled. Of course they had suspicions …. not ready to issue a statement yet. … Not suicide, of course; no weapon found. Besides, the shot had not been fired sufficiently close for the flame to scorch the clothing. As to the dead man, he was socially prominent and popular—if he had enemies, neither the newspapers nor the police department knew of them, or, if they did, made no mention of the fact.

They were convinced that the shooting had occurred during the early part of the night: that it had happened the previous afternoon did not suggest itself to them. There were no clues. The popular theory seemed to be that it was a meticulously prepared murder; certainly the absence of evidence was an indication of careful prearrangement.

READING and rereading the newspaper articles, Walter McBride marveled. So far from having planned for safety, the shooting had been done with the idea of attracting as much attention as possible. He realized now that his very indifference, his utter carelessness, was responsible for the lack of clues: he was unsuspected because he didn't care.

Of course he knew that he should go to the police and tell his story; but that, after all, seemed an unnecessary stepping into jeopardy. His position was unusual—highly puzzling: willing to face the consequences, having planned in advance to do so, he now found unnecessary. He decided to wait and was amazed by the recognition of a well-defined hope that he would not be connected with Morgan's death.

The city buzzed with excitement. The shooting furnished excellent newspaper copy, both because of its mystery and because of the victim's prominence. Those who knew ill of the deceased did not speak it … no one connected his death with the recent scandal involving Mary Caveny and Dick Bonham. As a matter of fact, had either been suspected, the suspicions would have died a-bornin'; for both were able to account for every minute of their time during that twenty-four hours; each having been surrounded by friends who sought in the hour of trouble to prove their loyalty in the face of vicious gossip. Bonham had spent the night with friends: an intimate of Mary's had been with her.

But their perfect alibis were not needed, for no one—save the Gargantuan and filthy-minded proprietor of the “Spotlight”—knew of Morgan's connection with the sheet; and what Blair knew he kept to himself. Even he did not know that Walter McBride had been present on the occasion of the dead man's discovery of the suggested scandal.

Nor did anyone know that for six months Mary Caveny and Walter McBride had been engaged. She was one of the most popular girls in the younger set and, so far as their acquaintances knew, he was merely one of her many intimate friends.

The day the scandal was flung to the public, he asked her to marry him. Her refusal had been based upon the hypothesis that he was doing it to save some portion of her reputation. Then he asked that she permit their engagement to be made public, and that also she refused. She was a prideful girl, stunned by this calamity, not knowing whence the blow had been struck, but game enough to bear her cross alone.

The second day after the killing, McBride read in the morning paper that the maid in Morgan's apartment had been arrested on suspicion. He made ready to give himself up—but by the time the evening editions went to press the maid was free. And so Walter did nothing. Two men were held as suspicious characters, but they also cleared themselves without any particular difficulty, and within a week the police admitted they knew nothing and the newspapers had relegated the story to the inside pages—all save one of the evening dailies which was at war with the police department and used the killing as a weapon of ridicule: a police department unable to solve so simple and crude a crime as this! The newspaper made it gall and wormwood to the chief and the detective force—caused them to develop a bitter personal animosity against the murderer who had furnished their enemy newspaper with such destructive ammunition.

But they discovered nothing. As a matter of fact, the more deeply they probed into the affair, the greater grew their bewilderment. Within ten days the Police Department reluctantly threw up its hands and admitted the crime was unsolvable. But the members of the plain-clothes force received a scathing lecture from the chief. They were instructed to find out something, no matter how long their quest.

During that ten days Walter McBride lived in a mental turmoil which was a queer admixture of elation and depression. His relations with Mary Caveny were distinctly unnatural, but he was sure that no one noticed.

HE called frequently at her home, where he invariably found her surrounded by loyal friends who took this method of displaying their disbelief of the barrage of mud which was being flung at her by reason of the 'Spotlight's' noisome publicity. They were seldom alone, and then only for a few minutes at a time. Frequently he renewed his proposal of immediate marriage. Without hesitation she refused.

“I can't do it, dear. Not now, at any rate. No one knows that we are engaged, and people would construe our sudden marriage as a confession on my part—and a wild flight to the absolution which marriage confers.”

“That's rot, Mary. No one who knows you believes—”

“Perhaps not. But a good many who do not believe do enjoy talking as though they did. And there are thousands of people in town who don't know me and who do believe. I'd rather face this alone. Oh, how could anybody print such a vile thing?”

McBride scrupulously avoided mention of Dennis Morgan's death, save in the presence of others, and then he allowed himself to be drawn into its discussion only when silence might have been regarded as strange. Once or twice on such occasions he fancied that Mary's eyes were fixed speculatively upon him, but he discarded that idea as being the figment of an overwrought and hypersensitized imagination: of course he would think such a thing—and, besides, he was more than half sure that Mary knew that Dennis Morgan had been with him the night she had laughed over the humor of her plight in the hotel with Dick Bonham.

It was impossible, however, that Mary should suspect his complicity and make no mention of the fact. He found himself studying her more closely, wondering what was going on behind those big, serious brown eyes—knowing that she did not suspect, yet wondering.

Another week passed. McBride's nerves were becoming jumpy under the strain. He wished now that the neighbors had heard the lethal shot and that he had been arrested. Morally he had committed no criminal act, but he realized with something akin to horror that he was rapidly developing a criminal complex. He was free where he should not be free. The acrimony of the Police Department irritated and somewhat frightened him: he knew that things would not go smoothly with him should he be discovered now.

The prospect of facing the future under the burden of an eternal question mark was appalling. It was not the act he had committed which dismayed him, but the fact that it was hidden. It shouldn't have been hidden. He determined to interview the chief of police and make a clean breast of it. But quick and keen reflection showed him the impossibility of that. A man who avenges in the heat of passion and then delivers himself over to the police may be adequately protected by the unwritten law, but the man who shoots and then hides for three weeks loses the theatrical effect of the heroic gesture which can be made only immediately after the commission of the legal offense.

It was not that McBride feared punishment: he had killed Dennis Morgan in fine disregard of his own safety. But now he had barred the door behind himself—had made of himself a figure which was criminal per se, in that he had indicated the existence of something which demanded to be hidden.

Realization of his anomalous position brought with it a haunting fear: for the first time since the tragic day of his meeting with Morgan he began to be afraid of discovery; There was something appalling in the idea that he might at any moment be stopped on the street by a member of the police force and be taken into custody. A fine, cringing figure he'd cut then! Unwritten law! He envisioned the anathema which the enraged police department would hurl upon his head.

He took to brooding. Indecision—or rather the unwise decision which circumstances and a natural instinct had forced upon him—began to prey. Friends commented solicitously that he was not looking well, and he found that anodynes were becoming a nightly necessity. Once or twice he tried lying awake at night and decided definitely that the anodyne was preferable to the stark hours of wakeful blackness. He experienced all the terrible apprehension of a haunted man.

And then one morning a trifle less than a month after the killing of Dennis Morgan the telephone rang. The jangling of the bell excited a sympathetic response in his taut nerves. He fairly barked his “Hello” into the transmitter.


“Yes.” His face cleared as he recognized the voice. “Oh! It's you, Mary?”

“Yes. I want to see you for a few minutes. When can you come over?”

“Right away, dear.” A pause, and then: “You don't know how good it is to hear your voice.”

A HALF hour later they were together. She was sober-faced and unusually quiet. The past month had taken its toll of her spirits. Without the faintest suggestion of coquetry she came to the point. “About a month ago, Walter—when that article was published in the 'Spotlight'—you came to me and asked me to marry you.”


“You have repeated that proposal several times since. Do you wish to ask me again?”

“Mary—of course!”

She rose. “Very well, dear. We will be married this morning.”

He stood before her, hungry hands on her shoulders. And then doubt assailed him: what right had he to marry this girl with the cloud of uncertainty hovering over him? What right had he further to endanger her happiness? But the past month had taken from him the power of positive and immediate decision, and she left him alone in the room as she went to don coat and hat, and together they went to the courthouse, where they secured a marriage license. Less than two hours later they were married.

It was a rather somber affair. McBride was in a daze of uncertainty—until he realized suddenly that this girl was his wife and that he loved her—and in that moment he regained his powers of decision and knew that the cloud could not be permitted to hover always above them.

Eventually they were left alone, and it was then that he knew he must face the inevitable. He did not tell her where he was going or what he planned to do, and she accompanied him without question.

For the second time within the space of a few hours they went to the courthouse. He made his way to the office of the county solicitor, on the second floor, and sent in his card. Within five minutes they were bidden to enter.

It was a dingy office into which they were ushered; drab and ill-kept an somewhat decayed. It had been constructed years before, and ever since its building Roger Hardiman had been county solicitor.

As Hardiman rose from his desk to greet his visitors, the room lost its dingy drabness. He was tall and slender, with cameo features and hair which was impressively iron gray.

Roger Hardiman was an institution in the county: it was as though he held the office of county solicitor as an inalienable right. For eighteen years he had been solicitor and, so far as political forecasters were able to determine, he would hold it until his death. Usually he was unopposed at election time, and those who did occasionally offer against him found bitter regret the day after election.

He was a picturesque character: a man without a party, bound by no rigid political affiliations. He stood for decency and justice and mercy. There were those who said that he controlled the entire system of criminal jurisprudence in the county—and they were not far wrong—but he was adored by his constituents.

He came forward slowly, one hand outstretched to each. He radiated human kindness. In his deep-set eyes there was a warm, humorous twinkle and intense gravity. He bade them be seated and assured them that his time was theirs.

Walter McBride sat close to his wife, his hand in hers. On the threshold of confession, his nerves were steadier than they had been for weeks… .

“In the first place, Mr. Hardiman,” he stated simply, “Mary and I have just been married.”

“Congratulations. I'm proud of you, young man.”

“A month ago,” she interjected—“the day that horrible story appeared in Blair's 'Spotlight'—he proposed. But I couldn't marry him—just then.”

“I understand,” Hardiman nodded slowly. “You young folks are too prone to let the head govern the heart.”

“Not entirely.” It was McBride speaking. “That is why I have come to you to-day, Mr. Hardiman. I have a story to tell, and I want you and Mary to hear me through to the end without interruption. It is a difficult thing.”

“Go ahead, son—go right ahead. Take all the time you want.”

McBride started. He started nearly a year before, with the day when he realized that he was in love with Mary Caveny: he told night when, with Dennis Morgan, of the of their engagement; they happened to seek shelter from the storm in the same hotel which had offered sanctuary to Dick Bonham and the girl; of seeing them come out of the same room together; of their laughter over the situation. …

He told of his knowledge of Morgan's astounding connection with Blair's “Spotlight”; of the instant connection of Morgan with the publication of facts which were incontrovertibly damning; of his decision to kill Morgan and then of Morgan's belligerent confession and of the shooting.

He told of his intention to surrender to the police and of the strange concatenation of circumstances which left him a free man … and of his mental processes in the face of that phenomenon … and of how he found himself facing the knowledge that it was too late. Then of his realization that it was a condition which could not continue to prevail.

“And that, Mr. Hardiman, is the truth—and the whole truth. Here I am. My position to-day is distinctly the reverse of heroic, but no matter what happens, I feel better.”

As he finished talking it seemed that there was no sound in the room—no sound save the ticking of the big wall clock. … Mary's fingers tightened in his. …

ROGER HARDIMAN nodded briefly as McBride ceased talking. With out removing his eyes from those of the younger man, he reached out long slender fingers for pipe and tobacco. He struck a match and exhaled a cloud of the fragrant smoke. And then his voice came, resonant and infinitely gentle. “Son,” he said softly, “I'm all-fired glad to have heard this thing from your lips. It's a plumb interesting story.”

He paused—then went on as though speaking to himself: “I've been solicitor in this county for going on nineteen years. Chances are I'll be here nineteen more. In all that time I've never knowingly prosecuted a man who didn't deserve to be prosecuted. I may have been wrong sometimes—everybody is. But I've tried mighty hard to be fair and merciful. And I've learned to recognize truth.

“As to your story, son—I believe it. I believe every word of it. And somehow I couldn't bring myself to ask the Grand Jury to indict you for killing Morgan. And even if you were indicted I'm afraid what I know would sort of influence me to assist the defense counsel considerably when the case came up for trial.”

Again he paused. McBride and his wife were leaning forward eagerly.

“Yes, I'm glad you got this off your chest, Walter: it'll probably help you to sleep nights. Just try to forget it. I will.”

“You—you mean I'm free? I'm not even to be arrested?”

“Just that, son. And I'll tell you something else. This is the second time in the space of a week that I've heard that story. Of course I got some details from you that I didn't hear before, but it's the second time I have heard that you killed Dennis Morgan.”

“The second time?” Walter McBride bent forward in amazement. “Who in the world knew of it? Who told you the first time?”

And the solicitor smiled gravely as he designated the girl whose fingers were interlaced with McBride's. “Your wife,” he explained simply.

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 1959, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 63 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.