The Spider Strikes/Chapter 18
Wentworth, arrived in his apartment, took Selwyn directly to the music room and made him lie down upon a lounge and rest. The young man was still weak and faint, and only an excellent constitution had permitted him to bear up as he had done after what he had gone through.
"A cup of hot bouillon, Jenkyns," Wentworth directed the butler, "and ask Miss Canfield if she will be kind enough to come here."
And a little later this strange man, who fought and sometimes killed without a qualm, sat upon the organ bench with his back to the young couple on the lounge. The blinds were drawn and a soft, rosy light flooded the room from concealed lamps. Low, gentle music came from the pipes of the organ— music that could enter a young girl's heart. Sometimes Wentworth used the rheostat, under the keyboard, to alter the lighting so that it suited the mood of the music he was playing. He did not speak at all and there was very little conversation upon the lounge where Dorothy sat beside her Jack and occasionally held a spoonful of bouillon to his lips.
It was such a moment as this which gave to Wentworth that peculiar satisfaction which rivaled the thrill he experienced in moments of violent combat and great danger. There were two opposing sides to his character and probably neither side could exist without the other.
"He is wonderful," whispered Dorothy. "I wish I could sit here for ever and ever— with you, Jack."
And that was the feeling that Richard Wentworth intended Dorothy to feel.
But there were other things for Wentworth to do. His friend the inspector had much to talk about in the library. A report of Sparks' murder had been telephoned from Police Headquarters.
"Were you in Dr. Quornelle's house?" the inspector wanted to know. "What were you doing there, Mr. Wentworth?"
"Why the devil did you turn that young reporter loose?" Wentworth countered. "You sent him to his death."
"The charge against him wasn't serious, Mr. Wentworth, and he seemed to be a friend of yours. By the way, here's your rapier stick. It's a beauty, but it's against the law."
Wentworth smiled and tossed the stick to Ram Singh who was passing at the moment. "The law is sometimes a dangerous enemy to freedom," he remarked. "Have you picked up Dr. Quornelle yet?"
"Not yet. An old caretaker, sweeping up in front of the house, said that he had been employed there for about a year but had never seen Dr. Quornelle. The house has been closed for a long time, you know."
"I should advise you to check up on that old caretaker," said Wentworth. "But I shall wager that you never find him again."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because the old caretaker was Dr. Quornelle."
The inspector looked hard at Wentworth, saw that he was in earnest and dashed for a telephone.
Nita van Sloan sent word to Wentworth suggesting that he join her for breakfast. He found her in the dining room busy with a grapefruit.
"Dick, what is this all about? I feel that there is some big thing, back of it all, that none of us knows anything about. Am I right?"
"Yes." Wentworth was quietly emphatic. "There is something very big behind it all. Very soon an attempt will be made to perpetrate one of the greatest crimes which history could record. I now know the name of the criminal, and I know what he is going to try to do although I do not yet know how he hopes to do it. In just a little while I shall be able to explain everything to you. In the meantime there may be another woman— a bit off color. Do you mind?"
Nita tried to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of impending danger. "Not if she is interesting," she said. "A lot of women in the world are a bit off color, Dick."
"But this one is a bad egg."
"So? Well if she is necessary, I'll put up with her."
From the doorway Ram Singh was beckoning, and Wentworth left the dining room quickly. He found Professor Brownlee in the library. The old man's eyes were gleaming with excitement.
"I've got it!" the professor exclaimed, then dropped his voice very low as they sat close together. "It's a beauty! The idea came to me like a flash. All the best ideas come that way."
"Good!" Wentworth looked expectant. "What is it?"
From his pocket the professor took a cigarette lighter and placed it in Wentworth's hand. "You can't see the junction of the secret compartment," he explained. "It is covered with varnish which is the same color as the metal. One twist and it opens, but of course you have to break the coating of varnish to do it."
"Very clever, but is that all?" asked Wentworth.
"That is just the beginning," the professor replied enthusiastically. "The hidden cavity is air tight, the varnish having been put on in a vacuum. The design on the die is done on a thin film which entirely dissipates thirty seconds after the air strikes it."
"Excellent!" exclaimed Wentworth appreciatively, slipping the lighter into his pocket.
Suddenly the pleasure died out of Professor Brownlee's face. He loved Dick Wentworth, the Dick of the old college days, and he feared that the younger man might not always succeed in the dangerous things he did.
"Ever think of getting married, Dick?" he asked rather wistfully. "There's a lot in that cottage and honeysuckle idea, you know. It might even work with a Park Avenue apartment and orchids— with the right girl."
Wentworth's face, too, was a little wistful. "Some day perhaps, Professor," he answered with a touch of sadness in his voice. "Some day, but— not yet!"
They were interrupted by Jenkyns. It was a telephone call. Wentworth took it on the telephone in the library which he reached from where he sat beside the professor.
"This is Madame Pompé — Corinne." Wentworth was very cordial and expressed himself as being delighted to hear her throaty, fascinating voice once more. He even used her first name with friendly intimacy.
"I'm in terrible trouble," she explained. "He beat me until I told him that I had promised to visit you tonight. Then he said that he would strangle me if I went near you."
Wentworth appropriately expressed his sorrow for her and his anger toward the man who had abused her. He suggested that she inform the police and ask for their protection.
"Oh!" she moaned heartrendingly. "I can't! I can't! The police could never protect me. I'm terrified of him and I don't know what to do. Won't you help me, Mr. Wentworth? Won't you protect me — Dick?"
Wentworth winced at her use of his first name, but he felt nevertheless that she was probably in serious trouble — perhaps in real danger. Anybody connected with such a man as Dr. Quornelle must always be in danger.
"What do you suggest?" he asked. "I can't take you to Europe at the present time, you know."
"Please help me," she pleaded, her voice shaking. "I'll do anything you say. If you will only help me, I'll tell you his real name. I'll tell it to you now over the telephone."
"My dear lady," returned Wentworth, "I know his real name, and he knows that I know it. His name is Dr. Sylvester Quornelle."
She did not reply, but just sobbed with that deep, seductive voice of hers which had made such a hit in radio singing.
He interrupted. "Listen, Corinne! Come over this evening as you promised and I'll see what I can do for you." After all, he felt that he might be somewhat to blame for her situation and he could hardly stand by and let her be murdered.
"I can't!" she exclaimed. "I would be dead before I reached you if I tried to come in the evening. My only chance is to come in the afternoon. Please save me and I'll do anything in the world for you — Dick."
Again he winced at the use of his first name, but his voice seemed to express his pleasure. "All right, Corinne. Come over this afternoon if you can get away. And, by the way— "
"Bring an overnight bag."
"An overnight bag?"
Wentworth replaced the telephone upon the table.
"Now what the devil did she think I meant?" he grumbled as if he didn't know.
Jack Selwyn was put to bed. A long sleep was what he most needed to restore his strength. Nita and Dorothy were visiting in Nita's bedroom with Apollo as additional company. Stanley Kirkpatrick, Commissioner of Police of New York, lay very still upon his bed, but insisted upon talking briefly with the secretaries who came and went.
Wentworth was a little surprised to receive a request to visit the Commissioner and found the patient looking remarkably well. It seemed as though the doctors had been mistaken about the seriousness of his hurt, but they still maintained that it would be too great a risk to move him from the apartment for several days.
Commissioner Kirkpatrick was quite well enough to talk.
"Wentworth," he said rather sharply, "I have received a report of a killing on an old pier down at the foot of West 96th Street. The dead man has the seal of the Spider upon his forehead, and he was killed before the arrival of the ship which is supposed to be bringing the Spider to New York."
"Remarkable!" exclaimed Wentworth, lighting a cigarette from the lighter which had been given to him by Professor Brownlee. "I am so busy with this new case that I can't very well help you about the Spider just now." He held the lighter for a moment in his hand, looking at it speculatively.
"I see that you have a new lighter," said the Commissioner, frowning.
Wentworth looked inquiringly at Kirkpatrick. "Would you care to examine it?" he asked, extending the lighter toward the man on the bed.
"No, thank you." The refusal was a bit crisp. "You would scarcely offer it to me if there were anything incriminating connected with it."
"On the contrary," replied Wentworth, smiling, "that is exactly what I would do in order to make you think exactly what you are thinking now."
The Commissioner remained silent. Undoubtedly he was again slightly suspicious of Wentworth. But it was plain that he had nothing further to say, and Wentworth withdrew.
Madame Pompé arrived late in the afternoon and was shown to her room by the more and more surprised Jenkyns, who was not at all accustomed to working in homes which admitted so flamboyant a lady as the ex-radio singer.
Wentworth had found Dorothy and told her about the arrival of Madame Pompé. "Treat her as if she had never twisted your arm," he said. "Just act as though you had never seen her before. Can you do it?"
Dorothy thought that she could act that way if Wentworth wished it. She had such faith in the man that his wish was law to her.
It was just before dinner that the unusual party first assembled, for cocktails in the music room. Selwyn was still in bed, as was the Commissioner, but Nita and Dorothy were present, together with Wentworth and the inspector, to welcome Madame Pompé.
Madame Pompé seemed quite composed and carried herself very well indeed after a slight start upon beholding Dorothy Canfield. She did, however, seem a little uncomfortable physically, moving restlessly and bending forward so that she did not lean against the back of her chair.
"Is that chair not comfortable, Madame Pompé?" asked Wentworth. "May I get you another one?"
"It isn't the chair," she replied. "This gown is not cut very low behind, but you can pull it out some and look down if you want to know what the trouble is."
With this remarkable statement, she removed a light scarf from her shoulders and turned her back for inspection. Although the dress was not cut extremely low behind, it was quite low enough to present an amazing spectacle.
Wentworth glanced at her back and rose to his feet to avail himself of the permission for further inspection. He pulled out the dress as suggested and actually used his flashlight so that he could examine her back almost down to the waist. He beckoned to the inspector, who joined him and also peered down.
The sight of two men peering down a lady's back by means of a flashlight made Dorothy Canfield's eyes almost pop out of her head. It amused Nita beyond words and she had great difficulty in refraining from laughter.
"My dear," Nita said to Madame Pompé, "it must be quite interesting. I do hope that it is not for men only."
"Have a look," Madame Pompé offered. "I don't mind."
Nita joined the two men in the act of peering down a lady's back by means of a flashlight. All three stared silently. Great red welts, almost bleeding, striped Madame Pompé's back as far down as the flashlight could reach and appeared to extend further.
"They go all the way down to my heels," Madame Pompé said. "I was lying on my stomach, without a stitch of clothing, when he lashed me."
"Who lashed you?" snapped the inspector. "Dr. Sylvester Quornelle."
"Why didn't you inform the police?"
"I was afraid that he would kill me," she explained, "and I waited till I got over here where I would be safe."
"But why did he do this to you?" the inspector questioned.
Madame Pompé shrugged a shoulder toward Wentworth. "Jealous," she said meaningly.
"Dear Madame Pompé," Nita said, "we are all dreadfully sorry. Let me give you another cocktail."
Wentworth and the inspector withdrew a little and conversed in low tones. The woman seemed to have been hideously beaten. It would seem as though her motive in coming to them must be genuine. Yet Wentworth found it difficult to believe that he had caused Dr. Quornelle to give way to the furies of jealousy. He remembered that Mr. X, or Dr. Quornelle, had entered the room while Madame Pompé was apparently in his arms with her lips pressed hard against his, and the doctor had not given way to fury at the sight.
For a few minutes, just before dinner was announced, Wentworth sat upon the music bench and played soft music, talking to Nita with the music as he had done with the violin by ship-to-shore telephone. At the very last, for a few seconds only, the music became violent and Nita knew that a crisis was at hand. What it was she could not tell. But she felt the hint of danger, of tempestuous action, in the organ chords.
And at dinner Nita knew that she had read the music correctly. To the surprise of everybody Wentworth did not come to the table.
As dinner commenced Wentworth, assisted by Ram Singh, was rapidly changing from evening to day clothes. He was going upon an errand which was sure to be dangerous and might well be his last. Ram Singh, too, was dressed for the occasion in dark clothes and heavy shoes. Silently they left the apartment together, without informing anybody regarding their destination.
Dinner, a rather silent affair, was half over when Madame Pompé excused herself to go to her room for a handkerchief. She returned immediately, and it was a few minutes later that excitement and consternation broke loose in the apartment.
Jenkyns was serving the roast when it occurred. A violent explosion brought everybody to their feet in sudden alarm. The inspector rushed from the dining room in the direction of the alarming sound, which seemed to have come from one of the bedrooms. He was followed by every policeman in the apartment, all of them clustering around the door of Madame Pompé's room from which smoke seemed to be issuing.
In the excitement Madame Pompé and Nita ran into the hall, but hesitated to go farther, leaving little Dorothy rather terrified in the dining room. Suddenly Madame Pompé twisted a pungent cloth around Nita's head, covering her mouth. Nita choked and half swooned as the more powerful woman opened the front door and dragged her into the hall.
The elevator, which came almost instantly when Madame Pompé rang, took them down without any stop, took them past the ground floor into the basement. Out through the service entrance Nita was dragged by Madame Pompé and the elevator man. Almost losing consciousness, she found herself in a taxi, seated between her two captors.
The elevator man unbuttoned his uniform, took off his cap and began to rub some makeup from his face.
"My dear Miss Van Sloan," he said, "please accept Dr. Quornelle's apology for the roughness of your removal. But please remember that you will be handled much more roughly if you make any resistance or attempt an outcry!"