The Spider Strikes/Chapter 3
High up in the tower of Riverside Mansions, in a tiny apartment overlooking the Hudson River, a girl dreamed and worked with a Great Dane for a companion. It was not an expensive apartment, since it could only be reached by climbing stairs from the level where the elevators ended. But it suited Nita Van Sloan very well. It suited her purse, and she liked to paint the Palisades at sun-set, and soft, morning lights over the great river.
Sometimes, when mists hung low, blotting out the night lights of Manhattan, she and the huge dog seemed to sleep among the stars.
Apollo, the Great Dane, had been given to Nita when a pup, but he had never forgotten the man who had brought him to the tower apartment and placed his leash in the girl's hand. Sometimes when the man and girl were together he was still sorely troubled to know upon whose knees he should lay his massive head.
"This is Apollo, the bringer of sudden death," Richard Wentworth had said when he brought the overgrown puppy to the tower apartment. . .
Now, on a night when mists hung low upon the river, Nita lay asleep in her cubicle among the stars. Stretched upon a window seat the Great Dane also slept, or seemed to sleep. The dog's eyes were closed, but if he slept, he dreamed and not too pleasantly. Deep rumblings, seemingly of disapproval, issued occasionally from him and culminated in a stentorian bark which banished all sleep, or appearance of sleep, from the room.
Nita Van Sloan slipped green pajama-clad legs from her bed and crossed the room to sit beside the dog with an arm around his neck. In the soft light of the night, she was extremely pretty, and the dog was very handsome as he lifted his huge head a little to look into her eyes.
"What is it, old boy?" she asked. "Is our Dick in trouble?"
The dog gave a short bark, something he always did at the mention of that name when they were alone together. He left the window seat and crossed the room to return with a riding crop in his mouth. It was Richard Wentworth's riding crop, and the dog placed it across Nita's green-clad knees.
The girl took the crop in her hands and held it tightly. Her deep, blue eyes stared down upon the rolling clouds of mist over the river as if she sought for something beyond human comprehension. Presently she began to speak her thoughts aloud.
"I can hear music," she said softly. "Somewhere out in the world, he is playing his violin. He may be in Africa or in India or he may even be in New York City. One never knows, Apollo."
For a long time she sat upon the window seat, as if listening, while Apollo placed his forelegs beside her and his head against her knees... They were interrupted by the ringing of the telephone on the small table beside her bed.
She sped across the room, and the dog followed her alertly as if he knew that things sometimes happened suddenly when that bell sound came very late at night.
She had been thinking so intently about him that his voice came as no surprise. But she crushed the telephone to her ear in fear of missing any sound while she lay upon the bed listening. The dog placed his head near her pillow and she found it and fondled it unconsciously with her free hand.
Richard Wentworth was coming to New York and would arrive in two days. The news thrilled her. It had been six months since she had seen him, and the last time she had heard from him he had telephoned her from Paris to describe a rare piece of Oriental china which he had just bought.
Tonight he was not talking about Oriental china. He was talking to her in a way that a woman loves best, if she is listening to the one man in all the world. And he was speaking in French! Nita knew full well the mood of Dick Wentworth when he told her things in the French language.
"Ma mie," he said, "you are the repetition of a rare perfume mingled with unexpectedness. When the world is dry and dead you are a bubbling brook and, when the world is coarse and mad, you are a limpid pool in a forest glade. The secret reason for life lies in the touch of your lips and the feel of your arms."
He spoke continuously, giving her no chance to reply, as if he were filled with an urge which would not be denied. And through it all there was a wistful sadness in his voice betokening the possibility of menace, even disaster.
"Attendez, ma chere," he continued, "and I shall tell you what may not be expressed in words. I shall talk to you in the language of your soul."
There was a short pause. Then, through the ether and over the wires came the strains of a violin. Apollo may have heard the sound for he stood up to his full height with his forefeet up on the bed, listening. The girl lay very still, eyes closed.
Softly, with sweet seductiveness, came the strains of Caprice Viennois. The huge dog, transfixed, towered above the girl in the green pajamas, while, two days from shore, a man played a muted violin and voyaged upon the course of his destiny.
Then came the swift, shocking change. The sweetness of the haunting music was gone, and in its place was the crashing wildness and the devilish angriness of Tartini's great violin composition, The Devil's Trill.
Nita Van Sloan opened her eyes in horror while the dog bared his big teeth in anger at the sight of his mistress so upset. Perhaps the dog even caught the message of the angry chords.
The music ended and there was silence. Not another word came from the ship. Nita heard the click of the distant instrument terminating the connection. With a trembling hand she replaced her own telephone.
Nita Van Sloan was the only woman in the world who knew the secret of Richard Wentworth— the secret of his cigarette lighter. She also knew the secret of his violin playing and understood how he expressed his feelings and gave play to his emotions by the use of that instrument. It was no exaggeration that he could talk to her when he drew his bow across the strings, so well she knew him.
And now she knew that great danger had suddenly descended upon him while playing Caprice Viennois. She knew that he seldom told her when he was in danger. But she believed that, this time, he had had no opportunity to do so. Had his violin music been the automatic expression of his changed state of mind, or had he tried to send her a message— perhaps an appeal for help?
The front door bell sounded as Nita, very much worried and puzzled, sat upon the window seat with the dog.
Apollo lumbered to the door to see what manner of person called upon his mistress so late at night. Nita followed him and opened the door to find a telegraph boy, or what appeared to be a telegraph boy. She took the message. Apollo growled, and the boy ran— the first slight mistake of a great and cunning organization. The boy had not waited to obtain a signature!
GO QUICKLY TO MY APARTMENT AND DESTROY WHAT SHOULD BE DESTROYED.
Nita was completely puzzled. The message appeared to be a radiogram from an incoming ship and was signed "Richard Wentworth," but she knew of nothing in Wentworth's apartment which should be destroyed. Her mind immediately flashed to a certain article, an article she dreaded to think about. But she knew that Wentworth never allowed that article to leave his possession.
Again she read the message, pondering. She thought of something else. On the mantelpiece of Wentworth's music room was an old Ming vase, the rarest piece of Wentworth's collection of Chinese porcelain. In this case, she knew, he had placed some slight fragments of evidence which he had accumulated against a great and mysterious criminal, a man who was planning a crime that would shock the world. But Nita could not believe that Wentworth would wish her to destroy this evidence. It would be the last thing that he would wish destroyed.
Once again she read the message and noticed the signature. Never before had Wentworth sent her any message with a signature other than "Dick."
"Dick didn't send this message, old boy," she said to Apollo, "but we'll have to go just the same. Maybe it's from the underworld." She paused in thought. "Maybe it's from the police." She patted the dog's head. "Maybe we can do some good."
The great structure on Park Avenue, where Richard Wentworth lived when in town, was always fully staffed, day and night. And Nita was in some doubt regarding her ability to obtain admission to his rooms. She knew that it was practically an impossibility for a young woman to ascend, unannounced, in one of the elevators if she were not well known. She had a key to the apartment and power of attorney to act for Wentworth in his absence. But well trained servants might easily refuse to act upon a legal document until it had been passed upon by the agents of the building on the following day.
Nita entered this perfectly conducted building with some apprehension, although she held her head high and crossed the hall as though she had every right to do so.
To her intense surprise a stiff hall man bowed her in the direction of an elevator.
"Mistaken for somebody else," thought Nita and stepped into the elevator followed by Apollo.
Without any question the elevator man shot the car up to the floor she named. Nita noticed that his uniform did not seem to fit him very well. And as she stepped out of the elevator she decided that something was decidedly wrong. Things were being made altogether too easy for her.
The elevator descended and left Nita and the dog in a private hall outside the apartment of Richard Wentworth. Nita took a key from her handbag. She shrugged her shoulders and remarked to the dog:
"Old boy, we are in for it. Somebody is bungling it, and we are evidently expected. At least I am expected; perhaps you will be the joker in the deal."
Apollo lifted a paw and put it in a bowl of roses on a small table which faced the elevator in the private hall. Apollo liked the feel of water on his paw. The bowl of roses went to the floor with a crash.
"Ssh!" warned Nita, but smiled while Apollo looked the other way as if he did not see what he had done. "They know we're coming. Why tell 'em?"
The great dog rose on his hind legs, so that his head was higher than hers, and placed his forepaws upon her shoulders. This was his way of expressing adoration. She did not mind his wet paws.
"It's the underworld or the police on the other side of that door," she said, looking into the dog's eyes, "but it's for Dick, our Dick."
The name she mentioned brought a deep, short bark from the dog. He lowered himself to the floor and placed a paw against the door before she could use her key.
The door swung open easily upon complete blackness.
Not many young women would have entered an unlighted apartment under such uncertain conditions. Not many young women, however, are accompanied by such a dog as Apollo. And Nita was one of the Van Sloans who had come to America before the revolution, and courage had always lived in her family— courage and the spirit of adventure. The Van Sloan courage had been with her father when he died in the War.
Her pride of family and her spirit of adventure carried her into the dark apartment.
But she did remove Apollo's muzzle and slip the leash from his collar. "Might as well be ready, old boy," she said.
The dog surged ahead into the darkness. He knew that apartment, and he knew who lived in it. It smelled very good to him in the darkness as he stopped to sniff. A dog's nose leads to his heart.
Nita found the electric switch and illuminated the hall of the apartment. It was a large hall and indicated a very luxurious establishment. The white covered furniture seemed rather ghostly. Only a large Ming vase of aubergine enamel was uncovered. It stood upon a high pedestal, and Nita was rather surprised to notice that its covering was lying upon the floor at the base of the pedestal. Then she heard the dog growling in another room.
The growls ceased and the dog's feet were audible on the polished floor as he answered her call. He appeared from a dark doorway and looked at her. Evidently he had found something which displeased him but did not really anger him and certainly did not frighten him.
"What is it, old boy?" she asked, moving toward him.
The dog turned and disappeared into the room from which he had emerged. It was Wentworth's music room, and Nita knew that it contained the rarest of the Oriental china. She advanced to the dark doorway and tried to look in. But she could see nothing, and it was evident that the heavy blinds had been completely drawn. Again the dog began to growl, deep guttural sounds of disapproval.
Nita reached a hand into the dark room, feeling for the electric switch. As she did so there was a click from behind her, and the hall was thrown into darkness. Desperately she turned toward the partially open front door, the door she had not quite closed when she entered the apartment.
A man was in the act of leaving the apartment. He seemed to be carrying something, and outside light fell upon his face for one fleeting second before the front door closed and all the apartment was blank darkness.
Nita Van Sloan needed all her courage in that brief second. The face she had seen was cruel and repulsive, like the face of a man who gloated over some terrible act, but it seemed to be the face of Richard Wentworth.
Under the shock of what she had seen, her trembling knees carried her a few paces from the doorway of the music room before she sank upon the polished floor in the dark, a small heap of misery and fear. She did not faint, but she gave a little cry of mental anguish.
In the music room Apollo heard that little cry and the scratching of his nails upon the hard floor told of his eagerness to reach her. In his reckless progress he struck a chair and sent it crashing against the wall. Then he was with her, ears and nose guiding him in the blackness. For quite awhile she sat upon the floor with her arm around the great dog's neck.
"It can't be true," she whispered over and over again. "He couldn't look like that!"
The dog crouched close beside her and rubbed his head against hers. Not sensing an enemy, there was nothing else that he could do.
Presently she rose to her feet and, holding tight to the back of Apollo's neck where the skin was loose, searched until she found the light- switch in the hall. She opened the front door, but there was no one in the private entrance by the elevator shaft.
With the light again shining upon the shrouded furniture and the great Ming vase, Nita realized that the departing man must have come from the dining room or from the passage leading to the bedrooms. She shivered as she thought of the face she had seen, but turned resolutely toward the music room.
"Come on, Apollo," she said. "We'll see what you have been doing all the growling about."
The dog seemed to understand her and went swiftly back into the room he had left. He was again growling in the darkness when she found the electric switch and flooded the music room with light.
What Nita Van Sloan saw under the flood of light in the music room was far more horrible than what she had seen in that fleeting second at the front door. There, upon the floor in contorted attitude, and evidently-quite dead, lay a man. His face was hideous and the manner of his death was plain to be seen. Around his neck was a silk cord, drawn cruelly tight and knotted.
Apollo ceased his growling and looked up at Nita as if to know what was to be done.