The Master of Mysteries/Van Asten's Visitor
VAN ASTEN'S VISITOR
"UNLESS it stops snowing pretty soon, I think I'll not go to Boston to-night, after all," said young Van Asten, of the law firm of Hipp & Van Asten. He stood looking out a thirteenth-story window, late one December afternoon, watching the big storm which had increased steadily in violence since one o'clock. His hat was tilted on the back of his head and his overcoat collar was turned up about his ears. Keen, quick, and clear-cut, his features showed handsomely in profile. He was the popular member of the firm among his affluent clientele.
"Looks like a blizzard," said the clerk, rummaging in a pasteboard letter-holder.
"Sure. The midnight train is sure either to be stalled or delayed, and I can go on Saturday just as well. I don't care to sit up for hours in a snow-bank." Then he turned suddenly to the clerk. "Say, has anybody from Selvig's been in to-day?" he asked.
"You mean about the Drellmont will case?"
"Yes. By the way young Drellmont spoke yesterday, I rather expect he's getting ready to compromise. He's a fool if he doesn't; and a bigger fool to expect me to show him the will, too!"
"Nobody's been in," said the clerk laconically.
Van Asten went out and plowed his way through rising drifts to the subway station. By six o'clock he was at the Gavel Club, and by eight had finished his dinner. Several games of pool, a long talk with a visiting Englishman, perusal of the French comic papers, and convivial gossip with late comers from the theaters full of tales of the storm, kept him warm and cheerful till midnight. Then, as the clock struck, he put on his things and went out.
There were few abroad at this hour, and not a carriage or an automobile in sight. The street-car lines had given up trying to keep the tracks clear, and he came across one darkened car abandoned in the snow. He had to fight his way home, struggling through drifts waist high. It was deathly quiet except for the sound of the wind.
He reached his apartment-house at last, and, stamping and shaking himself, climbed four flights of stairs, the elevator being out of order. At his door he stopped, surprised. Under the door there was a thin streak of light.
Van Asten's firm was still too young to enable him to live in the style he had been used to before going into business. His apartment consisted of only four rooms,—a large, L-shaped studio, a bedroom, and, off the entrance hall, on one side a bath-room, and on the other a kitchenet. A woman came in every morning to clean up the place; except for that, he was alone.
He distinctly remembered that no light had been left burning when he had left the place at ten o'clock that morning. What, then, could the light mean? No one save the janitor had a key to the place. His thought went naturally to burglars. He hesitated for some moments, wondering what to do. It was late to summon the janitor for assistance, and he would appear foolish if nothing serious had happened. He determined to investigate alone, and, prepared for an immediate struggle, he put his key quietly into the door and turned the latch. The door opened without noise, and he could see through the one opposite into the long studio.
There, a woman in mink furs stood, with her back to him, beside the great table. She was bending over, as if taking something from a bag.
The tension of suspense that had knotted Van Asten's muscles and nerves gave way to a little laugh. The romance of the encounter amused him keenly, though his curiosity was doubly alert. He took a step forward.
At the sound of his footsteps, the woman looked round quickly, and for a minute stood staring at him with an expression of alarm. Her hand went to her heart. She was a beautiful woman of twenty-three, dressed with elegance. She was a vivid blonde, with masses of heavy yellow hair, blue eyes and slender hands. For a single moment she stood there, immobile; then, to Van Asten's amazement, she ran forward and threw her arms about his neck and pressed her lips to his cheek.
"Oh, Paul! I'm so glad you've come! I didn't know what to do! I was afraid I'd have to stay here all night alone! Where in the world have you been?"
Van Asten calmly disentangled himself from her embrace and took another look at her face. She was blushing violently. "Will you kindly tell me, first of all, who you are?"
"Why, Paul! What in the world do you mean?"
"I mean I haven't the pleasure of your acquaintance, and naturally I have a little curiosity about a visitor at this hour."
For a second or two she gazed at him steadily, her lips parted. "Are you drunk, Paul?" she demanded finally.
"I'm not drunk. I simply don't know you. Why should I?"
"You don't know your own sister!" she exclaimed in a vibrant intense tone. Then she took a backward step, as if she feared him.
"My sister is in Boston." He stared at her with a frown and folded his arms. "What's your little game, anyway?"
"You don't know your own sister!" she repeated helplessly. Then she staggered back and sunk into a chair, hiding her face in her hands, and began to weep.
"You are not my sister, and you know it as well as I do! What do you want here, anyway?" he demanded, still standing, staring at her.
"Why, I want to stay here, of course! I've just come from Boston to visit you!" She suddenly sprang up. "The idea! It's a stupid practical joke you're playing on me, of course. Come, Paul, drop it, please! I'm tired, and want to go to bed. Where are you going to put me?"
"I'm going to put you outdoors!" he retorted.
"In this awful blizzard?" she demanded. She smiled sadly through her tears. The effect was really dazzling; but Van Asten kept his head.He stopped and reflected for a few moments. Then,
"You don't know your own sister?" she exclaimed.
"Now," he continued, "I insist that you drop this masquerade and tell me immediately who you are and how you came here. You're either crazy, or it's some sort of blackmailing game. If you know anything about my sister, you know you don't in the least resemble her; and if you know anything about me, you know I haven't any money. So, out with it, quick!"
"I've told you!" she said, and loosed another pathetic smile at him.
He frowned impatiently. "Then you are crazy!"
"No, I'm afraid you are!"
The deadlock continued for some minutes before either spoke again. Then he began more quietly. "I don't know what's the matter with you. It's too much for me. But, of course, I can't let you stay here. Neither can I put you out into this storm. The only thing I can think of is to telephone to some one to come here. But no woman could get here to-night, even if she should be willing to. I confess I don't know what to do with you."
"It's perfectly all right," she answered sweetly. "I'm your sister, and surely you should be willing to let me have your room for to-night. You can sleep on that big couch round the corner of the studio, and you'll be sober in the morning. When you wake up, you'll probably recognize me. I won't be hard on you, my dear. Only, really, you ought to be careful what you drink." She rose, walked over to him, and patted his head.
He jumped up abruptly and walked away, opened his bedroom door, and stood there for a moment. "Come in here!" he commanded.
"All right, Paul!" she answered with extravagant humility, and, casting down her eyes, walked into the room. Just before she closed the door she came near him again.
"Aren't you going to kiss me good night, Paul, dear?" she asked.
Without answering her he pulled the door to, and heard her swiftly lock it on the inside. Then, still frowning, he walked up and down the long studio for ten minutes. Once or twice he stopped outside the door to listen, but heard nothing. Later she called out "Good night, Paul!" to him in blithe accents. He bit his lip and resumed his promenade, more worried than ever. The thing was uncanny. He no longer accepted the situation as romantic; he felt decidedly uncomfortable and embarrassed. Some one was making a fool of him, or worse.
Suddenly a thought came to him, and he went to the telephone and spoke as low as possible, "Madison, 5555!"
For fully three minutes he waited without receiving a reply.
"Madison 5555 doesn't answer," came the word at last.
"Ring 'em up again!" He spoke a bit more loudly. In two minutes more he heard, "Hello!"
"Is this Astro?"
"Yes. What the deuce—"
"Wait a minute and I'll explain."
"Well, hurry up! You've got me up out of bed."
"I'm Paul Van Asten, and am at my apartment at the Elton, 444 West Twenty-first Street. I've just come home and found a strange woman in my place. She says she's my sister. Pretty and all that, well dressed, and not otherwise obviously mad. But she worries me. I can't put her out; and she won't go, anyway. What'll I do? Could you possibly come over here? It's mighty embarrassing."
There was a pause, then this inquiry, "Did you find her before she saw you?"
"Yes, opened the door and there she was."
"What was she doing?"
"Standing up, looking into a bag, or something."
"Dressed for the street?"
"Yes, it looked as if she had just come in."
"Did you say how long she had been there?"
"I think she did say she'd waited some time."
"Where is she now?"
"Locked in my bedroom."
"Good. I'll come right over. I can't get a cab in this blizzard; so it may take half or three quarters of an hour."
"All right. But for heaven's sake, hurry! I don't know what she'll do next!"
"Oh, wait. Describe her, please!"
"A blonde, with yellow hair, and lots of it. Rather small, with blue eyes. Mink stole and muff."
"All right. Good-by. I'll hurry."
Van Asten hung up the receiver with a sigh of relief. He had heard much of Astro the Seer and his marvelous solution of mysteries, but the young lawyer did not place much faith in these sensational tales. Astro was, however, a close student of human nature, and, if not intuitive, at least shrewd, and his knowledge of society, and his willingness to undertake any case, however delicate, made him a desirable companion in so embarrassing a crisis.
Van Asten threw himself into a chair commanding a view of the bedroom door and took up a book. No sound came from his chamber. From all that could be gathered, his erratic visitor had gone to bed and to sleep. Now that he was sure of a tactful and clever companion, he rather looked forward to seeing the girl again. He could at last permit his imagination to play with the situation. It might be, after all, a romance—who could tell? The girl was pretty and cultured. No great scandal could ensue with two men there; and somehow, with his luck or his astuteness, Astro would bring the affair to a pleasant solution. A half-hour went by. Van Asten yawned, read a little, and again fell into a reverie. It was three-quarters of an hour before the electric bell sounded. Van Asten ran to the door, threw it open, and Astro, covered with snow, picturesque in slouch hat and Inverness cape, entered.
"Well," he said amusedly, stamping his feet, "when did she leave?"
"She didn't!" said Van Asten. "She's in that room now."
"Oh, didn't she?" Astro shrugged his shoulders and walked toward the bedroom door. "Well, let's see her."
"But, heavens! you mustn't open that door! She's probably in bed and asleep! And besides, the door's locked."
"So it is," said Astro, trying the handle. "I shall have to ask you for a button-hook."
"I haven't any except one in that room."
Astro reflected a moment. Then he asked, "Have you any canned goods in your larder?"
"I have some canned chicken, I believe. Why?"
"And a gas-stove, I presume?"
"Yes." Van Asten looked puzzled, but led the way to the kitchenet. He took down a tin of chicken and handed it to the Seer.
Astro removed the key fastened to the top for the purpose of opening the tin, then went to the stove and lighted a burner. He heated the split wire till it was red-hot; then, taking a pair of small pliers from his pocket, bent the end into a right angle. Returning to the chamber door, he inserted this rough skeleton key into the lock.
"I'll take the responsibility of awakening or disturbing your visitor," he said, smiling at Van Asten. "You must give me full authority to do what I please."
As he spoke he was trying the lock. After some unsuccessful attempts, the bolt shot back. He turned the handle and threw open the door. "Light up!" he commanded sharply.
Van Asten, more embarrassed than ever, stepped to the switch on the wall, and the room was immediately illuminated. Then, staring about him, and finally at Astro, he stammered, "By Jove! She has gone, hasn't she?"
"Of course. You didn't really expect her to spend the night, did you?"
"Well, that's what she said she was going to do. I'm glad she didn't, I confess. Unless—" then he stopped suddenly. "By Jove!" he ejaculated. "Could she have been a burglar?" His eyes roved round the room in trace of corroboration of his surmise, and fell upon a partly raised window which gave on an inner court, or air-shaft.
"Could she have escaped that way?" He ran to the window and threw up the sash.
As he did so, Astro stooped to the floor and picked up a hairpin, glanced at it, and put it into his pocket. It was of silver, fully six inches long, evidently specially made for a woman with an immense mass of hair. He said nothing of his discovery, however, but followed Van Asten to the window.
"She could hardly have got out that way," said the young lawyer.
"It's unlikely," Astro assented; "but I see you have an electric reading lamp. I wonder if it will reach to the window?"
He took it from the table, and, finding that the wire was long enough; held it above his head outside the window and looked down to the bottom of the court.
"I don't see her," Van Asten laughed.
If Astro saw anything, he did not mention it. He drew himself in, replaced the lamp, and pulled down the sash.
"I didn't expect to see her hanging by the hair of her head, like Absalom," he remarked. "But," he added casually, "what kind of hair did she have?"
"Yellow hair, pounds and pounds of it, apparently, though you never can tell nowadays, when all the women are wearing rats."
"Where is your telephone?" the Seer inquired.
Van Asten led the way back into the studio. Around the corner, out of sight of the chamber door, the receiver stood on his library table.
"She got out while you were talking to me," said Astro. "That's plain enough. Now, the question is, what's missing?"
"By Jove! That's true! But I didn't notice any disturbance. Hold on!" he stood for a moment with his eyes fixed. "The Drellmont will! Good lord! if she came for that—" Instead of finishing, he ran back to the chamber. Astro followed him quickly enough to find him at a writing-desk there, rummaging through the pigeonholes.
He stopped and exclaimed, "Thank the Lord!" and held up a package of papers. "Here it is, safe enough. It wasn't that she wanted, at any rate."
"What about the Drellmont will?" Astro inquired casually.
"Why, I took it home yesterday to study on the case with it. You've heard of Albert Drellmont, of course?"
"The millionaire? Yes."
"Then you know he had a scapegrace son, who went to the bad a year or so ago. Well, this is the will disinheriting him. Old Drellmont had made another only a few months before, leaving his son the bulk of his property. Young Drellmont has been trying to bluff his way into the fortune, by claiming his legacy under the old will and asserting this to be a forgery. This, you see, is in favor of his half-sister." He handed the document to Astro, who took it and examined it carefully.
"Drellmont's attorneys are a sharp lot; but Drellmont himself hasn't a cent, and I don't see how he can afford to fight the case, considering what little show he has against his sister. In fact, I've been expecting an offer to compromise. He came in this morning and wanted to see our will. Of course I shouldn't have showed it to him if I had had it; but I told him it was here. If it had been stolen, we should have been up against it, though we should have won in the end."
"What was the date of the former will?"
"January 1, 1908."
"And this, I see, is just six months later, July 1, 1908."
"Yes, it was made after Drellmont, junior, had that affair with a chorus girl. The papers were full of it. After that, he went West and got into more scrapes. I understand the police are after him now. My client, Miss Drellmont, has wanted to compromise, just to get rid of him, but I wouldn't have it."
"I see." Astro spoke abstractedly as he handed back the document. He was sitting near the secretary, and, as he listened, had picked up a red blotter that lay on the desk. As he rose, he kept it in his hand, and when Van Asten put the will away Astro put the blotter into his pocket.
There was a strange light in his eyes, however, as he gazed at the young lawyer. It was as if he were analyzing him, deliberately, scientifically, reading his character in his features, one by one, weighing his soul in the balance.
"Well, I think I can't do anything more now," he said, finally. "I'll try to get home before the drifts have got any higher. If you miss anything else, telephone me. You might inquire of the janitor, too. He may know how your visitor got in."
"What do you think she wanted, anyway?" said Van Asten.
"Ah! I can't tell you that—yet. But there are evil vibrations here. I feel wrong. She wanted no good, you may be sure of that. I shall try the crystals and go into a psychic trance."
Van Asten smiled. It did not escape Astro's notice.
"Having engaged my services," he said calmly, "I shall expect you to follow my instructions to the letter. I can help you; and I think you need more aid than you imagine."
Van Asten immediately became serious. "I believe you do know something," he said. "Well, I don't care how you find out. I know I can trust you. Let me know what to do, and I'll do it."
As Astro opened the outer door of the Elton, the drifts were two feet high. The snow drove in gusts of fine icy particles, and it was bitterly cold. The flakes came in squalls, driving clouds before them; one could scarcely stand upright against the blast. He bent his head forward and fought his way. Before he had gone a block his hands and ears were almost frozen. Another block, and he sought refuge in a doorway to beat himself, rub his ears, and stamp a little warmth into his feet.
There was a drift filling a corner of the doorway, and, as his eyes fell on it, he saw a black patch beneath. Brushing the snow aside, he came upon a woman, unconscious with the cold. She was dressed in black, and wore mink furs. Her heavy yellow hair was fastened with long silver pins.
Bending over her, he tried to restore her to consciousness; but it was impossible. Her hands and feet were indubitably frozen, and she had succumbed to the exposure. The covering of snow had, in a way, protected her; but the case was desperate. What was there to do? Outside in the street there were no signs of life. Had the doorway been that of a residence, he might have rung the bell and appealed to the mercy of the residents. But it was the entrance to a small office building, and no one would be in at this hour. Astro was ten blocks from his studio. He had reasons for wanting to be alone with the girl. A little scrap of mink fur he had found caught in the outer doorway of the Elton fitted suspiciously with a torn place at the end of this woman's astrakhan stole, and her hairpins matched the one in his pocket.
A gray splotch came into view down the avenue. It was a two-horse carriage, laboring painfully into the teeth of the blizzard. As it approached, Astro ran out and bribed or bullied the driver into taking him and the woman to Thirty-fourth Street. It took half an hour, and more than once the man on the box stopped and protested that he would have to give it up. But they finally arrived at number 234, and, taking the inanimate form in his arms, Astro carried her up-stairs. His first action, after depositing her on a sofa, was to ring for a doctor. His next was to telephone to Valeska, and urge her to attempt to come immediately to the studio. Then he returned to his charge.
She still gripped a leather bag in her frozen hands. Astro separated the stiffened fingers and put the bag away. Next, he got brandy and forced it down her throat. Wrapping her in warm blankets, he chafed her hands with snow till the doctor arrived. Leaving the two alone for a few minutes, he opened the bag quickly. It contained several bills, a bunch of keys, a handkerchief, and a penciled note. This he opened. The note-paper was imprinted with the name of the Swastika Hotel. It read as follows:
"The job must be done to-night, or it will be too late. S. will give up to-morrow. Do it if you can, let me know immediately here. P. D."
Valeska, living only two blocks away, succeeded in arriving at the studio by four o'clock in the morning. By the time she came in Astro and the doctor had restored their patient to consciousness and the use of her limbs. The woman was, however, weak and suffering. Rest was enjoined, and the doctor left definite instructions that she was to remain in bed all day.
"What I want you to do, Valeska," said Astro, "is, when this lady awakens, to talk with her long enough to study her voice. By nine o'clock you must be able to give an imitation of it that will pass over a telephone wire without being detected."
He proceeded, then, to narrate the whole story of the night, from the time he was awakened by Van Asten's message. Valeska listened attentively.
"You say that when you looked down the air-shaft you saw a broken bottle at the bottom?"
"Yes, almost hidden by the snow. And here's another clue." He took the blotter from his pocket and passed it to her. "Do you see anything significant in that?" he asked.
"There's a spot where the ink that was on it has disappeared," she said. "But I don't quite see what that means. You say the date of his will was all right, wasn't it? I thought first that she might have gone down there to alter the date, and so make the old will valid."
"But, in that case, the marks of the erasure, even if done with Labarraque's solution or any of the readymade ink destroyers, would have proved that it had been tampered with."
"That's so. Well, I'll think it over. But do you know who this girl is, yet?"
"She's a friend of Paul Drellmont's, and no doubt his tool." Astro passed over the note he had found in the bag.
"I see. I'm to report to him, then, over the telephone, in her voice, that the thing has been done?"
"By no means. You're to tell him that you failed."
Valeska bent her brows over the riddle. "Well, I hope I won't have to go into details."
"No, he'll be satisfied. You see, this is his last card. If she failed, he'll not care to fight the will case any longer. He knows he's beaten, and he can't pay his lawyers. He'll offer to compromise, and I shall tell Van Asten to make a reasonable offer."
"The girl failed, then, in whatever she went for?"
"No, she succeeded."
"Then won't Drellmont find out about it, and make more trouble?"
"I hope he'll leave immediately. If he accepts a sum of money to compromise, I think he'll quit New York without delay."
"Oh! And you expect to keep this girl hidden away from him till then?"
"Exactly. This blizzard was a godsend for Van Asten and Miss Drellmont."
"Well, I don't understand yet what she went to his rooms for, but I'll do my part."
It was just nine o'clock, and the unknown girl was again sleeping quietly, when Valeska rang up the Swatiska Hotel and inquired for Drellmont. After a moment there was a reply.
"It's me, Paul," she said. "I'm awfully sorry; but I couldn't get down there and do the business." Valeska dropped the receiver with a shocked expression.
"What did he say?" Astro asked.
"I refuse to tell you." Valeska put up the instrument and rose.
"Didn't he even ask where you were?"
"Then it's as I suspected. Drellmont has been playing on this girl; making love to her, probably, in order to use her as his tool. Now she's failed, he has no further use for her. Well, I think it serves her right. Perhaps it will teach her a lesson. Now, I'll give my instructions to Van Asten."
He rang up the lawyer. After the conversation, he returned to Valeska and said:
"He's agreed to compromise, if Drellmont calls. The janitor told him this lady presented a typewritten note, with his name forged to it, inviting her to wait in his apartment for him. That's how she got in there. I suggested that he hint at prosecuting Drellmont for blackmail, on the strength of that episode, and he has agreed to suggest to the rascal that he leave town immediately as one of the conditions of the compromise. But it's a ticklish game, altogether. I don't know whether I ought to explain everything to Van Asten or not."
"Why, I should think he ought to know," said Valeska.
"Why, then, you haven't solved the mystery of the lady's errand?" he asked.
"I confess I haven't."
"Well, then, I'll tell you. It's so ingenious and simple that you'd probably never get it alone. The fact is, that she went down there to erase the date on the will. This she did, and then wrote in the same date,—July 1, 1908. I saw it immediately I cast my eyes on the document. When I saw the broken bottle at the foot of the air-shaft, I suspected that she had thrown away some damaging evidence. When I noticed that spot on the blotter where the ink had been bleached, I was sure of it. The only question, then, was whether Van Asten himself hadn't taken the paper home to tamper with it. But, as the date was right, of course, he couldn't have."
"What was her, or rather Drellmont's, reason for putting in the same date, then?"
"Why, so that when the will was probated they could call attention to the erasure and subsequent rewriting. That would cast suspicion on the whole document and no doubt the first will would be accepted as legal."
"Oh, it was simple, wasn't it? But you didn't tell Van Asten?"
"No, not yet. I want him to offer the will for probate as it is. You see, it is undoubtedly genuine; but if it had been tampered with, he'd never be willing to handle it. I got that from my study of his character. I'm going to take the responsibility on myself. If Drellmont leaves town before he can communicate with this lady, whoever she is, he'll never know that she succeeded, and Van Asten and Miss Drellmont will be safe. When this blond lady finds that she has been abandoned, she won't care to play into his hands, especially as it may get her into trouble herself."
Late that afternoon, as Valeska was busy in the laboratory off the studio, she saw the girl pass swiftly toward the waiting-room. Valeska waited and listened.
"Give me Madison Square 2615 . . . Hello! Is Mr. Drellmont there? . . . He's left? Why that's impossible! . . . This afternoon? Where did he go? . . . No address? . . . Are you sure?" The receiver went on the hook with a snap.
Valeska waited to see what she would do next. A few minutes later she stole to the portières and looked into the waiting-room. No one was there!
"Well," said Astro, "you should have followed her. That girl was clever. Any one who could act as well as she did with Van Asten would be a valuable assistant. I might have used her."
Valeska's fine lips curled. "I think one assistant is enough for you, sir! She was altogether too blond. I always distrust that kind!"
The Seer smiled. "Well, as for that, I prefer blondes, myself."
He took a step toward her, but she evaded him, and sought refuge in the office. Not, however, before she had paused in the doorway to shake her finger and ask, mischievously: "Are you perfectly sure?"