“What results? Speak up, Sweetwater.”
“None. Every man, woman and boy connected with the hotel has been questioned; many of them routed out of their beds for the purpose, but not one of them picked up anything from the floor of the lobby, or knows of any one who did.”
“There now remain the guests.”
“And after them —(pardon me, Mr. Gryce) the general public which rushed in rather promiscuously last night.”
“I know it; it’s a task, but it must be carried through. Put up bulletins, publish your wants in the papers; — do anything, only gain your end.”
A bulletin was put up.
Some hours later, Sweetwater re-entered the room, and, approaching Mr. Gryce with a smile, blurted out:
“The bulletin is a great go. I think — of course, I cannot be sure — that it’s going to do the business. I’ve watched every one who stopped to read it. Many showed interest and many, emotion; she seems to have had a troop of friends. But embarrassment! only one showed that. I thought you would like to know.”
“Embarrassment? Humph! a man?”
“No, a woman; a lady, sir; one of the transients. I found out in a jiffy all they could tell me about her.”
“A woman! We didn’t expect that. Where is she? Still in the lobby?”
“No, sir. She took the elevator while I was talking with the clerk.”
“There’s nothing in it. You mistook her expression.”
“I don’t think so. I had noticed her when she first came into the lobby. She was talking to her daughter who was with her, and looked natural and happy. But no sooner had she seen and read that bulletin, than the blood shot up into her face and her manner became furtive and hasty. There was no mistaking the difference, sir. Almost before I could point her out, she had seized her daughter by the arm and hurried her towards the elevator. I wanted to follow her, but you may prefer to make your own inquiries. Her room is on the seventh floor, number 712, and her name is Watkins. Mrs. Horace Watkins of Nashville.”
Mr. Gryce nodded thoughtfully, but made no immediate effort to rise.
“Is that all you know about her?” he asked.
“Yes; this is the first time she has stopped at this hotel. She came yesterday. Took a room indefinitely. Seems all right; but she did blush, sir. I ever saw its beat in a young girl.”
“Call the desk. Say that I’m to be told if Mrs. Watkins of Nashville rings up during the next ten minutes. We’ll give her that long to take some action. If she fails to make any move, I’ll make my own approaches.”
Sweetwater did as he was bid, then went back to his place in the lobby.
But he returned almost instantly.
“Mrs. Watkins has just telephoned down that she is going to — to leave, sir.”
The old man struggled to his feet. “No. 712, do you say? Seven stories,” he sighed. But as he turned with a hobble, he stopped. “There are difficulties in the way of this interview,” he remarked. “A blush is not much to go upon. I’m afraid we shall have to resort to the shadow business and that is your work, not mine.”
But here the door opened and a boy brought in a line which had been left at the desk. It related to the very matter then engaging them, and ran thus:
“I see that information is desired as to whether any person was seen to stoop to the lobby floor last night at or shortly after the critical moment of Miss Challoner’s fall in the half story above. I can give such information. I was in the lobby at the time, and in the height of the confusion following this alarming incident, I remember seeing a lady — one of the new arrivals (there were several coming in at the time)— stoop quickly down and pick up something from the floor. I thought nothing of it at the time, and so paid little attention to her appearance. I can only recall the suddenness with which she stooped and the colour of the cloak she wore. It was red, and the whole garment was voluminous. If you wish further particulars, though in truth, I have no more to give, you can find me in 356.
“HENRY A. MCELROY.”
“Humph! This should simplify our task,” was Mr. Gryce’s comment, as he handed the note over to Sweetwater. “You can easily find out if the lady, now on the point of departure, can be identified with the one described by Mr. McElroy. If she can, I am ready to meet her anywhere.”
“Here goes then!” cried Sweetwater, and quickly left the room.
When he returned, it was not with his most hopeful air.
“The cloak doesn’t help,” he declared. “No one remembers the cloak. But the time of Mrs. Watkins’ arrival was all right. She came in directly on the heels of this catastrophe.”
“She did! Sweetwater, I will see her. Manage it for me at once.”
“The clerk says that it had better be upstairs. She is a very sensitive woman. There might be a scene, if she were intercepted on her way out.”
“Very well.” But the look which the old detective threw at his bandaged legs was not without its pathos.
And so it happened that just as Mrs. Watkins was watching the wheeling out of her trunks, there appeared in the doorway before her, an elderly gentleman, whose expression, always benevolent, save at moments when benevolence would be quite out of keeping with the situation, had for some reason, so marked an effect upon her, that she coloured under his eye, and, indeed, showed such embarrassment, that all doubt of the propriety of his intrusion vanished from the old man’s mind, and with the ease of one only too well accustomed to such scenes, he kindly remarked:
“Am I speaking to Mrs. Watkins of Nashville?”
“You are,” she faltered, with another rapid change of colour. “I— I am just leaving. I hope you will excuse me. I—”
“I wish I could,” he smiled, hobbling in and confronting her quietly in her own room. “But circumstances make it quite imperative that I should have a few words with you on a topic which need not be disagreeable to you, and probably will not be. My name is Gryce. This will probably convey nothing to you, but I am not unknown to the management below, and my years must certainly give you confidence in the propriety of my errand. A beautiful and charming young woman died here last night. May I ask if you knew her?”
“I?” She was trembling violently now, but whether with indignation or some other more subtle emotion, it would be difficult to say. “No, I’m from the South. I never saw the young lady. Why do you ask? I do not recognise your right. I— I—”
Certainly her emotion must be that of simple indignation. Mr. Gryce made one of his low bows, and propping himself against the table he stood before, remarked civilly:—
“I had rather not force my rights. The matter is so very ordinary. I did not suppose you knew Miss Challoner, but one must begin somehow, and as you came in at the very moment when the alarm was raised in the lobby, I thought perhaps you could tell me something which would aid me in my effort to elicit the real facts of the case. You were crossing the lobby at the time —”
“Yes.” She raised her head. “So were a dozen others —”
“Madam,”— the interruption was made in his kindliest tones, but in a way which nevertheless suggested authority. “Something was picked up from the floor at that moment. If the dozen you mention were witnesses to this act we do not know it. But we do know that it did not pass unobserved by you. Am I not correct? Didn’t you see a certain person — I will mention no names — stoop and pick up something from the lobby floor?”
“No.” The word came out with startling violence. “I was conscious of nothing but the confusion.” She was facing him with determination and her eyes were fixed boldly on his face. But her lips quivered, and her cheeks were white, too white now for simple indignation.
“Then I have made a big mistake,” apologised the ever-courteous detective. “Will you pardon me? It would have settled a very serious question if it could be found that the object thus picked up was the weapon which killed Miss Challoner. That is my excuse for the trouble I have given you.”
He was not looking at her; he was looking at her hand which rested on the table before which he himself stood. Did the fingers tighten a little and dig into the palm they concealed? He thought so, and was very slow in turning limpingly about towards the door. Meanwhile, would she speak? No. The silence was so marked, he felt it an excuse for stealing another glance in her direction. She was not looking his way but at a door in the partition wall on her right; and the look was one very akin to anxious fear. The next moment he understood it. The door burst open, and a young girl bounded into the room, with the merry cry:
“All ready, mother. I’m glad we are going to the Clarendon. I hate hotels where people die almost before your eyes.”
What the mother said at this outburst is immaterial. What the detective did is not. Keeping on his way, he reached the door, but not to open it wider; rather to close it softly but with unmistakable decision. The cloak which enveloped the girl was red, and full enough to be called voluminous.
“Who is this?” demanded the girl, her indignant glances flashing from one to the other.
“I don’t know,” faltered the mother in very evident distress. “He says he has a right to ask us questions and he has been asking questions about — about —”
“Not about me,” laughed the girl, with a toss of her head Mr. Gryce would have corrected in one of his grandchildren. “He can have nothing to say about me.” And she began to move about the room in an aimless, half-insolent way.
Mr. Gryce stared hard at the few remaining belongings of the two women, lying in a heap on the table, and half musingly, half deprecatingly, remarked:
“The person who stooped wore a long red cloak. Probably you preceded your daughter, Mrs. Watkins.”
The lady thus brought to the point made a quick gesture towards the girl who suddenly stood still, and, with a rising colour in her cheeks, answered, with some show of resolution on her own part:
“You say your name is Gryce and that you have a right to address me thus pointedly on a subject which you evidently regard as serious. That is not exact enough for me. Who are you, sir? What is your business?”
“I think you have guessed it. I am a detective from Headquarters. What I want of you I have already stated. Perhaps this young lady can tell me what you cannot. I shall be pleased if this is so.”
“Caroline”— Then the mother broke down. “Show the gentleman what you picked up from the lobby floor last night.”
The girl laughed again, loudly and with evident bravado, before she threw the cloak back and showed what she had evidently been holding in her hand from the first, a sharp-pointed, gold-handled paper-cutter.
“It was lying there and I picked it up. I don’t see any harm in that.”
“You probably meant none. You couldn’t have known the part it had just played in this tragic drama,” said the old detective looking carefully at the cutter which he had taken in his hand, but not so carefully that he failed to note that the look of distress was not lifted from the mother’s face either by her daughter’s words or manner.
“You have washed this?” he asked.
“No. Why should I wash it? It was clean enough. I was just going down to give it in at the desk. I wasn’t going to carry it away.” And she turned aside to the window and began to hum, as though done with the whole matter.
The old detective rubbed his chin, glanced again at the paper-cutter, then at the girl in the window, and lastly at the mother, who had lifted her head again and was facing him bravely.
“It is very important,” he observed to the latter, “that your daughter should be correct in her statement as to the condition of this article when she picked it up. Are you sure she did not wash it?”
“I don’t think she did. But I’m sure she will tell you the truth about that. Caroline, this is a police matter. Any mistake about it may involve us in a world of trouble and keep you from getting back home in time for your coming-out party. Did you — did you wash this cutter when you got upstairs, or — or —” she added, with a propitiatory glance at Mr. Gryce —“wipe it off at any time between then and now? Don’t answer hastily. Be sure. No one can blame you for that act. Any girl, as thoughtless as you, might do that.”
“Mother, how can I tell what I did?” flashed out the girl, wheeling round on her heel till she faced them both. “I don’t remember doing a thing to it. I just brought it up. A thing found like that belongs to the finder. You needn’t hold it out towards me like that. I don’t want it now; I’m sick of it. Such a lot of talk about a paltry thing which couldn’t have cost ten dollars.” And she wheeled back.
“It isn’t the value.” Mr. Gryce could be very patient. “It’s the fact that we believe it to have been answerable for Miss Challoner’s death — that is, if there was any blood on it when you picked it up.”
“Blood!” The girl was facing them again, astonishment struggling with disgust on her plain but mobile features. “Blood! is that what you mean. No wonder I hate it. Take it away,” she cried.
“Oh, mother, I’ll never pick up anything again which doesn’t belong to me! Blood!” she repeated in horror, flinging herself into her mother’s arms.
Mr. Gryce thought he understood the situation. Here was a little kleptomaniac whose weakness the mother was struggling to hide. Light was pouring in. He felt his body’s weight less on that miserable foot of his.
“Does that frighten you? Are you so affected by the thought of blood?”
“Don’t ask me. And I put the thing under my pillow! I thought it was so — so pretty.”
“Mrs. Watkins,” Mr. Gryce from that moment ignored the daughter, “did you see it there?”
“Yes; but I didn’t know where it came from. I had not seen my daughter stoop. I didn’t know where she got it till I read that bulletin.”
“Never mind that. The question agitating me is whether any stain was left under that pillow. We want to be sure of the connection between this possible weapon and the death by stabbing which we all deplore — if there is a connection.”
“I didn’t see any stain, but you can look for yourself. The bed has been made up, but there was no change of linen. We expected to remain here; I see no good to be gained by hiding any of the facts now.”
“None whatever, Madam.”
“Come, then. Caroline, sit down and stop crying. Mr. Gryce believes that your only fault was in not taking this object at once to the desk.”
“Yes, that’s all,” acquiesced the detective after a short study of the shaking figure and distorted features of the girl. “You had no idea, I’m sure, where this weapon came from, or for what it had been used. That’s evident.”
Her shudder, as she seated herself, was very convincing. She was too young to simulate so successfully emotions of this character.
“I’m glad of that,” she responded, half fretfully, half gratefully, as Mr. Gryce followed her mother into the adjoining room. “I’ve had a bad enough time of it without being blamed for what I didn’t know and didn’t do.”
Mr. Gryce laid little stress upon these words, but much upon the lack of curiosity she showed in the minute and careful examination he now made of her room. There was no stain on the pillow-cover and none on the bureau-spread where she might very naturally have laid the cutter down on first coming into her room. The blade was so polished that it must have been rubbed off somewhere, either purposely or by accident. Where then, since not here? He asked to see her gloves — the ones she had worn the previous night.
“They are the same she is wearing now,” the anxious mother assured him. “Wait, and I will get them for you.”
“No need. Let her hold out her hands in token of amity. I shall soon see.”
They returned to where the girl still sat, wrapped in her cloak, sobbing still, but not so violently.
“Caroline, you may take off your things,” said the mother, drawing the pins from her own hat. “We shall not go to-day.”
The child shot her mother one disappointed look, then proceeded to follow suit. When her hat was off, she began to take off her gloves. As soon as they were on the table, the mother pushed them over to Mr. Gryce. As he looked at them, the girl lifted off her cloak.
“Will — will he tell?” she whispered behind its ample folds into her mother’s ear.
The answer came quickly, but not in the mother’s tones. Mr. Gryce’s ears had lost none of their ancient acuteness.
“I do not see that I should gain much by doing so. The one discovery which would link this find of yours indissolubly with Miss Challoner’s death, I have failed to make. If I am equally unsuccessful below — if I can establish no closer connection there than here between this cutter and the weapon which killed Miss Challoner, I shall have no cause to mention the matter. It will be too extraneous to the case. Do you remember the exact spot where you stooped, Miss Watkins?”
“No, no. Somewhere near those big chairs; I didn’t have to step out of my way; I really didn’t.”
Mr. Gryce’s answering smile was a study. It seemed to convey a two-fold message, one for the mother and one for the child, and both were comforting. But he went away, disappointed. The clew which promised so much was, to all appearance, a false one.
He could soon tell.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09