The Man in Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rinehart - HTML preview
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I had my arm done up temporarily in Baltimore and took the next train home. I was pretty far gone when I stumbled out of a cab almost into the scandalized arms of Mrs. Klopton. In fifteen minutes I was in bed, with that good woman piling on blankets and blistering me in unprotected places with hot-water bottles. And in an hour I had a whiff of chloroform and Doctor Williams had set the broken bone.
I dropped asleep then, waking in the late twilight to a realization that I was at home again, without the papers that meant conviction for Andy Bronson, with a charge of murder hanging over my head, and with something more than an impression of the girl my best friend was in love with, a girl moreover who was almost as great an enigma as the crime itself.
"And I'm no hand at guessing riddles," I groaned half aloud. Mrs. Klopton came over promptly and put a cold cloth on my forehead.
"Euphemia," she said to some one outside the door, "telephone the doctor that he is still rambling, but that he has switched from green ribbons to riddles."
"There's nothing the matter with me, Mrs. Klopton," I rebelled. "I was only thinking out loud. Confound that cloth: it's trickling all over me!" I gave it a fling, and heard it land with a soggy thud on the floor.
"Thinking out loud is delirium," Mrs. Klopton said imperturbably. "A fresh doth, Euphemia."
This time she held it on with a firm pressure that I was too weak to resist. I expostulated feebly that I was drowning, which she also laid to my mental exaltation, and then I finally dropped into a damp sleep. It was probably midnight when I roused again. I had been dreaming of the wreck, and it was inexpressibly comforting to feel the stability of my bed, and to realize the equal stability of Mrs. Klopton, who sat, fully attired, by the night light, reading Science and Health.
"Does that book say anything about opening the windows on a hot night?" I suggested, when I had got my bearings.
She put it down immediately and came over to me. If there is one time when Mrs. Klopton is chastened - and it is the only time - it is when she reads Science and Health. "I don't like to open the shutters, Mr. Lawrence," she explained. "Not since the night you went away."
But, pressed further, she refused to explain. "The doctor said you were not to be excited," she persisted. "Here's your beef tea."
"Not a drop until you tell me," I said firmly. "Besides, you know very well there's nothing the matter with me. This arm of mine is only a false belief." I sat up gingerly. "Now - why don't you open that window?"
Mrs. Klopton succumbed. "Because there are queer goings-on in that house next door," she said. "If you will take the beef tea, Mr. Lawrence, I will tell you."
The queer goings-on, however, proved to be slightly disappointing. It seemed that after I left on Friday night, a light was seen flitting fitfully through the empty house next door. Euphemia had seen it first and called Mrs. Klopton. Together they had watched it breathlessly until it disappeared on the lower floor.
"You should have been a writer of ghost stories," I said, giving my pillows a thump. "And so it was fitting flitfully!"
"That's what it was doing," she reiterated. "Fitting flitfully - I mean flitting fitfully - how you do throw me out, Mr. Lawrence! And what's more, it came again!"
"Oh, come now, Mrs. Klopton," I objected, "ghosts are like lightning; they never strike twice in the same night. That is only worth half a cup of beef tea."
"You may ask Euphemia," she retorted with dignity. "Not more than an hour after, there was a light there again. We saw it through the chinks of the shutters. Only - this time it began at the lower floor and climbed!"
"You oughtn't to tell ghost stories at night," came McKnight's voice from the doorway. "Really, Mrs. Klopton, I'm amazed at you. You old duffer! I've got you to thank for the worst day of my life."
Mrs. Klopton gulped. Then realizing that the "old duffer" was meant for me, she took her empty cup and went out muttering.
"The Pirate's crazy about me, isn't she?" McKnight said to the closing door. Then he swung around and held out his hand.
"By Jove," he said, "I've been laying you out all day, lilies on the door-bell, black gloves, everything. If you had had the sense of a mosquito in a snow-storm, you would have telephoned me."
"I never even thought of it." I was filled with remorse. "Upon my word, Rich, I hadn't an idea beyond getting away from that place. If you had seen what I saw - "
McKnight stopped me. "Seen it! Why, you lunatic, I've been digging for you all day in the ruins! I've lunched and dined on horrors. Give me something to rinse them down, Lollie."
He had fished the key of the cellarette from its hiding-place in my shoe bag and was mixing himself what he called a Bernard Shaw - a foundation of brandy and soda, with a little of everything else in sight to give it snap. Now that I saw him clearly, he looked weary and grimy. I hated to tell him what I knew he was waiting to hear, but there was no use wading in by inches. I ducked and got it over.
"The notes are gone, Rich," I said, as quietly as I could. In spite of himself his face fell.
"I - of course I expected it," he said. "But - Mrs. Klopton said over the telephone that you had brought home a grip and I hoped - well, Lord knows we ought not to complain. You're here, damaged, but here." He lifted his glass. "Happy days, old man!"
"If you will give me that black bottle and a teaspoon, I'll drink that in arnica, or whatever the stuff is; Rich, - the notes were gone before the wreck!"
He wheeled and stared at me, the bottle in his hand. "Lost, strayed or stolen?" he queried with forced lightness.
"Stolen, although I believe the theft was incidental to something else."
Mrs. Klopton came in at that moment, with an eggnog in her hand. She glanced at the clock, and, without addressing any one in particular, she intimated that it was time for self-respecting folks to be at home in bed. McKnight, who could never resist a fling at her back, spoke to me in a stage whisper.
"Is she talking still? or again?" he asked, just before the door closed. There was a second's indecision with the knob, then, judging discretion the better part, Mrs. Klopton went away.
"Now, then," McKnight said, settling himself in a chair beside the bed, "spit it out. Not the wreck - I know all I want about that. But the theft. I can tell you beforehand that it was a woman."
I had crawled painfully out of bed, and was in the act of pouring the egg-nog down the pipe of the washstand. I paused, with the glass in the air.
"A woman!" I repeated, startled. "What makes you think that?"
"You don't know the first principles of a good detective yarn," he said scornfully. "Of course, it was the woman in the empty house next door. You said it was brass pipes, you will remember. Well - on with the dance: let joy be unconfined."
So I told the story; I had told it so many times that day that I did it automatically. And I told about the girl with the bronze hair, and my suspicions. But I did not mention Alison West. McKnight listened to the end without interruption. When I had finished he drew a long breath.
"Well!" he said. "That's something of a mess, isn't it? If you can only prove your mild and child-like disposition, they couldn't hold you for the murder - which is a regular tentwent-thirt crime, anyhow. But the notes - that's different. They are not burned, anyhow. Your man wasn't on the train - therefore, he wasn't in the wreck. If he didn't know what he was taking, as you seem to think, he probably reads the papers, and unless he is a fathead, he's awake by this time to what he's got. He'll try to sell them to Bronson, probably."
"Or to us," I put in.
We said nothing for a few minutes. McKnight smoked a cigarette and stared at a photograph of Candida over the mantel. Candida is the best pony for a heavy mount in seven states.
"I didn't go to Richmond," he observed finally. The remark followed my own thoughts so closely that I started. "Miss West is not home yet from Seal Harbor."
Receiving no response, he lapsed again into thoughtful silence. Mrs. Klopton came in just as the clock struck one, and made preparation for the night by putting a large gaudy comfortable into an arm-chair in the dressing-room, with a smaller, stiff-backed chair for her feet. She was wonderfully attired in a dressing-gown that was reminiscent, in parts, of all the ones she had given me for a half dozen Christmases, and she had a purple veil wrapped around her head, to hide Heaven knows what deficiency. She examined the empty egg-nog glass, inquired what the evening paper had said about the weather, and then stalked into the dressing-room, and prepared, with much ostentatious creaking, to sit up all night.
We fell silent again, while McKnight traced a rough outline of the berths on the white table-cover, and puzzled it out slowly. It was something like this:
| 12 | 10 | 8 |
| 11 | 9 | 7 |
"You think he changed the tags on seven and nine, so that when you went back to bed you thought you were crawling into nine, when it was really seven, eh?"
"Then toward morning, when everybody was asleep, your theory is that he changed the numbers again and left the train."
"I can't think of anything else," I replied wearily.
"Jove, what a game of bridge that fellow would play! It was like finessing an eight-spot and winning out. They would scarcely have doubted your story had the tags been reversed in the morning. He certainly left you in a bad way. Not a jury in the country would stand out against the stains, the stiletto, and the murdered man's pocket-book in your possession."
"Then you think Sullivan did it?" I asked.
"Of course," said McKnight confidently. "Unless you did it in your sleep. Look at the stains on his pillow, and the dirk stuck into it. And didn't he have the man Harrington's pocket-book?"
"But why did he go off without the money?" I persisted. "And where does the bronzehaired girl come in?"
"Search me," McKnight retorted flippantly. "Inflammation of the imagination on your part."
"Then there is the piece of telegram. It said lower ten, car seven. It's extremely likely that she had it. That telegram was about me, Richey."
"I'm getting a headache," he said, putting out his cigarette against the sole of his shoe. "All I'm certain of just now is that if there hadn't been a wreck, by this time you'd be sitting in an eight by ten cell, and feeling like the rhyme for it."
"But listen to this," I contended, as he picked up his hat, "this fellow Sullivan is a fugitive, and he's a lot more likely to make advances to Bronson than to us. We could have the case continued, release Bronson on bail and set a watch on him."
"Not my watch," McKnight protested. "It's a family heirloom."
"You'd better go home," I said firmly. "Go home and go to bed. You're sleepy. You can have Sullivan's red necktie to dream over if you think it will help any."
Mrs. Klopton's voice came drowsily from the next room, punctuated by a yawn. "Oh, I forgot to tell you," she called, with the suspicious lisp which characterizes her at night, "somebody called up about noon, Mr. Lawrence. It was long distance, and he said he would call again. The name was" - she yawned - "Sullivan."