The Man in Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rinehart - HTML preview
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I was growing more and more irritable. The thought of what the loss of the notes meant was fast crowding the murder to the back of my mind. The forced inaction was intolerable.
The porter had reported no bag answering the description of mine on the train, but I was disposed to make my own investigation. I made a tour of the cars, scrutinizing every variety of hand luggage, ranging from luxurious English bags with gold mountings to the wicker nondescripts of the day coach at the rear. I was not alone in my quest, for the girl in blue was just ahead of me. Car by car she preceded me through the train, unconscious that I was behind her, looking at each passenger as she passed. I fancied the proceeding was distasteful, but that she had determined on a course and was carrying it through. We reached the end of the train almost together - empty-handed, both of us.
The girl went out to the platform. When she saw me she moved aside, and I stepped out beside her. Behind us the track curved sharply; the early sunshine threw the train, in long black shadow, over the hot earth. Forward somewhere they were hammering. The girl said nothing, but her profile was strained and anxious.
"I - if you have lost anything," I began, "I wish you would let me try to help. Not that my own success is anything to boast of."
She hardly glanced at me. It was not flattering. "I have not been robbed, if that is what you mean," she replied quietly. "I am - perplexed. That is all."
There was nothing to say to that. I lifted my hat - the other fellow's hat - and turned to go back to my car. Two or three members of the train crew, including the conductor, were standing in the shadow talking. And at that moment, from a farm-house near came the swift clang of the breakfast bell, calling in the hands from barn and pasture. I turned back to the girl.
"We may be here for an hour," I said, "and there is no buffet car on. If I remember my youth, that bell means ham and eggs and country butter and coffee. If you care to run the risk - "
"I am not hungry," she said, "but perhaps a cup of coffee - dear me, I believe I am hungry," she finished. "Only - " She glanced back of her.
"I can bring your companion," I suggested, without enthusiasm. But the young woman shook her head.
"She is not hungry," she objected, "and she is very - well, I know she wouldn't come. Do you suppose we could make it if we run?"
"I haven't any idea," I said cheerfully. "Any old train would be better than this one, if it does leave us behind."
"Yes. Any train would be better than this one," she repeated gravely. I found myself watching her changing expression. I had spoken two dozen words to her and already I felt that I knew the lights and shades in her voice, - I, who had always known how a woman rode to hounds, and who never could have told the color of her hair.
I stepped down on the ties and turned to assist her, and together we walked back to where the conductor and the porter from our car were in close conversation. Instinctively my hand went to my cigarette pocket and came out empty. She saw the gesture.
"If you want to smoke, you may," she said. "I have a big cousin who smokes all the time. He says I am 'kippered.'"
I drew out the gun-metal cigarette case and opened it. But this most commonplace action had an extraordinary result: the girl beside me stopped dead still and stood staring at it with fascinated eyes.
"Is - where did you get that?" she demanded, with a catch in her voice; her gaze still fixed on the cigarette case.
"Then you haven't heard the rest of the tragedy?" I asked, holding out the case. "It's frightfully bad luck for me, but it makes a good story. You see - "
At that moment the conductor and porter ceased their colloquy. The conductor came directly toward me, tugging as he came at his bristling gray mustache.
"I would like to talk to you in the car," he said to me, with a curious glance at the young lady.
"Can't it wait?" I objected. "We are on our way to a cup of coffee and a slice of bacon. Be merciful, as you are powerful."
"I'm afraid the breakfast will have to wait," he replied. "I won't keep you long." There was a note of authority in his voice which I resented; but, after all, the circumstances were unusual.
"We'll have to defer that cup of coffee for a while," I said to the girl; "but don't despair; there's breakfast somewhere."
As we entered the car, she stood aside, but I felt rather than saw that she followed us. I was surprised to see a half dozen men gathered around the berth in which I had wakened, number seven. It had not yet been made up.
As we passed along the aisle, I was conscious of a new expression on the faces of the passengers. The tall woman who had fainted was searching my face with narrowed eyes, while the stout woman of the kindly heart avoided my gaze, and pretended to look out the window.
As we pushed our way through the group, I fancied that it closed around me ominously. The conductor said nothing, but led the way without ceremony to the side of the berth.
"What's the matter?" I inquired. I was puzzled, but not apprehensive. "Have you some of my things? I'd be thankful even for my shoes; these are confoundedly tight."
Nobody spoke, and I fell silent, too. For one of the pillows had been turned over, and the under side of the white case was streaked with brownish stains. I think it was a perceptible time before I realized that the stains were blood, and that the faces around were filled with suspicion and distrust.
"Why, it - that looks like blood," I said vacuously. There was an incessant pounding in my ears, and the conductor's voice came from far off.
"It is blood," he asserted grimly.
I looked around with a dizzy attempt at nonchalance. "Even if it is," I remonstrated, "surely you don't suppose for a moment that I know anything about it!"
The amateur detective elbowed his way in. He had a scrap of transparent paper in his hand, and a pencil.
"I would like permission to trace the stains," he began eagerly. "Also" - to me - "if you will kindly jab your finger with a pin - needle - anything - "
"If you don't keep out of this," the conductor said savagely, "I will do some jabbing myself. As for you, sir - " he turned to me. I was absolutely innocent, but I knew that I presented a typical picture of guilt; I was covered with cold sweat, and the pounding in my ears kept up dizzily. "As for you, sir - "
The irrepressible amateur detective made a quick pounce at the pillow and pushed back the cover. Before our incredulous eyes he drew out a narrow steel dirk which had been buried to the small cross that served as a head.
There was a chorus of voices around, a quick surging forward of the crowd. So that was what had scratched my hand! I buried the wound in my coat pocket.
"Well," I said, trying to speak naturally, "doesn't that prove what I have been telling you? The man who committed the murder belonged to this berth, and made an exchange in some way after the crime. How do you know he didn't change the tags so I would come back to this berth?" This was an inspiration; I was pleased with it. "That's what he did, he changed the tags," I reiterated.
There was a murmur of assent around. The doctor, who was standing beside me, put his hand on my arm. "If this gentleman committed this crime, and I for one feel sure he did not, then who is the fellow who got away? And why did he go?"
"We have only one man's word for that," the conductor snarled. "I've traveled some in these cars myself, and no one ever changed berths with me."
Somebody on the edge of the group asserted that hereafter he would travel by daylight. I glanced up and caught the eye of the girl in blue.
"They are all mad," she said. Her tone was low, but I heard her distinctly. "Don't take them seriously enough to defend yourself."
"I am glad you think I didn't do it," I observed meekly, over the crowd. "Nothing else is of any importance.
The conductor had pulled out his note-book again. "Your name, please," he said gruffly.
"Lawrence Blakeley, Washington."
"Attorney. A member of the firm of Blakeley and McKnight."
"Mr. Blakeley, you say you have occupied the wrong berth and have been robbed. Do you know anything of the man who did it?"
"Only from what he left behind," I answered. "These clothes - "
"They fit you," he said with quick suspicion. "Isn't that rather a coincidence? You are a large man."
"Good Heavens," I retorted, stung into fury, "do I look like a man who would wear this kind of a necktie? Do you suppose I carry purple and green barred silk handkerchiefs? Would any man in his senses wear a pair of shoes a full size too small?"
The conductor was inclined to hedge. "You will have to grant that I am in a peculiar position," he said. "I have only your word as to the exchange of berths, and you understand I am merely doing my duty. Are there any clues in the pockets?"
For the second time I emptied them of their contents, which he noted. "Is that all?" he finished. "There was nothing else?"
"That's not all, sir," broke in the porter, stepping forward. "There was a small black satchel."
"That's so," I exclaimed. "I forgot the bag. I don't even know where it is."
The easily swayed crowd looked suspicious again. I've grown so accustomed to reading the faces of a jury, seeing them swing from doubt to belief, and back again to doubt, that I instinctively watch expressions. I saw that my forgetfulness had done me harm - that suspicion was roused again.
The bag was found a couple of seats away, under somebody's raincoat - another dubious circumstance. Was I hiding it? It was brought to the berth and placed beside the conductor, who opened it at once.
It contained the usual traveling impedimenta - change of linen, collars, handkerchiefs, a bronze-green scarf, and a safety razor. But the attention of the crowd riveted itself on a flat, Russia leather wallet, around which a heavy gum band was wrapped, and which bore in gilt letters the name "Simon Harrington."