Geraldine Bonner.

The Black Eagle Mystery



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"That's so," said Ford, as Babbitts handed him the letters, "especially with his hat on. I noticed it myself." He selected two papers from the bunch and handed them to O'Mally. "There – those are the letters I spoke of. This one," he flicked it across the counterpane, "is just a note from Harland making a date. I don't know how I happened to keep it."

They were the three letters Babbitts had taken after the attack, copies of which at that moment were lying in O'Mally's pocket.

It was not till they were out on the hospital steps that they dared to speak. O'Mally's face was a study, his mouth drooped down to his chin and his eyes dismal and despairing like he'd come from a tragedy.

"Well!" he said, "what do you make of that?"

"Zero!"

"Not a thing to do with it, hasn't a suspicion of it, no more involved in it than that sparrow there," he pointed to a sparrow that had lit on the step near-by. "I've had setbacks in my profession before – but this!" He stopped, stuck his hands into his pockets and stared blankly at the sparrow.

"Well, if it lets him out," said Babbitts, "it tightens the cords round the other two."

"Um," agreed O'Mally, still gazing stonily at the sparrow, "that's what keeps your spirits up."

"With him eliminated the whole thing concentrates on her and Barker."

"It does, my son." O'Mally roused up and came out of his depression. "Instead of a brain and a pair of hands as we've called it, it was a brain and one hand – the smart hand, the right. That was the woman."

He turned and began to descend the steps, taking Babbitts by the arm to draw him closer and speaking low:

"Do you see how it went? They were in the private office when Ford came back – she and Barker and the dead man. When they heard him come they switched off the light and locked the door – and, Great Scott, can you imagine how they felt! Shut in there in the dark with their victim, not knowing who Ford could be or what he was doing, listening to him rummaging round, his steps coming nearer, his hand on the doorknob! I'm too familiar with murder to see any terrors in it – but that situation! I've never known the beat of it in all my experience. Then when Ford goes – on his very heels – over and out with the thing they'd killed. And both of them back there again, or maybe stealing to the front windows and taking a look down at the crowd below."

They walked up the street arm in arm, talking in hushed voices. As he looked at the faces of the people that passed the thought came to Babbitts that in a short time, maybe a few days, they'd be reading in the papers of the awful crime not one of them now had a suspicion of.

CHAPTER XV
MOLLY TELLS THE STORY

I heard all this late that night from Babbitts. But there was more to it than I've told in the last chapter, for after they left the hospital O'Mally and Babbitts went to the Whitney office and had a s?ance with the old man and Mr.

George.

Though Ford had disappointed them his story had made the way clear for a decisive move. This was decided upon then and there. On Monday morning they would ask Miss Whitehall to come to Whitney & Whitney's and subject her to a real examination. If she maintained her pose of ignorance they would suddenly face her with their complete information. They felt tolerably certain this would be too much for her, secure in her belief that no murder had been suspected. Surprise and terror would seize her, even a hardened criminal, placed unexpectedly in such a position, was liable to break down.

The next day was Sunday. I'll not forget it in a hurry. Many a high pressure day I've had in my twenty-five years but none that had anything over that one. It was gray and overcast, clouds low down over the roofs which stretched away in a gray huddle of flat tops and slanting mansards and chimneys and clotheslines. Babbitts spent the morning on the davenport looking like he was in a boat floating through a sea of newspapers. I couldn't settle down to anything, thinking of what was going to happen the next morning, thinking of that girl, that beautiful girl, with her soul stained with crime, and wondering if she could feel the shadow that was falling across her.

After lunch Himself went out saying he'd take a shot at finding Freddy Jaspar and going with him up to Yonkers where there'd been some anarchist row. He was restless too. If things turned out right he'd get his Big Story at last – and what a story it would be! – he'd get a raise for certain, and as he kissed me good-bye he said he'd give me the two glass lamps and a new set of furs, anything I wanted short of sable or ermine.

In the afternoon Iola dropped in all dolled up and decked with a permanent smile, for she'd landed her new job and liked it fine. As she prattled away she let drop something that caught my ear, and lucky it was as you'll see presently. On her way over she'd met Delia, the Whitehalls' maid, who told her the ladies were going to move back to the Azalea Woods Estates where someone had given them a cottage. Delia had just been to see them and found that Mrs. Whitehall had already gone, and Miss Whitehall was packing up to follow on Monday afternoon. Iola thought it was nice they'd got the cottage but didn't I think Miss Whitehall would be afraid of the dullness of the country after living in town? I said you never could tell. What I thought was that if there was anything for Miss Whitehall to be afraid of it wasn't dullness.

At six Iola left, having a date for supper, and a little after that I had a call from Babbitts, saying he and Freddy Jaspar had found the anarchist business more important than they expected and he wouldn't be home till all hours.

Isabella doesn't come on Sunday so I got my own supper and then sat down in the parlor and tried to read the papers. But I couldn't put my mind on them. In a few days, perhaps as soon as Tuesday, the Dispatch would have the Harland murder on the front page. I could see the headlines – the copy reader could spread himself – and I tried to work out how Babbitts would write it, where he'd begin – with the crime itself or with all the story that came before it.

It was near eleven and me thinking of bed when there was a ring at the bell. That's pretty late for callers, even in a newspaper man's flat, and I jumped up and ran into the hall. After I'd jammed the push button, I opened the door, spying out for the head coming up the stairs. It came – a derby hat and a pair of broad shoulders, and then Jack Reddy's face, raised to mine, grave and frowning.

"Hello, Molly," he said. "It's late, but I couldn't find any of the others so I came to you."

If he hadn't seen anyone he didn't know what had transpired. The thought made me bubble up with eagerness to tell him the new developments. That was the reason, I guess, I didn't notice how serious he was, not a smile of greeting, not a handshake. He didn't even take off his coat, but throwing his hat on one of the hallpegs, said:

"I've only just got in from Buffalo. I phoned to the Whitney house from the Grand Central, but they're both out of town, not to be back till tomorrow morning, and O'Mally's away too. Do you know how Ford is?"

"You bet I do. He's sat up, taken nourishment and talked."

"Talked? Have they seen him?"

"They have." I turned away and moved up the hall. "Come right in and I'll tell you."

I went into the dining-room where the drop light hung bright over the table, and was going on to the parlor when I heard his voice, loud and commanding, behind me:

"What's he said?"

I whisked round and there he was standing by the table, his eyes fixed hard and almost fierce on me.

"Won't you come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly," I said laughing, just to tease him. He answered without the ghost of a smile:

"No. Go on quick. What did Ford say?"

"All right." I dropped down into Babbitts' chair and motioned him to mine. "Sit down there. It's a long story and I can't tell it to you if you stand in front of me like a patience on a monument."

He took the chair and putting his elbows on the table, raised his hands, clasped together, and leaned his mouth on them. The light fell full on his face and over those clasped hands his eyes stared at me so fixed and steady they looked the eyes of an image. I don't think while I told him he ever batted a lid and I know he never said a word.

"So you see," I said, when I was through, "Ford's as much out of it as you are."

Without moving his hands he asked:

"What do they think?"

"Why, what do you suppose they think? Instead of there being three of them in it there were two."

"They think she and Barker did it?"

"Of course. They've worked it out this way" – I leaned over the table, my voice low, giving him the details of their new theory. As I told it there was something terrible in those eyes. All the kindness went out of them and a fire came in its place till they looked like crystals with a flame behind them.

When I finished he spoke and this time his voice sounded different, hoarse and muffled:

"Have they made any plan? Decided on their next step?"

"They've got it all arranged," and I went on about the interview that was planned for the next morning. "With her thinking herself safe the way she does, they're sure they can give her such a jolt she'll lose her nerve and tell."

He gave an exclamation, not words, just a choked, fierce sound, and dropping his hands on the table, burst out like a volcano:

"The dogs! The devils! Dragging her down there to terrify a lie out of her!"

He leaped to his feet, sending the chair crashing down on the floor. I fell back where I sat paralyzed, not only by his words, but at the sight of him.

I think I've spoken of the fact that he had a violent temper and he's told me himself that he's conquered it. But now for the first time I saw it and believe me it was far from dead. I would hardly have known him. His face was savage, his eyes blazing, and the words came from him as if they were shot out on the breaths that broke in great heaving gasps from his lungs.

"Haven't you," he said, "a woman, any heart in you? Are you, that I've always thought all kindness and generosity, willing to hound an innocent girl to her ruin?"

He grabbed the back of a chair near him and leaned over it glaring at me, shaking, gasping, and the color of ashes.

"But – but," I faltered, "she's done it."

"She hasn't," he shouted. "You're all fools, imbeciles, mad. It's a lie – an infamous, brutal lie!"

He dropped the chair and turned away, beginning to pace up and down, his hands clenched, raging to himself. The room was full of the sound of his breathing, as if some great throbbing piece of machinery was inside him.

And I – there in my seat, fallen limp against the back – saw it all. What a fool I'd been – what an idiot! He with his empty heart and that beautiful girl – the girl that any man might have loved and how much more Jack Reddy, knowing her poor and lonesome and believing her innocent and persecuted. I felt as if the skies had fallen on me. My hero – that I'd never found a woman good enough for – in love with a murderess!

He stopped in his pacing and tried to get a grip on himself, tried to speak quietly with his voice gone to a husky murmur:

"Tomorrow do you say? Tomorrow they're going to do this damnable thing?"

"Tomorrow at ten in Mr. Whitney's office," I answered, weak and trembling.

He stood for a moment looking on the ground, his brows drawn low over his eyes, the bones of his jaw showing set under the flesh. A deadly fear seized me – a fear that followed on a flash of understanding. I got up – I guess as white as he was – and went over to him.

"Jack," I said. "You can't do anything. Everything's against her. There's not a point that doesn't show she's guilty."

He gave me a look from under his eyebrows like the thrust of a sword.

"Don't say that to me again, Molly," he almost whispered, "or I'll forget the debt I owe you and the affection I've felt for you since the day we swore to be friends."

"What can you do?" I cried, fairly distracted. "They've got the evidence. It's there – "

I tried to put my hand on his arm but he shook it off and walked toward the door. I followed him and during those few short steps from the dining-room to the hall, it came to me as clear as if he'd said it that he was going to Carol Whitehall to help her run away.

"What are you going to do?" I said, standing in the doorway as he pulled his hat off the peg and turned toward the hall door.

"That's my affair," he threw back over his shoulder.

He had his hand on the knob when a thought – an inspiration flashed on me. I don't know where it came from, but when you're fond of a person and see them headed for a precipice, I believe you get some sort of wireless communication from Heaven or some place of that order.

"Miss Whitehall's not in town now," I said.

He stopped short and looked back at me:

"Where is she?"

"They've gone back to New Jersey. Some people loaned them a cottage in the Azalea Woods Estates."

"I knew that – but they're not there yet?"

"Yes. They went yesterday, sooner than they expected."

He stood for a moment, looking at the floor, then glanced back at me and said:

"Thank you for telling me that. Good night."

The door opened, banged shut and I was alone.

I wonder if anyone reading this story can imagine what I felt. It was awful, so awful that now, here, writing it down peaceful and happy, I can feel the sinking at my heart and the sick sensation like I could never eat food again. And laugh? It was an art I'd lost and never in this world would get back.

It was not only that he loved her —that woman, that vampire, who could sin at the word of an old man – but it was the thought, the certainty, that he was ready to betray his trust, go back on his partners, be a traitor to his office. All the work they'd done, all the hopes they'd built up, all their efforts for success, he was going to destroy. It was disgrace for him, he'd never get over it, he'd be an outcast. As long as he lived he'd be pointed at as the man who gave his honor for the love of a wicked woman.

That was the first of my thoughts and the second was that I wasn't going to let him do it. There was just one way of preventing it, and honest to God – think as badly of me as you like, I can't help it – when I got what that way was I was so relieved I didn't care whether I was a traitor or not. All that mattered then was if there'd got to be one – and as far as I could see there had to – it was better for it to be Molly Babbitts, who didn't amount to much in the world, than Jack Reddy, who was a big man and was going to be a bigger.

As I put on my coat and hat I heard the clock strike half-past eleven. There were no trains out to the Azalea Woods Estates before seven the next morning. Even if he took his own auto, which I guessed he'd do, it would take him the best part of an hour and a half to get there, and long before that she'd have had her warning from me.

Yes – that's what I was going to do – go to her and tell her before he could. Dishonest? Well, I guess yes! I know what's straight from what's crooked as well as most. But it seemed to me the future of a man, thatman – was worth more than my pledged word, or the glory of Whitney & Whitney, or Babbitts' scoop. That was the cruelest of all – my own dear beloved Soapy – to go back on him too! Gosh! – going over in the taxi through the dark still streets, how I felt! But it didn't matter. If Idied when I was through I'd got to do it. Maybe you never experienced those sensations, maybe you can't understand. But, take it from me, there are people who'd break all the commandments and all the laws to save their friends and, bad or good, I'm one of them.

CHAPTER XVI
MOLLY TELLS THE STORY

As the taxi rolled up to her corner I saw that the windows of her floor were bright. She was still up, which would make things easier – much better than having to wake her from her sleep. In that sort of apartment they lock the outer doors at half-past ten and to get at the bells you have to wake the janitor, which I didn't want to do, as no one must know I'd been there. So before I rang the outside bell that connects with his lair in the basement, I tried the door, hoping some late comer had left it on the jar as they sometimes do. It opened – an immense piece of luck – which made me feel that fate was on my side and braced me like a tonic.

In the vestibule I pressed the button under her letter box and in a minute came the click, click of the inner latch and I entered. As I ascended the stairs I heard the door on the landing above softly open and looking up I saw a bright light illumine the dimness and then, through the balustrade, her figure standing on the threshold.

She must have been surprised for the person who mounted into her sight – a girl in a dark coat and hat – was someone she'd never seen before. She pushed the door wider, as if to let more light on me, looking puzzled at my face. The one electric bulb was just above her on the wall and its sickly gleam fell over her, tall and straight in a purple silk kimono. Her black hair curling back from her forehead stood out like a frame, and her neck, between the folds of the kimono, was as smooth and white as cream. The sight of her instead of weakening me gave me strength, for in that sort of careless rig, tired and pale, she was still handsome enough to make a fool of any man.

"Do you want to see me?" she said, "Miss Whitehall?"

"I do," I answered. "I want to see you on a matter of importance. It can't wait."

Without another word she drew back from the doorway and let me come in.

"Go in there," she said, pointing up the hall to the curtained entrance of the dining-room, and I went as she pointed.

The room was brightly lit, as was the parlor beyond, and on every side were the signs of moving – curtains piled below the windows, furniture in white covers, straw and bits of paper on the floor. Two trunks were standing in the middle of the parlor and on the chairs about were her clothes, all tumbled and mixed up, boots in one place, hats in another, lingerie heaped on the table. There was enough packing to keep her busy till morning, and I thought to myself that was what she intended to do – finish it up tonight and the next day make her move.

All this took only a minute to see and I was standing by the dining-table, clutching tight on my muff to hide the trembling of my hands, when she came in. In the brighter light I could see that she looked worn and weary, all her color gone except for the red of her lips, and her eyes sunken and dark underneath.

"What do you want with me?" she said, as the curtain fell behind her.

Her manner was abrupt and straight from the shoulder like a person's who's got past little pleasantnesses and politeness. The glance she fixed on me was steady and clear, but there was a sort of waiting expectation in it like she was ready for anything and braced to meet it.

"I came," I said, choosing my words as careful as I could, "to tell you of – of – something that's going to happen – to warn you."

She gave a start and her face changed, as if a spring inside her had snapped and sort of focussed her whole being into a still, breathless listening.

"Warn me," she repeated. "Of what?"

"Miss Whitehall," I said, clearing my throat, for it was dry, "I'm a person you don't know, but I know you. I've been employed by people here in New York who've been watching you for the past few weeks. They've got the evidence they want – I've been helping them – and they're ready to act."

As I had spoken she had never taken her eyes off me. Big and black and unwinking they stared and as I stared back I could see it wasn't surprise or fear they showed but a concentrated attention.

"What do you mean – act in what way?"

"Get you to their office tomorrow and question you about the Harland case and make you confess."

She was as still as a statue. You'd have thought she was turned to stone, but for the moving up and down of her chest.

"What am I to confess? What have I done?"

My hands gripped together in my muff and my voice went down to my boots for I couldn't say it aloud.

"Been a party to the murder of Hollings Harland."

When I said it I had an expectation that she'd say something, deny it in some violent way that would make me think she was innocent. Maybe Jack Reddy had influenced me, but I wanted it, I looked for it, I hoped for it – and I was disappointed. If it had been a shock to her, if shehadn't known there'd been a murder, she would never have behaved as she did. For she said not a word, standing stock still, her face chalk white, even the red fading from her lips, and her eyes fixed on the wall opposite, like the eyes of a sleep-walker.

"The murder of Hollings Harland," she whispered, and it was more as if she was speaking to herself than to me.

"Yes," I went on. "They've discovered it – a group of us have been working in secret, following the clues and gathering the evidence. Now we've got it all ready and tomorrow they expect to arrest you."



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