Geraldine Bonner.

The Black Eagle Mystery



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I spent the next few hours in my own office, sitting at the desk. Every nerve was as tight as a violin string, hope and dread changing places in my mind. Awful hours, now when I look back on them. The whole thing hung on a chance. If her recent communications with Barker had been by letter, if her mother knew nothing, there was a fighting hope for her. But if she knew his number and had phoned – if her flight had been planned and Mrs. Whitehall did know! I remembered her as I'd seen her in the country, a fragile, melancholy woman. What chance had she with the men pitted against her?

I don't know what time it was, but the sun had swung round to the window, when I heard steps in the passage and a woman's voice, high and quavering. I leaped up and entered the chief's office by one door as Mrs. Whitehall, George and O'Mally came in by the other.

She looked pale and shriveled. I didn't then know what they'd said to her, whether they'd already tried their damnable third degree. But they hadn't, all they had done was to tell her her daughter had been wanted at the Whitney office and couldn't be found. That scared her, she'd come with them at once, only insisting that they stop at the flat and let her see that Carol was not there. This they did, admitting afterward that her surprise and alarm struck them as absolutely genuine.

These emotions were plain on her face; any fool could see she was racked with fear and anxiety. It was stamped on her features, it was in her wildly questioning eyes.

"Mr. Whitney," she said, without preamble or greeting, "what does this mean? Where is my daughter?"

The old man was as courteous as ever, but under the studied urbanity of his manner, I could feel the knife-edged sharpness that only cut through when his blood was up.

"That is what we want to know from you, Mrs. Whitehall. We needed some information from your daughter this morning and we find that she has – I think I may say, fled. Where to, surely you, her mother, must know."

"No," she cried, her hollow eyes riveted on his. "No. She was coming to me this afternoon, everything was arranged, ready and waiting. And now she's gone, and you, you men here, want to find her. What is it? There's something strange, something I don't know." Her glance moved over the watching faces. They were ominously unresponsive. Where she looked for hope or help she saw nothing but a veiled menace, every moment growing clearer.

"What is it?" she cried, her voice rising to a higher note, shrill and shaking. "What is the matter? Tell me. You know – you know something you're hiding from me?"

"We think that of you, Mrs. Whitehall," said the chief, ponderous and lowering, "and we want to hear it. The time has come for frankness. Hold nothing back for, as you say, we know."

The woman gave a gasp and took a step nearer to him:

"Then for God's sake tell me. Where has she gone?"

His answer came like the spring of an animal on its prey:

"To join her lover, Johnston Barker."

If he expected to have it strike with an impact he was not disappointed.

She fell back as if threatened by a blow, and for a second stood transfixed, aghast, her lower jaw dropped, staring at him. Amazement isn't the word for the look on her face, it was a stupefaction, a paralysis of astonishment. The shock was so violent it swept away all anxiety for her daughter, but it also snapped the last frail remnant of her nerve. From her pale lips her voice broke in a wild, hysterical cry:

"Her lover! He was her father!"

CHAPTER XVIII
JACK TELLS THE STORY

In the moment of silence which followed that sentence you could hear the fire snap and the tick of the clock on the mantel. I saw the men's faces held in expressions of amazement so intense they looked like caricatures. I saw Mrs. Whitehall try to say something, then with a rustle and a broken cry crumple up in a chair, her face hidden, stuttering, choked sounds coming from behind her hands.

That broke the tension. Like a piece of machinery momentarily out of gear, the group adjusted itself and snapped back into action. All but me – I stood as I had been standing when Mrs. Whitehall spoke those words. My outward vision saw their moving figures, their backs as they crowded round her, a hand that held a glass to her lips, her face bent toward the glass, ashen and haggard. I saw but realized nothing. For a moment I was on another plane of existence, seemed to be shot up into it. I don't tell it right – a fellow who doesn't know how to write can't explain a feeling like that. You've got to fill it in out of your imagination. A man who's been in hell gets suddenly out – that's the best way I can describe it.

I didn't get back to my moorings, come down from the clouds to the solid ground, till the scene by the table was over. Mrs. Whitehall was sitting up, a little color in her cheeks, mistress of herself again. They'd evidently said something to lull her fears about Carol for the distraction of her mood was gone. It wasn't till I saw the narrowed interest of George's eyes, the hungry expectation of O'Mally's watching face, that I remembered they were still on the scent of a murder in which Barker's daughter was as much involved as Barker's fianc?e. Thatbrought me back to the moment and its meaning like an electric shock.

I made a stride forward, to get closer, to hear them, for they were at the table again, waiting on the words of Mrs. Whitehall. The first sentence that struck my ear aptly matched her pitiful appearance:

"Gentlemen, I'm broken. I've been through too much."

The chief answered very gently:

"Having said what you have, would it not be wisdom to tell us everything? We pledge ourselves to secrecy."

She nodded, a gesture of weary acquiescence.

"Oh, yes. I don't mind telling – it was to be told; but," she dropped her eyes to her hands clasped in her lap. In that position her likeness to Carol, as she had sat there a few weeks before, was singularly striking. "I'll have to go back a good many years, before my child was born, before the world had heard of Johnston Barker."

"Wherever you want, Mrs. Whitehall," the chief murmured. "We're entirely at your service."

She drew a deep breath and without raising her eyes said:

"I was married to Johnston Barker twenty-eight years ago in Idaho. He was a miner then and I was a school teacher, nineteen years old, an orphan with no near relations. I was not strong and had gone to the Far West for my health. Under the unaccustomed work I broke down, developing a weakness of the lungs, and casual friends, the parents of a pupil, took me with them to a distant mining camp for the drier air. There I met Johnston and we became engaged.

"In those days in such remote places there were no churches or clergymen and contract marriages were recognized. I did not believe in them, would not at first consent to such a ceremony, but a great strike taking place in a distant camp, he prevailed upon me to marry him by contract, the friends with whom I was living acting as witnesses.

"The place to which he took me was wild and inaccessible, connecting by trails with other camps and by a long stage journey with a distant railway station. We lived there for a month – happy as I have never been since. Then a woman, a snake in the garden, finding out how I had married hinted to me that such contracts were illegal. I don't know why she did it – I've often wondered – but there are people in the world who take a pleasure in spoiling the joy of others.

"I didn't tell Johnston but resolved when an opportunity came to stand up with him before an ordained minister. It came sooner than I hoped. Not six weeks after we were man and wife a 'missioner' made a tour through the mining camps of that part of the state. He would not come to ours – we were too small and distant – so I begged my husband to go to him, tell him our case and bring him back. It would have been better for us both to have gone, but I was sick – too young and ignorant to know the cause of my illness – and Johnston, who seemed willing to do anything I wanted, agreed.

"We calculated that the trip – on horseback, over half-cut mountain trails – would take three or four days there and back. At the end of the fifth day he had not returned and I was in a fever of anxiety. Then again that woman came to me with her poisoned words: I was not a legal wife; could he, knowing this, have taken the opportunity to desert me? God pity her for the deadly harm she did. Sick, alone, inexperienced, eaten into by horrible doubts, I waited till two weeks had passed. Then I was sure that he had done as she said – left me.

"I won't go over that – the past is past. I took what money I had and made my way to the railway. From there by slow stages, for by this time I was ill in mind and body, I got as far as St. Louis, where, my money gone, unable to work, I wrote to an uncle of my mother's, a doctor, whom I had never seen but of whom she had often spoken to me.

"Men like him make us realize there is a God to inspire, a Heaven to reward. He came at once, took me to his home in Indiana, and nursed me back to health. He was a father to me, more than a father to the child I had. No one knew me there – no one but he ever heard my story. I took a new name, from a distant branch of his family, and passed as a widow. When my little girl was old enough to understand I told her her father had died before she was born.

"We lived there for twenty-four years. Before the end of that time the name of Johnston Barker rose into prominence. My uncle hated it – would not allow it mentioned in his presence. When he died three years ago, he left us all he had – fifty thousand dollars, a great fortune to us. Then Carol, who had chafed at the narrow life of a small town, persuaded me to come to New York. I had no fear of meeting Barker, our paths would never cross, and to please her was my life.

"She is not like me, fearful and timid, but full of daring and ambition. When the farm we bought in New Jersey suddenly increased in value and the land scheme was suggested, she wanted to try it. At first it wasn't possible as we hadn't enough money. It was not until she met Mr. Harland at a friend's house in Azalea, that the plan became feasible for he was taken with the idea at once. After visiting the farm a few times, and talking it over with her, he offered to come in as a silent partner, putting up the capital.

"The move to town alarmed me. There, in business, she might run across the man who was her father – and this is exactly what happened. You've seen my daughter – you know what she is. Looking at me now you may not realize that she is extraordinarily like what I was when Johnston Barker married me.

"He saw her first in the elevator at the Black Eagle Building. Men always noticed her – she was used to it – but that night she told me laughing of the old man who had stared at her in the elevator, stared and stared and couldn't take his eyes off. My heart warned me, and when I heard her description I knew who he was and why he stared.

"After that there was no peace for me. I had a haunting terror that he would find out who she was and might try to claim her. This increased when she told me of his visit to her office to buy the lot – an excuse I understood – and his questions about her former home. Then I tried to quiet myself with the assurances that he could not possibly guess – he had never heard the name of Whitehall in connection with me, he had never known a child was expected.

"But a night came when I was put with my back against the wall. She returned from work, gay and excited, saying Mr. Barker had been in the office that afternoon and asked her if he might call and meet her mother. The terrible agitation that threw me into betrayed me. I couldn't evade her eyes or her questions, and I told her. She was horrified, stunned. I can't tell you what she said – I can only make you understand her feelings by saying she loved me as few daughters love their mothers.

"After that – ah, it was horrible! She tried to cancel the sale, but he – of course, he was angry and puzzled by the change in her, could make nothing out of it, and finally insisted on knowing what had happened. There was no escape for her and taking him into the private office they had an interview in which he forced the truth from her.

"Johnston Barker's life has been full of great things, triumphs and conquests. But I think that hour in the Azalea Woods Estates office must have been the crowning one of his career. To hear that Carol, my wonderful Carol, was his child! He had had no suspicion of it until then. He told her he had been interested by her strange likeness to me, had thought she might be some distant connection, who could give him news of his lost wife.

"For – here is the bitter part of it – he had come back. In that long mountain journey an accident, a fall from his horse, had injured him. He had been found unconscious by a party of miners who had taken him to their camp and cared for him. For two weeks he lay at death's door, no one knowing who he was, or understanding the wanderings of his delirium. When he returned I was gone – lost like a raindrop in the ocean. He was too poor to hire the aid that might have found me then. He went back to his work, moved to other camps, struggled and thrived. In time the story of his marriage was forgotten. Those who remembered it set it down as an illegal connection, a familiar incident in the miner's roving life.

"Years later, when he grew rich he hunted for me, but it was too late. Then he turned his whole attention to business, flung himself into it. The making of money filled his life, became his life till he saw the girl in the elevator, who so strikingly resembled the woman he had loved in his youth.

"This was what he told Carol and this she believed. She was convinced of the truth of every word and tried to convince me. But I was full of suspicions. Having found himself the father of such a girl might he not go to any lengths to gain her love and confidence? His life was empty, he was lonely, Carol would have been the consolation and pride of his old age. Gentlemen – " she looked at the listening faces – "can you blame me? A youth blasted, years of brooding bitterness – might not that make a woman incredulous and slow to trust again?

"When she saw the way I took it she went about the business of proving it. Through a lawyer she learned that contract marriages at that time in that state were valid. I had been Johnston Barker's wife and she was legitimate. But I hung back. Many things moved me. He wanted to acknowledge us, take us to live with him and I shrank from all that publicity and clamor. Also – I am telling everything – I think I was jealous of him, fearful that he might take from me some of the love which had made my life possible.

"I knew she saw him often, and that she heard from him by letter. All through the end of December and the early part of January she urged and pleaded with me. And finally I gave in – I had to, I couldn't stand between her and what he could give her – and the day came when I consented to see him. That day was the fifteenth of January."

George cleared his throat and O'Mally stirred uneasily in his chair. The old man rumbled an encouraging "fifteenth of January," and she went on:

"She left in the morning greatly excited, telling me she would phone him that she had good news and would bring him home with her that evening. She was radiant with joy and hope when I kissed her good-bye. When she returned that night – long after her usual time – all that hope and joy were dashed to the ground.

"As you know, she did see him that afternoon and told him of my consent. He appeared overjoyed and said he would come, but first must go to Mr. Harland's offices on the floor above to talk over a matter of great importance. This, he said, would probably occupy half to three-quarters of an hour, after which he would return to her. As they wished to avoid all possibility of gossip through her clerks or the people in the building, they decided not to meet in her offices, but in the church which is next door. From there they would take a cab and come to me.

"The appointment was for a quarter-past six. Carol was ahead of time and waited for him over an hour, then came home, shattered, broken, almost unable to speak – for, as you know, he never came."

She paused, her face tragic with the memory of that last, unexpected blow. No one spoke, and looking round at them, she threw out her hands with a gesture of pleading appeal:

"What could I think? Was it unnatural for me to disbelieve him again? Hasn't all that's come out shown he was what I'd already found him – false to his word and his trust?"

"Does your daughter think that, too?" asked the chief.

"No. She believes in him, even now, with him in hiding and branded as a traitor. But that's Carol – always ready to trust where her heart is. She says it's all right, that he'll come back and clear himself, but I can see how she's suffering, how she's struggling to keep her hopes alive."

I burst out – wild horses couldn't have kept me quiet any longer. Reaching a long arm across the table, without any consciousness that I was doing it, I laid my hand on Mrs. Whitehall's:

"How did she get out of the building that night?"

She looked surprised, and strangely enough embarrassed.

"Why – why – " she stammered, and then suddenly, "you seem to know so much here – do you know anything about Mr. Harland and Carol?"

"Something," said the chief guardedly.

"Everything," I shot out, not caring for her, or him, or the case, or anything but the answer to my question.

"Then I don't mind telling you, though Carol wouldn't like it." She glanced tentatively at me. "Did you know he was in love with her?"

"All about it. Yes. Go on – "

"She went down by the stairs, all those flights, to avoid him. I guessed the way he felt about her. I knew it soon after the business was started and told her but she only laughed at me. That afternoon, when he came to her office, she saw I was right. Not that he said anything definite, but by his manner, the questions he asked her. He was wrought up and desperate, I suppose, and let her see that he was jealous of Mr. Barker, demanding the truth, whether she loved him, whether she intended marrying him. She was angry, but seeing that he had lost control of himself, told him that her feeling for Mr. Barker was that of a daughter to a father and never would be anything else. That seemed to quiet him and he went away.

"When she was leaving her offices she heard foot-steps on the floor above and looking up saw him through the balustrade walking to the stair head. She at once thought he was coming to see her and not wanting any more conversation with him, stole out and down the hall to the side corridor, where the service stairs are. Her intention was to pick up the elevator on the floor below, but on second thoughts she gave this up and walked the whole way. Finding her gone he would probably take the elevator himself and they might meet in the car or the entrance hall. Of course we know now she was all wrong. It was not to see her he was coming down, it was to make up his mind to die."

My actions must have surprised them. For without a word to Mrs. Whitehall I jumped up and left the room – I couldn't trust myself to speak, I had to be alone. In my own office I shut the door and stood looking with eyes that saw nothing out of the window, over the roofs to where the waters of the bay glittered in the sun. Have you ever felt a relief so great it made you shaky? Probably not – but wait till you're in the position I was. The room rocked, the distance was a golden blue as I whispered with lips that were stiff and dry:

"Thank God! Oh, thank God! Oh, thank God!"

I don't know how long a time passed – maybe an hour, maybe five minutes – when the door opened and George's head was thrust in:

"What are you doing shut in here? Get a move on – we want you. The telephone returns have come."

I followed him back. Mrs. Whitehall was not there – the chief and O'Mally had their heads together over a slip of paper.

"Here you, Jack," said the old man turning sharply on me. "You've got to go out tonight with O'Mally. They're in Quebec."

He handed me the slip of paper. On it was one memorandum. The night before at 12.05 New York, Lenox 1360 had called up Quebec, St. Foy 584.



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