Geraldine Bonner.

The Black Eagle Mystery



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"Do you guess what a flame of rage burst up in me – what a passion to trap and bring to justice the man who could conceive and execute such a devilish thing? I could hardly wait to go. I was too wrought up to think out a reasonable course. Looking back on it today it seems like an act of madness, but I suppose a person in that state is half mad. I never thought of getting anybody to go with me, of applying to the police. I only saw myself finding Harland and accusing him. It's inconceivable – the irrational action of a woman beside herself with grief and fury.

"I called up the number he'd given me and told him I was coming on the first train I could catch. He told me at what hour that morning it would leave New York and when it would reach Quebec. He said he would send his servant, a French woman, to meet me at the depot as he didn't like to risk going himself. Then I left the house and went to the Grand Central Station, where I sat in the women's waiting room for the rest of the night.

"I did not get to Quebec till after midnight. The servant met me, put me in a sleigh that was waiting for us, and together we drove here.

"The house was lit up, every lower window bright. As we walked up the path from the gate I saw a man moving behind the shrubbery and called her attention to him. While she was opening the door with her key I noticed another loitering along the footpath by the gate, obviously watching us. This time I asked her why there should be men about at such an hour and on such a freezing night. She seemed bewildered and frightened, muttering something in French about having noticed them when she went out. In the hallway she directed me to a room on the upper floor, telling me, when I was ready, to go down to the dining-room where supper was waiting.

"I went upstairs and she followed, showing me where I was to go and then walking down the passage to another room. As I took off my wraps and hat I could hear her voice, loud and excited, telling someone of the two men we had seen. Another voice answered it – a man's – but pitched too low for me to make out the words.

"When I was ready I went downstairs and into the room. No one was about, there was not a sound. The fire was burning as it is now, the curtains drawn, and the table, set out with a supper, was brightly lit with candles and decorated with flowers. I stood here by the fire waiting, white, I suppose, as the tablecloth, for I was at the highest climax of excitement a human being can reach and keep her senses.

"Suddenly I heard steps on the stairs. I turned and made ready, moistening my lips which were stiff and felt like leather. The steps came down the passage – the door opened. There he was!

"That first second, when he entered as the lover and conqueror, he looked splendid. The worn and harassed air he had the last time I'd seen him was gone. He was at the highest pinnacle of his life, 'the very butt and sea mark of his sail,' and it was as if his spirit recognized it and flashed up in a last illuminating glow of fire and force.

"He was prepared for amazement, horror, probably fear from me.

The first shock he received was my face, showing none of these, quiet, and, I suppose, fierce with the hatred I felt. He stopped dead in the doorway, the confidence stricken out of him – just staring. Then he stammered:

"'Carol – you – you – '

"He was too astounded to say any more. I finished for him, my voice low and hoarse:

"'You think I didn't expect to see you. I did. I knew you were here – I came to find you. I came to tell you that I know how you killed Johnston Barker.'

"I don't think anyone has ever said he lacked courage. He was one of those bold and ruthless beings that came to their fullest flower during the Italian Renaissance – terrible and tremendous too. I've thought of him since as like one of the Borgias or Iago transplanted to our country and modern times. When he saw that I knew he went white, but he stood with the light of the candles bright on his ghastly face, straight and steady as a soldier before the cannon.

"'Johnston Barker,' he said very quietly – 'killed him? You bring me interesting news. I didn't know he was dead!'

"As I've told you I had come without plans, with no line of action decided upon. Now the futility, the blind rashness of what I had done was borne in upon me. His stoney calm, his measured voice, showed me I was pitted against an antagonist whose strength was to mine as a lion's to a mouse. The thought maddened me, I was ready to say anything to break him, to conquer and crush him and in my desperation – guided by some flash of intuition – I said the right thing:

"'Oh, don't waste time denying it. It's too late for that now. It's not I alone who knows – they know in New York – everything. How you did it, how you stole away, and where you are now. The net is around you – they've got you. There's no use any more in lies and tricks, for you can't escape them.'

"He had listened without a movement or a sign of agitation. But when I finished he straightened his shoulders and throwing up his head sent a glance of piercing question over the curtained windows. His whole being suggested something arrested and fiercely alert, not fear, but a wild concentration of energy, as if all his forces were aroused to meet a desperate call.

"Then suddenly he made a step forward, leaned across the table and spoke. I can't tell you all he said. It was so horrible and his face – it was like a demon's in its death throes! But it was about his love for me – that he'd done it all for me – that he could give me more than any woman ever had before – lay the world at my feet. And to come with him – now – we could get away – we had time yet. Oh!" she closed her eyes and shuddered at the memory – "I can't go on. He knew it was hopeless, he must have known then what the men outside meant. It was the last defiance – the last mad hope.

"And then I conquered him, not as I'd meant to do, not with any intention. All the horror and loathing I felt came out in what I said. Terrible words – how I hated him – all that had been locked up in me since I'd known the truth. His face grew so dreadful that I shrank back in this corner, and finally to hide it, hid my own in my hands.

"People do such strange things in life, not at all like what they do in books and plays. When I stopped speaking he said nothing, and dropping my hands I looked at him, not knowing what I'd see. He was standing very quiet, gazing straight in front of him, like a man thinking – deeply thinking, lost in thought.

"We were that way for a moment, so still you could hear the clock ticking, then, without a word or look at me, he turned and went out of the room.

"I was so paralyzed by the scene that for a space I stood where he'd left me, squeezed into the angle behind the mantelpiece, stunned and senseless. Then the sound of his feet on the stairs called me back to life. He was going, he was running away. I did not know myself then who the men outside were and thought he could easily make his escape.

"I ran out into the hall, calling to the French woman. She came, out of a door somewhere in the back part of the house, and I have a queer impression of her face by the light of a bracket lamp, almost ludicrous in its expression of fright. As I ran up the stairs I screamed to her to come, to follow me, and heard her steps racing along the passage and her panting exclamations of terror. At the stair head my ear caught the snap of a closing door and the click of a key turned in a lock. It came from the darkened end of the hall and as I ran down I cried to the woman, 'Get someone. Call. Get help.' Then and there she threw up a window and thrusting out her head screamed into the darkness, 'Au secours! Au secours!'

"A man's voice, close under the window, answered her and she flew past me to another staircase beyond in the darkness down which I could hear her clattering rush. Then there were the sound of steps, and the breaking of wood, sharp tearing noises mixed with the shouts of men. It all came together, for as I stood outside that locked door, listening to the woman's cries and the smashing of the wood below, sharp as a flash came the report of a pistol from the closed room.

"That's all. I didn't see him again, I couldn't. The police inspector – they've all been very kind, have done everything for me they could – let me see the statement. When you've read that you'll know everything – it'll be the last chapter. I can't tell it to you – it's more than I can bear."

She glanced at me and then suddenly looked away for tears, quick and unexpected, welled into her eyes. She put up one hand, pressing it against her eyelids, while the other lay still on the table. I leaned forward and laid mine over it. As she sat speechless, struggling with her moment of weakness, I looked at the two hands – mine big and hard and brown, almost hid hers, closing round it, sheltering and guarding it, as my life, if God willed it, would close round and shelter and guard hers.

I am coming to the end of my part of the story and it's only up to me now to give the final explanation – furnished by Harland's statement – of the strangest crime that had ever come within the ken of the Whitney office.

We all read the statement that day and that night in our sitting-room at the Frontenac, O'Mally, Babbitts and I talked it over. A good deal had to be supplemented by our own inside information. For anyone who had not our fuller knowledge there would have been many broken links in the chain. But to us it read as a clear, consecutive sequence of events. One thing I drew from it – almost as if Harland had told me himself – its unconscious revelation of the development in him of sinister possibilities that had lain dormant during the struggle of his early years. In middle life, his world conquered, two master passions, love of gain and love of a woman, had seized him, and swept him to his ruin.

I won't give it in his words, but in as plain and short a narrative as I can.

Harland had been the welcher in the Copper Pool and Barker had suspected him. This was the immediate cause of the murder. Back of that, the root from which the whole intricate crime grew, was his love of Carol Whitehall and determination to make her his wife.

Briefly outlined, his position with regard to her was as follows. His passion for her had started with the inauguration of the land company, but while she was grateful and friendly, he soon saw that she was nothing more. So he kept his counsel, making no attempt by word or look to disturb the harmony of their relations. But while he maintained the pose of a business partner he studied her and saw that she was ambitious, large in her aims, and aspiring. This side of her character was the one he decided to lay siege to. If he could not win her heart, he would amass a fortune and tempt her with its vast possibilities. His membership in the Copper Pool gave him the opportunity, and he saw himself able to lay millions at her feet.

On January fifth, he met Barker on the street and in the course of a short conversation learned that the head of the pool suspected his treachery. That half-expressed suspicion, with its veiled hint of publicity, planted the seed of murder in his mind.

It was not, however, till two days later that the seed sprouted. How his idea came to him indicated the condition of morbidly acute perception and wild recklessness he had reached. Walking up Fifth Avenue after dark he had seen a man standing under a lamp, lighting a pipe. The man, Joseph Sammis, was so like Barker, that he moved nearer to address him. A closer view showed him his mistake, but also showed him that Sammis, feeble in health, shabby and impoverished, was sufficiently like Barker to pass for him.

From that resemblance his idea expanded still further. He followed Sammis to his lodgings, had a conference with him, and told him he had work in Philadelphia which he wanted Sammis to undertake. The man, down to his last dollar, flattered and amazed at his good fortune, agreed at once. Though the work had not developed, it was necessary for Sammis to be on the ground and stay there awaiting instructions. Money was given him for proper clothes and an advance of salary. The date when he was to leave would be communicated to him within a few days. It would appear that Sammis never knew his benefactor's real name, but accepted the luck that came to him eagerly and without question. In his case the chief had guessed right – he was a "plant."

From this point the plot mushroomed out into its full dimensions. Harland and Barker were of a size, small, light and wiry, both men had gray hair and dark eyes. The features obliterated, clothes, personal papers and jewelry would be the only means of identification. The back office with its one egress through the other rooms was selected as the scene of the crime. Barker's body could be lowered from the cleat – tried and tested – to the floor below. Through his acquaintance with Ford and Miss Whitehall, Harland was familiar with the hours of the Azalea Woods Estates people. They would be gone when he went down, entered their office with the pass key he had procured, and made the change of clothing with his victim. His own disguise was a very simple matter. Through an acquaintance with actors in his youth he had learned their method of building up the nose by means of an adhesive paste – that and the white mustache were all he needed. He took one chance and one only – a gambler's risk – that the body might not be sufficiently crushed to escape recognition. This chance, as we know, went his way.

Gone thus far he had only to wait his opportunity. Against that he bought and concealed the rope, the blackjack for the blow, and the articles for his own transformation – all the properties of the grisly drama he was about to stage.

Meantime his scheme to win Carol was working out less successfully and the strain was wearing on him. On January fifteenth, his nerves stretched to the breaking point, he went to her determined to find out how she stood with Barker. Her answer satisfied him. He knew her to be truthful and when she told him she had no other than a filial affection for the magnate he believed her. The information she gave about Barker's intention of helping her, of having plans afoot for her future welfare, he seized upon and subsequently used.

He also, in that interview, learned that she had had a phone message from the magnate saying he was coming to her office that afternoon and would later go to the floor above to see Mr. Harland. When he heard this he knew that his time had come.

From her he went straight to a telephone booth, called up Barker's garage and gave Heney the instructions to meet him that night and take him to the Elizabeth Depot. That done he returned to the Black Eagle Building, saw that his stenographer and clerk were disposed to his satisfaction, and made ready for the final event.

The quarrel with Barker was genuine. The head of the Copper Pool burst into accusations of treachery and threatened immediate exposure. Sitting at the desk, engrossed in his anger, he did not notice Harland slip behind him. One blow of the blackjack delivered below the temple resulted in death, as instantaneous as it was noiseless. Fastening the rope about the body, Harland swung it from the cleat to the floor below, where in the darkness it would have been invisible at a distance of ten feet.

He then passed through the outer offices and went downstairs. He must have missed Carol by a few seconds. His knock being unanswered, he let himself in with his pass key, and walked through to the back room. Here he drew in the body, then curtaining the window, turned on the lights and effected the change of clothes, shaving off the mustache, and looking for the scarf pin which he couldn't find. He had just completed this when Ford entered – a terrible moment for him.

When Ford left his nerve was shaken and he realized he must finish the job at once. After he had done so he went back to the private office, carefully arranged his own disguise, and after waiting for over an hour, put on Barker's hat and coat and went down the service stairs.

He met no person or obstacle, skirted the back of the block and picked up Heney at the place designated. At the Elizabeth Station he bought a ticket to Philadelphia, but when he saw his chance, crossed the lines to the Jersey Central platform and boarded a local for Jersey City, from which by a devious route he made his way to Canada. It was in the waiting-room at the Jersey City depot that he removed his disguise.

In Toronto he sublet a small apartment, only going out at night, and keeping a close watch on the developments in New York which he followed through the papers. By these he learned that everything had worked out as he hoped, that the crime was unsuspected, and the public interest centered on the chase for Barker. All that now remained to complete his enterprise was to get Carol.

That his continued success must have given him an almost insane confidence is proved by the way he went about this last and most difficult step. Criminals all slip up somewhere. He had attended to the details of the murder with amazing skill and thoroughness. It was in his estimate of the character of Carol that he showed that blind spot in the brain they all have.

The only way to explain it is that he was so sure of his own powers, so confident that she was heart whole and would be unable to resist the temptation of his enormous wealth, that he took the final risk – sent for her in Barker's name. Her response to his first summons encouraged him. When she didn't come he had many reasons with which to buoy himself up – fears, illness, the impossibility of leaving her mother.

But it made him more cautious and he didn't venture again till the hue and cry for Barker had subsided and he had made a move to the last port of call on the St. Lawrence. That he had expected to take her by storm, win her consent and leave her no time to deliberate was proved by the fact that "Henry Santley" had engaged accommodations for himself and "sister" on the Megantic, sailing from Quebec at ten the next morning.

What had he intended to say to her, how was he going to explain? If he had not mentioned it in his statement we never would have known, for Carol did not give him time to tell. The story was simple and in the face of her supposed ignorance of the murder, might have satisfied her.

He was going to admit his duplicity in the Copper Pool – his excuse being he had done it for her. In his last interview with Barker he saw that discovery was imminent, and decided to drop out of sight. When he passed through his own office he was on his way out of the building, descending unseen by the stairs, and going immediately to Canada. When he read in the papers of the suicide, identified as Hollings Harland, no one was more surprised than he was.

How the mistake had been made he readily guessed. Some months before he had discharged one of his clerks for intemperance. The man, unable to get another job and in the clutch of his vice, had gone to the dogs, applying frequently to Harland for help. The lawyer, moved to pity, had given this in the form of clothing and money. On the afternoon of January fifteenth he had visited the Harland offices, in a suit of Harland's clothes, begging for money and threatening suicide. He was sunk to the lowest depths of degradation, for, during a few moments when he was alone in the private office, he had evidently searched among his employer's papers and taken a watch and chain which was lying on the desk, to be sent to a jeweler's for repairs. Startled in his hunt among the papers he had had no time to replace them and had put them in his pocket. After the man had gone Harland noticed the missing documents and jewelry but in the stress of his own affairs paid no attention to the theft. The next day when he read of the suicide, he remembered the man's threat to kill himself and realized he had done it later that afternoon. That the body, crushed beyond recognition, had been identified through the clothes, papers and watch as himself, he regarded as a lucky chance. Without his intervention a thing had occurred which forever severed him from the life he wished to be done with.

Such was Harland's crime as explained in Harland's statement. How we talked it over! How we mused on the slight happening that had brought it to light – a child at a window! Strange and wonderful! The hotel noises, the traffic in the street, faded into the silence of the night as we sat there, pondering, speculating, and awed too by this modern fall of Lucifer.



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