Tuesday, 2 February 2016
The Stalking Death - Part 6 of 9
The Stalking Death - Part 6 of 9
Lacey Amy’s Newest and Most Dramatic Story (Luke Allan)
A serialized novel from The Canadian Magazine, December, 1932. Illustrated by Carl Shreve
Digitized by Doug Frizzle, January, 2016.
The story so far
A group of six jewellers have banded together to defraud an elderly widow, Mrs. Charlesworth, by purchasing from her some almost priceless jade carvings, after one and another of them had declared these carvings virtually worthless.
Phyliss Aulinloch, wife of Adolph Aulinloch, one of the jewellers, whom she has married in a fit of pique when her engagement with Brander Charlesworth, son of the widow, was broken, is startled by the sudden blast of a police whistle. She looks out of the window to see a crumpled form on the steps of the house opposite. It turns out to be Fergus Stirling, one of the conspiring jewelers, and Aulinloch remembers that only a week before another of the group had been found dead in bed, victim of a sudden seizure.
Inspector Broughton questions Aulinloch closely. Next day Kalmberg, another of the jewellers visits the inspector and tells of seeing Aulinloch’s car in a suspicious place at the time of the murder. The inspector discovers that
Stirling had been
strangled, and by a clever ruse discovers that Kalmberg was powerful enough to
have committed the deed easily.
Adolph Aulinloch calls his confederates in conference to decide on the disposal of the jade, and while there they learn of the motor accident that is fatal to Zaharoff, another of their number, under suspicious circumstances.
Terrified by this news, the group is still more terrified that one of their number will take advantage of them. They are fearful that the violent deaths that have followed the group may be the work of some native of
.to whom the jade is sacred, but they are fearful also that they may not profit
by the deal. Aulinloch suggests the possibility that Brander Charlesworth may
be the murderer, to avenge the trick they have played on his mother, and
Inspector Broughton in his office entertains somewhat the same idea, remembering
Brander’s former relationship with Aulinloch’s wife, and how much it would
benefit the young man if suspicion of murder could be thrown around Aulinloch. China
McElheren, one of the conspirators, secures a notorious character, Tubby Peters, to rob Aulinloch, who is the custodian of the jade, and so secure the whole profit for himself.
Aulinloch had scarcely settled at his desk the next morning when a voice behind him said “Just stick ’em up quick. I have you covered.”
And the Story Continues
Miss Stromberg raised her flat face to the clock in the centre of the opposite wall. Six minutes after nine! Old Oily had come down earlier than usual this morning. That in itself was disturbingly irregular for one so regular in his habits, but it was a cataclysm that he had not yet called her in for the early morning dictation.
Sixteen minutes had passed since he locked himself in his room!
For a few seconds she studied the clock, verified it by her wrist watch, and turned enquiringly toward the double doors that cut off the private office. She even looked at the buzzer to make sure nothing had happened it during the night.
Three minutes more. The three clerks stared at one another questioningly, a little uneasily. Then they made a display of industry to cover their agitation.
Thus they did not notice the outer door open and close. They did not hear soft footsteps approach Miss Stromberg’s desk. That young lady was made abruptly aware of it by a voice almost at her elbow. It was a soft voice, yet something about it, beyond its suddenness, made her jump in her chair.
“Please, Miss, is Mr. Aulinloch in?”
Miss Stromberg turned her whole body toward the voice.
A Chinaman stood smirking down in her face!
To Miss Stromberg a Chinaman was a particularly sinister and dangerous animal that walked on two legs and talked—and kept laundries and restaurants where degenerate white girls found ready employment until they faded from the picture.
But she was a brave girl—and, feeling as she did, what right had a Chinaman to look so calm?
“Have you an appointment with Mr. Aulinloch?” she enquired stiffly.
The Chinaman had not. He told her so, standing over her with that inane smile.
“I think he will see me,” the Chinaman said in his soft voice. “Please tell him I have come on business. Uh—tell him I’m an expert in jade. He’ll be interested.”
Try as she might she could not muster the cold defiance she felt the occasion demanded. The bland yellow face continued to smile, the slanting eyes bored through her.
“I’ll tell him—I’ll see,” she stammered. “But he never sees anyone before ten o’clock.”
She picked up the receiver and held it to her ear, and a look of blank bewilderment came to her uncomely face. The Chinaman leaned across the desk.
“It—it doesn’t ring,” she whispered. “He doesn’t answer.”
A flash of excitement appeared in the eyes above her, though the smile remained.
“Can’t you reach him any other way?” he demanded in a sharper tone.
“No.” She stared incredulously at the telephone. “He must have left—left the receiver off,” she murmured. “He doesn’t wish to he disturbed.”
“I’m afraid I must disturb him,” said the Chinaman, starting toward the connecting doors. “I must get in there—I tell you I must. Are these doors always kept locked?”
Even in her agitation it struck Miss Stromberg as peculiar that this Chinaman, who had never been in the office before, knew of the double doors.
“Certainly they are,” she said. “And he won’t hear you unless you knock very loudly. But you mustn’t do that,” she warned, in a panic. “We—we never dare—“
“I’ll dare,” said the Chinaman quietly.
He had taken his stand before the door and was looking it up and down. He bent his ear to the keyhole. Then he straightened and knocked.
Instantly there was a low click and the door swung open. Before the clerks realized what had happened the Chinaman was out of sight. The door closed behind him.
At the challenge Aulinloch did not move. The suddenness of it, the incredible menace, right there in the privacy of his own office, with double doors to shut off even the sound of intrusion, deprived him of the power of movement. For one dizzy moment he thought he was about to faint.
Then, in a blinding flash, he realized what was happening and slowly his hands went up.
In the same flash he knew that in little more than two or three minutes the time-lock would release the combination. The rest would be easy for the burglar, for he, Aulinloch, would be forced to open the great steel doors. Dear as was the safe with its contents, life was dearer still—this life that had looked so gloomy and depressing since he opened his eyes that morning. All over the country there had been killings of men who were more defiant than wise.
Life he could never recover—but there might be a way to outwit the burglar.
Then he remembered the jade!
“Don’t turn your head, boss,” warned the voice at his back. “Just stay like that. I ain’t nice to look at, anyway. I won’t keep you long—just a minute or two—if my watch is right. It’s a good watch, too. Got it off a guy that didn’t do what he was told. A minute ain’t nothin’ to what I’ve hung about these diggin’s o’ yours.”
“What is it you want?” Aulinloch asked.
“Nothin’ much. Just to see the inside o’ your safe, boss. I always was a curious cuss.”
“May I put my hands down?” Aulinloch asked, still outwardly calm. “You can feel I haven’t a weapon.”
But in the top right hand drawer of his desk was a serviceable gun. If only he could lay hands on it!
A pair of fat hands slid smoothly over him from behind. He watched them, wondering if he would be able to identify them again.
“All right, boss, you can take it easy. What do I want? I ain’t no plumb hog; when I get into a guy I leave him his socks. Just a souvenir or two, that’s all I want. I haven’t had much luck lately. Depression in my profession, too. But I bet you got so much in that nice safe o’ yours I’d need a truck to clean it out. I won’t do that—and you take my word for it this is my last visit to you. I’ll leave enough for payday; I never rob widows and orphans. I’m not in your class—I’m just an honest crack. Anyway, I don’t believe in leavin’ nothin’ for the next guy. Live and let live, that’s my motto.”
Aulinloch could hear him breathing behind him, and he wondered for one wild moment if he couldn’t suddenly leap about and strike out.
The burglar was speaking: “There, time’s up. Now you get busy on the golden gates, so to speak. I ain’t goin’ to make you give me the combination, because I won’t want to get in again. You just go ahead. I won’t look—not too close. But I’m in a hurry. I’m apt to get peevish before breakfast.”
Aulinloch was thinking as he had never thought before—but the one fact that emerged from it all was that resistance would be folly. In that tight office he could not attract attention, even had he dared to shout. His one hope was to delay things until Miss Stromberg took alarm at his continued silence. But even that hope fled before the conviction that she would never dare to make a move until it was hours too late.
“How did you get in?” he asked.
He heard a snapping of fingers at his back. “What a silly question! You don’t think ordinary locks keep a guy like me out, boss?”
“Who told you—of this?” If only he could keep the fellow interested!
“Gee, boss, I didn’t need no tellin’. You’re a guy that buys and sells jewels, ain’t you? Well, us chaps have you all spotted—we have to know the rich and soft spots. It’s our business. Where you guys make a mistake is you think safes safe and you keep everything in them. You swallow the advertisements and gamble on them, so to speak. Well, you’re all wrong. That ought to be worth what I’ll take from you. Now get busy on that combination.”
Still Aulinloch did not move, but inwardly he trembled. He could hear the deafening roar of the gun at his back, the sharp pain of the bullet. It was as keen and penetrating in his mental picture as in fact. But he realized how fanciful it was when the muzzle of the gun prodded him sharply in the ribs. With a groan he dropped to his knees before the lock.
“Someone told you—someone put you up to this,” he rumbled, almost beside himself with helpless rage.
The burglar chuckled. “You’re a smart guy, boss, but you ain’t smart enough to get anything out of me. You’d like me to squeal on some bosom friend that’s double-crossed you, wouldn’t you? But, say, if you don’t get nifty about that combination I’ll baste you one on the nut. You ain’t the first I’ve put on the spot for tryin’ somethin’ funny.”
Aulinloch had managed to catch a glimpse of the fellow as he bent forward to the safe, but a handkerchief over the lower half of his face hid the essentials for identity; all he could see was the round shape of the burglar.
He twirled the knob. The first time he purposely mixed the numbers and had to start over; but a snarl from behind warned him to take no more chances:
“The guy that fools with me, boss, wakes up among the daisies.”
The big door swung slowly open. Aulinloch rose to his feet and was thrust roughly aside.
“Now you sit in that chair again, and don’t move a finger if you don’t want to look like a sieve.”
Aulinloch obeyed. He had done all he could—he must let things take their course now. For a time, at least; there was always the chance that something might offer before the fellow got away with his treasures. He thought only of the jade carvings—and at that moment they were his—his.
The burglar worked with professional skill and haste. With a chuckle he pounced on an old leather suitcase and turned away. But on second thoughts he set the suitcase down and peered into the compartments the safe contained. With a grin he pulled out four cardboard boxes and placed them on the suitcase.
“Where’s the key to this?” he demanded, tapping an inner steel door in the centre of the safe.
Aulinloch replied that he hadn’t it. “I lent that compartment to a friend who was burned out last month. That’s God’s truth. Kuminsky and Glover—you’d know of the fire if you lived about here. I don’t know what they have in there.”
The burglar eyed him suspiciously, and Aulinloch returned the stare without a quiver.
He pointed to one of the cardboard boxes. “I wish you’d leave that one. It’s my wife’s—just some old family stuff—not valuable. I couldn’t face her if I lost that.”
With a shrug the burglar replaced the box without even opening it. Aulinloch had been so natural about it, so calm. “Old stuff’s hard to get rid of, and too damned easy to trace. It don’t bring much, because it has to be broken up. Anyways, I said I wasn’t a hog.” He picked up the suitcase and the small boxes. “Now you get back to the desk there. I’ve got to make a get-away, and I sure ain’t leavin’ you loose to get the whole city on my tracks before I get to the street. No, I’m not goin’ to hurt you, boss. You been decent, so I’ll be. I’m just goin’ to string you up, and the quicker I get it done, the easier I’ll be with you.”
Carrying his burden, he followed Aulinloch closely to the desk. The suitcase he placed on the floor, the cardboard boxes on the desk.
Aulinloch’s heart pounded hopefully. There was his gun! Then he remembered that the drawer in which it lay was locked. It was useless. At the burglar’s order he took his seat in the swivel chair and anxiously watched several lengths of strong rope appear from a spacious pocket.
Aulinloch could not help admiring the skill and completeness with which the job was done. His sensations were more mixed when a short length of rubber hose was produced. As the robber bent over him to adjust it in his mouth, his eye fell on the suitcase.
“Might’s well gi’me the key for that thing, boss,” he said.
“It’s at home,” Aulinloch lied. “I wish—I wish,” he began miserably, “you’d leave me that. You can have everything else if—”
The robber grinned and was silent. The gag was nicely adjusted. Then, as an afterthought, he drew Aulinloch’s handkerchief from his breast pocket and blindfolded him.
“Fine piece of work, I call it,” he approved, stepping back from the platform. “See how comfortable and cozy you are. There’s the telephone right at your elbow . . . Only don’t waste time on that: the wires are cut. I do my little jobs neatly, I do. Now, ta-ta! So nice of you to have a second door for me to get away by. Don’t worry—they’ll find you before you starve to death. I’ll do more than that—I’ll telephone the police just as soon as I’m safe. Ta-ta!”
A click at his back sent him spinning about. The round, black muzzle of a gun in a steady hand pointed straight at his chest, behind the gun the grim face of a Chinaman, grim but smiling still!
“One moment, please.” said the Chinaman suavely. “Put that stuff down. Quick! Drop that gun on the desk, too.”
The robber stared, the part of his face that was visible went purple. He dropped the suitcase, the other boxes, the gun, and backed away from the desk, his hands held high. “Honest, boss, I was just workin’ a little game—for a fellow. He put me up to this—”
“Shut up!” snapped the Chinaman. “Now clear out!”
Tubby Peters gasped—gulped—slid away through the door to the side-room. The door opening on the stairs closed with only the slightest of sounds.
Aulinloch had kept his wits about him. As the chair slid into the hollow of the desk he remembered his trick of pressing the electric button with his knee. But that required courage. Then dimly he heard a knock on the outer of the double doors. He pressed his knee sideways . . .
With a dizzy sense of relief he waited to be released. He could not speak, could not see. But he had heard what passed between his rescuer and the robber.
He tried to mumble through the gag—words of gratitude—of appeal—of protest. Silence in the room—and nothing more for, oh, so long.
The Chinaman was standing before the desk. He was staring at Aulinloch’s blind, reddening face. He no longer smiled. A malevolent glare shone in his eyes.
Then, without a word, turning his back on the cardboard boxes on the desk, on the gun that lay there, he picked up the suitcase and himself vanished through the side door.
The door on the stairs opened slowly, furtively, and the yellow face of the Chinaman appeared in the crack. Hall and stairway were deserted. Only the distant clicking of the elevators and a footstep on the floor below. He came out into the hall. The old suitcase was in his hand. He hurried up the stairs to the floor above, ran noiselessly on his soft-soled shoes to a doorway and let himself into an empty office.
With feverish haste he bore the suitcase to the window and set it down. As he bent over it he started back, staring with parted lips. Dropping to his knees, he slit the leather along one side inserted a hand, and drew out parcel after parcel of soft tissue-paper. He tossed them to the floor and scrabbled among them. At the end there lay about him—tissue-paper and stone, common pebbles!
Sweat stood out on his forehead and he wiped it away with a silken sleeve. The silk came away with a yellow stain—and where the yellow had been was white skin.
From the hall below hurried sounds, loud voices, opening doors, reached him.
In an inner office he threw aside the Chinese costume and donned a suit that was there. The yellow he wiped from his face with the tissue-paper and finished it off with a handkerchief. Then, with the parcel of his disguise under his arm, he strolled from the office, having made sure that the way was clear, took the elevator down, was duly interested in the news-sputtered to him by the excited elevator despatcher that there had been a hold-up in the building—they were looking for a fat man and a Chinaman—and walked leisurely out to a Chevrolet parked on the other side of the street.
His teeth closed as he climbed in. “He’s far too clever for
” he growled. “It wasn’t even the old
Helpless in his chair, Adolph Aulinloch heard the retreating footsteps of his rescuer and thought he must be dreaming. It surged over him that everything since he got up was nothing but an unpleasant dream. Or had the altered relations with Phyliss unsettled his mind?
Then his knees touched the desk and he remembered. With a convulsive movement he opened the double doors. Even after that he was forced to wait a couple of minutes before Miss Stromberg summoned up courage to peep inside . . .
Aulinloch was free. On the desk lay the discarded cardboard boxes. He looked for the old leather suitcase.
It was gone. He laughed aloud. Starting the staff in tardy pursuit, he locked all the doors, opened the inner safe door, and drew out the old suitcase of jade. One look and he was ready for the police who came in a van-load twenty minutes too late.
When he had told his story, or such as he thought they should know, he locked the doors again, took out the suitcase, and one by one unwrapped the little pieces of jade on the desk before him. The tiny fish tinkled reassuringly, the dragons leered at him, the dancing girls flung their skirts, the gods eyed him glumly, the solitary missionary smirked at his strange company.
Later he sat and thought.
And thought. Life was getting complicated—puzzling—perilous. But the jade carvings were safe—safe!
It was raining when the old Chevrolet pulled in at the curb before Aulinloch’s house. For several uncertain moments Brander Charlesworth sat staring through the rain toward the front door he had never before had the courage to enter.
Then clambering out, he slammed the car door behind him and hurried up the broad stone steps.
“Is Mrs. Aulinloch at home?” Brander heard himself asking. His voice seemed to come from an infinite distance.
The maid took the card he handed her.
“Tell her, please,” he called after her, “it’s on business. I won’t keep her long.”
As he stood waiting, the walls seemed to revolve about him. Tensely he listened for Phyllis’s step. His throat felt dry and choking, and he wanted to run away. But he clenched his fists and stood his ground.
Upstairs in her own sitting room Phyliss received the card, and her face whitened so suddenly that she knew Bertha must have noticed it. The name swam before her eyes, her heart beat suffocatingly. Limp and unsteady, she leaned on the table and considered. Her first thought was to rush downstairs, as if a golden gate of promise opened to her; her second that she must not go down at all, must not see him.
She decided, calmer now, that the only safe course was the reasonable one. Brander Charlesworth had passed from her life as a lover—she would treat him as any other friend of those earlier days—friendly enough but not enthusiastic. She had cut herself off from those days.
Brander heard her footsteps on the soft carpet of the stairs, and he had an impulse to rush out and take her in his arms. Calmly she came on, step by step, the deliberateness of it stilling his emotions.
“Well, Brander!” She came to him, her small hand extended. He grasped it, and it lay limp and indifferent in his; so that he dropped it quickly, flushing and looking away, fearful of what she had read in touch and face.
“Hello, Phyliss!” That was all he said.
He added, to fill the awkward silence: “You haven’t changed—much.”
She stiffened a little; the inference, proof that all the time he was thinking of the old days, was too much for her.
“Women revel in such flattery,” she said indifferently. “You’re a little older, that’s all.”
“And wiser?” He, too, was struggling to be light. “How’s your mother?’’ she asked. That was safe enough. “None of us will look as young as she does at her age. What a wonderful lady she is!”
“It’s about mother I came to see you,” he said hastily.
“Won’t you sit down, Brander?” She seated herself near the door. “I hope she’s well?”
“It’s not her health,” Brander said breathlessly. “Not her health but—but her wealth. No, that’s just a jingle. I mean, it’s her comfort in her old age. You know, Phyliss, I got almost cleaned out in the market slump, and it’s taken every cent I can save since to hang onto my stocks.” He saw her stiffen a little, and he hurried on: “I’m not working around to—to borrowing, Phyliss—that isn’t it. Please hear me through. Because I can’t set aside anything for mother yet, I have to see her missing some of the comforts that should be hers in her old age.
“What makes it more galling is that she provided the funds that saved me from losing everything—everything. I don’t want you to think I asked for it—I didn’t even know a thing about it till the money reached me. Thirty-five hundred dollars. To get it she sold the only thing of value she had. If it would have done any good to refuse I’d have faced the loss, but it was too late then: the things were sold.”
He turned his face away, and she looked at him with wide, frightened eyes.
“I’ve been following your career, Brander,” she said, “as much as I could, I mean. I’m glad you came out of that reporting mess so clean.”
Brander waved it away. “That was nothing—a financial row, that’s all. It hasn’t done me any harm. . . . I’ve kept track of you, too, Phyliss—as a relative.” he added hastily. “Your husband is well known—and wonderfully successful.” He had introduced her husband deliberately; it promised to reestablish them on a safe footing.
She was not deceived and, with the fear that she might blurt out even a shadow of the truth, she rose and went to one of the windows to straighten a blind.
“I hope you don’t mean your mother is—in distress, Brander?”
“No. no. I’d let the whole thing go—the stocks. I mean—if it came anywhere near that. I’m making enough now to keep us both. That isn’t what I came to speak about.”
“Of course not.” she agreed, feeling for his meaning.
His face flushed a little. “Your husband comes into this now,” he told her savagely. “He has robbed my mother.”
Phyliss stiffened. “Robbed—your mother: I’m quite sure you’re mistaken, Brander. You’ve—been misinformed.”
“Then it's mother that has misinformed
he said. “She must have lied to me!” His lip curled: but in a moment be
realized how foolishly he had approached the subject, how blindly misunderstanding Phyliss. “Listen.
Phyliss, I’ll tell you everything as it happened. I’ll leave you to form your
own conclusions. I’m even prepared to believe that your husband sees it as
nothing more than a clever stroke of business. me.
“These are the facts: just before we left
dad was able to do a good
turn for a big mandarin, and in return the mandarin gave him a collection of
jade he had spent a lifetime getting together. There were more than two hundred
separate pieces. China
“I don’t think dad appreciated them at their full value,” Brander continued. “In a vague way we all knew they were valuable, but we never thought of putting our faith to the test. Then I got into the stock market and got caught, caught badly. In my distress I told mother about it. Within a week I received from her a draft for thirty-five hundred dollars. She had sold the jade carvings!”
Phyliss was silent. She did not understand. Brander’s concern seemed extravagant—and that made his visit to her inexplicable, certainly unwise.
“You mean she got thirty-five hundred for the jade? It seems a lot of money . . . That’s more than fifteen dollars apiece.”
“But there were pieces worth several thousand—I’m convinced of that,” he retorted angrily. “There was a necklace—two of them—” He saw that he was not convincing her, and he fought against his resentment. “Mother had the collection appraised. Your husband was one of the appraisers.”
“Were there others? Then why do you blame Adolph?”
“Your husband saw the collection first and named the price—thirty-five hundred. Mother was not satisfied, so she saw another expert.”
“Wait a moment, Phyliss. The second expert was recommended by your husband, the third by the second, and so on. Mother didn’t know where to go. Each was recommended by the last. Does that convey nothing to you? Does it mean nothing when I tell you that all the offers were within five hundred dollars, and your husband’s, the first, was the highest by only one hundred dollars . . . There was collusion—an arrangement between them,” he continued fiercely. “Surely you can see that! The uniformity of the price, the first offer the highest—that proves it. And they gave all sorts of names to the stone, but, of course, it wasn’t jade, oh, no.”
Phyliss shook her head stubbornly. “I can’t see it, Brander. It isn’t possible. . . . Let me tell you something, too: There isn’t any trade, any profession, where agreement is less possible. Gem experts are always unfriendly, notoriously jealous of one another.”
“But,” he said, “I called on them all afterwards, and if ever guilt was written on a face it showed on theirs.”
She smiled indulgently. “You don’t mean my husband. I know him better than you do.”
“He’s far too clever to give a thing away in his face,” Brander retorted hotly.
“In spite of how hard you tried to force it.”
“I—I’m afraid I did make a bit of a fool of myself,” he stammered. “I was pretty mad, I guess. I lost my temper and—and threatened them.”
“You threatened my husband?”
“Him most of all, because he had the jade.” He threw out an impatient hand. “See here, Phyliss, if those carvings were worth fifteen dollars each they were not cut from any cheap stone. And if they were jade they were worth a king’s ransom. I’ve been making enquiries. Carvings in cheap stone—Chinese carvings—can be picked up for a song. You know that.”
“I know nothing of the value of jade,” she said. “But I know if seven different experts agreed I’d hesitate to accuse them of dishonesty . . . My husband—has he the collection now?”
“Yes. At least, I’m quite sure he has. The sale would be a newspaper headliner—”
“If they’re jade . . . If the collection is still in Adolph’s hands—”
“It is—I know it is.” He studied her face for a moment. “I’m going to throw myself on your mercy, Phyliss; I don’t think you’ll give me away. I know he has the jade because—because an attempt was made this morning to rob him of it.”
She stared at him. “How—do you know—that? Ah—I see! It was you tried to steal it.”
“No-o, not exactly. And yet—well, I happened to be on hand when someone else tried to steal it. I was able to save your husband some valuable jewels. At least, there were a number of boxes taken from his safe when I—dropped in. I stopped the robbery. The suitcase lay on the floor—the robber was taking it. Your husband was bound in his chair and helpless. I drove the robber away and—and I took the suitcase. But your husband was too clever for both of us—it was not the right suitcase.”
To her questioning he gave the story in detail, while she sat, stiff and unsympathetic, her hands clenched in her lap. She would not look at him.
“I was dressed as a Chinaman,” he said. “You often used to tease me about how my eyes tilt up; I can pass anywhere for one, in the proper dress and with a little touching up . . . I had another reason for masquerading that way: To the Chinese jade is almost sacred, and when it comes to certain carvings there is no question of it. Your husband knows this. I thought to work on his fears by dressing as a Chinaman. The mandarin who gave the jade to my father warned him not to show it until he left the country.”
“Do you mean the Chinese would resent a foreigner having the jade?” she asked.
at any rate.” China
Brander hesitated. He saw his chance, as he thought.
“Listen, Phyliss: Fergus Stirling was one of the seven. He was murdered, as you know. But that isn’t all. Larned was another. He died. Zaharoff another—and he was killed. In a motor wreck, they say. It means that three of the seven have gone in a couple of weeks.”
Her face had paled. “I—don’t believe—they have any connection,” she maintained in a strained voice. The
Stirling murder! What a
change it had wrought in her dull life, a life where change so easily became
Brander saw only her agitation. “If you knew the Chinese as I do—as mother does—you wouldn’t be so sure.”
“How,” she asked, “did you happen to be on hand at my husband’s office this morning?”
He told her how he had heard the plans of two men in the
two nights before, but he did not mention McElheren. That was a weapon for
another occasion. At the end he insisted that she must not divulge what he had
told her. Commerce Building
She scarcely heard him. “You yourself planned to roll—to steal the jade,” she said contemptuously.
“I planned—I do now—to get back for mother valuables of which she has been robbed,” he returned hotly. “That robbery was as deliberate as, and even more despicable than the one from which I saved your husband.” Varied emotions welled through Phyliss Aulinloch. She knew that, as a wife, she should be indignantly incredulous, should show Brander the door; but loyalty based on duty and not on love was unequal to the task.
“You call it robbery—a mere business affair of a kind that goes on all over the world. My husband bought at the lowest price he could—as you would—”
“I wouldn’t deceive a trusting old woman.” He glared across the room. “I take back what I said at the first, Phyliss. Lord, how you’ve changed!”
Her eyes flashed. “I have your side of the story, a prejudiced side, as your anger shows. And your bad judgment, Brander, is shown in daring to come here and expect me to listen to you slandering my husband. . . . Your foolishness is shown by expecting that such a course could accomplish a thing for you.” She frowned, but her cheeks were deathly white.
“I never thought,” he said slowly and bitterly, “that four years, even with a man like that, could make such a change in a woman. I had hoped you’d still have decency enough to see that the honest thing, the only honest thing, to do would be to return the jade. Don’t worry. I’d get the money to pay back . . . If you wish to know more about this crooked gang—one of them came to mother the day after
Stirling’s murder and offered more for the jade.”
“Then there couldn’t have been an agreement or he’d have known the jade was sold.”
Brander rose angrily to his feet “I see it’s no use. You want to be deceived—to believe everyone but me. You won’t see that everything they do is a mask to cover their trail. You won’t see. Your marriage to this Aulinloch—”
She, too, was on her feet, facing him with blazing eyes. “Will you be good enough to remember that once you were a gentleman!”
She wheeled and started from the room. He followed her to the hall and, in flaming anger, threw after her:
“I see how it is—you’re money drunk. You hope to share the profits. Perhaps you, too, figure how the profits increase with each death. The police should know that. Well, wait and see. You’re not through with this yet, Phyliss Aulinloch.”
Phyliss ran to her room and dropped into a chair, where she sat for a long time, white-faced, staring blankly from the window. Beyond the pallor of her face, outwardly nothing was visible of the surge of disturbing thoughts that raced through her. Only her husband would have understood that continued stillness, that vacant stare.
And Adolph Aulinloch would have been even more disturbed than she had he known of what she was thinking. For he was more in her mind than was Brander Charlesworth. She had just left Brander, had scorned him without mercy—but it was not because she disbelieved a word he said. It was not even that she disagreed with his estimate of the deal in jade . . . But, after all, why should she concern herself with it?
She sighed. A wave of resentment rose within her, against the fate which bound her for life to a man like her husband. But she had to admit the fault was her own. Adolph Aulinloch, as a man about the house, even as a husband of sorts, she had hardened herself to endure on that account. In all his relations he was kindly, generous, attentive; and up to today she had found no difficulty in divorcing herself completely from his business. But now, after what Brander had told her, she realized that position was no longer tenable.
For the first time she found herself thinking of him as a “foreigner”. She had protested to Brander when he attached the word to her husband, but she knew that however long Adolph had lived here it had not altered his character, his business methods. Now those “smart” methods came sorely home, and, since they affected her own blood relatives, Adolph she contemplated as an outsider.
For the first time it came home to her the type of man she had married!
There was, nevertheless, no thought of shifting her own responsibility. She saw in all its wretchedness the part she had played—turning her back haughtily, almost brutally, on a love like Brander’s, to accept the limited caresses of a man she had never loved. At she looked at it now she doubted that she had even ever respected him. She recalled the stories she had heard of his habits, but, until that day of golf, she was never even interested. And when circumstances forced her to face what she heard, she simply disbelieved.
But had she disbelieved? Facing facts frankly now, she doubted that her disbelief was anything more than a refusal to admit that the truth or untruth of what she heard really concerned her.
She knew as well as Brander—even better, since she knew her husband—that the carvings were jade. Adolph would never pay fifteen dollars for less. Poor Mrs. Charlesworth! . . . and she herself was bound to a man like that for life!
She rose mechanically and began to replace the jewelry she had taken off when Brander was announced. That was the outward demonstration of her decision. She could do no less—nothing less was fair and decent. She had not married blindly; it was up to her to carry through her part. Grimly she picked up a book and settled back before the window again.
But she did not read. The book lay unopened on her lap, her eyes were closed. In her mind she saw that limp figure outstretched on the steps of the empty house across the street! With a shudder she tore herself away and tried to read.
From downstairs came the sound of her husband’s library door opening, and with a start she looked at the clock. Half-past twelve! Adolph had missed one or two lunches since—since life became so upset, and she had felt the happier and freer for it. She found herself listening, her eyes fixed vacantly on the window. It was raining gently outside. She heard Adolph stop before the vestibule door—heard him open it. Not for several seconds did he close it again, and then he started slowly up the stairs.
She got up determinedly and went out into the hall. He was surprised to see her—and pleased. With one of the few demonstrations of affection permitted between them, he took her chin in his hand and lightly touched her forehead with his lips. The lips were very cold. She endured it without flinching, without response. It was, she decided, his apology for the scene of the morning, his assurance that, whatever happened, he would never change toward her. Psychically she felt it was something more than that—apology for some infidelity in thought. It frightened her.
“You’ll be down right away,” she said, passing on to the stairs. “I had no idea it was so late.”
She heard him enter his own suite, leaving the door open. She heard him pass into the bathroom and turn on the water—the gentle tap of his hair brush as he set it down, the steady tramp of his feet as he came down the stairs to the dining room.
They ate for a time in silence. She was afraid to talk—afraid she would forget herself and speak of what had happened at the office—afraid of—she did not know what.
Presently Adolph told of the attempted robbery. He did not mention the jade.
“Some good angel came to my rescue in the nick of time.”
She had managed a fitting air of surprise and alarm. “Who was it?” she asked.
He sat crumbling a piece of bread on his plate. “It’s odd . . . very odd. I didn’t even see him.”
“But they must have seen him in the outer office—they’d know who it was.”
“It was a Chinaman,” he answered thoughtfully. “None of them had ever seen him before . . . The telephone wires were cut, so that we were handicapped in getting after them.”
Phyliss carefully cut a wedge from the jelly on her plate. “A Chinaman? What would a Chinaman have to do with it?”
“I know what he thought he had to do with it,” her husband answered, with a smile. “He thought he was robbing me himself . . . As it happened he took a package that contained nothing but tissue-paper and pebbles. It was locked . . . It was an old suitcase, you see. He didn’t have time to get into it before he had to run for it.”
“A—a Chinaman, you say?” She wondered if she was playing her part well.
“Yes, that’s what puzzles me, too . . . In fact, it worries me.”
“Have you had any dealings with Chinamen?”
She was silent for a moment. “Perhaps—perhaps you have something the Chinaman wants very badly.”
She knew he was looking at her, but she managed to hide her fear.
“I’ve never done a Chinaman an injury in my life,” he said; and in his tone she read a real alarm. The alarm passed to her, and for the time she forgot that she knew the Chinaman in this case was only Brander Charlesworth.
“I don’t see how,” she said, “the Chinaman would suspect an old suitcase to hold valuables worth the trouble he took to get them.”
“He saw it had been taken by the other robber.”
She seemed satisfied. “Yes . . . I remember a relative of mine—that Mrs. Charlesworth we talked about this morning, by the way—she kept a lot of fine old jade in an old suitcase.”
Across the table Adolph stirred his tea with a steady hand, the persistent scraping of the spoon on the bottom of the cup jarring her nerves until she could have screamed.
“Jade, you say? . . . Hm-m, that would be valuable . . . if it really was jade. But there are so many imitations—quartz, or bowenite, or feldspar, or fibrolite—a host of cheap stuff like that, and the Chinese are clever enough to doctor them up to look like jade. Only an expert can tell the difference. . . . These of Mrs. Charlesworth’s—did she ever show them to you?”
“I often saw them—but, of course, I can’t be certain of them being jade. I don’t think they ever had any idea of selling them.”
He continued to stir, and in that she saw her worst fears realized. “Even if they were jade,” he said reflectively, “so much depends on the color, the fineness of the carving, the designs—yes, and even the uses to which the pieces may be put; I mean, if they can be worn. In a general way I’d say they were of no value except to collectors—and the value to them is problematical . . . By the way,” swallowing a hasty mouthful and folding his napkin, “did you get your morning walk?”
When she replied that she had not been out of the house a stillness in his manner, as he sat absent-mindedly patting his napkin, made her heart beat rapidly.
“Must have been a quiet morning,” he said. “Anyone been here?”
The blood pounded to her head. “I believe there was a pedlar or someone.”
“Ah!” It was more a breath than a word, soft and almost inaudible—pathetically incredulous. It hurt. Hurt her so much that she wanted to shout the truth—that her lover had been there and had shown her husband up for what he was. In that moment, more than ever, she felt the need of justification.
When he was gone she crept downstairs and opened the vestibule door. There, plain on the linoleum at the side of the rug, were the dried marks of two muddy feet!
Up in her room she threw herself on the bed and wept.
(To be continued) (link to next)
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.