IT WAS after one o’clock the following morning before they returned from supper and dancing at one of the city’s popular roof gardens. Goertz admitted them. As she passed him Nariva Saranov raised her brows questioningly and the butler replied with an almost imperceptible inclination of his head. Neither act would have been noticeable to other than specially trained senses—such as Donovan’s. It was his business to notice such trivial occurrences and this one did not escape him. He was puzzled and vexed—vexed with himself that he could still doubt Nariva Saranov’s connection with the band of conspirators that he felt he was at last closing in upon after weeks of seemingly fruitless effort.
He had always suspected Saranov and at first had assumed that the Assurian’s daughter was criminally connected with the band of which her father was a part. Reasoning from this premise it was not strange that he should seek to ingratiate himself with the girl, that through her he might gain the knowledge he sought. To this end he sought her companionship with a view to establishing friendly and intimate relations, that might develop into something closer, if necessary to his ends. The result had been that not only had he been unable to connect her with any of the activities that he believed chargeable to the band under investigation, but he had fallen hopelessly in love with her. And so he was puzzled and vexed as he walked down the hallway toward the library with the others.
After a few moments desultory conversation in which no one seemed interested Miss Thorn announced her intention of retiring—a suggestion that evidently met with the approval of the others, who, with sleepy “Good nights,” ascended the stairway to their several chambers. Fifteen minutes later Goertz made the rounds of the lower floor, turning off all the lights with the exception of a small night lamp in the front hallway and a second small lamp in the library, which was the last room to which he gave his attention. Instead of returning to the servants’ stairway at the rear of the house which he should have used in going to his room on the fourth floor, he ascended the main stairway from the library. He left a light on the landing about half way up the stairs, but shut off all those in the hallway on the second floor, which was, however, slightly illuminated by the light from the landing. These duties attended to he paused for a moment in the center of the hall, apparently listening. He looked quickly first in one direction and then in the other, after which, seemingly satisfied, he ascended the second flight of steps to the third floor where were located the apartments of the family. Ordinarily a small passenger elevator was used to reach the upper floors, but this was temporarily out of commission while undergoing its annual summer overhauling during the absence of the family at Three Gables. From the third floor a single flight of stairs led to the servants’ quarters on the floor above.
This stairway was near the read end of the third floor hallway. Directly opposite it was a small, dark closet wherein were kept a various assortment of brooms, brushes, mops, dusters, vacuum cleaners and similar paraphernalia.
Goertz turned out all but a single light in the third floor hall, walked to the foot of the stairway, paused, listened, and then, turning quickly, crossed the hall silently, opened the door of the dark closet, entered it and closed the door after him.
Macklin Donovan had gone directly to his room, removed his dinner coat, tie and collar, and sat down to smoke and read at a table near one of the open windows which overlooked the small garden in the rear of the house. Outside this window was a narrow iron balcony identical with those outside every other window on this floor, both front and rear. These balconies did not connect with those adjacent to them, being separated by a space of about three feet. The houses upon either side were similarly disfigured by these mid-Victorian atrocities.
Macklin’s back was toward the open window and he was facing in the direction of the door leading into the hallway. He was not particularly interested in the book he was reading—it did not hold his attention. It was better than nothing, however, in assisting him to pass the time until the household slumbered, for he had a suspicion that something might transpire thereafter that would prove of interest to him and to his chief in Washington.
He had been sitting thus for about half an hour, occasionally looking up from his uninteresting book to draw upon his cigaret, when his eyes alighted upon a folded paper lying on the threshold partially inside the room. It had not been there a moment before, of that he was positive. There had been no sound—the paper had not been there one minute—the next minute it had. That was all there was to it.
In the instant that he discovered the thing he leaped quickly toward the door with the intention of throwing it open; but before his hand touched the knob he thought better of his contemplated act and, instead, stooped and picked up the paper. Whoever put it there did not want to be seen. Perhaps it would be better to humor them, temporarily at least.
Standing near the door he opened the message and read its contents, after which he was glad that he had not yielded to his first impulse to rush into the hall in an effort to discover the messenger. The note was in a feminine hand and read: “Mackie: Please come to my room at quarter past two. I have something to tell you. Do not come before,” and it was signed with the initials “N. S.”
Donovan’s right palm went to the back of his neck in a characteristic gesture of perplexity. It wasn’t like Nariva—she wasn’t the sort of girl that would ask a man to her room at that hour of the morning—unless—ah, that was it! She wanted to tell him something that she didn’t dare tell him before Saranov. It must be that. It must be something urgent. Whatever it was, it was all right—he could trust her—of that he was quite sure. He glanced at his watch. It lacked about five minutes to quarter past. He went to his dressing room, buttoned on his collar, adjusted his tie, and slipped into his dinner coat.
As he re-entered his room a figure in a dressing gown was cautiously descending the stairway from the third floor, pausing occasionally to listen. At the foot of the stairs it halted and glanced quickly up and down the hall the light in which was too dim to reveal the features of the nocturnal prowler. Discovering no one, the muffled figure crept stealthily along the dark hallway toward the front of the house.
As Donovan entered his room he turned immediately to his dresser from which he took an automatic pistol, which he was on the point of slipping into a hip pocket when he hesitated, held the pistol in front of him in the palm of his hand for an instant and then, with a smile and a shrug, replaced it in the dresser and closed the drawer. As he walked toward the hall door his eyes fell upon the table as he passed it. He came to an abrupt stop and, wheeling, took a hurried survey of the room, for propped against the reading lamp was a square blue envelope that had not been there when he had quitted the room a few minutes before. Snatching it up he saw his own initials crudely printed upon its face. The flap, which was but freshly sealed, he tore open, revealing an ordinary square correspondence card, upon which was printed in the same rude hand a single word: BEWARE!
A frown creased Donovan’s brow. His hall door was locked. He glanced toward the open window, and then quickly at his watch. It was exactly quarter past two. Slipping the blue envelope and the card into his pocket he crossed the room to the hall door. As he laid his hand upon the knob the report of a firearm reverberated through the house, followed almost immediately by the sound of a body falling, and the piercing shriek of a woman.
Throwing the door open Donovan stepped out into the hall and ran quickly toward the front of the house—the direction from which the shot had sounded. At the head of the stairs leading to the library he stumbled over a huddled heap covered by a dressing gown. A few feet farther along the hall was Nariva Saranov’s room on one side and across from it that occupied by Mrs. Glassock and her daughter. From this position of the body Donovan’s police instinct sensed almost intuitively the fact that the shot could have been fired from inside Nariva’s room, but not from the Glassocks’ room. Too, it might also have been fired from the doorway of the room occupied by Count Boris Saranov; but from the direction that the doors of the various rooms opened it could most easily have been fired from Nariva’s, had the door been opened not more than an inch, by one standing concealed within. Some of these things came to him as suspicions at the moment, to be verified by investigation later. But above all else there loomed above him like a hideous specter the appalling fact that the shot had been fired precisely at quarter past two.
Saranov was the first on the scene, followed quickly by Percy Thorn and Goertz. Goertz and Saranov were fully dressed—a fact which no one but Donovan seemed to note. It was Saranov who switched on the lights.
“What has happened?” he cried.
Donovan pointed at the huddled form lying on the floor, the head and face of which were hidden by the large collar of the dressing gown that had fallen across them as the body had slumped to the floor. “Murder!” he replied.
Saranov looked bewildered; and as Goertz came running up his eyes were wide with astonishment and incredulity, but they were not looking at the body on the floor—they were fixed on Macklin Donovan.
Mrs. Glassock now came from her room, and behind her was Genevive, while servants were pouring from the upper floors.
“Who is it?” demanded Percy Thorn.
Donovan stooped and drew back the collar of the dressing gown. A scream broke from the lips of Mrs. Glassock. “My God!” she cried, “it’s Mason.”
“Father!” exclaimed Percy Thorn, dropping to his knees beside the body. “Who could have done it?” he cried. “Who could have done it?” and he looked around at them all standing there—questioningly, accusingly.
Donovan knelt beside Percy and turned the body over on its back, opened the dressing gown and the shirt and placed his ear above the heart. Presently he arose. They were all looking at him, eyes filled with suspense. Donovan shook his head, sadly.
“Mr. Thorn is dead,” he said. “Goertz, go to the phone and call the police. Percy, we shall have to leave the body here until they come. You had better go and prepare your aunt, and prevent her coming down until after the police have been here. I shall remain here. The rest of you may go to your rooms, or not, as you wish. There is nothing that anyone can do until after the police come.”
Percy Thorn came to his feet like one in a trance and moved slowly down the hall toward the stairs leading to the third floor where was his aunt’s room. Goertz ran quickly down the stairs to the library to the telephone. Donovan looked about him. Where was Nariva Saranov?
“Mrs. Glassock,” he said, turning to that lady, “will you kindly step to Miss Saranov’s room and see if she is all right?”
Mrs. Glassock crossed the hall and knocked lightly on Miss Saranov’s door. There was no response. She knocked again, more imperatively. Still no response.
“Try the door,” directed Donovan. It was locked. Donovan turned toward Saranov. “Where is your daughter?” he demanded. He was no longer the suave young society man. Instead, his voice cut like steel, and in it was the ring of steel.
Saranov was pale. “She must be in her room,” he replied. “Where else could she be?”
Donovan motioned to a couple of frightened footmen. “Break down the door!” he commanded.
As they stepped forward to obey, the door of Nariva Saranov’s room opened, revealing her standing there, fully dressed, and breathing rapidly. At sight of Macklin Donovan she voiced a little cry that she tried to smother, and her eyes went very wide—as had Goertz’s eyes.
“What has happened?” she cried, when she found her voice. “I heard a shot and I must have swooned. Who is it?” and she looked down at the still figure on the floor. “Oh, no!” she cried when she recognized the features, “it cannot be—it cannot be Mr. Thorn—it must be a terrible mistake!”
“It was a terrible mistake, Miss Saranov,” said Donovan, coldly, his eyes steadily upon hers.