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Leroux clutched at the corner of the writing-table to steady himself and stood there looking at the deathly face. Under the most favorable circumstances, he was no man of action, although in common with the rest of his kind he prided himself upon the possession of that presence of mind which he lacked. It was a situation which could not have alarmed "Martin Zeda," but it alarmed, immeasurably, nay, struck inert with horror, Martin Zeda's creator.
Then, in upon Leroux's mental turmoil, a sensible idea intruded itself.
"Dr. Cumberly!" he muttered. "I hope to God he is in!"
Without touching the recumbent form upon the chesterfield, without seeking to learn, without daring to learn, if she lived or had died, Leroux, the tempo of his life changed to a breathless gallop, rushed out of the study, across the entrance hail, and, throwing wide the flat door, leapt up the stair to the flat above--that of his old friend, Dr. Cumberly.
The patter of the slippered feet grew faint upon the stair; then, as Leroux reached the landing above, became inaudible altogether.
In Leroux's study, the table-clock ticked merrily on, seeming to hasten its ticking as the hand crept around closer and closer to midnight. The mosaic shade of the lamp mingled reds and blues and greens upon the white ceiling above and poured golden light upon the pages of manuscript strewn about beneath it. This was a typical work-room of a literary man having the ear of the public-- typical in every respect, save for the fur-clad figure outstretched upon the settee.
And now the peeping light indiscreetly penetrated to the hem of a silken garment revealed by some disarrangement of the civet fur. To the eye of an experienced observer, had such an observer been present in Henry Leroux's study, this billow of silk and lace behind the sheltering fur must have proclaimed itself the edge of a night-robe, just as the ankle beneath had proclaimed itself to Henry Leroux's shocked susceptibilities to be innocent of stocking.
Thirty seconds were wanted to complete the cycle of the day, when one of the listless hands thrown across the back of the chesterfield opened and closed spasmodically. The fur at the bosom of the midnight visitor began rapidly to rise and fall.
Then, with a choking cry, the woman struggled upright; her hair, hastily dressed, burst free of its bindings and poured in gleaming cascade down about her shoulders.
Clutching with one hand at her cloak in order to keep it wrapped about her, and holding the other blindly before her, she rose, and with that same odd, groping movement, began to approach the writing-table. The pupils of her eyes were mere pin-points flow; she shuddered convulsively, and her skin was dewed with perspiration. Her breath came in agonized gasps.
"God!--I . . . am dying . . . and I cannot--tell him!" she breathed.
Feverishly, weakly, she took up a pen, and upon a quarto page, already half filled with Leroux's small, neat, illegible writing, began to scrawl a message, bending down, one hand upon the table, and with her whole body shaking.
Some three or four wavering lines she had written, when intimately, for the flat of Henry Leroux in Palace Mansions lay within sight of the clock-face--Big Ben began to chime midnight.
The writer started back and dropped a great blot of ink upon the paper; then, realizing the cause of the disturbance, forced herself to continue her task.
The chime being completed: One! boomed the clock; Two! . . . Three! . . . Four! . . .
The light in the entrance-hall went out!
Five! boomed Big Ben;--Six! . . . Seven! . . .
A hand, of old ivory hue, a long, yellow, clawish hand, with part of a sinewy forearm, crept in from the black lobby through the study doorway and touched the electric switch!
Eight! . . .
The study was plunged in darkness!
Uttering a sob--a cry of agony and horror that came from her very soul--the woman stood upright and turned to face toward the door, clutching the sheet of paper in one rigid hand.
Through the leaded panes of the window above the writing-table swept a silvern beam of moonlight. It poured, searchingly, upon the fur-clad figure swaying by the table; cutting through the darkness of the room like some huge scimitar, to end in a pallid pool about the woman's shadow on the center of the Persian carpet.
Coincident with her sobbing cry--Nine! boomed Big Ben; Ten! . . .
Two hands--with outstretched, crooked, clutching fingers--leapt from the darkness into the light of the moonbeam.
"God! Oh, God!" came a frenzied, rasping shriek--"Mr. King!"
Straight at the bare throat leapt the yellow hands; a gurgling cry rose--fell--and died away.
Gently, noiselessly, the lady of the civet fur sank upon the carpet by the table; as she fell, a dim black figure bent over her. The tearing of paper told of the note being snatched from her frozen grip; but never for a moment did the face or the form of her assailant encroach upon the moonbeam.
Batlike, this second and terrible visitant avoided the light.
The deed had occupied so brief a time that but one note of the great bell had accompanied it.
Twelve! rang out the final stroke from the clock-tower. A low, eerie whistle, minor, rising in three irregular notes and falling in weird, unusual cadence to silence again, came from somewhere outside the room.
Then darkness--stillness--with the moon a witness of one more ghastly crime.
Presently, confused and intermingled voices from above proclaimed the return of Leroux with the doctor. They were talking in an excited key, the voice of Leroux, especially, sounding almost hysterical. They created such a disturbance that they attracted the attention of Mr. John Exel, M. P., occupant of the flat below, who at that very moment had returned from the House and was about to insert the key in the lock of his door. He looked up the stairway, but, all being in darkness, was unable to detect anything. Therefore he called out:--
"Is that you, Leroux? Is anything the matter?"
"Matter, Exel!" cried Leroux; "there's a devil of a business! For mercy's sake, come up!"
His curiosity greatly excited, Mr. Exel mounted the stairs, entering the lobby of Leroux's flat immediately behind the owner and Dr. Cumberly--who, like Leroux, was arrayed in a dressing-gown; for he had been in bed when summoned by his friend.
"You are all in the dark, here," muttered Dr. Cumberly, fumbling for the switch.
"Some one has turned the light out!" whispered Leroux, nervously; "I left it on."
Dr. Cumberly pressed the switch, turning up the lobby light as Exel entered from the landing. Then Leroux, entering the study first of the three, switched on the light there, also.
One glance he threw about the room, then started back like a man physically stricken.
"Cumberly!" he gasped, "Cumberly"--and he pointed to the furry heap by the writing-table.
"You said she lay on the chesterfield," muttered Cumberly.
"I left her there." . . .
Dr. Cumberly crossed the room and dropped upon his knees. He turned the white face toward the light, gently parted the civet fur, and pressed his ear to the silken covering of the breast. He started slightly and looked into the glazing eyes.
Replacing the fur which he had disarranged, the physician stood up and fixed a keen gaze upon the face of Henry Leroux. The latter swallowed noisily, moistening his parched lips.
"Is she" . . . he muttered; "is she" . . .
"God's mercy, Leroux!" whispered Mr. Exel--"what does this mean?"
"The woman is dead," said Dr. Cumberly.
In common with all medical men, Dr. Cumberly was a physiognomist; he was a great physician and a proportionately great physiognomist. Therefore, when he looked into Henry Leroux's eyes, he saw there, and recognized, horror and consternation. With no further evidence than that furnished by his own powers of perception, he knew that the mystery of this woman's death was as inexplicable to Henry Leroux as it was inexplicable to himself.
He was a masterful man, with the gray eyes of a diplomat, and he knew Leroux as did few men. He laid both hands upon the novelist's shoulders.
"Brace up, old chap!" he said; "you will want all your wits about you."
"I left her," began Leroux, hesitatingly--"I left" . . .
"We know all about where you left her, Leroux," interrupted Cumberly; "but what we want to get at is this: what occurred between the time you left her, and the time of our return?"
Exel, who had walked across to the table, and with a horror- stricken face was gingerly examining the victim, now exclaimed:--
"Why! Leroux! she is--she is . . . undressed!"
Leroux clutched at his dishevelled hair with both hands.
"My dear Exel!" he cried--"my dear, good man! Why do you use that tone? You say 'she is undressed!' as though I were responsible for the poor soul's condition!"
"On the contrary, Leroux!" retorted Exel, standing very upright, and staring through his monocle; "on the contrary, you misconstrue me! I did not intend to imply--to insinuate--"
"My dear Exel!" broke in Dr. Cumberly--"Leroux is perfectly well aware that you intended nothing unkindly. But the poor chap, quite naturally, is distraught at the moment. You must understand that, man!"
"I understand; and I am sorry," said Exel, casting a sidelong glance at the body. "Of course, it is a delicate subject. No doubt Leroux can explain." . . .
"Damn your explanation!" shrieked Leroux hysterically. "I cannot explain! If I could explain, I" . . .
"Leroux!" said Cumberly, placing his arm paternally about the shaking man--"you are such a nervous subject. Do make an effort, old fellow. Pull yourself together. Exel does not know the circumstances--"
"I am curious to learn them," said the M. P. icily.
Leroux was about to launch some angry retort, but Cumberly forced him into the chesterfield, and crossing to a bureau, poured out a stiff peg of brandy from a decanter which stood there. Leroux sank upon the chesterfield, rubbing his fingers up and down his palms with a curious nervous movement and glancing at the dead woman, and at Exel, alternately, in a mechanical, regular fashion, pathetic to behold.
Mr. Exel, tapping his boot with the head of his inverted cane, was staring fixedly at the doctor.
"Here you are, Leroux," said Cumberly; "drink this up, and let us arrange our facts in decent order before we--"
"Phone for the police?" concluded Exel, his gaze upon the last speaker.
Leroux drank the brandy at a gulp and put down the glass upon a little persian coffee table with a hand which he had somehow contrived to steady.
"You are keen on the official forms, Exel?" he said, with a wry smile. "Please accept my apology for my recent--er--outburst, but picture this thing happening in your place!"
"I cannot," declared Exel, bluntly.
"You lack imagination," said Cumberly. "Take a whisky and soda, and help me to search the flat."
"Search the flat!"
The physician raised a forefinger, forensically.
"Since you, Exel, if not actually in the building, must certainly have been within sight of the street entrance at the moment of the crime, and since Leroux and I descended the stair and met you on the landing, it is reasonable to suppose that the assassin can only be in one place: here!"
"Here!" cried Exel and Leroux, together.
"Did you see anyone leave the lower hall as you entered?"
"No one; emphatically, there was no one there!"
"Then I am right."
"Good God!" whispered Exel, glancing about him, with a new, and keen apprehensiveness.
"Take your drink," concluded Cumberly, "and join me in my search."
"Thanks," replied Exel, nervously proffering a cigar-case; "but I won't drink."
"As you wish," said the doctor, who thus, in his masterful way, acted the host; "and I won't smoke. But do you light up."
"Later," muttered Exel; "later. Let us search, first."
Leroux stood up; Cumberly forced him back.
"Stay where you are, Leroux; it is elementary strategy to operate from a fixed base. This study shall be the base. Ready, Exel?"
Exel nodded, and the search commenced. Leroux sat rigidly upon the settee, his hands resting upon his knees, watching and listening. Save for the merry ticking of the table-clock, and the movements of the searchers from room to room, nothing disturbed the silence. From the table, and that which lay near to it, he kept his gaze obstinately averted.
Five or six minutes passed in this fashion, Leroux expecting each to bring a sudden outcry. He was disappointed. The searchers returned, Exel noticeably holding himself aloof and Cumberly very stern.
Exel, a cigar between his teeth, walked to the writing-table, carefully circling around the dreadful obstacle which lay in his path, to help himself to a match. As he stooped to do so, he perceived that in the closed right hand of the dead woman was a torn scrap of paper.
"Leroux! Cumberly!" he exclaimed; "come here!"
He pointed with the match as Cumberly hurriedly crossed to his side. Leroux, inert, remained where he sat, but watched with haggard eyes. Dr. Cumberly bent down and sought to detach the paper from the grip of the poor cold fingers, without tearing it. Finally he contrived to release the fragment, and, perceiving it to bear some written words, he spread it out beneath the lamp, on the table, and eagerly scanned it, lowering his massive gray head close to the writing.
He inhaled, sibilantly.
"Do you see, Exel?" he jerked--for Exel was bending over his shoulder.
"I do--but I don't understand."
"What is it?" came hollowly from Leroux.
"It is the bottom part of an unfinished note," said Cumberly, slowly. "It is written shakily in a woman's hand, and it reads:-- 'Your wife'" . . .
Leroux sprang to his feet and crossed the room in three strides.
"Wife!" he muttered. His voice seemed to be choked in his throat; "my wife! It says something about my wife?"
"It says," resumed the doctor, quietly, "'your wife.' Then there's a piece torn out, and the two words 'Mr. King.' No stop follows, and the line is evidently incomplete."
"My wife!" mumbled Leroux, staring unseeingly at the fragment of paper. "My wife! Mr. King! Oh! God! I shall go mad!"
"Sit down!" snapped Dr. Cumberly, turning to him; "damn it, Leroux, you are worse than a woman!"
In a manner almost childlike, the novelist obeyed the will of the stronger man, throwing himself into an armchair, and burying his face in his hands.
"My wife!" he kept muttering--"my wife!" . . .
Exel and the doctor stood staring at one another; when suddenly, from outside the flat, came a metallic clattering, followed by a little suppressed cry. Helen Cumberly, in daintiest deshabille, appeared in the lobby, carrying, in one hand, a chafing-dish, and, in the other, the lid. As she advanced toward the study, from whence she had heard her father's voice:--
"Why, Mr. Leroux!" she cried, "I shall certainly report you to Mira, now! You have not even touched the omelette!"
"Good God! Cumberly! stop her!" muttered Exel, uneasily. "The door was not latched!" . . .
But it was too late. Even as the physician turned to intercept his daughter, she crossed the threshold of the study. She stopped short at perceiving Exel; then, with a woman's unerring intuition, divined a tragedy, and, in the instant of divination, sought for, and found, the hub of the tragic wheel.
One swift glance she cast at the fur-clad form, prostrate.
The chafing-dish fell from her hand, and the omelette rolled, a grotesque mass, upon the carpet. She swayed, dizzily, raising one hand to her brow, but had recovered herself even as Leroux sprang forward to support her.
"All right, Leroux!" cried Cumberly; "I will take her upstairs again. Wait for me, Exel."
Exel nodded, lighted his cigar, and sat down in a chair, remote from the writing-table.
"Mira--my wife!" muttered Leroux, standing, looking after Dr. Cumberly and his daughter as they crossed the lobby. "She will report to--my wife." . . .
In the outer doorway, Helen Cumberly looked back over her shoulder, and her glance met that of Leroux. Hers was a healing glance and a strengthening glance; it braced him up as nothing else could have done. He turned to Exel.
"For Heaven's sake, Exel!" he said, evenly, "give me your advice-- give me your help; I am going to 'phone for the police."
Exel looked up with an odd expression.
"I am entirely at your service, Leroux," he said. "I can quite understand how this ghastly affair has shaken you up."
"It was so sudden," said the other, plaintively. "It is incredible that so much emotion can be crowded into so short a period of a man's life." . . .
Big Ben chimed the quarter after midnight. Leroux, eyes averted, walked to the writing-table, and took up the telephone.
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