eBooks Cube
 
XI


Bassett lounged outside the neat privet hedge which it was Harrison
Miller's custom to clip with his own bachelor hands, and waited.
And as he waited he tried to imagine what was going on inside,
behind the neatly curtained windows of the old brick house.

He was tempted to ring the bell again, pretend to have forgotten
something, and perhaps happen in on what might be drama of a rather
high order; what, supposing the man was Clark after all, was fairly
sure to be drama. He discarded the idea, however, and began again
his interested survey of the premises. Whoever conceived this sort
of haven for Clark, if it were Clark, had shown considerable
shrewdness. The town fairly smelt of respectability; the tree-shaded
streets, the children in socks and small crisp-laundered garments,
the houses set back, each in its square of shaved lawn, all peaceful,
middle class and unexciting. The last town in the world for Judson
Clark, the last profession, the last house, this shabby old brick
before him.

He smiled rather grimly as he reflected that if Gregory had been
right in his identification, be was, beyond those windows at that
moment, very possibly warning Clark against himself. Gregory would
know his type, that he never let go. He drew himself up a little.

The house door opened, and Gregory came out, turning toward the
station. Bassett caught up with him and put a hand on his arm.

"Well?" he said cheerfully. "It was, wasn't it?"

Gregory stopped dead and stared at him. Then:

"Old dog Tray!" he said sneeringly. "If your brain was as good
as your nose, Bassett, you'd be a whale of a newspaper man."

"Don't bother about my brain. It's working fine to-day, anyhow.
Well, what had he to say for himself?"

Gregory's mind was busy, and he had had a moment to pull himself
together.

"We both get off together," he said, more amiably. "That fellow
isn't Jud Clark and never was. He's a doctor, and the nephew of
the old doctor there. They're in practice together."

"Did you see them both?"

"Yes."

Bassett eyed him. Either Gregory was a good actor, or the whole
trail ended there after all. He himself had felt, after his
interview, with Dick, that the scent was false. And there was
this to be said: Gregory had been in the house scarcely ten
minutes. Long enough to acknowledge a mistake, but hardly long
enough for any dramatic identification. He was keenly disappointed,
but he had had long experience of disappointment, and after a
moment he only said:

"Well, that's that. He certainly looked like Clark to me."

"I'll say he did."

"Rather surprised him, didn't you "

"Oh, he was all right," Gregory said. "I didn't tell him anything,
of course."

Bassett looked at his watch.

"I was after you, all right," he said, cheerfully. "But if I was
barking up the wrong tree, I'm done. I don't have to be hit on the
head to make me stop. Come and have a soda-water on me," he
finished amiably. "There's no train until seven."

But Gregory refused.

"No, thanks. I'll wander on down to the station and get a paper."

The reporter smiled. Gregory was holding a grudge against him, for
a bad night and a bad day.

"All right," he said affably. "I'll see you at the train. I'll
walk about a bit."

He turned and started back up the street again, walking idly. His
chagrin was very real. He hated to be fooled, and fooled he had
been. Gregory was not the only one who had lost a night's sleep.
Then, unexpectedly, he was hailed from the curbstone, and he saw
with amazement that it was Dick Livingstone.

"Take you anywhere?" Dick asked. "How's the headache?" "Better,
thanks." Bassett stared at him. "No, I'm just walking around until
train-time. Are you starting out or going home, at this hour?"

"Going home. Well, glad the head's better."

He drove on, leaving the reporter gazing after him. So Gregory had
been lying. He hadn't seen this chap at all. Then why - ? He
walked on, turning this new phase of the situation over in his mind.
Why this elaborate fiction, if Gregory had merely gone in, waited
for ten minutes, and come out again?

It wasn't reasonable. It wasn't logical. Something had happened
inside the house to convince Gregory that he was right. He had
seen somebody, or something. He hadn't needed to lie. He could
have said frankly that he had seen no one. But no, he had built
up a fabric carefully calculated to throw Bassett off the scent.

He saw Dick stop in front of the house, get out and enter. And
coming to a decision, he followed him and rang the doorbell. For a
long time no one answered. Then the maid of the afternoon opened
the door, her eyes red with crying, and looked at him with hostility.

"Doctor Richard Livingstone?"

"You can't see him."

"It's important."

"Well, you can't see him. Doctor David has just had a stroke. He's
in the office now, on the floor."

She closed the door on him, and he turned and went away. It was
all clear to him; Gregory had seen, not Clark, but the older man;
had told him and gone away. And under the shock the older man had
collapsed. That was sad. It was very sad. But it was also
extremely convincing.

He sat up late that night again, running over the entries in his
notebook. The old story, as he pieced it out, ran like this:

It had been twelve years ago, when, according to the old files,
Clark had financed Beverly Carlysle's first starring venture. He
had, apparently, started out in the beginning only to give her the
publicity she needed. In devising it, however, he had shown a sort
of boyish recklessness and ingenuity that had caught the interest
of the press, and set newspaper men to chuckling wherever they got
together.

He had got together a dozen or so of young men like himself, wealthy,
idle and reckless with youth, and, headed by him, they had made the
exploitation of the young star an occupation. The newspapers
referred to the star and her constellation as Beverly Carlysle and
her Broadway Beauties. It had been unvicious, young, and highly
entertaining, and it had cost Judson Clark his membership in his
father's conservative old clubs.

For a time it livened the theatrical world with escapades that were
harmless enough, if sensational. Then, after a time, newspaper row
began to whisper that young Clark was in love with the girl. The
Broadway Beauties broke up, after a wild farewell dinner. The
audiences ceased to expect a row of a dozen youths, all dressed
alike with gardenias in their buttonholes and perhaps red neckties
with their evening suits, to rise in their boxes on the star's
appearance and solemnly bow. And the star herself lost a little
of the anxious look she frequently wore.

The story went, after a while, that Judson Clark had been refused,
and was taking his refusal badly. Reporters saw him, carelessly
dressed, outside the stage door waiting, and the story went that
the girl had thrown him over, money and all, for her leading man.
One thing was clear; Clark, not a drinker before, had taken to
drinking hard, and after a time, and some unpleasant scenes probably,
she refused to see him any more.

When the play closed, in June, 1911, she married Howard Lucas, her
leading man; his third wife. Lucas had been not a bad chap, a
good-looking, rather negligible man, given to all-day Sunday poker,
carefully valeted, not very keen mentally, but amiable. They had
bought a house on East Fifty-sixth Street, and were looking for a
new play with Lucas as co-star, when he unaccountably went to pieces
nervously, stopped sleeping, and developed a slight twitching of
his handsome, rather vacuous face.

Judson Clark had taken his yacht and gone to Europe, and was
reported from here and there not too favorably. But when be came
back, in early September, he had apparently recovered from his
infatuation, was his old, carefully dressed self again, and when
interviewed declared his intention of spending the winter on his
Wyoming ranch.

Of course he must have heard of Lucas's breakdown, and equally, of
course, he must have seen them both. What happened at that
interview, by what casual attitude he allayed Lucas's probable
jealousy and the girl's own nervousness, Bassett had no way of
discovering. It was clear that he convinced them both of his good
faith, for the next note in the reporter's book was simply a date,
September 12, 1911.

That was the day they had all started West together, traveling in
Clark's private car, with Lucas, twitching slightly, smiling and
waving farewell from a window.

The big smash did not come until the middle of October.

Bassett sat back and considered. He had a fairly clear idea of the
conditions at the ranch; daily riding, some little reading, and a
great deal too much of each other. A sick man, too, unhappy in his
exile, chafing against his restrictions, lonely and irritable. The
girl, early seeing her mistake, and Clark's jealousy of her husband.
The door into their apartment closing, the thousand and one
unconscious intimacies between man and wife, the breakfast for two
going up the stairs, and below that hot-eyed boy, agonized and
passionately jealous, yet meeting them and looking after them, their
host and a gentleman.

Lucas took to drinking, after a time, to allay his sheer boredom.
And Jud Clark drank with him. At the end of three weeks they were
both drinking heavily, and were politely quarrelsome. Bassett
could fill that in also. He could see the girl protesting, watching,
increasingly anxious as she saw that Clark's jealousy was matched
by her husband's.

A queer picture, he reflected, the three of them shut away on the
great ranch, and every day some new tension, some new strain.

Then, one night at dinner, they quarreled, and Beverly left the
table. She was going to pack her things and go back to New York.
She had felt, probably, that something was bound to snap. And while
she was upstairs Clark had shot and killed Howard Lucas, and himself
disappeared.

He had run, testimony at the inquest revealed, to the corral, and
saddled a horse. Although it was only October, it was snowing hard,
but in spite of that he had turned his horse toward the mountains.
By midnight a posse from Norada had started out, and another up the
Dry River Canyon, but the storm turned into a blizzard in the
mountains, and they were obliged to turn back. A few inches more
snow, and they could not have got their horses out. A week or so
later, with a crust of ice over it, a few of them began again, with
no expectation, however, of finding Clark alive. They came across
his horse on the second day, but they did not find him, and there
were some among them who felt that, after all, old Elihu Clark's
boy had chosen the better way.

Bassett closed his notebook and lighted a cigar.

There was a big story to be had for the seeking, a whale of a story.
He could go to the office, give them a hint, draw expense money and
start for Norada the next night. He knew well enough that he would
have to begin there, and that it would not be easy. Witnesses of
the affair at the ranch would be missing now, or when found the
first accuracy of their statements would either be dulled by time or
have been added to with the passing years. The ranch itself might
have passed into other hands. To reconstruct the events of ten
years ago might be impossible, or nearly so. But that was not his
problem. He would have to connect Norada with Haverly, Clark with
Livingstone. One thing only was simple. If he found Livingstone's
story was correct, that he had lived on a ranch near Norada before
the crime and as Livingstone, then he would acknowledge that two men
could look precisely alike and come from the same place, and yet not
be the same. If not -

But, after he had turned out his light and got into bed, he began
to feel a certain distaste for his self-appointed task. If
Livingstone were Clark, if after years of effort he had pulled
himself up by his own boot-straps, had made himself a man out of
the reckless boy he had been, a decent and useful citizen, why pull
him down? After all, the world hadn't lost much in Lucas; a sleek,
not over-intelligent big animal, that had been Howard Lucas.

He decided to sleep over it, and by morning he found himself not
only disinclined to the business, but firmly resolved to let it drop.
Things were well enough as they were. The woman in the case was
making good. Jud was making good. And nothing would restore Howard
Lucas to that small theatrical world of his which had waved him
good-bye at the station so long ago.

He shaved and dressed, his resolution still holding. He had indeed
almost a conscious glow of virtue, for he was making one of those
inglorious and unsung sacrifices which ought to bring a man credit
in the next world, because they certainly got him nowhere in this.
He was quite affable to the colored waiter who served his breakfasts
in the bachelor apartment house, and increased his weekly tip to a
dollar and a half. Then he sat down and opened the Times-Republican,
skimming over it after his habit for his own space, and frowning over
a row of exclamation and interrogation points unwittingly set behind
the name of the mayor.

On the second page, however, he stopped, coffee cup in air. "Is
Judson Clark alive? Wife of former ranch manager makes confession."

A woman named Margaret Donaldson, it appeared, fatally injured by
an automobile near the town of Norada, Wyoming, had made a confession
on her deathbed. In it she stated that, afraid to die without
shriving her soul, she had sent for the sheriff of Dallas County and
had made the following confession:

That following the tragedy at the Clark ranch her husband, John
Donaldson, since dead, had immediately following the inquest, where
he testified, started out into the mountains in the hope of finding
Clark alive, as he knew of a deserted ranger's cabin where Clark
sometimes camped when hunting. It was his intention to search for
Clark at this cabin and effect his escape. He carded with him food
and brandy.

That, owing to the blizzard, he was very nearly frozen; that he was
obliged to abandon his horse, shooting it before he did so, and that,
close to death himself, he finally reached the cabin and there found
Judson Clark, the fugitive, who was very ill.

She further testified that her husband cared for Clark for four days,
Clark being delirious at the time, and that on the fifth day he
started back on foot for the Clark ranch, having left Clark locked
in the cabin, and that on the following night he took three horses,
two saddled, and one packed with food and supplies. That accompanied
by herself they went back to the cabin in the mountains and that she
remained there to care for Clark, while her husband returned to the
ranch, to prevent suspicion.

That, a day or so later, looking out of her window, she had
perceived a man outside in the snow coming toward the cabin, and
that she had thought it one of the searching party. That her first
instinct had been to lock him outside, but that she had finally
admitted him, and that thereafter he had remained and had helped
her to care for the sick man.

Unfortunately for the rest of the narrative it appeared that the
injured woman had here lapsed into a coma, and had subsequently
died, carrying her further knowledge with her.

But, the article went on, the story opened a field of infinite
surmise. In all probability Judson Clark was still alive, living
under some assumed identity, free of punishment, outwardly
respectable. Three years before he had been adjudged legally
dead, and the estate divided, under bond of the legatees.

Close to a hundred million dollars had gone to charities, and
Judson Clark, wherever he was, would be dependent on his own efforts
for existence. He could have summoned all the legal talent in the
country to his defense, but instead he had chosen to disappear.

The whole situation turned on the deposition of Mrs. Donaldson, now
dead. The local authorities at Norada maintained that the woman
had not been sane for several years. On the other hand, the cabin
to which she referred was well known, and no search of it had been
made at the time. Clark's horse had been found not ten miles from
the town, and the cabin was buried in snow twenty miles further away.
If Clark had made that journey on foot he had accomplished the
impossible.

Certain facts, according to the local correspondent, bore out
Margaret Donaldson's confession. Inquiry showed that she was
supposed to have spent the winter following Judson Clark's crime
with relatives in Omaha. She had returned to the ranch the
following spring.

A detailed description of Judson Clark, and a photograph of him
accompanied the story. Bassett re-read the article carefully, and
swore a little, under his breath. If he had needed confirmation of
his suspicions, it lay to his hand. But the situation had changed
over night. There would be a search for Clark now, as wide as the
knowledge of his disappearance. Local police authorities would
turn him up in every city from Maine to the Pacific coast. Even
Europe would be on the lookout and South America.

But it was not the police he feared so much as the press. Not all
of the papers, but some of them, would go after that story, and send
their best men on it. It offered not so much a chance of solution
as an opportunity to revive the old dramatic story. He could see,
when he closed his eyes, the local photographers climbing to that
cabin and later sending its pictures broadcast, and divers gentlemen
of the press, eager to pit their wits against ten years of time and
the ability of a once conspicuous man to hide from the law, packing
their suitcases for Norada.

No, he couldn't stop now. He would go on, like the others, and with
this advantage, that he was morally certain he could lay his hands
on Clark at any time. But he would have to prove his case, connect
it. Who, for instance, was the other man in the cabin? He must
have known who the boy was who lay in that rough bunk, delirious.
Must have suspected anyhow. That made him, like the Donaldsons,
accessory after the fact, and criminally liable. Small chance of
him coming out with any confession. Yet he was the connecting link.
Must be.

On his third reading the reporter began to visualize the human
elements of the fight to save the boy; he saw moving before him the
whole pitiful struggle; the indomitable ranch manager, his
heart-breaking struggle with the blizzard, the shooting of his horse,
the careful disarming of suspicion, and later the intrepid woman,
daring that night ride through snow that had sent the posse back
to its firesides to the boy, locked in the cabin and raving.

His mind was busy as he packed his suitcase. Already he had
forgotten his compunctions of the early morning; he moved about
methodically, calculating roughly what expense money he would need,
and the line of attack, if any, required at the office. Between
Norada and that old brick house at Haverly lay his story. Ten
years of it. He was closing his bag when he remembered the little
girl in the blue dress, at the theater. He straightened and scowled.
After a moment he snapped the bag shut. Damn it all, if Clark had
chosen to He up with a girl, that was on Clark's conscience, not his.

But he was vaguely uncomfortable.

"It's a queer world, Joe," he observed to the waiter, who had come
in for the breakfast dishes.


"Yes, sir. It is that," said Joe.





The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Category:
General Fiction

Mystery and detective stories
Nabou.com: the big site