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XXIV


Shortly after that Dick said he would go to his room. He was still
pale, but his eyes looked bright and feverish, and Bassett went
with him, uneasily conscious that something was not quite right.
Dick spoke only once on the way.

"My head aches like the mischief," he said, and his voice was dull
and lifeless.

He did not want Bassett to go with him, but Bassett went,
nevertheless. Dick's statement, that he meant to surrender himself,
had filled him with uneasiness. He determined, following him along
the hall, to keep a close guard on him for the next few hours, but
beyond that, just then, he did not try to go. If it were humanly
possible he meant to smuggle him out of the town and take him East.
But he had an uneasy conviction that Dick was going to be ill.
The mind did strange things with the body.

Dick sat down on the edge of the bed.

"My head aches like the mischief," he repeated. "Look in that grip
and find me some tablets, will you? I'm dizzy."

He made an effort and stretched out on the bed. "Good Lord," he
muttered, "I haven't had such a headache since - "

His voice trailed off. Bassett, bending over the army kit bag in
the corner, straightened and looked around. Dick was suddenly
asleep and breathing heavily.

For a long time the reporter sat by the side of the bed, watching
him and trying to plan some course of action. He was overcome by
his own responsibility, and by the prospect of tragedy that
threatened. That Livingstone was Clark, and that he would insist
on surrendering himself when he wakened, he could no longer doubt.
His mind wandered back to that day when he had visited the old house
as a patient, and from that along the strange road they had both
come since then. He reflected, not exactly in those terms, that
life, any man's life, was only one thread in a pattern woven of an
infinite number of threads, and that to tangle the one thread was
to interfere with all the others. David Livingstone, the girl in
the blue dress, the man twitching uneasily on the bed, Wilkins the
sheriff, himself, who could tell how many others, all threads.

He swore in a whisper.

The maid tapped at the door. He opened it an inch or so and sent
her off. In view of his new determination even the maid had become
a danger. She was the same elderly woman who looked after his own
bedroom, and she might have known Clark. Just what Providence had
kept him from recognition before this he did not know, but it could
not go on indefinitely.

After an hour or so Bassett locked the door behind him and went
down to lunch. He was not hungry, but he wanted to get out of the
room, to think without that quiet figure before him. Over the
pretence of food he faced the situation. Lying ready to his hand
was the biggest story of his career, but he could not carry it
through. It was characteristic of him that, before abandoning it,
he should follow through to the end the result of its publication.
He did not believe, for instance, that either Dick's voluntary
surrender or his own disclosure of the situation necessarily meant
a conviction for murder. To convict a man of a crime he did not
know he had committed would be difficult. But, with his customary
thoroughness he followed that through also. Livingstone acquitted
was once again Clark, would be known to the world as Clark. The
new place he had so painfully made for himself would be gone. The
story would follow him, never to be lived down. And in his
particular profession confidence and respect were half the game.
All that would be gone.

Thus by gradual stages he got back to David, and he struggled for
the motive which lay behind every decisive human act. A man who
followed a course by which he had nothing to gain and everything
to lose was either a fool or was actuated by some profound
unselfishness. To save a life? But with all the resources Clark
could have commanded, added to his personal popularity, a first
degree sentence would have been unlikely. Not a life, then, but
perhaps something greater than a life. A man's soul.

It came to him, then, in a great light of comprehension, the thing
David had tried to do; to take this waster and fugitive, the slate
of his mind wiped clean by shock and illness, only his childish
memories remaining, and on it to lead him to write a new record.
To take the body he had found, and the always untouched soul, and
from them to make a man.

And with that comprehension came the conviction, too, that David
had succeeded. He had indeed made a man.

He ate absently, consulting his railroad schedule and formulating
the arguments he meant to use against Dick's determination to give
himself up. He foresaw a struggle there, but he himself held one
or two strong cards - the ruthless undoing of David's work, the
involving of David for conspiring against the law. And Dick's own
obligation to the girl at home.

He was more at ease in the practical arrangements. An express went
through on the main line at midnight, and there was a local on the
branch line at eight. But the local train, the railway station,
too, were full of possible dangers. After some thought he decided
to get a car, drive down to the main line with Dick, and then send
the car back.

He went out at once and made an arrangement for a car, and on
returning notified the clerk that he was going to leave, and asked
to have his bill made out. After some hesitation he said: "I'll
pay three-twenty too, while I'm at it. Friend of mine there, going
with me. Yes, up to to-night."

As he turned away he saw the short, heavy figure of Wilkins coming
in. He stood back and watched. The sheriff went to the desk,
pulled the register toward him and ran over several pages of it.
Then he shoved it away, turned and saw him.

"Been away, haven't you?" he asked.

"Yes. I took a little horseback trip into the mountains. My knees
are still not on speaking terms.''

The Sheriff chuckled. Then he sobered.

"Come and sit down," he said. "I'm going to watch who goes in and
out of here for a while."

Bassett followed him unwillingly to two chairs that faced the desk
and the lobby. He had the key of Dick's room in his pocket, but he
knew that if he wakened he could easily telephone and have his door
unlocked. But that was not his only anxiety. He had a sudden
conviction that the Sheriff's watch was connected with Dick himself.
Wilkins, from a friendly and gregarious fellow-being, had suddenly
grown to sinister proportions in his mind.

And, as the minutes went by, with the Sheriff sitting forward and
watching the lobby and staircase with intent, unblinking eyes,
Bassett's anxiety turned to fear. He found his heart leaping when
the room bells rang, and the clerk, with a glance at the annunciator,
sent boys hurrying off. His hands shook, and he felt them cold and
moist. And all the time Wilkins was holding him with a flow of
unimportant chatter.

"Watching for any one in particular?" he managed, after five
minutes or so.

"Yes. I'll tell you about it as soon as - Bill! Is Alex outside?"

Bill stopped in front of them, and nodded.

"All right. Now get this - I want everything decent and in order.
No excitement. I'll come out behind him, and you and Bill stand by.
Outside I'll speak to him, and when we walk off, just fall in behind.
But keep close."

Bill wandered off, to take up a stand of extreme nonchalance inside
the entrance. When Wilkins turned to him again Bassett had had a
moment to adjust himself, and more or less to plan his own campaign.

"Somebody's out of luck," he commented. "And speaking of being out
of luck, I've got a sick man on my hands. Friend of mine from home.
We've got to catch the midnight, too."

"Too bad," Wilkins commented rather absently. Then, perhaps feeling
that he had not shown proper interest, "Tell you what I'll do. I've
got some buisness on hand now, but it'll be cleared up one way or
another pretty soon. I'll bring my car around and take him to the
station. These hacks are the limit to ride in."

The disaster to his plans thus threatened steadied the reporter,
and he managed to keep his face impassive.

"Thanks," he said. "I'll let you know if he's able to travel. Is
this - is this business you're on confidential?"

"Well, it is and it isn't. I've talked some to you, and as you're
leaving anyhow - it's the Jud Clark case again."

"Sort of hysteria, I suppose. He'll be seen all over the country
for the next six months."

"Yes. But I never saw a hysterical Indian. Well, a little while
ago an Indian woman named Lizzie Lazarus blew into my office. She's
a smart woman. Her husband was a breed, dairy hand on the Clark
ranch for years. Lizzie was the first Indian woman in these parts
to go to school, and besides being smart, she's got Indian sight.
You know these Indians. When they aren't blind with trachoma they
can see further and better than a telescope."

Bassett made an effort.

"What's that got to do with Jud Clark?" he asked.

"Well, she blew in. You know there was a reward out for him, and
I guess it still stands. I'll have to look it up, for if Maggie
Donaldson wasn't crazy some one will turn him up some day, probably.
Well, Lizzie blew in, and she said she'd seen Jud Clark. Saw him
standing at a second story window of this hotel. Can you beat that?"

"Not for pure invention. Hardly."

"That's what I said at first. But I don't know. In some ways it
would be like him. He wouldn't mind coming back and giving us the
laugh, if he thought he could get away with it. He didn't know fear.
Only time he ever showed funk was when he beat it after the shooting,
and then he was full of hootch, and on the edge of D.T.'s."

"A man doesn't play jokes with the hangman's rope," Bassett
commented, dryly. He looked at his watch and rose. "It's a good
story, but I wouldn't wear out any trouser-seats sitting here
watching for him. If he's living he's taken pretty good care for
ten years not to put his head in the noose; and I'd remember this,
too. Wherever he is, if he is anywhere, he's probably so changed
his appearance that Telescope Lizzie wouldn't know him. Or you
either."

"Probably," the Sheriff said, comfortably. "Still I'm not taking
any chances. I'm up for reelection this fall, and that Donaldson
woman's story nearly queered me. I've got a fellow at the railroad
station, just for luck."

Bassett went up the stairs and along the corridor, deep in dejected
thought. The trap of his own making was closing, and his active
mind was busy with schemes for getting Dick away before it shut
entirely.

It might be better, in one way, to keep Livingstone there in his
room until the alarm blew over. On the other hand, Livingstone
himself had to be dealt with, and that he would remain quiescent
under the circumstances was unlikely. The motor to the main line
seemed to be the best thing. True, he would have first to get
Livingstone to agree to go. That done, and he did not
underestimate its difficulty, there was the question of getting
him out of the hotel, now that the alarm had been given.

When he found Dick still sleeping he made a careful survey of the
second floor. There was a second staircase, but investigation
showed that it led into the kitchens. He decided finally on a
fire-escape from a rear hall window, which led into a courtyard
littered with the untidy rubbish of an overcrowded and undermanned
hotel, and where now two or three saddled horses waited while their
riders ate within.

When he had made certain that he was not observed he unlocked and
opened the window, and removed the wire screen. There was a red
fire-exit lamp in the ceiling nearby, but he could not reach it,
nor could he find any wall switch. Nevertheless he knew by that
time that through the window lay Dick's only chance of escape. He
cleared the grating of a broken box and an empty flower pot, stood
the screen outside the wall, and then, still unobserved, made his
way back to his own bedroom and packed his belongings.

Dick was still sleeping, stretched on his bed, when he returned
to three-twenty. And here Bassett's careful plans began to go awry,
for Dick's body was twitching, and his face was pale and covered
with a cold sweat. From wondering how they could get away, Bassett
began to wonder whether they would get away at all. The sleep was
more like a stupor than sleep. He sat down by the bed, closer to
sheer fright than he had ever been before, and wretched with the
miserable knowledge of his own responsibility.

As the afternoon wore on, it became increasingly evident that
somehow or other he must get a doctor. He turned the subject over
in his mind, pro and con. If he could get a new man, one who did
not remember Jud Clark, it might do. But he hesitated until, at
seven, Dick opened his eyes and clearly did not know him. Then
he knew that the matter was out of his hands, and that from now
on whatever it was that controlled the affairs of men, David's God
or his own vague Providence, was in charge.

He got his hat and went out, and down the stairs again. Wilkins
had disappeared, but Bill still stood by the entrance, watching the
crowd that drifted in and out. In his state of tension he felt
that the hotel clerk's eyes were suspicious as he retained the two
rooms for another day, and that Bill watched him out with more than
casual interest. Even the matter of cancelling the order for the
car loomed large and suspicion-breeding before him, but he
accomplished it, and then set out to find medical assistance.

There, however, chance favored him. The first doctor's sign led
him to a young man, new to the town, and obviously at leisure. Not
that he found that out at once. He invented a condition for
himself, as he had done once before, got a prescription and paid
for it, learned what he wanted, and then mentioned Dick. He was
careful to emphasize his name and profession, and his standing
"back home."

"I'll admit he's got me worried," he finished. "He saw me registered
and came to my room this morning to see me, and got sick there. That
is, he said he had a violent headache and was dizzy. I got him to
his room and on the bed, and he's been sleeping ever since. He looks
pretty sick to me."

He was conscious of Bill's eyes on him as they went through the
lobby again, but he realized now that they were unsuspicious.
Bassett himself was in a hot sweat. He stopped outside the room
and mopped his face.

"Look kind of shot up yourself," the doctor commented. "Watch this
sun out here. Because it's dry here you Eastern people don't
notice the heat until it plays the deuce with you."

He made a careful examination of the sleeping man, while Bassett
watched his face.

"Been a drinking man? Or do you know?"

"No. But I think not. I gave him a small drink this morning, when
he seemed to need it."

"Been like this all day?"

"Since noon. Yes."

Once more the medical man stooped. When he straightened it was to
deliver Bassett a body blow.

"I don't like his condition, or that twitching. If these were the
good old days in Wyoming I'd say he is on the verge of delirium
tremens. But that's only snap judgment. He might be on the verge
of a good many things. Anyhow, he'd better be moved to the
hospital. This is no place for him."

And against this common-sense suggestion Bassett had nothing to
offer. If the doctor had been looking he would have seen him make
a gesture of despair.

"I suppose so," he said, dully. "Is it near? I'll go myself and
get a room."

"That's my advice. I'll look in later, and if the stupor continues
I'll have in a consultant." He picked up his bag and stood looking
down at the bed. "Big fine-looking chap, isn't he?" he commented.
"Married?"

"No."

"Well, we'll get the ambulance, and later on we'll go over him
properly. I'd call a maid to sit with him, if I were you." In the
grip of a situation that was too much for him, Bassett rang the
bell. It was answered by the elderly maid who took care of his
own bedroom.

Months later, puzzling over the situation, Bassett was to wonder,
and not to know, whether chance or design brought the Thorwald
woman to the door that night. At the time, and for weeks, he laid
it to tragic chance, the same chance which had placed in Dick's
hand the warning letter that had brought him West. But as months
went on, the part played in the tragedy by that faded woman with
her tired dispirited voice and her ash colored hair streaked with
gray, assumed other proportions, loomed large and mysterious.

There were times when he wished that some prescience of danger had
made him throttle her then and there, so she could not have raised
her shrill, alarming voice! But he had no warning. All he saw was
a woman in a washed-out blue calico dress and a fresh white apron,
raising incurious eyes to his.

"I suppose it's all right if she sits in the hall?" Bassett
inquired, still fighting his losing fight. "She can go in if he
stirs."

"Right-o," said the doctor, who had been to France and had brought
home some British phrases.

Bassett walked back from the hospital alone. The game was up and
he knew it. Sooner or later - In a way he tried to defend himself
to himself. He had done his best. Two or three days ago he would
have been exultant over the developments. After all, mince things
as one would, Clark was a murderer. Other men killed and paid the
penalty. And the game was not up entirely, at that. The providence
which had watched over him for so long might continue to. The
hospital was new. (It was, ironically enough, the Clark Memorial
hospital.) There was still a chance.

He was conscious of something strange as he entered the lobby.
The constable was gone, and there was no clerk behind the desk.
At the foot of the stairs stood a group of guests and loungers,
looking up, while a bell-boy barred the way.

Even then Bassett's first thought was of fire. He elbowed his way
to the foot of the stairs, and demanded to be allowed to go up, but
he was refused.

"In a few minutes," said the boy. "No need of excitement."

"Is it a fire?"

"I don't know myself. I've got my orders. That's all." Wilkins
came hurrying in. The crowd, silent and respectful before the law,
opened to let him through and closed behind him.

Bassett stood at the foot of the stairs, looking up.





The Breaking Point by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Category:
General Fiction

Mystery and detective stories
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