Judge Hoyt’s strong, keen face took on a kindlier aspect and his curt “Hello!” was followed by gentler tones, as he heard the voice of the girl he loved, over the telephone.
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Carolyn Wells was an American author of mysteries, verse, humor, and children's books. In 1910 she decided to devote herself to mysteries and became an early master of the genre, creating two memorable sleuths: Pennington Wise and Fleming Stone. Earlier in her career, she penned two humorous stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and a plethora of…
“What is it, Avice?” he said, for her speech showed anxiety.
“Uncle Rowly,—he hasn’t come home yet.”
“He hasn’t? Well, I hope he’ll turn up soon. I want to see him. I was coming up this evening.”
“Come now,” said Avice; “come now, and dine here. I am so anxious about uncle.”
“Why, Avice, don’t worry. He is all right, of course.”
“No he isn’t. I feel a presentiment something has happened to him. He never was so late as this before, unless we knew where he was. Do come right up, won’t you, Judge?”
“Certainly I will; I’m very glad to. But I’m sure your fears are groundless. What about Mrs. Black? Is she alarmed?”
“No, Eleanor laughs at me.”
“Then I think you needn’t disturb yourself. Surely she——”
“Yes, I know what you’re going to say, but she isn’t a bit fonder of Uncle Rowly than I am. Good-by.”
Avice hung up the receiver with a little snap. She was willing that Mrs. Black should marry her uncle, but she did hate to be relegated to second place in the household. Already the handsome widow was asserting her supremacy, and while Avice acknowledged the justice of it, it hurt her pride a little.
“I’ve asked Judge Hoyt to dinner,” she said, as she returned to her post at the window.
Mrs. Black glanced up from the evening paper she was reading and murmured an indistinct acquiescence.
It was late June, yet the city home of the Trowbridges was still occupied by the family. As Avice often said, the big town house was cooler than most summer resorts, with their small rooms and lack of shade. Here, the linen-swathed furniture, the white-draped chandeliers and pictures, the rugless floors, all contributed to an effect of coolness and comfort.
Avice, herself, in her pretty white gown, fluttered from one window to another, looking out for her uncle.
“Mrs. Black, why do you suppose Uncle Rowly doesn’t come? He said he would be home early, and it’s after six o’clock now!”
“I don’t know Avice, I’m sure. Do be quiet! You fluster around so, you make me nervous.”
“I’m nervous myself, Eleanor. I’m afraid something has happened to uncle. Do you suppose he has had a stroke, or anything?”
“Nonsense, child, of course, not. He has been detained at the office for something.”
“No he hasn’t; I telephoned there and the office is closed.”
“Then he has gone somewhere else.”
“But he said he would be home by five.”
“Well, he isn’t. Now, don’t worry; that can do no good.”
But Avice did worry. She continued to flit about, dividing her attention between the clock and the window.
The girl had been an orphan from childhood, and Rowland Trowbridge had been almost as a father to her. Avice loved him and watched over him as a daughter; at least, that had been the case until lately. A few weeks since, Mr. Trowbridge had succumbed to the rather florid charms of Mrs. Black, his housekeeper, and told Avice he would marry her in a month.
Though greatly surprised and not greatly pleased, Avice had accepted the situation and treated the housekeeper with the same pleasant courtesy she had always shown her. The two “got along” as the phrase is, though their natures were not in many ways congenial.
Avice remained at the window till she saw at last Leslie Hoyt’s tall form approaching. She ran to open the door herself.
“Oh, Judge Hoyt,” she cried, “Uncle hasn’t come yet! There must be something wrong! What can we do?”
“I don’t know, Avice, dear. Tell me all about it.”
“There’s nothing to tell, only that uncle said he would be home at five, and it’s almost seven and he isn’t here! Such a thing never happened before.”
“Good evening, Judge Hoyt,” said Mrs. Black’s cool, measured voice as they entered the drawing-room. “I think our Avice is unnecessarily alarmed. I’m sure Mr. Trowbridge can take care of himself.”
“That is doubtless true,” and for the first time a note of anxiety crept into Hoyt’s tone; “but as Avice says, it is most unusual.”
Mrs. Black smiled indifferently and returned to her paper.
Leslie Hoyt was so frequent a visitor at the house, that he was never treated formally. He seated himself in an easy chair, and took a cigarette case from his pocket, while Avice continued her nervous journeys between the clock and the window.
“We won’t wait dinner after seven,” said Mrs. Black, in a voice that might mean either command or suggestion, as her hearers preferred.
“You may have it served now, if you like,” returned Avice, “but I shan’t go to the table until uncle comes.”
Now, it had been nearly two hours before this that a telephone call had been received at police headquarters.
“Is dees polizia stazione?” Inspector Collins had heard, as he held the receiver to his ear.
Through the green cord the broken voice spoke in a halting way, as if uncertain how to word the message.
“Yes; who is speaking?” Collins replied.
“Meester Rowlan’ Trowbridga,—he is dead-a.”
“I can’t hear you! What’s all that racket where you are?”
“My bambini—my childaren. They have-a da whoopa-cough.”
“It’s more than children making all that noise! Who are you?”
“Not matter. I say, Meester Trowbridga—he dead-a.”
“Rowland Trowbridge dead! Where—who are you?”
“You find-a heem. Bringa da bod’ home.”
“Where is he?”
“Van Cortaland’ Park. By da gollif play. You go finda da man—Bringa da bod’ home.”
“See here, you tell me who you are!”
But a sudden click told that the message was finished, and after a few impatient hellos, Collins hung up the receiver.
“Rubbish!” he said to himself; “some Dago woman trying to be funny. But a queer thing,—Rowland Trowbridge! Phew, if it should be! I’ll just call up his house.”
Collins called up the Trowbridge house on Fifth Avenue. Not to alarm any one he merely inquired if Mr. Trowbridge was at home. The answer was no, and, glancing at the clock, Collins called up Mr. Trowbridge’s office in the Equitable Building. There was no response, and as it was five o’clock, he assumed the office was already closed.
“I’ve got a hunch there’s something in it,” he mused, and acting on his conviction, he called up the Van Cortlandt Park Precinct Station, and told the story.
Captain Pearson, who took the message, shrugged his shoulders at its dubious authority, but he assembled several detectives and policemen, and set off with them in a patrol car for the golf links.
Up to Van Cortlandt Park they went, past the gay-coated, gay-voiced golf players, on along the broad road to the woods beyond.
“By golly! There he is!” cried one of the detectives, whose expectant eyes noted a dark heap on the ground, well back among the trees.
Jumping from the car and running across the uneven, root-roughened ground, they found the dead body of Rowland Trowbridge.
Dressed in his business clothes, his hat on the ground near by, the body was contorted, the hands clenched, and the face showed an expression of rage, that betokened a violent death.
“He put up a fight,” observed Pearson. “Poor man, he had no chance. Somebody stabbed him.”
A gash in the blood-stained waistcoat proved that the aim at the victim’s heart had been all too sure, and his frantic, convulsive struggles of no avail.
Eagerly the men looked for clues. But they found nothing save the dead man and his own belongings. The scene of the tragedy was not very far from the road, but it was well screened by the thick summer foliage, and the rocks and high tree roots hid the body on the ground from the sight of passers-by.
“Footprints?” said Lieutenant Pearson, musingly.
“Nothing doing,” returned Detective Groot. “Some few depressions here and there—of course, made by human feet—but none clear enough to be called a footprint.”
“And the ground is too stony and grassy to show them. Look well, though, boys. No broken cuff-links, or dropped gloves? It’s a canny murderer who doesn’t leave a shred of incriminating evidence.”
“It’s a fool murderer who does,” returned Groot. “And this affair is not the work of a fool. Probably they’ve been spotting Mr. Trowbridge for months. These millionaires are fair game for the Dago slayers.”
“Didn’t an Italian woman turn in the call? How could she know of it unless some of her own people did it?”
“But there seems to be no robbery. Here’s his watch and scarfpin all right.”
“And his roll?”
“Yes,” said Pearson, after an investigation of the dead man’s pockets. “Bills and change. Nothing taken, apparently.”
“Valuable papers, maybe.”
“Not a Dago, then. Your theories don’t hang together. Well, this will create some stir in the Street! Biggest sensation in years. Rowland Trowbridge! Phew! Won’t the papers go crazy!”
“What family has he? Wife?”
“No, nor child. Only a niece, but she’s the apple of his eye. We’ll get Collins to telephone to the house. It’s an awful business.”
The business was awful, and its awful details took so much time that it was seven o’clock before Inspector Collins called up the Trowbridge home.
“Maybe that’s uncle now!” cried Avice, and springing from her chair she went to the ringing telephone.
“Hello—yes—no,—oh, tell me!—I am Miss Trowbridge,—no, his niece,—please come here, Judge Hoyt!”
Leslie Hoyt took the receiver from the hand of the agitated girl, and received this message from the police station.
“Yes, sir; I couldn’t tell the young lady, sir. Do you belong to the family? Well, then, there’s no use beatin’ round the bush. Mr. Trowbridge is dead. We found his body in Van Cortlandt Park woods. Will you come here to identify it?”
“Wait a minute! Let me think!” and Hoyt strove to control himself. “Avice, you were right. Something has happened.”
“Oh, Uncle Rowly!”
“Yes,—” and Hoyt’s voice faltered, “he has been—has been hurt. They—they have found him——”
“I know,” said Avice, standing perfectly still, while her face went white. “You needn’t tell me. I know. He is dead.”
Hoyt looked at her dumbly, not contradicting. He had loved the girl for years, but though she liked him, she would give him no promise, and he still hoped and waited. He turned back to answer the insistent telephone. “Yes; of course, there is nothing else to do. Tell the coroner. I will go there at once. Are you sure of what you tell me?”
“There can be no doubt,” he said gently, as he finally left the telephone. “There are letters in his pockets, and some of the policemen know him. Avice, dear!”
But Avice had flung herself on a couch, her face buried in the pillows, and was sobbing her heart out.
“Let her cry,” said Mrs. Black, softly, as she laid her long white hand gently upon the bowed head; “it will do her good. Tell me all, Judge Hoyt. I am the one in charge now.”
The woman’s handsome face showed dignity and authority rather than grief, but Leslie Hoyt was merely the dead man’s lawyer, and had no right to intrude personal comment or sympathy. He had long been a close friend of Rowland Trowbridge and his niece, but with the housekeeper his acquaintance was but formal.
“I know very little, Mrs. Black,” he said, his eyes wandering to the convulsed figure on the couch. “The inspector merely told me that Mr. Trowbridge has been killed and that some one must go to the police station to represent the family. As his lawyer, it is appropriate that I should go, and, indeed, it seems to me there is no one else who could—” his voice broke as he looked again at Avice, now sitting up and staring, wide-eyed at him.
“Yes, do go, Judge Hoyt,” she cried; “you are the one—who else could? Not I, surely,—you don’t want me to go, do you?”
“No, Avice, no, dear,” said Mrs. Black, soothingly. “Nobody thought of your going. Judge Hoyt has kindly consented——”
“I will stop for Doctor Fulton, I think, and ask him to go with me,” and Leslie Hoyt took up his hat. “You had better go to your room, Avice. It may be a long time before my return.”
“I will look after her,” and Mrs. Black nodded her head. “I will attend to everything.”
She accompanied Hoyt to the door, saying in low tones, “When you come back, will you bring the the—will you bring Mr. Trowbridge with you?”
“I can’t be sure. There are so many formalities to be looked after. Try to keep Avice as quiet as possible. It will be a trying scene at best, when we return.”
“I will do all I can for her. How fortunate that you are here, Judge Hoyt.”
“Indeed, yes. Had I not been, the girl might have insisted on going on this awful errand.”
The judge walked the few blocks to Doctor Fulton’s office, and luckily finding him in, they both went at once in the doctor’s car to the scene of the tragedy.
“Let me give you some quieting draught, Avice dear,” said Mrs. Black, as she returned to the girl, “and then I’m going to send you to bed.”
“Indeed, you’ll do nothing of the kind. I have quite as much right here as you have.”
“Of course you have,” and the lady’s voice was as straightforward as her words. “I only want to spare you the shock.”
“I don’t want to be spared, I want to know all about everything that goes on. I won’t be treated as a child or an imbecile! I want to help.”
“But, my dear, there is nothing to do.”
“There will be. If Uncle Rowly has been killed, some one has done the deed, and I shall never rest until I find out who did it, and bring him to justice! How can you sit there so calmly? Don’t you care? You, who pretended to love him!”
“There, there, Avice, don’t get so excited. I know how you must feel, but——”
“Don’t talk to me, Eleanor! You drive me crazy!”
Offended, and a little frightened at the girl’s vehemence, the older woman ceased all attempts at conversation, and busied herself about the rooms, with those futile, nervous little motions that most women indulge in under stress of great excitement.
“I think, Avice, dear, you ought to try to eat some dinner,” she suggested. “Shall we go out together?”
But Avice only looked at her in dumb reproach, and closed her eyes as if to dismiss the subject.
Mrs. Black went into the dining-room alone.
“There has been an accident, Stryker,” she said to the butler, thinking it unwise to say more at the present. “They will bring Mr. Trowbridge home after a time. Meantime, say nothing to the other servants, and give me my dinner, for I feel I must try to eat something.”
Mrs. Black’s face was inscrutable as she sat at the well-appointed table. She ate a little of the dishes Stryker brought, but her thoughts were evidently far away. She frowned now and then, and once she smiled, but mostly she seemed in a brown study, and as if she had weighty affairs on her mind. Not a tear did she shed, nor did she look bowed with sorrow; indeed, her fine, well-poised head held itself a little higher than usual as she gave low-voiced orders to the butler now and then.
She returned to the drawing-room and the weary hours dragged by. Occasionally the two women spoke to each other, but only of trivialities, or necessary details of arrangement. No word of sympathy or common grief passed between them.
At last they heard steps outside, and they knew Rowland Trowbridge was being brought into his house for the last time.
Judge Hoyt came in first and kept the two women in the drawing-room while the bearers took their tragic burden up to Mr. Trowbridge’s own room. Shortly afterward Doctor Fulton came down.
“Mr. Trowbridge was murdered,” he said briefly. “Stabbed with a dagger. He has been dead five or six hours now. Perhaps more.”
“Who did it?” cried Avice, looking more like an avenging angel than a grief-stricken girl.
“They have no idea. The coroner must try to determine that.”
“The coroner!” exclaimed Mrs. Black in horror.
Avice turned on her. “Yes, coroner,” she said; “how else can we find out who killed Uncle Rowly, and punish him,—and kill him!”
Every one stared at Avice. The policeman in the hall looked in at the doorway, as her ringing tones reached him. The girl was greatly excited and her eyes blazed like stars. But she stood quietly, and spoke with repressed force.
“What is the first thing to do?” she said, turning to Doctor Fulton, and then glancing past him to the policeman in the doorway.
“Wait, Avice, wait,” put in Leslie Hoyt; “let us consider a moment.”
“There is nothing to be considered, Leslie. Uncle is dead. We must discover who killed him. We must get the best detectives, and we must never rest until we have brought the villain to justice.”
“Of course, of course, Avice,” said Mrs. Black, soothingly, “but we can’t hurry so, child.”
“We must hurry! It is only by beginning at once that we can find clues and things. Delay means opportunity for the criminal to escape!”
Hoyt and Doctor Fulton looked at the girl in amazement. Where had she learned these terms that fell so readily from her tongue?
“She is right,” said Judge Hoyt, sadly. “There must be no unnecessary delay in these matters. But the law moves slowly, at best. Everything possible will be done, Avice; you may rest assured of that. The coroner is upstairs now, and when he comes down he will want to talk with you. You won’t object?”
“Indeed, no. I want to see him. Why, only think, I know nothing,—nothing, as yet, as to how Uncle Rowly met his death!”