- CHAPTER IX. A LETTER.
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AS Robert Brierly entered the house, the detective, now taking the lead as a matter of course, turned toward Mrs. Fry.
"I see that you are anxious to get back home," he said to her. "And it is as well that you go back in advance of us, for people are beginning to move about. Wait for us at the side door." And then, as the woman hastened away, he turned toward the doctor. "You need not feel uneasy because of your guest, Doc.," he said, with his rare and fine smile. "There are times when the physical man is in subjection to the spiritual man, or the will power within him, if you like that better. Brierly has already endured a severe mental strain, I grant, but he's not at the end of his endurance yet. In fact, if he's the journalist, and I begin to think so, he knows how to sustain mental strain long and steadily. You don't fancy | | 102 he could be persuaded to wait for meat and drink now, do you?"
"My soul, man!" exclaimed Doctor Barnes, "how you do read a man's thoughts! No! Brierly wouldn't stop for anything now. Nor you, either, for that matter, What do you make of this?"
"I can tell you better in an hour from now, I hope. Here's Brierly. Now then, gentlemen, try and look as if this was merely a morning walk. We don't want to excite the curiosity of the neighbours."
There seemed little need of this caution, for they saw no one as they crossed to the quiet street in which Mrs. Fry lived. But Ferrars, who had fallen behind the others, had an observant eye upon all within range, as if, as the doctor afterward declared, he held the very town itself under suspicion.
Mrs. Fry awaited them at the side door, and unlocked the one leading to the front hall and stairway at once.
"I hope one of you has got a pistol," she said, nervously, as they approached the stairs.
"There's no one up there, Mrs. Fry," replied Ferrars. "Never fear." But Mrs. Fry was not so positive. She closed the sitting-room door, all but the merest crack, and stood ready to clap it entirely shut at the first sound of attack and defence from the room above.| | 103
Meantime Robert Brierly, who had led the way upstairs, placed a firm hand upon the key, turned it and softly opened the door. Then, for a moment, all three stood still at the threshold, gazing within.
It was Francis Ferrars who spoke the first word, with his hand upon Robert Brierly's shoulder, and his voice little more than a whisper.
"Go inside, Brierly, quickly and quietly." He gave the shoulder under his hand a quick, light, forward pressure, and instinctively, as it seemed, Brierly stepped across the threshold with the other two close at his heels, and, the moment they were inside the room, Ferrars turned and silently withdrew the key from the outer side, closed the door cautiously, and relocked it from within.
"We will do well to dispense with Mrs. Fry, at least for the present," he said, coolly. "It's plain enough there has been mischief here. Mr. Brierly, you saw this room last night, for a moment."
Robert Brierly, who had dropped weakly upon a chair, stopped him with a movement of the hand.
"Mr. Ferrars," he said, "I realise the importance of a right beginning here, and if you will undertake this case--I am not a rich man, you understand--all I have is at your disposal. I could hardly bear to have my brother's rooms searched by strange hands in my ab- | | 104 sence, but will it not be wise that you should take the lead, and begin as you deem best?"
"Yes," replied the detective, "but your assistance will be helpful."
"Mrs. Fry is coming upstairs," broke in the doctor, who had been standing near the door.
Ferrars sprang across the room, turned the key, and put his head out through the smallest possible opening in the door.
"There's no one here, Mrs. Fry; and nothing missing, that we have observed. It was, no doubt, a boyish trick."
He smiled amiably at the somewhat surprised woman.
"When Mr. Brierly has had time to look about a bit he will of course report to you." And he closed the door in the good woman's astonished face. "Better make no confidants until we know what we have to confide," he said, turning back to survey the room afresh. "Now let us have more light here."
The room in which they were was dimly lighted, for the outer blinds of its three windows had been closed and all the light afforded them came from the one nearest the front corner, where half the shutter was swinging loosely at the will of the morning breeze. This light, however, enabled them to see that the room | | 105 was in some confusion, or rather, that it was not in the same neat order in which they had seen it on the previous day.
The writing desk, which later Mrs. Fry declared to have been closed, was now open, and a portion of the contents of its usually neatly arranged pigeon-holes was scattered upon the leaf.
"This," said Brierly, as they approached it, "was closed when I saw it last night."
"I remember," Ferrars nodded, and sat down in the revolving chair before the desk, and, without touching anything, ran his eye carefully over the scattered papers, examined the pigeon-holes, the locks, and even the fine coating of dust.
Upon a round table near the front window were some scattered books, mostly of reference, a pile of unruled manuscript tablets, and a little heap of written sheets. There was a set of bookshelves above the writing-desk, and a wire rack near it was filled with newspapers and magazines.
When Ferrars had carefully noted the appearance of the desk and its contents, he swung slowly around in the swivel chair and gazed all about him without rising. He had noted the books above him with a thoughtful gaze, and he now fixed that same speculative glance upon those upon the table. Then he got up.| | 106
"Oblige me by not so much as touching this desk yet," he said, and crossed to the table. "Your brother was a magazinist, Mr. Brierly?" he queried.
"Yes," replied Brierly.
Ferrars turned toward the inner room which the others had not yet approached.
"Ah!" he exclaimed suddenly, and then, in an altered tone, "Here is Mrs. Fry's missing lamp."
His two companions came to the door of the room, where Ferrars was now looking down at the pillows of the bed.
"Brierly," asked Ferrars, as they paused in the doorway, "what had your brother with him in the way of valuables, to your knowledge?"
The young man, who had been looking sharply about the room like one who seeks something which should be there, started slightly.
"Why, he had a somewhat odd and valuable watch, which was given him by our father upon our setting out for Europe. It was like this," and he produced a very beautiful specimen of the watchmaker's art, and held it out for inspection. "He also had a ring set with a fine opal, that was once our mother's, and a locket with her monogram. There were also some odd trifles that he had picked up abroad, saying that they would become his future wife, no doubt."| | 107
"And you think these were still in his possession?"
"I do. In writing of Miss Grant not long ago he mentioned as a proof of her refinement and womanly delicacy that she would accept no gifts from him other than books or flowers."
"I think," said Ferrars, gravely, "that we had better have Mrs. Fry in here now, and I want you to do the talking, Brierly. Doctor, if you would ask her to come up, I'll post Mr. Brierly, meantime."
The doctor turned the key in the lock and then hesitated. "I dare say I will not be needed here longer?"
"You!" Ferrars turned upon him quickly. "Is there anything urgent outside?"
"Not especially so--only----"
"Only you fancy yourself de trop? If you can spare us the time, we want you right here, doctor. Eh, Mr. Brierly?"
"By all means."
"Then of course I am at your disposal," and the doctor went out in search of Mrs. Fry.
"I wish there were more men with his combined delicacy and good sense," grumbled Ferrars, and then he began to explain to Brierly what was wanted from Mrs. Fry.
When that good woman entered, Ferrars was seated | | 108 by the furthest window, and Robert Brierly met her at the door.
"Mrs. Fry," he began, "will you kindly look about you, without, of course, disturbing or changing things, and tell us if you see anything that has changed? If you miss anything, or if anything in your opinion, has been tampered with? Look through both rooms carefully, and then give us your opinion."
Mrs. Fry, who had been expecting just such a summons and who fully realised the gravity of the occasion stood still in her place near the door and looked slowly about her; then she began to walk about the room. Once or twice Brierly, prompted by a glance from the detective, had to warn her against putting a finger upon some object, but she went about with firmly closed lips until she had reached the little sleeping room. Then--
"Well, I declare!" she broke out. "If they haven't even been at the bed!"
Brierly started forward, but Ferrars held up a warning finger.
"And there's that lamp!" she went on, "with the chimney all smoked! Somebody's been carrying it around burning full tilt."
By this time Ferrars was so close beside Brierly that he could breathe a low word in his ear, from time to time, unnoted by the woman as she went peering about.| | 109
"You are sure the bed has been disturbed?" Brierly asked.
"Certain of it!"
"And can you guess why?"
"Well, he always kept his pistol under the bolster."
The men started and looked at each other. "What an oversight," murmured the doctor.
"Do you mean," went on the enquiry, "that it was there yesterday morning when you made the bed?"
"I can't say, sir. The fact is, I was awfully afraid of the thing, and when I told him I was, he put it clear under the bolster with his own hand, and said it should stay there, instead of on top, as it used to be at first."
"You don't mean that he left it there during the day?"
"Yes, sir! This one. You see he had two. The one he used to practise with--the one they found--was different. This one was bigger and different somehow, and not like any pistol I ever saw. He told me 'twas a foreign weapon."
"She is right," said Brierly. "My brother brought a pair of duelling pistols from Paris. They were elaborately finished. He gave me one of them." He looked anxiously toward the crushed and displaced pillows. "Shall we not look," he asked, "and find | | 110 out if anything is there? Will you look, Mr. Ferrars? Or did you?"
Ferrars moved forward. "No, I did not look," he said. "But the weapon is not there; I could almost swear to it. Come--see, all of you."
With a quick light hand he removed the pillows, turned back the sheets and lifted the bolster. There was nothing beneath it, save the impression where the weapon had laid upon the mattress.
The detective turned toward Mrs. Fry. "You are sure it was here usually?" he questioned.
"I have lifted that bolster carefully every day, and have always seen it," she declared. "When I wanted to turn the mattress he always took away the pistol himself."
Ferrars turned away from the bed, and Brierly resumed his role of questioner. "What else do you miss or find disturbed, Mrs. Fry?"
She went back to the outer room after a last slow glance about the chamber.
"There is the lamp, of course," she began. "That was taken from the shelf to give them light. Then the writing-desk has been opened, as you see, and the things on that table have been disturbed, the books shoved about, and the papers moved. I think," going | | 111 slowly toward the article, "that even the waste basket and the paper holder have been rummaged."
"And do you miss anything here?"
Mrs. Fry shook her head. "I don't s'pose you've searched the writing-desk yet?" she ventured.
"Not yet, And is that all you observe, Mrs. Fry? The bed, the lamp, the desk, table, rack, and basket?"
She went back to the table and pointed out with extended forefinger a couple of burned matches, one upon a corner of the table, one upon the floor almost beneath it.
"They lit that lamp there!" she said. "And they brought their own matches. I never use those 'parlour matches,' as they call 'em!" She bent her head to look closer at the polished surface of the table, and then walked to the open window, where the shutter still swung in the breeze. "It has been awful dusty since yesterday, seems to me, for this time of year. That boy's left his finger prints on this window, as well's on the table there."
"Don't touch them!" It was Ferrars who spoke and so sharply that the woman turned suddenly, but not soon enough to note the swift gesture which directed his exclamation.
"Of course we may rely upon you to keep the fact that my brother's rooms have been entered in this | | 112 manner from every one, for the present. It may be very important that we do not let it be known beyond the four of us. You have not seen or spoken with any one as yet, I think you said?"
"I haven't, and I won't. I'd do more than that for the sake of your brother, Mr. Brierly, and you've only to tell me what I can do."
"I intend to examine my brother's papers now, Mrs. Fry, before I leave the house, and if we should need you again we will let you know." And Mrs. Fry withdrew, puzzled and wondering much, but with her lips tightly set over the secret she must and would help to preserve.
"She'll keep silent, never fear," said the doctor as the door closed behind her. "And now, Brierly, I must remind you that you will need all your strength, and that I don't like your colour this morning. If you must investigate at once, get it over, for you, even more than Ferrars or I, need your morning coffee and steak."
"That is true," agreed Ferrars. "Brierly, let me ask two questions, and then oblige me by leaving certain marks, which I will point out to you, just as you find them."
"Your questions." Brierly had already seated himself before his brother's desk.| | 113
"I have an idea that this old oak writing-desk was not selected by our friend, Mrs. Fry. Am I right?"
"It is my brother's desk; bought for its compact and portable qualities."
"Good! Now, where did your brother usually keep these keepsakes and bits of foreign jewellery?"
"In one of these drawers. He kept them in a lacquered Japanese box."
"Look for them. And, before you begin, oblige me by not touching that letter file above the desk, nor the desk top just below it."
The letter file held only a few bits of paper, apparently notes and memoranda; and upon the flat top of the desk was a bronze ink well, a pen tray, a thin layer of dust and nothing more, except a tiny scrap of paper hardly as big as a thumb nail, which lay directly beneath the letter file. Brierly cast a wandering glance over the desk top and file and set about his task.
There was quite a litter of papers, letters mostly, together with some loose sheets that contained figures, dates, or something begun and cast aside. Below some of the pigeon holes, letters lay as if hastily pulled out, and from one of these little receptacles three or four envelopes protruded, half out, half in--one, a square white envelope, projecting beyond the others. These | | 114 Brierly pulled forth, and turning them over in his hand, scrutinised their superscriptions. Then slowly he took the square white wrapper from among the others, and drew out the letter it contained. As he began to scan the page of closely lined writing he started, frowned, flushed hotly, and then with a look of fierce anger he thrust the sheet back into its envelope, and turned toward the detective.
"Take that!" he said with a curl of the lip. "Unless I am greatly at fault, it's a document in the case."
Ferrars took the letter from him, and asked, as he thrust it into the pocket of his loose coat without so much as glancing at it, "Do you mind my running over the papers in this rack, Brierly? and looking into the waste basket?"
"Do it, by all means," was the reply as Brierly pulled open the topmost drawer; and then for some time there was silence, save for the rustle of paper or the rasping of a hinge or turning knob.
When Brierly had finished his silent search of the two drawers, he approached the detective with a small lacquered box in his hand.
"The watch and the foreign jewels are gone," he said, holding out the open box. "And what do you think of this? Here are my mother's keepsakes, wrapped in tissue paper, and labelled in my brother's | | 115 hand, 'Mementos. From my mother.' The thief has spared these."
The detective, who was now seated beside the table, holding a folded newspaper in his hand, took the box, looked at the tiny packet within, nodded and passed it silently to the doctor.
"And now," went on Robert Brierly, and there was a new ring of resolution and menace in his voice. "I turn the rooms and all they contain over to you, Mr. Ferrars, and I await your opinion, when you have read that letter in your pocket."
Ferrars drew forth the envelope and looked at it for the first time. It was only a fragment, for a large corner of its face was missing, the corner, in fact, which should have borne the postage stamp and the postmaster's seal.
Without a word he held this side towards the two men, extending it first to one, and then to the other.
"You see!" he said, and then to Brierly. "Was it your brother's habit to tear his letters open in such a reckless manner?"
"No. He was almost dainty in all his ways."
"Is there another letter in that desk torn as this is?"
Without a word Brierly took the letter and went back to the desk, catching the letters from their pigeon holes by the handful.| | 116
"I understand," he said, when he came back to them. "No, there is not a torn envelope there."
"Then," said the detective, "I think I may venture to give an opinion even before I look at this letter."
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