Ξ  

hits counter

 

SOBRE A DEFICIÊNCIA VISUAL


Thornley Colton, Blind Detective

Clinton H. Stagg

 

The First Problem

The Keyboard of Silence

I.

Not often did mere man attract attention in the famous dining-room of the " Regal," but men and women alike, who were seated near the East Archway, raised their eyes to stare at the man who stood in the doorway, calmly surveying them. The smoke-glass, tortoise-shell library spectacles, which made of his eyes two great circles of dull brown, brought out the whiteness of the face strikingly.

The nose, with its delicately sensitive nostrils, was thin and straight; the lips, now curved in a smile, somehow gave one the impression that, released by the mind, they would suddenly spring back to their accustomed thin, straight line. For a smile seemed out of place on that pale, masterful face, with its lean, cleft chin. The snow-white hair of silky fineness that curled away from the part to show the pink scalp underneath contrasted sharply with the sober black of the faultless dinner-coat that fell in just the proper folds from the broad shoulders and deep chest.

The eyes of the girl at the sixth table seemed to be held, fascinated. The elder woman, who was with her, toyed with her salad and conformed to convention by stealing covert glances at the man in the archway, and the square-chinned, clean-looking young man who made the third of the party stared openly, unashamed; but his eyes held not the other diners' rude questioning, nor yet the girl's frank fascination.

" You are staring, Rhoda," rebuked the elder woman mildly.

The girl turned her eyes with a little sigh.

" What wonderful character there is in his face! " she murmured.

" He is a wonderful character," asserted the man, his face lighting up boyishly, his tone one of admiration.

" You know him? " Both asked it in a breath, eyes eager.

" Yes. He is Thornley Colton, man about town, club member, musician, whose recreation is the solving of problems that baffle other men. It was he who found the murderer of President Parkins of the up-town National, and, when the crash came, secured me my position in the Berkley Trust."

" A detective? " The elder woman asked it; the girl's eyes were again on Colton.

" No." The man shook his head. " He jokingly calls himself a problemist, and accepts only those cases that he thinks will prove interesting, for the solving of them is merely his recreation. He takes no fees. The man with him is his secretary, Sydney Thames, whose name is pronounced like that of the river. He, too, is a remarkably handsome man, but he is never noticed when with Thornley Colton, except as his coal-black hair and eyes, and red cheeks, form a striking contrast to Colton."

" I had not even noticed him," confessed the elder woman, as she glanced for the first time at the slim young man of twenty-five or six, who stood at Colton's side, eyes apparently taking in every detail of the big dining-room. Then she remembered her duty as mentor. " You must not stare so rudely, Rhoda! " she chided.

" I don't think Mr. Colton minds the stare," the man said quietly. " He has been totally blind since birth, though many people refuse to believe it."

" Blind! " They both breathed it, in their voices the tender sympathy all women feel for the misfortunes of others.

" He is coming," warned the elder woman unnecessarily.

They had seen the headwaiter apparently apologize to Colton, and step aside. The secretary had whispered a few words, and Thornley Colton, his slim stick held lightly and idly in his fingers, started down the aisle between the rows of tables, shoulders swung back, chin up, followed by Sydney Thames.

The woman and the girl watched his approach with parted lips, in their eyes mother fear for his safety as he hurried toward them, stepping aside at exactly the proper moment to avoid a hurrying waiter, walking around the very much overdressed, stout woman whose chair projected a foot over the unmarked aisle line. As he neared their table, they saw the thin lips frame a smile of friendly greeting,

" How do you do, Mr. Norris? " His voice, rich, of wonderful musical timbre, seemed to thrill the girl with its kindliness and strength, as he stepped around her chair to shake hands with her escort.

" Sydney saw you while we were waiting for our table."

" Will you meet Miss Richmond? " asked Norris, when he had answered the greeting in kind. Colton turned instantly to face the girl, his slim white hand, with its long, tapering fingers, outstretched.

"It is a concession we of the darkness ask of every one," he apologized.

Their hands met, the girl felt the warm grip, and her sensitive wrist seemed to feel a touch, light as the touch of wind-blown thistle-down, but it was gone instantly, and she knew it was but the telepathic thrill of the meeting palms. She murmured a commonplace, and bit her Hps in vexation, because it was a commonplace. The man before her seemed to call for more.

" Your singing is wonderful, Miss Richmond," he declared enthusiastically. " Sydney and I have had orchestra seats three nights this week. You know, to me music must give the combined pleasures of painting, sculpture, architecture, and other beautiful things the average person doesn't even appreciate.' '

Her eyes expressed their pity, but her lips said only : " My mother, Mr. Colton." They shook hands across the table, Mrs. Richmond with a heartiness that was not part of the artificial code New York has fixed, he with a few words that brought a flush of pleasure to her faded cheeks.

" Why didn't Mr. Thames stay? " asked Norris curiously. " He hurried on as though he thought we were plague victims."

" He usually does," smiled Colton. " He has a very curious fear. I'll tell you about it some time."

" Why don't you drop into the bank and see me some day? You haven't been in my tomb-like office for months. Miss Richmond and her mother saw me at work for a few minutes this afternoon.

It compares very favourably with the dressing-rooms given to opera-singers, they say."

" 1 should say so! " laughed the girl. " If you can compare Persian rugs and mahogany with our cracked walls, and box-propped dressing-tables, and plugged gas-jets! "

" Men always do take the best," conceded Colton smilingly. Then he addressed Norris directly.

" How is Simpson attending to business nowadays?"

" He has been away for a week. He came in this afternoon to amaze us with the news that he had just been married. He didn't have much to say about his wife, however, except that he was going to turn over a new leaf."

" That's news! " whistled Colton. " He never struck me as the marrying kind."

" Nor any one else," laughed Norris, with a tender, significant glance at the girl across the table.

" I'll have to look him up and congratulate him.

Till we meet again, then." And with a pleasant-nod of parting to each of them, a touch of a chair leg with his slim stick, Colton hurried down the aisle to the small table in the far corner, where Sydney Thames was giving his order to the waiter.

The serving-man responded to a friendly nod from Colton, closed his order tablet, and hurried away.

Thornley took a cigarette from his case, scratched a match on the bronze box, and leaned comfortably back in his chair.

" Some time, Sydney, your terrible fear of beautiful women is going to get me into a very embarrassing position." He said it half seriously, half smilingly. ' 6 Instead of seventeen steps, it was but sixteen and a short half. If it hadn't been for Norris' s habit of nervously tapping his glass with his finger-tips, my outstretched hand would have gone back of his neck."

" I thought I had figured it exactly! " There was earnest contrition in the tone; the sombre, black eyes showed the pain of the mistake.

"It is forgotten," dismissed Colton. Then : " But you should have stopped, Sydney. Miss Richmond's personality is as remarkable as her singing, and her mother is so proud and happy she forgets to be embarrassed at the difference between Keokuk and the Regal. Norris is lucky, for she loves him, and he " The smiling lips needed no finishing words.

" But she is already commanding two hundred dollars a week at the very beginning of her career, and Norris cannot be earning more than five thousand a year," protested Thames.

" You poor boy! " smiled Colton. " You'll never know women; that susceptible heart of yours, which drives you away like a scared sheep whenever a beautiful woman approaches, will never be good for anything but pumping blood."

" Thorn, don't I know my weakness! " The tone was indescribably bitter. " I must keep away, though I'm starving for the society of good women.

To meet one would be to fall in love, hopelessly, helplessly. I'd forget that I was a thing of shame, a brat picked up on the banks of the river that gave me the only name I know."

Colton was instantly serious. " Starvation seems a peculiar cure for hunger," he mused. " But we have argued that so many times " Again the thin, expressive lips finished the sentence.

Then came the waiter with a club sandwich for Thames and Colton's invariable after-theatre supper that was always ready when he came, and which he never needed to order; two slices of graham bread covered with rich, red beef-blood gravy, and a bottle of mineral water. Colton's slim cane, hollow, and light as a feather, the slightest touch of which sent its warning to his supersensitive finger-tips, rested between his knees as he ate.

Sydney Thames nibbled his sandwich absentmindedly, eyes roving around the dining-room, now stopping at a gaudily-dressed dowager, now at an overpainted lady who smiled her fixed smile at the bull-necked man at her table, now at the circleeyed girl who stabbed the cherry from her empty cocktail glass with a curved tine of her oyster fork; but always coming back to the fresh, wholesomely beautiful face of Rhoda Richmond. Then the sombre eyes would light up; for a beautiful face, to Sydney Thames, was more intoxicating than wine, and, to his highly sensitive nature, more dangerous.

Colton pushed his plate aside as the other's eyes once more started their round of the dining-room.

" The gods give gaudiness in recompense for the eye-sparkle they have taken, and the wrinkles they have given," Thornley Colton murmured quietly.

" One must come to a New York restaurant to realize the true pathos of beauty." Colton's mood had been curiously serious since those few words at Norris's table.

Thames did not answer, for no answer was needed. His wandering eyes had rested on a table to the left.

" One often wonders," continued Colton, in that same musing, low-pitched voice, " why a stout woman, like that one two tables to our left, for instance, will suffer the tortures of her hereafter for the sake of drinking high balls in a tight, purple gown."

Sydney had turned his eyes to stare at Colton, as he always did when the man who had picked him up as a bundle of baby-clothes on the banks of the Thames, twenty-five years before, made an observation of this kind. Many such had he heard, but never did they fail to startle him.

" It is forgotten," dismissed Colton. Then : " But you should have stopped, Sydney. Miss Richmond's personality is as remarkable as her singing, and her mother is so proud and happy she forgets to be embarrassed at the difference between Keokuk and the Regal. Norris is lucky, for she loves him, and he " The smiling lips needed no finishing words.

" But she is already commanding two hundred dollars a week at the very beginning of her career, and Norris cannot be earning more than five thousand a year," protested Thames.

"You poor boy!" smiled Colton. "You'll never know women; that susceptible heart of yours, which drives you away like a scared sheep whenever a beautiful woman approaches, will never be good for anything but pumping blood."

" Thorn, don't I know my weakness! " The tone was indescribably bitter. " I must keep away, though I'm starving for the society of good women.

To meet one would be to fall in love, hopelessly, helplessly. I'd forget that I was a thing of shame, a brat picked up on the banks of the river that gave me the only name I know."

Colton was instantly serious. " Starvation seems a peculiar cure for hunger," he mused. " But we have argued that so many times " Again the thin, expressive lips finished the sentence.

Then came the waiter with a club sandwich for Thames and Colton' s invariable after-theatre supper that was always ready when he came, and which he never needed to order; two slices of graham bread covered with rich, red beef -blood gravy, and a bottle of mineral water. Colton's slim cane, hollow, and light as a feather, the slightest touch of which sent its warning to his supersensitive finger-tips, rested between his knees as he ate.

Sydney Thames nibbled his sandwich absentmindedly, eyes roving around the dining-room, now stopping at a gaudily-dressed dowager, now at an overpainted lady who smiled her fixed smile at the bull-necked man at her table, now at the circleeyed girl who stabbed the cherry from her empty cocktail glass with a curved tine of her oyster fork; but always coming back to the fresh, wholesomely beautiful face of Rhoda Richmond. Then the sombre eyes would light up; for a beautiful face, to Sydney Thames, was more intoxicating than wine, and, to his highly sensitive nature, more dangerous.

Colton pushed his plate aside as the other's eyes once more started their round of the dining-room.

" The gods give gaudiness in recompense for the eye-sparkle they have taken, and the wrinkles they have given," Thornley Colton murmured quietly.

" One must come to a New York restaurant to realize the true pathos of beauty." Colton's mood had been curiously serious since those few words at Norris's table.

Thames did not answer, for no answer was needed. His wandering eyes had rested on a table to the left.

" One often wonders," continued Colton, in that same musing, low-pitched voice, " why a stout woman, like that one two tables to our left, for instance, will suffer the tortures of her hereafter for the sake of drinking high balls in a tight, purple gown."

Sydney had turned his eyes to stare at Colton, as he always did when the man who had picked him up as a bundle of baby-clothes on the banks of the Thames, twenty-five years before, made an observation of this kind. Many such had he heard, but never did they fail to startle him.

" How, in Heaven's name, did you know what I was doing, or that she was dressed in purple? " he demanded.

" You should keep both feet flat on the floor if you want to keep your staring a secret," laughed Colton quietly. " You forget that crossed knees make your suspended foot tell my cane each time you turn your head ever so slightly. See that my fingers are not on my stick when you covertly watch the women you fear to meet."

" But the purple gown? " demanded Sydney, repressing the inclination to uncross his knees, and flushing at the amused smile the involuntary first motion of the foot had brought to the lips of Colton.

" All stout women who breathe asthmatically wear purple," declared Colton emphatically. " It is the only unfailing rule of femininity. And to one who has practised the locating of sounds that come to doubly sharp ears the breathing part was easy.

There is no one at the next table on the left, you'll observe. Now you can resume your overt watching of Miss Richmond; see " — he laid both hands on the white table-cloth before him — " I won't look."

The head-waiter stopped at the table.

" Mr. Simpson would like to have you come to his table, Mr. Colton. He wants you to meet his wife."

" His wife? " put in Thames quickly.

" She is, sir." It was said with a positiveness there was no gainsaying.

" Where is Mr. Simpson? " asked Colton. " We had not seen him."

" In the east wing, sir 3 where the palms are."

" We will go to him immediately."

" I'll tell him, sir." His beckoning finger brought the waiter who had served them with the check.

Sydney Thames spoke. " Some one of his cheap actress friends has roped him at last," he said scornfully. " He's a pretty specimen of man to be first vice-president of the conservative Berkley Trust Company."

" I'll wager you're wrong," declared Colton quietly, as he handed the waiter a two-dollar bill from his fold. " If it were one of the women for whom he has been buying wine suppers for the past two years, she wouldn't be * where the palms are,' nor would the waiter be so positive of the marriage relation."

" I'm not going," protested Thames quickly.

" Surely, Sydney, you are not afraid a married woman will kidnap you? " smiled Colton, as he took the stick between his fingers and prepared to rise. " How many? "

Sydney, who had turned half around in his chair to gaze toward the entrance to the east wing, faced him. " I'll go," he said shortly; another hasty glance, and he rose with Colton. " Thirty-seven straight, eighteen left, nine right. We will stop at the door of the east wing. I can't see it."

" There are no pretty women to disturb the distance judgment you have been so many years acquiring? " queried Colton mildly.

Without answering, Thames turned on his heel, and made his way rapidly between the tables toward the east wing. Colton laughed silently, picked up his change, and hurried after, his perfectly trained brain counting the steps automatically, his thoughts busy elsewhere. He was thinking of Simpson, who had gained such an unenviable reputation as a spender along the gay White Way during the past two years.

Simpson had always interested him, student of human nature that he was, as the one man who had never lived up to the impression Colton's unerring instinct had told him was the right one the first time they had met. The problemist had expected things of Simpson, and Simpson had done nothing but idle as much time as possible in the position as first vice-president of one of the most conservative banks in the city, and spend money on women.

Colton stopped for an instant beside Thames in the archway, apparently gazing idly at the crowd of men and women at the palm-shaded tables.

" Two left, nineteen straight, half in," directed Thames, stepping aside to follow.

The heavy-lidded, thickset man, with the faint lines of blue vein traceries in his cheeks, rose to meet them.

" This is a pleasure, Mr. Colton," he exclaimed, in heavy-voiced heartiness. " You are the one man I wanted to see; though I hardly believed it would be my luck to catch you this night of all nights.

You knew the pace I was going, and I want you to meet the little girl I went back to the old town to marry. We've been friends since we were tots.

Thank God, I waked up in time to know what a good woman means! When next you see us it will be in our own home. One moment, please " — his voice sank to an almost reverent whisper — " my wife is deaf and dumb, Mr. Colton."

Thames had heard; had seen, with curiously mixed feelings, the little woman with the small, boyish face around which the tendrils of brown hair curled from under the close-fitting toque, and had appraised the slim, quietly dressed figure, the half smile as she stared inquiringly at them. The girl seemed but a child, but he saw that her face was heavily daubed with powder and rouge, as though its application had neither been taught nor practised.

Until those last explaining words he had stood back with a half-pitying light in his eyes, for he knew Simpson's reputation with women. But at the quietly spoken sentence he had undergone an instant change of feeling, such as only highly-strung, hypersensitive men like him are capable of, toward the man who had gone away from his women of wine to marry a simple country girl who could neither speak nor hear.

Simpson's fingers had been moving rapidly; he bowed toward Thornley Colton. The girl smiled, and put out her small hand, the movement throwing back from her wrist the filmy lace of the long sleeve. For a moment they clasped hands; then the girl's fingers worked again.

Simpson laughed. " She does not believe you are blind, Mr. Colton; she says you have eyes like every one else."

Thornley Colton smiled. " If you tell her that I've got to wear these large-lensed, smoked glasses to prevent the light giving me a headache you will probably never convince her," he observed, as he refused the chair the waiter had drawn up.

Sydney Thames acknowledged his introduction with a bow and the usual meaningless words, but his eyes were soft and tender as a woman's as they met those of the girl in the instant's glance she gave him before the lashes were lowered. A woman's face never failed to stir him.

" Won't you sit down? " pleaded Simpson. " It will probably be the last time you will ever find me in one of these gilded palaces. A man who has been my kind of a fool can appreciate his own fireside, and Gertie, who was all aflutter to visit one of the famous Broadway restaurants, recognized in ten mica tag the crass artificiality it took me years Colton pulled his crystalless watch from his pocket, and touched it with a finger-tip. " One-thirty; we are fifteen minutes late." He put his hand on the door catch as the big machine slowed up before his home. And it was not until they were ascending the broad brownstone steps that he answered the question.

" You have missed the first act of what promises to be a very remarkable crime, Sydney," he said quietly.


II.

Colton scowled when the red jack failed to turn up, but the mouth corners smiled when the ace of diamonds slid between the sensitive fingers to take its place in the top row of Mr. Canfield's famous game. The deuce followed, the red jack immediately after; then the problemist looked up toward the doorway of the library.

" Well, Shrimp? " he smiled.

" They's the theatrical papers yuh wanted." The red-headed, freckle-faced boy with the slightly-twisted nose came forward with an armful of big magazines and newspapers, the front pages of which were adorned with full-length portraits of stage celebrities. Before he quite reached the table he stopped short, eyes crackling their excitement.

" Snakes! You're gettin' it, Mr. Colton! They's the four of hearts and the five of spades. Don't stop now."

Colton laughed. " All right, Shrimp. Do you want to do a little detective work for me? "

" Do I? " The eyes danced with eagerness.

" Ain't I been studyin' % Nineteen steps from the kitchen t' the first chair in the dinin'-room. Six "

" I know," assured Colton hastily. " But you take those papers to your room and write down the names of all the vaudeville actors — men, you know — who have quit the stage within the last two months; where they have gone, and why, if possible."

" Snakes!" The boy's face showed his disappointment. " Nick Carter never had t' do that."

" He never had to count steps for a blind man, either," smiled Thornley Colton. " You do that and there'll probably be some real detective work — shadowing, disguises, and the rest of it."

There was no answer. The boy had taken a firmer grip on the papers, and was already out of the room.

The four of hearts and the five of spades had been placed when Sydney, face broad in a smile, entered.

" What's the matter with * The Fee ?" he demanded. " He ran past me as though he were on his way to a fire." Thames always referred to Shrimp as The Fee, because the red-headed, freckle-faced boy had become part of the Colton household after a particularly baffling case, at the conclusion of which the joy of capturing the murderer had been overshadowed by the blind man's sorrow for the broken-nosed boy who had jumped between him and a vicious blackjack. And Shrimp had been his fee for the case. As the boy's mother was the murdered one, and his father the murderer, there had been no one to object.

Before Colton had a chance to voice his laughing explanation, the tinkling telephone-bell on the desk demanded attention. At the first words the thin lips tautened to a straight line, the voice became pistol-like in its crispness, the muscles under the pale skin of the face became tense.

The problemist had a problem.

" When? Last night. All right. Still that two-wire burglar connection on the safe? Never mind further details. We'll be right down."

As his hand dropped the receiver on the hook a finger pressed the garage bell button that would bring his machine instantly at any hour of the day or night.

" Get your hat and coat, Sydney," he ordered curtly. " We're going to the Berkley Trust Company. Somebody's gotten away with half a million in negotiable bonds! "; " Half a million? " gasped Thames.

" So they said. Didn't wait for details." Colton grabbed his private phone-book of often-needed numbers, and ran his fingers down the backs of the thin pages on which the names and numbers had been heavily written with a hard pencil. As Sydney hurried out he heard the curt voice give a number over the phone. And it was fully five minutes before Colton took his place in the car.

In the smooth-running machine, with the wooden-faced Irish chauffeur at the wheel, Sydney Thames voiced the question :

" Last night, you said? "

" Yes, the second act came sooner than I expected," broke in Thornley Colton. " I underrated the man." And the expression on the pale face augured ill for some one.

The funereal atmosphere of the Berkley Trust Company could be felt as they entered. In the office of the third secretary, the white-haired president of the institution stopped his nervous pacing to mumble a greeting in tremulous accents.

First Vice-President Simpson's grave face broke into a smile of welcome. Norris raised his bowed head from his hands, and came forward joyfully, pleadingly. The red-faced man who had been standing over him kept a step away, but always near enough to touch him with an outstretched hand.

" My God, Mr. Colton! They think I'm guilty! " There was agony unutterable in Norris's voice.

" Ridiculous! " snapped Simpson, his heavy-lidded eyes half closed. " Mr. Colton will soon put this detective right. "

The problemist nodded a grim acquiescence, and took the outstretched hand of Norris. " I know better," he said kindly. The red-faced man gave voice to a grunt, and Colton instantly swung around to face him. " So you've cleaned it up already, Jamison? " he asked mildly.

" Nobody said he was guilty," growled the red-faced central-office man significantly. " I just been questionin' him, that's all."

" And accusing him with every question! " snapped Colton. " Like the rest of your kind, you haven't the intelligence to suit your methods to the crime. Every crime must be worked according to the old Mulberry Street formula.

That didn't change with the modern Centre Street building."

" But we know enough not to make any cracks till we get all the information," sneered Jamison.

" We don't hand out that know-it-all stuff till we know something! "

" True," smiled the problemist with his lips, but there was no smile in his tone. Two hectic spots glowed in his cheeks, the muscles worked under the pale skin. " What do you think, President Montrose? " The white-haired president halted his pacing once more, and stroked his Vandyke.

" The first stain on the unsullied escutcheon of the Berkley Trust Company," he groaned. "In all of the half century. "

" I know all that! " broke in Colton impatiently.

" What happened? Why are the police here instead of the protective-agency men? "

" I was excited," moaned the president. " It was the first thing that occurred to me. In all the half century of "

" I guess we were all excited," interjected Simpson, his lips twisted in a wry smile. " I know I \ was up in the air. I came down here, happier than I ever was before in my life, to arrange for a short vacation to take a wedding trip. Now this comes up. When I came to my senses I telephoned for you, because I want the robbery solved as soon as possible. The little girl has banked so much on our little time."

"Too bad," murmured Colton. "Tell me the Btory, Norris." Before he could get an answer he turned to Thames, who always stayed discreetly in the background when Colton was on a case. " See that no one goes near that safe, Sydney; I may want to examine it."

" Kind of dropped that bluff of being blind, ain't you? " sneered Jamison, who was one of the hundreds of persons in New York who would not believe that Thornley Colton was really sightless.

And the problemist did not deign to explain that once he had been in a room and touched its objects with his cane his trained brain held the correct mental picture for ever.

" The bonds were fifty in number, ten thousand each, government fours, negotiable anywhere," began Norris, licking his dry lips to make the words come easier. " They were the bulk of the Stillson estate, on which I was working. We are settling it up. As third secretary my work is with trusts and estates. It was necessary to have everything finished by to-night. I worked late yesterday, so late that the bonds and other papers could not go into the time-locked vaults, and I had to be at work on them this morning before the clock-release time."

"Is it customary to keep valuable bonds in the small safe in this office? " interrupted Colton.

"It is not unusual. The safe is practically as strong as the big vaults, and only lacks the clocks.

This office is really part of the vault itself, the walls are windowless, and of four-foot concrete reinforced by interlocked steel rails. The sheet-steel door, the only entrance to the room, opens into a small cage that is occupied during the day by Thompson, head of the trust and estate routine clerks, and at night by one of our two watchmen. The watchmen never leave it, because it often happens that valuable papers and bonds are left out of the big vaults so that we can work on them before nine o'clock, the hour set on the vault's clocks. To get to the steel door of this office one would have to enter the outer and inner steel cages, the steel-barred door of the small ante-room, besides setting off burglar-alarms on all, disturbing the watchman, and ringing the bells in the burglar-alarm department of the Bankers' Protective Association, of which we are a member. And there was no sign of a break, the safe was opened with the combination that only Mr.

Montrose and Mr. Simpson and myself know."

" The watchman could get to this door without any trouble? "

" Both have been in the employ of the bank for forty years. They are absolutely above suspicion.

Both are illiterate. Even though they could enter the office, they could not open the safe, and even if they did that they would not know enough to steal all the notes I had made regarding the estate, or the bonds that have so utterly vanished. They have been sent for, however, and should be here any minute."

" Were the notes you made stolen, too? "

" All of them."

" Any of the other employees of the bank know the bonds were in this safe? " " Several, probably."

" All have access to this room, at any time? "

" Only Thomas, the head of the T. and E. clerks."

" Trustworthy? "

" He grew up with the bank."

" You require other clerical assistance at times? "

" Thomas takes the papers from this office, and the clerks get them from him outside. All must be returned to me before closing time. I carefully checked over every one last night before any of them went away."

" Any one in here yesterday while you were at work on the papers; any one who could have seen the bonds? "

For a moment there was no answer; then it came, almost in a whisper : " Miss Richmond and her mother were in for a few moments "

" And I was, too, by Jove! " The interruption came from Simpson. " And I remember asking you how you were getting on with the Stillson estate.

I just finished my part when I went away. I guess I really held them up longer than I should."

" Has Miss Richmond been sent f or? " Colt on paid absolutely no heed to the first vice-president.

A grunting laugh from the detective. " She sure has, bo. After I found out this guy's stage lady had been in here with a tailor's suit-box after closin' time, my partner went right up to her hotel."

" By Heaven! You " Norris rose to his

feet, face black with fury. Colton's hand on his shoulder forced him back into the chair. Sydney Thames, to whom all women were angels, clenched his fists.

" Is that true? " There was a new tone to Colton's voice.

Norris seemed to recognize the menace. " She

isn't guilty, I tell you! She can't be. She's

Listen, man I She's my wife! "

" Your wife! " They all echoed it. The detective with laughing triumph; President Montrose with horror; Sydney Thames in dazed surprise; Simpson with a half -suppressed, significant gasp.

" We were married two days ago; but it was to be a secret until the end of her season."

" How long ago was she sent for? "

The detective answered : " My side kick ought to be back now. We was on the job there, all right, all right."

Voices outside came to their ears — the harsh, commanding voice of a man, the half-subdued sobbing of a woman. The door was thrown open, and Rhoda Richmond, opera singer, and wife of Norris, was half pushed, half carried into the small room.

" Good work, Jim! " grinned Jamison. " Did she put up a howl at the hotel? "

" Hotel? " growled the other scornfully. " No hotel for hers. I had a lot of luck or I'd never've got her. She was boardin' a boat fer South America that sails in an hour."

" It's a lie! " Norris screamed the words as he leaped toward the man whose rough hand was clenched around the slim arm of the girl. Sydney Thames, obeying Colton's silent signal, forced him back, his own hands trembling. The problemist without a word untwisted the central-office man's fingers, and gently seated the girl in a chair at the long table.

" Who the " The blustering detective was cut off suddenly.

" We've had enough of your strong-arm methods!" Colton's voice was hard as flint. " We'll get some facts now." The hardness vanished; in its place came gentle sympathy. " When did you get the message, Miss Richmond? " he asked.

The voice seemed to have the reassuring effect of a pat on the head of a hurt child. With an effort the girl controlled her sobs, and answered as though it had been the most natural question in the world : " An hour ago — over the telephone — I thought I recognized How — Mr. Norris's voice. He wanted me to meet him at the Buenos Aires dock. He had to go to South America secretly, he said, and I must tell no one. I hurried to the dock without even telling mother. I waited for an hour, but he did not come; then I decided to go aboard and see if he had missed me and gone to his state room. This man — said Howard had — robbed — I thought "

She broke down again.

" I guess that's bad! " grinned Jamison gloatingly.

" In another hour there'd of been a clean get-away."

" The whereabouts of the bonds doesn't seem to worry you! " snapped Colton sarcastically.

" The stuff ain't never far away from the guy that took it," growled Jamison. " When you get through your know-it-all talk we'll sweat that out, aU right."

" Did you have a tailor's suit-box with you yesterday? " asked Colton abruptly of the girl.

" Yes. I called to see if my new walking-suit was finished. It was all ready to be sent to my home, but when I saw the poor, tired little boy who would have to carry it I took it myself. The tailor is just around the corner, on the avenue; that is why mother and I dropped in here."

" Of course," nodded Colton, his teeth snapping together as he seemed to sense the derisive grins on the faces of the detectives. " Did you recognize the bonds among the papers on which Mr. Norris was working? "

" Oh, he showed them to me, and we laughingly spoke of what we could do with half a million dollars.

Then, when he took mother out to show her around the bank — I was too tired — I picked one up and read it."

" Rhoda! " cried Norris. He could realize the present significance of yesterday's innocent words.

" That'll be about all from you! " scowled Jamison. " If this guy wants to third-degree her, and cinch it for us, let him."

" An' if he don't cinch it this will." The other detective pulled a paper from his pocket. " Here's the Buenos Aires' 's passenger list, and here's Mr. and Mrs. Frank Morris, who booked yesterday, added in pencil. Morris for Norris 1 Slick enough to be almost good."

Every one in the room but Colton seemed to be shocked into a state of stupefied rigidity.

" Now " Jamison said that word in the tone one uses to introduce some especially clever thing, and accompanied it with a sarcastic glance toward the blind man, who tapped his trouser leg with his cane in thoughtful silence. " If you ain't got no objection we'll take these two to headquarters, and get a line on where they got the stuff cached." He paused suggestively, mockingly.

The permission came, with a deprecatory wave of the cane, and a smile that was menacing in its very suaveness. " Go as far as you like, Jamison.

Don't be too gentle with them."

" My God, Mr. Colton! You don't think... "

The words choked in Norris's throat.

" I think you had better go." The problemist's tone was peculiarly quiet. " Jamison and his partner have the reputation of being the two wealthiest detectives in the department. No one knows how they got it, but they've enough to give you and your wife a twenty-thousand-dollar nest egg each on a false-arrest suit. Isn't that worth a few hours' discomfort? I can prove your innocence when they have gone. They worry me here."

Simpson whistled, and turned it into a jerky laugh. " Gad, that was clever! " he exclaimed.

" Oh, is that so! " The detectives chorused it, in their voices sarcasm — and just a tinge of something else, too. Colton knew the one thing that would make them stop and think.

" Are you going? " snapped Colton.

" We'll see them two watchmen first," growled Jamison.

" Good! " The problemist laughed at the sudden change. " I think you'll have quite a crowd to take down to head-quarters if you hang around long enough. Before I started I telephoned to the burglar-alarm telegraph department of the protective agency to get hold of the men who answered the alarm that rang in from this office early this morning."

" What burglar-alarm? " snarled Jamison. He whirled on the white-haired president. " Why didn't you tell us there was an alarm rung in? "

" Really " — the Vandyke received several severe yanks — " I didn't know it. We do not receive the clock reports and emergency alarm sheets until about noon. Er — Mr. Colton, might I ask where you got this information? "

" I telephoned for it," answered Colton curtly.

" If these policemen hadn't been so anxious to make arrests, and the robbery hadn't been too obvious for their thick heads, they might have investigated. But they are just head-quarters men; the obvious arrest is the one they always make.

Feet make good central-office men, not heads. Ah, here are the men, all together."

They came in slowly, two old men first; one with straggly, white whiskers that concealed the weak chin and grew up around the faded, watery eyes; the other's parchment-like face a network of wrinkles. Honesty shone from every part of them; the weak, helpless honesty of their kind.

As Colton took each man's hand with a murmured greeting he felt it tremble in his. The aged watchmen knew that something had happened; something that concerned them and the bank they had guarded so long. The two men from the burglar-alarm company nodded to the two detectives, and their eyes narrowed as they shook the hand of the problemist. Both knew him, and both knew this had been no common summons. Thornley Colton never bothered with common things. Sydney Thames had pulled two chairs up to the table, and the old men sat down. Colton lighted a cigarette thoughtfully, then he spoke :

" This morning, gentlemen, that small safe was robbed of five hundred thousand dollars' worth of government bonds." His slim cane, apparently held idly between his fingers, touching the chair of the man nearest him,felt the watchman's involuntary jump. The others saw the old jaws drop, saw the watchmen glance helplessly at each other, their trembling fingers picking at worn trouser-knees.

Colton heard the gasp of the two protective-agency men.

" I knowed it! " quavered the white-whiskered watchman. " I knowed something'd happen when Mary took sick."

" Who's Mary? " queried Colt on interestedly.

The others crowded forward.

" She's Mary, my wife. She's been scrubbin' the bank floors fer thirty years, an' nobody ever said a word against her." He glanced at them all with pathetic belligerence. " She even picked up the pins she found on the floor, and put 'em in a box on the cashier's desk."

" That's true," laughed Simpson. " It's the joke of the bank."

" And she was taken sick last night? " Thornley asked gently.

" A week ago." The other watchman answered, while the first brushed his dry lips with his work-gnarled hand. " Mrs. Bowden, she's got the consumption, and lives across the hall from us and "

" Where do you live? " interrupted Colton.

" Sixteen hundred Third Avenue. I been boardin* with him an' his wife fer thirty years. Mrs. Bowden's been doin' Mary's work. We didn't say nothin' ibout Mary bein' sick, 'cause she might get laid off. An' Mrs. Bowden's awful poor." His voice was a childish, quavering treble.

" Last night, after Mrs. Bowden had gained your confidence, you allowed her to scrub Mr. Norris's office? " encouraged Colton.

Norris started. " I'd forgotten that! " he ejaculated. A motion from Colton commanded silence.

" Yes," trembled Mary's husband. " John opened the door, an' started to punch his clocks, an' I stayed in the ante-room, like I alius do, to watch Mrs. Bowden. Then somehow the door got closed. An' Mrs. Bowden got scared there in the dark. She screamed an' cried till it was real sad.

But John had the key, an' he had to punch his clocks on the minute, er Mr. Montrose'd be mad when he got the records next day. An' I couldn't leave my place in the ante-room. So I encouraged her, sayin' that John'ld be back in half an hour an' let her out. She quieted after a while, an* didn't scream so loud, but I could hear her stumblin* around. Then John had to run to the front door to see who was knockin', an' he let these gentlemen in. The burglar-alarm on the safe had rung, they said, an' "

" Never mind that part," halted Colton. " One of these men will tell me that part."

" We was called at seven-eighteen," began the taller of the two Bankers' Protective Agency men, " by the safe bell. The safe is connected with one wire, and under the carpet, running all around the safe, is a thin steel plate connected with the other.

A man standing near enough to touch the safe forms a connection that rings our gong. In the day-time, of course, we pull the switch. We got here, and found the door locked, an* we could hear moaning.

This guy " — he indicated the one with the straggly beard — " unlocked the door, and behind it was a woman, her skirt pinned up around her, laying on the floor, frightened to death. When she seen us she jumped to her feet with a little screech, and muttered something about thanking God."

" You were satisfied that she was frightened? "

" Sure I But we didn't let it go at that. We snapped on every light, and examined the room.

Nothing had been touched. We frisked the woman, gentle, of course, but enough to know that she hadn't a thing on her. We finally got it out of her that she'd feU against the safe trying to find the door in the dark. She didn't know enough to snap on a light."

" She couldn't have had fifty ten-thousand-dollar bonds on her person? "

Both men laughed. " Gee, Mr. Colton," laughed the short one. " She was so frail you could almost see through her. She couldn't hardly have hid a cigarette paper without making a hump."

" What happened then? "

" She picked up the pail she had — it was full of dirty scrub water, and the yellow bar of soap was bobbing around in it — and John, here, took her into the cashier's cage. We hung around, talking, an' watching her scrub and weep into the pail until it was time fer her to go home. She was so all in I put her on a car."

" Um! " Colton puffed his cigarette in silence; then he turned to Jamison and his partner. " Looks mighty suspicious, doesn't it, Jamison? I'd advise you to arrest these four men and get the woman.

Five hundred thousand is likely to make any honest man a crook."

" Some kidder, ain't you? " sneered Jamison.

" I know Pete, there, an' if he says it was all right, it was. We got the guilty parties first off, an' we'll get the stuff, too! "

The smile went from Colton's lips instantly.

" You arrest them, and we'll start false-arrest proceedings in an hour! " he warned. " You leave Norris and Miss Richmond here! Any one but a fool detective would know they weren't guilty."

As he said the last word he jumped toward the safe, ran his highly sensitive fingers over the steel surface, knelt down, brushed the heavy carpet lightly with his finger tips. The two hectic spots on his cheeks glowed redder; the nostrils quivered like those of a hound on the scent, even the eyes, behind the great, round, smoked glass lenses seemed to shine. Silently they watched him. He lowered his face almost to the floor, the cane was laid down, and his hand gave the carpet a resounding slap.

They crowded closer. One hand went to his hippocket, a handkerchief brushed the hardwood floor under the safe, between the edge of the rug and the wall. He rose, touched the burning end of his cigarette ever so lightly to the linen handkerchief that was now covered with a fine yellow powder.

" See it! See it! " he snapped. " You couldn't before because it was the same colour as the hardwood floor."

" It's wood-polish powder, used for cleaning the varnished wood," sneered Jamison, stepping forward. " We don't want "

" Smell it, then! " The blind man thrust the handkerchief under the central-office man's nose.

" Do you recognize it now? It's sulphur. Ordinary powdered sulphur. The thing that would tell any man how the bonds were taken out of the office.

Go to a drug store and find out what sulphur is used for."

He thrust the handkerchief into his coat-pocket, brushed off the knees of his trousers, and picked up his stick.

" Come, Sydney," he said quietly. " We've finished."

Before the astonished men could make move or protest he hurried from the office, automatically counting the steps. He jumped into the waiting machine, Sydney Thames followed, and as Simpson and Jamison ran to the door, he snapped : " Home, John! " to the Irish chauffeur, and the machine sped away.

Around the first corner he leaned forward.

" Sixteen hundred Third Avenue — quick! " he ordered.

" You don't think those two old watchmen guilty? " asked Thames, in surprise.

" No! " The tone was almost brusque. " Merely an unimportant detail I want to clear up."

" You certainly left that crowd in the office at sixes and sevens." Thames laughed at the recollection.

" I intended to. That's why I went into all those details. I wanted to leave every one up in the air, especially the two detectives. They'll begin to think now. And they won't let any one get away before we have made this call. I want to think, now."

; Sydney Thames knew the moods of the blind man; knew he could expect no explanations, or even replies, until Colton was ready to give them; so they sped in silence to the upper East Side.

Soon they were on upper Third Avenue. Overhead the clanking " L " trains pounded their din into the two men's ears. The streets were crowded with their heterogeneous mass of men, women, and children. The rusty fire-escapes staggered drunkenly across the dirty, red tenement-fronts.

The look of tense concentration left Colton's face.

" A far cry from the luxurious, staidly conservative Berkley Trust, eh, Sydney? " He smiled, leaning back in the cushions, puffing his cigarette as though untroubled by a serious thought; his eyes, behind the smoked library glasses, seemingly fixed on the narrow strip of blue sky overhead.

The car came to a stop.

" Is this it, John? "

" Th' saloon on th' corner is fifteen-ninety-four, sorr."

" Lead the way, Sydney." Again the twin red spots glowed in Colton's white cheeks, he jumped to the sidewalk, his slim stick tapping his trouserleg eagerly.

Thames stepped along beside him, close enough for his coat-sleeve to touch that of Thornley Colton.

And with that slight touch to guide him the problemist followed; for Thornley Colton was a trifle sensitive over his blindness, and nothing made him angrier than an attempt to lead him. Sydney found the entrance, between a second-hand-clothing store and a pawnbroker's shop. As he stopped to make sure of the weather-dimmed, painted number the clothing-store proprietor popped out, rubbing his dirty palms together, and coughing apologetically.

" On which floor does Mrs. Bowden live? " asked Colton sharply.

" Der fourt', front. You maybe like some clo'es? "

" Is her husband watchman at the Berkley Trust Company? "

" He's dead. You means Mrs. Schneider, across* the hall. Her man watches. Dere boarder also.

You like a elegant skirt for der poor vimens. Such

Thames opened the door, and they left the clothing man in the middle of his sentence. In the dark hall Sydney made his way cautiously.

Colton, cane lightly touching the heels of the man ahead, followed unhesitatingly. The journey up the rickety steps was torture to Colton. To his doubly acute ears and sense of smell the odours, the squalling of half -starved babies were terrible, but his brain automatically counted the steps so that he would have not the slightest difficulty in finding his way back to the automobile.

" Schneider first," whispered Colton, as Thames stopped in the fourth-floor hall.

In the dim light Thames saw that they were standing between two doors.

" I don't know which it is, but I'll take a chance." He knocked on the one at his left.

The one behind immediately popped open.

" Mrs. Bowden's gone away," shrilly proclaimed a tottery old woman, bobbing her head.

" Could you give us her address? " asked Colton, doffing his hat and bowing politely.

" Laws! " The woman's fluttering hand set her spectacles farther askew, in a hurried effort to straighten them. " She's gone to spend the day with her sister in Brooklyn. Them boys of mine pestered her till she's near sick. And she bein' so delicat' an* out late last night washin' dishes at the church sociable."

" Are you Mrs. Schneider? "

The darkness hid the smile the reference to the ' ' boys " had caused.

" I'm her. Be you the Associated Charities? Mis' Bowden said she'd asked fer help. She came here two weeks ago, after losin' her job in the department store on account of her weak lungs.

She had to take in odd day's work. Asthma, she calls it, but I ain't fooled on consumption. Two of my »

" And you helped her by pretending you were ill?" interrupted Colton.

" I was sick fer two days." The woman hastened to set him right. " But she was so powerful glad to earn a few cents fer her asthma snuff, not that it is asthma. My sister's brother "

" Of course she left the key with you until her return? " Colton left the sister's brother in mid-air.

" Yes; but " There was just a shade of

suspicion in the voice.

" As agents of the Associated Charities we must make an examination of the room, to prove that she is really in need of financial help," assured Colton gravely. " We can wait until she returns, of course, but this is the last application day for this month."

" Laws! I'll get it right away." She darted back into the room with surprising agility, and returned a moment later with an iron key tied to a broken-tined fork.

" There's no need of bothering you, Mrs.

Schneider," declared Colton earnestly, as Thames took the key.

" Laws! Soon's I get these pataters on I'll be right with you. My boys had to go down to their bank " The rest of the sentence was lost, for as she turned to the stove Colton had jerked Thames from the door.

" Quick! " he whispered. In an instant the key was in the lock, and the door was open. Colton pushed his way in, his cane touching the scarred, tumbled bed and the one broken chair. " Where's the trunk? " he queried, cane feeling around.

" No sign of one, nor a case."

" Damn! " snapped Colton. " The bureau drawers! See what your eyes find."

Thames had the top drawer open almost before he had finished. He whistled in amazement.

" Nothing but an empty pill-box, with no druggist's label, three quills with the feathers cut off, and a tuft of cotton. What the "

" Those are what I want! Put them in your pocket! " The tenseness went out of his voice; it became politely ingratiating, for his keen ears had heard the woman coming. " There is no doubt that Mrs. Bowden is in need of our assistance, Mrs.

Schneider," he said smoothly. " Er — -is that some of her asthma snuff in the top bureau-drawer? "

She ran past him, and bobbed her head over the open drawer. " Yes, sir; there is a little sprinkled over the bottom. You got mighty powerful eyes, mister." She nodded vigorously at the blind man.

He had not been within five feet of the bureau.

" She's dead set on it bein' asthma, but my sister's brother was "

" Do you know anything against Mrs. Bowden's character? " Again the sister's brother was left dangling.

" Laws, no. She's that frightened she's afraid of her own shadow. I'm the on'y one in the house she took to, an' even me she kept at a distance." Another vigorous nod. " An* so modest! Laws, she wouldn't ha' come into the halls half dressed, like some of the other women does. An' clean! Laws! She lugged all her clo'es over to her sister's in Brooklyn to-day, to be washed in their Thirtieth Century Washer; not that I "

" Ah, thank you, but we have four other calls to make." And, bowing gravely, Colton backed from the room, and hurried toward the head of the stairs, followed by Thames and the shrill-voiced encomiums of the woman.

They took their places in the car silently, and it was not until they had left the noise of the avenue for the quiet of the side-streets that Colton spoke.

" What do you think of it, Sydney?" asked the problemist gravely.

" I'm completely at sea," confessed Thames, with a shake of his head. " It looked awfully bad for Norris when we arrived at the bank. Then that South American boat business. How did you know she had received a message? " he asked suddenly.

" Didn't. But I knew Miss Richmond, or rather Mrs. Norris. Common sense would have told any one that could be the only reason for her presence at the dock. Jamison and his kind don't use common sense. They use the old policeman's formula; arrest the logical suspect and then convict him. With persons like Norris and his wife, each half doubting, half suspecting, either would have confessed to save the other. It was an ideal arrest, from the police view-point. "

" Then you seemed to involve the two watchmen and the two men from the protective agency.

Jamison will have a whole waggon-load."

" He'll take no one," answered Colton. " I know him. He'll spend the rest of the day trying to find out what I was talking about. Then he'll telephone to head-quarters, and they'll send men to find out who sent the message to Miss Richmond, and to locate Mrs. Bowden."

" There's the woman, Thorn! " Thames spoke nervously, excitedly. " She took a dress-suit case, presumably full of clothes, to her ' sister 5 in Brooklyn. The bonds "

" You forget that the agency men saw her come out of the room empty-handed; they even searched her, and one put her on the trolley." Colton smiled curiously. " This was wholly a man's job, Sydney, The work of the rarest kind of criminal; a detailist.

This crime, while perfectly simple, is, I think, unique in its attention to details. That's why it interests me."

" Simple! " ejaculated Thames. " Simple? You speak as though you knew the guilty man."

" I do. Perfectly. I knew last night."

" Last night? The "

" The robbery was committed early to-day.

Exactly."

' ' Why — why " Helpless amazement was in

Sydney Thames's voice. Why don't you arrest him? Why all this "

" Simply because I would be laughed at. I haven't the proof — yet. The usual criminal stumbles on his opportunity, and seizes it in a haphazard fashion. The rare criminal, the detailist, attends to every detail; works his problem out with the shrewdness and forethought of a captain of finance, plans a coup months ahead. Then he creates the opportunity. You must understand, Sydney, that half a million is worth a few months' work."

" But suspicion points only to Miss Richmond, Norris, and this Mrs. Bowden."

" Suspicion points to every one," corrected the problemist. " Doesn't it seem suspicious that President Montrose should call in the police when he would naturally take all steps in his power to avoid publicity? Doesn't the very eagerness of the central-office men to arrest Norris and his wife seem queer? Isn't there a bit of suspicion in Simpson's confession that he delayed the Stillson estate until Norris was compelled to work after hours on them? Doesn't Miss Richmond's story that she was carrying her suit home to save work for a delivery boy seem highly improbable and unwomanlike? How about Norris telling his wife of the bonds? An unbusinesslike proceeding in the case of half a million's worth of negotiable bonds, truly. Didn't the two men who answered the early-morning alarm seem a bit too sure that nothing was wrong? Weren't the two watchmen in the conspiracy to pretend that Mrs. Schneider was ill, so that a woman whom they had known but two weeks could gain access to the bank? Doesn't the finding of an unlabelled pill-box, three featherless quills, and surgeon's cotton in the otherwise empty room of a woman dying with tuberculosis strike you as strange? As a further detail in this crime of details, doesn't my confession that I knew the criminal before the crime was committed seem a trifle like guilty knowledge? " He smiled broadly.

" Great Scott, Thorn! " Sydney Thames's voice trailed off in a whistle of pure bewilderment.

" You've involved every one."

" Oh, no." Colt on snapped his cigarette into the street. " Not every one. An unfortunate vaudeville actor will appear on the scene as soon as I get the list on which I left Shrimp busily at work."


III.

In the absolute darkness of the shade-drawn library Thornley Colton softly whistled a syncopated version of Mendelssohn's " Spring Song" as his deft fingers filled an empty goose-quill with a fine white powder from an improvised paper funnel. He plugged the open end with a small wad of cotton; then his wonderfully sharp ears caught the rustle of the double portieres.

" Oh, Sydney," he called, " have you heard any* thing from the bank this morning? "

Thames entered the darkness unhesitatingly, for his constant practice of judging distance and figuring steps for Colton had made him almost as much at home in the darkness as the blind man himself.

" No," he answered shortly. Then, with the frank criticism of long friendship : " It's a crime, Thorn, for you to be idle while that girl is being dogged, and harassed, and "

" I thought she sang remarkably well last night for a person under such a strain," interrupted Colton musingly.

" It was wonderful, wonderful! " Sydney Thames spoke with the breathless enthusiasm a beautiful girl always aroused in his woman-hungry heart.

" Here, here! " protested the problemist laughingly. " Remember that she is another man's wife! "

" Great heavens, Thorn! How can you laugh? " cried Thames resentfully. " Think of those two dogs of detectives, questioning, bulldozing, shadowing! Why, they didn't let Miss Richmond get away from the bank until late in the afternoon, then Jamison insisted on going with her. His partner hung around the bank till it closed "

" Trying to discover the use of powdered sulphur," smiled Colton. " I thought he would. Any one but a central-office man would have gone to a drug store, as I suggested."

" Two other head-quarters men hauled that frail old Mrs. Schneider and the two watchmen to police head-quarters, and put them through the third degree."

" And a half-dozen more were on the trail of Mrs. Bowden, while we were enjoying the opera and an alleged cabaret show afterward, for which this dark room is the penalty. Too much light yesterday gave me a frightful headache."

The sudden ringing of the telephone in the darkness made Thames jump, and Colton's cane, which was never away from him, felt the movement.

" Answer it, Sydney," he requested.

The secretary's hands had not the sureness of his feet, and he had to fumble a moment. When he had given the customary salutation and had listened a moment he gasped :

" It's Simpson, Thorn. His wife is missing! He wants you." He extended the phone in the darkness, but Thornley Colton made no move to take it.

" Tell him I'll be down to the bank in an hour or so. I'll see him then." Colton spoke idly.

Sydney repeated the message. Followed a silence.

" He's frantic, Thorn! " Thames's voice shook with excitement. " When he got home last night she was gone. The doorman at his apartment house said that she had gone out in the morning, for a short walk, he supposed. Simpson was so excited about the robbery he did not telephone her during the day, as he had promised. He spent half the night searching, and tried a dozen times to get you.

She is deaf and dumb, Thorn. Think of it! Deaf and dumb, and lost! " It only needed a woman in trouble to shatter Sydney Thames's nerves.

" Tell him that I'm trying to figure out that robbery. Tell him also that I never let one case interfere with another. I'm not a detective. There's nothing interesting about a missing woman.

Hundreds of 'em every day. I find my pleasure in interesting problems, not in police work." Colton'a voice was sharp, curt, utterly devoid of sympathy.

Sydney knew that tone, as he knew the man who used it. He repeated part of the message, added gentle-voiced apologies, and hung up the receiver with a sigh.

"That was heartless, Thorn! Think of that woman, deaf and dumb, lost in this "

" Sometimes, Sydney, that susceptible heart of yours becomes wearisome." Colton spoke a bit sharply. " A moment ago you were protesting because I was here instead of running around after the man who stole the half-million in bonds from the Berkley Trust Company."

" But Mrs. Norris is not helpless " And for

fifteen minutes he argued, while Colton smiled imperturbably in the darkness, and filled two other quills with the white powder, and plugged the ends with tufts of cotton.

Suddenly Thames stopped, for Colton had picked up the telephone and was giving a number.

" Hello, Shrimp! " he called, when the connection had been made. " Everything all right? Fine business. Three hours, eh? Good! Be on time, and obey orders. Good-bye! "

" Where's The Fee? " demanded Sydney. " I haven't seen him since yesterday."

" Emulating the example of his worthy hero, Nick Carter. Shrimp is a real detective now." Colton returned the crystalless watch to his pocket, picked up the three quills, and arose. " Come on, Sydney. We'll walk over to the bank."

" Walk? " ejaculated Thames, for he knew the blind man's aversion to walking when he could ride.

" Where's the machine? "

" John and the machine are helping Shrimp in his detective work," explained Colton. And in the twenty minutes' walk to the Berkley Trust Company he absolutely refused to answer questions, but kept up a continuous conversation on trivial topics, that was maddening to the nervous secretary.

The effect of the previous day's badgering, questioning, and threats of the central-office men could be seen as one entered the bank. The aged cashier's hands trembled as he tried to count a sheaf of new bills. Book-keepers in the rear wrote figures and erased them. Thompson, head of the trust and estate clerks, in his little ante-room cage, was in a pitiable state of nerves. The typewriter's chair by President Montrose's desk was vacant, because the lady stenographer was at home under the care of a doctor. The fifty years of staid, conservative calm that had characterized the Berkley Trust Company during its long and useful life had been hit by a five-hundred-thousand-dollar storm.

The group in the vaultlike office of Second Secretary Norris was little better. President Montrose could hardly control his trembling hand to stroke his Vandyke; Norris's eyes showed the sleeplessness of the night before; Miss Richmond was calm with the calmness that means coming nervous collapse; her mother was crying softly; Simpson seemed positively haggard, and Sydney Thames murmured words of sympathy for the man who had two troubles. Jamison and the other central-office man could not make their sneers wholly sceptical. The protective-agency men were plainly puzzled.

" I see you are all on hand." There was no smile in Colton's voice now, or on his lips; he was deadly calm, coldly earnest. " You didn't think it necessary to send for the two watchmen? "

" We got merr watchin' them," put in the surly Jamison.

" Thanks! " came curtly from Colton. " Sit down at this table, all of you. I want to tell you a story."

" We didn't come to hear "

Simpson interrupted the detective : "For God's sake, make it short, Mr. Colton! My wife "

" I'll look into that later." Colton's cane assured him that the chairs were around the long table, and his finger-tips felt the face of his watch in his pocket.

" Will you? " Simpson's voice was almost sarcastically eager, his heavy-lidded eyes narrowed.

 Thames could not blame the man's natural resentment for Colton's offhandedness.

Silently they took seats. Colton sat facing the closed door; across the table was Simpson and Norris. Miss Richmond and her mother were at the end. The four detectives were on either side of the problemist.

" This is a story of a criminal who was born a criminal; who couldn't be honest if he tried," began Colton, in his quietly expressive voice. One hand lay idly on the table before him, the other on his knees, fingers holding the slim, hollow cane.

" He wasn't just born crooked. He started petty thieving before he was out of short trousers. He was the rare criminal that works years as an honest man to pave the way for criminality. He had brains.

He could have been a wonderful success as an honest man. But he couldn't be straight. The criminal instinct was there. He was waiting for the proper time. But the coarser side of his nature refused to be held in leash. He needed money.

And with the inherent craft of his kind he began to plan the robbery of the Berkley Trust Company.

It wasn't so hard, because, being an old, conservative institution, in which men had grown gray, the personal side entered as it cannot in the modern, up-to-date institutions where men come and go.

Instead of elaborate safeguards the simple protection of proven honesty entered largely into the protection of the bank's valuables. And where there is simple honesty there is always vulnerability.

" This criminal had found the vulnerable spot years before the robbery was actually planned; when the time came for its consummation luck came to his aid, as it often does." He paused.

On the outside door came a knock, so faint that only his wonderfully sharp ears heard it. " There was no possibility of suspicion attaching itself to him, for he had planned an elaborate programme to foist suspicion on others. And this robbery was but one of a series, for the method his shrewd brain had devised was capable of endless combinations.

In a few years the Berkley Trust losses would have mounted to millions! "

His fist crashed down on the heavy table. The door opened. Between the sober-faced Shrimp and the expressionless Irish chauffeur was a sunken-eyed, tottering creature, unshaven.

" There's your wife, Simpson! " In the silence Colton's voice came like the crack of a pistol.

" My God, Thorn, it's a man! " In Sydney Thames's tone was agony that the sensitive blind man whom he loved could have made such a mistake.

" Yes, a man! Sit still, Simpson |!" With a movement as quick as light itself Colton's fingers had dropped the slim cane that had given its warning, and held a blue-steel automatic. " Or rather what was once a man." His tone rang with deadly menace. " Charlie de Roque, vaudeville actor, the youngest and best female impersonator on the stage; Mrs. Bowden, the consumptive who played so well on the sympathies of the three simple-minded souls at sixteen-hundred Third Avenue; Mrs. Simpson, the deaf-and-dumb little girl who was going to make Simpson lead a better life."

" You lie! " The shambling shadow of a man screamed it as he tried to jerk away from the chauffeur. " They told me they were going to take me to a sanatorium. I don't know what you're talking about. They've kept me " His whole body racked with sobs.

" Would you tell the truth for these? " The automatic did not waver a fraction of an inch as Colton's unoccupied hand threw down on the table three cotton-plugged quills.

" Merciful God! Yes I " With insane strength he broke away from the big Irishman and darted to the table. His twitching fingers snatched a quill, pulled the cotton from the end, threw his head back

" Enough of these damn' theatrics! " Simpson snarled it viciously, but he did not move. " By Heaven, Colton, you can't railroad me to save Norris and his wife with the fool ravings of a cocaine snuffler! " His face was purple, the veins in his forehead seemed ready to burst. " Mrs. Bowden! " He scoffed. " How did she get the bonds? Where are they % Find 'em! " he laughed triumphantly at Colt on across the table, and the two central-office men who now stood over him.

" Here yuh are, Mr. Colton." It was Shrimp, staggering under the weight of a big bucket of dirty water. He set it down beside the problemist's chair.

" The bonds are here, Simpson! " Colton's hand plunged into the water, and came up with a dripping, shiny black object. " There's the first package, in an all-rubber ice bag! "

" You devil!" Simpson's rage made his voice a scream.

" Take your prisoner, policemen." Colton could not refrain from adding that last scornful word to the two detectives who had not seen until a blind man had shown them.


IV.

" Of course, De Roque, who was merely the drugcrazed tool of the real criminal, would have told where the bonds were," declared Thornley Colton, when they were once more in the shade-drawn library of the big, old-fashioned house. " But Simpson would have had time to be on his guard.

The finding of the bonds, as I did, before he had time to recover his nerve, drew from him those last betraying words. The police can establish his connection with the telephone message to Miss Richmond, the booking of the two passages under the name of Morris, and the place where he and De Roque met while the fake Mrs. Bowden was supposed to be out at day's work. Those details were not even worth bothering with, for me, because the keyboard of silence told me the guilty persons before the robbery was committed."

" I am as much at sea as ever," confessed Sydney Thames.

" In the Regal we saw the first act. Simpson, with the dare-devilishness that characterizes the type, introduced me to the accomplice. It was not wholly dare-devilishness, however, for it was to prepare the get-away. He wanted, before the time came for her to disappear, to arouse your sympathy and my interest in the deaf-and-dumb woman, whom he had married to accomplish his reformation.

After a fruitless search he would need a long vacation in Europe, with the bonds, of course, to recover from the shock. There could be no suspicion attached to him. No sane man would look for a deaf-and-dumb wife in the person of a vaudeville actor dying of tuberculosis and cocaine who had drug dreams of money coming his way. Once Simpson had gotten out of the country, De Roque could have raved and stormed, even confessed, and his confession would have been accepted as nothing but cocaine dementia. Simpson never intended to play fair; it isn't his nature. From the first time I ever shook his hand I have known him to be a born criminal, for I can read hands as the physiognomist reads faces. And I have the advantage, because men like Simpson, with the aid of their strong wills, can mask their emotions behind eyes and faces so that no man can read their minds.

But they have never given a thought to their hands."

" Do you mean to say you could tell what Simpson was planning by shaking his hands there in the Regal?" demanded Thames incredulously.

" Not quite," protested Colton laughingly. " But you know how I shake hands. My long index finger always rests lightly on the keyboard of silence — the wrist. With a touch like mine, so light that I can read handwriting by feeling the ridges left on the blank side of the paper, not one person in a million could feel it. I think Miss Richmond did, when I shook hands with her, because I felt a responsive thrill. In the case of Simpson his heart was working like a steam-engine, though his face and eyes were a mask that neither you nor any man with eyes could read; my finger-tip on his pulse told me that he was labouring under some strong excitement. When I shook hands with his ' wife/ I discovered why."

" Why? " echoed Thames blankly.

" Because the wife was a man, and a drug-fiend.' ' " Your hand told you that, and my eyes were deceived! "

" My knowledge of anatomy told me the man part. Don't you know that over the muscles of a woman is a layer of fat that gives the beautiful feminine curves? The man's muscles play directly under the skin, and the curves of female impersonators are due to flabby muscles, and not the feminine fat layer. Besides, the cocaine pulse of the ' wife,' my finger-tip immediately felt the play of the muscles as the hand gripped mine. Knowing Simpson, the impersonation could mean nothing else but a contemplated crime. I further proved it by getting her to put out her hand before she could have had any knowledge, by signs, of my intention to say good-bye. Remember my reference to lip-reading? Simpson was taking no chance of letting her talk. The cocaine gave her the brightness of eye, and the heavily-daubed rouge I knew would have to be there to convince you that she was really a country girl who didn't know the use of cosmetics, and also to cover any trace of man's beard and cocaine pastiness of skin. It would have deceived any one who had eyes, where an artistic make-up would immediately have aroused suspicion. Simpson was a wonderful detailist.

" Commonsense told me that Simpson could not risk working with an amateur. Therefore I set Shrimp to looking up actors who had been forced to leave the stage on account of ill health within the last two months. The whole thing must have been rehearsed many times, for the detailist would overlook no detail. In Shrimp's list was De Roque.

A few telephone inquiries proved that he was really a cocaine fiend of the worst kind, also that he had returned, yesterday morning, from a sanitarium, no better, to his old boarding-house. It was Simpson's scheme to let him do that, for it eliminated him. As soon as I found out that Simpson would not risk visiting him, Shrimp and John got him on the pretence that they were from Simpson. Cocaine snufflers as far gone as he need the drug every hour.

For three hours before the time arranged for Shrimp to bring him to the bank De Roque hadn't had a pinch; he was insane with craving. The visit to Third Avenue, and the finding of the quills which cocaine snufflers use to hide the stuff on their bodies and conceal it in their palms so that no one can see them snuff it gave me the things I needed to make him talk. You saw how they worked."

" But the detectives who helped him out of the room? How did you ever figure the possibility of the bonds being in the scrub water?"

" The protective-agency men told me. Their eyes saw what my lack of eyes understood. The yellow bar of soap bobbing on top of the water, I think one of them expressed it. An instant's intelligent thought would tell any one that the yellow soap used for scrubbing floors never floats.

The finding of the powdered sulphur showed me the clever ice-bag trick, for powdered sulphur is always used by druggists to keep the thin rubber from sticking together when the bags are in the boxes.

Of course, De Roque carried it with him every night waiting for his opportunity, and in pulling it out the powder scattered on the carpet. The natural thing was to brush it under the safe, where my handkerchief found it after my slapping hand had raised the scattered grains he had missed.

" The ringing of the burglar-alarm was a master-stroke. It was the link necessary to establish the innocence of Mrs. Bowden. Simpson, of course, knew of the connection. De Roque probably removed his shoes and stood on the rubber ice-bags while he opened the safe and took out the bonds and papers Simpson had so accurately described.

Then, when they had all been packed and the safe closed, a natural stumbling against the safe would bring the protective-agency men to swear that nothing could have been taken from the room.

When the time came to leave the building, the pail, still full of water, was carefully put in a far, dark corner of the cellar closet, where the scrub pails and mops are kept. It would have been safe until Simpson was ready to take the bonds away. That was why I worked to keep Jamison and his partner around the bank; I didn't want Simpson to have any opportunity to get the loot out.

" Of course, it was he who suggested the calling of the regular police to the flustered President Montrose. Because, while he was sure that he could deceive me, he wasn't taking any foolish risks. He wanted the central-office men to muddle the thing as much as possible, and he was shrewd enough not to overdo the casting of suspicion on Norris and his wife; the way he put in a word here and there, and looks, of course, was quite in keeping with the other details. This morning, I think, he had begun to realize what I was doing, but there was nothing he could do but count on a bluff. I took him off his guard."

For several minutes the two men smoked in silence.

" But why didn't you warn some one instead of letting the robbery go on? " Sydney asked finally.

Colton's expressive lips framed a wry smile.

" You will insist on showing the fly in the ointment, Sydney. The truth is, I was caught napping. But I guess it's just as well I didn't. Jails are built for the protection of society, and Simpson is the one man in a thousand against whom society needs protection."

THE END


Thornley Colton: Blind Detective by Clinton H. Stagg


Thornley Colton is a "blind detective" from the golden age of mystery fiction. Relying on his keen senses and intelligence, he only takes the most puzzling cases, strictly for the enjoyment of unraveling a mystery. Author Clinton H. Stagg was only 26 when he died (in 1916), but left a remarkable detective for mystery enthusiasts to explore.

 

ϟ
 

excerpt of
Thornley Colton, Blind Detective
by CLINTON H. STAGG
Copyright, 1923, by G. HOWARD WATT
NEW YORK
Printed in the United States of America
fonte do texto integral | full text: https://archive.org/stream/
 

 

Δ

22.Out.2020
Maria José Alegre