In my criminal work anything that wears skirts is a lady, until the law proves her otherwise. From the frayed and slovenly petticoats of the woman who owns a poultry stand in the market and who has grown wealthy by selling chickens at twelve ounces to the pound, or the silk sweep of Mamie Tracy, whose diamonds have been stolen down on the avenue, or the staidly respectable black and middle-aged skirt of the client whose husband has found an affinity partial to laces and fripperies, and has run off with her–all the wearers are ladies, and as such announced by Hawes. In fact, he carries it to excess. He speaks of his wash lady, with a husband who is an ash merchant, and he announced one day in some excitement, that the lady who had just gone out had appropriated all the loose change out of the pocket of his overcoat.
So when Hawes announced a lady, I took my feet off my desk, put down the brief I had been reading, and rose perfunctorily. With my first glance at my visitor, however, I threw away my cigar, and I have heard since, settled my tie. That this client was different was borne in on me at once by the way she entered the room. She had poise in spite of embarrassment, and her face when she raised her veil was white, refined, and young.
“I did not send in my name,” she said, when she saw me glancing down for the card Hawes usually puts on my table. “It was advice I wanted, and I–I did not think the name would matter.”
She was more composed, I think, when she found me considerably older than herself. I saw her looking furtively at the graying places over my ears. I am only thirty-five, as far as that goes, but my family, although it keeps its hair, turns gray early–a business asset but a social handicap.
“Won’t you sit down?” I asked, pushing out a chair, so that she would face the light, while I remained in shadow. Every doctor and every lawyer knows that trick. “As far as the name goes, perhaps you would better tell me the trouble first. Then, if I think it indispensable, you can tell me.”
She acquiesced to this and sat for a moment silent, her gaze absently on the windows of the building across. In the morning light my first impression was verified. Only too often the raising of a woman’s veil in my office reveals the ravages of tears, or rouge, or dissipation. My new client turned fearlessly to the window an unlined face, with a clear skin, healthily pale. From where I sat, her profile was beautiful, in spite of its drooping suggestion of trouble; her first embarrassment gone, she had forgotten herself and was intent on her errand.
“I hardly know how to begin,” she said, “but suppose”–slowly–“suppose that a man, a well-known man, should leave home without warning, not taking any clothes except those he wore, and saying he was coming home to dinner, and he–he–”
She stopped as if her voice had failed her.
“And he does not come?” I prompted.
She nodded, fumbling for her handkerchief in her bag.
“How long has he been gone?” I asked. I had heard exactly the same thing before, but to leave a woman like that, hardly more than a girl, and lovely!
“I should think it ought to be looked into,” I said decisively, and got up. Somehow I couldn’t sit quietly. A lawyer who is worth anything is always a partisan, I suppose, and I never hear of a man deserting his wife that I am not indignant, the virtuous scorn of the unmarried man, perhaps. “But you will have to tell me more than that. Did this gentleman have any bad habits? That is, did he–er–drink?”
“Not to excess. He had been forbidden anything of that sort by his physician. He played bridge for money, but I–believe he was rather lucky.” She colored uncomfortably.
“Married, I suppose?” I asked casually.
“He had been. His wife died when I–” She stopped and bit her lip. Then it was not her husband, after all! Oddly enough, the sun came out just at that moment, spilling a pool of sunlight at her feet, on the dusty rug with its tobacco-bitten scars.
“It is my father,” she said simply. I was absurdly relieved.
But with the realization that I had not a case of desertion on my hands, I had to view the situation from a new angle.
“You are absolutely at a loss to account for his disappearance?”
“You have had no word from him?”
“He never went away before for any length of time, without telling you?”
“No. Never. He was away a great deal, but I always knew where to find him.” Her voice broke again and her chin quivered. I thought it wise to reassure her.
“Don’t let us worry about this until we are sure it is serious,” I said. “Sometimes the things that seem most mysterious have the simplest explanations. He may have written and the letter have miscarried or–even a slight accident would account–” I saw I was blundering; she grew white and wide-eyed. “But, of course, that’s unlikely too. He would have papers to identify him.”
“His pockets were always full of envelopes and things like that,” she assented eagerly.
“Don’t you think I ought to know his name?” I asked. “It need not be known outside of the office, and this is a sort of confessional anyhow, or worse. People tell things to their lawyer that they wouldn’t think of telling the priest.”
Her color was slowly coming back, and she smiled.
“My name is Fleming, Margery Fleming,” she said after a second’s hesitation, “and my father, Mr. Allan Fleming, is the man. Oh, Mr. Knox, what are we going to do? He has been gone for more than a week!”
No wonder she had wished to conceal the identity of the missing man. So Allan Fleming was lost! A good many highly respectable citizens would hope that he might never be found. Fleming, state treasurer, delightful companion, polished gentleman and successful politician of the criminal type. Outside in the corridor the office boy was singing under his breath. “Oh once there was a miller,” he sang, “who lived in a mill.” It brought back to my mind instantly the reform meeting at the city hall a year before, where for a few hours we had blown the feeble spark of protest against machine domination to a flame. We had sung a song to that very tune, and with this white-faced girl across from me, its words came back with revolting truth. It had been printed and circulated through the hall.
“Oh, once there was a capitol
That sat on a hill,
As it’s too big to steal away
It’s probably there still.
The ring’s hand in the treasury
And Fleming with a sack.
They take it out in wagon loads
And never bring it back.”
I put the song out of my mind with a shudder. “I am more than sorry,” I said. I was, too; whatever he may have been, he was _her_ father. “And of course there are a number of reasons why this ought not to be known, for a time at least. After all, as I say, there may be a dozen simple explanations, and–there are exigencies in politics–”
“I hate politics!” she broke in suddenly. “The very name makes me ill. When I read of women wanting to–to vote and all that, I wonder if they know what it means to have to be polite to dreadful people, people who have even been convicts, and all that. Why, our last butler had been a prize fighter!” She sat upright with her hands on the arms of the chair. “That’s another thing, too, Mr. Knox. The day after father went away, Carter left. And he has not come back.”
“Carter was the butler?”
“A white man?”
“And he left without giving you any warning?”
“Yes. He served luncheon the day after father went away, and the maids say he went away immediately after. He was not there that evening to serve dinner, but–he came back late that night, and got into the house, using his key to the servants entrance. He slept there, the maids said, but he was gone before the servants were up and we have not seen him since.”
I made a mental note of the butler.
“We’ll go back to Carter again,” I said. “Your father has not been ill, has he? I mean recently.”
“I can not think of anything except that he had a tooth pulled.” She was quick to resent my smile. “Oh, I know I’m not helping you,” she exclaimed, “but I have thought over everything until I can not think any more. I always end where I begin.”
“You have not noticed any mental symptoms–any lack of memory?”
Her eyes filled.
“He forgot my birthday, two weeks ago,” she said. “It was the first one he had ever forgotten, in nineteen of them.”
Nineteen! Nineteen from thirty-five leaves sixteen!
“What I meant was this,” I explained. “People sometimes have sudden and unaccountable lapses of memory and at those times they are apt to stray away from home. Has your father been worried lately?”
“He has not been himself at all. He has been irritable, even to me, and terrible to the servants. Only to Carter–he was never ugly to Carter. But I do not think it was a lapse of memory. When I remember how he looked that morning, I believe that he meant then to go away. It shows how he had changed, when he could think of going away without a word, and leaving me there alone.”
“Then you have no brothers or sisters?”
“None. I came to you–” there she stopped.
“Please tell me how you happened to come to me,” I urged. “I think you know that I am both honored and pleased.”
“I didn’t know where to go,” she confessed, “so I took the telephone directory, the classified part under ‘Attorneys,’ and after I shut my eyes, I put my finger haphazard on the page. It pointed to your name.”
I am afraid I flushed at this, but it was a wholesome douche. In a moment I laughed.
“We will take it as an omen,” I said, “and I will do all that I can. But I am not a detective, Miss Fleming. Don’t you think we ought to have one?”
“Not the police!” she shuddered. “I thought you could do something without calling in a detective.”
“Suppose you tell me what happened the day your father left, and how he went away. Tell me the little things too. They may be straws that will point in a certain direction.”
“In the first place,” she began, “we live on Monmouth Avenue. There are just the two of us, and the servants: a cook, two housemaids, a laundress, a butler and a chauffeur. My father spends much of his time at the capital, and in the last two years, since my old governess went back to Germany, at those times I usually go to mother’s sisters at Bellwood–Miss Letitia and Miss Jane Maitland.”
I nodded: I knew the Maitland ladies well. I had drawn four different wills for Miss Letitia in the last year.
“My father went away on the tenth of May. You say to tell you all about his going, but there is nothing to tell. We have a machine, but it was being repaired. Father got up from breakfast, picked up his hat and walked out of the house. He was irritated at a letter he had read at the table–”
“Could you find that letter?” I asked quickly.
“He took it with him. I knew he was disturbed, for he did not even say he was going. He took a car, and I thought he was on his way to his office. He did not come home that night and I went to the office the next morning. The stenographer said he had not been there. He is not at Plattsburg, because they have been trying to call him from there on the long distance telephone every day.”
In spite of her candid face I was sure she was holding something back.
“Why don’t you tell me everything?” I asked. “You may be keeping back the one essential point.”
She flushed. Then she opened her pocket-book and gave me a slip of rough paper. On it, in careless figures, was the number “eleven twenty-two.” That was all.
“I was afraid you would think it silly,” she said. “It was such a meaningless thing. You see, the second night after father left, I was nervous and could not sleep. I expected him home at any time and I kept listening for his step down-stairs. About three o’clock I was sure I heard some one in the room below mine–there was a creaking as if the person were walking carefully. I felt relieved, for I thought he had
come back. But I did not hear the door into his bedroom close, and I got more and more wakeful. Finally I got up and slipped along the hall to his room. The door was open a few inches and I reached in and switched on the electric lights. I had a queer feeling before I turned on the light that there was some one standing close to me, but the room was empty, and the hall, too.”
“And the paper?”
“When I saw the room was empty I went in. The paper had been pinned to a pillow on the bed. At first I thought it had been dropped or had blown there. When I saw the pin I was startled. I went back to my room and rang for Annie, the second housemaid, who is also a sort of personal maid of mine. It was half-past three o’clock when Annie came down. I took her into father’s room and showed her the paper. She was sure it was not there when she folded back the bed clothes for the night at nine o’clock.”
“Eleven twenty-two,” I repeated. “Twice eleven is twenty-two. But that isn’t very enlightening.”
“No,” she admitted. “I thought it might be a telephone number, and I called up all the eleven twenty-twos in the city.”
In spite of myself, I laughed, and after a moment she smiled in sympathy.
“We are not brilliant, certainly,” I said at last. “In the first place, Miss Fleming, if I thought the thing was very serious I would not laugh–but no doubt a day or two will see everything straight. But, to go back to this eleven twenty-two–did you rouse the servants and have the house searched?”
“Yes, Annie said Carter had come back and she went to waken him, but although his door was locked inside, he did not answer. Annie and I switched on all the lights on the lower floor from the top of the stairs. Then we went down together and looked around. Every window and door was locked, but in father’s study, on the first floor, two drawers of his desk were standing open. And in the library, the little compartment in my writing-table, where I keep my house money, had been broken open and the money taken.”
“Nothing else was gone?”
“Nothing. The silver on the sideboard in the dining-room, plenty of valuable things in the cabinet in the drawing-room–nothing was disturbed.”
“It might have been Carter,” I reflected. “Did he know where you kept your house money?”
“It is possible, but I hardly think so. Besides, if he was going to steal, there were so many more valuable things in the house. My mother’s jewels as well as my own were in my dressing-room, and the door was not locked.”
“They were not disturbed?”
“They had been disturbed,” she admitted. “My grandmother left each of her children some unstrung pearls. They were a hobby with her. Aunt Jane and Aunt Letitia never had theirs strung, but my mother’s were made into different things, all old-fashioned. I left them locked in a drawer in my sitting-room, where I have always kept them. The following morning the drawer was unlocked and partly open, but nothing was missing.”
“All your jewelry was there?”
“All but one ring, which I rarely remove from my finger.” I followed her eyes. Under her glove was the outline of a ring, a solitaire stone.
“Nineteen from–” I shook myself together and got up.
“It does not sound like an ordinary burglary,” I reflected. “But I am afraid I have no imagination. No doubt what you have told me would be meat and drink to a person with an analytical turn of mind. I can’t deduct. Nineteen from thirty-five leaves sixteen, according to my mental process, although I know men who could make the difference nothing.”
I believe she thought I was a little mad, for her face took on again its despairing look.
“We must find him, Mr. Knox,” she insisted as she got up. “If you know of a detective that you can trust, please get him. But you can understand that the unexplained absence of the state treasurer must be kept secret. One thing I am sure of: he is being kept away. You don’t know what enemies he has! Men like Mr. Schwartz, who have no scruples, no principle.”
“Schwartz!” I repeated in surprise. Henry Schwartz was the boss of his party in the state; the man of whom one of his adversaries had said, with the distinct approval of the voting public, that he was so low in the scale of humanity that it would require a special dispensation of Heaven to raise him to the level of total degradation. But he and Fleming were generally supposed to be captain and first mate of the pirate craft that passed with us for the ship of state.
“Mr. Schwartz and my father are allies politically,” the girl explained with heightened color, “but they are not friends. My father is a gentleman.”
The inference I allowed to pass unnoticed, and as if she feared she had said too much, the girl rose. When she left, a few minutes later, it was with the promise that she would close the Monmouth Avenue house and go to her aunts at Bellwood, at once. For myself, I pledged a thorough search for her father, and began it by watching the scarlet wing on her hat through the top of the elevator cage until it had descended out of sight.
I am afraid it was a queer hodgepodge of clues and sentiment that I poured out to Hunter, the detective, when he came up late that afternoon.
Hunter was quiet when I finished my story.
“They’re rotten clear through,” he reflected. “This administration is worse than the last, and it was a peach. There have been more suicides than I could count on my two hands, in the last ten years. I warn you–you’d be better out of this mess.”
“What do you think about the eleven twenty-two?” I asked as he got up and buttoned his coat.
“Well, it might mean almost anything. It might be that many dollars, or the time a train starts, or it might be the eleventh and the twenty-second letters of the alphabet–k–v.”
“K–v!” I repeated, “Why that would be the Latin _cave_–beware.”
Hunter smiled cheerfully.
“You’d better stick to the law, Mr. Knox,” he said from the door. “We don’t use Latin in the detective business.”
Want to read more? Click the title below for a free ebook from Project Gutenberg:
The Window at the White Cat
by Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1910