That story of love and crime which figures in the records of the New York Detective Bureau as “The Yacht Mystery” has little to do with yachts and is no longer a mystery. It is concerned far more intimately with the troubles and trials of pretty Winifred Bartlett than with the vagaries of the restless sea; the alert, well-groomed figure of Winifred’s true lover, Rex Carshaw, fills its pages to the almost total exclusion of the portly millionaire who owned the Sans Souci. Yet, such is the singular dominance exercised by the trivial things of life over the truly important ones, some hundreds of thousands of people in the great city on the three rivers will recall many episodes of the nine days’ wonder known to them as “The Yacht Mystery” though they may never have heard of either Winifred or Rex.
It began simply, as all major events do begin, and, of course, at the outset, neither of these two young people seemed to have the remotest connection with it.
On the evening of October 5, 1913—that is the date when the first entry appears in the diary of Mr. James Steingall, chief of the Bureau—the stream of traffic in Fifth Avenue was interrupted to an unusual degree at a corner near Forty-second Street. The homeward-bound throng going up-town and the equally dense crowd coming down-town to restaurants and theater-land merely chafed at a delay which they did not understand, but the traffic policeman knew exactly what was going on, and kept his head and his temper.
A few doors down the north side of the cross street a famous club was ablaze with lights. Especially did three great windows on the first floor send forth hospitable beams, for the spacious room within was the scene of an amusing revel. Mr. William Pierpont Van Hofen, ex-commodore of the New York Yacht Club, owner of the Sans Souci, and multi-millionaire, had just astonished his friends by one of the eccentric jests for which he was famous.
The Sans Souci, notable the world over for its size, speed, and fittings, was going out of commission for the winter. Van Hofen had marked the occasion by widespread invitations to a dinner at his club, “to be followed by a surprise party,” and the nature of the “surprise” was becoming known. Each lady had drawn by lot the name of her dinner partner, and each couple was then presented with a sealed envelope containing tickets for one or other of the many theaters in New York. Thus, not only were husbands, wives, eligible bachelors, and smart débutantes inextricably mixed up, but none knew whither the oddly assorted pairs were bound, since the envelopes were not to be opened until the meal reached the coffee and cigarette stage.
There existed, too, a secret within a secret. Seven men were bidden privately to come on board the Sans Souci, moored in the Hudson off the Eighty-sixth Street landing-stage, and there enjoy a quiet session of auction bridge.
“We’ll duck before the trouble gets fairly started,” explained Van Hofen to his cronies. “You’ll see how the bunch is sorted out at dinner, but the tangle then will be just one cent in the dollar to the pandemonium when they find out where they’re going.”
Of course, everybody was acquainted with everybody else, or the joke might have been in bad taste. Moreover, as the gathering was confined exclusively to the elect of New York society, the host had notified the Detective Bureau, and requested the presence of one of their best men outside the club shortly before eight o’clock. None realized better than he that where the carcass is there the vultures gather, and he wanted no untoward incident to happen during the confusion which must attend the departure of so many richly bejeweled ladies accompanied by unexpected cavaliers.
Thus it befell that Detective-Inspector Clancy was detailed for the job. Steingall and he were the “inseparables” of the Bureau, yet no two members of a marvelously efficient service were more unlike, physically and mentally. Steingall was big, blond, muscular, a genial giant whose qualities rendered him almost popular among the very criminals he hunted, whereas those same desperadoes feared the diminutive Clancy, the little, slight, dark-haired sleuth of French-Irish descent. He, they were aware instinctively, read their very souls before Steingall’s huge paw clutched their quaking bodies.
Idle chance alone decided that Clancy should undertake the half-hour’s vigil at the up-town club that evening. All unknowing, he became thereby the controlling influence in many lives.
At eight o’clock an elderly man emerged from the building and edged his way through the cheery, laughing people already grouped about the doorway and awaiting automobiles. Mr. William Meiklejohn might have been branded with the word “Senator,” so typical was he of the upper house at Washington. The very cut of his clothes, the style of his shoes, the glossiness of his hat, even the wide expanse of pearl-studded white linen marked him as a person of consequence.
A uniformed policeman, striving to keep the pavement clear of loiterers, recognized and saluted him. The salute was returned, though its recipient’s face seemed to be gloomy, preoccupied, almost disturbed. Therefore he did not notice a gaunt, angular-jawed woman—one whose carriage and attire suggested better days long since passed—who had been peering eagerly at the revellers pouring out of the club, and now stepped forward impetuously as if to intercept him.
She failed. The policeman barred her progress quietly but effectually, and the woman, if bent on achieving her purpose, must have either called after the absorbed Meiklejohn or entered into a heated altercation with the policeman when accident came to her aid.
Mrs. Ronald Tower, strikingly handsome, richly gowned and cloaked, with an elaborate coiffure that outvied nature’s best efforts, was crossing the pavement to enter a waiting car when she stopped and drew her hand from her escort’s arm.
“Senator Meiklejohn!” she cried.
The elderly man halted. He doffed his hat with a flourish.
“Ah, Helen,” he said smilingly. “Whither bound?”
“To see Belasco’s latest. Isn’t that lucky? The very thing I wanted. Poor Ronald! I don’t know what has become of him, or into what net he may have fallen.”
The Senator beamed. He knew that Ronald Tower was one of the eight bridge-players, but was pledged to secrecy.
“I only hailed you to jog your memory about that luncheon to-morrow,” went on Mrs. Tower.
“How could I forget?” he retorted gallantly. “Only two hours ago I postponed a business appointment on account of it.”
“So good of you, Senator,” and Mrs. Tower’s smile lent a tinge of sarcasm to the words. “I’m awfully anxious that you should meet Mr. Jacob. I’m deeply interested, you know.”
Meiklejohn glanced rather sharply at the lady’s companion, who, however, was merely a vacuous man about town. It struck Clancy that the Senator resented this incautious using of names. The shabby-genteel woman, hovering behind the policeman, was following the scene with hawklike eyes, and Clancy kept her, too, under close observation.
The Senator coughed, and lowered his voice.
“I shall be most pleased to discuss matters with him,” he said. “It will be a pleasure to render him a service if you ask it.”
Mrs. Tower laughed lightly. “One o’clock,” she said. “Don’t be late! Come along, Mr. Forrest. Your car is blocking the way.”
Mr. Meiklejohn flourished his hat again. He turned and found himself face to face with the hard-featured woman who had been waiting and watching for this very opportunity. She barred his further progress—even caught his arm.
Had the Senator been assaulted by the blue-coated guardian of law and order he could not have displayed more bewilderment.
“You, Rachel?” he gasped.
The policeman was about to intervene, but it was the Senator, not the shabbily dressed woman, who prevented him.
“It’s all right, officer,” he stammered vexedly. “I know this lady. She is an old friend.”
The man saluted again and drew aside. Clancy moved a trifle nearer. No one would take notice of such an insignificant little man. Though he had his back to this strangely assorted pair, he heard nearly every syllable they uttered.
“He is here,” snapped the woman without other preamble. “You must see him.”
“It is quite impossible,” was the answer, and, though the words were frigid and unyielding, Clancy felt certain that Senator Meiklejohn had to exercise an iron self-control to keep a tremor out of his utterance.
“You dare not refuse,” persisted the woman.
The Senator glanced around in a scared way. Clancy thought for an instant that he meant to dart back into the security of the club. After an irresolute pause, however, he moved somewhat apart from the crowd of sightseers. The two stood together on the curb, and clear of the flood of light pouring through the open doors. Clancy edged after them. He gathered a good deal, not all, of what they said, as both voices were harsh and tinged with excitement.
“This very night,” the woman was saying. “Bring at least five hundred dollars—If the police… . Says he will confess everything… . Do you get me? This thing can’t wait.”
The Senator did not even try now to conceal his agitation. He looked at the gaping mob, but it was wholly absorbed in the stream of fashionable people pouring out of the club, while the snorting of scores of automobiles created a din which meant comparative safety.
“Yes, yes,” he muttered. “I understand. I’ll do anything in reason. I’ll give you the money, and you——”
“No. He means seeing you. You need not be afraid. He says you are going to Mr. Van Hofen’s yacht at nine o’clock——”
“Good Lord!” broke in Meiklejohn, “how can he possibly know that?” Again he peered at the press of onlookers. A dapper little man who stood near was raised on tiptoe and craning his neck to catch a glimpse of a noted beauty who had just appeared.
“Oh, pull yourself together!” and there was a touch of scorn in the woman’s manner as she reassured this powerfully built man. “Isn’t he clever and fertile in device? Haven’t the newspapers announced your presence on the Sans Souci? And who will stop a steward’s tongue from wagging? At any rate, he knows. He will be on the Hudson in a small boat, with one other man. At nine o’clock he will come close to the landing-stage at Eighty-sixth Street. There is a lawn north of the clubhouse, he says. Walk to the end of it and you will find him. You can have a brief talk. Bring the money in an envelope.”
“On the lawn—at nine!” repeated the Senator in a dazed way.
“Yes. What better place could he choose? You see, he is willing to play fair and be discreet. But, quick! I must have your answer. Time is passing. Do you agree?”
“What is the alternative?”
“Capture, and a mad rage. Then others will share in his downfall.”
“Very well. I’ll be there. I’ll not fail him, or you.”
“He says it’s his last request. He has some scheme——”
“Ah, his schemes! If only I could hope that this will be the end!”
“That is his promise.”
The woman dropped the conversation abruptly. She darted through the line of cars and made off in the direction of Sixth Avenue. Senator Meiklejohn gazed after her dubiously, but her tall figure was soon lost in the traffic. Then, with bent head, and evidently a prey to harassing thoughts, he crossed Fifth Avenue.
Clancy sauntered after him, and saw him enter a block of residential flats in a side street. Then the detective strolled back to the club.
Most of Van Hofen’s guests had gone. The policeman grinned and muttered in Clancy’s ear:
“The Senator’s a giddy guy. Two of ’em at wanst. Mrs. Tower’s a good-looker, but I didn’t think much of the other wan.”
Clancy nodded. His black and beady eyes had just clashed with those of a notorious crook, who suddenly remembered an urgent appointment elsewhere.
Fifteen minutes later Senator Meiklejohn returned. He entered the club without being waylaid a second time. Clancy consulted his watch.
“Keep a sharp lookout here, Mac,” he said, sotto voce. “While I was away just now Broadway Jim showed up. He’s got cold feet, and there’ll be nothing more doing to-night, I think. Anyhow, I’m going up-town.”
In Fifth Avenue he boarded a Riverside Drive bus. The weather was mild, and he mounted to the roof.
“Now, who in the world will Senator Meiklejohn meet on the landing-stage?” he mused. “Seems to me the chief may be interested. Five hundred dollars, too! I wonder!”