The Bartlett Mystery - Louis Tracy - ebook
Kategoria: Sensacja, thriller, horror Język: angielski Rok wydania: 1919

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Louis Tracy

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About
Chapter 1 - A GATHERING AT A CLUB
Chapter 2 - A DARING CRIME

About Tracy:

Louis Tracy (1863 - 1928) was a British journalist, and prolific writer of fiction. He used the pseudonyms Gordon Holmes and Robert Fraser, which were at times shared with M. P. Shiel, a collaborator from the start of the twentieth century.

Also available on Feedbooks Tracy:
Copyright: This work is available for countries where copyright is Life+70 and in the USA.
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Chapter 1 A GATHERING AT A CLUB

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!”


Chapter 2 A DARING CRIME

It was no part of Detective Clancy’s business to pry into the private affairs of Senator Meiklejohn. Senators are awkward fish to handle, being somewhat similar to whales caught in nets designed to capture mackerel. But the Bureau is no respecter of persons. Men much higher up in politics and finance than William Meiklejohn would be disagreeably surprised if they could read certain details entered opposite their names in the dossiers kept by the police department. Still, it behooved Clancy to tread warily.

As it happened, he was just the man for this self-imposed duty. Two Celtic strains mingled in his blood, while American birth and training had not only quickened his intelligence but imparted a quality of wide-eyed shrewdness to a daring initiative. When he and the bluff Steingall worked together the malefactor on whose heels they pressed had a woeful time. As one blood-stained rascal put it in a bitter moment before the electric chair claimed him for the expiation of his last and worst crime:

“Them two guys give a reg’lar fellow no chanst. When they’re trailin’ you every road leads straight to Sing Sing. The big guy has a punch like Jess Willard, an’ the lil ’un a nose like a Montana wolf.”

It was Clancy’s nose for the more subtle elements in crime which brought him to the small châlet on the private pier at the foot of Eighty-sixth Street that night. He could not guess what game he might flush, but he was keen as a bloodhound in the chase.

Meanwhile, Senator Meiklejohn encountered Ronald Tower the moment he re-entered the palatial club. By this time he seemed to have regained his customary air of geniality, being one of those rather uncommon men whose apparent characteristics are never so marked as when they are acting a part.

“H’lo, Ronnie,” he cried affably, “I met Helen as she left for the theater. She has an inquiring mind, but I headed her off. By the way, will you be at this luncheon to-morrow?”

“Not I,” laughed Tower. “I’m barred. She says I have no head for business, and some deep-laid plan for filling the family coffers is in hand.”

The Senator obviously disliked these outspoken references to money-making. He squirmed, but smiled as though Tower had made an excellent joke.

“Try and get the ukase lifted,” he urged. “I want you to be there.”

“Nothing doing,” and the other grinned. “Helen says I resemble you in everything but brain power, Senator. I’m a good-looker as a husband, but a poor mutt in Wall Street.”

They laughed at the conceit. The two men were curiously alike in face and figure, though a close observer like Clancy would have classed them as opposite as the poles in character and temperament. Meiklejohn’s features were cast in the stronger mold. They showed lines which Ronald Tower’s placid existence would never produce. The Senator was suave, too. He seldom pressed a point to the limit.

“Helen’s good opinion is doubly flattering,” he said. “She is a bright woman, and knows how to command her friends.”

Tower glanced at a clock in the hall.

“Time we were off,” he announced. “Come with me. I’m taking Johnny Bell, I think.”

“Sorry. I have an important letter to write. But I’ll join before the crowd cuts in.”

The Senator hurried up-stairs. He must take the journey alone, and snatch an opportunity to attend that mysterious rendezvous while the Sans Souci’s gig was ferrying some of the bridge-players to the yacht.

Owing to a slight misunderstanding Tower missed the other man, and traveled alone in his car. On that trivial circumstance hinged events which not only affected many lives but disturbed New York society more than any other incident within a decade.

Few among the thousands of summer promenaders who enjoy the magnificent panorama of the North River from the wooded heights of the Drive know of the pier at Eighty-sixth Street. For one thing, the clubhouse itself is an unpretentious structure; for another, the narrow and winding stairway leading down the side of the cliff gives no indication of its specific purpose. Moreover, a light foot-bridge across the tracks is hardly noticeable through the screen of trees and shrubs above, and the water-front lies yet fifty yards farther on.

At night the approach is not well lighted. In fact, no portion of the beautiful and precipitous riparian park is more secluded than the short stretch between the landing-stage and the busy thoroughfare on the crest.

That evening, as has been seen, Mr. Van Hofen was taking no risks for himself or his guests. A patrolman from the local precinct was stationed at the iron-barred gate on the landward end of the foot-bridge.

Clancy, on descending from the bus, stood for a few seconds and surveyed the scene. The night was dark and the sky overcast, but the myriad lights on the New Jersey shore were reflected in the swift current of the Hudson. The superb Sans Souci was easily distinguishable. All her ports were a-glow; lamps twinkled beneath the awnings on her after deck, and a boarding light indicated the lowered gangway.

The yacht was moored about three hundred feet from the landing-stage. Her graceful outlines were clearly discernible against the black, moving plain of the river. Just in that spot shone her radiance, lending a sense of opulence and security. For the rest, that part of New York’s great waterway was dim and impalpable.

Try as he might, the detective could see no small craft afloat. The yacht’s gig, waiting at the clubhouse, was hidden from view. He sped rapidly down the steps, and found the patrolman.

“That you, Nolan?” he said.

The man peered at him.

“Oh, Mr. Clancy, is it?” he replied.

“You know Senator Meiklejohn by sight?”

“Sure I do.”

“When he comes along hail him. Say ‘Good evening, Senator.’ I’ll hear you.”

Clancy promptly moved off along the path which runs parallel with the railway. Nolan, though puzzled, put no questions, being well aware he would be told nothing more.

Three gentlemen came down the cliff, and crossed the bridge. One was Van Hofen himself. Now, the fates had willed that Ronald Tower should come next, and alone. He was hurrying. He had seen figures entering the club, and wanted to join them in the gig.

The policeman made the same mistake as many others.

“Good evenin’, Senator,” he said.

Tower nodded and laughed. He had no time to correct the harmless blunder. Even so, he was too late for the boat, which was already well away from the stage when he reached it. He lighted a cigarette, and strolled along the narrow terrace between river and lawn.

Clancy, on receiving his cue, followed Tower. An attendant challenged him at the iron gate, but Nolan certified that this diminutive stranger was “all right.”

It was on the tip of the detective’s tongue to ask if Mr. Meiklejohn had gone into the clubhouse when he saw, as he imagined, the Senator’s tall form silhouetted against the vague carpet of the river; so he passed on, and this minor incident contributed its quota to a tragic occurrence. He heard some one behind him on the bridge, but paid no heed, his wits being bent on noting anything that took place in the semi-obscurity of the river’s edge.

Meanwhile, the patrolman, encountering a double of Senator Meiklejohn, was dumbfounded momentarily. He sought enlightenment from the attendant.

“An’, for the love of Mike, who was the first wan?” he demanded, when assured that the latest arrival was really the Senator.

“Mr. Ronald Tower,” said the man. “They’re like as two peas in a pod, ain’t they?”

Nolan muttered something. He, too, crossed the bridge, meaning to find Clancy and explain his error. Thus, the four men were not widely separated, but Tower led by half a minute—long enough, in fact, to be at the north end of the terrace before Meiklejohn passed the gate.

There, greatly to his surprise, he looked down into a small motor-boat, with two occupants, keeping close to the sloping wall. The craft and its crew could have no reasonable business there. They suggested something sinister and furtive. The engine was stopped, and one of the men, huddled up in the bows, was holding the boat against the pull of the tide by using a boathook as a punting pole.

Tower, though good-natured and unsuspicious, was naturally puzzled by this apparition. He bent forward to examine it more definitely, and rested his hands on a low railing. Then he was seen by those below.

“That you?” growled the second man, standing up suddenly.

“It is,” said Tower, speaking with strict accuracy, and marveling now who on earth could have arranged a meeting at such a place and in such bizarre conditions.

“Well, here I am,” came the gruff announcement. “The cops are after me. Some one must have tipped them off. If it was you I’ll get to know and even things up, P. D. Q. Chew on that during the night’s festivities, I advise you. Brought that wad?”

Tower was the last man breathing to handle this queer situation discreetly. He ought to have temporized, but he loathed anything in the nature of vulgar or criminal intrigue. Being quick-tempered withal, if deliberately insulted, he resented this fellow’s crude speech.

“No,” he cried hotly. “What you really want is a policeman, and there’s one close at hand—Hi! Officer!” he shouted: “Come here at once. There are two rascals in a boat—”

Something swirled through the darkness, and his next word was choked in a cry of mortal fear, for a lasso had fallen on his shoulders and was drawn taut. Before he could as much as lift his hands he was dragged bodily over the railing and headlong into the river.

Clancy, forced by circumstances to remain at a distance, could only overhear Tower’s share in the brief conversation. The tones in the voice perplexed him, but the preconcerted element in the affair seemed to offer proof positive that Senator Meiklejohn had kept his appointment. He was just in time to see Tower’s legs disappearing, and a loud splash told what had happened. He was not armed. He never carried a revolver unless the quest of the hour threatened danger or called for a display of force. In a word, he was utterly powerless.

Senator Meiklejohn, alive to the vital fact that some one on the terrace had discovered the boat, hung back dismayed. He was joined by Nolan, who could not understand the sudden commotion.

“What’s up?” Nolan asked. “Didn’t some wan shout?”

Clancy, in all his experience of crime and criminals, had never before encountered such an amazing combination of unforeseen conditions. The boat’s motor was already chugging breathlessly, and the small craft was curving out into the gloom. He saw a man hauling in a rope from the stern, and well did he know why the cord seemed to be attached to a heavy weight. Not far away he made out the yacht’s gig returning to the stage.

Sans Souci ahoy!” he almost screamed. “Head off that launch! There’s murder done!”

It was a hopeless effort, of course, though the sailors obeyed instantly, and bent to their oars. Soon they, too, vanished in the murk, but, finding they were completely outpaced, came back seeking for instructions which could not be given. The detective thought he was bewitched when he ran into Senator Meiklejohn, pallid and trembling, standing on the terrace with Nolan.

“You?” he shrieked in a shrill falsetto. “Then, in heaven’s name, who is the man who has just been pulled into the river?”

“Tower!” gasped the Senator. “Mr. Ronald Tower. They mistook him for me.”

“Faith, an’ I did that same,” muttered the patrolman, whose slow-moving wits could assimilate only one thing at a time.

Clancy, afire with rage and a sense of inexplicable failure, realized that Meiklejohn’s admission and its now compulsory explanation could wait a calmer moment. The club attendant, attracted by the hubbub, raced to the lawn, and the detective tackled him.

“Isn’t there a motor launch on the yacht?” he asked.

“Yes, sir, but it’ll be all sheeted up on deck.”

“Have you a megaphone?”

“Yes.”

The man ran and grabbed the instrument from its hook, so Clancy bellowed the alarming news to Mr. Van Hofen and the others already on board the Sans Souci that Ronald Tower had been dragged into the river and probably murdered. But what could they do? The speedy rescue of Tower, dead or alive, was simply impossible.

The gig arrived. Clancy stormed by telephone at a police station-house and at the up-river station of the harbor police, but such vain efforts were the mere necessities of officialdom. None knew better than he that an extraordinary crime had been carried through under his very eyes, yet its daring perpetrators had escaped, and he could supply no description of their appearance to the men who would watch the neighboring ferries and wharves.

Van Hofen and his friends, startled and grieved, came ashore in the gig, and Clancy was striving to give them some account of the tragedy without revealing its inner significance when his roving glance missed Meiklejohn from the distraught group of men.

“Where is the Senator?” he cried, turning on the gaping Nolan.

“Gee, he’s knocked out,” said the policeman. “He axed me to tell you he’d gone down-town. Ye see, some wan has to find Mrs. Tower.”

Clancy’s black eyes glittered with fury, yet he spoke no word. A blank silence fell on the rest. They had not thought of the bereaved wife, but Meiklejohn had remembered. That was kind of him. The Senator always did the right thing. And how he must be suffering! The Towers were his closest friends!