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At the turn of the twentieth century, the high-society leisure class of London was gripped by an unsettling epidemic: wanton abuse of opium. In this classic mystery from the author who later developed the Fu Manchu series, an intrepid detective sets out to rid the city of this scourge.
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The Yellow Claw
THE LADY OF THE CIVET FURS
Henry Leroux wrote busily on. The light of the table-lamp, softened and enriched by its mosaic shade, gave an appearance of added opulence to the already handsome appointments of the room. The little table-clock ticked merrily from half-past eleven to a quarter to twelve.
Into the cozy, bookish atmosphere of the novelist's study penetrated the muffled chime of Big Ben; it chimed the three- quarters. But, with his mind centered upon his work, Leroux wrote on ceaselessly.
An odd figure of a man was this popular novelist, with patchy and untidy hair which lessened the otherwise striking contour of his brow. A neglected and unpicturesque figure, in a baggy, neutral- colored dressing-gown; a figure more fitted to a garret than to this spacious, luxurious workroom, with the soft light playing upon rank after rank of rare and costly editions, deepening the tones in the Persian carpet, making red morocco more red, purifying the vellum and regilding the gold of the choice bindings, caressing lovingly the busts and statuettes surmounting the book-shelves, and twinkling upon the scantily-covered crown of Henry Leroux. The door bell rang.
Leroux, heedless of external matters, pursued his work. But the door bell rang again and continued to ring.
"Soames! Soames!" Leroux raised his voice irascibly, continuing to write the while. "Where the devil are you! Can't you hear the door bell?"
Soames did not reveal himself; and to the ringing of the bell was added the unmistakable rattling of a letter-box.
"Soames!" Leroux put down his pen and stood up. "Damn it! he's out! I have no memory!"
He retied the girdle of his dressing-gown, which had become unfastened, and opened the study door. Opposite, across the entrance lobby, was the outer door; and in the light from the lobby lamp he perceived two laughing eyes peering in under the upraised flap of the letter-box. The ringing ceased.
"Are you VERY angry with me for interrupting you?" cried a girl's voice.
"My dear Miss Cumberly!" said Leroux without irritation; "on the contrary--er--I am delighted to see you--or rather to hear you. There is nobody at home, you know." . . .
"I DO know," replied the girl firmly, "and I know something else, also. Father assures me that you simply STARVE yourself when Mrs. Leroux is away! So I have brought down an omelette!"
"Omelette!" muttered Leroux, advancing toward the door; "you have-- er--brought an omelette! I understand--yes; you have brought an omelette? Er--that is very good of you."
He hesitated when about to open the outer door, raising his hands to his dishevelled hair and unshaven chin. The flap of the letter- box dropped; and the girl outside could be heard stifling her laughter.
"You must think me--er--very rude," began Leroux; "I mean--not to open the door. But" . . .
"I quite understand," concluded the voice of the unseen one. "You are a most untidy object! And I shall tell Mira DIRECTLY she returns that she has no right to leave you alone like this! Now I am going to hurry back upstairs; so you may appear safely. Don't let the omelette get cold. Good night!"
"No, certainly I shall not!" cried Leroux. "So good of you--I--er-- do like omelette. . . . Good night!"
Calmly he returned to his writing-table, where, in the pursuit of the elusive character whose exploits he was chronicling and who had brought him fame and wealth, he forgot in the same moment Helen Cumberly and the omelette.
The table-clock ticked merrily on; SCRATCH--SCRATCH--SPLUTTER-- SCRATCH--went Henry Leroux's pen; for this up-to-date litterateur, essayist by inclination, creator of "Martin Zeda, Criminal Scientist" by popular clamor, was yet old-fashioned enough, and sufficient of an enthusiast, to pen his work, while lesser men dictated.
So, amidst that classic company, smiling or frowning upon him from the oaken shelves, where Petronius Arbiter, exquisite, rubbed shoulders with Balzac, plebeian; where Omar Khayyam leaned confidentially toward Philostratus; where Mark Twain, standing squarely beside Thomas Carlyle, glared across the room at George Meredith, Henry Leroux pursued the amazing career of "Martin Zeda."
It wanted but five minutes to the hour of midnight, when again the door bell clamored in the silence.
Leroux wrote steadily on. The bell continued to ring, and, furthermore, the ringer could be heard beating upon the outer door.
"Soames!" cried Leroux irritably, "Soames! Why the hell don't you go to the door!"
Leroux stood up, dashing his pen upon the table.
"I shall have to sack that damned man!" he cried; "he takes too many liberties--stopping out until this hour of the night!"
He pulled open the study door, crossed the hallway, and opened the door beyond.
In, out of the darkness--for the stair lights had been extinguished--staggered a woman; a woman whose pale face exhibited, despite the ravages of sorrow or illness, signs of quite unusual beauty. Her eyes were wide opened, and terror-stricken, the pupils contracted almost to vanishing point. She wore a magnificent cloak of civet fur wrapped tightly about her, and, as Leroux opened the door, she tottered past him into the lobby, glancing back over her shoulder.
With his upraised hands plunged pathetically into the mop of his hair, Leroux turned and stared at the intruder. She groped as if a darkness had descended, clutched at the sides of the study doorway, and then, unsteadily, entered--and sank down upon the big chesterfield in utter exhaustion.
Leroux, rubbing his chin, perplexedly, walked in after her. He scarcely had his foot upon the study carpet, ere the woman started up, tremulously, and shot out from the enveloping furs a bare arm and a pointing, quivering finger.
"Close the door!" she cried hoarsely--"close the door! . . . He has . . . followed me!" . . .
The disturbed novelist, as a man in a dream, turned, retraced his steps, and closed the outer door of the flat. Then, rubbing his chin more vigorously than ever and only desisting from this exercise to fumble in his dishevelled hair, he walked back into the study, whose Athenean calm had thus mysteriously been violated.
Two minutes to midnight; the most respectable flat in respectable Westminster; a lonely and very abstracted novelist--and a pale- faced, beautiful woman, enveloped in costly furs, sitting staring with fearful eyes straight before her. This was such a scene as his sense of the proprieties and of the probabilities could never have permitted Henry Leroux to create.
His visitor kept moistening her dry lips and swallowing, emotionally.
Standing at a discreet distance from her:--
"Madam," began Leroux, nervously.
She waved her hand, enjoining him to silence, and at the same time intimating that she would explain herself directly speech became possible. Whilst she sought to recover her composure, Leroux, gradually forcing himself out of the dreamlike state, studied her with a sort of anxious curiosity.
It now became apparent to him that his visitor was no more than twenty-five or twenty-six years of age, but illness or trouble, or both together, had seared and marred her beauty. Amid the auburn masses of her hair, gleamed streaks, not of gray, but of purest white. The low brow was faintly wrinkled, and the big--unnaturally big--eyes were purple shaded; whilst two heavy lines traced their way from the corner of the nostrils to the corner of the mouth--of the drooping mouth with the bloodless lips.
Her pallor became more strange and interesting the longer he studied it; for, underlying the skin was a yellow tinge which he found inexplicable, but which he linked in his mind with the contracted pupils of her eyes, seeking vainly for a common cause.
He had a hazy impression that his visitor, beneath her furs, was most inadequately clothed; and seeking confirmation of this, his gaze strayed downward to where one little slippered foot peeped out from the civet furs.
Leroux suppressed a gasp. He had caught a glimpse of a bare ankle!
He crossed to his writing-table, and seated himself, glancing sideways at this living mystery. Suddenly she began, in a voice tremulous and scarcely audible:--
"Mr. Leroux, at a great--at a very great personal risk, I have come to-night. What I have to ask of you--to entreat of you, will . . . will" . . .
Two bare arms emerged from the fur, and she began clutching at her throat and bosom as though choking--dying.
Leroux leapt up and would have run to her; but forcing a ghastly smile, she waved him away again.
"It is all right," she muttered, swallowing noisily. But frightful spasms of pain convulsed her, contorting her pale face.
"Some brandy--!" cried Leroux, anxiously.
"If you please," whispered the visitor.
She dropped her arms and fell back upon the chesterfield, insensible.
MIDNIGHT AND MR. KING
Leroux clutched at the corner of the writing-table to steady himself and stood there looking at the deathly face. Under the most favorable circumstances, he was no man of action, although in common with the rest of his kind he prided himself upon the possession of that presence of mind which he lacked. It was a situation which could not have alarmed "Martin Zeda," but it alarmed, immeasurably, nay, struck inert with horror, Martin Zeda's creator.
Then, in upon Leroux's mental turmoil, a sensible idea intruded itself.
"Dr. Cumberly!" he muttered. "I hope to God he is in!"
Without touching the recumbent form upon the chesterfield, without seeking to learn, without daring to learn, if she lived or had died, Leroux, the tempo of his life changed to a breathless gallop, rushed out of the study, across the entrance hail, and, throwing wide the flat door, leapt up the stair to the flat above--that of his old friend, Dr. Cumberly.
The patter of the slippered feet grew faint upon the stair; then, as Leroux reached the landing above, became inaudible altogether.
In Leroux's study, the table-clock ticked merrily on, seeming to hasten its ticking as the hand crept around closer and closer to midnight. The mosaic shade of the lamp mingled reds and blues and greens upon the white ceiling above and poured golden light upon the pages of manuscript strewn about beneath it. This was a typical work-room of a literary man having the ear of the public-- typical in every respect, save for the fur-clad figure outstretched upon the settee.
And now the peeping light indiscreetly penetrated to the hem of a silken garment revealed by some disarrangement of the civet fur. To the eye of an experienced observer, had such an observer been present in Henry Leroux's study, this billow of silk and lace behind the sheltering fur must have proclaimed itself the edge of a night-robe, just as the ankle beneath had proclaimed itself to Henry Leroux's shocked susceptibilities to be innocent of stocking.
Thirty seconds were wanted to complete the cycle of the day, when one of the listless hands thrown across the back of the chesterfield opened and closed spasmodically. The fur at the bosom of the midnight visitor began rapidly to rise and fall.
Then, with a choking cry, the woman struggled upright; her hair, hastily dressed, burst free of its bindings and poured in gleaming cascade down about her shoulders.
Clutching with one hand at her cloak in order to keep it wrapped about her, and holding the other blindly before her, she rose, and with that same odd, groping movement, began to approach the writing-table. The pupils of her eyes were mere pin-points flow; she shuddered convulsively, and her skin was dewed with perspiration. Her breath came in agonized gasps.
"God!--I . . . am dying . . . and I cannot--tell him!" she breathed.
Feverishly, weakly, she took up a pen, and upon a quarto page, already half filled with Leroux's small, neat, illegible writing, began to scrawl a message, bending down, one hand upon the table, and with her whole body shaking.
Some three or four wavering lines she had written, when intimately, for the flat of Henry Leroux in Palace Mansions lay within sight of the clock-face--Big Ben began to chime midnight.
The writer started back and dropped a great blot of ink upon the paper; then, realizing the cause of the disturbance, forced herself to continue her task.
The chime being completed: ONE! boomed the clock; TWO! . . . THREE! . . . FOUR! . . .
The light in the entrance-hall went out!
FIVE! boomed Big Ben;--SIX! . . . SEVEN! . . .
A hand, of old ivory hue, a long, yellow, clawish hand, with part of a sinewy forearm, crept in from the black lobby through the study doorway and touched the electric switch!
EIGHT! . . .
The study was plunged in darkness!
Uttering a sob--a cry of agony and horror that came from her very soul--the woman stood upright and turned to face toward the door, clutching the sheet of paper in one rigid hand.
Through the leaded panes of the window above the writing-table swept a silvern beam of moonlight. It poured, searchingly, upon the fur-clad figure swaying by the table; cutting through the darkness of the room like some huge scimitar, to end in a pallid pool about the woman's shadow on the center of the Persian carpet.
Coincident with her sobbing cry--NINE! boomed Big Ben; TEN! . . .
Two hands--with outstretched, crooked, clutching fingers--leapt from the darkness into the light of the moonbeam.
"God! Oh, God!" came a frenzied, rasping shriek--"MR. KING!"
Straight at the bare throat leapt the yellow hands; a gurgling cry rose--fell--and died away.
Gently, noiselessly, the lady of the civet fur sank upon the carpet by the table; as she fell, a dim black figure bent over her. The tearing of paper told of the note being snatched from her frozen grip; but never for a moment did the face or the form of her assailant encroach upon the moonbeam.
Batlike, this second and terrible visitant avoided the light.
The deed had occupied so brief a time that but one note of the great bell had accompanied it.
TWELVE! rang out the final stroke from the clock-tower. A low, eerie whistle, minor, rising in three irregular notes and falling in weird, unusual cadence to silence again, came from somewhere outside the room.
Then darkness--stillness--with the moon a witness of one more ghastly crime.
Presently, confused and intermingled voices from above proclaimed the return of Leroux with the doctor. They were talking in an excited key, the voice of Leroux, especially, sounding almost hysterical. They created such a disturbance that they attracted the attention of Mr. John Exel, M. P., occupant of the flat below, who at that very moment had returned from the House and was about to insert the key in the lock of his door. He looked up the stairway, but, all being in darkness, was unable to detect anything. Therefore he called out:--
"Is that you, Leroux? Is anything the matter?"
"Matter, Exel!" cried Leroux; "there's a devil of a business! For mercy's sake, come up!"
His curiosity greatly excited, Mr. Exel mounted the stairs, entering the lobby of Leroux's flat immediately behind the owner and Dr. Cumberly--who, like Leroux, was arrayed in a dressing-gown; for he had been in bed when summoned by his friend.
"You are all in the dark, here," muttered Dr. Cumberly, fumbling for the switch.
"Some one has turned the light out!" whispered Leroux, nervously; "I left it on."
Dr. Cumberly pressed the switch, turning up the lobby light as Exel entered from the landing. Then Leroux, entering the study first of the three, switched on the light there, also.
One glance he threw about the room, then started back like a man physically stricken.
"Cumberly!" he gasped, "Cumberly"--and he pointed to the furry heap by the writing-table.
"You said she lay on the chesterfield," muttered Cumberly.
"I left her there." . . .
Dr. Cumberly crossed the room and dropped upon his knees. He turned the white face toward the light, gently parted the civet fur, and pressed his ear to the silken covering of the breast. He started slightly and looked into the glazing eyes.
Replacing the fur which he had disarranged, the physician stood up and fixed a keen gaze upon the face of Henry Leroux. The latter swallowed noisily, moistening his parched lips.
"Is she" . . . he muttered; "is she" . . .
"God's mercy, Leroux!" whispered Mr. Exel--"what does this mean?"
"The woman is dead," said Dr. Cumberly.
In common with all medical men, Dr. Cumberly was a physiognomist; he was a great physician and a proportionately great physiognomist. Therefore, when he looked into Henry Leroux's eyes, he saw there, and recognized, horror and consternation. With no further evidence than that furnished by his own powers of perception, he knew that the mystery of this woman's death was as inexplicable to Henry Leroux as it was inexplicable to himself.
He was a masterful man, with the gray eyes of a diplomat, and he knew Leroux as did few men. He laid both hands upon the novelist's shoulders.
"Brace up, old chap!" he said; "you will want all your wits about you."
"I left her," began Leroux, hesitatingly--"I left" . . .
"We know all about where you left her, Leroux," interrupted Cumberly; "but what we want to get at is this: what occurred between the time you left her, and the time of our return?"
Exel, who had walked across to the table, and with a horror- stricken face was gingerly examining the victim, now exclaimed:--
"Why! Leroux! she is--she is . . . UNDRESSED!"
Leroux clutched at his dishevelled hair with both hands.
"My dear Exel!" he cried--"my dear, good man! Why do you use that tone? You say 'she is undressed!' as though I were responsible for the poor soul's condition!"
"On the contrary, Leroux!" retorted Exel, standing very upright, and staring through his monocle; "on the contrary, YOU misconstrue ME! I did not intend to imply--to insinuate--"
"My dear Exel!" broke in Dr. Cumberly--"Leroux is perfectly well aware that you intended nothing unkindly. But the poor chap, quite naturally, is distraught at the moment. You MUST understand that, man!"
"I understand; and I am sorry," said Exel, casting a sidelong glance at the body. "Of course, it is a delicate subject. No doubt Leroux can explain." . . .
"Damn your explanation!" shrieked Leroux hysterically. "I CANNOT explain! If I could explain, I" . . .
"Leroux!" said Cumberly, placing his arm paternally about the shaking man--"you are such a nervous subject. DO make an effort, old fellow. Pull yourself together. Exel does not know the circumstances--"
"I am curious to learn them," said the M. P. icily.
Leroux was about to launch some angry retort, but Cumberly forced him into the chesterfield, and crossing to a bureau, poured out a stiff peg of brandy from a decanter which stood there. Leroux sank upon the chesterfield, rubbing his fingers up and down his palms with a curious nervous movement and glancing at the dead woman, and at Exel, alternately, in a mechanical, regular fashion, pathetic to behold.
Mr. Exel, tapping his boot with the head of his inverted cane, was staring fixedly at the doctor.
"Here you are, Leroux," said Cumberly; "drink this up, and let us arrange our facts in decent order before we--"
"Phone for the police?" concluded Exel, his gaze upon the last speaker.
Leroux drank the brandy at a gulp and put down the glass upon a little persian coffee table with a hand which he had somehow contrived to steady.
"You are keen on the official forms, Exel?" he said, with a wry smile. "Please accept my apology for my recent--er--outburst, but picture this thing happening in your place!"
"I cannot," declared Exel, bluntly.
"You lack imagination," said Cumberly. "Take a whisky and soda, and help me to search the flat."
"Search the flat!"
The physician raised a forefinger, forensically.
"Since you, Exel, if not actually in the building, must certainly have been within sight of the street entrance at the moment of the crime, and since Leroux and I descended the stair and met you on the landing, it is reasonable to suppose that the assassin can only be in one place: HERE!"
"HERE!" cried Exel and Leroux, together.
"Did you see anyone leave the lower hall as you entered?"
"No one; emphatically, there was no one there!"
"Then I am right."
"Good God!" whispered Exel, glancing about him, with a new, and keen apprehensiveness.
"Take your drink," concluded Cumberly, "and join me in my search."
"Thanks," replied Exel, nervously proffering a cigar-case; "but I won't drink."
"As you wish," said the doctor, who thus, in his masterful way, acted the host; "and I won't smoke. But do you light up."
"Later," muttered Exel; "later. Let us search, first."
Leroux stood up; Cumberly forced him back.
"Stay where you are, Leroux; it is elementary strategy to operate from a fixed base. This study shall be the base. Ready, Exel?"
Exel nodded, and the search commenced. Leroux sat rigidly upon the settee, his hands resting upon his knees, watching and listening. Save for the merry ticking of the table-clock, and the movements of the searchers from room to room, nothing disturbed the silence. From the table, and that which lay near to it, he kept his gaze obstinately averted.
Five or six minutes passed in this fashion, Leroux expecting each to bring a sudden outcry. He was disappointed. The searchers returned, Exel noticeably holding himself aloof and Cumberly very stern.
Exel, a cigar between his teeth, walked to the writing-table, carefully circling around the dreadful obstacle which lay in his path, to help himself to a match. As he stooped to do so, he perceived that in the closed right hand of the dead woman was a torn scrap of paper.
"Leroux! Cumberly!" he exclaimed; "come here!"
He pointed with the match as Cumberly hurriedly crossed to his side. Leroux, inert, remained where he sat, but watched with haggard eyes. Dr. Cumberly bent down and sought to detach the paper from the grip of the poor cold fingers, without tearing it. Finally he contrived to release the fragment, and, perceiving it to bear some written words, he spread it out beneath the lamp, on the table, and eagerly scanned it, lowering his massive gray head close to the writing.
He inhaled, sibilantly.
"Do you see, Exel?" he jerked--for Exel was bending over his shoulder.
"I do--but I don't understand."
"What is it?" came hollowly from Leroux.
"It is the bottom part of an unfinished note," said Cumberly, slowly. "It is written shakily in a woman's hand, and it reads:-- 'Your wife'" . . .
Leroux sprang to his feet and crossed the room in three strides.
"Wife!" he muttered. His voice seemed to be choked in his throat; "my wife! It says something about my wife?"
"It says," resumed the doctor, quietly, "'your wife.' Then there's a piece torn out, and the two words 'Mr. King.' No stop follows, and the line is evidently incomplete."
"My wife!" mumbled Leroux, staring unseeingly at the fragment of paper. "MY WIFE! MR. KING! Oh! God! I shall go mad!"
"Sit down!" snapped Dr. Cumberly, turning to him; "damn it, Leroux, you are worse than a woman!"
In a manner almost childlike, the novelist obeyed the will of the stronger man, throwing himself into an armchair, and burying his face in his hands.
"My wife!" he kept muttering--"my wife!" . . .
Exel and the doctor stood staring at one another; when suddenly, from outside the flat, came a metallic clattering, followed by a little suppressed cry. Helen Cumberly, in daintiest deshabille, appeared in the lobby, carrying, in one hand, a chafing-dish, and, in the other, the lid. As she advanced toward the study, from whence she had heard her father's voice:--
"Why, Mr. Leroux!" she cried, "I shall CERTAINLY report you to Mira, now! You have not even touched the omelette!"
"Good God! Cumberly! stop her!" muttered Exel, uneasily. "The door was not latched!" . . .
But it was too late. Even as the physician turned to intercept his daughter, she crossed the threshold of the study. She stopped short at perceiving Exel; then, with a woman's unerring intuition, divined a tragedy, and, in the instant of divination, sought for, and found, the hub of the tragic wheel.
One swift glance she cast at the fur-clad form, prostrate.
The chafing-dish fell from her hand, and the omelette rolled, a grotesque mass, upon the carpet. She swayed, dizzily, raising one hand to her brow, but had recovered herself even as Leroux sprang forward to support her.
"All right, Leroux!" cried Cumberly; "I will take her upstairs again. Wait for me, Exel."
Exel nodded, lighted his cigar, and sat down in a chair, remote from the writing-table.
"Mira--my wife!" muttered Leroux, standing, looking after Dr. Cumberly and his daughter as they crossed the lobby. "She will report to--my wife." . . .
In the outer doorway, Helen Cumberly looked back over her shoulder, and her glance met that of Leroux. Hers was a healing glance and a strengthening glance; it braced him up as nothing else could have done. He turned to Exel.
"For Heaven's sake, Exel!" he said, evenly, "give me your advice-- give me your help; I am going to 'phone for the police."
Exel looked up with an odd expression.
"I am entirely at your service, Leroux," he said. "I can quite understand how this ghastly affair has shaken you up."
"It was so sudden," said the other, plaintively. "It is incredible that so much emotion can be crowded into so short a period of a man's life." . . .
Big Ben chimed the quarter after midnight. Leroux, eyes averted, walked to the writing-table, and took up the telephone.
INSPECTOR DUNBAR TAKES CHARGE
Detective-Inspector Dunbar was admitted by Dr. Cumberly. He was a man of notable height, large-boned, and built gauntly and squarely. His clothes fitted him ill, and through them one seemed to perceive the massive scaffolding of his frame. He had gray hair retiring above a high brow, but worn long and untidily at the back; a wire- like straight-cut mustache, also streaked with gray, which served to accentuate the grimness of his mouth and slightly undershot jaw. A massive head, with tawny, leonine eyes; indeed, altogether a leonine face, and a frame indicative of tremendous nervous energy.
In the entrance lobby he stood for a moment.
"My name is Cumberly," said the doctor, glancing at the card which the Scotland Yard man had proffered. "I occupy the flat above."
"Glad to know you, Dr. Cumberly," replied the detective in a light and not unpleasant voice--and the fierce eyes momentarily grew kindly.
"This--" continued Cumberly, drawing Dunbar forward into the study, "is my friend, Leroux--Henry Leroux, whose name you will know?"
"I have not that pleasure," replied Dunbar.
"Well," added Cumberly, "he is a famous novelist, and his flat, unfortunately, has been made the scene of a crime. This is Detective-Inspector Dunbar, who has come to solve our difficulties, Leroux." He turned to where Exel stood upon the hearth-rug--toying with his monocle. "Mr. John Exel, M. P."
"Glad to know you, gentlemen," said Dunbar.
Leroux rose from the armchair in which he had been sitting and stared, drearily, at the newcomer. Exel screwed the monocle into his right eye, and likewise surveyed the detective. Cumberly, taking a tumbler from the bureau, said:--
"A scotch-and-soda, Inspector?"
"It is a suggestion," said Dunbar, "that, coming from a medical man, appeals."
Whilst the doctor poured out the whisky and squirted the soda into the glass, Inspector Dunbar, standing squarely in the middle of the room, fixed his eyes upon the still form lying in the shadow of the writing-table.
"You will have been called in, doctor," he said, taking the proffered tumbler, "at the time of the crime?"
"Exactly!" replied Cumberly. "Mr. Leroux ran up to my fiat and summoned me to see the woman."
"What time would that be?"
"Big Ben had just struck the final stroke of twelve when I came out on to the landing."
"Mr. Leroux would be waiting there for you?"
"He stood in my entrance-lobby whilst I slipped on my dressing- gown, and we came down together."
"I was entering from the street," interrupted Exel, "as they were descending from above" . . .
"You can enter from the street, sir, in a moment," said Dunbar, holding up his hand. "One witness at a time, if you please."
Exel shrugged his shoulders and turned slightly, leaning his elbow upon the mantelpiece and flicking off the ash from his cigar.
"I take it you were in bed?" questioned Dunbar, turning again to the doctor.
"I had been in bed about a quarter of an hour when I was aroused by the ringing of the door-bell. This ringing struck me as so urgent that I ran out in my pajamas, and found there Mr. Leroux, in a very disturbed state--"
"What did he say? Give his own words as nearly as you remember them."
Leroux, who had been standing, sank slowly back into the armchair, with his eyes upon Dr. Cumberly as the latter replied:--
"He said 'Cumberly! Cumberly! For God's sake, come down at once; there is a strange woman in my flat, apparently in a dying condition!'"
"What did you do?"
"I ran into my bedroom and slipped on my dressing-gown, leaving Mr. Leroux in the entrance-hall. Then, with the clock chiming the last stroke of midnight, we came out together and I closed my door behind me. There was no light on the stair; but our conversation-- Mr. Leroux was speaking in a very high-pitched voice" . . .
"What was he saying?"
"He was explaining to me how some woman, unknown to him, had interrupted his work a few minutes before by ringing his door- bell." . . .
Inspector Dunbar held up his hand.
"I won't ask you to repeat what he said, doctor; Mr. Leroux, presently, can give me his own words."
"We had descended to this floor, then," resumed Cumberly, "when Mr. Exel, entering below, called up to us, asking if anything was the matter. Leroux replied, 'Matter, Exel! There's a devil of a business! For mercy's sake, come up!'"
"Mr. Exel thereupon joined us at the door of this flat."
"Was it open?"
"Yes. Mr. Leroux had rushed up to me, leaving the door open behind him. The light was out, both in the lobby and in the study, a fact upon which I commented at the time. It was all the more curious as Mr. Leroux had left both lights on!" . . .
"Did he say so?"
"He did. The circumstances surprised him to a marked degree. We came in and I turned up the light in the lobby. Then Leroux, entering the study, turned up the light there, too. I entered next, followed by Mr. Exel--and we saw the body lying where you see it now."
"Who saw it first?"
"Mr. Leroux; he drew my attention to it, saying that he had left her lying on the chesterfield and NOT upon the floor."
"You examined her?"
"I did. She was dead, but still warm. She exhibited signs of recent illness, and of being addicted to some drug habit; probably morphine. This, beyond doubt, contributed to her death, but the direct cause was asphyxiation. She had been strangled!"
"My God!" groaned Leroux, dropping his face into his hands.
"You found marks on her throat?"
"The marks were very slight. No great pressure was required in her weak condition."
"You did not move the body?"
"Certainly not; a more complete examination must be made, of course. But I extracted a piece of torn paper from her clenched right hand."
Inspector Dunbar lowered his tufted brows.
"I'm not glad to know you did that," he said. "It should have been left."
"It was done on the spur of the moment, but without altering the position of the hand or arm. The paper lies upon the table, yonder."
Inspector Dunbar took a long drink. Thus far he had made no attempt to examine the victim. Pulling out a bulging note-case from the inside pocket of his blue serge coat, he unscrewed a fountain-pen, carefully tested the nib upon his thumb nail, and made three or four brief entries. Then, stretching out one long arm, he laid the wallet and the pen beside his glass upon the top of a bookcase, without otherwise changing his position, and glancing aside at Exel, said:--
"Now, Mr. Exel, what help can you give us?"
"I have little to add to Dr. Cumberly's account," answered Exel, offhandedly. "The whole thing seemed to me" . . .
"What it seemed," interrupted Dunbar, " does not interest Scotland Yard, Mr. Exel, and won't interest the jury."
Leroux glanced up for a moment, then set his teeth hard, so that his jaw muscles stood out prominently under the pallid skin.
"What do you want to know, then?" asked Exel.
"I will be wanting to know," said Dunbar, "where you were coming from, to-night?"
"From the House of Commons."
"You came direct?"
"I left Sir Brian Malpas at the corner of Victoria Street at four minutes to twelve by Big Ben, and walked straight home, actually entering here, from the street, as the clock was chiming the last stroke of midnight."
"Then you would have walked up the street from an easterly direction?"
"Did you meet any one or anything?"
"A taxi-cab, empty--for the hood was lowered--passed me as I turned the corner. There was no other vehicle in the street, and no person."
"You don't know from which door the cab came?"
"As I turned the corner," replied Exel, "I heard the man starting his engine, although when I actually saw the cab, it was in motion; but judging by the sound to which I refer, the cab had been stationary, if not at the door of Palace Mansions, certainly at that of the next block--St. Andrew's Mansions."
"Did you hear, or see anything else?"
"I saw nothing whatever. But just as I approached the street door, I heard a peculiar whistle, apparently proceeding from the gardens in the center of the square. I attached no importance to it at the time."
"What kind of whistle?"
"I have forgotten the actual notes, but the effect was very odd in some way."
"In what way?"
"An impression of this sort is not entirely reliable, Inspector; but it struck me as Oriental."
"Ah!" said Dunbar, and reached out the long arm for his notebook.
"Can I be of any further assistance?" said Exel, glancing at his watch.
"You had entered the hall-way and were about to enter your own flat when the voices of Dr. Cumberly and Mr. Leroux attracted your attention?"
"I actually had the key in my hand," replied Exel.
"Did you actually have the key in the lock?"
"Let me think," mused Exel, and he took out a bunch of keys and dangled them, reflectively, before his eyes. "No! I was fumbling for the right key when I heard the voices above me."
"But were you facing your door?"
"No," averred Exel, perceiving the drift of the inspector's inquiries; "I was facing the stairway the whole time, and although it was in darkness, there is a street lamp immediately outside on the pavement, and I can swear, positively, that no one descended; that there was no one in the hall nor on the stair, except Mr. Leroux and Dr. Cumberly."
"Ah!" said Dunbar again, and made further entries in his book. "I need not trouble you further, sir. Good night!"
Exel, despite his earlier attitude of boredom, now ignored this official dismissal, and, tossing the stump of his cigar into the grate, lighted a cigarette, and with both hands thrust deep in his pockets, stood leaning back against the mantlepiece. The detective turned to Leroux.
"Have a brandy-and-soda?" suggested Dr. Cumberly, his eyes turned upon the pathetic face of the novelist.
But Leroux shook his head, wearily.
"Go ahead, Inspector!" he said. "I am anxious to tell you all I know. God knows I am anxious to tell you."
A sound was heard of a key being inserted in the lock of a door.
Four pairs of curious eyes were turned toward the entrance lobby, when the door opened, and a sleek man of medium height, clean shaven, but with his hair cut low upon the cheek bones, so as to give the impression of short side-whiskers, entered in a manner at once furtive and servile.
He wore a black overcoat and a bowler hat. Reclosing the door, he turned, perceived the group in the study, and fell back as though someone had struck him a fierce blow.
Abject terror was written upon his features, and, for a moment, the idea of flight appeared to suggest itself urgently to him; but finally, he took a step forward toward the study.
"Who's this?" snapped Dunbar, without removing his leonine eyes from the newcomer.
"It is Soames," came the weary voice of Leroux.
"Where's he been?"
"I don't know. He remained out without my permission."
"He did, eh?"
Inspector Dunbar thrust forth a long finger at the shrinking form in the doorway.
"Mr. Soames," he said, "you will be going to your own room and waiting there until I ring for you."
"Yes, sir," said Soames, holding his hat in both bands, and speaking huskily. "Yes, sir: certainly, sir."
He crossed the lobby and disappeared.
"There is no other way out, is there?" inquired the detective, glancing at Dr. Cumberly.
"There is no other way," was the reply; "but surely you don't suspect" . . .
"I would suspect the Archbishop of Westminster," snapped Dunbar, "if he came in like that! Now, sir,"--he turned to Leroux--"you were alone, here, to-night?"
"Quite alone, Inspector. The truth is, I fear, that my servants take liberties in the absence of my wife."
"In the absence of your wife? Where is your wife?"
"She is in Paris."
"Is she a Frenchwoman?"
"No! oh, no! But my wife is a painter, you understand, and--er--I met her in Paris--er--. . . Must you insist upon these--domestic particulars, Inspector?"
"If Mr. Exel is anxious to turn in," replied the inspector, "after his no doubt exhausting duties at the House, and if Dr. Cumberly--"
"I have no secrets from Cumberly!" interjected Leroux. "The doctor has known me almost from boyhood, but--er--" turning to the politician--"don't you know, Exel--no offense, no offense" . . .
"My dear Leroux," responded Exel hastily, "I am the offender! Permit me to wish you all good night."
He crossed the study, and, at the door, paused and turned.
"Rely upon me, Leroux," he said, "to help in any way within my power."
He crossed the lobby, opened the outer door, and departed.
"Now, Mr. Leroux," resumed Dunbar, "about this matter of your wife's absence."
A WINDOW IS OPENED
Whilst Henry Leroux collected his thoughts, Dr. Cumberly glanced across at the writing-table where lay the fragment of paper which had been clutched in the dead woman's hand, then turned his head again toward the inspector, staring at him curiously. Since Dunbar had not yet attempted even to glance at the strange message, he wondered what had prompted the present line of inquiry.
"My wife," began Leroux, "shared a studio in Paris, at the time that I met her, with an American lady a very talented portrait painter--er--a Miss Denise Ryland. You may know her name?--but of course, you don't, no! Well, my wife is, herself, quite clever with her brush; in fact she has exhibited more than once at the Paris Salon. We agreed at--er--the time of our--of our-- engagement, that she should be free to visit her old artistic friends in Paris at any time. You understand? There was to be no let or hindrance. . . . Is this really necessary, Inspector?"
"Pray go on, Mr. Leroux."
"Well, you understand, it was a give-and-take arrangement; because I am afraid that I, myself, demand certain--sacrifices from my wife--and--er--I did not feel entitled to--interfere" . . .
"You see, Inspector," interrupted Dr. Cumberly, "they are a Bohemian pair, and Bohemians, inevitably, bore one another at times! This little arrangement was intended as a safety-valve. Whenever ennui attacked Mrs. Leroux, she was at liberty to depart for a week to her own friends in Paris, leaving Leroux to the bachelor's existence which is really his proper state; to go unshaven and unshorn, to dine upon bread and cheese and onions, to work until all hours of the morning, and generally to enjoy himself!"
"Does she usually stay long?" inquired Dunbar.
"Not more than a week, as a rule," answered Leroux.
"You must excuse me," continued the detective, "if I seem to pry into intimate matters; but on these occasions, how does Mrs. Leroux get on for money?"
"I have opened a credit for her," explained the novelist, wearily, "at the Credit Lyonnais, in Paris."
Dunbar scribbled busily in his notebook.
"Does she take her maid with her?" he jerked, suddenly.
"She has no maid at the moment," replied Leroux; "she has been without one for twelve months or more, now."
"When did you last hear from her?"
"Three days ago."
"Did you answer the letter?"
"Yes; my answer was amongst the mail which Soames took to the post, to-night."
"You said, though, if I remember rightly, that he was out without permission?"
Leroux ran his fingers through his hair.
"I meant that he should only have been absent five minutes or so; whilst he remained out for more than an hour."
Inspector Dunbar nodded, comprehendingly, tapping his teeth with the head of the fountain-pen.
"And the other servants?"
"There are only two: a cook and a maid. I released them for the evening--glad to get rid of them--wanted to work."
"They are late?"
"They take liberties, damnable liberties, because I am easy-going."
"I see," said Dunbar. "So that you were quite alone this evening, when"--he nodded in the direction of the writing-table--"your visitor came?"
"Was her arrival the first interruption?"
"No--er--not exactly. Miss Cumberly . . ."
"My daughter," explained Dr. Cumberly, knowing that Mr. Leroux, at these times, was very neglectful in regard to meals, prepared him an omelette, and brought it down in a chafing-dish."
"How long did she remain?" asked the inspector of Leroux.
"I--er--did not exactly open the door. We chatted, through--er-- through the letter-box, and she left the omelette outside on the landing."
"What time would that be?"
"It was a quarter to twelve," declared Cumberly. "I had been supping with some friends, and returned to find Helen, my daughter, engaged in preparing the omelette. I congratulated her upon the happy thought, knowing that Leroux was probably starving himself."
"I see. The omelette, though, seems to be upset here on the floor?" said the inspector.
Cumberly briefly explained how it came to be there, Leroux punctuating his friend's story with affirmative nods.
"Then the door of the flat was open all the time?" cried Dunbar.
"Yes," replied Cumberly; "but whilst Exel and I searched the other rooms--and our search was exhaustive--Mr. Leroux remained here in the study, and in full view of the lobby--as you see for yourself."
"No living thing," said Leroux, monotonously, "left this flat from the time that the three of us, Exel, Cumberly, and I, entered, up to the time that Miss Cumberly came, and, with the doctor, went out again."
"H'm!" said the inspector, making notes; "it appears so, certainly. I will ask you then, for your own account, Mr. Leroux, of the arrival of the woman in the civet furs. Pay special attention"--he pointed with his fountain-pen--"to the TIME at which the various incidents occurred."
Leroux, growing calmer as he proceeded with the strange story, complied with the inspector's request. He had practically completed his account when the door-bell rang.
"It's the servants," said Dr. Cumberly. "Soames will open the door."
But Soames did not appear.
The ringing being repeated:--
"I told him to remain in his room," said Dunbar, "until I rang for him, I remember--"
"I will open the door," said Cumberly.
"And tell the servants to stay in the kitchen," snapped Dunbar.
Dr. Cumberly opened the door, admitting the cook and housemaid.
"There has been an unfortunate accident," he said--"but not to your master; you need not be afraid. But be good enough to remain in the kitchen for the present."
Peeping in furtively as they passed, the two women crossed the lobby and went to their own quarters.
"Mr. Soames next," muttered Dunbar, and, glancing at Cumberly as he returned from the lobby:--"Will you ring for him?" he requested.
Dr. Cumberly nodded, and pressed a bell beside the mantelpiece. An interval followed, in which the inspector made notes and Cumberly stood looking at Leroux, who was beating his palms upon his knees, and staring unseeingly before him.
Cumberly rang again; and in response to the second ring, the housemaid appeared at the door.
"I rang for Soames," said Dr. Cumberly.
"He is not in, sir," answered the girl.
Inspector Dunbar started as though he had been bitten.
"What!" he cried; "not in?"
"No, sir," said the girl, with wide-open, frightened eyes.
Dunbar turned to Cumberly.
"You said there was no other way out!"
"There IS no other way, to my knowledge."
"Where's his room?"
Cumberly led the way to a room at the end of a short corridor, and Inspector Dunbar, entering, and turning up the light, glanced about the little apartment. It was a very neat servants' bedroom; with comfortable, quite simple, furniture; but the chest-of-drawers had been hastily ransacked, and the contents of a trunk--or some of its contents--lay strewn about the floor.
"He has packed his grip!" came Leroux's voice from the doorway. "It's gone!"
The window was wide open. Dunbar sprang forward and leaned out over the ledge, looking to right and left, above and below.
A sort of square courtyard was beneath, and for the convenience of tradesmen, a hand-lift was constructed outside the kitchens of the three flats comprising the house; i. e.:--Mr. Exel's, ground floor, Henry Leroux's second floor, and Dr. Cumberly's, top. It worked in a skeleton shaft which passed close to the left of Soames' window.
For an active man, this was a good enough ladder, and the inspector withdrew his head shrugging his square shoulders, irritably.
"My fault entirely!" he muttered, biting his wiry mustache. "I should have come and seen for myself if there was another way out."
Leroux, in a new flutter of excitement, now craned from the window.
"It might be possible to climb down the shaft," he cried, after a brief survey "but not if one were carrying a heavy grip, such as that which he has taken!"
"H'm!" said Dunbar. "You are a writing gentleman, I understand, and yet it does not occur to you that he could have lowered the bag on a cord, if he wanted to avoid the noise of dropping it!"
"Yes--er--of course!" muttered Leroux. "But really--but really-- oh, good God! I am bewildered! What in Heaven's name does it all mean!"
"It means trouble," replied Dunbar, grimly; "bad trouble."
They returned to the study, and Inspector Dunbar, for the first time since his arrival, walked across and examined the fragmentary message, raising his eyebrows when he discovered that it was written upon the same paper as Leroux's MSS. He glanced, too, at the pen lying on a page of "Martin Zeda" near the lamp and at the inky splash which told how hastily the pen had been dropped.
Then--his brows drawn together--he stooped to the body of the murdered woman. Partially raising the fur cloak, he suppressed a gasp of astonishment.
"Why! she only wears a silk night-dress, and a pair of suede slippers!"
He glanced back over his shoulder.
"I had noted that," said Cumberly. "The whole business is utterly extraordinary."
"Extraordinary is no word for it!" growled the inspector, pursuing his examination. . . . "Marks of pressure at the throat--yes; and generally unhealthy appearance."
"Due to the drug habit," interjected Dr. Cumberly.
"I should not like to say out of hand; possibly morphine."
"No jewelry," continued the detective, musingly; "wedding ring--not a new one. Finger nails well cared for, but recently neglected. Hair dyed to hide gray patches; dye wanted renewing. Shoes, French. Night-robe, silk; good lace; probably French, also. Faint perfume--don't know what it is--apparently proceeding from civet fur. Furs, magnificent; very costly." . . .
He slightly moved the table-lamp in order to direct its light upon the white face. The bloodless lips were parted and the detective bent, closely peering at the teeth thus revealed.
"Her teeth were oddly discolored, doctor," he said, taking out a magnifying glass and examining them closely. "They had been recently scaled, too; so that she was not in the habit of neglecting them."
Dr. Cumberly nodded.
"The drug habit, again," he said guardedly; "a proper examination will establish the full facts."
The inspector added brief notes to those already made, ere he rose from beside the body. Then:--
"You are absolutely certain," he said, deliberately, facing Leroux, "that you had never set eyes on this woman prior to her coming here, to-night?"
"I can swear it!" said Leroux.
"Good!" replied the detective, and closed his notebook with a snap. "Usual formalities will have to be gone through, but I don't think I need trouble you, gentlemen, any further, to-night."
Dr. Cumberly walked slowly upstairs to his own flat, a picture etched indelibly upon his mind, of Henry Leroux, with a face of despair, sitting below in his dining-room and listening to the ominous sounds proceeding from the study, where the police were now busily engaged. In the lobby he met his daughter Helen, who was waiting for him in a state of nervous suspense.
"Father!" she began, whilst rebuke died upon the doctor's lips-- "tell me quickly what has happened."
Perceiving that an explanation was unavoidable, Dr. Cumberly outlined the story of the night's gruesome happenings, whilst Big Ben began to chime the hour of one.
Helen, eager-eyed, and with her charming face rather pale, hung upon every word of the narrative.
"And now," concluded her father, "you must go to bed. I insist."
"But father!" cried the girl--"there is some thing" . . .
She hesitated, uneasily.
"Well, Helen, go on," said the doctor.
"I am afraid you will refuse."
"At least give me the opportunity."
"Well--in the glimpse, the half-glimpse, which I had of her, I seemed" . . .
Dr. Cumberly rested his hands upon his daughter's shoulders characteristically, looking into the troubled gray eyes.
"You don't mean," he began . . .
"I thought I recognized her!" whispered the girl.
"Good God! can it be possible?"
"I have been trying, ever since, to recall where we had met, but without result. It might mean so much" . . .
Dr. Cumberly regarded her, fixedly.
"It might mean so much to--Mr. Leroux. But I suppose you will say it is impossible?"
"It IS impossible," said Dr. Cumberly firmly; "dismiss the idea, Helen."
"But father," pleaded the girl, placing her hands over his own, "consider what is at stake" . . .
"I am anxious that you should not become involved in this morbid business."
"But you surely know me better than to expect me to faint or become hysterical, or anything silly like that! I was certainly shocked when I came down to-night, because--well, it was all so frightfully unexpected" . . .
Dr. Cumberly shook his head. Helen put her arms about his neck and raised her eyes to his.
"You have no right to refuse," she said, softly: "don't you see that?"
Dr. Cumberly frowned. Then:--
"You are right, Helen," he agreed. "I should know your pluck well enough. But if Inspector Dunbar is gone, the police may refuse to admit us" . . .
"Then let us hurry!" cried Helen. "I am afraid they will take away" . . .
Side by side they descended to Henry Leroux's flat, ringing the bell, which, an hour earlier, the lady of the civet furs had rung.
A sergeant in uniform opened the door.
"Is Detective-Inspector Dunbar here?" inquired the physician.
"Say that Dr. Cumberly wishes to speak to him. And"--as the man was about to depart--"request him not to arouse Mr. Leroux."
Almost immediately the inspector appeared, a look of surprise upon his face, which increased on perceiving the girl beside her father.
"This is my daughter, Inspector," explained Cumberly; "she is a contributor to the Planet, and to various magazines, and in this journalistic capacity, meets many people in many walks of life. She thinks she may be of use to you in preparing your case."
Dunbar bowed rather awkwardly.
"Glad to meet you, Miss Cumberly," came the inevitable formula. "Entirely at your service."
"I had an idea, Inspector," said the girl, laying her hand confidentially upon Dunbar's arm, "that I recognized, when I entered Mr. Leroux's study, tonight"--Dunbar nodded--"that I recognized--the--the victim!"
"Good!" said the inspector, rubbing his palms briskly together. His tawny eyes sparkled. "And you would wish to see her again before we take her away. Very plucky of you, Miss Cumberly! But then, you are a doctor's daughter."
They entered, and the inspector closed the door behind them.
"Don't arouse poor Leroux," whispered Cumberly to the detective. "I left him on a couch in the dining-room." . . .
"He is still there," replied Dunbar; "poor chap! It is" . . .
He met Helen's glance, and broke off shortly.
In the study two uniformed constables, and an officer in plain clothes, were apparently engaged in making an inventory--or such was the impression conveyed. The clock ticked merrily on; its ticking a desecration, where all else was hushed in deference to the grim visitor. The body of the murdered woman had been laid upon the chesterfield, and a little, dark, bearded man was conducting an elaborate examination; when, seeing the trio enter, he hastily threw the coat of civet fur over the body, and stood up, facing the intruders.
"It's all right, doctor," said the inspector; "and we shan't detain you a moment." He glanced over his shoulder. "Mr. Hilton, M. R. C. S." he said, indicating the dark man--"Dr. Cumberly and Miss Cumberly."
The divisional surgeon bowed to Helen and eagerly grasped the hand of the celebrated physician.
"I am fortunate in being able to ask your opinion," he began. . . .
Dr. Cumberly nodded shortly, and with upraised hand, cut him short.
"I shall willingly give you any assistance in my power," he said; "but my daughter has voluntarily committed herself to a rather painful ordeal, and I am anxious to get it over."
He stooped and raised the fur from the ghastly face.
Helen, her hand resting upon her father's shoulder, ventured one rapid glance and then looked away, shuddering slightly. Dr. Cumberly replaced the coat and gazed anxiously at his daughter. But Helen, with admirable courage, having closed her eyes for a moment, reopened them, and smiled at her father's anxiety. She was pale, but perfectly composed.
"Well, Miss Cumberly?" inquired the inspector, eagerly; whilst all in the room watched this slim girl in her charming deshabille, this dainty figure so utterly out of place in that scene of morbid crime.
She raised her gray eyes to the detective.
"I still believe that I have seen the face, somewhere, before. But I shall have to reflect a while--I meet so many folks, you know, in a casual way--before I can commit myself to any statement."
In the leonine eyes looking into hers gleamed the light of admiration and approval. The canny Scotsman admired this girl for her beauty, as a matter of course, for her courage, because courage was a quality standing high in his estimation, but, above all, for her admirable discretion.
"Very proper, Miss Cumberly," he said; "very proper and wise on your part. I don't wish to hurry you in any way, but"--he hesitated, glancing at the man in plain clothes, who had now resumed a careful perusal of a newspaper--"but her name doesn't happen to be Vernon--"
"Vernon!" cried the girl, her eyes lighting up at sound of the name. "Mrs. Vernon! it is! it is! She was pointed out to me at the last Arts Ball--where she appeared in a most monstrous Chinese costume--"
"Chinese?" inquired Dunbar, producing the bulky notebook.
"Yes. Oh! poor, poor soul!"
"You know nothing further about her, Miss Cumberly?"
"Nothing, Inspector. She was merely pointed out to me as one of the strangest figures in the hall. Her husband, I understand, is an art expert--"
"He WAS!" said Dunbar, closing the book sharply. "He died this afternoon; and a paragraph announcing his death appears in the newspaper which we found in the victim's fur coat!"
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