IN the doorway appeared the white cap and the imperturbable face of the nurse. Her eyebrows lifted a little, as she saw that Maltby was still with the patient, and the eyes themselves took on an expression of rather annoyed concern as she looked at the weak, old figure, wasted now by long illness, propped temporarily on a mound of pillows. Doctors' orders are strict, and what this particular doctor had said about John Denham, an hour earlier, left absolutely no doubt of the utter unwisdom of long interviews.
"Well - er -" begun the lady of authority.
Maltby arose with some alacrity.
"Yes, we're quite through," he smiled. "I'm leaving now."
"Eh?" Old Mr. Denham turned, with something of a grunt. "Not quite, Henry - not quite."
"But - " began Maltby.
"Mr. Denham, Dr. Parsons said -" put in the nurse.
"My dear - young woman, I don't care a continental what Dr. Parsons said or what any one else said!" came feebly, but positively from the bed. "I have not finished my business with Mr. Maltby!"
"I know, Mr. Denham, but if you become overtired -"
"I'll die, eh? Well, I've been told that often enough," the invalid responded acidly. "Will you please go?"
"Dr. Parsons may be in again within the hour, and -"
"Then let him come!" rasped Denham. "Miss Forbes, get out!"
With something more nearly resembling a slam than is usually heard in the sick-room the door closed. Maltby and the sick man were alone once more.
"But, my dear John," the former began, "we've covered everything. Your will has been made and witnessed, and all the other matters have been carefully attended to."
"All but one," said the weak voice. "All but one, and you know it as well as I do!"
Maltby cast a glance half of impatience, half of despair, toward the closed door, and - sat down. He stroked his short beard for a while and considered the thin, dogged face of the man on the pillows.
"I thought you - you had forgotten that insane idea," he muttered.
"Well, I hadn't, you see, and it's not insane."
"But you can't seriously mean to carry out - to ask me to carry out - such a wild and senseless and perhaps even dangerous scheme, for absolutely no reason, John?"
"See here, Henry," Denham shifted with effort, the better to watch his friend. "You've consented to be my executor and all that, and I'm heartily obliged to you for shouldering the responsibility. But when a man is standing just on the incline and looking straight down into the valley, when a man knows that he's going to land in that same valley within a matter of hours or days, isn't he to be allowed his last request?"
"My dear John!" Maltby protested.
Denham settled back, with a tired sigh.
"It may seem a bit grotesque to you, but as a matter of fact, it isn't. It is a thing which will justify my old contention - and if I want confirmation after death rather than before, whose business is it?"
Maltby, frankly without an answer, contented himself with a non-committal shrug of the shoulders.
"Mystery - the love of mystery - the attraction of mystery!" Denham pursued. "Is there any stronger attraction on earth than that?"
"I'm sure I don't know John."
"I do! There is not. Argue a man into taking a direction, and he won't go. Put a mysterious bait at the end of his journey, and he'll travel through fire and water to grasp it!"
"Possibly." Maltby, who had heard the same thing several times before, just succeeded in cutting short a yawn as Denham's head turned toward him.
"And then couple that pull of mystery with the certainty of gain, and what have you? Why, you've a combination that heats anything conceivable!"
His weary eyes began to glitter with enthusiasm, and Maltby frowned rather impatiently. Even apart from the inadvisability of exciting a man on his very last legs, the whole proposition was too absurd.
"You know the outline of the scheme," Denham proceeded. "Now for the details. Oh, I've worked it all out, down to the very last little move! Will you give me your most complete attention, Henry?"
Go over there, then - to the desk. Here is the key. Yes, that locked drawer on the right." A weak hand waved toward it. "That is it."
Maltby opened the drawer and looked into the little space.
Take out all three envelopes and bring them over here."
The prospective executor obeyed silently. There were three, one rather flat, two rather bulky. Denham smiled, broadly and triumphantly.
"They've been lying there these two years!" he exclaimed. "I did even the typewriting myself, and not a soul in the world knows about it. And you'll find how nicely she's planned, too! The flat one's for you. Read what's inside!"
Without comment, Maltby tore open the envelope and read. Minute followed minute as he went slowly through the close typewriting; they grew to quarter hours as one sheet after another was discarded. When he dropped the last, Maltby looked up at the waiting invalid with an under jaw that had almost fallen.
"Well - if you'll pardon the strength -" he said uncertainly, "I'll be damned!"
"Well worked out?" Denham asked eagerly.
"Well? Why, you must have spent weeks planning the crazy thing, John! You -"
"All in all, I worked over it at odd times for two months. Do you fully understand your part?"
"Certainly, but -"
"Then open that manila envelope and look over the contents!"
Maltby ripped the brown paper. A kaleidoscopic collection dropped into his lap. There was a red envelope and a white one, a yellow envelope and a blue one, a dark-brown envelope and a brilliant green one! He stared at them; finally, he bunched them together and said:
"Well, what in the name of all the insanities!"
"I used different colors the better to distinguish between them, of course!" Denham replied testily. They're numbered, too, one, two, three, four, five, six, but I wanted to make it absolutely certain that there would be no confusion on your part. You understand that part of the game?"
"Of course." Maltby scratched his head and smiled dubiously. "And this last thick envelope?"
"You leave as it is." He watched his friend for a little. "Well, what do you think of it all?"
"Think? Why, confound it! What would any one think of such a scheme? I think, to say the very least, that it is utter absurdity!"
Denham groaned a little and sank farther hack upon his pillows. Maltby looked at the curious pile on his knees, and seemed to gather strength for his purpose.
"In the very first place," he said firmly, "you are throwing away a really very large sum of money."
"It is mine to throw away, as you call it, if I wish, isn't it? Heaven knows I'm leaving hundreds of thousands enough to people I've hardly seen, for the simple reason that I have no near relatives! If it pleases me, why shouldn't I do it?"
"Well - I give it up, John." Maltby threw up his hands in despair. "But that's only one consideration. For another, you could never find six men, fools enough to go through with it!"
"And I say that you could! That's what you're going to demonstrate, Henry. It may take a little picking, but out of any hundred you'll be able to draw the six. And you'll find that mystery and money, running ahead, hand-in-hand and beckoning, will make it a success with every man-jack of them!"
"Particularly if they chance to be married and have families," Maltby said dryly. "Their wives and children, you know -"
"Take unmarried men, of course! Pick out bachelors, as nearly unattached as you can find them."
"Oh - um." Maltby rose and walked to the window and stared out, hands in pockets, for a considerable time. When he turned, his expression was as dubious as ever. "And have you considered," he said, "that there is a pleasant possibility of my landing in jail, should I undertake the thing?"
"You're lawyer enough to get yourself out, aren't you?"
"Doubtless, but have you also considered the risks you are putting on this unhappy sextette who are, or are not, going to justify your wretched theory?"
"I hardly think -"
"Well, can't you see that murder is very far from an impossibility, before the thing is ended?" cried Maltby excitedly. "Under the unearthly circumstances, I am very much mistaken if there wouldn't be some lively shooting, to say the least, before your nightmare drama had been played to the last curtain!"
"You don't believe -" Denham's words trailed away. For a time, he stared at the ceiling; then he seemed again to feel sure of himself and his purpose. "No, that's not so, Henry," he said. "That wouldn't happen."
"Wouldn't it, though?" Maltby sniffed slightly, and shrugged his shoulders.
"No, I'm positive that it would not I've thought over the whole thing altogether too carefully for that to occur."
"And when it was all over, what would be the use of it?"
"Those six men would find some use," Denham retorted crisply.
"Doubtless, but what would people think of you?"
"Nothing, for it would never come out; that's one of the conditions you've forgotten already. And what would it matter what people thought of me, Henry?"
"By that time," said the sick man sadly, "I shall have been a full year under ground. Save by a very few, the fact of my existence will have been forgotten. Have you any more objections to offer, Henry?"
Maltby faced him helplessly and in some subdued anger.
"No." he said simply.
"Then you will undertake the task?"
"No! I'll be hanged if I do!" he said suddenly.
"You're going to throw it over?"
"Yes, sir, I am! I'll not be connected with that crazy mess, John. It's too absurd a thing for you to ask."
In an instant he had repented of his words, for the thin old face was following him reproachfully. "Henry, I could not have believed it. We have known each other for years - ever since you were a young business man and I a middle-aged one. I've done what I could for you, at every turn -"
"Indeed you have, John. I -"
"I've done what I could everywhere and on every occasion, yet when, on my very deathbed, I ask one favor of you, you refuse flatly! And you refuse solely because you've never heard of any thing of the sort before and can't understand it! I know what I'm talking about and I'm not insane. I want to justify my own beliefs as to the powers of sheer mystery, and it's the only hobby I ever had. Yet you pile up objections and end by refusing my very last request on earth!"
Maltby bit his mustache. Then his hand went out. "John, I'll do it!"
"Senseless or not, whether it puts me behind the bars or not, whether the whole six kill or are killed or not, I'll do it!"
"Good!" The thin fingers clasped his own. "Good! Put the things in your pocket, then. That's right, all of them. Store them away somewhere for the year. Then come back to the city here, stop in a section where you're not known, if, indeed, you're well known anywhere hereabouts, and go to work!"
"Careful of that blue envelope!" Denham added solicitously, "she very nearly slipped. And do up that larger one so that it won't yellow. It'll be better to have it look as fresh as possible. There! I have your word?"
"You have my word that, whatever the outcome, I'll use every effort to put through your scheme, John."
"Then - hush! Some one's coming."
Maltby stood erect and tucked away his mass of enveloped matter. He folded the typewritten sheets which he had read and placed them carefully in another pocket. He whistled softly for a minute and wondered what on earth he had undertaken, and why.
Then the door opened again and Miss Forbes entered, behind her the big figure of the doctor.
He went to the bed and chatted in low tones for a little with Denham. Then he rose and taking Maltby's arm firmly led him out of the room. In the corridor they paused.
"Going to drop in here this evening, Mr. Maltby?"
"I may. Why?"
"Do so - and early. It will be your farewell visit."
"Yes, sir, not a doubt of it." They were in the lower hall now and the doctor, assisted by the aged butler, was puffing into his overcoat. "Not a doubt of it, sir. I'll stake my professional reputation that the poor old chap's at the end of his rope. Denham can't possibly last till dawn! Good afternoon, sir."
A Chat at the Wanderers.
ONE of the chronic beauties of the Wanderers Club is the possession of a comfortable treasury. This treasury existed before the new club-house was designed and erected, and as a consequence the Wanderers owns half a dozen cozy little smoking-rooms, each fitted in its own style, rather than one big one.
It was into the blue room then that Fayles strolled, arm in arm with Penrose, fresh from dinner farther uptown. It was into the blue room, from the restaurant side, that Dunfrey and Carr and Weldon sauntered, and the five were no more than seated when the gathering was further augmented by the leisurely arrival of one John Sellers. A general laugh went up.
"This place seems to be turning into a sort of sub-club of itself," Weldon grunted cheerfully, as he leaned toward the matches; "this evening must be the fourth in succession that the six of us have gathered here."
"And there's still one missing," said Sellers. "Where's the other man, the chap that Griggsby introduced here last week?"
"Of course. He's been hanging out here pretty regularly lately."
"And he's hanging out here still," said a light voice from the doorway. "I'm here for the evening; it's too comfortable to forsake. You'll find that I'm a hard proposition to shake!"
"Well, I don't know," said Carr lazily, "that any one is particularly anxious to shake you, Maltby, at least while your flow of genial and enlightening conversation holds out."
"Thanks!" The newcomer settled himself comfortably, found his cigar-case, and yawned. "I'll let you do the talking to-night."
"I guess not! Last night you were just opening a discussion, I believe, when Weldon and Dunfrey suddenly had to leave for some other engagement and Sellers began to yawn."
"A discussion, eh?" Weldon suddenly emerged from a delayed day-dream and gave attention. "What was it about?"
"Spooks, I think," said Carr.
"Hardly," smiled Maltby. "I don't believe in them."
"It was mystery or something of the sort," observed Sellers. "Maltby began a peroration, and when Weldon and Dunfrey cleared out he decided to quit."
"It wasn't altogether that, you know." Maltby blew a cloud of smoke toward the ceiling and smiled again. "Perhaps that mention of mystery was a slip of the tongue."
"Oh, it's a subject that has always interested me a good deal, and sometimes, without any particular reason, I begin to spout about it."
"And I suppose you have views?" Sellers put in, with his cynical smile.
Maltby's eyes contained just the hint of a frown at the implied sneer, and Sellers, in the interest of peace and comfort, hastened to smile broadly.
"Perhaps I have," said the former.
"Hand them out, then," Weldon commanded.
"Well, they're not extremely definite or interesting and I'm not at all sure that they are not borrowed, but I believe, most strongly, that mystery, or the attraction of mystery, will pull a man more strongly than the love of money even."
"Meaning that a man will go to greater lengths to gratify curiosity, if the mystery be deep enough, than he would for any other reason."
"Oh, fudge!" Sellers put in wearily.
"I don't believe there's any 'fudge' about it!" Weldon remarked, with a good deal of animation. "I believe Maltby's right. The love of mystery does exist and exist mighty strongly in nine-tenths of the human race! It may be latent and it may take circumstances to develop, but it's there!"
"Not so's you'd notice it, though, Weldon."
"Yes, so that you'd notice it pretty clearly, given the right conditions."
"And just what are they?"
Weldon, having dropped thoughtlessly into the argument, stared at the ceiling for some time. Maltby came to his rescue.
"Well, the right conditions would simply be a degree of mystery sufficient to rouse the insatiable curiosity that lies somewhere in the human make-up. Some men might go wild over a ten-cent puzzle, until they'd solved it. Others might not quicken unless they were confronted with the mysterious disappearance of at least a billion dollars in gold It's all a question of degree."
"And novelty," Weldon put in hastily.
"Eh?" Sellers looked quizzically through his gold glasses.
"The novelty of the mystery would certainly count for a great deal," mused Maltby. "That's true enough, too. Even an unsolved mystery would naturally rather lose its attraction in time."
"Witness the pyramids," advanced Dunfrey amiably. "Nobody, so far, can show just how they were whacked together, yet even Maltby isn't lying awake nights over it."
"No, I can't say that he is," smiled that gentleman. "Still, even that mystery keeps a few people perennially stirred up, old as it is. Oh, novelty, of course, is a big factor. Still, I don't know."
"Don't know what?" Fayles inquired.
"Well, there are a good many minor mysteries which seem to have what the advertising men call pulling power, despite the fact that they have been doing business for some time."
"And you have one of them in mind?"
Maltby laughed outright.
"I must say, Mr. Fayles, that in that case I did have a specific case to cite, in event of one of the skeptics cornering me!"
"And that is?"
"Oh, a tale of tommyrot, pure and simple, I suppose." Maltby settled farther back, and yawned with what appeared to be genuine sleepiness.
There was a little pause. Weldon picked up a paper and dropped it again and looked inquiringly at Maltby. Carr and Fayles chatted for a minute, and then their gaze returned to Maltby's comfortable comer. Sellers, smiling doubtfully, waited in silence, and Penrose and Dunfrey followed suit.
But the other's mind seemed to have passed altogether from the subject. He studied the frescoes on the ceiling with absent eyes, and after a long wait remarked: "Now, if the fellow who painted those cupids in the farther corner had -"
"Hang the cupids!" said Carr. "Give us the story!"
"The story of the mystery that wouldn't wear off, you know."
"Oh ..." Maltby hitched himself a little farther toward the upright and considered his cigar. "That's - that's hardly worth going into, you know."
"Having heard several of your yarns, I'll gamble that it is," Carr persisted. "Go on, there's no dodging it."
"This isn't altogether a yarn, Mr. Carr."
"No? So much the better. Lies enough are spun in this club every evening. Let's have facts for once."
"Oh, pshaw!" Maltby smiled deprecatingly. "Why, probably every one of you gentlemen knows about the matter."
"Well, what is the matter? " Weldon cried, in some exasperation. "Come Maltby! Let's have it!"
A little clamor arose. Maltby held up a hand in mock terror, and the company quieted. "The thrilling tale," he said dryly, "is simply that of the House of Suspicion!"
"Good name!" Dunfrey nodded approval. "That sounds like a good beginning. What is the House of Suspicion?"
"Well, from what I've seen of it, it's a remarkably fine piece of semi-suburban property that has been utterly queered by a number of weird tales."
"Located around here?"
"Just outside the populous section uptown just in sight of green fields on one hand and elevated railroads on the other."
"Surrounded by weeping willows in which the ghosts play spook-tag and disembodied leap-frog every night at twelve? " Sellers suggested.
"That's not impossible, if all the stories connected with it are true," laughed Maltby. "However, the place hasn't become a resort for ghost-catchers as yet, I think."
He drew a long puff of smoke and exhaled it before continuing.
"Now, that place might better be cited as an example of the baneful effects of mystery," he pursued. "It's a beautiful dwelling, to judge from the outside at any rate. It stands away back in big grounds which are wholly surrounded by a twelve-foot wall of granite blocks!"
"Formerly, they say, it was occupied by an elderly and unattached person named - well, I'm blest if I recall his name! However, he did live there, and alone, and a year or so back, at the end of a long illness, he died."
"Ha! That's where the ghost comes in!"
"Dry up, Sellers!" Weldon suggested impatiently.
"According to the neighbors," Maltby went on, "the place was closed and the few servants dismissed immediately after the funeral. The only person on the place, they say, is an old chap, who lives in the little lodge down by the main, and indeed the only, gate. He's there all the time, I've heard."
"And nobody is about to lay claim to the place?"
"Oh, I believe that the property is in the hands of a real-estate firm in the neighborhood, and that nominally it's for rent. Prospective takers seem to be few, however."
"Why?" Weldon was leaning forward rather intently.
"For one thing, the rent they are asking is twenty thousand dollars annually, Mr. Weldon!"
"What!" cried three voices at once.
"What on earth is it?" asked Dunfrey. "A palace?"
"No, only a good, comfortable, twenty-room stone house."
"Then why the fancy price?"
"Well, that constitutes mystery number one," said Maltby. "I don't mind confessing that that very fact roused my own curiosity sufficiently to send me to the real-estate agent on the pretext of renting the property."
"And the report was true?"
"Perfectly. The agent, Benderson I think his name was, treated me in the nicest way and stated simply that the rental was twenty thousand and that nothing less could be considered. I asked him why, and he smiled and said that those were the orders of the executor and that he had no power to deviate from them in the slightest degree!"
"All of which solves mystery the first," laughed Dunfrey. The executor is in line for the lunatic asylum."
"I don't know," Maltby stroked his short beard. "It may be that, it may be too, that for some other reason they do not desire to have the place occupied, you know. At all events, I wanted to go deeper into the subject. I asked him to let me see the place, and he said that, owing to the peculiar and perhaps unfortunate orders under which he was obliged to work, it would be impossible. It was not even to be shown to any one who had not leased it and paid the first month's rent.
"Pish!" murmured Sellers. "Is that to be taken as a fact?"
"The man is still doing business up there," said Maltby mildly. " On Calford Street, I believe. He's easily found; you might ask him, Mr. Sellers. Well, I was more and more puzzled, and I began to ask him about some of the weird tales I'd heard about the house; I told him that the neighbors called it the House of Suspicion, which is the fact. He froze in an instant; then he turned red-hot and offered, if I would produce the originator of one of those stories, to pay a thousand dollars for his conviction in a lawsuit."
"And the tales, what are they?" Weldon asked.
"Oh, there is no end to them," Maltby answered. They're like the sands of the sea in that part of the suburbs. Very likely, I haven't heard half of them, I haven't made a life-study of the matter, you know. One deals with counterfeiters. They say that early certain mornings any one high enough to look over the wall can see lights come and go in the upper stories. Some of the more imaginative ones, I suppose, have added the details of smoke rising in great white volumes and spurts of flame coming from the big chimneys."
"And the stories haven't been investigated?"
"I presume that they have, but I don't know, as a matter of fact. Certainly no criminals have been caught there, or we should have heard of it in the papers before now."
"Are there more rumors?"
"Dozens. There's the conventional ghost-story, of course; no neighborhood could dispense with that. They tell about shadowy white figures which flit along the top of the wall and groan in the approved fashion. They even tell about the ghost of the past owner which strides through the solid oak gate after midnight, walks up and down in the grounds, and then flits away again. That, though, would be almost a necessity with any unoccupied house, walled in as that is."
"Any more?" Sellers smiled over his glasses.
That smile seemed to irritate the not altogether willing narrator. He was silent for a moment; he seemed to be overcoming a little hesitation.
"Well, I'd be the last man, under ordinary circumstances, to say a word that would hurt the value of property," he smiled, " but there is one story that almost seems to have some foundation. It is, if anything, a little more weird and improbable than the rest, yet three people whose names I am not at liberty to mention, have assured me that, to their positive knowledge, people have entered that main gateway without knocking. And they've never returned!"
"What?" The doubter laughed outright. "Oh, that's worse and more of it!"
"It certainly seems be, doesn't it? Nevertheless, each of these men, seen by chance at separate times, assured me that some person known to him had entered there, for what reason I don't know, and that not one of them had emerged from the gate!"
"And do you take any stock in that, Maltby?" Weldon asked.
"I? I'm not prepared to say that I do or don't. Indeed, at the risk of arousing Mr. Sellers, I must confess that one rather curious thing occurred to me before those very gates."
Weldon took the next chair to him. The others, as if by common consent, moved closer, and Maltby faced a circle of rather eager faces.
"It's nothing of such tremendous portent," he laughed. "I had considerable business in that neighborhood a month ago, which explains why I took the interest in the house. One evening, after hearing the third story about the pedestrian who went in and never came out, sheer curiosity took me along past the House of Suspicion a little after ten. It was an extremely dark evening, and the gates were not any too well illuminated by a street-lamp, a good three hundred feet away, shining faintly through the trees which line the walk. Well, I reached the gates and stood there for a little and thought what an infernal fool I'd been to walk six long blocks for such a purpose. Then just as I was about to turn away, there was a soft creak. One of the gates opened and opened wide. Inside, there wasn't a thing to be seen but the hint of a broad driveway leading up to the dark house!"
Maltby drew a long breath. "And no one in sight to open the gate?" came from Weldon.
"Not a soul!"
"What did you do?" Weldon asked.
"To be perfectly candid and truthful," said Maltby, " I ran like all possessed. I simply gathered up my skirts and went down that street like a streak of well lubricated lightning! Pretty soon I reached the corner and pulled up. An acquaintance of mine was passing, by the merest chance, and I asked him to walk back with me. We stopped at the gate and it never opened, nor was there a sound. Indeed, we waited there for a full five minutes and even knocked.
"At the farther corner we parted, and my friend walked back. I met him next morning. He said that when he paused alone before the gate the infernal thing had opened! And that substantiated the other rumor!"
"That the mysterious gate will open only to a single person!" Maltby crossed his legs and dreamed a little over his cigar. The others wore varied expressions, incredulity, speculation, slight amusement, but in every face keen interest was plain.
"Is that the end of the story?" Dunfrey asked finally.
"So far as I am concerned, yes. I haven't been back since."
Sellers stretched his arms and chuckled. "Maltby, when Ananias and the late Baron Munchausen get track of you, they'll make you honorary president of their own particular club. That tale's rich!"
"Don't believe it, eh?"
"My dear fellow, I'm frank to say that I don't believe the House of Suspicion exists!"
Maltby faced him with a somewhat annoyed frown.
"All right. Then go and see it! Ask the neighbors! Try to rent the place!"
"Address, please?" Sellers remarked mockingly.
"The house, to the best of my recollection, is on Shoreley Avenue between Holly and Calford Streets! You couldn't miss it to save your life."
"That calls you, all right!" Carr laughed. "Going up, Sellers?"
A chorus of laughter arose at the doubter's emphasis. The clock struck ten.
At the Gates of the House.
THE sound of the cathedral gong died away. Maltby, dropping his cigar, yawned energetically. The little group shifted and began to move about. Weldon, Carr, and Penrose were chatting about the peculiar recital with more or less animation. Fayles, away from the subject for a moment, was looking over some notes he had taken from his pocket. Sellers and Dunfrey, recalling a previous intention, strolled away toward the billiard-room.
Maltby arose. "Well, gentlemen, I believe I'll make for home."
" Yes, I've done a big day's work to-day."
"You'll be on hand to-morrow night?"
"Very likely. I may be called out of town, though."
"We can't allow it!" laughed Weldon. "We want further particulars about your House of Suspicion!"
"I don't know that there are any further particulars," Maltby smiled. That is the whole tale."
"And you really believe it yourself?" Carr inquired earnestly.
Maltby, hands in pockets, stared thoughtfully at the floor.
"I don't know, quite. As I said, mystery has always had a very strong attraction for me, as I believe it has for most men. Of course, there is the likelihood that much that has been said about the place is poppycock. That can be assumed readily enough. Still -"
He broke off and pursed his lips.
"Still, some of the circumstances are peculiar, you'll admit. There is that crazy rental for one thing. I can't get it out of my head that that is significant of something. Frankly, if I had the time and the energy, I believe I'd go to work and try to fathom that mystery."
"But that certainly isn't a marker to your own adventure at the gate," Weldon advanced. "Maltby!" he said suddenly, "was that an actual fact? You didn't work it up to bother our cynical friend, Sellers?"
"I certainly did not," said the visitor seriously. It's the truth, absolutely. As I stood there in the darkness, or the semi-darkness, the confounded old oaken affair simply swung inward and I was free to walk up the drive if I chose."
"But you didn't choose?"
"Having understood, on pretty reliable authority, that three persons had walked in and dropped off the earth thereafter, I didn't choose," said Maltby dryly. "That House of Suspicion, at the most, occupies a small block. The rest of the world is outside, and I've always managed to dig a reasonable amount of fun out of it!"
"All the same," said Weldon thoughtfully, "I believe I should have walked in! There's something in that theory of yours about the attraction of mystery!"
"I hardly think you'd have walked in," Maltby muttered. "Here, in this nice warm club, you might think you would. Up there, particularly at this time of year with the trees bare and a cool, suburban wind blowing, well, it might take on a different aspect."
"I'd have walked in!" Weldon persisted doggedly.
"Possibly," Maltby yawned again. "Well, I'm off. Good night."
He nodded and sauntered off toward the corridor. After a little hesitation, Weldon went after him. "Hold on, Maltby!" he said softly.
"What was the address of that place?"
"Why, it's up on Shoreley Avenue, a couple of blocks from the cars," the visitor said. "Why? You're not going up?"
"No. I -" two or three men came between them. "Well, good night, Maltby!"
Weldon returned slowly and thoughtfully to the smoking-room. Carr was alone there now, glancing through one of the evening papers. He looked up with a smile as Weldon appeared.
"Entertaining sort of cuss - that Maltby, isn't he?"
"Very much so," smiled Weldon. "Going to stay here?"
"There is no particular reason why I should."
"Come along with me then."
"You're going home?"
"Yes." The word came after a little pause.
Carr rose lazily and the two men found their hats and overcoats and went slowly into the street. "Going to walk?" Carr asked.
"Not this time. We'll ride."
They went on, chatting aimlessly, to the corner. A car approached and passed with Weldon still standing absently on the curb. Carr looked at him curiously. Wasn't that yours?"
"Well -" Weldon regarded him oddly. "I guess we'll cross and take one going the other way."
"I've got a little business uptown. You don't mind coming along?"
"Not at all, but -"
There's ours, then!"
Weldon hurried across in front of the approaching car and his companion came after. Together they stepped aboard, and finding seats Carr looked at him inquiringly. "Where the dickens are we going on this line, Weldon?"
"Doubtless, but where?"
Weldon tapped the floor with his cane for a little, then he turned to the other with something of a grin. "About to Shoreley Avenue, I fancy."
"My dear boy, I'm going to take you into that confounded House of Suspicion that Maltby was telling about!"
"What!" Carr laughed shortly. "You don't take stock enough in that tale to make such a tremendous journey?"
"If I must confess it, I do!" replied Weldon. "That yarn has made me so infernally curious that - that -"
"That you're going to work to justify Maltby's theory of the attraction of mystery!"
"Well, perhaps I am."
"But what's the sense of it? Here it is getting on to eleven o'clock at night; each of us has a business day ahead to-morrow and plenty demand for all the freshness and energy we can bring to it, and yet you're set on taking a three-quarter-hour ride for - well, for what?"
"Just to see if those remarkable gates will open!" said Weldon, with some defiance.
"Which they won't!"
"If they don't, the joke's on me, that's all. There isn't any real necessity of your coming, anyway, if you're disinclined."
"Well, I - I -" Carr broke off and laughed outright. "There! I may as well own up. I suppose I'm as curious as you are, if it comes to that, but it seems so devilish absurd to be taking the trip at this hour, and - and all that!"
"It'll be the ideal hour for spooks and mystery, if there are any doing business," chuckled Weldon.
Conversation lagged after that. Each man was, in a way, absorbed with the tale and the prospect ahead, Weldon probably more than his companion. To the latter the whole thing seemed rather foolish and unnecessary, and more than once he regretted that he had not alighted farther down-town and allowed Weldon to proceed alone. Still, if there was anything in Maltby's weird tale - Weldon might get into difficulties where a companion would be of assistance. If it were the incredible fact that people entered the gates never to return, there was indubitable evidence of crooked work; if there was crooked work about it, it were better not to approach the house alone.
Almost before either realized it the car whizzed past Shoreley Avenue. They arose hurriedly and stepped off, half a block beyond their destination. As Maltby had said, the neighborhood was dark and lonely. Typically suburban, the houses stood well apart, some with really spacious grounds around them. The curbs were lined with fairly well grown trees, The roads were little more than dirt, and the street-lamps appeared only at long intervals, bespeaking a commendable economy on the part of the lighting authorities but making progress afoot more or less guesswork. The short space back to Shoreley Avenue showed only silent houses, with a lighted window here and there in the upper stories. Turning into the broader thoroughfare, the vista was repeated, except that the dwellings were perhaps rather larger and more pretentious.
"Well, the streets aren't crowded, at any rate!" Weldon observed dryly.
"They hardly seem to be, do they? Carr picked his way gingerly along. "I wonder where our particular spot is located?"
"A block or two ahead, I imagine. Holly Street lies this way, unless I'm a good deal mistaken."
Carr plodded on behind him. The first square was behind and the second being traversed, when Weldon brought up suddenly.
"Well, if that's not the county jail, it's the place we're looking for!" he cried.
Just across the street a high wall met their eyes. It was no mere garden wall the structure was one of heavy granite work, high and solid beyond all reason. They paused for a minute and surveyed it, and finally Weldon laughed a little.
"Well, the chap who erected that meant business, didn't he!" he remarked softly. "I suppose it would take a heavy field battery to make an impression on it!"
"Not only that, but the outside stone's smooth, too. Nothing short of a twelve or fourteen foot ladder would ever take a man over it."
"So much for Maltby's yarn, then," laughed Weldon. "He's vindicated. Now for the trick gate!"
They crossed to the wall, built straight up at the stoop line, and looked at it again. Carr's eyes, traveling along its length, settled finally upon the gate.
"So that's where people do their vanishing act!" he chuckled. "Come on, Weldon. Let's vanish or go home!"
Briskly and not without a little suppressed excitement, they walked down the deserted thoroughfare. They came to the gate and looked curiously at it in the very poor light. High as the wall itself, built evidently more for strength than for ornamentation, the entrance was constructed of heavy, solid oak, secured with thin bars of iron. A private residence might lie beyond it, but the thing indicated more nearly the approach to a jail.
"Solid and substantial!" chuckled Carr.
"Decidedly, but why doesn't it open?" Weldon inquired. "According to Maltby's tale, the thing ought to emit a low and ghastly creak and swing back for us."
"That was only for one person, you know."
"And can you tell how the spirit of the place can peep through and know that more than one is here?"
"Perhaps he's listening to the conversation," Carr suggested facetiously. "Any spook capable of moving that thing must be wise enough for that."
"Well, I guess he is, then." Weldon waited expectantly for another minute or two, "Things certainly seem rather slow in the ghastly creaking line, don't they?"
They waited again and they waited in vain. Grim and silent, the gate remained closed. Weldon stepped forward at last. "Here goes for a bold bid!" he laughed. "I'm going to shake up that knocker and see what happens."
His hand seized the heavy bronze affair and pounded forcefully against the bronze plate set in the panels. Nothing whatever occurred. One minute passed and then another, until five were gone. No sound issued from within the gates. Weldon went closer and pressed his ear against the oak, and Carr joined him presently. Save for the gentle rustle of trees overhead and the low, distant humming of a late trolley-car, the place was as silent as the Desert of Sahara.
The more enthusiastic of the investigators straightened up with a disgusted grunt. "Fake!" he said tersely.
Carr's chuckle came, softly but distinctly through the hush. "I'm inclined to think myself that we're the victims of a little too much credulity, Weldon. About this time, it is not impossible that Mr. Maltby may be laughing himself into slumber."
"Well -" Weldon snapped his fingers. "Come home, then."
As his enthusiasm had been greater than Carr's, so was his annoyance at the utter fiasco. The latter trudged after him, half amused, half exasperated at the flat termination of the adventure.
As far as the corner they went in silence, and there Weldon paused, undecided. "Carr," he said, "do you know that I can't altogether make up my mind that Maltby was - well, simply stringing us."
"Haven't had evidence enough yet, eh?"
"I suppose I should have, but - look here! I'm going back to that gate alone!"
"I suppose it is, but I'm going to do it. Having journeyed to this outlandish spot at this hour, I'm going to dig out the adventure, if there's any to be had."
"You won't get in."
"I suppose not, but I'm going to do it for my own personal satisfaction, and if something lively doesn't turn up this time, Heaven help Maltby when I get hold of him!"
Carr drew out his watch and glanced at it. "Get busy, then!" he said briefly. "It's near midnight."
"I'm going." Weldon hesitated for a moment. "Er - I say."
"There's just a chance in a thousand, I presume, that I may gain admittance there."
"Less than that."
"If I do - well, go on home if you like, or wait about an hour or so for me. Or, better still, come in after me."
"Certainly," laughed Carr.
"And if anything - anything should turn up to keep me in there - it won't, of course, but if it should, just keep your own counsel, Carr. Say nothing at all about it and come after me to-morrow night, if you haven't heard from me. Will you promise that?"
"Yes, yes, yes, with the greatest pleasure in the world." Carr fumbled for his cigar-case and yawned. "Now, hustle! I'll wait here. And remember," he added, "that we both need sleep to-night. Get this spook notion off your mind and hurry back."
With more than a little impatience he hurriedly wrung Weldon's hand, thrust forth just then, and searched for his match-box. Weldon turned back, walking quickly. The distance to the gate, hardly more than two hundred feet, was covered in a few seconds. As he found his matches, Carr could see, by the light at the other end of the block, the silhouette of his companion standing before the gate. He grunted and lighted his cigar.
Then, the little flame dying away, he listened.
Vaguely, uncertainly, it seemed to him that he heard a dull thud. It must be, of course, imagination, but somehow the sound suggested the closing of a heavy gate. With the glare of the match before his eyes, he could hardly determine Weldon's exact location. Slowly, he strolled down toward the gate. Weldon, at any rate, must have decided by now that admission to the House of Suspicion was not for him.
But as he neared the spot the impression grew stronger and stronger that Weldon was nowhere about. He could see clearly the whole stretch of the block. Save for himself, it was utterly deserted, unless Weldon had gone mad and elected to hide behind trees. It was all utter rot, of course, and still - Carr had halted before the silent gate. A little fall of snow had whitened the ground during the evening. Carr, suddenly interested, studied it. Before the left half of the gate he saw clearly his own footprints and Weldon's. To the right, as he recalled now, they had not marred the soft surface.
But now - why, a straight line of footprints were pointing toward that right half, and, more significant than all else, one-half of the last mark was concealed by the gate! Carr seized the knocker and pounded hard. He listened. All was as silent as before. He raised his voice and called Weldon's name. There was no answer. He shouted and pounded simultaneously - and without response. Weldon, beyond question, had entered the gates of the House of Suspicion, and had grown suddenly deaf to the pounding and the shouting and all else!"
The House of Suspicion.
WALKING again down the block, having turned his back upon Carr, a rather lively collection of thoughts ran through Weldon's head. Primarily, he felt something very nearly akin to anger. He suspected that he might have made a fool of himself. In all probability, despite his expressed disbelief, Maltby might have been merely amusing himself and the others with the weird tale of the House of Suspicion and its uncanny gateway, big enough to accommodate a truck, yet opening only to one person at a time.
And if that should happen to be the case, well, he was thoroughly acquainted with Mr. Carr! For not less than one month that gentleman would divert himself and the rest of the Wanderers Club with a gaily embroidered account of the advance upon the House of Suspicion, painting Weldon as the indomitable investigator, pounding fearlessly upon the heavy gate! Passing, too, to more immediate considerations, it was cold and late and they were a long way from home. At best, neither could roll into bed now before one o'clock, and if the suburban cars maintained their usual midnight schedule, two would be more probable.
However, he had started the adventure; now he might as well carry it through to whatever conclusion. Later on, he would take his medicine like a man and wait patiently for a chance to return the compliment to Mr. Maltby! Thinking thus, he reached the gate.
He stared at it almost reproachfully. Certainly, a piece of work like that looked fit for any sort of mysterious doings. Why, the thing was heavy enough to have been brought from a feudal castle. Had it been a little lighter in construction, Weldon, in his present mood, would have been almost inclined to try kicking it in or climbing over it! Perhaps ten seconds of consideration, and he was still wavering between knocking once more or admitting the defeat of his foolish project. He decided, however, upon a final try. His hand reached up, his fingers were upon the knocker - and Weldon started back with a little gasp. Not that side of the gate but the other was moving! For an instant, it seemed to stick; then with a little creak it swung slowly inward!
Before him, shrouded in shadow, lay a broad driveway, apparently of asphalt. At the end, against the sky, he made out the massive outlines of the house itself. A faint light shone here and there in the windows; except for that the place was only a huge, pitch-black mass. But he was not allowed great time for analysis. Out of the darkness came a thin, old voice:
"Er - who -"
"Will you enter?"
The gate began to swing back, gradually, into place. It was too much for the man without. What little fear he had felt at the first startling opening of the way was now more than overbalanced by a gnawing curiosity.
"By George! Yes," he cried softly.
Two strides and he had passed through. The gate returned to its original position. Quite alone, Mr. Weldon had penetrated the House of Suspicion! A sudden sense of solitude, of helplessness, came over him. He wished most heartily that Carr was at his side. He felt an indefinite but rather keen regret that he had ever undertaken the absurd feat.
But as he turned to find the owner of the voice he knew some relief. Surely the danger was slight from the custodian of the mysterious gates, a bent, aged man, small of frame and somewhat feeble of aspect. Weldon gathered his senses for speech. His thoughts were interrupted by an abrupt command:
"This way, sir!"
"But where -"
"To the house, sir. Come quickly."
Weldon found himself being led rapidly up the path, a thin hand upon his arm. Almost at a run, so swiftly went the tottering footsteps of his guide, he was approaching the broad entrance of the house itself. His curiosity arose once more, overwhelming all other considerations. What manner of place was it? What sort of insanity had given birth to this situation. A solitary man had approached the gates, they had opened, now the man was being led, evidently with definite purpose, toward the empty, mysterious dwelling.
"I say -" he began again.
"Silence, sir, please."
Weldon shrugged his shoulders. From the street behind the knocker set up a sudden clatter. He stopped short. Carr's voice followed, after a brief pause. Then came the clamor of the bronze and the shout together.
"Look here, old gentleman!" Weldon said abruptly. There is a friend of mine out there who -"
"But one may enter here, sir."
"That's all right, but how the deuce do I know -"
"You are at perfect liberty to return now, if you wish. You can never come here thereafter."
Weldon stared at him in the faint light. The old man's face was expressionless as marble. He faced Weldon apparently without the slightest emotion. Whatever his role in the odd play, it could never be read in his countenance. The visitor was fairly staggered. There seemed to be no desire to detain him against his will, yet, if he left, he was assured that he would not return. He hesitated for an instant only. Then:
"Lead on, Macduff!" he said, with a faint attempt at joviality. I don't know where the devil you're leading, but lead on, anyway!"
The old man bowed and started again toward the house, and Weldon kept at his side with an eagerness he made no attempt to deny or to conceal.
Nor did they pause at the foot of the wide half-dozen steps that lay before the main doorway. Upward went the hobbling steps of the old man and after came the investigator.
Contrary perhaps to his expectations, the door did not fly open of itself. The keeper of the gates laid a hand upon the knob and swung the portal back. Weldon walked in and looked around eagerly. There was absolutely nothing unusual, at least on a superficial examination. He stood within a broad, well-furnished corridor, lighted dimly here and there by an incandescent lamp. To his right he saw a comfortable-looking reception-room, finished beautifully in some dark wood and hung with pictures which even his inexperienced eye perceived to be splendid art. To the left a perfect drawing-room lay, a surpassing creation in white and gold and lighter tones. Instinctively, he stepped to the doorway for a closer inspection; the hand rested again on his arm and the old voice said, this time with a touch of impatience:
"Not there, sir."
Weldon followed him briskly as he led the way into the reception-room. Unhesitatingly, the man walked to the table in the center. Its top was quite bare, save for a single square of white in the center. Coming closer, Weldon perceived it to be an envelope, and at the same time the thing was indicated by the thin, shaking finger of his guide.
He turned abruptly and shuffled toward the door. Weldon, staring with amazement, called after: "Say! Hold on! Where are you going?"
"I must leave you alone, sir."
The old hand went up again, as if commanding silence and stifling argument. The figure of the guide disappeared down the corridor and an instant later Weldon heard the big outer door close softly.
To the best of his knowledge, he was quite alone in the reception-room of the House of Suspicion! He looked around curiously.
"Well, of all the crazy freaks - and existing right at the borders of one of the biggest cities in the world - phew!" he murmured disjointedly.
Then his gaze settled upon the envelope. He bent over the thick thing and squinted at it. "'The outer envelope to be opened; the inner to be left intact!'" he read. "'The outer -' well, what the dickens does that mean?"
After a minute, though, he raised the thing and weighted it in his hand. It was extremely thick and rather heavy. His forehead contracted as be regarded it. Was there some deep motive for all this? Was it a game of some sort? Or was it only the madness of the old man who had left it here? What was it, anyway? However, if there was anything to be learned, it must he learned by opening the envelope.
Hastily, Weldon tore the paper and dumped the contents upon the table. He saw merely another envelope, slightly smaller and hearing a similar inscription, and beside it lay a sheet of paper. The latter he picked up eagerly, and for two or three minutes pored over the half-dozen typewritten lines.
"Humph! More enigmas, eh?" His hand dropped to his side, and Weldon stared somewhat absently at the table. "'The Satsuma vase, in the southeast corner of the drawing-room!'" He shoved the paper into his pocket and laughed shortly. "All right! The Lord hates a quitter! We'll interview the Satsuma!"
He stepped across the corridor and into the elegance of the drawing-room. For a moment he took his bearings, then having located mentally the southeast corner, nodded briskly and crossed the room. It was a marvelously fine piece of work which met his eyes. He studied it with involuntary admiration for a while, then tilted it and looked into the broad mouth.
"And, by thunder! It's there!" he cried aloud.
One eager arm dove down and felt around for a second or two. Then the hand came forth again and in it was clutched a green envelope. On one corner the number "one" greeted him, boldly inscribed in black. Otherwise there was no mark upon the thing.
"Well, of all the eternal blamed nonsense -" Weldon began, as he stared at it. However - here goes -"
He perched upon a gilt chair and ran a finger under the pasted flap. His fingers closed upon a folded sheet of paper and something else and drew them out. The something else puzzled him for a moment. It was folded within the letter-page and made a little ridge there. He shook it out quickly, and upon his knees dropped a crisp, fresh one-hundred-dollar gold certificate!
"Hey!" he cried amazedly. "That - that -"
He straightened it out. A soft whistle ended his inspection.
"Well, it's genuine! " he announced to the empty room. "It's as good as the gold it represents, or my three years in the bank were wasted. By Jimmy!"
He burst out laughing and the laugh echoed queerly in the stillness of the deserted house. "I'm glad I dropped in here!"
Without further ado, he placed the bill carefully within his wallet and nodded again with much satisfaction. "Now this is taking on a tinge of real human interest!" he chuckled, as he opened the sheet.
It was typewritten, and the lines were very close together. Evidently, the writer had had much to say; evidently, too, he had had some time in which to say it, whoever he was, and wherever he might have written the letter, for the first few lines showed most excellent grammar and a construction of the clearest and most simple sort. Reading now, Weldon's frown returned. He was, at first, distinctly puzzled. A little later, an observer might have seen the expression change to wonder as he bent eagerly to read more carefully.
Then as he laid it aside and stared blankly at the opposite wall, a look of sheer bewilderment came over his face. "Well - what - what in the name of common sense does it mean! " he gasped.
Seconds grew into minutes. Weldon stroked his beard and muttered incoherently for a time. Finally, though, he arose with an impatient snap of the fingers. "Bosh! It's - it's tommyrot! It's tommyrot, pure and simple! It's the driveling of some idiot!"
Then his face grew puzzled again. "Still, that bill's genuine, that's absolutely certain. And the letter says - um!"
He rose, walked into the corridor, looked around. The place was as blank of helpful suggestion as his own brain. He crossed once more to the reception-room. "Of all the crazy problems a man was ever sent up against, this goes the limit and a little to spare! " he confided to the table. "I've got the hundred, I've got the option of walking out of that door with it, never to return. Or, if I choose, I may go on, into - what?"
He scowled at the floor. "That's just it - what? I know what I've got now, but I don't know what I'm going to get, if I obey this infernal puzzle's orders. Why, there's no telling that it isn't -"
He broke off again and took to walking up and down. Once only he stopped under a lamp in a corner and looked again at the one-hundred-dollar note, reposing alluringly in his wallet. The sight seemed somehow to aid him to a decision in the matter. "That's genuine!" he repeated. "Who can say that the rest of it isn't as well?"
Looking from the window into the fathomless blackness of the grounds, Weldon's struggle went on. His contracted eyes rested long and thoughtfully upon the faint rays of the street-lamps, reflected dimly upon the bare boughs, as they looked over the walls.
"Well, I wish to Heaven that I knew whether or not I wanted to walk out to those trees again or not!" he cried, almost helplessly.
Minute after minute went by. Far off a church clock tolled a single stroke, the hour of one! As if awakened by the sound, Weldon turned and faced the empty reception-room. A little uncertainly, he walked back to the table with its mysterious envelope, and there uncertainty vanished. "I'll do it!" he cried, suddenly, with an emphatic pound of his fist upon the board.
A vigorous nod accompanied the words. Weldon brought forth his card-case and took therefrom one of his own little pasteboards. Carefully, he laid it beside the envelope and grunted a little.
"Well, the die is cast!" he cried. "Now - what was it? Ah, yes! The little door to the rear of the corridor."
It stood before him. He approached without hesitation and turned the knob. The door opened and disclosed a faintly lighted corridor. Weldon turned and took a last look at the place he was leaving. Then the door closed with a little slam - behind him!
Entering just then, one might reasonably have considered the House of Suspicion quite as deserted as it had been an hour before, when Weldon accomplished his desired entry!