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THE MATILDA HUNTER MURDER

 

Chapter I

 

The Patient in Bed No. 5

 

Evidently four of the five patients in the emergency ward of the Nurse Cavell Memorial Hospital on West Superior Street, Chicago, considered that the excitement was over for the evening, for they all settled back resignedly on their beds and commenced staring at the shaded electric light bulbs that had just been lighted. But the man with the pointed brown beard in bed No. 5 had reached no such conclusion as theirs, apparently.

He swung himself angrily up to a sitting posture on the side of the bed, and brought his clenched fist down with a terrific smash on the tiny tap-bell that stood on the adjoining stand, and which evidently supplanted a broken electric call-button. The clear striking ring of its gong echoed up and down the emergency ward and even to the corridor outside. But, with the exception of the almost simultaneous raising up on their elbows by the four other patients, nothing whatever happened.

For a long minute the brown-bearded man sat where he was, clenching his hands and muttering something under his breath, while the other patients watched him fascinatedly. Then, as though by a sudden brilliant inspiration, he picked up the metal tap-bell and hurled it deliberately through the glass window that stood at the head of his bed. Not a second later the loud jingling rattle of falling glass could be heard from the dark courtway below.

But this proved far more effective. Almost on the heels of the crash a striped-clad nurse and a white-suited orderly came running into the ward from different directions. The nurse was the first to reach the bed.

“Now, see here,” she began sternly, her eyes hastily taking in  the extent of the damage, “I told you once that you could not have your clothing. You’re—”

“But I tell you, nurse,” the brown-bearded man broke in frantically, his voice raised almost to a shout, “I must have my clothing! I tell you I must!” In his excitement he had risen to his feet, presenting a most grotesque appearance, carrying as he did the dignity of at least 45 years of age, yet clad in a pink pajama suit and with his hair all rumpled. “For God’s sake, nurse, send the head nurse—the head doctor—the superintendent—here at once. I’ve got to get out of here without a moment’s delay. Look—look at that clock!” He pointed to a large wooden clock that ticked away at the end of the ward, its hands standing at a quarter of six. “I’ve been here almost twenty-four hours now—and—and it may be too late even now. I’ve—”

But here the orderly broke in.

“My dear fellow,” he said soothingly, “we’re not a penal in­stitution here, keeping a man prisoner against his wishes. But you were brought in here unconscious last night—slugged. And you’re not well yet. Why, without Doctor Sherwood’s signature, our jobs would go up in smoke if we let you go. So what can we do?”

“I’ll tell you what you can do,” the man in the pajama suit almost screamed, tearing his gaze from the clock to the two hospital employes. “You can give me my clothing, or I’ll have the law on you as sure as my name is—” He stopped abruptly, as though he had almost inadvertently let slip something he desired to conceal. Then he turned to the nurse. “Please, please, please, nurse, arrange some way for me to have my clothing. I tell you it’s a matter of life and death that I reach a certain place without a minute’s more delay. Can’t you do something? I’ll leave here if—if—I have to walk out in my pajamas.”

The nurse stood still for a moment, looking ruefully at the broken window. Doubtlessly, she had become accustomed to many strange sights in her three years of hospital practice, but it was evident that this man begging so desperately for his clothing and pointing at the clock was a brand-new experience for her. So she finally turned to him.

“Well—I’ll see what I can do,” she stated slowly. “Doctor Sherwood isn’t here. So I’ll have to see Miss Kinney, the head night nurse. But whatever she says will be final.” As she turned to leave the ward she pointed to the broken window. “And you’ll have to pay for that window, too.”

“Oh, I’ll pay for it,” the patient replied, dropping back to a sitting posture on the side of the bed. “Only hurry. Every minute is vital to me. Hurry—please!”

The nurse stepped out into the corridor, pressed the electric button at the side of the elevator shaft, and was soon carried to the top floor. Here she proceeded down a long tiled passage till she reached a small room, the walls of which were covered by framed diplomas and dozens of hospital records, held in brass clasps. At a desk under a hanging electric bulb sat an elderly woman, clad in a white uniform instead of a striped one, yet wearing a white cap like the nurse herself. “Miss Kinney?”

The older woman spun around in her swivel chair. “Well?” “We’re having trouble with that new patient in the emergency ward. The one we entered up on our records as John Doe. He was brought in unconscious last night about 8 o’clock, stunned from a blow on the head—not far from the hospital here. He got back his complete senses late this afternoon, and as soon as he learned that the date was Sunday, October 24, and that he’d been here since 8 o’clock last night, he got so excited that we couldn’t even argue with him. He demanded his clothes at once. And naturally, without Dr. Sherwood’s signature, I could not give them to him.”

“Was he the cause of that crash which I just heard?” Miss Kinney demanded.

“Yes. His call-button was out of order and I had placed one of the metal tap-bells close by his elbow. When I refused to answer his last ring he went so far as to hurl the bell through the window-pane. And he says now that if we don’t let him out of here at once, he’ll either have the law on us or else walk out in his pajamas. Really, he’s the worst I’ve seen for a long time. But he offers to pay for the window if we give him his clothing. What shall I do?”

“Isn’t delirious, is he?” the head nurse asked. “What is his temperature?”

“Practically normal now—98.9.”

“Has he dropped any worthwhile clue to his real identity or his business?”

“Only while he was coming out of his stupor. He kept mumbling for us to look in the encyclopedia and see if it con­tained the month and day when Confucius was born. We did it, more to humor him, of course, but could find only the year of Confucius’ birth—some year, I recall, in the Sixth Century B.C. When we told him this, impressing on him that the year only was given, he muttered, “Thank God—fatal error, that— but no way for the fools to look it up. Unless they ask their Chinese laundryman. Their Chinese laundryman.” He droned away with that “Chinese laundryman’ business till the words became in­audible, and then shortly after he began to come entirely out of his stupor.”

“Hm! Curious sort of mind wandering. Something connected with some part of his life all right. But what on earth does Confucius” birthday have to do with anything in this age?” The head nurse thought for a moment or two. At length she rendered her verdict. “Well, I think we’d better let him go. We have no actual right to hold him here. And at that there might be some­thing urgent demanding his presence some place.” She tore off a slip of paper from a pad at her elbow and signed it hurriedly. “Give him his clothing. I’ll take the responsibility in the absence of Dr. Sherwood. And phone down to the clerk and instruct him to deduct three dollars from this man’s cash to pay for the broken windowpane.” The nurse hurried back to the ward and unlocked a great white-enameled closet built in one end. From one of the five compartments she brought forth an armful of neatly folded clothing and other articles of wearing apparel. These she tossed on bed No. 5. Then she drew over a folding screen that leaned against the wall and placed it carefully around the bed.

The brown-bearded man dressed quickly, nervously, fumbling at every button as though his fingers were frozen to numbness. And yet the air both inside the room and outside was as warm as that of summer. The big clock at the end of the ward ticked steadily away, its hands running inexorably toward 6 o’clock, and on some street to the east of the hospital, a short stretch of which was visible through the end window of the narrow ward, a dozen lights burst suddenly into radiance showing that night had dropped officially upon Chicago, London of the West.

Without even stopping to thank the nurse or to say good-bye, the brown-bearded man seized his felt hat—a hat of almost the same color as his beard—and flew from the tiny ward toward the lone elevator in the outside corridor, A few seconds later found him downstairs at the office, hastily gathering up his money and watch, as well as a pair of expensive tortoise-shell library glasses, from the counter presided over by a round-faced imperturbable young man who had evidently been phoned to in advance of this high-speed departure. And, less than a half minute later, the former occupant of Bed No. 5, Emergency Ward, was posted at the first street corner to the east, the little building of orange bricks constituting the Nurse Cavell Memorial Hospital a full half block in his rear. But he was paying no attention, however, to the region itself, a mere intersection of two thoroughfares lined for the most part on both sides with rooming-house fronts of a dismal sadness that bespoke the one-time mansions of the “gay” 90’s, all now not only run down but interspersed gener­ously with such plebeian commercial institutions as basement delicatessens. Indeed, to all these evidences of a now-gone glory showing ruthlessly by the piercing corner light, these rickety front stairways, these parlor windows with stained glass transoms from which segments were missing in each and every one, the brown-bearded man gave no heed whatever. For his full attention was devoted to shading his eyes with one hand from the glare above him and spelling out the names on the blue-enameled street sign which was riveted to the iron pole carrying the light itself.

Evidently he was at least partially informed about Chicago’s geography, and had found his bearings, for with but a single fleeting hopeless glance in all four directions as though seeking but never anticipating a taxicab in this belated bedraggled region, he started northward on foot, and half ran, half walked, for several blocks. Even during this short distance of travel, the character of the street on which he flew changed appreciably for the better, but at a cross-street whose blue sign read “Locust Street” but whose identity he evidently recognized instantly, he turned sharply, and panting, broke into a distinct run in a westward direction. It was a street of cottages that he was now on, and not a street of rooming houses, and the cottages were not only the humblest possible, such as workingmen might own, but the sidewalks themselves were quite devoid of pedestrians at this Sunday supper hour. He kept up his run for a block and a half, and finally, completely winded, stopped in front of a rather dejected looking white frame dwelling-place in the direct front of which stood a street light showing up all the ancient Germanic gingerbread scrollwork at the rounded tips of its two squat front windows, both quite dark, and the number “213” in black painted letters on the door which itself connected with the sidewalk by a short flight of well-worn steps. Without even pausing to regain his breath, he dashed up the few steps, and clumsily fitted a key, with a long old-fashioned shank, into the lock.

The interior of the place was evidently as archaic as the exterior, for no electric bulb swung in the entering hallway. Instead, a tiny solitary jet of gas burned low and feebly. He turned it instantly up and looked about him with an indubitably cautious look. But he appeared to be quite alone. Now his gaze fastened itself fixedly on the closed door of a room down the hallway, but into it, much less toward it, he did not for some reason advance. Instead he stood exactly where he was, and fumbled clumsily through all his pockets, fruitlessly, for a match. And he found none.

Evidently he was face to face with some sort of an impasse. His gaze riveted itself still upon that door, fascinatedly, fearfully, yet toward it he did not proceed by an iota. With the completion of his fruitless search for a match, he stood frowning for a few seconds, and then, giving a helpless, half apologetic gesture with his shoulders, he stooped slightly over an old battered desk which stood in the hall close to his elbow, withdrawing a letter from one of the pigeonholes which was packed with still many others, and thrust it bodily into the flame of the gas as one seeking to construct a flambeau. Withdrawing the letter, feebly burning at one corner, he advanced a few steps, and then cursed as its own flame went out due to the several thicknesses of paper and envelope that constituted the fuel for that flame. Turning back, he withdrew the contents of the thing, a single sheet of typed paper, and tossing the now slightly burned envelope on the floor, folded the lone sheet double and twisted it crosswise into an improvised “lighter” which he again ignited at the burning gas tip close to his shoulder. This burned nicely, neither fast nor slow, and thus armed with light, that greatest of all man’s defences, he advanced down the hall, threw open the door of the room, stepping nimbly aside as though expecting an assault or a fusillade of machine-gun bullets, and when nothing at all happened, held his flambeau high only to reveal that the room was quite devoid of man or armament. With an exhalation that marked the sudden diminution of tense fear within him, he turned on a gas jet close to the opening, touched his flambeau to it, and as its flame lighted up and he blew out his paper torch allowing its blackened ashes to filter slowly to the floor, there sprung into view a stuffy little bedroom with marble topped bureau and ancient stuffed chairs with curved legs.

With the blackened, twisted half sheet of paper in his hands, he stared in the direction of a small square of carpet at the left of the bureau. And his face grew suddenly white, and he ejaculated faintly:

“Gone! Le diable! Just as I——”

But his words ceased abruptly, as his eyes travelling over the bureau top came to rest on a small slip of white paper that was pinned near the left edge of the mirror. And with three giant strides he covered the space between himself and the bureau, and snatched up the communication. Holding it close to his eyes, and squinting slightly, he literally drank in its contents, inscribed in pencil only, in a cramped yet fairly legible handwriting. The brief inscription ran:

 

Mr. M:—When you didnt come back I foild your directions. That is partly. Espesally when I saw what happened to Rags. Insted I have took IT over to my nefew, Jeremy Evans, sos IT will be safe.

Mrs. H.

 

“Thank the Gods!” he murmured half aloud, after he had read the note over and over unbelievingly. “My luck seems to hold with me in spite of everything. But can she reach Evans’ place with it? There’s the big question now. Voila! And where the devil does this Jeremy Evans live?”

 

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