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by Harvey O'Higgins







“This is Mr. Duff,” the lawyer introduced them. “Miss Marshall, Mr. Duff.” And Duff shook hands with a very small, a very dark, a very alert and fashionable spinster-lady of middle age, who looked up at him with a sweet and ironical smile.

“Well,” she said softly, “you’re big enough.”

He was huge. He was nearly six feet tall; he weighed some two hundred pounds; and he was solid with muscle.

“It’s a disguise,” he assured her. “I use it to deceive people—the same as you do.” And he met her smile with a shrewd, appraising twinkle.

“The same as I do?”

“Yes,” he said. “They never suspect me of being a detective, any more than they suspect you of being an autocrat.”

Her smile became sweeter than ever. “What makes you think I’m an autocrat?”

“The same thing in me that makes me think I’m a detective. Won’t you sit down?”

She accepted a chair by the fireplace with a tiny dignity that was not unimpressive. “I only hope,” she murmured, “that you’re not equally deceived in us both.”

She and Westingate, her lawyer, had come to consult Duff in his rooms, instead of at his office, because they wished to keep their visit to him a careful secret. His rooms were on the second floor of an old brownstone house on Eleventh Street near Sixth Avenue, and the living-room in which they found him, typical of the decayed gentility of the district, had a high ceiling, an old black marble mantelpiece, tall windows, and a hardwood floor. He had furnished it chiefly with a law library, descended from the days when he had been an unsuccessful young attorney. As a living-room, it looked studious and celibate. The chairs were all fat bachelor chairs, upholstered in dark leather, as severe as they were comfortable; and they were so burly that Alicia Marshall, for all her furs, sat in hers like a little fairy godmother in a giant’s seat.

The lawyer, Westingate, took a chair on the same side of the fireplace as she, and frowned at the blaze with a forehead that was permanently corrugated. A somber and bilious-looking bald man, he seemed always to be brooding over the obscurities of the law behind a set and worried countenance. “I suppose you’ve guessed,” he said, “that we wanted to see you about this”—he coughed—“murder.”

Duff raised his heavy eyebrows, deprecatingly. “No,” he admitted. “I wasn’t sure.”

“Well,” Alicia Marshall said, “we did.” She had unbuttoned her sealskin sacque. She threw it open, now, with a gesture of beginning the discussion. Duff sat down. The lawyer cleared his throat.

The murder—the Marshall murder—was one of those picturesque New Jersey murders that happen in the best-regulated families of a state that prides itself on its “swift Jersey justice”—murders of which no one is ever found guilty, so that they present the fascinating spectacle of an irresistible force meeting an insoluble mystery. The chief victim was a distinguished citizen, Senator Amos K. Marshall, a corporation lawyer and party politician; and his outrageous end may have been more shocking to the popular mind because, after all, the murder of a “big business” lawyer, who is also a machine senator, contains elements that do not wholly horrify, and it is necessary for many people to be volubly distressed at such a crime in order to overcome a contrary impulse, perhaps. In any case, the public outcry was tremendous, measured either by the amount of newspaper space that was filled with accounts of the Marshall murder, or by the amount of boxwood hedge that was carried away from the Marshall lawn by souvenir hunters.

There was killed with Senator Marshall, a young widow, named Mrs. Starrett, who was his housekeeper. When a man and a woman are murdered together, scandal seems inevitable; and in this case, the scandal traveled fast because no evidence was found to support it. It moved as freely as a flying column that lives off the countryside without any need for a base of supplies. And it was followed by the rumor that the man accused of the murder had been in love with the housekeeper, though there was no discoverable basis in fact for that report either.

The man accused was an ex-soldier named Andrew Pittling—a young veteran of the Argonne, suffering from shell-shock—whom Marshall had employed as general utility-man around his suburban home in Cold Brook. Pittling had been voluble in his support of President Wilson’s League of Nations, and Marshall had conspicuously helped to defeat Wilson’s policies. Hence, many arguments about the murder were warm with the animation of political sympathy.

Hence, also, Alicia Marshall—before her lawyer could get his cleared throat into action—broke out gently to Duff: “We’ve decided that there’s no use leaving it to the local authorities any longer. They’re a lot of Democratic politicians. I believe they’re capable of protecting the man who killed Amos, if they knew who he was.”

“You were not in the house, that night?” Duff asked, meaning the night of the murder.

“No, I was not.”

She lived, she explained, in the original Marshall homestead, on Marshall Avenue, in Cold Brook. Her dead brother Amos, when he married, bought an estate in the hills behind the town; he rebuilt magnificently an old Dutch farmhouse on the property and he had lived there ever since. There had been no one in the house on the night of the murder except his daughter, Martha—so ill in bed with influenza that she was too weak to lift her head from the pillow, and a number of servants, all women except this one man, the ex-soldier, Pittling.

“What is the actual evidence against Pittling, do you know?” Duff asked the lawyer.

Well, to tell the truth, there was none. Senator Marshall had been killed, evidently with a hatchet, as he lay asleep in his bed. His housekeeper, Mrs. Starrett, had been struck down, apparently with the same hatchet, in the hall outside his door. In the morning, a bloody hatchet was found lying among some rose bushes under an open window that looked out from the dining-room on a side lawn. Either the murderer had dropped his weapon there, as he escaped out the window, or he had tossed it out the window and remained in the house himself. In neither case was there anything to cast suspicion on Pittling except the fact that the hatchet was his. He kept it in the furnace-room of the basement to use when he was building fires; and he had used it earlier in the day to split kindling for a fire in the bedroom of the daughter, Martha. The weather had turned suddenly colder that afternoon, and Martha had complained that her room was chilly even with the furnace on full draught. Pittling and the housemaid built a fire of cannel coal in her bedroom grate, to satisfy her; but neither of them could remember whether Pittling had brought the hatchet up out of the basement then, or whether if he had brought it up, he had failed to return it to the cellar. No distinguishable fingerprints were on it when it was found in the morning. There were no footprints outside the window, because the ground was frozen hard and bare of snow. And no one but the dead housekeeper knew whether the window had been left unlocked the night before, or whether it had been opened from the inside after she had locked it. It was her duty to make the rounds at night and see that all the doors and windows were closed and fastened before she went to bed.

“And no one,” Duff asked, “heard any noise whatever during the night?”

No one. No one could be expected to, except Martha, the sick girl. Her room was next to her father’s. The housekeeper was killed in the hall between her father’s door and hers. But she had gone through the crisis of her fever that afternoon; she fell asleep, in a weak perspiration, late that evening; and she did not wake till the following dawn. Her door had been closed after she fell asleep, evidently by the housekeeper, to protect her slumber; and she heard nothing. The women servants—that is to say, the cook and the two maids—slept in the kitchen wing, out of hearing of anything that might happen in the main portion of the house. The chauffeur slept over the garage. Pittling, the ex-soldier, had fixed himself a room in the basement, where he lived as if he were in a cement dugout. He was peculiar.

“I see,” Duff said. “And he heard nothing either?”

“Nothing,” the lawyer replied, “of any importance.”

“No? What was it?”

Westingate explained impatiently: “Senator Marshall’s home is not supplied with water from the waterworks in Cold Brook. It’s too far outside the town. It has its own pumping plant—an air pump, in a driven well, at some distance from the house. Compressed air is stored in a tank in the pumphouse, and the pump is quiet except when any of the faucets in the house are opened; then, as water flows out of the pipe, the mechanism of the pump trips off with an audible stroke. Pittling complains that he was wakened in the night by this sound of the pump working. The main supply pipe to the house runs through the basement just outside his room, and the sound of the pump travels quite loudly along that pipe. It prevented him from sleeping. For half an hour at least, he says, he was kept awake by it. Then it stopped.”

"He doesn't know at what hour this was?"

“No. He thinks he’d been asleep for some time, but of course he can’t be sure. It may have happened before all the others had gone to bed.”

“Of course. And he heard nothing else?”

“Nothing until the housemaid screamed when she found Mrs. Starrett dead in the hall. Pittling had been up for some time. He’d dressed and tended the furnace—”

“Oh, never mind all that,” Miss Marshall broke in, with a mild impatience. “You can’t possibly suspect poor Pittling. He’s the last man in the world to murder anyone. He had enough of that in France.”

Duff had been listening, very much at his ease, his eyes on the fire, asking questions in a voice that was almost absent-minded, his big hands at rest on the massive arms of his comfortable chair. He already knew many of the details of the Marshall murder; he had pieced them together, with a professional interest, from the newspaper accounts. And he had been listening less to what Alicia Marshall and her lawyer said than to the state of mind about the murder which they unconsciously expressed.

Thus far, the most striking fact that he had learned was this: Alicia Marshall was not as deeply concerned about her brother’s death as she was about “poor Pittling.”

“He’s been arrested, has he?—Pittling?”

“Yes. He’s in the county jail.”

“Has he a lawyer?”

“I’m his lawyer,” Westingate replied.

“I see. I may have to get a talk with him, if you don’t mind. And the other servants? Where are they?”

“They’re with me,” Miss Marshall said. “At my house.”

“And the daughter, Martha?”

“She is, too. She’s still in bed. We had her moved, the next day. It was impossible for anyone to remain in that house, with the crowds that gathered.”

“Naturally. I suppose you’ve left some one there to see that they don’t carry the house away piecemeal.”

“Yes. The chauffeur has moved in from the garage.”

Duff nodded. “I’ll put in a caretaker and his wife—if you don’t object—and relieve the chauffeur.” He turned benignly to Miss Marshall. “And I’d like to send you a trained nurse, supposedly for your niece, so as to have some one in touch with those servants. They may know something they haven’t reported because they don’t realize that it’s significant. If I tried to cross-examine them myself, I’d only frighten them. I’ll not send a detective,” he added, seeing her reluctance in her eyes. “I have a very nice girl who goes out for me, now and then, on confidential cases—a girl of good family. She’s had training as a convalescent nurse. You’ll like her.”

“Have you any suspicion,” she asked warily, “about who did it?”

“No,” he said. “None. None whatever. If it were a murder of revenge, committed by some enemy from the outside, he’d have brought a weapon with him. He wouldn’t’ve had to use that hatchet—whether he carried it up from the basement or found it somewhere upstairs. On the other hand, if it was a burglar whom Mrs. Starrett surprised, he might have killed her, naturally enough, but why should he kill your brother in his bed? And I understand that nothing was stolen?”

“Nothing whatever.”

“If it were Pittling, he’d have taken the hatchet back downstairs and cleaned it off, probably, or concealed it. It’s not likely that he’d direct suspicion against himself by leaving his hatchet, covered with blood, lying around where it would be found at once. No. That suggests, perhaps, an attempt to cast suspicion on Pittling.”

“Exactly,” Miss Marshall agreed.

“Or, the whole thing may be just an insane accident. Some madman may have broken in, and found the hatchet, and dropped it again as he ran away.”

“That would be my theory,” the lawyer said.

“I suppose this Mrs. Starrett has been looked up?—to see whether she had any enemies.”

“Yes, thoroughly. They’ve found nothing.”

“And Senator Marshall’s relations with Mrs. Starrett? They’ve gone into that?”

He asked it casually, reflectively, looking at the fire. The lawyer did not reply. Duff turned to Miss Marshall and found her regarding her shoe tips with a sarcastic smile.

“Well,” she said, “my brother was no fool. If there was anything going on between him and Mrs. Starrett, no one will ever find it out.”

“You think there was something, then?”

“It’s the last thing I should think. Senator Marshall had about as much private life as the Statue of Liberty.”

“He was a very religious man,” Westingate put in, “very strict with his family, a leader in the law-and-order movement, and most severe on all this modern—er—laxity.”

“And the daughter? Is she religious?”

“Ah, poor Martha,” Miss Marshall sighed. “She’s a saint.”

“I see. Well,” Duff decided, “I’ll start work on it at once. If I send a caretaker and his wife to you, to-morrow morning, you can install them in the house?”

“Certainly,” the lawyer promised.

“And my nurse may come to you, Miss Marshall, to-morrow afternoon?”

“If you wish it.”

“Thanks. I’ll arrive in Cold Brook, probably, tomorrow evening, and stop for a few days with the caretaker. That’ll make it easier for me to consult with you both the moment I get any sort of clew. If anyone notices me and asks questions, we can explain that Senator Marshall’s estate is in the hands of a New York trust company, as his executors, and I’m their agent, appraising the property and making an inventory of the estate. My name is Duffield.”

“Very good.”

They all rose.

“You’ll not tell the truth about me, or my operatives, to anyone—the servants, the chauffeur, nor even your niece?”

“Certainly not.”

They shook hands on it.

“I’m beginning to think you really are a detective,” Miss Marshall said.

“Then, at least, I’m not deceived in us both.” replied Duff.


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