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- The Hollow of Her Hand - 3/75 -
There were signs of a struggle,--but it isn't necessary to go into that. Now, as to their arrival at the inn. The blizzard had not set in. Last night was dark, of course, as there is no moon, but it was clear and rather warm for the time of year. The couple came here about nine o'clock in a high power runabout machine, which the man drove. They had no hand-baggage and apparently had run out from New York. Burton says he was on the point of refusing them accommodations when the man handed him a hundred dollar bill. It was more than Burton's cupidity could withstand. They did not register. The state license numbers had been removed from the automobile, which was of foreign make. Of course, it was only a question of time until we could have found out who the car belonged to. It is perfectly obvious why he removed the numbers."
At this juncture Drake entered the room. Mrs. Wrandall did not at first recognise him.
"It has stopped snowing," announced the new-comer.
"Oh, it is Mr. Drake," she murmured. "We have a little French car, painted red," she announced to the sheriff without giving Drake another thought.
"And this one is red, madam," said the sheriff, with a glance at the coroner. Drake nodded his head. Mrs. Wrandall's body stiffened perceptibly, as if deflecting a blow. "It is still standing in the garage, where he left it on his arrival."
"Did no one see the face of--of the woman?" asked Mrs. Wrandall, rather querulously. "It seems odd that no one should have seen her face," she went on without waiting for an answer.
"It's not strange, madam, when you consider ALL the circumstances. She was very careful not to remove her veil or her coat until the door was locked. That proves that she was not the sort of woman we usually find gallavanting around with men regardless of--ahem, I beg your pardon. This must be very distressing to you."
"I am not sure, Mr. Sheriff, that it IS my husband who lies up there. Please remember that," she said steadily. "It is easier to hear the details now, before I KNOW, than it will be afterward if it should turn out to be as Mr. Drake declares."
"I see," said the sheriff, marvelling.
"Besides, Mr. Drake is not POSITIVE," put in the coroner hopefully.
"I am reasonably certain," said Drake.
"Then all the more reason why I should have the story first," said she, with a shiver that no one failed to observe.
The sheriff resumed his conclusions. "Women of the kind I referred to a moment ago don't care whether they're seen or not. In fact, they're rather brazen about it. But this one was different. She was as far from that as it was possible for her to be. We haven't been able to find any one who saw her face or who can give the least idea as to what she looks like, excepting a general description of her figure, her carriage, and the out-door garments she wore. We have reason to believe she was young. She was modestly dressed. Her coat was one of those heavy ulster affairs, such as a woman uses in motoring or on a sea-voyage. There was a small sable stole about her neck. The skirt was short, and she wore high black shoes of the thick walking type. Judging from Burton's description she must have been about your size and figure, Mrs. Wrandall. Isn't that so, Mrs. Burton?"
The inn-keeper's wife spoke. "Yes, Mr. Harben, I'd say so myself. About five feet six, I'd judge; rather slim and graceful-like, in spite of the big coat."
Mrs. Wrandall was watching the woman's face. "I am five feet six," she said, as if answering a question.
The sheriff cleared his throat somewhat needlessly.
"Burton says she acted as if she were a lady," he went on. "Not the kind that usually comes out here on such expeditions, he admits. She did not speak to any one, except once in very low tones to the man she was with, and then she was standing by the fireplace out in the main office, quite a distance from the desk. She went upstairs alone, and he gave some orders to Burton before following her. That was the last time Burton saw her. The waitress went up with a specially prepared supper about half an hour later."
"It seems quite clear, Mrs. Wrandall, that she robbed the man after stabbing him," said the coroner.
Mrs. Wrandall started. "Then she was NOT a lady, after all," she said quickly. There was a note of relief in her voice. It was as if she had put aside a half-formed conclusion.
"His pockets were empty. Not a penny had been left. Watch, cuff-links, scarf pin, cigarette case, purse and bill folder,--all gone. Burton had seen most of these articles in the office."
"Isn't it--but no! Why should I be the one to offer a suggestion that might be construed as a defence for this woman?"
"You were about to suggest, madam, that some one else might have taken the valuables--is that it?" cried the sheriff.
"Had you thought of it, Mr. Sheriff?"
"I had not. It isn't reasonable. No one about this place is suspected. We have thought of this, however: the murderess may have taken all of these things away with her in order to prevent immediate identification of her victim. She may have been clever enough for that. It would give her a start."
"Not an unreasonable conclusion, when you stop to consider, Mr. Sheriff, that the man took the initiative in that very particular," said Mrs. Wrandall in such a self-contained way that the three men looked at her in wonder. Then she came abruptly to her feet. "It is very late, gentlemen. I am ready to go upstairs, Mr. Sheriff."
"I must warn you, madam, that Mr. Drake is reasonably certain that it is your husband," said the coroner uncomfortably. "You may not be prepared for the shock that--"
"I shall not faint, Dr. Sheef. If it IS my husband I shall ask you to leave me alone in the room with him for a little while." The final word trailed out into a long, tremulous wail, showing how near she was to the breaking point in her wonderful effort at self-control. The men looked away hastily. They heard her draw two or three deep, quavering breaths; they could almost feel the tension that she was exercising over herself.
The doctor turned after a moment and spoke very gently, but with professional firmness. "You must not think of venturing out in this wretched night, madam. It would be the worst kind of folly. Surely you will be guided by me--by your own common sense. Mrs. Burton will be with you--"
"Thank you, Dr. Sheef," she interposed calmly. "If what we all fear should turn out to be the truth, I could not stay here. I could not breathe. I could not live. If, on the other hand, Mr. Drake is mistaken, I shall stay. But if it is my husband, I cannot remain under the same roof with him, even though he be dead. I do not expect you to understand my feelings. It would be asking too much of men,--too much."
"I think I understand," murmured Drake.
"Come," said the sheriff, arousing himself with an effort.
She moved swiftly after him. Drake and the coroner, following close behind with Mrs. Burton, could not take their eyes from the slender, graceful figure. She was a revelation to them. Feeling as they did that she was about to be confronted by the most appalling crisis imaginable, they could not but marvel at her composure. Drake's mind dwelt on the stories of the guillotine and the heroines who went up to it in those bloody days without so much as a quiver of dread. Somehow, to him, this woman was a heroine.
They passed into the hall and mounted the stairs. At the far end of the corridor, a man was seated in front of a closed door. He arose as the party approached. The sheriff signed for him to open the door he guarded. As he did so, a chilly blast of air blew upon the faces of those in the hall. The curtains in the window of the room were flapping and whipping in the wind. Mrs. Wrandall caught her breath. For the briefest instant, it seemed as though she was on the point of faltering. She dropped farther behind the sheriff, her limbs suddenly stiff, her hand going out to the wall as if for support. The next moment she was moving forward resolutely into the icy, dimly lighted room.
A single electric light gleamed in the corner beside the bureau. Near the window stood the bed. She went swiftly toward it, her eyes fastened upon the ridge that ran through the centre of it: a still, white ridge that seemed without beginning or end.
With nervous fingers, the attendant lifted the sheet at the head of the bed and turned it back. As he let it fall across the chest of the dead man, he drew back and turned his face away.
She bent forward and then straightened her figure to its full height, without for an instant removing her gaze from the face of the man who lay before her: a dark-haired man grey in death, who must have been beautiful to look upon in the flush of life.
For a long time she stood there looking, as motionless as the object on which she gazed. Behind her were the tense, keen-eyed men, not one of whom seemed to breathe during the grim minutes that passed. The wind howled about the corners of the inn, but no one heard it. They heard the beating of their hearts, even the ticking of their watches, but not the wail of the wind.
At last her hands, claw-like in their tenseness, went slowly to her temples. Her head drooped slightly forward, and a great shudder ran through her body. The coroner started forward, expecting her to collapse.
"Please go away," she was saying in an absolutely emotionless voice. "Let me stay here alone for a little while."
That was all. The men relaxed. They looked at each other with a single question in their eyes. Was it quite safe to leave her alone with her dead? They hesitated.
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