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- The Hollow of Her Hand - 40/75 -
He took his seat beside the chauffeur.
"I am surprised," he observed to the driver, as a "feeler," "that you haven't changed bodies."
"Mr. Wrandall ordered the limousine, sir," said the chauffeur.
"Oh, I see. Keeps it on hand for rainy days, I suppose."
"It's Mrs. Wrandall's idea," explained the man. "Women are fussy about their hair. We always have a limousine handy."
"It is a handy thing to have about," said Mr. Smith drily, as he looked out of the corner of his eye and remarked the two men behind him. They were in very close conversation.
"The boss usually takes the other car. He likes the wind in his face, he says. I don't know why he ordered the limousine to-day."
"Probably there's something in the wind to-day he doesn't like," remarked Smith, after which he devoted himself assiduously to the road ahead, not being a practiced motorist.
As they were ascending the steps in Sara's exotic garden, Smith ventured a somewhat sinister remark.
"These steps are not good for a man with a weak heart, Mr. Wrandall. I hope yours is sound."
"Quite, Mr. Smith. Have no fear," said Mr. Wrandall, with an acute sense of divination. "You will also find it to be in the right place."
"Umph," said Mr. Smith.
Sara did not keep them waiting long in the morning room. She came in soon after they were announced, followed by Mr. Carroll, who had spent the night at Southlook. Hetty Castleton was not in evidence.
She motioned them to seats after Mr. Wrandall had ceremoniously introduced his lawyer, and as unceremoniously neglected to do as much for Smith.
"This is Mr. Smith, I presume," said she, with a slight uplifting of her eyebrows. She took a chair facing the detective.
"Yes, my dear," said her father-in-law. "Joseph Smith."
"Benjamin, if you please," corrected Mr. Smith.
"I regret to state that my memory for names does not go back to the Old Testament," said Wrandall, with a frosty smile.
"There are no Smiths in the Old Testament," said the detective grimly.
"I understand, Mr. Smith, that you are prepared to charge me with the murder of my husband."
She said it very quietly, very levelly. Smith was a bit staggered.
"Well, I--er--hardly that, Mrs. Wrandall," he said, disconcerted.
"Will you be good enough to come to the point at once?"
"My report in this matter, madam, is to be made to Mr. Wrandall here, as I understand it," said the detective, his jaw stiffening. "We don't, as a rule, report our findings to--well, to the person we suspect. It isn't what you'd call regular. Mr, Wrandall has employed me to make the investigation. He can hardly expect me to reveal my findings to you."
"My dear Sara--" began Mr. Wrandall.
"As this is a rather intimate conference, Mr. Smith," interrupted Sara, with a gracious smile for her father-in-law, "I fancy we have nothing to gain, one way or another, by recriminations. You have already consulted Mr. Carroll, and I have talked it over with Mr. Wrandall. That was to have been expected, I believe. As I understand the situation, you are somewhat curious to know just how much it is worth to me to have the matter dropped."
Smith eyed her steadily.
"That is the case, precisely," he said briefly.
"Then you are not really interested in having the guilty person brought to justice?"
"I am not an officer of the law, madam. I am a private individual, working for private ends. It is for Mr. Wrandall to say whether my discoveries shall be related in court. I respectfully submit that I am acting within my rights. My deductions have been formed. That is as far as I can go without his authority. He has offered a reward, and he has gone farther than that by engaging us to devote our time, brains and energies to the case. I am in this position at present: our firm cannot accept the reward he has offered without deliberately declaring to the world that we can put our hand on the slayer of his son. As I cannot produce the actual proof that we have found that person, I am in honour compelled to submit our findings so far as they have gone, and then either to withdraw from the matter or carry it on to the end, as he may elect. Our time is worth something, madam. We have made a careful and exhaustive investigation. We have come to the point where we can go no farther without more or less publicly associating you with our theories. I spoke to Mr. Carroll yesterday, it is true, and I am here to-day to lay my facts before Mr. Wrandall--and his attorney, I see. Mr. Carroll chose to call me a blackmailer. He may be correct in his legal way of looking at it. But he is wrong in assuming that MY motives are criminal. I submit that they are fair, open and above board."
There was a moment's silence following this astonishingly succinct summing up of his position. The three men had not taken their eyes from his shrewd, frank face during that clever speech. They had nothing to say. It had been agreed among them that Sara was to do the talking. They were to do the watching.
"You put the case very fairly, Mr. Smith," said she seriously. "I think your position is clear enough, assuming of course that you have any real evidence to support your theories, whatever they may be. I am perfectly free to say that you interest me."
"Interest you?" he said, in some exasperation. He had expected her to fly into a passion. "Don't you take me seriously, madam?"
"As far as you have gone, yes."
Mr. Wrandall could hold in no longer. He was most uncomfortable.
"See here, Smith, out with it. Let us have your story. My daughter-in-law is not in the least alarmed. You've been on the wrong track, of course. But that isn't the point. What we want now is to find out just where we stand."
"You put it in a rather compromising way, Mr. Wrandall. The pronoun 'we' is somewhat general, if you will permit me to say so. Do you expect me to discuss my findings in the presence of Mrs. Wrandall and her counsel?"
"Certainly, sir, certainly. You need have no hesitancy on that score. I dare say you came here knowing that what you were to say would go no further than these four walls."
"Would you say that, sir, if I were to submit proof that would make it look so black for Mrs. Wrandall that you couldn't very well doubt her complicity in the crime, even though you saw fit to let it go no further than these four walls?"
Mr. Wrandall hesitated. A heavy frown appeared between his eyes; his fingers worked nervously on the arm of the chair.
"I may say to you, Mr. Smith, that if you produce conclusive proof I shall do my duty as a law-respecting citizen. I would not hesitate on that score."
Sara looked at him through half-closed lids. His jaws were firmly set.
Smith seemed to be reflecting. He did not speak for a long interval.
"In the first place, it struck me as odd that the man's wife did not take more interest in the search that was made immediately after the kill--after the tragedy. Not only that, but it is of record that she deliberately informed the police that she didn't care whether they caught the guilty party or not. Isn't that true?"
The question was directed to no one in particular.
It was Sara who answered.
"Quite true, Mr. Smith. And if it will interest you in the least, I repeat that I don't care even now."
"You were asked if you would offer a reward in addition to the small one announced by the authorities. Why didn't you offer a reward?"
"Because I did not care to make it an object for well-meaning detectives to pry into the affairs of indiscreet members of society," she said.
"I see," said he reflectively. "May I be so bold as to ask why you don't want to have the guilty punished?"
She looked at Mr. Wrandall before offering a reply to this direct question.
"I can't answer that question without publicly wounding Mr. Wrandall."
"We understand each other, Sara," said the old man painfully. "I think you would better answer his question."
"Because my husband courted the fate that befell him, Mr. Smith. That is my reply. While I do not know what actually transpired at the inn, I am reasonably certain that my husband's life was taken by some one who had suffered at his hands. I can say no more."
"The eye for an eye principle, eh?" There was deep sarcasm in the
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