|BURN, WITCH, BURN by A Merritt|
III. —The Death and Nurse Walters
THAT Braile had voiced the thought lurking behind my own mind—and without a shred of evidence so far as I could see to support it—irritated me.
“You’re a better man than I am, Sherlock Holmes,” I said sarcastically. He flushed, but repeated stubbornly:
“They were murdered.”
“La strega!” whispered Ricori. I glared at him.
“Quit beating around the bush, Braile. What’s your evidence?”
“You were away from Peters almost two hours; I was with him practically from start to finish. As I studied him, I had the feeling that the whole trouble was in the mind—that it was not his body, his nerves, his brain, that refused to function, but his will. Not quite that, either. Put it that his will had ceased to care about the functions of the body—and was centred upon killing it!”
“What you’re outlining now is not murder but suicide. Well, it has been done. I’ve watched a few die because they had lost the will to live-”
“I don’t mean that,” he interrupted. “That’s passive. This was active—”
“Good God, Braile!” I was honestly shocked. “Don’t tell me you’re suggesting all eight passed from the picture by willing themselves out of it—and one of them only an eleven-year-old child!”
“I didn’t say that,” he replied. “What I felt was that it was not primarily Peters’ own will doing it, but another’s will, which had gripped his, had wound itself around, threaded itself through his will. Another’s will which he could not, or did not want to resist—at least toward the end.”
“La maledetta strega!” muttered Ricori again.
I curbed my irritation and sat considering; after all, I had a wholesome respect for Braile. He was too good a man, too sound, for one to ride roughshod over any idea he might voice.
“Have you any idea as to how these murders, if murders they are, were carried out?” I asked politely.
“Not the slightest,” said Braile.
“Let’s consider the murder theory. Ricori, you have had more experience in this line than we, so listen carefully and forget your witch,” I said, brutally enough. “There are three essential factors to any murder—method, opportunity, motive. Take them in order. First—the method.
“There are three ways a person can be killed by poison or by infection: through the nose—and this includes by gases—through the mouth and through the skin. There are two or three other avenues. Hamlet’s father, for example, was poisoned, we read, through the ears, although I’ve always had my doubts about that. I think, pursuing the hypothesis of murder, we can bar out all approaches except mouth, nose, skin—and, by the last, entrance to the blood can be accomplished by absorption as well as by penetration. Was there any evidence whatever on the skin, in the membranes of the respiratory channels, in the throat, in the viscera, stomach, blood, nerves, brain—of anything of the sort?”
“You know there wasn’t,” he answered.
“Quite so. Then except for the problematical lighted corpuscle, there is absolutely no evidence of method. Therefore we have absolutely nothing in essential number one upon which to base a theory of murder. Let’s take number two—opportunity.
“We have a tarnished lady, a racketeer, a respectable spinster, a bricklayer, an eleven-year-old schoolgirl, a banker, an acrobat and a trapeze performer. There, I submit, is about as incongruous a congregation as is possible. So far as we can tell, none of them except conceivably the circus men—and Peters and the Darnley woman—had anything in common. How could anyone, who had opportunity to come in close enough contact to Peters the racketeer to kill him, have equal opportunity to come in similar close contact with Ruth Bailey, the Social Registerite maiden lady? How could one who had found a way to make contact with banker Marshall come equally close to acrobat Standish? And so on—you perceive the difficulty? To administer whatever it was that caused the deaths—if they were murder —could have been no casual matter. It implies a certain degree of intimacy. You agree?”
“Partly,” he conceded.
“Had all lived in the same neighbourhood, we might assume that they might normally have come within range of the hypothetical killer. But they did not—”
“Pardon me, Dr. Lowell,” Ricori interrupted, “but suppose they had some common interest which brought them within that range.”
“What possible common interest could so divergent a group have had?”
“One common interest is very plainly indicated in these reports and in what McCann has told us.”
“What do you mean, Ricori?”
“Babies,” he answered. “Or at least—children.”
Braile nodded: “I noticed that.”
“Consider the reports,” Ricori went on. “Miss Bailey is described as charitable and devoted to children. Her charities, presumably, took the form of helping them. Marshall, the banker, was interested in child-welfare. The bricklayer, the acrobat and the trapeze performer had children. Anita was a child. Peters and the Darnley woman were, to use McCann’s expression, ‘daffy’ over a baby.”
“But,” I objected, “if they are murders, they are the work of one hand. It is beyond range of possibility that all of the eight were interested in one baby, one child, or one group of children.”
“Very true,” said Braile. “But all could have been interested in one especial, peculiar thing which they believed would be of benefit to or would delight the child or children to whom each was devoted. And that peculiar article might be obtainable in only one place. If we could find that this is the fact, then certainly that place would bear investigation.”
“It is,” I said, “undeniably worth looking into. Yet it seems to me that the common-interest idea works two ways. The homes of those who died might have had something of common interest to an individual. The murderer, for example, might be a radio adjuster. Or a plumber. Or a collector. An electrician, and so and so on.”
Braile shrugged a shoulder. Ricori did not answer; he sat deep in thought, as though he had not heard me.
“Please listen, Ricori,” I said. “We’ve gotten this far. Method of murder —if it is murder—unknown. Opportunity for killing—find some person whose business, profession or what not was a matter of interest to each of the eight, and whom they visited or who visited them; said business being concerned, possibly, in some way with babies or older children. Now for motive. Revenge, gain, love, hate, jealousy, self-protection? None of these seems to fit, for again we come to that barrier of dissimilar stations in life.”
“How about the satisfaction of an appetite for death—wouldn’t you call that a motive?” asked Braile, oddly. Ricori half rose from his chair, stared at him with a curious intentness; then sank back, but I noticed he was now all alert.
“I was about to discuss the possibility of a homicidal maniac,” I said, somewhat testily.
“That’s not exactly what I mean. You remember Longfellow’s lines:
I shot an arrow into the air.
It fell to earth I know not where.
“I’ve never acquiesced in the idea that that was an inspired bit of verse meaning the sending of an argosy to some unknown port and getting it back with a surprise cargo of ivory and peacocks, apes and precious stones. There are some people who can’t stand at a window high above a busy street, or on top of a skyscraper, without wanting to throw something down. They get a thrill in wondering who or what will be hit. The feeling of power. It’s a bit like being God and unloosing the pestilence upon the just and the unjust alike. Longfellow must have been one of those people. In his heart, he wanted to shoot a real arrow and then mull over in his imagination whether it had dropped in somebody’s eye, hit a heart, or just missed someone and skewered a stray dog. Carry this on a little further. Give one of these people power and opportunity to loose death at random, death whose cause he is sure cannot be detected. He sits in his obscurity, in safety, a god of death. With no special malice against anyone, perhaps—impersonal, just shooting his arrows in the air, like Longfellow’s archer, for the fun of it.”
“And you wouldn’t call such a person a homicidal maniac?” I asked, dryly.
“Not necessarily. Merely free of inhibitions against killing. He might have no consciousness of wrongdoing whatever. Everybody comes into this world under sentence of death—time and method of execution unknown. Well, this killer might consider himself as natural as death itself. No one who believes that things on earth are run by an all-wise, all-powerful God thinks of Him as a homicidal maniac. Yet He looses wars, pestilences, misery, disease, floods, earthquakes—on believers and unbelievers alike. If you believe things are in the hands of what is vaguely termed Fate—would you call Fate a homicidal maniac?”
“Your hypothetical archer,” I said, “looses a singularly unpleasant arrow, Braile. Also, the discussion is growing far too metaphysical for a simple scientist like me. Ricori, I can’t lay this matter before the police. They would listen politely and laugh heartily after I had gone. If I told all that is in my mind to the medical authorities, they would deplore the decadence of a hitherto honoured intellect. And I would rather not call in any private detective agency to pursue inquiries.”
“What do you want me to do?” he asked.
“You have unusual resources,” I answered. “I want you to sift every movement of Peters and Hortense Darnley for the past two months. I want you to do all that is possible in the same way with the others—”
“I want you to find that one place to which, because of their love for children, each of these unfortunates was drawn. For though my reason tells me you and Braile have not the slightest real evidence upon which to base your suspicions, I grudgingly admit to you that I have a feeling you may be right.”
“You progress, Dr. Lowell,” Ricori said, formally. “I predict that it will not be long before you will as grudgingly admit the possibility of my witch.”
“I am sufficiently abased,” I replied, “by my present credulity not to deny even that.”
Ricori laughed, and busied himself copying the essential information from the reports. Ten o’clock struck. McCann came up to say that the car was waiting and we accompanied Ricori to the door. The gunman had stepped out and was on the steps when a thought came to me.
“Where do you begin, Ricori?”
“With Peters’ sister.”
“Does she know Peters is dead?”
“No,” he answered, reluctantly. “She thinks him away. He is often away for long, and for reasons which she understands he is not able to communicate with her directly. At such times I keep her informed. And the reason I have not told her of Peters’ death is because she dearly loved him and would be in much sorrow—and in a month, perhaps, there is to be another baby.”
“Does she know the Darnley woman is dead, I wonder?”
“I do not know. Probably. Although McCann evidently does not.”
“Well,” I said, “I don’t see how you’re going to keep Peters’ death from her now. But that’s your business.”
“Exactly,” he answered, and followed McCann to the car.
Braile and I had hardly gotten back to my library when the telephone rang. Braile answered it. I heard him curse, and saw that the hand that held the transmitter was shaking. He said: “We will come at once.”
He set the transmitter down slowly, then turned to me with twitching face.
“Nurse Walters has it!”
I felt a distinct shock. As I have written, Walters was a perfect nurse, and besides that a thoroughly good and attractive young person. A pure Gaelic type—blue-black hair, blue eyes with astonishingly long lashes, milk-white skin—yes, singularly attractive. After a moment or two of silence I said:
“Well, Braile, there goes all your fine-spun reasoning. Also your murder theory. From the Darnley woman to Peters to Walters. No doubt now that we’re dealing with some infectious disease.”
“Isn’t there?” he asked, grimly. “I’m not prepared to admit it. I happen to know Walters spends most of her money on a little invalid niece who lives with her—a child of eight. Ricori’s thread of common interest moves into her case.”
“Nevertheless,” I said as grimly, “I intend to see that every precaution is taken against an infectious malady.”
By the time we had put on our hats and coats, my car was waiting. The hospital was only two blocks away, but I did not wish to waste a moment. I ordered Nurse Walters removed to an isolated ward used for observation of suspicious diseases. Examining her, I found the same flaccidity as I had noted in the case of Peters. But I observed that, unlike him, her eyes and face showed little of terror. Horror there was, and a great loathing. Nothing of panic. She gave me the same impression of seeing both within and without. As I studied her I distinctly saw a flash of recognition come into her eyes, and with it appeal. I looked at Braile—he nodded; he, too, had seen it.
I went over her body inch by inch. It was unmarked except for a pinkish patch upon her right instep. Closer examination made me think this had been some superficial injury, such as a chafing, or a light burn or scald. If so, it had completely healed; the skin was healthy.
In all other ways her case paralleled that of Peters—and the others. She had collapsed, the nurse told me, without warning while getting dressed to go home. My inquiry was interrupted by an exclamation from Braile. I turned to the bed and saw that Walters’ hand was slowly lifting, trembling as though its raising was by some terrific strain of will. The index finger was half- pointing. I followed its direction to the disclosed patch upon the foot. And then I saw her eyes, by that same tremendous effort, focus there.
The strain was too great; the hand dropped, the eyes again were pools of horror. Yet clearly she had tried to convey to us some message, something that had to do with that healed wound.
I questioned the nurse as to whether Walters had said anything to anyone about any injury to her foot. She replied that she had said nothing to her, nor had any of the other nurses spoken of it. Nurse Robbins, however, shared the apartment with Harriet and Diana. I asked who Diana was, and she told me that was the name of Walters’ little niece. This was Robbins’ night off, I found, and gave instructions to have her get in touch with me the moment she returned to the apartment.
By now Hoskins was taking his samples for the blood tests. I asked him to concentrate upon the microscopic smears and to notify me immediately if he discovered one of the luminous corpuscles. Bartano, an outstanding expert upon tropical diseases, happened to be in the hospital, as well as Somers, a brain specialist in whom I had strong confidence. I called them in for observation, saying nothing of the previous cases. While they were examining Walters, Hoskins called up to say he had isolated one of the shining corpuscles. I asked the pair to go to Hoskins and give me their opinion upon what he had to show them. In a little while they returned, somewhat annoyed and mystified. Hoskins, they said, had spoken of a “leucocyte containing a phosphorescent nucleus.” They had looked at the slide but had been unable to find it. Somers very seriously advised me to insist upon Hoskins having his eyes examined. Bartano said caustically that he would have been quite as surprised to have seen such a thing as he would have been to have observed a miniature mermaid swimming around in an artery. By these remarks, I realized afresh the wisdom in my silence.
Nor did the expected changes in expression occur. The horror and loathing persisted, and were commented upon by both Bartano and Somers as “unusual.” They agreed that the condition must be caused by a brain lesion of some kind. They did not think there was any evidence either of microbic infection or of drugs or poison. Agreeing that it was a most interesting case, and asking me to let them know its progress and outcome, they departed.
At the beginning of the fourth hour, there was a change of expression, but not what I had been expecting. In Walters’ eyes, on her face, was only loathing. Once I thought I saw a flicker of the devilish anticipation flash over her face. If so, it was quickly mastered. About the middle of the fourth hour, we saw recognition again return to her eyes. Also, there was a perceptible rally of the slowing heart. I sensed an intense gathering of nervous force.
And then her eyelids began to rise and fall, slowly, as though by tremendous effort, in measured time and purposefully. Four times they raised and lowered; there was a pause; then nine times they lifted and fell; again the pause, then they closed and opened once. Twice she did this—
“She’s trying to signal,” whispered Braile. “But what?”
Again the long-lashed lids dropped and rose—four times... pause... nine times... pause... once...
“She’s going,” whispered Braile.
I knelt, stethoscope at ears... slower... slower beat the heart... and slower... and stopped.
“She’s gone!” I said, and arose. We bent over her, waiting for that last hideous spasm, convulsion—whatever it might be.
It did not come. Stamped upon her dead face was the loathing, and that only. Nothing of the devilish glee. Nor was there sound from her dead lips. Beneath my hand I felt the flesh of her white arm begin to stiffen.
The unknown death had destroyed Nurse Walters—there was no doubt of that. Yet in some obscure, vague way I felt that it had not conquered her.
Her body, yes. But not her will!
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK