This is the seventh book about the detective Filo Vance, in which, as always, he skillfully investigates an unusual case. One of the guests gathered in a comfortable estate for the weekend dives into the pool and does not leave it in front of several people. Neither the search for divers or the descent of water yields results: a person disappears without a trace. And, although many are interested in the death of the unfortunate, the suspicion seriously falls on the dragon.
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CHARACTERS OF THE BOOK
CHARACTERS OF THE BOOK
John F.-X. Markham
District Attorney of New York County.
Sergeant of the Homicide Bureau.
A well-known aquarist.
Bernice Stamm’s fiancé.
A close friend of the Stamm family.
A guest of the Stamms.
A guest of the Stamms.
The Stamm butler.
Nurse-companion to Mrs. Stamm.
The Stamms’ family physician.
Detective of the Homicide Bureau.
Detective of the Homicide Bureau.
Detective of the Homicide Bureau.
Doctor Emanuel Doremus
(Saturday, August 11; 11.45 p. m.)
That sinister and terrifying crime, which came to be known as the dragon murder case, will always be associated in my mind with one of the hottest summers I have ever experienced in New York.
Philo Vance, who stood aloof from the eschatological and supernatural implications of the case, and was therefore able to solve the problem on a purely rationalistic basis, had planned a fishing trip to Norway that August, but an intellectual whim had caused him to cancel his arrangements and to remain in America. Since the influx of post-war, nouveau-riche Americans along the French and Italian Rivieras, he had forgone his custom of spending his summers on the Mediterranean, and had gone after salmon and trout in the streams of North Bergenhus. But late in July of this particular year his interest in the Menander fragments found in Egypt during the early years of this century, had revived, and he set himself to complete their translation–a work which, you may recall, had been interrupted by that amazing series of Mother-Goose murders in West 75th Street.
However, once again this task of research and love was rudely intruded upon by one of the most baffling murder mysteries in which Vance ever participated; and the lost comedies of Menander were again pigeon-holed for the intricate ratiocination of crime. Personally I think Vance’s criminal investigations were closer to his heart than the scholastic enterprises on which he was constantly embarking, for though his mind was ever seeking out abstruse facts in the realm of cultural lore, he found his greatest mental recreation in intricate problems wholly unrelated to pure learning. Criminology satisfied this yearning in his nature, for it not only stimulated his analytical processes but brought into play his knowledge of recondite facts and his uncanny instinct for the subtleties of human nature.
Shortly after his student days at Harvard he asked me to officiate as his legal adviser and monetary steward; and my liking and admiration for him were such that I resigned from my father’s firm of Van Dine, Davis and Van Dine to take up the duties he had outlined. I have never regretted that decision; and it is because of the resultant association with him that I have been able to set down an accurate and semi-official account of the various criminal investigations in which he participated. He was drawn into these investigations as a result of his friendship with John F.-X. Markham during the latter’s four years’ incumbency as District Attorney of New York County.
Of all the cases I have thus far recorded none was as exciting, as weird, as apparently unrelated to all rational thinking, as the dragon murder. Here was a crime that seemed to transcend all the ordinary scientific knowledge of man and to carry the police and the investigators into an obfuscous and unreal realm of demonology and folk-lore–a realm fraught with dim racial memories of legendary terrors.
The dragon has ever entered into the emotional imaginings of primitive religions, throwing over its conceivers a spell of sinister and terrifying superstition. And here in the city of New York, in the twentieth century, the police were plunged into a criminal investigation which resuscitated all the dark passages in those dim forgotten times when the superstitious children of the earth believed in malignant monsters and the retributive horrors which these monsters visited upon man.
The darkest chapters in the ethnological records of the human race were reviewed within sight of the skyscrapers of modern Manhattan; and so powerful was the effect of these resuscitations that even scientists searched for some biological explanation of the grotesque phenomena that held the country enthralled during the days following the uncanny and incomprehensible death of Sanford Montague. The survival of prehistoric monsters–the development of subterranean Ichthyopsida–the unclean and darksome matings of earth and sea creatures–were advanced as possible scientific explanations of the extraordinary and hideous facts with which the police and the District Attorney’s office were faced.
Even the practical and hard-headed Sergeant Ernest Heath of the Homicide Bureau was affected by the mysterious and incalculable elements of the case. During the preliminary investigation–when there was no actual evidence of murder–the unimaginative Sergeant sensed hidden and ominous things, as if a miasmatic emanation had arisen from the seemingly commonplace circumstances surrounding the situation. In fact, had it not been for the fears that arose in him when he was first called to take charge of the tragic episode, the dragon murder might never have come to the attention of the authorities. It would, in all probability, have been recorded conventionally in the archives of the New York Police Department as another “disappearance,” accounted for along various obvious lines and with a cynical wink.
This hypothetical eventuality was, no doubt, what the murderer intended; but the perpetrator of that extraordinary crime–a crime, as far as I know, unparalleled in the annals of violent homicide–had failed to count on the effect of the sinister atmosphere which enveloped his unholy act. The fact that the imaginative aboriginal fears of man have largely developed from the inherent mysteries enshrouded in the dark hidden depths of water, was overlooked by the murderer. And it was this oversight that roused the Sergeant’s vague misgivings and turned a superficially commonplace episode into one of the most spectacular and diabolical murder cases of modern times.
Sergeant Heath was the first official to go to the scene of the crime–although, at the time, he was not aware that a crime had been committed; and it was he who stammered out his unidentifiable fears to Markham and Vance.
It was nearly midnight on August 11. Markham had dined with Vance at the latter’s roof-garden apartment in East 38th Street, and the three of us had spent the evening in a desultory discussion of various topics. There had been a lackadaisical atmosphere over our gathering, and the periods of silence had increased as the night wore on, for the weather was both hot and sultry, and the leaves of the tree-tops which rose from the rear yard were as still as those on a painted canvas. Moreover, it had rained for hours, the downpour ceasing only at ten o’clock, and a heavy breathless pall seemed to have settled over the city.
Vance had just mixed a second champagne cup for us when Currie, Vance’s butler and major-domo, appeared at the door to the roof-garden carrying a portable telephone.
“There is an urgent call for Mr. Markham,” he announced; “and I took the liberty of bringing the telephone.... It’s Sergeant Heath, sir.”
Markham looked nettled and a bit surprised, but he nodded and took the instrument. His conversation with the Sergeant was a brief one, and when he replaced the receiver he was frowning.
“That’s queer,” he commented. “Unlike the Sergeant. He’s worried about something–wants to see me. He didn’t give any hint of the matter, and I didn’t press the point. Said he found out at my home that I was here.... I didn’t like the suppressed tone of his voice, and told him he might come here. I hope you don’t mind, Vance.”
“Delighted,” Vance drawled, settling deeper into his wicker chair. “I haven’t seen the doughty Sergeant for months.... Currie,” he called, “bring the Scotch and soda. Sergeant Heath is joining us.” Then he turned back to Markham. “I hope there’s nothing amiss.... Maybe the heat has hallucinated the Sergeant.”
Markham, still troubled, shook his head.
“It would take more than hot weather to upset Heath’s equilibrium.” He shrugged. “Oh, well, we’ll know the worst soon enough.”
It was about twenty minutes later when the Sergeant was announced. He came out on the terrace garden, wiping his brow with an enormous handkerchief. After he had greeted us somewhat abstractedly he dropped into a chair by the glass-topped table and helped himself to a long drink of the Scotch whisky which Vance moved toward him.
“I’ve just come from Inwood, Chief,” he explained to Markham. “A guy has disappeared. And to tell you the truth, I don’t like it. There’s something phony somewhere.”
“Anything unusual about the case?”
“No–nothing.” The Sergeant appeared embarrassed. “That’s the hell of it. Everything in order–the usual sort of thing. Routine. And yet...” His voice trailed off, and he lifted the glass to his lips.
Vance gave an amused smile.
“I fear, Markham,” he observed, “the Sergeant has become intuitive.”
Heath set down his glass with a bang.
“If you mean, Mr. Vance, that I’ve got a hunch about this case, you’re right!” And he thrust his jaw forward.
Vance raised his eyebrows whimsically.
“What case, Sergeant?”
Heath gave him a dour look and then grinned.
“I’m going to tell you–and you can laugh all you want to.... Listen, Chief.” He turned back to Markham. “Along about ten forty-five tonight a telephone call comes to the Homicide Bureau. A fellow, who says his name is Leland, tells me there’s been a tragedy out at the old Stamm estate in Inwood and that, if I have any sense, I better hop out....”
“A perfect spot for a crime,” Vance interrupted musingly. “It’s one of the oldest estates in the city–built nearly a hundred years ago. It’s an anachronism today, but–my word!–it’s full of criminal possibilities. Legend’ry, in fact, with an amazin’ history.”
Heath contemplated Vance shrewdly.
“You got the idea, sir. I felt just that way when I got out there.... Well, anyway, I naturally asked this fellow Leland what had happened and why I should come. And it seems that a bird named Montague had dived into the swimming pool on the estate, and hadn’t come up–”
“Was it, by any chance, the old Dragon Pool?” inquired Vance, raising himself and reaching for his beloved Régie cigarettes.
“That’s the one,” Heath told him; “though I never knew the name of it till I got there tonight.... Well, I told him that wasn’t in my line, but he got persistent and said that the matter oughta be looked into, and the sooner I came the better. He talked in a funny tone–it sorta got to me. His English was all right–he didn’t have any foreign accent–but I got the idea he wasn’t an American. I asked him why he was calling up about something that had happened on the Stamm estate; and he said he was an old friend of the family and had witnessed the tragedy. He also said Stamm wasn’t able to telephone, and that he had temporarily taken charge of the situation.... I couldn’t get any more out of him; but there was something about the way the fellow talked that made me leery.”
“I see,” Markham murmured noncommittally. “So you went out?”
“Yeah, I went out.” Heath nodded sheepishly. “I got Hennessey and Burke and Snitkin, and we hopped a police car.”
“What did you find?”
“I didn’t find anything, sir,” Heath returned aggressively, “except what that guy told me over the phone. There was a week-end house-party on the estate, and one of the guests–this bird named Montague–had suggested they all go swimming in the pool. There’d probably been considerable drinking, so they all went down to the pool and put on bathing suits....”
“Just a moment, Sergeant,” Vance interrupted. “Was Leland drunk, by any chance?”
“Not him.” The Sergeant shook his head. “He was the coolest member of the lot. But there was something queer about him. He seemed greatly relieved when I got there; and he took me aside and told me to keep my eyes open. I naturally asked him what he meant, but right away he got casual, so to speak, and merely said that a lot of peculiar things had happened around those parts in the old days, and that maybe something peculiar had happened tonight.”
“I think I know what he meant,” Vance said with a slight nod. “That part of the city has given rise to many strange and grotesque legends–old wives’ tales and superstitions that have come down from the Indians and early settlers.”
“Well, anyway,”–Heath dismissed Vance’s comments as irrelevant–“after the party had gone down to the pool, this fellow Montague walked out on the spring-board and took a fancy dive. And he never came up....”
“How could the others be so sure he didn’t come up?” asked Markham. “It must have been pretty dark after the rain: it’s cloudy now.”
“There was plenty of light at the pool,” Heath explained. “They’ve got a dozen flood-lights on the place.”
“Very well. Go on.” Markham reached impatiently for his champagne. “What happened then?”
Heath shifted uneasily.
“Nothing much,” he admitted. “The other men dove after him and tried to find him, but after ten minutes or so they gave up. Leland, it seems, told ’em that they’d all better go back to the house and that he’d notify the authorities. Then he called the Homicide Bureau and spilled the story.”
“Queer he should do that,” ruminated Markham. “It doesn’t sound like a criminal case.”
“Sure it’s queer,” agreed Heath eagerly. “But what I found was a whole lot queerer.”
“Ah!” Vance blew a ribbon of smoke upward. “That romantic section of old New York is at last living up to its reputation. What were these queer things you found, Sergeant?”
Heath moved again with uneasy embarrassment.
“To begin with, Stamm himself was cock-eyed drunk, and there was a doctor from the neighborhood trying to get him to function. Stamm’s young sister–a good-looker of about twenty-five–was having hysterics and going off into faints every few minutes. The rest of ’em–there was four or five–were trying to duck and making excuses why they had to get away pronto. And all the time this fellow Leland, who looks like a hawk or something, was going round as cool as a cucumber with lifted eyebrows and a satisfied grin on his brown face, as if he knew a lot more than he was telling.–Then there was one of those sleezy, pasty-faced butlers, who acted like a ghost and didn’t make any noise when he moved....”
“Yes, yes,” Vance nodded whimsically. “Everything most mystifyin’.... And the wind moaned through the pines; and an owl hooted in the distance; and a lattice rattled in the attic; and a door creaked; and there came a tapping–eh, what, Sergeant?... I say, do have another spot of Scotch. You’re positively jittery.” (He spoke humorously, but there was a shrewd, interested look in his half-closed eyes and an undercurrent of tension in his voice that made me realize that he was taking the Sergeant far more seriously than his manner indicated.)
I expected the Sergeant to resent Vance’s frivolous attitude, but instead he wagged his head soberly.
“You got the idea, Mr. Vance. Nothing seemed on the level. It wasn’t normal, as you might say.”
Markham’s annoyance was mounting.
“The case doesn’t strike me as peculiar, Sergeant,” he protested. “A man dives into a swimming pool, hits his head on the bottom, and drowns. And you’ve related nothing else that can’t be explained on the most commonplace grounds. It’s not unusual for a man to get drunk, and after a tragedy of this kind a hysterical woman is not to be regarded as unique. Naturally, too, the other members of the party wanted to get away after an episode like this. As for the man Leland: he may be just a peculiar officious character who wished to dramatize a fundamentally simple affair. And you always had an antipathy for butlers. However you look at the case, it doesn’t warrant anything more than the usual procedure. It’s certainly not in the province of the Homicide Bureau. The idea of murder is precluded by the very mechanism of Montague’s disappearance. He himself suggested a swim in the pool–a rational enough suggestion on a night like this–and his plunge into the pool and his failure to come to the surface could hardly be indicative of any other person’s criminal intent.”
Heath shrugged and lighted a long black cigar.
“I’ve been telling myself the same things for the past hour,” he returned stubbornly; “but that situation at the Stamm house ain’t right.”
Markham pursed his lips and regarded the Sergeant meditatively.
“Was there anything else that upset you?” he asked, after a pause.
Heath did not answer at once. Obviously there was something else on his mind, and it seemed to me that he was weighing the advisability of mentioning it. But suddenly he lifted himself in his chair and took his cigar deliberately from his mouth.
“I don’t like those fish!” he blurted.
“Fish?” repeated Markham in astonishment. “What fish?”
Heath hesitated and contemplated the end of his cigar sheepishly.
“I think I can answer that question, Markham,” Vance put in. “Rudolph Stamm is one of the foremost aquarists in America. He has a most amazin’ collection of tropical fish–strange and little-known varieties which he has succeeded in breeding. It’s been his hobby for twenty years, and he is constantly going on expeditions to the Amazon, Siam, India, the Paraguay basin, Brazil and Bermuda. He has also made trips to China and has scoured the Orinoco. Only a year or so ago the papers were full of his trip from Liberia to the Congo....”
“They’re queer-looking things,” Heath supplemented. “Some of ’em look like sea-monsters that haven’t grown up.”
“Their shapes and their colorings are very beautiful, however,” commented Vance with a faint smile.
“But that wasn’t all,” the Sergeant went on, ignoring Vance’s æsthetic observation. “This fellow Stamm had lizards and baby alligators–”
“And probably turtles and frogs and snakes–”
“I’ll say he has snakes!” The Sergeant made a grimace of disgust. “Plenty of ’em–crawling in and out of big flat tanks of water....”
“Yes.” Vance nodded and looked toward Markham. “Stamm, I understand, has a terrarium along with his fish. The two often go together, don’t y’ know.”
Markham grunted and studied the Sergeant for a moment.
“Perhaps,” he remarked at length, in a flat, matter-of-fact tone, “Montague was merely playing a practical joke on the other guests. How do you know he didn’t swim under water to the other side of the pool and disappear up the opposite bank? Was it dark enough there so the others couldn’t have seen him?”
“Sure it was dark enough,” the Sergeant told him. “The flood-lights don’t reach all across the water. But that explanation is out. I myself thought something of the kind might have happened, seeing as how there had been a lot of liquor going round, and I took a look over the place. But the opposite side of the pool is almost a straight precipice of rock, nearly a hundred feet high. Across the upper end of the pool, where the creek runs in, there’s a big filter, and not only would it be hard for a man to climb it, but the lights reach that far and any one of the party could have seen him there. Then, at the lower end of the pool, where the water has been dammed up with a big cement wall, there’s a drop of twenty feet or so, with plenty of rocks down below. No guy’s going to take a chance dropping over the dam in order to create a little excitement. On the side of the pool nearest the house, where the spring-board is, there’s a concrete retaining wall which a swimmer might climb over; but there again the flood-lights would give him dead away.”
“And there’s no other possible way Montague could have got out of the pool without being seen?”
“Yes, there’s one way he might have done it–but he didn’t. Between the end of the filter and the steep cliff that comes down on the opposite side of the pool, there’s a low open space of about fifteen feet which leads off to the lower part of the estate. And this flat opening is plenty dark so that the people on the house side of the pool couldn’t have seen anything there.”
“Well, there’s probably your explanation.”
“No, it isn’t, Mr. Markham,” Heath asserted emphatically. “The minute I went down to the pool and got the lay of the land, I took Hennessey with me across the top of the big filter and looked for footprints on this fifteen-foot low bank. You know it had been raining all evening, and the ground over there is damp anyway, so that if there had been any kind of footprints they would have stuck out plain. But the whole area was perfectly smooth. Moreover, Hennessey and I went back into the grass a little distance from the bank, thinking that maybe the guy might have climbed up on a ledge of the rock and jumped over the muddy edge of the water. But there wasn’t a sign of anything there either.”
“That being the case,” said Markham, “they’ll probably find his body when the pool is dragged.... Did you order that done?”
“Not tonight I didn’t. It would take two or three hours to get a boat and hooks up there, and you couldn’t do anything much at night anyway. But that’ll all be taken care of the first thing in the morning.”
“Well,” decided Markham impatiently, “I can’t see that there’s anything more for you to do tonight. As soon as the body is found the Medical Examiner will be notified, and he’ll probably say that Montague has a fractured skull and will put the whole thing down as accidental death.”
There was a tone of dismissal in his voice, but Heath refused to be moved by it. I had never seen the Sergeant so stubborn.
“You may be right, Chief,” he conceded reluctantly. “But I got other ideas. And I came all the way down here to ask you if you wouldn’t come up and give the situation the once-over.”
Something in the Sergeant’s voice must have affected Markham, for instead of replying at once he again studied the other quizzically. Finally he asked:
“Just what have you done so far in connection with the case?”
“To tell the truth, I haven’t done much of anything,” the Sergeant admitted. “I haven’t had time. I naturally got the names and addresses of everybody in the house and questioned each one of ’em in a routine way. I couldn’t talk to Stamm because he was out of the picture and the doctor was working over him. Most of my time was spent in going around the pool, seeing what I could learn. But, as I told you, I didn’t find out anything except that Montague didn’t play any joke on his friends. Then I went back to the house and telephoned to you. I left things up there in charge of the three men I took along with me. And after I told everybody that they couldn’t go home until I got back, I beat it down here.... That’s my story, and I’m probably stuck with it.”
Despite the forced levity of his last remark, he looked up at Markham with, I thought, an appealing insistence.
Once more Markham hesitated and returned the Sergeant’s gaze.
“You are convinced there was foul play?” he queried.
“I’m not convinced of anything,” Heath retorted. “I’m just not satisfied with the way things stack up. Furthermore, there’s a lot of funny relationships in that crowd up there. Everybody seems jealous of everybody else. A couple of guys are dotty on the same girl, and nobody seemed to care a hoot–except Stamm’s young sister–that Montague didn’t come up from his dive. The fact is, they all seemed damn pleased about it–which didn’t set right with me. And even Miss Stamm didn’t seem to be worrying particularly about Montague. I can’t explain exactly what I mean, but she seemed to be all upset about something else connected with his disappearance.”
“I still can’t see,” returned Markham, “that you have any tangible explanation for your attitude. The best thing, I think, is to wait and see what tomorrow brings.”
“Maybe yes.” But instead of accepting Markham’s obvious dismissal Heath poured himself another drink and relighted his cigar.
During this conversation between the Sergeant and the District Attorney, Vance had lain back in his chair contemplating the two dreamily, sipping his champagne cup and smoking languidly. But a certain deliberate tenseness in the way he moved his hand to and from his lips, convinced me that he was deeply interested in everything that was being said.
At this point he crushed out his cigarette, set down his glass, and rose to his feet.
“Really, y’ know, Markham old dear,” he said in a drawling voice, “I think we should toddle along with the Sergeant to the site of the mystery. It can’t do the slightest harm, and it’s a beastly night anyway. A bit of excitement, however tame the ending, might help us forget the weather. And we may be affected by the same sinister atmospheres which have so inflamed the Sergeant’s hormones.”
Markham looked up at him in mild astonishment.
“Why in the name of Heaven, should you want to go to the Stamm estate?”
“For one thing,” Vance returned, stifling a yawn, “I am tremendously interested, d’ ye see, in looking over Stamm’s collection of toy fish. I bred them myself in an amateur way once, but because of lack of space, I concentrated on the color-breeding of the Betta splendens and cambodia–Siamese Fighting Fish, don’t y’ know.”
Markham studied him for a few moments without replying. He knew Vance well enough to realize that his desire to accede to the Sergeant’s request was inspired by a much deeper reason than the patently frivolous one he gave. And he also knew that no amount of questioning would make Vance elucidate his true attitude just then.
After a minute Markham also rose. He glanced at his watch and shrugged.
“Past midnight,” he commented disgustedly. “The perfect hour, of course, to inspect fish!... Shall we drive out in the Sergeant’s car or take yours?”
“Oh, mine, by all means. We’ll follow the Sergeant.” And Vance rang for Currie to bring him his hat and stick.
A STARTLING ACCUSATION
(Sunday, August 12; 12.30 a. m.)
A few minutes later we were headed up Broadway. Sergeant Heath led the way in his small police car and Markham and Vance and I followed in Vance’s Hispano-Suiza. Reaching Dyckman Street, we went west to Payson Avenue and turned up the steep winding Bolton Road. When we had reached the highest point of the road we swung into a wide private driveway with two tall square stone posts at the entrance, and circled upward round a mass of evergreen trees until we reached the apex of the hill. It was on this site that the famous old Stamm residence had been built nearly a century before.
It was a wooded estate, abounding in cedar, oak, and spruce trees, with patches of rough lawn and rock gardens. From this vantage point could be seen, to the north, the dark Gothic turrets of the House of Mercy, silhouetted against a clearing sky which seemed to have sucked up the ghostly lights of Marble Hill a mile distant across the waters of Spuyten Duyvil. To the south, through the trees, the faintly flickering glow of Manhattan cast an uncanny spell. Eastward, on either side of the black mass of the Stamm residence, a few tall buildings along Seaman Avenue and Broadway reached up over the hazy horizon like black giant fingers. Behind and below us, to the west, the Hudson River moved sluggishly, a dark opaque mass flecked with the moving lights of boats.
But although on every side we could see evidences of the modern busy life of New York, a feeling of isolation and mystery crept over me. I seemed infinitely removed from all the busy activities of the world; and I realized then, for the first time, how strange an anachronism Inwood was. Though this historic spot–with its great trees, its crumbling houses, its ancient associations, its rugged wildness, and its rustic quietude–was actually a part of Manhattan, it nevertheless seemed like some hidden fastness set away in a remote coign of the world.
As we turned into the small parking space at the head of the private driveway, we noticed an old-fashioned Ford coupé parked about fifty yards from the wide balustraded stone steps that led to the house.
“That’s the doctor’s car,” Heath explained to us, as he hopped down from his machine. “The garage is on the lower road on the east side of the house.”
He led the way up the steps to the massive bronze front door over which a dim light was burning; and we were met by Detective Snitkin in the narrow panelled vestibule.
“I’m glad you’re back, Sergeant,” the detective said, after saluting Markham respectfully.
“Don’t you like the situation either, Snitkin?” Vance asked lightly.
“Not me, sir,” the other returned, going toward the inner front door. “It’s got me worried.”
“Anything else happen?” Heath inquired abruptly.
“Nothing except that Stamm has begun to sit up and take notice.”
He gave three taps on the door which was immediately opened by a liveried butler who regarded us suspiciously.
“Is this really necessary, officer?” he asked Heath in a suave voice, as he reluctantly held the door open for us. “You see, sir, Mr. Stamm–”
“I’m running this show,” Heath interrupted curtly. “You’re here to take orders, not to ask questions.”
The butler bowed with a sleek, obsequious smile, and closed the door after us.
“What are your orders, sir?”
“You stay here at the front door,” Heath replied brusquely, “and don’t let any one in.” He then turned to Snitkin, who had followed us into the spacious lower hallway. “Where’s the gang and what are they doing?”
“Stamm’s in the library–that room over there–with the doctor.” Snitkin jerked his thumb toward a pair of heavy tapestry portières at the rear of the hall. “I sent the rest of the bunch to their rooms, like you told me. Burke is sitting out on the rear doorstep, and Hennessey is down by the pool.”
“That’s all right.” He turned to Markham. “What do you want to do first, Chief? Shall I show you the lay of the land and how the swimming pool is constructed? Or do you want to ask these babies some questions?”
Markham hesitated, and Vance spoke languidly.
“Really, Markham, I’m rather inclined to think we should first do a bit of what you call probing. I’d jolly well like to know what preceded this alfresco bathing party, and I’d like to view the participants. The pool will keep till later; and–one can’t tell, can one?–it may take on a different significance once we have established a sort of social background for the unfortunate escapade.”
“It doesn’t matter to me.” Markham was plainly impatient and skeptical. “The sooner we find out why we’re here at all, the better pleased I’ll be.”
Vance’s eyes were roving desultorily about the hallway. It was panelled in Tudor style, and the furniture was dark and massive. Life-sized, faded oil portraits hung about the walls, and all the doors were heavily draped. It was a gloomy place, filled with shadows, and with a musty odor which accentuated its inherent unmodernity.
“A perfect setting for your fears, Sergeant,” Vance mused. “There are few of these old houses left, and I’m trying to decide whether or not I’m grateful.”
“In the meantime,” snapped Markham, “suppose we go to the drawing-room.... Where is it, Sergeant?”
Heath pointed to a curtained archway on the right, and we were about to proceed when there came the sound of soft descending footsteps on the stairs, and a voice spoke to us from the shadows.
“Can I be of any assistance, gentlemen?”
The tall figure of a man approached us. When he had come within the radius of flickering light thrown by the old-fashioned crystal chandelier, we discerned an unusual and, as I thought at the time, sinister person.
He was over six feet tall, slender and wiry, and gave the impression of steely strength. He had a dark, almost swarthy, complexion, with keen calm black eyes which had something of the look of an eagle in them. His nose was markedly Roman and very narrow. His cheek-bones were high, and there were slight hollows under them. Only his mouth and chin were Nordic: his lips were thin and met in a straight line; and his deeply cleft chin was heavy and powerful. His hair, brushed straight back from a low broad forehead, seemed very black in the dim light of the hallway. His clothes were in the best of taste, subdued and well-cut, but there was a carelessness in the way he wore them which made me feel that he regarded them as a sort of compromise with an unnecessary convention.
“My name is Leland,” he explained, when he had reached us. “I am a friend of long standing in this household, and I was a guest tonight at the time of the most unfortunate accident.”
He spoke with peculiar precision, and I understood exactly the impression which the Sergeant had received over the telephone when Leland had first communicated with him.
Vance had been regarding the man critically.
“Do you live in Inwood, Mr. Leland?” he asked casually.
The other gave a barely perceptible nod.
“I live in a cottage in Shorakapkok, the site of the ancient Indian village, on the hillside which overlooks the old Spuyten Duyvil Creek.”
“Near the Indian caves?”
“Yes, just across what they now call the Shell Bed.”
“And you have known Mr. Stamm a long time?”
“For fifteen years.” The man hesitated. “I have accompanied him on many of his expeditions in search of tropical fish.”
Vance kept his gaze steadily upon the strange figure.
“And perhaps also,” he said, with a coldness which I did not then understand, “you accompanied Mr. Stamm on his expedition for lost treasure in the Caribbean? It seems I recall your name being mentioned in connection with those romantic adventures.”
“You are right,” Leland admitted without change of expression.
Vance turned away.
“Quite–oh, quite. I think you may be just the person to help us with the present problem. Suppose we stagger into the drawing-room for a little chat.”
He drew apart the heavy curtains, and the butler came swiftly forward to switch on the electric lights.
We found ourselves in an enormous room, the ceiling of which was at least twenty feet high. A large Aubusson carpet covered the floor; and the heavy and ornate Louis-Quinze furniture, now somewhat dilapidated and faded, had been set about the walls with formal precision. The whole room had a fusty and tarnished air of desuetude and antiquity.
Vance looked about him and shuddered.
“Evidently not a popular rendezvous,” he commented as if to himself.
Leland glanced at him shrewdly.
“No,” he vouchsafed. “The room is rarely used. The household has lived in the less formal rooms at the rear ever since Joshua Stamm died. The most popular quarters are the library and the vivarium which Stamm added to the house ten years ago. He spends most of his time there.”
“With the fish, of course,” remarked Vance.
“They are an absorbing hobby,” Leland explained without enthusiasm.
Vance nodded abstractedly, sat down and lighted a cigarette.
“Since you have been so kind as to offer your assistance, Mr. Leland,” he began, “suppose you tell us just what the conditions were in the house tonight, and the various incidents that preceded the tragedy.” Then, before the other could reply, he added: “I understand from Sergeant Heath that you were rather insistent that he should take the matter in hand. Is that correct?”
“Quite correct,” Leland replied, without the faintest trace of uneasiness. “The failure of young Montague to come to the surface after diving into the pool struck me as most peculiar. He is an excellent swimmer and an adept at various athletic sports. Furthermore, he knows every square foot of the pool; and there is practically no chance whatever that he could have struck his head on the bottom. The other side of the pool is somewhat shallow and has a sloping wall, but the near side, where the cabañas and the diving-board are, is at least twenty-five feet deep.”
“Still,” suggested Vance, “the man may have had a cramp or a sudden concussion from the dive. Such things have happened, don’t y’ know.” His eyes were fixed languidly but appraisingly on Leland. “Just what was your object in urging a member of the Homicide Bureau to investigate the situation?”
“Merely a question of precaution–” Leland began, but Vance interrupted him.
“Yes, yes, to be sure. But why should you feel that caution was necess’ry in the circumstances?”
A cynical smile appeared at the corners of the man’s mouth.
“This is not a household,” he replied, “where life runs normally. The Stamms, as you may know, are an intensely inbred line. Joshua Stamm and his wife were first cousins, and both pairs of grandparents were also related by blood. Paresis runs in the family. There has been nothing fixed or permanent in the natures of the last two generations of Stamms, and life in this household is always pushing out at unexpected angles. The ordinary family diagrams are constantly being broken up. There is little stabilization, either physical or intellectual.”
“Even so”–Vance, I could see, had become deeply interested in the man–“how would these facts of heredity have any bearing on Montague’s disappearance?”
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