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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Breaking Point - Chapter 27
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The Breaking Point - Chapter 27 Post by :sanjib Category :Long Stories Author :Mary Roberts Rinehart Date :May 2012 Read :2450

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The Breaking Point - Chapter 27

CHAPTER XXVII

When Wilkins had disappeared around the angle of the staircase Bassett went to a chair and sat down. He felt sick, and his knees were trembling. Something had happened, a search for Clark room by room perhaps, and the discovery had been made.

He was totally unable to think or to plan. With Dick well they could perhaps have made a run for it. The fire-escape stood ready. But as things were--The murmuring among the crowd at the foot of the stairs ceased, and he looked up. Wilkins was on the staircase, searching the lobby with his eyes. When he saw Bassett he came quickly down and confronted him, his face angry and suspicious.

"You're mixed up in this somehow," he said sharply. "You might as well come over with the story. We'll get him. He can't get out of this town."

With the words, and the knowledge that in some incredible fashion Dick had made his escape, Bassett's mind reacted instantly.

"What's eating you, Wilkins?" he demanded. "Who got away? I couldn't get that tongue-tied bell-hop to tell me. Thought it was a fire."

"Don't stall, Bassett. You've had Jud Clark hidden upstairs in three-twenty all day."

Bassett got up and towered angrily over the sheriff. The crowd had turned and was watching.

"In three-twenty?" he said. "You're crazy. Jud Clark! Let me tell you something. I don't know what you've got in your head, but three-twenty is a Doctor Livingstone from near my home town. Well known and highly respected, too. What's more, he's a sick man, and if he's got away, as you say, it's because he is delirious. I had a doctor in to see him an hour ago. I've just arranged for a room at the hospital for him. Does that look as though I've been hiding him?"

The positiveness of his identification and his indignation resulted in a change in Wilkins' manner.

"I'll ask you to stay here until I come back." His tone was official, but less suspicious. "We'll have him in a half hour. It's Clark all right. I'm not saying you knew it was Clark, but I want to ask you some questions."

He went out, and Bassett heard him shouting an order in the street. He went to the street door, and realized that a search was going on, both by the police and by unofficial volunteers. Men on horseback clattered by to guard the borders of the town, and in the vicinity of the hotel searchers were investigating yards and alleyways.

Bassett himself was helpless. He stood by, watching the fire of his own igniting, conscious of the curious scrutiny of the few hotel loungers who remained, and expecting momentarily to hear of Dick's capture. It must come eventually, he felt sure. As to how Dick had been identified, or by what means he had escaped, he was in complete ignorance; and an endeavor to learn by establishing the former entente cordiale between the room clerk and himself was met by a suspicious glance and what amounted to a snub. He went back to his chair against the wall and sat there, waiting for the end.

It was an hour before the sheriff returned, and he came in scowling.

"I'll see you now," he said briefly, and led the way back to the hotel office behind the desk. Bassett's last hope died when he saw sitting there, pale but composed, the elderly maid. The sheriff lost no time.

"Now I'll tell you what we know about your connection with this case, Bassett," he said. "You engaged a car to take you both to the main line to-night. You paid off Clark's room as well as your own this afternoon. When you found he was sick you canceled your going. That's true, isn't it?"

"It is. I've told you I knew him at home, but not as Clark."

"I'll let that go. You intended to take the midnight on the main line, but you ordered a car instead of using the branch road."

"Livingstone was sick. I thought it would be easier. That's all." His voice sharpened. "You can't drag me into this, Sheriff. In the first place I don't believe it was Clark, or he wouldn't have come here, of all places on the earth. I didn't even know he was here, until he came into my room this morning."

"Why did he come into your room?"

"He had seen that I was registered. He said he felt sick. I took him back and put him to bed. To-night I got a doctor."

The sheriff felt in his pocket and produced a piece of paper. Bassett's morale was almost destroyed when he saw that it was Gregory's letter to David.

"I'll ask you to explain this. It was on Clark's bed."

Bassett took it and read it slowly. He was thinking hard.

"I see," he said. "Well, that explains why he came here. He was too sick to talk when I saw him. You see, this is not addressed to him, but to his uncle, David Livingstone. David Livingstone is a brother of Henry Livingstone, who died some years ago at Dry River. This refers to a personal matter connected with the Livingstone estate."

The sheriff took the letter and reread it. He was puzzled.

"You're a good talker," he acknowledged grudgingly. He turned to the maid.

"All right, Hattie," he said. "We'll have that story again. But just a minute." He turned to the reporter. "Mrs. Thorwald here hasn't seen Lizzie Lazarus, the squaw. Lizzie has been sitting in my office ever since noon. Now, Hattie."

Hattie moistened her dry lips.

"It was Jud Clark, all right," she said. "I knew him all his life, off and on. But I wish I hadn't screamed. I don't believe he killed Lucas, and I never will. I hope he gets away."

She eyed the sheriff vindictively, but he only smiled grimly.

"What did I tell you?" he said to Bassett. "Hell with the women--that was Jud Clark. And we'll get him, Hattie. Don't worry. Go on."

She looked at Bassett.

"When you left me, I sat outside the door, as you said. Then I heard him moving, and I went in. The room was not very light, and I didn't know him at first. He sat up in bed and looked at me, and he said, 'Why, hello, Hattie Thorwald.' That's my name. I married a Swede. Then he looked again, and he said, 'Excuse me, I thought you were a Mrs. Thorwald, but I see now you're older.' I recognized him then, and I thought I was going to faint. I knew he'd be arrested the moment it was known he was here. I said, 'Lie down, Mr. Jud. You're not very well.' And I closed the door and locked it. I was scared."

Her voice broke; she fumbled for a handkerchief. The sheriff glanced at Bassett.

"Now where's your Livingstone story?" he demanded. "All right, Hattie. Let's have it."

"I said, 'For God's sake, Mr. Jud, lie still, until I think what to do. The sheriff's likely downstairs this very minute.' And then he went queer and wild. He jumped off the bed and stood listening and staring, and shaking all over. 'I've got to get away,' he said, very loud. 'I won't let them take me. I'll kill myself first!' When I put my hand on his arm he threw it off, and he made for the door. I saw then that he was delirious with fever, and I stood in front of the door and begged him not to go out. But he threw me away so hard that that I fell, and I screamed."

"And then what?"

"That's all. If I hadn't been almost out of my mind I'd never have told that it was Jud Clark. That'll hang on me dying day."

An hour or so later Bassett went back to his room in a state of mental and nervous exhaustion. He knew that from that time on he would be under suspicion and probably under espionage, and he proceeded methodically, his door locked, to go over his papers. His notebook and the cuttings from old files relative to the Clark case he burned in his wash basin and then carefully washed the basin. That done, his attendance on a sick man, and the letter found on the bed was all the positive evidence they had to connect him with the case. He had had some thought of slipping out by the fire-escape and making a search for Dick on his own account, but his lack of familiarity with his surroundings made that practically useless.

At midnight he stretched out on his bed without undressing, and went over the situation carefully. He knew nothing of the various neuroses which affect the human mind, but he had a vague impression that memory when lost did eventually return, and Dick's recognition of the chambermaid pointed to such a return. He wondered what a man would feel under such conditions, what he would think. He could not do it. He abandoned the effort finally, and lay frowning at the ceiling while he considered his own part in the catastrophe. He saw himself, following his training and his instinct, leading the inevitable march toward this night's tragedy, planning, scheming, searching, and now that it had come, lying helpless on his bed while the procession of events went on past him and beyond his control.

When an automobile engine back-fired in the street below he went sick with fear.

He made the resolution then that was to be the guiding motive for his life for the next few months, to fight the thing of his own creating to a finish. But with the resolution newly made he saw the futility of it. He might fight, would fight, but nothing could restore to Dick Livingstone the place he had made for himself in the world. He might be saved from his past, but he could not be given a future.

All at once he was aware that some one was working stealthily at the lock of the door which communicated with a room beyond. He slid cautiously off the bed and went to the light switch, standing with a hand on it, and waited. The wild thought that it might be Livingstone was uppermost in his mind, and when the door creaked open and closed again, that was the word he breathed into the darkness.

"No," said a woman's voice in a whisper. "It's the maid, Hattie. Be careful. There's a guard at the top of the stairs."

He heard her moving to his outer door, and he knew that she stood there, listening, her head against the panel. When she was satisfied she slipped, with the swiftness of familiarity with her surroundings, to the stand beside his bed, and turned on the lamp. In the shaded light he saw that she wore a dark cape, with its hood drawn over her head. In some strange fashion the maid, even the woman, was lost, and she stood, strange, mysterious, and dramatic in the little room.

"If you found Jud Clark, what would you do with him?" she demanded. From beneath the hood her eyes searched his face. "Turn him over to Wilkins and his outfit?"

"I think you know better than that."

"Have you got any plan?"

"Plan? No. They've got every outlet closed, haven't they? Do you know where he is?"

"I know where he isn't, or they'd have him by now. And I know Jud Clark. He'd take to the mountains, same as he did before. He's got a good horse."

"A horse!"

"Listen. I haven't told this, and I don't mean to. They'll learn it in a couple of hours, anyhow. He got out by a back fire-escape--they know that. But they don't know he took Ed Rickett's black mare. They think he's on foot. I've been down there now, and she's gone. Ed's shut up in a room on the top floor, playing poker. They won't break up until about three o'clock and he'll miss his horse then. That's two hours yet."

Bassett tried to see her face in the shadow of the hood. He was puzzled and suspicious at her change of front, more than half afraid of a trap.

"How do I know you are not working with Wilkins?" he demanded. "You could have saved the situation to-night by saying you weren't sure."

"I was upset. I've had time to think since."

He was forced to trust her, eventually, although the sense of some hidden motive, some urge greater than compassion, persisted in him.

"You've got some sort of plan for me, then? I can't follow him haphazard into the mountains at night, and expect to find him."

"Yes. He was delirious when he left. That thing about the sheriff being after him--he wasn't after him then. Not until I gave the alarm. He's delirious, and he thinks he's back to the night he--you know. Wouldn't he do the same thing again, and make for the mountains and the cabin? He went to the cabin before."

Bassett looked at his watch. It was half past twelve.

"Even if I could get a horse I couldn't get out of the town."

"You might, on foot. They'll be trailing Rickett's horse by dawn. And if you can get out of town I can get you a horse. I can get you out, too, I think. I know every foot of the place."

A feeling of theatrical unreality was Bassett's chief emotion during the trying time that followed. The cloaked and shrouded figure of the woman ahead, the passage through two dark and empty rooms by pass key to an unguarded corridor in the rear, the descent of the fire-escape, where they stood flattened against the wall while a man, possibly one of the posse, rode in, tied his horse and stamped in high heeled boots into the building, and always just ahead the sure movement and silent tread of the woman, kept his nerves taut and increased his feeling of the unreal.

At the foot of the fire-escape the woman slid out of sight noiselessly, but under Bassett's feet a tin can rolled and clattered. Then a horse snorted close to his shoulder, and he was frozen with fright. After that she gave him her hand, and led him through an empty outbuilding and another yard into a street.

At two o'clock that morning Bassett, waiting in a lonely road near what he judged to be the camp of a drilling crew, heard a horse coming toward him and snorting nervously as it came and drew back into the shadows until he recognized the shrouded silhouette leading him.

"It belongs to my son," she said. "I'll fix it with him to-morrow. But if you're caught you'll have to say you came out and took him, or you'll get us all in trouble."

She gave him careful instructions as to how to find the trail, and urged him to haste.

"If you get him," she advised, "better keep right on over the range."

He paused, with his foot in the stirrup.

"You seem pretty certain he's taken to the mountains."

"It's your only chance. They'll get him anywhere else."

He mounted and prepared to ride off. He would have shaken hands with her, but the horse was still terrified at her shrouded figure and veered and snorted when she approached. "However it turns out," he said, "you've done your best, and I'm grateful."

The horse moved off and left her standing there, her cowl drawn forward and her hands crossed on her breast. She stood for a moment, facing toward the mountains, oddly monkish in outline and posture. Then she turned back toward the town.

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