Constance Dunlap/Chapter 2
"I came here to hide, to vanish forever from those who know me."
The young man paused a moment to watch the effect of his revelation of himself to Constance Dunlap. There was a certain cynical bitterness in his tone which made her shudder.
"If you were to be discovered—what then?" she hazarded.
Murray Dodge looked at her significantly, but said nothing. Instead, he turned and gazed silently at the ruffled waters of Woodlake. There was no mistaking the utter hopelessness and grim determination of the man.
"Why—why have you told so much to me, an absolute stranger?" she asked, searching his face. "Might I not hand you over to the detectives who, you say, will soon be looking for you?"
"You might," he answered quickly, "but you won't."
There was a note of appeal in his voice as he pursued slowly, not as if seeking protection, but as if hungry for friendship and most of all her friendship, "Mrs. Dunlap, I have heard what the people at the hotel say is your story. I think I understand, as much as a man can. Anyhow, I know that you can understand. I have reached a point where I must tell some one or go insane. It is only a question of time before I shall be caught. We are all caught. Tell me," he asked eagerly, bending down closer to her with an almost breathless intensity in his face as though he would read her thoughts, "am I right? The story of you which I have heard since I came here is not the truth, the whole truth. It is only half the truth—is it not?"
Constance felt that this man was dangerously near understanding her, as no one yet had seemed to be. It set her heart beating wildly to know that he did. And yet she was not afraid. Somehow, although she did not betray the answer by a word or a look, she felt that she could trust him.
Through the door of escape from the penalty of her forgeries, which Carlton Dunlap had thrown open for her by the manner of his death, Constance had passed unsuspected. To return to New York, however, had become out of the question. She had plenty of money for her present needs, although she thought it best to say nothing about it lest some one might wonder and stumble on the truth.
She had closed up the little studio apartment, and had gone to a quiet resort in the pines. Here, at least, she thought she might live unobserved until she could plan out the tangled future of her life.
There had seemed to be no need to conceal her identity, and she had felt it better not to do so. She knew that her story would follow her, and it had. She was prepared for that. She was prepared for the pity and condescension of the gossips and had made up her mind to stand aloof.
Then came a day when a stranger had registered at the hotel. She had not noticed him especially, but it was not long before she realized that he was noticing her. Was he a detective? Had he found out the truth in some uncanny way? She felt sure that the name on the hotel register, Malcolm Dodd, was not his real name.
Constance had not been surprised when the head waiter had seated the young man at her table. No doubt he had manœuvred it so. Nor did she avoid the guarded acquaintance that resulted in the natural course of events.
One afternoon, shortly after his arrival, she had encountered him unexpectedly on a walk through the pines. He appeared surprised to meet her, yet she knew intuitively that he had been following her. Still, it was so different now to have any one seek her company that, in spite of her uncertainty of him, she almost welcomed his speaking.
There was a certain deference in his manner, too, which did not accord with Constance's ideas of a detective. Yet he did know something of her. How much! Was it merely what the rest of the world knew? She could not help seeing that the man was studying her, while she studied him. There was a fascination about it, a fascination that the human mystery always possesses for a woman. On his part, he showed keenly his interest in her.
Constance had met him with more frankness as she encountered him often during the days that followed. She had even tried to draw him out to talk of himself.
"I came here," he had said one day when they were passing the spot where he had overtaken her first, "without knowing a soul, not expecting to meet any one I should care for, indeed hoping to meet no one."
Constance had said nothing, but she felt that at last he was going to crash down the barrier of reserve. He continued earnestly, "Somehow or other I have come to enjoy these little walks."
"So have I," she admitted, facing him; "but, do you know, sometimes I have thought that Malcolm Dodd is not your real name?"
"Not my real name?" he repeated.
"And that you are here for some other purpose than—just to rest. You know, you might be a detective."
He had looked at her searchingly. Then in a burst of confidence, he had replied, "No, my name is not Dodd, as you guessed. But I am not a detective, as you suspected at first. I have been watching you because, ever since I heard your story here, I have been—well, not suspicious, but—attracted. You seem to me to have faced a great problem. I, too, have come to the parting of the ways. Shall I run or shall I fight?"
He had handed her a card without hesitation. It bore the name, "Murray Dodge, Treasurer, Globe Importing Company."
"What do you mean?" she had asked quickly, hardly expecting an answer. "What have you done?"
"Oh, it is the usual trouble, I suppose," he had replied wearily, much to her surprise. "I began as a boy in the company and ultimately worked myself up as it grew, until I became treasurer. To cut it short, I have used funds belonging to the company, lost them. I don't need to tell you how a treasurer or a cashier can do that."
Constance was actually startled. Was he what he represented himself to be? Or was he leading her on in this way to a confession of her own part, which she had covered so well, in the forgeries of her dead husband?
"How did you begin?" she asked tentatively.
"A few years ago," he answered with a disconcerting lack of reserve, "the company found that we could beat our competitors by a very simple means. The largest stockholder, Mr. Dumont, was friendly with some of the customs officials and—well, we undervalued our goods. It was easy. The only thing necessary was to bribe some of the officials. The president of the company, Walton Beverley, put the dirty work on me as treasurer. Now you can imagine what that meant."
He had fallen into a cynical tone again.
"It meant that I soon found, or, rather, thought I found, that every man has his price—some higher, some lower, but a price, nevertheless. It was my business to find it, to keep it as low as I could with safety. So it went, from one crooked thing to another. I knew I was crooked, but not as bad, I think, as the rest who put the actual work on me. I was unfortunate, weak perhaps. That is all. I tried to get mine, too. I lost what I meant to put back after I had used it. They are after me now, or soon will be—the crooks! And here I am, momentarily expecting some one to walk up quietly behind me, tap me on the shoulder and whisper, 'You're wanted.'"
Time had not softened the bitterness of Constance's feelings. Somehow she felt that the world, or at least society owed her for taking away her husband. The world must pay. She sympathized with the young man who was appealing to her for friendship. Why not help him?
"Do you really, really want to know what I think?" asked Constance after he had at last told her his wretched story. It was the first time that she had looked at him since she realized that he was unburdening the truth to her.
"Yes," he answered eagerly, catching her eye. "Yes," he urged.
"I think," she said slowly, "that you are running away from a fight that has not yet begun."
It thrilled her to be talking so. Once before she had tasted the sweetness and the bitterness of crime. She did not stop to think about right or wrong. If she had done so her ethics would have been strangely illogical. It was enough that, short as their acquaintance had been, she felt unconsciously that there was something latent in the spirit of this man akin to her own.
Murray also felt rather than understood the bond that had been growing so rapidly between them. His was the temperament that immediately translates feeling into action. He reached into his breast pocket. There was the blue-black glint of a cold steel automatic. A moment he balanced it in his hand. Then with a rapid and decisive motion of the arm he flung it far from him. As it struck the water with a sound horribly suggestive of the death gurgle of a lost man, he turned and faced her.
"There," he exclaimed with a new light in the defiant, desperate smile that she had observed many times before, "there. The curtain rises—instead of falls."
Neither spoke for a few moments. At last he added, "What shall I do next?"
"Do?" she repeated. She felt now the weight of responsibility for interfering with his desperate plans, but it did not oppress her. On the contrary, it was a pleasant burden. "According to your own story," she went on, "they know nothing yet, as far as you can see. You would have forestalled them by taking this little vacation during which you could disappear while they would discover the shortage. Do? Go back."
"And when they discover it?" he asked evidently prepared for the answer she had given and eager to know what she would propose next.
Constance had been thinking rapidly.
"Listen," she cried, throwing aside restraint now. "No one in New York outside my former little circle knows me. I can live there in another circle unobserved. For weeks I have been amusing myself by the study of shorthand. I have picked up enough to be able to carry the thing off. Discharge your secretary. Put an advertisement in the newspapers. I will answer it. Then I will be able to help you. I cannot say at a distance what you should do next. There, perhaps, I can tell you."
What was it that had impelled her to say it? She could not have told. Murray looked at her. Her very presence seemed to infuse new determination into him.
It was strange about this woman, what a wonderful effect she had on him.
A few days before he would have laughed at any one who had suggested that any woman might have aroused in him the passions that were now surging through his heart. Ten thousand years ago, perhaps, he would have seized her and carried her off in triumph to his clan or tribe. To-day he must, he would win her by more subtle means.
His mind was made up. She had pointed the way. That night Dodge left Woodlake hastily for New York.
To Constance a new purpose seemed to have entered into a barren life. She was almost gay as she packed her trunks and grips and quietly slipped into the city a few hours later and registered at a quiet hotel for business women.
Sure enough in the Star the next morning was the advertisement. She wrote in a formal way, giving her telephone number. That afternoon, apparently as soon as the letter had been delivered, a call came. The following morning she was the private secretary of Murray Dodge, sitting unobtrusively before a typewriter desk in a sort of little anteroom that guarded the door to his office.
She took pains to act the part of private secretary and no more. As appeared natural to the rest of the office force at first she was much with Murray, who made the most elaborate explanations of the detail of the business.
"Do they suspect anything?" she asked anxiously as soon as they were absolutely alone.
"I think so," he replied. "They said nothing except that they had not expected me back so soon, I think the 'so soon' was an afterthought. They didn't expect me back at all. For," he added significantly, "I've been in fear and trembling until I could get you. They already have asked the regular audit company to go over the books in advance of the time when we usually employ them. I didn't ask why. I merely accepted it with a nod. It might have meant bringing matters to a crisis now."
He felt safer with Constance installed as his private secretary. True, Beverley and Dumont had viewed her from the start with suspicion.
Constance had been thinking hard out in her little office since she had begun to understand how matters stood. "Well?" she demanded. "What of it? Don't try to conceal it. Let them discover it. Go further. Dare them. Court exposure."
It was bold and ingenious. What a woman she was for meeting emergencies. Murray, who had a will that had been accustomed to bend others to his purposes except in the instance where they had bent him and nearly broken him, recognized the masterful mind of Constance. He was willing to allow her to play the game.
Thus Constance began collecting the very data that would have sent Murray to jail for bribery. Day by day as she worked on, the situation became more and more delicate. They found themselves alone much of the time now. Beverley was, or pretended to be, busy on other matters and avoided Dodge as much as possible. Only the regular routine affairs passed through his hands, but he said nothing. It gave him more time with her. Dumont came in as rarely as it was possible.
And as they worked along gathering the data Constance came to admire Murray more than ever. She worked patiently over the big books, taking only those on which the accountant was not engaged at such times as she could get them without exciting suspicion. Together they dug out the extent of the frauds that had been practiced on the Government for years back. From the letter files they rescued notes and orders and letters, pieced them together into as near a continuous record as they could make. With his own knowledge of the books Dodge could count on making better progress on the essential things than the regular accountant of the audit company. He felt sure that they would finish sooner and that they would have a closer report of the frauds of all kinds than could be uncovered by the man who had been set on the trail of Dodge to discover just how much of the illicit gains he had taken for himself.
Constance became aware soon that whenever she left the office at night she was being followed. She had at first studiously repelled the offers of Murray to see her home. It was not that he had taken advantage of the situation into which she had put herself. He would never have done that. Still, she wished a little more time to analyze her own conflicting feelings toward him. Then, too, several times in the crowded subway cars she had noticed a face that was familiar. It was Drummond, never looking directly at her, always engrossed in something else, yet never failing to note where she was going. That must be, she reasoned, some of the work of Beverley and Dumont.
Murray was now working feverishly. As he worked he found himself feeling differently toward the whole affair. He actually came to enjoy it with all its risks and uncertainty, to enjoy gathering the data which, he should have said, ought really to be destroyed. Often he caught himself wishing that everything had come out all right in the end and that Constance really was his private secretary.
Every moment with her seemed now to pass so quickly that he would willingly have smashed all the clocks and destroyed all the calendars. Association with other women had been tame beside his new friendship with her. She had suffered, felt, lived. She fascinated him, as often over the books they would stop to talk, talk of things the most irrelevant, yet to him the most interesting, until she would bring him back inevitably to the point of their work and start him again with a new power and incentive toward the purpose she had in mind.
To Constance he seemed to fill a blank spot in her empty life. If she had been bitter toward the world for what had happened to her, the pleasure of helping another to beat that harsh world seemed an unspeakably sweet compensation.
At last even Constance herself began to realize it. It was not, after all, merely the bitterness toward society, that lured her on. She was not a woman carved out of a block of stone. There was a sweetness about this association that carried her along as if in a dream. She was actually falling in love with him.
One day she had been working later than usual. The accountant had shown signs of approaching the end of his task sooner than they had expected. Murray was waiting, as was his custom, for her to finish before he left.
There was no sound in the almost deserted office building save the banging of a door echoing now and then, or an insistent ring of the elevator bell as an anxious office boy or stenographer sought to escape after an extra period of work.
Murray stood looking at her admiringly as she deftly shoved the pins into her hat. Then he held her coat, which brought them close together.
"It will soon be time for the final scene," he remarked. His manner was different as he looked down at her. "We must succeed, Constance," he went on slowly. "Of course, after it is over, it will be impossible for me to remain here with this company. I have been looking around. I must—we must clear ourselves. I already have an offer to go with another company, much better than this position in every way—honest, square, with no dirty work, such as I have had here."
It was a moment that Constance had foreseen, without planning what she would do. She moved to the door as if to go.
"Take dinner with me to-night at the Riverside," he went on, mentioning the name of a beautifully situated inn uptown overlooking the lights of the Hudson and thronged by gay parties of pleasure seekers.
Before she could say no, even though she would have said it, he had linked his arm in hers, banged shut the door and they were being whisked to the street in the elevator.
This time, as they were about to go out of the building, she noticed Drummond standing in the shadow of a corner back of the cigar counter on the first floor. She told Murray of the times she had seen Drummond following her. Murray ground his teeth.
"He'll have to hustle this time," he muttered, handing her quickly into a cab that was waiting for a fare.
Before he could give the order where to drive she had leaned out of the window, "To the ferry," she cried.
Murray looked at her inquiringly. Then he understood. "Not to the Riverside—yet," she whispered. "That man has just summoned a cab that was passing."
In her eyes Murray saw the same fire that had blazed when she had told him he was running away from a fight that had not yet begun. As the cab whirled through the now nearly deserted downtown streets, he reached over in sheer admiration and caressed her hand. She did not withdraw it, but her averted eyes and quick breath told that a thousand thoughts were hurrying through her mind, divided between the man in the cab beside her and the man in the cab following perhaps half a block behind.
At the ferry they halted and pretended to be examining a time table, though they bought only ferry tickets. Drummond did the same, and sauntered leisurely within easy distance of the gate. Nothing seemed to escape him, and yet never did he seem to be watching them.
The gateman shouted "All aboard!"
The door began to close.
"Come," she tugged at his sleeve.
They dodged in just in time. Drummond followed. They started across the wagonway to the opposite side of the slip. He kept on the near side. Constance swerved back again to the near side. Drummond had been opposite them and they had now fallen in behind him. He was now ahead, but going slowly. Murray felt her pulling back on his arm. With a little exclamation she dropped her purse, which contained a few coins. She had contrived to open it, and the coins ran in every possible direction. Drummond was now on the boat.
"All aboard," growled the guard surlily. "All aboard."
"Go ahead, go ahead," shouted Murray, trying to pick up the scattered change and scattering it the more. At last he understood. "Go ahead. We'll take the next boat. Can't you see the lady has dropped her purse?"
The gates closed. The warning whistle blew, and the ferryboat, departed, bearing off Drummond alone.
Another cab took them to the Riverside. A new bond of experience had been established between them. They dined quietly and as the lights grew mellow she told him more of her story than she had ever breathed to any other living soul.
As Murray listened he looked his admiration for the daring of the little woman opposite him at the table.
It was the day of the threatened exposure. Curiously enough, Dodge felt no nervousness. The understanding which he had reached or felt that he had reached with Constance made him rather eager than otherwise to have the whole affair over with at once.
Drummond had been shut up for some time in the office of Beverley with Dumont, going over the report which the accountant had prepared and other matters—He had come in without seeing either Constance or Murray, though they knew he must be nursing his chagrin over the episode of the night before.
"They are waiting to see you," reported Constance to Dodge, half an hour later, after one of the office boys had been sent over as a formal messenger to their office.
"We are ready for them?" he asked, smiling at her.
"Then I shall go in. Wait a moment. When they have hurled their worst at me I shall call on you. Have the stuff ready."
There was no hesitation, no misgiving on the part of either, as he strode into Beverley's office. Constance had prepared the record which they had been working on, and for days had been momentarily expecting this crisis. She felt that she was ready.
An ominous silence greeted Dodge as he entered.
"We have had experts on your books, Dodge," began Beverley, clearing his throat, as Murray seated himself, waiting for them to speak first.
"I have seen that," he replied dryly.
"They are fifty thousand dollars short," shot out Dumont.
Dumont gasped at the coolness of the man. "Wh—what? You have nothing to say? Why, sir," he added, raising his voice, "you have actually made no effort to conceal it!"
Dodge smiled cynically. "A consultation, will rectify it," was all he said. "A conference will show you that it is all right."
"A consultation?" broke in Beverley in rage. "A consultation in jail!"
Still Dodge merely smiled.
"Then you consider yourself trapped. You admit it," ground out Dumont.
"Anything you please," repeated Dodge. "I am perfectly willing——"
"Let us end this farce—now," cried Beverley hotly. "Drummond!"
The detective had been doing some rapid thinking. "Just a moment," he interrupted. "Don't be too precipitate. Hear his side, if he has any. I can manage him. Besides, I have something else to say about another person that will interest us all."
"Then you are willing to have the consultation!"
"Miss Dunlap," called Murray, taking the words almost from the detective's lips, as he opened the door and held it for her to enter.
"No—no. Alone," almost shouted Beverley.
The detective signaled to him and he subsided, muttering.
As she entered Drummond looked hard at her. Constance met him without wavering an instant.
"I think I've seen you before, MRS. Dunlap," insinuated the detective.
"Perhaps," replied Constance, still meeting his sharp ferret eye squarely, which increased his animosity.
"Your husband was Carlton Dunlap, cashier of Green & Company, was he not?"
She bit her lip. The manner of his raking up of old scores, though she had expected it, was cruel. It would have been cruel in court, if she had had a lawyer to protect her rights. It was doubly cruel, merciless, here. Before Dodge could interrupt, the detective added, "Who committed suicide after forging checks to meet his——"
Murray was at Drummond like a hound. "Another word from you and I'll throttle you," he blurted out.
"No, Murray, no. Don't," pleaded Constance. She was burning with indignation, but it was not by violence that she expected to prevail. "Let him say what he has to say."
Drummond smiled. He had no scruples about a "third degree" of this kind, and besides there were three of them to Dodge.
"You were—both of you—at Woodlake not long ago, were you not?" he asked calmly.
There was no escaping the implication of the tone. Still Drummond was taking no chances of being misunderstood. "There was one man," he went on, "who embezzled for you. Here is another who has embezzled. How will that look when it goes before a jury!" he concluded.
The fight had shifted before it had well begun. Instead of being between Dodge on one side and Beverley and Dumont on the other, it now seemed to be a clash between a cool detective and a clever woman.
"Mrs. Dunlap," interrupted Murray, with a mocking smile at the detective, "will you tell us what you have found out since you have been my private secretary?"
Constance had not lost control of herself for a moment.
"I have been looking over the books a little bit myself," she began slowly, with all eyes riveted on her. "I find, for instance, that your company has been undervaluing its imported goods. Undervaluing merchandise is considered, I believe, one of the meanest forms of smuggling. The undervaluer has frequently to make a tool of a man in his employ. Then that tool must play on the frailties of an unfortunate or weak examiner at the Public Stores where all invoices and merchandise from foreign countries are examined."
Drummond had been trying to interrupt, but she had ignored him, and was speaking rapidly so that he could get no chance.
"You have cheated the Government of hundreds of thousands dollars," she hurried on facing Beverley and Dumont. "It would make a splendid newspaper story."
Dumont moved uneasily. Drummond was now staring. It was a new phase of the matter to him. He had not counted on handling a woman like Constance, who knew how to take advantage of every weak spot in the armor.
"We are wasting time," he interrupted brusquely. "Get back to the original subject. There is a fifty thousand-dollar shortage on these books."
The attempt clumsily to shift the case away again from Constance to Dodge was apparent.
"Mrs. Dunlap's past troubles," Dodge asserted vigorously, "have nothing to do with the case. It was cowardly to drag that in. But the other matter of which she speaks has much to do with it."
"One moment, Murray," cried Constance. "Let me finish what I began. This is my fight, too, now."
She was talking with blazing eyes and in quick, cutting tone.
"For three years he did your dirty work," she flashed. "He did the bribing—and you saved half a million dollars."
"He has stolen fifty thousand," put in Beverley, white with anger.
"I have kept an account of everything," pursued Constance, without pausing. "I have pieced the record together so that he can now connect the men higher up with the actual acts he had to do. He can gain immunity by turning state's evidence. I am not sure but that he might be able to obtain his moiety of what the Government recovers if the matter were brought to suit and won on the information he can furnish."
She paused. No one seemed to breathe.
"Now," she added impressively, "at ten per cent. commission the half million that he saved for you yields fifty thousand dollars. That, gentlemen, is the amount of the shortage—an offset."
"The deuce it is!" exclaimed Beverley.
Constance reached for a telephone on the desk near her.
"Get me the Law Division at the Customs House," she asked simply.
Dumont was pale and almost speechless. Beverley could ill suppress his smothered rage. What could they do? The tables had been turned. If they objected to the amazing proposal Constance had made they might all go to jail. Dodge even might go free, rich. They looked at Dodge and Mrs. Dunlap. There was no weakening. They were as relentless as their opponents had been before.
Dumont literally tore the telephone from her. "Never mind about that number, central," he muttered.
Then he started as if toward the door. The rest followed. Outside the accountant had been waiting patiently, perhaps expecting Drummond to call on him to corroborate the report. He had been listening. There was no sound of high voices, as he had expected. What did it mean?
The door opened. Beverley was pale and haggard, Dumont worn and silent. He could scarcely talk. Dodge again held the door for Constance as she swept past the amazed accountant.
All eyes were now fixed on Dumont as chief spokesman.
"He has made a satisfactory explanation," was all he said.
"I would lock all that stuff up in the strongest safe deposit vault in New York," remarked Constance, laying the evidence that involved them all on Murray's desk. "It is your only safeguard."
"Constance," he burst forth suddenly, "you were superb."
The crisis was past now and she felt the nervous reaction.
"There is one thing more I want to say," he added in a low tone.
He had crossed to where she was standing by the window, and bent over, speaking with great emotion.
"Since that afternoon at Woodlake when you turned me back again from the foolish and ruinous course on which I had decided you—you have been more to me than life. Constance, I have never loved until now. Nothing has ever mattered except money. I never had any one else to think of, care for, except myself. You have changed everything."
She was gazing out of the window at the tall buildings. There, in a myriad of offices, lay wealth untold, opportunity as yet untasted to seize that wealth. Only for an instant she turned and looked at him, then dropped her eyes. What lay that way?
"You are clear now, respected, respectable," she said simply.
"Yes, thank God. Clear and with a new ambition, thanks to you."
She had been expecting this ever since that last night. The relief of Murray to feel that the old score that would have ruined him was now wiped off the slate was precisely what she had anticipated.
Yet, somehow, it disappointed her. She felt instinctively that her triumph was burning fast to ashes.
"Keep clear," she faltered.
"Constance," he urged, approaching closer and taking her cold hand.
Was she to be the one to hold him back in any way from the new life that was now before him? What if Drummond, in his animosity, ever got the truth? She gently unclasped her hand from his. No, that happiness was not for her.
"I am afraid I am a crook at heart, Murray," she said sadly. "I have gone too far to turn back. The brand is on me. But I am not altogether bad—yet. Think of me always with charity. Yes," she cried wildly, "I must return to my loneliness. No, do not try to stop me, you have no right," she added bitterly as the reality of her situation burned itself into her heart.
She broke away from him wildly, but with set purpose. The world had taken away her husband; now it was a lover; the world must pay.