Constance Dunlap/Chapter 8
"Take care of me—please—please!"
A slip of a girl, smartly attired in a fur-trimmed dress and a chic little feather-tipped hat, hurried up to Constance Dunlap late one afternoon as she turned the corner below her apartment.
"It isn't faintness or illness exactly—but—it's all so hazy," stammered the girl breathlessly. "And I've forgotten who I am. I've forgotten where I live—and a man has been following me—oh, ever so long."
The weariness in the tone of the last words caused Constance to look more closely at the girl. Plainly she was on the verge of hysterics. Tears were streaming down her pale cheeks and there were dark rings under her eyes, suggestive of a haunting fear of something from which she fled.
Constance was astounded for the moment. Was the girl crazy? She had heard of cases like this, but to meet one so unexpectedly was surely disconcerting.
"Who has been following you!" asked Constance gently, looking hastily over her shoulder and seeing no one.
"A man," exclaimed the girl, "but I think he has gone now."
"Can't you think of your name!" urged Constance. "Try."
"No," cried the girl, "no, I can't, I can't."
"Or your address?" repeated Constance. "Try—try hard!"
The girl looked vacantly about.
"No," she sobbed, "it's all gone—all."
Puzzled, Constance took her arm and slowly walked her up the street toward her own apartment in the hope that she might catch sight of some familiar face or be able to pull herself together.
But it was of no use.
They passed a policeman who eyed them sharply. The mere sight of the blue-coated officer sent a shudder through the already trembling girl on her arm.
"Don't, don't let them take me to a hospital—don't," pleaded the girl in a hoarse whisper when they had passed the officer.
"I won't," reassured Constance. "Was that the man who was following you?"
"No—oh, no," sobbed the girl nervously looking back.
"Who was he, then?" asked Constance eagerly.
The girl did not answer, but continued to look back wildly from time to time, although there was no doubt that, if he existed at all, the man had disappeared.
Suddenly Constance realized that she had on her hands a case of aphasia, perhaps real, perhaps induced by a drug.
At any rate, the fear of being sent away to an institution was so strong in the poor creature that Constance felt intuitively how disastrous to her might be the result of disregarding the obsession.
She was in a quandary. What should she do with the girl? To leave her on the street was out of the question. She was now more helpless than ever.
They had reached the door of the apartment. Gently she led the trembling girl into her own home.
But now the question of what to do arose with redoubled force. She hesitated to call a physician, at least yet, because his first advice would probably be to send the poor little stranger to the psychopathic ward of some hospital.
Constance's eye happened to rest on the dictionary in her bookcase. Perhaps she might recall the girl's name to her, if she were not shamming, by reading over the list of women's names in the back of the book.
It meant many minutes, perhaps hours. But then Constance reflected on what might have happened to the girl if she had chanced to appeal to some one who had not felt a true interest in her. It was worth trying. She would do it.
Starting with "A," she read slowly.
"Is your name Abigail?"
Down through Barbara, Camilla, Deborah, Edith, Faith, she read.
"Flora?" she asked.
The girl seemed to apprehend something, appear less blank.
"Florence?" persisted Constance.
"Oh, yes," she cried, "that's it—that's my name."
But as for the last name and the address she was just as hazy as ever. Still, there was now something different about her.
"Florence—Florence what?" reiterated Constance patiently.
There was no answer. But with the continued repetition it seemed as if some depth in her nature had been stirred. Constance could not help feeling that the girl had really found herself.
She had risen and was facing Constance, both hands pressed to her throbbing temples as if to keep her head from bursting. Constance had assisted her off with her coat and hat, and now the sartorial wreck of her masses of blonde hair was apparent.
"I suppose," she cried incoherently, "I'm just one more of the thousands of girls who drop out of sight every year."
Constance listened in amazement. As the spell of her influence seemed to calm the overwrought mind of the girl there succeeded a hardness in her tone that was wholly out of keeping with her youth. There was something that breathed of a past where there should have been nothing but the thought of a future.
"Tell me why," soothed Constance with an air that invited confidence.
The girl looked up and again passed her hand over her white forehead with its mass of tangled fallen hair. Somehow Constance felt a tingling sensation of sympathy in her heart. Impulsively she put out her hand and took the cold moist hand of the girl.
"Because," she hesitated, struggling now with re-flooding consciousness, "because—I don't know. I thought, perhaps—" she added, dropping her eyes, "you could—help me."
She was speaking rapidly enough now, "I think they have employed detectives to trace me. One of them is almost up with me. I'm afraid I can't slip out of the net again. And—I—I won't go back to them. I can't. I won't."
"Go back to whom?" queried her friend. "Detectives employed by whom?"
"My folks," she answered quickly.
Constance was surprised. Least of all had she expected that.
"Why won't you go home?" she prompted as the girl seemed about to lapse into a sort of stolid reticence.
"Home?" she repeated bitterly. "Home? No one would believe my story. I couldn't go home, now. They have made it impossible for me to go home. I mean, every newspaper has published my picture. There were headlines for days, and only by chance I was not recognized."
She was sobbing now convulsively. "If they had only let me alone! I might have gone back, then. But now—after the newspapers and the search—never! And yet I am going to have revenge some day. When he least expects it I am going to tell the truth and—"
"And what?" asked Constance.
"Tell the truth—and then do a cowardly thing. I would—"
"You would not!" blazed Constance. There was no mistaking the meaning. "Leave it to me. Trust me. I will help you."
She pulled the girl down on the divan beside her.
"Why talk of suicide?" mused Constance. "You can plead this aphasia I have just seen. I know lots of newspaper women. We could carry it through so that even the doctors would help us. Remember, aphasia will do for a girl nowadays what nothing else can do."
"Aphasia!" Florence repeated harshly. "Call it what you like—weakness—anything. I—I loved that man—not the one who followed me—another. I believed him. But he left me—left me in a place—across in Brooklyn. They said I was a fool, that some other fellow, perhaps better, with more money, would take care of me. But I left. I got a place in a factory. Then some one in the factory became suspicious. I had saved a little. It took me to Boston.
"Again some one grew suspicious. I came back here, here—the only place to hide. I got another position as waitress in the Betsy Ross Tea Room. There I was able to stay until yesterday. But then a man came in. He had been there before. He seemed too interested in me, not in a way that others have been, but in me—my name. Some how I suspected. I put on my hat and coat. I fled. I think he followed me. All night I have walked the streets and ridden in cars to get away from him. At last—I appealed to you."
The girl had sunk back into the soft pillows of the couch beside her new friend and hid her face. Softly Constance patted and smoothed the wealth of golden hair.
"You—you poor little girl," she sympathized.
Then a film came over her own eyes.
"New York took me at a critical time in my own life," she said more to herself than to the girl. "She sheltered me, gave me a new start. What she did for me she will do for any other person who really wishes to make a fresh start in life. I made few acquaintances, no friends. Fortunately, the average New Yorker asks only that his neighbor leave him alone. No hermit could find better and more complete solitude than in the heart of this great city."
Constance looked pityingly at the girl before her.
"Why can't you tell them," she suggested, "that you wanted to be independent, that you went away to make your own living?"
"But—they—my father—is well off. And they have this detective who follows me. He will find me some day—for the reward—and will tell the truth."
"Yes—a thousand dollars. Don't you remember reading—"
The girl stopped short as if to check herself.
"You—you are Florence Gibbons!" gasped Constance as with a rush there came over her the recollection of a famous unsolved mystery of several months before.
The girl did not look up as Constance bent over and put her arms about her.
"Who was he?" she asked persuasively.
"Preston—Lansing Preston," she sobbed bitterly. "Only the other day I read of his engagement to a girl in Chicago—beautiful, in society. Oh—I could kill him," she cried, throwing out her arms passionately. "Think of it. He—rich, powerful, respected. I—poor, almost crazy—an outcast."
Constance did not interfere until the tempest had passed.
"What name did you give at the tea room?" asked Constance.
"Viola Cole," answered Florence.
"Rest here," soothed Constance. "Here at least you are safe. I have an idea. I shall be back soon."
The Betsy Ross was still open after the rush of tired shoppers and later of business women to whom this was not only a restaurant but a club. Constance entered and sat down.
"Is the manager in?" she asked of the waitress.
"Mrs. Palmer? No. But, if you care to wait, I think she'll be back directly."
As Constance sat toying absently with some food at one of the snowy white tables, a man entered. A man in a tea room is an anomaly. For the tea room is a woman's institution, run by women for women. Men enter with diffidence, and seldom alone. This man was quite evidently looking for some one.
His eye fell on Constance. Her heart gave a leap. It was her old enemy, Drummond, the detective. For a moment he hesitated, then bowed, and came over to her table.
"Peculiar places, these tea rooms," observed Drummond.
Constance was doing some quick thinking. Could this be the detective Florence Gibbons had mentioned?
"The only thing lacking to make them complete," he rattled on, "is a license. Now, take those places that have a ladies' bar—that do openly what tea rooms do covertly. They don't reckon with the attitude of women. This is New York—not Paris. Such things are years off. I don't say they'll not come or that women won't use them—but not by that name—not yet."
Constance wondered what his cynical inconsequentialities masked.
"I think it adds to the interest," she observed, watching him furtively, "this evasion of the laws."
Drummond was casting about for something to do and, naturally, to a mind like his, a drink was the solution. Evidently, however, there were degrees of brazenness, even in tea rooms. The Betsy Ross not only would not produce a labeled bottle and an obvious glass but stoutly denied their ability to fill such an order, even whispered.
"Russian tea?" suggested Drummond cryptically.
"How will you have it—with Scotch or rye?" asked the waitress.
"Bourbon," hazarded Drummond.
When the "Russian tea" arrived it was in a neat little pot with two others, the first containing real tea and the second hot water. It was served virtuously in tea cups, so opaquely concealed that no one but the clandestine drinker could know what sort of poison was being served.
Mrs. Palmer was evidently later than expected. Drummond fidgeted after the manner of a man out of his accustomed habitat. And yet he did not seem to be interested really in Constance, or even in Mrs. Palmer. For after a few moments, he rose and excused himself.
"How did he come here?" Constance asked herself over and over.
As far as she could reason it out, there could be only one reason. Drummond was clearly up with Florence. Did he also know that Constance was shielding her?
The more she thought of it, the more she shuddered at the tactless way in which the detective would perform the act of "charity" by discovering the lost girl—and pocketing the reward.
If her family only knew, how eagerly they might let her come back in her own way. She looked up the address of Everett Gibbons while she was waiting, a half-formed plan taking definite shape in her mind.
What she did must be done quickly. Here at the tea room at least Florence, or rather Viola, was known. Perhaps the best way, after all, was to let her be discovered here. They could not deny that she had been working for them acceptably for some time.
Half an hour later, Mrs. Palmer, a bustling business woman, came in and the waitress pointed her out to Constance.
"Did you have a waitress here named Viola Cole?" began Constance, watching keenly the effect of her inquiry.
"Yes," replied Mrs. Palmer in a tone of interest that reassured Constance that, if there were any connection between Drummond's presence and Mrs. Palmer, it was wholly on his seeking. "But she disappeared last night. A most peculiar girl—but a splendid worker."
"She has been ill," Constance hastened to explain. "I am a friend of hers. I have a business downtown and could not come around until to-night to tell you that she will be back to-morrow if you will take her back."
"Of course I'll take her back. I'm sorry she's ill," and Mrs. Palmer bustled out into the kitchen, not unfeelingly but merely because that was her manner.
Constance paid her check and left the tea room. So far she had succeeded. The next thing she had planned was a visit to Mr. Gibbons. That need not take long, for she was not going to tell anything. Her idea was merely to pave the way.
The Gibbons she found, lived in a large house on one of the numerous side streets from the Park, in a neighborhood that was in fact something more than merely well-to-do.
Fortunately she found Everett Gibbons in and was ushered into his study, where he sat poring over some papers and enjoying an after-dinner cigar.
"Mr. Gibbons," began Constance, "I believe there is a one thousand dollar reward for news of the whereabouts of your daughter, Florence."
"Yes," he said in a colorless tone that betrayed the hopelessness of the long search. "But we have traced down so many false clues that we have given up hope. Since the day she went away, we have never been able to get the slightest trace of her. Still, we welcome outside aid."
"Of detectives?" she asked.
"Official and private—paid and volunteer—anybody," he answered. "I myself have come to the belief that she is dead, for that is the only explanation I can think of for her long silence."
"She is not dead," replied Constance in a low tone.
"Not dead?" he repeated eagerly, catching at even such a straw as an unknown woman might cast out. "Then you know—"
"No," she interrupted positively, "I cannot tell you any more. You must call off all other searchers. I will let you know."
"To-morrow, perhaps the next day. I will call you on the telephone."
She rose and made a hasty adieu before the man who had been prematurely aged might overwhelm her with questions and break down her resolution to carry the thing through as she had seen best.
Cheerily, Constance turned the key in the lock of her door.
There was no light and somehow the silence smote on her ominously.
"Florence!" she called.
There was no answer.
Not a sign indicated her presence. There was the divan with the pillows disarranged as they had been when she left. The furniture was in the same position as before. Hastily she went from one room to another. Florence had disappeared!
She went to the door again. All seemed right there. If any one had entered, it must have been because he was admitted, for there were no marks to indicate that the lock had been forced.
She called up the tea room. Mrs. Palmer was very sympathetic, but there had been no trace of "Viola Cole" there yet.
"You will let me know if you get any word?" asked Constance anxiously.
"Surely," came back Mrs. Palmer's cordial reply.
A hundred dire possibilities crowded through her mind. Might Florence be held somewhere as a "white slave"—not by physical force but by circumstances, ignorant of her rights, afraid to break away again?
Or was it suicide, as she had threatened? She could not believe it. Nothing could have happened in such a short time to change her resolution about revenge.
The recollection of all the stories she had read recently crossed her mind. Could it be a case of drugs? The girl had given no evidence of being a "dope" fiend.
Perhaps some one had entered, after all.
She thought of the so-called "poisoned needle" cases. Might she not have been spirited off in that way? Constance had doubted the stories. She knew that almost any doctor would say that it was impossible to inject a narcotic by a sudden jab of a hypodermic syringe. That was rather a slow, careful and deliberate operation, to be submitted to with patience.
Yet Florence was gone!
Suddenly it flashed over Constance that Drummond might not be seeking the reward primarily, after all. His first object might be shielding Preston. She recollected that Mr. Gibbons had said nothing about Drummond, either one way or the other. And if he were both shielding Preston and working for the reward, he would care little how much Florence suffered. He might be playing both ends to serve himself.
She rang the elevator bell.
"Has anybody called at my apartment while I was out?" she asked.
"Yes'm. A man came here."
"And you let him up?"
"I didn't know you were out. You see I had just come on. He said he was to meet some one at your apartment. And when he pressed the buzzer, the door opened, and I ran the elevator down again. I thought it was all right, ma'am."
"And then what?" inquired Constance breathlessly.
"Well, in about five minutes my bell rang. I ran the elevator up again, and, waiting, was this man with a girl I had never seen before. You understand—I thought it was all right—he told me he was going to meet some one."
"Yes—yes. I understand. Oh, my God, if I had only thought to leave word not to let her go. How did she look?"
"Her clothes, you mean, Ma'am?"
"No—her face, her eyes!"
"Beggin' your pardon, I thought she was—well, er,—acted queer—scared—dazed-like."
"You didn't notice which way they went, I suppose!"
"No ma'am, I didn't."
Constance turned back again into her empty apartment, heart-sick. In spite of all she had planned and done, she was defeated—worse than defeated. Where was Florence! What might not happen to her! She could have sat down and cried. Instead she passed a feverishly restless night.
All the next day passed, and still not a word. She felt her own helplessness. She could not appeal to the police. That might defeat the very end she sought. She was single-handed. For all she knew, she was fighting the almost limitless power of brains and money of Preston. Inquiry developed the fact that Preston himself was reported to be in Chicago with his fiancee. Time and again she was on the point of making the journey to let him know that some one at least was watching him. But, she reflected, if she did that she might miss the one call from Florence for help.
Then she thought bitterly of the false hopes she had raised in the despairing father of Florence Gibbons. It was maddening.
Several times during the day Constance dropped into the Betsy Ross, without finding any word.
Late that night the buzzer on her door sounded. It was Mrs. Palmer herself, with a letter at last, written on rough paper in pencil with a trembling hand.
Constance almost literally pounced on it.
"Will you tell the lady who was so kind to me that while she was out seeing you at the tea room, there was a call at her door? I didn't like to open it, but when I asked who was there, a man said it was the steam-fitter she had asked to call about the heat.
"I opened the door. From that moment when I saw his face until I came to myself here I remember nothing. I would write to her, only I don't know where she lives. One of the bell-boys here is kind enough to smuggle this note out for me addressed to the Betsy Boss.
"Tell her please, that I am at a place in Brooklyn, I think, called Lustgarten's—she can recognize it because it is at a railroad crossing—steam railroads, not trolleys or elevateds.
"I know you think me crazy, Mrs. Palmer, but the other lady can tell you about it. Oh, it was the same horrible feeling that came over me that night as before. It isn't a dream; it's more like a trance. It comes in a second—usually when I am frightened. I suddenly feel nervous and shaky. I can't tell what is going on around me. I lose my hearing. Part of the time it is as though, I had a paralytic stroke of the tongue. The next day, perhaps, it is gone. But while it lasts it is terrifying. It's like walking into a new world, with everybody, everything strange about me."
The note ended with a most pathetic appeal.
Constance was already nervously putting on her hat.
"You are going to go there?" asked Mrs. Palmer.
"If I can locate the place," she answered.
"Aren't you afraid?" inquired the other.
Constance did not reply. She ostentatiously slipped a little ivory-handled revolver into her handbag.
"It's a new one," she explained finally, "like nothing you ever heard of before, I guess. I bought it only the other day after a friend of mine told me about it."
Mrs. Palmer was watching her closely.
"You—you are a wonderful woman," she burst out finally. "It isn't good business, it isn't good sense."
Constance stopped short in her preparations for the search. "What are business and sense compared to the—the life of—"
She checked herself on the very point of revealing the girl's real name.
"Nothing," replied Mrs. Palmer. "I had already made up my mind to go with you before I spoke—if you will let me."
In a moment the two understood each other better than after years of casual acquaintance.
Back and forth through the mazes of streets and car lines of the city across the river the two women traveled, asking veiled questions of every wearer of a uniform, until at last they found such a place as Florence had described in her note.
There, it seemed, had sprung up a little center of vice. While reformers were trying to clamp down tight the "lid" in New York, all the vicious elements were prying it up here. Crushed in one place, they rose again in another.
There was the electric sign—"Lustgarten." Even a cursory glance told them that it included a saloon on the first floor, with a sort of dance hall and second-rate cabaret. Above that was a hotel. The windows were darkened, with awnings pulled down, even on what must have been in the daytime the shady side.
"Shall we go in? Are you game?" asked Constance of her companion.
"I haven't gone so far without considering that," replied Mrs. Palmer, somewhat reproachfully.
Without a word Constance entered the door down the street followed by her companion.
A negro at the little cubby hole of an office pushed out a register at them. Constance signed the first names that came into her head, and a moment later they were on their way up to a big double room on the third floor, led by another, younger negro.
"Will you send the bell-boy up?" asked Constance as they entered the room.
"I'm the bell-boy ma'am," was his disconcerting reply.
"I mean the other one," replied Constance, hazarding, "the one who is here in the day time."
"There ain't no other boy, ma'am. There ain't no—"
"Could you deliver a note for me at a tea room in New York to-morrow?" interrupted Constance, striking while the iron seemed hot.
The boy turned around abruptly from his busy occupation of doing something useless that would elicit a tip. He quietly shut the door, and wheeled about with his hand still on the knob.
"Do you want to know what room she's in?" he asked.
Constance opened her handbag. Mrs. Palmer suppressed a little scream. She had expected that ivory-handled thing to appear. Instead there was a treasury note of a size that caused the white part of the boy's eyes to expand beyond all the laws of optics.
"Yes," she said, pressing it into his hand.
"Forty-two-down the hall, around the turn, on the other side," whispered the boy. "And for God's sake, ma'am, don't tell nobody I told you."
His shuffle down the hall had scarcely ceased before the two women were stealthily creeping in the opposite direction, looking eagerly at the numbers.
Constance had stopped abruptly around the turn. Through a transom of one of the rooms they could hear voices but could see no light.
"Well, go back then," growled a gruff voice. "Your family will never believe your story, never believe that you came again and stayed at Lustgarten's against your will. Why," the voice taunted with a harsh laugh, "if they knew the truth, they would turn you from the door, instead of offering a reward."
There was a moment of silence. Then a woman's voice, strangely familiar to Constance, spoke.
"The truth!" she exclaimed bitterly. "He knew it was a case of a girl who liked a good time, liked pretty clothes, a ride in an automobile, theaters, excitement, bright lights, night life—a girl with a romantic disposition in whom all that was repressed at home. He knew it," she repeated, raising the tone to an almost hysterical pitch, "led me on, made me love him because he could give them all to me. And when I began to show the strain of the pace-they all show it more than the men—he cast me aside like a squeezed-out lemon."
As she listened, Constance understood it all now. It was to make Florence Gibbons a piece of property, a thing to be traded in, bartered—that was the idea. Discover her—yes; but first to thrust her into the life if she would not go into it herself—anything to discredit her testimony beforehand, anything to save the precious reputation of one man.
"Well," shouted the other voice menacingly, "do you want to know the truth? Haven't you read it often enough? Instead of hoping you will return, they pray that you are dead!"
He hissed the words out, then added, "They prefer to think that you are dead. Why—damn it!—they turn to that belief for comfort!"
Constance had seized Mrs. Palmer by the arm, and, acting in concert, they threw both their weights against the thin wooden door.
It yielded with a crash.
Inside the room was dark.
Indistinctly Constance could make out two figures, one standing, the other seated in a deep rocker.
A suppressed exclamation of surprise was followed by a hasty lunge of the standing figure toward her.
Constance reached quickly into her handbag and drew out the little ivory-handled pistol.
"Bang!" it spat almost into the man's face.
Choking, sputtering, the man groped a minute blindly, then fell on the floor and frantically tried to rise again and call out.
The words seemed to stick in his throat.
"You—you shot him?" gasped a woman's voice which Constance now knew was Florence's.
"With the new German Secret Service gun," answered Constance quietly, keeping it leveled to cow any assistance that might be brought. "It blinds and stupefies without killing—a bulletless revolver intended to check and render harmless the criminal instead of maiming him. The cartridges contain several chemicals that combine when they are exploded and form a vapor which blinds a man and puts him out. No one wants to kill such a person as this."
She reached over and switched on the lights.
The man on the floor was Drummond himself.
"You will tell your real employer, Mr. Preston," she added contemptuously, "that unless he agrees to our story of his elopement with Florence, marries her, and allows her to start an undefended action for divorce, we intend to make use of the new federal Mann Act—with a jail sentence—for both of you."
Drummond looked up sullenly, still blinking and choking.
"And not a word of this until the suit is filed. Then we will see the reporters—not he. Understand?"
"Yes," he muttered, still clutching his throat.
An hour later Constance was at the telephone in her own apartment.
"Mr. Gibbons? I must apologize for troubling you at this late, or rather early, hour. But I promised you something which I could not fulfill until now. This is the Mrs. Dunlap who called on you the other day with a clue to your daughter Florence. I have found her—yes—working as a waitress in the Betsy Ross Tea Boom. No—not a word to anyone—not even to her mother. No—not a word. You can see her to-morrow—at my apartment. She is going to live with me for a few days until—well—until we get a few little matters straightened out."
Constance had jammed the receiver back on the hook hastily.
Florence Gibbons, wild-eyed, trembling, imploring, had flung her arms about her neck.
"No—no—no," she cried. "I can't. I won't."
With a force that was almost masculine, Constance took the girl by both shoulders.
"The one thousand dollar reward which comes to me," said Constance decisively, "will help us—straighten out those few little matters with Preston. Mrs. Palmer can stretch the time which you have worked for her."
Something of Constance's will seemed to be infused into Florence Gibbons by force of suggestion.
"And remember," Constance added in a tense voice, "for anything after your elopement—it's aphasia, aphasia, aphasia!"