“Why did you meet her openly, and take her to the train?”
Mr. Howell bent forward and smiled across at the little man. “One of your own axioms, sir,” he said. “Do the natural thing; upset the customary order of events as little as possible. Jennie Brice went to the train, because that was where she wanted to go. But as Ladley was to protest that his wife had left town, and as the police would be searching for a solitary woman, I went with her. We went in a leisurely manner. I bought her a magazine and a morning paper, asked the conductor to fix her window, and, in general, acted the devoted husband seeing his wife off on a trip. I even”—he smiled—“I even promised to feed the canary.”
Lida took her hands away. “Did you kiss her good-by?” she demanded.
“Not even a chaste salute,” he said. His spirits were rising. It was, as often happens, as if the mere confession removed the guilt. I have seen little boys who have broken a window show the same relief after telling about it.
“For a day or two Bronson and I sat back, enjoying the stir-up. Things turned out as we had expected. Business boomed at the theater. I got a good story, and some few kind words from my city editor. Then—the explosion came. I got a letter from Jennie Brice saying she was going away, and that we need not try to find her. I went to Horner, but I had lost track of her completely. Even then, we did not believe things so bad as they turned out to be. We thought she was giving us a bad time, but that she would show up.
“Ladley was in a blue funk for a time. Bronson and I went to him. We told him how the thing had slipped up. We didn’t want to go to the police and confess if we could help it. Finally, he agreed to stick it out until she was found, at a hundred dollars a week. It took all we could beg, borrow and steal. But now—we have to come out with the story anyhow.”
Mr. Holcombe sat up and closed his note-book with a snap. “I’m not so sure of that,” he said impressively. “I wonder if you realize, young man, that, having provided a perfect defense for this man Ladley, you provided him with every possible inducement to make away with his wife? Secure in your coming forward at the last minute and confessing the hoax to save him, was there anything he might not have dared with impunity?”
“But I tell you I took Jennie Brice out of town on Monday morning.”
“Did you?” asked Mr. Holcombe sternly.
But at that, the school-teacher, having come home and found old Isaac sound asleep in her cozy corner, set up such a screaming for the police that our meeting broke up. Nor would Mr. Holcombe explain any further.
Mr. Holcombe was up very early the next morning. I heard him moving around at five o’clock, and at six he banged at my door and demanded to know at what time the neighborhood rose: he had been up for an hour and there were no signs of life. He was more cheerful after he had had a cup of coffee, commented on Lida’s beauty, and said that Howell was a lucky chap.