The Hole In The Mahogany Panel

Sir Henry paused a moment, his finger between the pages of the

ancient diary.

"It is the inspirational quality in these cases" he said, "that

impresses me. It is very nearly absent in our modern methods of

criminal investigation. We depend now on a certain formal

routine. I rarely find a man in the whole of Scotland Yard with

a trace of intuitive impulse to lead him . . . . Observe how

s old justice in Virginia bridged the gaps between his


He paused.

"We call it the inspirational instinct, in criminal investigation

. . . genius, is the right word."

He looked up at the clock.

"We have an hour, yet, before the opera will be worth hearing;

listen to this final case."

The narrative of the diary follows:

The girl was walking in the road. Her frock was covered with

dust. Her arms hung limp. Her face with the great eyes and the

exquisite mouth was the chalk face of a ghost. She walked with

the terrible stiffened celerity of a human creature when it is

trapped and ruined.

Night was coming on. Behind the girl sat the great old house at

the end of a long lane of ancient poplars.

This was a strange scene my father came on. He pulled up his big

red-roan horse at the crossroads, where the long lane entered the

turnpike, and looked at the stiff, tragic figure. He rode home

from a sitting of the county justices, alone, at peace, on this

midsummer night, and God sent this tragic thing to meet him.

He got down and stood under the crossroads signboard beside his


The earth was dry; in dust. The dead grass and the dead leaves

made a sere, yellow world. It looked like a land of unending

summer, but a breath of chill came out of the hollows with the


The girl would have gone on, oblivious. But my father went down

into the road and took her by the arm. She stopped when she saw

who it was, and spoke in the dead, uninflected voice of a person

in extremity.

"Is the thing a lie?" she said.

"What thing, child?" replied my father.

"The thing he told me!"

"Dillworth?" said my father. "Do you mean Hambleton Dillworth?"

The girl put out her free arm in a stiff, circling gesture. "In

all the world," she said, "is there any other man who would have

told me?"

My father's face hardened as if of metal. "What did he tell


The girl spoke plainly, frankly, in her dead voice, without

equivocation, with no choice of words to soften what she said:

"He said that my father was not dead; that I was the daughter of

a thief; that what I believed about my father was all made up to

save the family name; that the truth was my father robbed him,

stole his best horse and left the country when I was a baby. He

said I was a burden on him, a pensioner, a drone; and to go and

seek my father."

And suddenly she broke into a flood of tears. Her face pressed

against my father's shoulder. He took her up in his big arms and

got into his saddle.

"My child," he said, "let us take Hambleton Dillworth at his


And he turned the horse into the lane toward the ancient house.

The girl in my father's arms made no resistance. There was this

dominating quality in the man that one trusted to him and

followed behind him. She lay in his arms, the tears wetting her

white face and the long lashes.

The moon came up, a great golden moon, shouldered over the rim of

the world by the backs of the crooked elves. The horse and the

two persons made a black, distorted shadow that jerked along as

though it were a thing evil and persistent. Far off in the

thickets of the hills an owl cried, eerie and weird like a

creature in some bitter sorrow. The lane was deep with dust. The

horse traveled with no sound, and the distorted black shadow

followed, now blotted out by the heavy tree tops, and now only

partly to be seen, but always there.

My father got down at the door and carried the girl up the steps

and between the plaster pillars into the house. There was a hall

paneled in white wood and with mahogany doors. He opened one of

these doors and went in. The room he entered had been splendid

in some ancient time. It was big; the pieces in it were

exquisite; great mirrors and old portraits were on the wall.

A man sitting behind a table got up when my father entered. Four

tallow candles, in ancient silver sticks, were on the table, and

some sheets with figured accounts.

The man who got up was like some strange old child. He wore a

number of little capes to hide his humped back, and his body, one

thought, under his clothes was strapped together. He got on his

feet nimbly like a spider, and they heard the click of a pistol

lock as he whipped the weapon out of an open drawer, as though it

were a habit thus always to keep a weapon at his hand to make him

equal in stature with other men. Then he saw who it was and the

double-barreled pistol slipped out of sight. He was startled and

apprehensive, but he was not in fear.

He stood motionless behind the table, his head up, his eyes hard,

his thin mouth closed like a trap and his long, dead black hair

hanging on each side of his lank face over the huge, malformed

ears. The man stood thus, unmoving, silent, with his twisted

ironical smile, while my father put the girl into a chair and

stood up behind it.

"Dillworth," said my father, "what do you mean by turning this

child out of the house?"

The man looked steadily at the two persons before him.

"Pendleton," he said, and he spoke precisely, "I do not recognize

the right of you, or any other man, to call my acts into account;

however" - and he made a curious gesture with his extended hands

"not at your command, but at my pleasure, I will tell you.

"This young woman had some estate from her mother at that lady's

death. As her guardian I invested it by permission of the

court's decree." He paused. "When the Maxwell lands were sold

before the courthouse I bid them in for my ward. The judge

confirmed this use of the guardian funds. It was done upon

advice of counsel and within the letter of the law. Now it

appears that Maxwell had only a life interest in these lands;

Maxwell is dead, and one who has purchased the interest of his

heirs sues in the courts for this estate.

"This new claimant will recover; since one who buys at a judicial

sale, I find, buys under the doctrine of caveat emptor - that is

to say, at his peril. He takes his chance upon the title. The

court does not insure it. If it is defective he loses both the

money and the lands. And so," he added, "my ward will have no

income to support her, and I decline to assume that burden."

My father looked the hunchback in the face. "Who is the man

bringing this suit at law?"

"A Mr. Henderson, I believe," replied Dillworth, "from Maryland."

"Do you know him?" said my father.

"I never heard of him," replied the hunchback.

The girl, huddled in the chair, interrupted. "I have seen

letters," she said, "come in here with this man's return address

at Baltimore written on the envelope."

The hunchback made an irrelevant gesture. "The man wrote - to

inquire if I would buy his title. I declined." Then he turned

to my father. "Pendleton," he said, "you know about this matter.

You know that every step I took was legal. And with pains and

care how I got an order out of chancery to make this purchase,

and how careful I was to have this guardianship investment

confirmed by the court. No affair was ever done so exactly

within the law."

"Why were you so extremely careful?" said my father.

"Because I wanted the safeguard of the law about me at every

step," replied the man.

"But why?"

"You ask me that, Pendleton?"' cried the man. "Is not the wisdom

of my precautions evident? I took them to prevent this very

thing; to protect myself when this thing should happen!"

"Then," said my father, "you knew it was going to happen."

The man's eyes slipped about a moment in his head. "I knew it

was going to happen that I would be charged with all sorts of

crimes and misdemeanors if there should be any hooks on which to

hang them. Because a man locks his door is it proof that he

knows a robber is on the way? Human foresight and the experience

of men move prudent persons to a reasonable precaution in the

conduct of affairs."

"And what is it," said my father, "that moves them to an

excessive caution?"

The hunchback snapped his fingers with an exasperated gesture.

"I will not be annoyed by your big, dominating manner!" he cried.

My father was not concerned by this defiance. "Dillworth," he

said, "you sent this child out to seek her father. Well, she

took the right road to find him."

The hunchback stepped back quickly, his face changed. He sat

down in his chair and looked up at my father. There was here

suddenly uncovered something that he had not looked for. And he

talked to gain time.

"I have cast up the accounts in proper form," he said while he

studied my father, his hand moving the figured sheets. "They are

correct and settled before two commissioners in chancery. Taking

out my commission as guardian, the amounts allowed me for the

maintenance and education of the ward, and no dollar of this

personal estate remains."

His long, thin hand with the nimble fingers turned the sheets

over on the table as though to conclude that phase of the affair.

"The real property," he continued, "will return nothing; the

purchase money was applied on Maxwell's debts and cannot be

followed. This new claimant, Henderson, who has bought up the

outstanding title, will take the land."

"For some trifling sum," said my father.

The hunchback nodded slowly, his eyes in a study of my father's


"Doubtless," he said, "it was not known that Maxwell had only a

life estate in the lands, and the remainder to the heirs was

likely purchased for some slight amount. The language of the

deeds that Henderson exhibits in his suit shows a transfer of all

claim or title, as though he bought a thing which the grantees

thought lay with the uncertainties of a decree in chancery."

"I have seen the deeds," said my father.

"Then," said the hunchback, "you know they are valid, and

transfer the title." He paused. "I have no doubt that Mr.

Henderson assembled these outstanding interests at no great cost,

but his conveyances are in form and legal."

"Everything connected with this affair," said my father, "is

strangely legal!"

The hunchback considered my father through his narrow eyelids.

"It is a strange world," he said.

"It is," replied my father. "It is profoundly, inconceivably


There was a moment of silence. The two men regarded each other

across the half-length of the room. The girl sat in the chair.

She had got back her courage. The big, forceful presence of my

father, like the shadow of a great rock, was there behind her.

She had the fine courage of her blood, and, after the first cruel

shock of this affair, she faced the tragedies that might lie

within it calmly.

Shadows lay along the walls of the great room, along the gilt

frames of the portraits, the empty fireplace, the rosewood

furniture of ancient make and the oak floor. Only the hunchback

was in the light, behind the four candles on the table.

"It was strange," continued my father over the long pause, "that

your father's will discovered at his death left his lands to you,

and no acre to your brother David."

"Not strange," replied the hunchback, "when you consider what my

brother David proved to be. My father knew him. What was hidden

from us, what the world got no hint of, what the man was in the

deep and secret places of his heart, my father knew. Was it

strange, then, that he should leave the lands to me?"

"It was a will drawn by an old man in his senility, and under

your control."

"Under my care," cried the hunchback. "I will plead guilty, if

you like, to that. I honored my father. I was beside his bed

with loving-kindness, while my brother went about the pleasures

of his life."

"But the testament," said my father, "was in strange terms. It

bequeathed the lands to you, with no mention of the personal

property, as though these lands were all the estate your father


"And so they were," replied the hunchback calmly. "The lands had

been stripped of horse and steer, and every personal item, and

every dollar in hand or debt owing to my father before his

death." The, man paused and put the tips of his fingers

together. "My father had given to my brother so much money from

these sources, from time to time, that he justly left me the

lands to make us even."

"Your father was senile and for five years in his bed. It was

you, Dillworth, who cleaned the estate of everything but land."

"I conducted my father's business," said the hunchback, "for him,

since he was ill. But I put the moneys from these sales into his

hand and he gave them to my brother."

"I have never heard that your brother David got a dollar of this


The hunchback was undisturbed.

"It was a family matter and not likely to be known."

"I see it," said my father. "It was managed in your legal manner

and with cunning foresight. You took the lands only in the will,

leaving the impression to go out that your brother had already

received his share in the personal estate by advancement. It was

shrewdly done. But there remained one peril in it: If any

personal property should appear under the law you would be

required to share it equally with your brother David."

"Or rather," replied the hunchback calmly, "to state the thing

correctly, my brother David would be required to share any

discovered personal property with me." Then he added: "I gave my

brother David a hundred dollars for his share in the folderol

about the premises, and took possession of the house and lands."

"And after that," said my father, "what happened?"

The hunchback uttered a queerly inflected expletive, like a

bitter laugh.

"After that," he answered, "we saw the real man in my brother

David, as my father, old and dying, had so clearly seen it.

After that he turned thief and fugitive."

At the words the girl in the chair before my father rose. She

stood beside him, her lithe figure firm, her chin up, her hair

spun darkness. The courage, the fine, open, defiant courage of

the first women of the world, coming with the patriarchs out of

Asia, was in her lifted face. My father moved as though he would

stop the hunchback's cruel speech. But she put her fingers

firmly on his arm.

"He has gone so far," she said, "let him go on to the end. Let

him omit no word, let us hear every ugly thing the creature has

to say."

Dillworth sat back in his chair at ease, with a supercilious

smile. He passed the girl and addressed my father.

"You will recall the details of that robbery," he said in his

complacent, piping voice. "My brother David had married a wife,

like the guest invited in the Scriptures. A child was born. My

brother lived with his wife's people in their house. One night

he came to me to borrow money."

He paused and pointed his long index finger through the doorway

and across the hall.

"It was in my father's room that I received him. It did not

please me to put money into his hands. But I admonished him with

wise counsel. He did not receive my words with a proper

brotherly regard. He flared up in unmanageable anger. He damned

me with reproaches, said I had stolen his inheritance, poisoned

his father's mind against him and slipped into the house and

lands. `Pretentious and perfidious' is what he called me. I was

firm and gentle. But he grew violent and a thing happened."

The man put up his hand and moved it along in the air above the


"There was a secretary beside the hearth in my father's room.

It was an old piece with drawers below and glass doors above.

These doors had not been opened for many years, for there was

nothing on the shelves behind them - one could see that - except

some rows of the little wooden boxes that indigo used to be sold

in at the country stores."

The hunchback paused as though to get the details of his story

precisely in relation.

"I sat at my father's table in the middle of the room. My

brother David was a great, tall man, like Saul. In his anger, as

he gesticulated by the hearth, his elbow crashed through the

glass door of this secretary; the indigo boxes fell, burst open

on the floor, and a hidden store of my father's money was

revealed. The wooden boxes were full of gold pieces!"

He stopped and passed his fingers over his projecting chin.

"I was in fear, for I was alone in the house. Every negro was at

a distant frolic. And I was justified in that fear. My brother

leaped on me, struck me a stunning blow on the chest over the

heart, gathered up the gold, took my horse and fled. At daybreak

the negroes found me on the floor, unconscious. Then you came,

Pendleton. The negroes had washed up the litter from the hearth

where the indigo about the coins in the boxes had been shaken


My father interrupted:

"The negroes said the floor had been scrubbed when they found


"They were drunk," continued the hunchback with no concern.

"And, does one hold a drunken negro to his fact? But you saw for

yourself the wooden boxes, round, three inches high, with tin

lids, and of a diameter to hold a stack of golden eagles, and you

saw the indigo still sticking about the sides of these boxes

where the coins had lain."

"I did," replied my father. "I observed it carefully, for I

thought the gold pieces might turn up sometime, and the blue

indigo stain might be on them when they first appeared."

Dillworth leaned far back in his chair, his legs tangled under

him, his eyes on my father, in reflection. Finally he spoke.

"You are far-sighted," he said.

"Or God is," replied my father, and, stepping over to the table,

he spun a gold piece on the polished surface of the mahogany


The hunchback watched the yellow disk turn and flit and wabble on

its base and flutter down with its tingling reverberations.

"To-day, when I rode into the county seat to a sitting of the

justices," continued my father, "the sheriff showed me some gold

eagles that your man from Maryland, Mr. Henderson, had paid in on

court costs. Look, Dillworth, there is one of them, and with

your thumb nail on the milled edge you can scrape off the


The hunchback looked at the spinning coin, but he did not touch

it. His head, with its long, straight hair, swung a moment

uncertain between his shoulders. Then, swiftly and with a firm

grip, he took his resolution.

"The coins appear," he said. "My brother David must be in

Baltimore behind this suit."

"He is not in Baltimore," said my father.

"Perhaps you know where he is," cried the hunchback, "since you

speak with such authority."

"I do know where he is," said my father in his deep, level voice.

The hunchback got on his feet slowly beside his chair. And the

girl came into the protection of my father's arm, her features

white like plaster; but the fiber in her blood was good and she

stood up to face the thing that might be coming. After the one

long abandonment to tears in my father's saddle she had got

herself in hand. She had gone, like the princes of the blood,

through the fire, and the dross of weakness was burned out.

The hunchback got on his feet, in position like a duelist, his

hard, bitter face turned slantwise toward my father.

"Then," he said, "if you know where David is you will take his

daughter to him, if you please, and rid my house of the burden of


"We shall go to him," said my father slowly, "but he shall not

return to us."

The hunchback's eyes blinked and bated in the candlelight.

"You quote the Scriptures," he said. "Is David in a grave?"

"He is not," replied my father.

The hunchback seemed to advance like a duelist who parries the

first thrust of his opponent. But my father met him with an even


"Dillworth," he said, "it was strange that no man ever saw your

brother or the horse after the night he visited you in this


"It was dark," replied the man. "He rode from this door through

the gap in the mountains into Maryland."

"He rode from this door," said my father slowly, "but not through

the gap in the mountains into Maryland."

The hunchback began to twist his fingers.

"Where did he ride then? A man and a horse could not vanish."

"They did vanish," said my father.

"Now you utter fool talk!" cried Dillworth.

"I speak the living truth," replied my father. "Your brother

David and your horse disappeared out of sound and hearing -

disappeared out of the sight and knowledge of men - after he rode

away from your door on that fatal night."

"Well," said the hunchback, "since my brother David rode away

from my door - and you know that - I am free of obligation for


"It is Cain's speech!" replied my father.

The hunchback put back his long hair with a swift brush of the

fingers across his forehead.

"Dillworth," cried my father, and his voice filled the empty

places of the room, "is the mark there?"

The hunchback began to curse. He walked around my father and the

girl, the hair about his lank jaws, his fingers working, his face

evil. In his front and menace he was like a weasel that would

attack some larger creature. And while he made the great turn of

his circle my father, with his arm about the girl, stepped before

the drawer of the table where the pistol lay.

"Dillworth," he said calmly, "I know where he is. And the mark

you felt for just now ought to be there."

"Fool!" cried the hunchback. "If I killed him how could he ride

away from the door?"

"It was a thing that puzzled me," replied my father, "when I

stood in this house on the morning of your pretended robbery. I

knew what had happened. But I thought it wiser to let the evil

thing remain a mystery, rather than unearth it to foul your

family name and connect this child in gossip for all her days

with a crime."

"With a thief," snarled the man.

"With a greater criminal than a thief," replied My father. "I

was not certain about this gold on that morning when you showed

me the empty boxes. They were too few to hold gold enough for

such a motive. I thought a quarrel and violent hot blood were

behind the thing; and for that reason I have been silent. But

now, when the coins turn up, I see that the thing was all

ruthless, cold-blooded love of money.

"I know what happened in that room. When your brother David

struck the old secretary with his elbow, and the dozen indigo

boxes fell and burst open on the hearth, you thought a great

hidden treasure was uncovered. You thought swiftly. You had got

the land by undue influence on your senile father, and you did

not have to share that with your brother David. But here was a

treasure you must share; you saw it in a flash. You sat at your

father's table in the room. Your brother stood by the wall

looking at the hearth. And you acted then, on the moment, with

the quickness of the Evil One. It was cunning in you to select

the body over the heart as the place to receive the imagined blow

- the head or face would require some evidential mark to affirm

your word. And it was cunning to think of the unconscious, for

in that part one could get up and scrub the hearth and lie down

again to play it."

He paused.

"But the other thing you did in that room was not so clever. A

picture was newly hung on the wall - I saw the white square on

the opposite wall from which it had been taken. It hung at the

height of a man's shoulders directly behind the spot where your

brother must have stood after he struck the secretary, and it

hung in this new spot to cover the crash of a bullet into the

mahogany panel!"

My father stopped and caught up the hunchback's double-barreled

pistol out of the empty drawer.

The room was now illumined; the moon had got above the tree tops

and its light slanted in through the long windows. The hunchback

saw the thing and he paused; his face worked in the fantastic


"Yes," continued my father, in his deep, quiet voice, "this is

your mistake to-night - to let me get your weapon. Your mistake

that other night was to shoot before you counted the money. It

was only a few hundred dollars. The dozen wooden boxes would

hold no great sum. But the thing was done, and you must cover


He paused.

"And you did cover it - with fiendish cunning. It would not do

for your brother to vanish from your house, alone and with no

motive. But if he disappeared, with the gold to take him and a

horse to ride, the explanation would have solid feet to go on. I

give you credit here for the ingenuity of Satan. You managed the

thing. You caused your brother David and the horse to vanish. I

saw, on that morning, the tracks of the horse where you led him

from the stable to the door, and his tracks where you led him,

holding the dead man in the saddle, from the door to the ancient

orchard where the grass grows over the fallen-down chimney of

your grandsire's house. And there, at your cunning, they wholly


The mad courage in the hunchback got control, and he began to

advance on my father with no weapon and with no hope to win. His

fingers crooked, his body in a bow, his wizen, cruel face pallid

in the ghostly light.

"Dillworth," cried my father, in a great voice, like one who

would startle a creature out of mania, "you will write a deed in

your legal manner granting these lands to your brother's child.

And after that" - his words were like the blows of a hammer on an

anvil - "I will give you until daybreak to vanish out of our

sight and hearing - through the gap in the mountains into

Maryland on your horse, as you say your brother David went, or

into the abandoned cistern in the ancient orchard where he lies

under the horse that you shot and tumbled in on his murdered


The moon was now above the gable of the house. The candles were

burned down. They guttered around the sheet of foolscap wet with

the scrawls and splashes of Dillworth's quill. My father stood

at a window looking out, the girl in a flood of tears, relaxed

and helpless, in the protection of his arm.

And far down the long turnpike, white like an expanded ribbon,

the hunchback rode his great horse in a gallop, perched like a

monkey, his knees doubled, his head bobbing, his loose body

rolling in the saddle - while the black, distorted shadow that

had followed my father into this tragic house went on before him

like some infernal messenger convoying the rider to the Pit.