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A short story by Arthur B. Reeve

The Absolute Zero

Title:     The Absolute Zero
Author: Arthur B. Reeve [More Titles by Reeve]

"Isn't there some way you can save him, Professor Kennedy? You must come out to Briar Lake."

When a handsome woman like Mrs. Fraser Ferris pleads, she is irresistible. Not only that, but the story which she had not trusted either to a message or a messenger was deeply interesting, for, already, it had set agog the fashionable country house colony.

Mrs. Ferris had come to us not as the social leader now, but as a mother. Only the night before her son, young Fraser, had been arrested by the local authorities at Briar Lake on the charge of homicide. I had read the meager dispatch in the morning papers and had wondered what the whole story might be.

"You see, Professor Kennedy," she began in an agitated voice as soon as she arrived at the laboratory and introduced herself to us, "day before yesterday, Fraser was boxing at the Country Club with another young man, Irving Evans."

Kennedy nodded. Both of them were well known. Ferris had been the All-America tackle on the University football team a couple of years previous and Evans was a crack pitcher several years before.

"Irving," she continued, adding, "of course I call him Irving, for his mother and I were schoolgirls together--Irving, I believe, fell unconscious during the bout. I'm telling you just what Fraser told me.

"The other men in the Club gymnasium at the time carried him into the locker-room and there they all did what they could to revive him. They succeeded finally, but when he regained consciousness he complained of a burning sensation in his stomach, or, rather, as Fraser says, just below the point where his ribs come together. They say, too, that there was a red spot on his skin, about the size of a half-dollar.

"Finally," she continued with a sigh, "the other men took Irving home--but he lapsed into a half-comatose condition. He never got better. He--he died the next day--yesterday."

It was evidently a great effort for Mrs. Ferris to talk of the affair which had involved her son, but she had made up her mind to face the necessity and was going through it bravely.

"Of course," she resumed a moment later, "the death of Irving Evans caused a great deal of talking. It was natural in a community like Briar Lake. But I don't think anything would have been thought about it, out of the way, if the afternoon after his death--yesterday--the body of one of the Club's stewards, Benson, had not been found jammed into a trunk. Apparently, it had been dumped off an automobile in one of the most lonely sections of the country.

"In fact," she went on, "it was the sort of thing that might have taken place, one would say, in the dark alleys of a big city. But in a country resort like Briar Lake, the very uncommonness of such a case called added attention to it."

"I understand," agreed Craig, "but why did they suspect your son?"

"That's the ridiculous part of it, at least to me," hastened the mother to her son's defense. "Both Irving and my son, as you know, were former University athletic stars, and, as in all country clubs, I suppose, that meant popularity. Irving was engaged to Anita Allison. Anita is one of the most beautiful and popular girls in the younger set, a splendid golfer, charming and clever, the life of the Club at the dances and teas."

Mrs. Ferris paused as though she would convey to us just the social status of everyone concerned.

"Of course," she threw in parenthetically, "you know the Allisons are reputed to be quite well off. When old Mr. Allison died, Anita's brother, Dean, several years older than herself, inherited the brokerage business of his father and, according to the will, assumed the guardianship of his younger sister."

She seemed to be considering something, then suddenly to make up her mind to tell it. "I suppose everyone knows it," she resumed, "and you ought to know it, too. Fraser was--er--one of Anita's unsuccessful suitors. In fact, Anita had been sought by nearly all of the most eligible young fellows of the Club. I don't think there were many who had not at some time or other offered her his whole heart as well as his fortune.

"I didn't encourage Fraser--or try to discourage him. But I could see that it lay between Fraser and Irving."

"And the rather strange circumstances of the death of Evans, as well as of the steward, occasioned a good deal of gossip, I suppose," chimed in Kennedy.

"Yes. Somehow, people began to whisper that it was revenge or hate or jealousy that had prompted the blow,--that perhaps the steward, Benson, who was very popular with the young men, knew or had seen something that made him dangerous.

"Anyhow, gossip grew until it seemed that, in some way which no one has ever said definitely, a deliberate attempt was made on Irving Evans's life, and finally the local authorities, rather glad to take up a scandal in the Club set, took action and arrested my Fraser--under a charge of homicide."

She blurted the words out fiercely and defiantly, but it was all assumed. Underneath, one could see the woman fighting loyally with every weapon for her son, keenly alive to the disgrace that even the breath of scandal unrefuted might bring to his name.

"How about the other admirers?" asked Craig quickly.

"That's another queer thing," she replied eagerly. "You see, they have all suddenly become very busy and have made perfect alibis. But there was Allan Wyndham--he's a friend of the Allisons,--why shouldn't they suspect him? In fact, there was quite a group of young fellows closely associated with Dean Allison in speculation. Irving Evans was one. But," she added, with a glance at Kennedy as if she realized that it was like catching at a straw, "with Fraser, of course,--there is that blow. We can't deny that."

"What does Miss Allison think?" queried Craig.

"Oh, I believe Anita is all broken up by the tragedy to her fiance. She was at the Club at the time--in the tea room. No one dared to tell her until Irving had been taken home. Then her brother, who was in the gymnasium when the thing happened and had been one of those to carry Irving into the locker-room, was naturally chosen by the rest, after they had done all they could to revive Irving, to break the news as gently as he could to his sister. She took it calmly. But I think it would have been better if she had given way to her real feelings. They say she has secluded herself in the Allison house and won't see a soul."

Kennedy's brow puckered in thought.

"You can't imagine what a terrible shock this thing has been to me," pleaded Mrs. Ferris. "Oh, the horror of it all! You must come out to Briar Lake with me!"

There was, naturally, no doubt of the poignancy of her feelings as she looked from Kennedy to myself, imploringly. As for Craig, he did not need to betray the sympathy he felt not only for the young man who had been arrested and his mother, but for the poor girl whose life might be blasted by the tragedy and the unhappy victim who had been snatched away so suddenly almost on the very eve of happiness.

It was not half an hour later, that, with a very grateful mother, we were on our way out to Briar Lake in Mrs. Ferris's touring car.

As we whirled along past the city limits, Kennedy leaned back on the cushions and for some minutes seemed absorbed in thought.

"Of course it is possible," he remarked at length, noticing that both Mrs. Ferris and I were watching him nervously, "that Miss Allison may know something that will throw some light on the affair. But it may be of an entirely private nature. I don't know how we'll get her to talk, but we must--if she knows anything. I'd like to stop at the Allison house, first."

"Very well," agreed Mrs. Ferris, leaning forward and directing the chauffeur to turn off before we reached Briar Lake on the main road.

We sped along and I could not help feeling that the young man who was driving the car was quite as eager as anyone else to bring help to his young master.

The Allison house proved to be a roomy, old-fashioned place on a rise of ground just this side of Briar Lake, for the Allisons had been among the first to acquire estates at the exclusive colony.

Mrs. Ferris remained in the car, while Kennedy and I went in to introduce ourselves.

We found the young society girl evidently now in full possession of her nerves. She was slender, fair, with deep blue eyes, not merely pretty, but with a face that showed character.

Anita Allison had been seated in the library, and, as we entered, I could see that she had hastily shoved some papers, at which she had been looking, into a drawer of the desk.

"Miss Allison," began Kennedy, "this is a most unfortunate affair and I must beg your pardon--"

"Yes," she interrupted, "I understand. As if I didn't feel badly enough--oh--they have to make it all so much harder to bear by arresting Fraser--and then all this notoriety,--it is awful."

I confess that I had not expected that we would see her so easily. Yet I felt that there was some constraint in her manner, in spite of that.

"I want to speak frankly with you, Miss Allison," went on Craig gently. "Is there anything about the matter--of a personal nature--that you haven't told? I want to appeal to you. Remember, there is another life at stake, now."

She looked at us searchingly. Did she suspect that we knew something or was she herself seeking information?

"No, no," she cried. "There isn't a thing--not a thing that I know that I haven't told--nothing."

Kennedy said nothing himself, but watched her, apparently assuming that she would go on.

"Oh," she cried, "if I could only do something--anything. It might get my mind off it all. But I--I can't even cry!"

Plainly there was little except a sort of mental vivisection of her grief to be gained from her yet--even if she suspected something, of which I was not entirely sure.

We excused ourselves and left her, sunk deeply into a leather chair, her face buried in her hands, but not weeping.

"Is Mr. Allison at home?" inquired Craig as we passed out through the hall, meeting the butler at the door.

"No, sir," he replied. "He went to New York this morning, sir, and said he'd be at the Club later this afternoon."

We climbed into the car and Kennedy looked at his watch. "It's getting well along in the afternoon," he remarked. "I think I'll go over to the Club. We may find Allison there now."

As we turned out into the main road our driver had to swerve for a car which turned off, coming from the city, as we had come a few minutes before. He looked around at it blackly, as it went up the road to the Allison house, for he had had to stall his own engine to avoid a collision. There was no one in the other car but a driver with a visored hat.

"Whose car was that?" asked Craig quickly.

"Allan Wyndham's," answered our driver, starting his engine.

"H'm," mused Craig. "Wyndham must have sent her a message from town. Too bad we hurried so to get up here."

At last, as we turned a bend in the main road, the broad chimneys, white columns and wide balustrades of the Briar Lake Country Club loomed in sight.

The Country Club was a most pretentious building, yet, unlike many such clubs, had a very hospitable air in spite of its aristocratic and handsome appearance.

There was something very inviting about its wide sweep of roof and ample piazzas, some enclosed in glass, as we approached by the broad graveled driveway that swung in from the highway between the gentle curves of green lawns whose expanse was broken by the tall pines through which we caught a glimpse of the hills. It was indeed a beautiful country.

We entered a wide hall and came to the reception room crowded with luxurious armchairs and cozy corners. In a glass case stood the usual trophies.

Grouped about a huge deep fire was a knot of people, and here and there others were talking earnestly. One could feel that this was one of those social institutions not to be in which argued that one was decidedly out of things. I could almost visualize the close scrutiny that new applicants would undergo, not so much as men among men, but through the eyes of the women folk, dissecting the wives and daughters of the family.

Founded originally because of the interest of the older members in horses and the hunt, the Club had now extended its activities to polo and motors, golf, tennis, squash, with a fine old English bowling green and ample shooting traps.

I could not blame Mrs. Ferris for not wishing to enter the Club just yet. She had left us at the door, promising to send the car back for our disposal.

[The end]
Arthur B. Reeve's short story: Absolute Zero