Rex Stout Fullscreen Officer and Lady (1917)


Man or woman?

He would soon know.

The footsteps sounded on the floor, advancing, and his eyes, accustomed to the darkness, caught a dim outline.

Noiselessly his hand sought the side pocket of his coat and fumbled there.

The figure approached; it was now quite close, so close that all Bill had to do was rise swiftly to his feet and close his fingers in their viselike grip.

A curious penetrating odor filled the air and a sputtering, muffled cry came from the intruder.

A short, sharp struggle, and the form sank limply to the floor.

Kneeling down, Bill pressed the damp sponge a little longer against the nostrils and mouth until the body had quite relaxed, then returned the sponge to the pocket that held the chloroform tube.

He switched on the light and surveyed his prostrate anesthetized victim.

It was a powerful-looking woman in a blue flannel nightgown; feet large and red, face coarse in feature and of contour Scandinavian; probably the cook. Bill wasted little thought on her.

The point was that his blood was up now.

He had had the taste of danger and his eyes gleamed.

He shot a glance at the open stairway door. A moment later his shoes were off, strung from his belt by their laces, and he was on his way up—silently, warily.

The eleventh step creaked a little and he stopped short.

Two minutes and no sound.

He went on to the top of the stairs and halted there, standing a while to listen before risking his electric flash.

Its rays showed him a long wide hall with two doors on one side and three on the other, all closed, so he moved noiselessly on to the farther end, the front of the house, listened a moment at the crack of a door and then cautiously turned the knob and entered, leaving the door open behind him.

His ear told him instantly that he was not alone; the room was occupied; he heard someone breathing.

His nerves were drawn tight now, his whole body alert and quivering with the pleasurable excitement of it, like a thoroughbred at the barrier.

A faint reflection of light from the street lamp came in through the window, just enough to make out the dim forms of furniture and the vague lumpy outline under the covers on the bed.

He heard a watch ticking; it became less audible when he moved swiftly to the dressing table and transferred the timepiece to his own pocket.

He turned as by instinct toward the door of the closet, but halted sharply halfway across the room.

There was something queer about that breathing.

He listened tensely.

Most irregular.

Surely not the respiration of a sleeper—and he was an expert on the subject.

Suspicious, to say the least.

Like a flash he was at the bedside, and his sharp gaze detected a shuddering movement all over the form that lay there under the sheets.

His hand flew to the side pocket of his coat, then he remembered that the chloroform tube was empty.

In a fit of rashness he pressed the button of his pocket-flash, and there on the pillow, in the center of the bright electric ray that shot forth, he saw the face of a man with mouth wide open and eyes staring in abject terror—a man wide awake and petrified with fear.

Bill had seen such countenances before, and experience had taught him to waste no time in taking advantage of the wide-open mouth.

So, moving with swift sureness, he filled that gaping aperture with the corner of a sheet, stuffing it in with conscientious thoroughness.

Then, while the man made feeble attempts to get loose, which Bill impatiently ignored, he tied his hands and feet and made the gag secure.

Gurglings barely audible came from the victim’s nose; our hero made a threatening gesture, and they ceased.

He proceeded calmly and methodically to rifle the room and closet. When he finished ten minutes later, he had deposited in various places about his person two silver cigarette cases, three scarf pins, five rings, a jeweled photograph frame, and ninety-four dollars in cash.

He looked to see that his captive was securely tied, scowled ferociously into his face, tiptoed out of the room and closed the door behind him.

He had been in the house not more than thirty minutes, and already two of the enemy had been rendered hors de combat, a bag of booty was waiting for him below, his stomach was full, and his clothing was loaded with money and jewelry.

His chest swelled with pardonable pride.

On with the dance!

Inflated and emboldened by success, he flashed his light impudently up and down the hall, finally deciding on the next door to the right on the opposite side.

He advanced, noiselessly turned the knob and entered.

The light from the street lamp did not enter on this side, and the room was pitch dark.

For a moment he thought it unoccupied, then the sound of faint breathing came to his ear—quite faint and regular.

He took a step toward the bed, then, magnificently scorning danger, turned to the wall near the door and felt for the electric button. He pushed; a click, and the room was flooded with light.

On the instant Bill sprang toward the bed, to forestall any outcry of alarm from its occupant.

But he halted three paces away, with his arms half outstretched, at the sight that met his gaze.

There, under the silken coverlet, in the glare from the chandelier, he saw a sleeping child.

It was a girl of eight or nine years; her little white arm was curved under her head, and her soft brown hair spread in glorious curled confusion over the pillow.

Her breast moved regularly up and down with her gentle breathing, and her sweet red lips were opened a little by the smile of a dream.

Bill stood still and gazed at her.