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Murder on the Blackboard
A Hildegarde Withers Mystery
By Stuart Palmer
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1960 Stuart Palmer
All rights reserved.
Teacher Is Kept After School
The solitary prisoner sat quietly, his hands clasped in front of him. One shoe moved up and down against its mate, but there was no quivering of his lips. He'd show Them if he could take it or not! Only They weren't here to see.
His name was Leland Stanford Jones, but he preferred to be called "Buster"—a preference which cut no ice with the lady who looked down on him from the desk on the platform. The room was bleak and bare, and it smelled faintly of humanity and strongly of chalk-dust.
The solitary prisoner gave tongue. "Miss Withers ."
"Why, Leland, you know better than to speak without raising your hand. That will do."
A small red palm, innocent of soap and water since seven-thirty that morning, waved uncertainly in the air. "Miss Withers ."
Miss Hildegarde Withers raised her eyebrows, and looked as stern as it was possible for her to look. She seemed very formidable indeed to the nine year old who crouched there in his seat.
For those of my readers who are meeting Hildegarde Withers for the first time, let me inform them that she is in the neighborhood of forty—the close neighborhood—and that her face has something of the contour, and most of the characteristics, of a well-bred horse. Her nose, even without the pince-nez, would be a trifle thinnish, but the mouth is wise and friendly, and only a certain amount of effort keeps it from breaking into a smile at times like this.
The palm waved in the air for all of a minute, while Miss Withers listened to the bustle and the slamming of doors which marked the ending of the school day. She realized that her fellow teachers at Jefferson School had most of them long since given up this old-fashioned method of discipline. All the same, it had worked well for twenty years, and Hildegarde Withers still kept little boys and girls, and incidentally herself, in after school, books on modern pedagogy to the contrary.
She heard a tremendous sneeze in the corridor outside. That would be Mr. Macfarland, the Principal. He had worn rubbers all his life, but coryza had him in its grip from September till May. She heard him pass down the first floor hall outside the door of 1B, and then for a moment there was silence.
Miss Withers pretended not to see the palm which Leland Stanford Jones still waved determinedly.
Someone else was passing along the hall. Light, quick heel-taps. That would be Anise Halloran, the music teacher, on her way to the Teachers' Cloakroom. Hildegarde Withers was thus reminded of something.
"What is it, Leland?"
"Miss Withers, can't I "
"Miss Withers," he gulped a little, desperately. "Mayn't I go now? I didn't mean to say nothing—I mean anything. The fellows are waiting for me. They can't play without me, 'cause I'm the quarterback. I ap-pologize ."
"It is not my pardon you should beg, but Miss Halloran's," said Miss Withers sharply. "I don't like lies, and I don't like little boys who tell them."
"But it wasn't a lie, not exactly. All the kids say that Miss Halloran is sweet on Mister Macfarland!"
Miss Hildegarde Withers pushed back her chair sharply, and leaned across the desk. "Leland!"
She pointed a stern finger at the long blackboard which extended along two sides of the room.
"I told you that you had to stay after school, and after school you'll stay," she told him. "But I don't want to be unjust. Perhaps the other boys won't have to wait for you as long as you fear, if you are a good boy. Go to that blackboard and write the word 'discipline' one hundred times then you may be excused."
"A hundred times?" Leland Stanford Jones intimated by the tone of his voice that he considered the assigned number far beyond the scope of mortal imagination. "A whole hundred times?"
Miss Withers was implacable.
"There's plenty of chalk there," she told him, as he hesitated before the blackboard. "Take an eraser, and clear the board. Then write 'discipline' a hundred times. The sooner you finish, the sooner you may go."
With furrowed brow and protruding lip, Leland began to wipe away the accumulation of the day's scribblings. His languid eraser swept slowly through hieroglyphs, sums, spelling lists, and crudely drawn maps, in a swath that crept along the board. Being nine, his swath took in only the lower half of the expanse of polished slate.
Miss Withers spelled out the word for him. "Now don't dawdle so, Leland."
Miss Withers went back to her copy of the Atlantic, which she had camouflaged beneath a sheaf of uncorrected arithmetic papers.
Leland, casting a weather eye over his shoulder, decided that the coast was clear. Deftly he inserted three bits of chalk within the folds of his padded eraser, gripping them firmly with a grubby thumb and fingers. It was a discovery of his own—and of practically every boy who ever got in a similar jam—particularly suited to the conservation of energy. He did not know that a similar device is used in the White House when the First Citizen is called upon to sign several hundred state papers at the same time.
The eraser moved across the board waveringly, and three simultaneous "disciplines" appeared, in column form. Three more—
Miss Withers watched him over her glasses, and then hid a smile behind the article she was reading.
Discipline was discipline, and yet she wanted to get away tonight even worse than did the youngster. Only she couldn't have her children making such remarks in her classroom. The idea of little Leland's chattering nonsense about the principal and Miss Halloran! Well, this afternoon would be a lesson to him. It was, only not as Miss Withers had planned, exactly.
Hildegarde Withers liked the young music teacher. Her first name, Anise, was a little affected, perhaps. But the day was past when you could blame a young teacher for being beautiful and attractive. What if she did rouge her lips a little and wear French heels?
Three-inch heels weren't a sign of moral degradation any more, as Miss Withers was wont to remark when some of the older teachers got to talking. They talked too much. The children were bound to pick it up, just as Leland had done.
Miss Withers began to tap her front teeth with a pencil. Something vaguely troubled her, something that had to do with high heels. A little hammer pounded insistently at the back of her mind.
Oh yes, now she remembered. It had been a long time since Anise Halloran's heels had tapped down the hall toward the Teachers' Cloakroom. Unconsciously, Miss Withers had been waiting to hear them go back again up the hall toward the front door.
It wasn't like Anise Halloran to linger. Maybe she wasn't feeling well. She had been looking poorly, Miss Withers decided, during the last week. Suppose the girl had fainted .
Miss Withers looked over her shoulder at the moonfaced clock on the wall. It was three fifty-five. Anise had passed down the hall as soon as the children burst out of the classrooms at three-thirty.
"Perhaps she went home without my hearing," Miss Withers told herself. "And yet—I wonder. I suppose I ought to look in there and see."
She listened. The deserted schoolhouse was less silent than the proverbial tomb, but in comparison with the noise of the day it was very quiet. Down in the dark reaches of the cellar she could hear the janitor, "Mister" Anderson, rattling a pail. Outside on the playground some girls were screaming delightedly, and farther on there was the thump of a stubby shoe against inflated pigskin. They hadn't waited for Leland.
The absence of the tapping heels of Anise Halloran seemed a minute discord in the quiet harmony of the building.
Leland had stopped to count his wordage. Miss Withers stood up, flashed him a warning glance, and then sat down again in her chair.
The tapping heels were passing down the hall, past the door of 1B, and on toward the front door. Anise must be tired, for the steps were slower than usual almost stumbling.
Miss Withers was glad she hadn't acted on her impulse. She wouldn't have liked Anise Halloran to think that she was another of the spying busybodies, like Miss Rennel upstairs, or Miss Hopkins on the third floor.
They talked about everybody. About Miss Halloran, about Mr. Macfarland, about Mr. Macfarland's pleasant young assistant who taught Manual Training about everybody.
Miss Withers wasn't a chronic worrier about other people's business, but there had been a white, drawn look about Anise Halloran's face for the past week. "Maybe the girl is sick," she told herself. "She was in the Cloakroom a long time, and I distinctly heard her stumble ." Miss Withers rose to her feet.
"Hurry up and finish, Leland," she said, and rose to her feet. It was only a step down the hall to the Cloakroom, which had a window on the street. If she hurried she could catch a glimpse of Anise Halloran outside. Maybe the child was ill and needed a taxi home or something.
Miss Withers had little use for the Cloakroom, since she kept her own neat sailor in a drawer on her desk in 1B, and since her nose had not been powdered since the Taft administration.
She opened the door quickly, but did not switch on the light, as she did not want everybody in the street to see her running to the window to look after another teacher. She was familiar enough with the room, though it was in half-darkness.
On one side were the chairs and the lounge, and on the other the coat lockers and the door of the lavatory. The frosted window was a dull blur of light across the room with eight inches of daylight at the bottom where it was open for the sake of air.
Then her foot struck something soft on the floor. She stooped, and picked up a woman's shoe.
It was a gay, ridiculous bit of footwear, truly a sandal instead of a shoe. It consisted only of a tapering heel, a thin sole, and four or five straps. Only Anise Halloran wore shoes like that. And Anise Halloran had gone home five minutes ago—had she left her shoes here?
Miss Withers stood up, went back to the door, and turned on the light. On the floor lay the mate to the shoe she held in her hand, and on the couch was what was left of Anise Halloran.CHAPTER 2
Chalk and Eraser
"Oh dear, oh dear," whispered Hildegarde Withers. She stood there by the door of the Teachers' Cloakroom while the old-fashioned gold watch on her old-fashioned bosom ticked away the best part of a minute.
She blinked, rapidly, but the dreadful vision still remained. Then at last the icy chill which had been travelling up her spine reached her brain. She shook her head, and assured herself that twelve times fourteen was still one hundred and sixty-eight.
It has been somewhere well written that amazement and terror are the most transient of emotions, and that within the space of a few seconds one must come to terms even with a gibbering ghost.
Miss Withers brought her teeth together with a slight click. Then her fingers felt again for the wall switch, and the room plunged into darkness.
This darkness was thick, black, and sticky. It blotted, mercifully, the picture of Anise Halloran in her last dreamless sleep, hiding the crimson gash that marred her white forehead and the rivulets that had barely ceased to flow across her cheek.
Instantly the darkness itself was peopled with a thousand vague and terrible shapes— shapes far more fearful than the quiet body of the young singing teacher, stretched out face upward on the couch.
Miss Withers nodded slowly to herself, and then stepped out into the hall and closed the door. She looked around her with something of a shiver, but whatever she had feared to see was not lying there in wait.
She came in safety to the door of her own classroom, paused for a moment to compose herself, and then stepped inside.
This was the first, and quite probably the last moment in the life of Leland Stanford Jones that anyone but his mother had looked on his freckled face and found it beautiful. As Miss Withers stood there, her mind already wrestling with the one incongruous detail of that nearby room of death, Leland turned toward her, pleadingly.
"Teacher, I wrote it seventy-one times already!"
Miss Withers nodded. "Seventy-one will be sufficient, Leland," she conceded.
Daylight dawned in his face. "An' I can go?"
She nodded again. "But first I want you to run an errand."
His face fell. "But the kids are waiting for me "
"It's too dark to see a football anyway," she reminded him. "I want you to run across the street to Tobey's store. Here's a dime for the telephone. Call Inspector Piper at Headquarters "
Leland snapped out of it like a rubber band.
"Yes, teacher!" It was a legend among pupils of Jefferson School that twice in the past their own Miss Withers had played a part in the activities of the New York Homicide Squad.
"Tell him where I am, and tell him to come quickly and quietly," added Miss Withers. "Hurry now—and don't stop for—for anything or high water."
Leland did not know that the watchful eye of his teacher followed him down the hall, across the windswept street, and through the yellow oblong that was the door of Tobey's Candy and Notions Store.
Back in 1B again, Miss Withers took a deep breath, and then consulted the moon-faced clock. It was, in spite of the early twilight of November in Manhattan, only ten minutes after four. Forty minutes had passed since the heels of Anise Halloran had tapped their way down the hall to the Cloakroom, and only a little more than ten since they had scuffled their way back.
With her eyes on the clock, Miss Withers waited there for five of the longest minutes in her life. There was not a sound from the vast emptiness of the school building around her, but she waited all the same.
Then she reached toward the drawer of her desk which held her sailor—gasping a little to discover that in her excitement she still held in her hand the blue sandal that was Anise Halloran's.
Swiftly she acted. The blue sandal was enclosed in examination papers, and tucked under her arm. On her head she planted the neat sailor, at a rakish angle, and in her right hand she clutched with a grip of steel the handle of her cotton umbrella.
For a moment she paused outside the door of 1B. She looked a little longingly back down toward the door of the Cloakroom, and then shook her head. It was too late for that. The best thing was for her to act naturally now.
She strode serenely down the hall and out through the front door into the street. It is an evidence of a certain latent histrionic ability in the lady that on this memorable night she left Jefferson School in identically the same manner that had been hers some two hundred-odd times every year for the past decade.
Nor did she hesitate on the steps of the building, but turned to the left and walked briskly along Avenue A. She did not appear to be counting windows—but at the sixth from the main door she paused. There was an eight-inch space at the top of that window—eight inches of jetty darkness.
Miss Withers swung her arm, and that darkness swallowed up a girl's blue sandal. The schoolteacher made an abrupt about-face. Calmly she marched back and across the street to Tobey's, the little notion store opposite the main entrance of Jefferson School.
The freckled face of Leland Stanford Jones appeared above the glass of the phone booth. He stood on his tiptoes to hang up the receiver and then came out.
"I called him, teacher!"
"Leland! Did it take all this time ?"
"Mister Tobey wasn't in," Leland interrupted defensively. "The door was open, but he wasn't in. I couldn't get change out of your dime for the phone till he got back."
"But he's here now?"
"Oh, yes'm. In the back room. Mister Tobey!"
A short, bald toad of a man appeared in the curtained entrance of the rear room. The nails of one fat hand continually scratched his bald pate, and with the other he tapped suggestively upon the glass counter.
Miss Withers joined Leland at the counter, above the assortment of brownish licorice, octogenarian peppermints, and furry horehound.
Excerpted from Murder on the Blackboard by Stuart Palmer. Copyright © 1960 Stuart Palmer. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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