We found the Coonses in their room at the hotel on I Street. Mr. Coons was a small-boned, plump man with the smooth, meaningless face and the suavity of the typical male house-servant.
His wife was a tall, stringy woman, perhaps five years older than her husband — say, forty — with a mouth and chin that seemed shaped for gossiping. But he did all the talking, while she nodded her agreement to every second or third word.
“We went to work for Mr. Thornburgh on the fifteenth of June I think,” he said, in reply to my first question. “We came to Sacramento, around the first of the month, and put in applications at the Allis Employment Bureau. A couple of weeks later they sent us out to see Mr. Thornburgh, and he took us on.”
“Where were you before you came here?”
“In Seattle, sir, with a Mrs. Comerford; but the climate there didn’t agree with my wife — she has bronchial trouble — so we decided to come to California. We most likely would have stayed in Seattle, though, if Mrs. Comerford hadn’t given up her house.”
“What do you know about Thornburgh?”
“Very little, sir. He wasn’t a talkative gentleman. He hadn’t any business that I know of. I think he was a retired seafaring man. He never said he was, but he had that manner and look. He never went out or had anybody in to see him, except his niece once, and he didn’t write or get any mail. He had a room next to his bedroom fixed up as a sort of workshop. He spent most of his time in there. I always thought he was working on some kind of invention, but he kept the door locked, and wouldn’t let us go near it.”
“Haven’t you any idea at all what it was?”
“No, sir. We never heard any hammering or noises from it, and never smelled anything either. And none of his clothes were ever the least bit soiled, even when they were ready to go out to the laundry. They would have been if he had been working on anything like machinery.”
“Was he an old man?”
“He couldn’t have been over fifty, sir. He was very erect, and his hair and beard were thick, with no gray hairs.”
“Ever have any trouble with him?”
“Oh, no, sir! He was, if I may say it, a very peculiar gentleman in a way; and he didn’t care about anything except having his meals fixed right, having his clothes taken care of — he was very particular about them — and not being disturbed. Except early in the morning and at night, we’d hardly see him all day.”
“Now about the fire. Tell us everything you remember.”
“Well, sir, my wife and I had gone to bed about ten o’clock, our regular time, and had gone to sleep. Our room was on the second floor, in the rear. Some time later — I never did exactly know what time it was — I woke up, coughing. The room was all full of smoke, and my wife was sort of strangling. I jumped up, and dragged her down the back stairs and out the back door.
“When I had her safe in the yard, I thought of Mr. Thornburgh, and tried to get back in the house; but the whole first floor was just flames. I ran around front then, to see if he had got out, but didn’t see anything of him. The whole yard was as light as day by then. Then I heard him scream — a horrible scream, sir — I can hear it yet! And I looked up at his window — that was the front second-story room — and saw him there, trying to get out the window! But all the woodwork was burning, and he screamed again and fell back, and right after that the roof over his room fell in.
“There wasn’t a ladder or anything that I could have put up to the window — there wasn’t anything I could have done.
“In the meantime, a gentleman had left his automobile in the road, and come up to where I was standing; but there wasn’t anything we could do — the house was burning everywhere and falling in here and there. So we went back to where I had left my wife, and carried her farther away from the fire, and brought her to — she had fainted. And that’s all I know about it, sir.”
“Hear any noises earlier that night? Or see anybody hanging around?”
“Have any gasoline around the place?”
“No, sir. Mr. Thornburgh didn’t have a car.”
“No gasoline for cleaning?”
“No, sir, none at all, unless Mr. Thornburgh had it in his workshop. When his clothes needed cleaning, I took them to town, and all his laundry was taken by the grocer’s man, when he brought our provisions.”
“Don’t know anything that might have some bearing on the fire?”
“No, sir. I was surprised when I heard that somebody had set the house afire. I could hardly believe it. I don’t know why anybody should want to do that… .”
“What do you think of them?” I asked McClump, as we left the hotel.
“They might pad the bills, or even go South with some of the silver, but they don’t figure as killers in my mind.”
That was my opinion, too; but they were the only persons known to have been there when the fire started except the man who had died. We went around to the Allis Employment Bureau and talked to the manager.
He told us that the Coonses had come into his office on June second, looking for work…