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Title: On The Night Express Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1100411h.html Language: English Date first posted: May 2011 Date most recently updated: April 2012 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy. HTML version by Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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Constance Wakefield flashed a challenging glance across the library table at the big man with the hard mouth and the menacing eyes, at the same time wondering subconsciously why she both feared and mistrusted Rupert Bascoe in spite of the decided fact that she owed the very bread she ate to him.
To begin with, she was to all practical purposes, the mistress of that fine establishment known as Uppertons, which was a very haven of rest after the stormy years that followed after the cataclysm of 1914 and a Europe on the verge of collapse with ruin and starvation, especially in Eastern Europe where Connie had passed her early childhood with the now dead Countess Inez Matua, her second mother, for she had no recollection of her real one and, strange to say, no knowledge of her father at all. But then little girls in their early teens—as Connie was when the tempest burst and Serbia was swept by the flood—do not trouble much about such things so long as they are happy, as Connie was in the Countess's castle with the love of in the gracious lady to protect her.
Then out of the blue the flood of invasion. Death and peril on every hand and the flight into the unseen. The bursting of shells round the old castle and the awful death of the only friend Connie knew to the world and after that, misery unspeakable for the affrighted Serbians and Connie—then in her 14th year—picked up by the grace of God and attached to the Red Cross in the role of a bewildered but willing worker.
And so on to the end by which time she had become a competent nurse and, for her own protection, an accomplished revolver shot. She still was an expert by the way, and kept it up, even though in her present peaceful and refined surroundings, it was no more than a pastime. About the only one she had in that quiet house. So that she generally carried that silver mounted weapon in her pocket much as most people carry a watch. She had it with her now, for she intended to go out into the grounds of Uppertons presently and indulge in an hour's practice.
Meanwhile she was looking into the menacing eyes of her guardian, Rupert Bascoe and striving out of loyalty for past favours to shake off that mistrust of the man which had possessed her ever since the day when he had sought her out in a London hospital and told her that he was a distant relative of her mother's and that he had something more than an ordinary name to offer her. And Connie, with no friends and poor prospects, had gladly accepted on the understanding that she was to ask no questions.
"Better not," Bascoe had suggested at the time. "The story is a sad one and none too creditable to your father, so it is just as well to let sleeping dogs lie. Uppertons, my property in Kent, is a fine one and there is a fine income behind it. You can be practically mistress of it, and when I die it will be yours. There is only one condition and when you hear what I have to say you will see the necessity of complying with it."
We shall see all in good time what that condition implied and the dramatic consequences that it entailed.
Meanwhile Connie stood there in the library that perfect morning with Bascoe on the other side of the big table, pointing down at some documents which he has curtly ordered Connie to sign. And that without a single word of explanation. And, once more, that wave of mistrust and dislike and fear swept over the girl as she flushed before the almost brutal demand. She knew already that Bascoe could be sinister and cruel when crossed—a year or two under the same roof had taught her that.
"I am not quite a child," she said coldly. "Why should I sign those papers without knowing their contents? I hate these mysteries. There have been too many of them since I came here. At any rate I demand the right to read them first."
Bascoe's thin lips hardened under his short, black beard. There was a cruel gleam in his eyes that set Connie's heart beating faster. She was glad that the little revolver lay in the pocket of her sports coat. The man meant mischief.
"Sign," he said hoarsely, "sign and be damned to you."
"Not till I have read them," Connie challenged.
A second later and her wrist was in Bascoe's grip. Connie's right hand slipped down to her coat pocket. Then the door of the library was flung open without ceremony and a young man came into the room bringing an air of mirth and cheerfulness with him.
"Hullo, hullo," he cried. "Why this assumption of the tragic muse? Let dogs delight to bark and bite, what? Come, Bascoe, old chap, you really can't spiflicate Desdemona on a lovely morning like this. It isn't done."
"You'd joke at your mother's funeral, Marrable," Bascoe said with a growl. "What the devil do you want?"
The young man called Marrable laughed. He belonged to the enviable class that always finds life a comedy. An artist by instinct and inclination, Jimmy Marrable, without a penny in the world, was content to take life as he found it without a murmur until fate chose to smile on him. Meanwhile he obtained a living of sorts by acting as comedian to any travelling concert party in need of his services. And it was during a disastrous tour of one of these that Bascoe had found him stranded in a Northern watering place trying in vain to raise the price of his lodgings by selling some of his sketches. And Bascoe, whose one weakness was to pose as a painter, could see the outstanding merit of these drawings in water colour and had promptly invited the volatile Jimmy down to Uppertons.
Jimmy knew exactly what the invitation meant after Bascoe had shown part of his hand. He was to make a long stay at Uppertons and paint pictures which Bascoe could pass off as his own. Or, at best, touch up Bascoe's work until it might pass as something brilliant and original. And Jimmy agreed, despite the fact that he was an old public school boy with good connexions. Anyway, he was on the rocks for the moment and his humorous philosophy saw nothing wrong in the innocent imposture.
"Oh, very well," he said. "If I am de trop I will remove my hated presence. But if you want that new sketch completed—"
Bascoe hastened to interrupt. That weak vanity of his must not be exposed to anyone, least of all Connie.
"Very well," he said. "I'll come along to the studio now. I think I told you last night—"
The sentence trailed off outside the library door and Connie was left alone. In a haste that she failed to understand, Bascoe had forgotten those papers lying on the table—the papers he had been trying to force the girl to sign.
Connie wondered why. The sudden change from Bascoe's almost Berserk manner to that of a schoolboy detected in some act of meanness puzzled, and at the same time alarmed her. It was all in keeping with that air of mystery that had come to Uppertons in the last few months. And then another thought struck Connie, and she moved across to the table where Bascoe had placed the papers and bent over them eagerly. If there was any sort of a secret here she was going to find it, but beyond a name or two, which was utterly unfamiliar, she could see nothing until there came the words 'Le Forest,' that seemed to strike a cord of memory somewhere.
For a moment or two Connie pondered over this until recollection came like a flood. The old, bad days were back again—the days of deadly peril and the crashing of shells on the old castle in Serbia, and the memory of the last few words she had heard from the woman who had acted as a second mother to her. It all came back now.
The box, the little box that the Countess had placed into her hands, and which she had never lost during all that dreadful time when she had drifted backwards with the Serbian army. The tiny gold box she carried on a thin chain round her neck, until she reached England, and which was now somewhere upstairs amongst her other treasures.
Strange that she had forgotten it so entirely all this long time. And now she remembered that the box contained no more than an address of some bank in Paris, and a tiny steel key with a gold stem, and, on it, in blue enamel, the words 'Le Forest.' And the Countess had told her she was never to part with it.
All this was a matter of a few seconds, and then Bascoe was back again with a threatening cloud on his brow. He pointed to the papers, on the table and took up a pen.
"Now, then," he said roughly. "Your signature."
"Never," Connie said. "Never, until you explain to me what those papers mean and what the allusion to Le Forest stands for. Oh, yes, I have glanced at those papers in your absence. There is something underhanded here that I don't understand."
"Don't you?" Bascoe sneered. "Do you forget I could turn you out of this house at a moment's notice? Do you forget that a certain action of mine made it possible for you to pass as an English subject and saved you from being deported as an alien? Now, then, are you going to sign?"
Connie shook her head resolutely. With his teeth set and violence in his eyes, Bascoe dashed round the table, only to find himself facing Connie's little revolver.
"Go back!" she said. "If you touch me I shall shoot. I swear I will. Go back, you coward!"
Just for a moment, Bascoe hesitated, then with a contemptuous laugh, flung himself down into a chair.
With her head high in the air, Connie walked out of the library into the hall, where she came almost in contact with a tall and graceful girl, who looked at her with a question in her rather magnetic eyes.
"Well, my dear," the parlourmaid asked, with what might have been termed flippant familiarity. "Oh, I couldn't help hearing. So you have found him out at last, have you? Actually threatened you, didn't he?"
Connie laid her finger to her lip and beckoned the pretty parlourmaid to follow her into the morning room. As a matter of fact, Nita Keene was not precisely a maid-servant in the ordinary sense of the word. She was a lady by birth and education who, in her fierce independence, preferred to get her own living to marrying the man whom her father had endeavored to foist upon her. She had been at Uppertons for some considerable time, and had confided her story to Connie, feeling sure that the latter would understand and sympathise. And so the two had become something more than mistress and servant, though Bascoe had not the slightest idea of this.
"Now, tell me all about it," Nita said, as she closed the door of the morning room behind her. "I always told you that Rupert Bascoe was a real bad lot. Ah, my dear, I have seen more of the world than you have, though perhaps from a different angle. Oh, I know men—I ought to, after my experiences when my mother died. And that is why I spotted Bascoe for what he is directly I came here. And I remained because I took a fancy to you, feeling that sooner or later you would want a friend. Now, tell me what it was that the quarrel was all about."
Connie told her story, to which Nita listened with almost flattering attention.
"Ah," the latter said presently. "I thought it was something of the sort. There was a time when you regarded Rupert Bascoe as the best friend you had in the world. It seemed to you really splendid that he should seek you out in the hospital where you were working and bring down here as mistress of this grand establishment with a prospect of it all belonging to you some day, together with a large fortune. And all that because Bascoe claimed to be a distant relative of your mother's. Lies, my dear, all lies. That was not the reason at all. He brought you under his roof because there is a secret behind your identity from which he hopes to profit, and that is why he asked you to sign those papers this morning. I feel it in my bones that he wants you to sell your birthright for a mess of pottage."
"Yes," Connie said thoughtfully. "I am afraid there is something in what you suggest. Mr. Bascoe has been so different lately. Somehow, I have always been a bit afraid of him, but I laughed at my fears, until the last month or two. You needn't be afraid, Nita, I am not going to sign anything. I am going to try and find out where the allusion to somebody called Le Forest comes in. I am going to do my best to get in touch with a man friend, if I can find one, who will look at that address in the gold box I have just told you about and help me to solve the mystery. Unless you can suggest some other way."
"I am afraid I can't," Nita said, after a long pause. "There is only one man close at hand, and that is Jimmy Marrable. He is a dear boy, is Jimmy, and I am very fond of him."
"So I noticed." Connie said with a little smile. "But then Jimmy is so dreadfully inconsequent and featherheaded. I don't think that a lighthearted artist like Jimmy could be at all the sort of man to handle a situation like mine."
"Oh, I don't know," Nita said thoughtfully. "There are hidden depths in Jimmy. I know, because we were brought up together, and he was my little hero in the days when I wore socks and he ran about in grey flannel shorts. Rather a strange coincidence that we should come together again down here. However, that is nothing to do with it. You must have a friend you can rely upon and I will do my best to find you one. Perhaps Jimmy can put us on to somebody. Oh, I know poor Jimmy hasn't any influence or money, though before the war his people had more than enough. But Jimmy was always popular at Eton and he knows heaps of the right sort of men. Besides, I thought it was extremely plucky of him to join a concert party as comedian to get his living in that way whilst he was waiting for his chance as an artist. And Jimmy is a great artist as the world will know one of these days. I dare say you regard him as an easy going individual, quite content to remain here as Bascoe's guest and helping the latter to paint his pictures, but there are ambitions in Jimmy, as I have reason to know. It I were you, I should not say anything about the contents of the gold box. In fact, I shouldn't say anything at all. I think you had better leave it to me. Let me tell him that Bascoe is trying to force you to take a line you decline to adopt and that he is acting like a thorough blackguard. I am perfectly sure if you will allow me to do this, Jimmy will be able to find somebody who can advise you as to the right course to adopt. Now let me tell you something you don't know. You would hardly believe it, but during the war Jimmy was a trusted servant of our Secret Service. You see, he speaks two or three languages, and as he had been all over Europe with a travelling company, he had picked up a lot of information which was most useful. Mind you, he used to do that sort of thing just for his own amusement long before he ever expected to have to get his living thereby. But he has known what it is to go in peril of his life in an enemy country with nothing but that cheerful laugh and vacuous comedian expression of his to save him from any peril. Mind you, this is absolutely between ourselves. I have only told you to show that Jimmy is a man to be trusted implicitly to control his tongue and hide his feelings when a crisis arises. Now, if you will let me explain the situation to him, I am quite sure that he will be able to help you in what I feel is a moment of dire peril."
A minute or two later, Connie strolled out into the grounds. She was still astonished and bewildered at the change in the attitude of her benefactor, though for some time past she had noticed that things were drifting towards what might be at any time a crisis. There was a sinister atmosphere about Uppertons of late—so sinister that more than once she had half decided to throw her present position up and return to hospital work.
But there was a reason against this—a reason that Connie had not discussed with anyone nor dared she do so, because if that secret became public property then she might have to leave the country for good. She was English to her finger tips; every instinct she had told her that she came from British stock. And yet she knew nothing of her parentage, not even how she came to find herself, as a child, under the guardian ship of Countess Inez Matua in that old grim castle in Serbia.
And the trouble was this—it only needed some busybody or some enemy to ask a question or two, and Connie might be faced with an accusation of being an alien actually residing in England without a passport or a permit. Because D.O.R.A. was not yet dead, and Connie had read of more than one Englishwoman married to a German who had been forced to quit her native soil simply because she was held to have forfeited her nationality. True, Bascoe had taken steps to obviate such a catastrophe, but, at the same time, it gave him a power over the girl that made her tremble to think of it. And she trembled all the more now in the face of that scene in the library only a few minutes ago. Never was a girl more awkwardly placed, and never was one in greater need of a true friend than Connie just now.
She wandered on through the grounds into the woods beyond turning her troubles over in her mind. Gradually, as the beauty of the morning began to impress itself upon her, she grew more calm and tranquil and more disposed to shake off the fears that oppressed her so strangely. Then she looked up and saw that a man was coming down the narrow path between the avenue of high beech, and her heart began to flutter at the sight of him.
"Strange!" she thought. How like Hugh Gaskell was the figure who came leisurely swinging along in her direction. The man she had not seen since that stirring day in 1917 when the Serbians fell back for a final effort and—
The stranger looked up. A light flashed into his eyes, and he came forward eagerly with hands outstretched. "Connie!" he cried. "Dear little Connie! Don't you know me, darling? I have been searching the wide world for you for the last seven years. What became of you? You must have known that I should want to see you again."
"Hugh!" Connie gasped. "Hugh! What—where did you come from? Just at the very moment when—oh, Hugh, it wasn't my fault. You remember how we were pushed back and all the dreadful things that happened afterwards. I saw you in the thick of it, and I thought you were killed. Ah, if you only knew."
She looked at him with her heart in her eyes, and, almost before she realised it, the man's arms were about her, and his lips were warm and loving on her. Just for a moment she lay there, then broke away like a frightened animal.
"Ah, no, I mustn't!" she cried. "I dare not. For the moment I had forgotten. Oh, Hugh, this is dreadful!—dreadful! You must let me go and never try to see me again!"
She broke away from him and literally fled down the path, leaving the man she called Hugh Gaskell staring after her with perplexity and amazement written on his face.
It was not Connie Wakefield and a confident Nita Keene who alone sensed the sinister atmosphere that hung like a cloud over Uppertons. Jimmy Marrable had seen and heard enough to convince him that there was something utterly wrong about the man in whose house he was at present living.
He had never been quite comfortable there, and by the use of an ingenious excuse, had managed to get away from Uppertons and establish himself in a small old-fashioned house at the far end of the village. This he had done a day or two after the scene in the library, though he had no intention of severing his artistic connexion with Bascoe, who was more or less essential to him at the moment for more reasons than one.
"But why the change, Jimmy?" Nita asked him at the first possible opportunity. "Why didn't you stay in the house?"
"Oh, well, my dear," Jimmy said in his most casual way. "You see, always like to be as independent as I can. I prefer not to eat the bread of a man I mistrust. It is all very well to work for a chap like Bascoe, but when you don't like him there is no necessity to partake of his salt at the same time."
"Then you don't trust him?" Nita asked.
"Well, between ourselves, my dear, I don't. I believe he is a thoroughly bad lot. You told me what happened in the library the other morning, and, indeed, I did not fail to see signs of trouble myself. Of course, this is entirely between you and me, and not likely to go any further. I suppose that poor child was not bullied into signing those papers?"
"No," Nita said. "There is a sort of armed neutrality at present, but my esteemed employer is not going to let things slide much longer. He is not that type."
"Ah, so I guessed," Jimmy grinned. "Now, I am going to tell you something. You know something of Hugh Gaskell."
"Of course I do. An old schoolfellow of yours, wasn't he? Didn't you work together during the war?"
"That's right. Well, it may come as a surprise to you to hear that Hugh fell in love with our Connie years ago. In the fog of war he lost sight of her, and, until a few days ago, had not the remotest idea where she was. Mind you, I heard all about this one night in the autumn of 1918, when we were with the Italians during the final push. And when I came down here and began to see my way about, it struck me that Connie Wakefield was the very girl that old Hugh was looking for. So I wrote him a long letter telling him what I was doing and the sort of people I was with, and he reacted without delay. Funny thing, isn't it, that he should find the girl of his heart living within ten miles of his own property. But then, those sort of things will happen in real life, though we call them coincidences."
"Do you mean that they have met?" Nita asked eagerly. "Connie didn't say anything about it."
"Perhaps not. But they have met, all the same. Met and parted in a few minutes in a most dramatic way. Hugh told me all about it. He came down to my lodgings the night before last, and we had a long and confidential chat."
Jimmy went on to tell Nita of the meeting between Connie and Hugh Gaskell in the woods at the back of Uppertons, and the strange way in which it had ended.
"There is something very wrong here," Jimmy said gravely. "If we are not careful there will be a tragedy. Why should Connie turn her back upon a man whom she still cares for? What is it that is preventing her from throwing herself into the arms of a man who can protect her from Bascoe and give her a beautiful home with an income to match? It must be very serious, or she would certainly have confided in you, Nita."
"I don't like it a bit," Nita said simply. "Of course, I can't speak to Connie on the matter unless she opens the subject herself. But don't you think it would have been better if you had stayed at Uppertons where you could watch things from hour to hour instead of taking rooms with that queer old man, Andrew Wimpole, who lives in the cottage down the lane?"
"I don't know," Jimmy said. "I don't want Bascoe to think that I am watching him. That is why I persuaded Wimpole to let me share his cottage. He is a queer old chap and seems to bear a bitter grudge against somebody or another, but there is no harm in the man. Clever, too, in his way. He has only got a small garden and greenhouse, and yet he is doing absolute wonders in the way of fertilization of flowers, especially daffodils. He came down here about a year ago and will probably remain till he dies. A bit of a mystery, perhaps, because, in spite of his old clothes and queer ways, he is a gentleman in every sense of the word. But I should say a bitter enemy if he was once aroused. I know the village looks upon him as more or less of a lunatic, but Andrew Wimpole is a long way from being that."
Jimmy went his way presently and Nita returned to the house. It was only at odd times that she could get a few minutes' quiet conversation with her lover, and above all things, she wanted to hide this understanding from Bascoe. Sooner or later, she knew that Jimmy would establish himself as an artist of repute and then she would be able to turn her back upon Uppertons and the domestic service that she loathed from the bottom of her heart. But much as she despised the uncongenial occupation, it was far better than returning home to that scoundrel of a father of hers and allowing herself to be forced into a hated marriage.
Meanwhile, Jimmy strolled thoughtfully in the direction of the cottage down the lane, where he had established himself in a small sitting-room and bedroom under the roof of the eccentric and somewhat mysterious Andrew Wimpole.
The queer, little old man with the strangely magnetic eyes and straggling grey beard, looked up with a smile of welcome as Jimmy came whistling into the cottage. Their acquaintance had been a chance one in connection with an admiration on the artists part of some of Wimpole's flowers. And this admiration, artistically expressed, had quite won the old man's heart, so when Jimmy put out feelers with a view to a pied-a-terre in that picturesque cottage, Wimpole had responded with alacrity. And none the less so when he heard that Jimmy was working at Uppertons on some sort of artistic business.
"Well, my boy," the old man piped in his shrill treble, "and how are things going with you?"
"Oh, so-so," Jimmy said casually. "I have got a few hours off, so I thought I would come back and watch the experiment you are making with those new Dutch bulbs. But, say, my potent, grave and reverend senor, what's wrong?"
"Wrong with me?" Wimpole said. "Wrong. Nothing."
"Well, you don't look up to the mark," Jimmy said. "I should say that you were in some sort of pain."
"Perhaps you are right," Wimpole admitted. "It is sort of nervous asthma I get that isn't altogether free from a queer type of dyspepsia. Something that I picked up years ago when I was hunting new flowers in the tropics. I only get it now and then. When it comes on I am practically paralyzed for a day or two. The only thing that relieves me is to go to bed."
As Wimpole spoke, a spasm of pain gripped him and he bent forward with his features twisted in agony.
"Look here, old chap," Jimmy said. "You go to bed now and I will look after you. Never mind about the old woman who is supposed to run the house in the daytime. She can go when she has had her tea, and, if necessary, I can sit up with you. It is a jolly good thing that I am here, what?"
"You are very good," Wimpole said, speaking as if in pain. "Yes, I think I will take your advice and get into bed. I am always easier when I am lying down and I shan't want much looking after—I never touch food when these attacks are on me. All I want every three or four hours is a tablespoonful of brandy or a stimulant of some sort."
With Jimmy's help, the old man was made comfortable and rather late the same evening professed himself to be ever so much better. "You might have been a trained nurse by the way you looked after me," he said. "I shall be all right now. Put the brandy where I can reach it if there is any need in the night, then you can retire yourself, knowing that I shall be about in the morning again. There is really nothing to worry about."
It was just eleven when Jimmy put out the lights and sought his own room after satisfying himself that his queer old landlord was fast asleep. And when Jimmy came downstairs the following morning to let in the elderly woman who was supposed to look after Wimpole he satisfied himself the old gentleman was still sleeping as peacefully as a child.
It was shortly after Jimmy had finished his breakfast and was on his way upstairs to see how the invalid was faring that the little wicket gate of the garden was flung violently open and Nita Keene came running up the path, breathless and white of face and showing signs of extreme agitation.
Jimmy rushed out into the garden to meet her.
"What on earth's the matter?" he demanded.
"Mr. Bascoe," Nita gasped, laying her hand on her heart. "Mr. Bascoe is lying dead in the library."
"Good lor'," Jimmy cried. "Heart failure."
"Oh, I wish it were," Nita cried. "But it is far worse than that, Jimmy. Far, far worse. There is not the slightest doubt that Mr. Bascoe has been murdered."
Short as was the time before Jimmy reached Uppertons, he found when he got there that the police were on the spot before him. One of the servants, more sensible than the rest, had telephoned the local constable and he had sent at once for a superintendent from the nearest town. Already the officers had begun to ask questions pending the arrival of a doctor, who might reach the scene of the crime at any moment.
It appeared that Bascoe had been working very late in his library the night before, which was in accordance with his usual custom. The rest of the household had retired shortly after ten, leaving the master of Uppertons in the library, where he frequently remained till one or two o'clock in the morning. It was when a housemaid had entered the library shortly after eight o'clock that she had discovered the body of her employer on the floor and noted that all the lights were fully on. She had rushed out of the room, screaming for assistance, and the butler who entered the room at once confirmed all that the girl had said. His master was lying dead by the side of the writing table, and the witness did not fail to notice that one of the French windows leading to the garden was wide open. And there was something more than this. A few feet away from the dead man lay a revolver with one chamber discharged, and this the butler had picked up and handed to the superintendent who did not fail to speak sharply on the subject of handling anything in a room where such a crime as a murder had taken place.
The inquiry had just reached this stage when Jimmy Marrable came into the room. The police officer, with the revolver lying on the palm of his hands, asked if anybody had ever seen it before. The butler hesitated and stammered.
"Why—why, yes," he said. "It belongs to Miss Constance."
"And who may she be?" the officer demanded sharply.
The butler went on to explain. The superintendent listened grimly, and intimated that the servants could leave for the moment, but that he would like to see Miss Wakefield at once.
"You don't mean to say you suspect her," Jimmy broke out.
"And who might you be?" the officer asked. "Any relation to the dead man? No! Then would you kindly oblige me by going outside and staying there."
Jimmy retired, fuming. It was best, perhaps in the circumstances that he should remain in the background. As he went through the hall, he saw Connie come out of the breakfast room and enter the library. There she stood, white and silent, waiting for the man in blue to speak.
"You are Miss Constance Wakefield, I think," the superintendent asked. "You are an inmate of the house, I understand, and, in fact, Mr. Bascoe is, or was your guardian. Now, I must warn you that everything you say will be taken down. You know that Mr. Bascoe has been found dead with a bullet wound in his chest. If you would like to look at him—"
Connie shuddered as she turned half away from the silent form lying there, under cover of a sheet.
"I will tell you all I can," she said unsteadily.
"Perhaps I had better speak first," the superintendent went on. "Mr. Bascoe was shot through the chest with a revolver, the weapon you see on the table there. No doubt we shall be able to establish that beyond all question when the post mortem takes place. Now have a look at that weapon and tell me if you ever seen anything like it before."
"There is no occasion," Connie said coldly. "I can see from here it is my own. Revolver shooting is a favorite pastime of mine—I learnt to use that weapon during the Great War, I must have lost it, it must have dropped out of my pocket; indeed I have missed it for the past few days."
"Indeed," the officer asked drily. "Now you have lived under this roof for some considerable time, and must know Bascoe more or less intimately. Have you had any sort or dispute or quarrel with him in the course of the last few days?"
It was not exactly a trap that the speaker was laying for Connie, but she could see it in no other light. There had been a quarrel, and a bitter one. Others were aware of it and prevarication would have been worse than useless.
"Perhaps I had better say nothing," Connie contrived to whisper. "You were good enough to warn me just now, and I thank you. All I can say is that I lost that weapon, and that I have no more to do with the crime than you have."
"Very well," the Inspector replied. "For the moment, I have no more to say. Ah, here is the doctor. If you would not mind leaving us Miss Wakefield, I shall be obliged."
Connie dragged herself slowly out of the room whilst the doctor bent over the body of Bascoe and proceeded to examine it with the most meticulous care. Then he looked up suddenly, and his eyes lighted with excitement.
"God bless my soul!" he cried. "The man isn't dead. He is within a fraction of it, but life is still there. He has been shot clean through the chest. Handle him very carefully, and there is just one chance in a thousand that he may pull round. I saw cases like this during the war. Ah, here it is. The bullet entered by the chest and came out by the back. I daresay you will find it somewhere. But this unfortunate individual must not be moved. Call the servants and have a bed made up on the floor. I will do what I can for him, and then I will send a nurse over when I get home."
Half-an-hour later Bascoe was lying on an improvised couch, and the library had been turned into a sick room. The man was still unconscious and was likely to remain so for some days. But in the opinion of the doctor the case was not hopeless. And then, when he had done all he could, and the household had somewhat settled down, the superintendent of police went into the morning-room to have a few more words with Connie.
But she was ready for him this time. She had had an opportunity of thinking over everything, and had decided on her course of action. She did not pale even when the policeman produced the bullet with which Bascoe had been shot, and proved to Connie that it corresponded to the cartridges in the revolver, one only of which had been discharged.
"If you have any explanation," the inspector hinted.
"None," Connie said dully. "Except to say that I lost the revolver, and I had nothing to do with the attempted murder. I only hope that Mr. Bascoe will live. And then—"
She stopped, unable to say any more. How could she explain to this man, how could she tell him all about those strange documents which she had refused to sign, and go into the history of her little gold box with its mysterious key, and speak freely about those dreadful days in Serbia? What could be gained by doing anything of the kind? She had heard already that Bascoe was not dead, but with her training as a nurse she knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that he could not possibly recover. She could only stand there, white and shaken, and gently refuse to ask any further questions or answer them.
"Very well," the inspector said. "For the moment, you will please not leave the house, and you will remain here until I see you again. And, in the meantime—"
The speaker left the words unfinished, and, turning on his heel, abruptly quitted the room. But he had said enough to leave Connie fully persuaded of the fact that although not a prisoner, she was practically under arrest.
But she was not going to stay for that. She was alone in the world, with no friends to help her and no money to provide for legal aid, and, with the exception of a few pounds she was utterly devoid of funds. Her jewellery was negligible—nothing beyond a couple of antique diamond and ruby rings which had come to her from the old countess years ago. These would sell for probably a considerable amount, and, until the proceeds were exhausted, she could manage to live somewhere. There were others who knew about the rings, but she would have to run the risk of that. If she could get far away she could pawn or sell them in some big town where it would be impossible to trace them.
It was just after ten o'clock when Connie found an opportunity of stealing out of the house unseen and, making her way across the fields in the direction of Upper Shere Junction, where the northern express stopped for a few moments to make a connexion. She had gone to her room, under the pretence of a splitting headache and had asked not to be disturbed.
So far, so good. She reached the junction and took a ticket so far as she knew, unrecognised. The station master had not seen her and she had contrived to avoid the porter as she entered the third class compartment where a woman was seated alone. She was a woman who, apparently, had little or no luggage with her, and Connie drew a deep breath of thankfulness when the train steamed out of the junction without the appearance of any further travellers in the compartment which she had selected.
What she would do when she reached Manchester, Connie had not the slightest idea. Probably she would be able to obtain a room somewhere and there she could hide herself until she could scheme out a method of escape.
She glanced at the woman opposite her, but the latter seemed to be deep in a paper she was reading. Then on, mile after mile, until presently a quick bump, followed by another and, after that it was as if some overwhelming avalanche had struck the train, for Connie felt herself thrown violently upwards, only to fall as swiftly into absolute oblivion.
There was sensation enough, and more than enough in the Uppertons mystery to keep the newspapers going in flaming headlines for some considerable time to come. First of all, the murderous outrage upon Bascoe, and then the disappearance of Connie with the natural result that everybody immediately jumped to the conclusion that she was guilty of the crime. The army of reporters that swooped down upon Uppertons had, apparently, settled the matter to their own satisfaction. They had managed to worm out the story of the quarrel in the library and the threat of violence on Connie's part, and these facts, coupled with the murderous attack upon one who appeared to be a respectable citizen, left little doubt of Connie's guilt. And if there was a possible chance that she was the victim of circumstances, then her disappearance had dissipated it for ever.
As the days went on and the best part of a week elapsed, nothing happened to change this opinion. And, strange to say, Bascoe was decidedly better. The shot, apparently, had passed right through his chest without touching a vital spot and an iron constitution was responsible for the rest. Within seventy-two hours of the assault upon him, Bascoe was in a position to give a more or less coherent account of what had happened. Someone had come into the library through the window, which he had neglected to fasten and had shot him pointblank. But when asked to say who that somebody was, Bascoe refused to make a statement. It was as if he was shielding somebody and those near about him were giving him credit for a certain nobility of conduct. He hinted that perhaps a little later on he might be in a position to say more, but for the moment he did not wish to incriminate anybody.
Pressed as to the time when the shot had been fired, he was more definite. He had been stricken down according to his own account, just at the moment when the clock over the stables was striking the hour of eleven. On that point he was perfectly clear and