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Title: The Night of the Storm
Author: Arthur Gask
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Language: English
Date first posted: September 2012
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THE NIGHT OF THE STORM

By

Arthur Gask


Published in The Advertiser, Adelaide, S.A. in serial form commencing Monday 5 July, 1937, and in book form by Herbert Jenkins, London in 1937.


CHAPTER I.—THE CRIME
CHAPTER II.—BEATRICE'S DIARY
CHAPTER III.—THE MASTER MINDS
CHAPTER IV.—THE SUSPICIONS OF LAROSE
CHAPTER V.—GATHERING UP THE THREADS
CHAPTER VI.—GHOSTS
CHAPTER VII.—THE PERILS OF A PRETTY FACE
CHAPTER VII.—THE PASSING YEARS
CHAPTER IX.—STIRRING DEAD WATERS
CHAPTER X.—AN OLD MAN'S DARLING
CHAPTER XI.—NEMESIS
CHAPTER XII.—THE QUICK AND THE DEAD
CHAPTER XIII.—PEACE

CHAPTER I.—THE CRIME

"Yes, they are all three as pretty as pictures," said the Superintendent, scowling, "but I'll stake my life one of them killed the man." He spoke slowly and deliberately. "They come of the best stock in the land, by birth and breeding they should be above reproach, and yet it is as clear as daylight to me that one of them has stooped to a guilty passion, and then, for some reason turning upon her lover, has sent him into eternity with the callousness of a butcher slaughtering a sheep."

"Very eloquently put, sir," smiled the stout, fatherly-looking Detective-Inspector Stone, "and I'm sure you ought to have been a clergyman." He seemed amused. "But you have just told us that everyone says that these girls always kept him at a distance, and that you haven't the slightest evidence that there was friendship between him and any of them!"

"And I haven't the evidence," retorted the Superintendent warmly, "but that doesn't make me the less certain that one of them was the murderess, for if she is equal to meeting us in the calm and brazen way she is now doing, then depend upon it she was quite clever enough to have kept her goings-on hidden from everybody."

"But why necessarily a guilty passion?" asked a third man, the lanky Detective-Inspector Carter, with a frown. "Two of the sisters are unmarried, you say!"

"But he wasn't," replied the Superintendent dryly. "He was very much married and everybody knew it, for his wife brought him into court last year to get a separation." He pursed up his lips. "And I've no doubt she could have got a divorce if she had wanted, for he was a gay dog, right enough, and cocked his eye at every pretty girl he saw. We found scores and scores of pictures of girls among his effects."

"But not one of any of these three girls in the Priory?" asked Inspector Carter.

The Superintendent shook his head. "No, unfortunately, there was not one of any of them." He slapped upon the desk before him. "But see how black everything looks against them." He punctuated each sentence with his hand. "The man was shot just before half-past ten, and old Evans the gardener heard the rifle fired and called out to someone he saw running in the direction of the Priory! Then just after half-past ten, the butler heard the front door of the Priory being shut very stealthily and then the sounds of someone moving about in the hall. Then, not two minutes later, he saw that the rook rifle, which he swears was there earlier in the evening, was missing from its accustomed place, and the next morning my men found this very rifle, dropped by the murderer, not fifty yards from the dead man's bungalow, and it has since been proved that it fired the fatal bullet." He laughed scornfully. "Just put two and two together, for there are only three individuals who can fulfil the two requirements of being able to get possession of that rifle and later, as the stealthy prowler, to be entering the house as one of its natural occupants for the night." His voice was most emphatic. "Only one of those girls, I say."

"But there are four servants and——" began Inspector Stone.

"All accounted for," interrupted the Superintendent. "The butler and the three maids were together in the kitchen from before nine o'clock until they went up to their rooms just after half-past ten." He shook his head vexatiously. "No, it was one of these three girls, without any doubt, but unhappily I can't bring it home to her. They are just sitting tight and persisting in their denials that they left the house and I can't prove to the contrary. I am up against a dead wall."

"I noticed that the inquest was as short as you could make it," said Stone.

"Yes, purely formal." The Superintendent scowled. "We just proved the discovery of the body and the cause of death and then had it adjourned."

Three men were seated in the room of the Superintendent of the Colchester police, Superintendent William Russell himself, and the two Detective-Inspectors from Scotland Yard, the latter among the shrewdest and most brainy officers in the Criminal Investigation Department, who had been sent to Colchester to give their assistance to the Essex police in the matter of the mysterious murder of Edwin Asher Toller of Stratford St. Mary.

A long silence followed, and then Inspector Stone produced a note-book and remarked briskly, "Well, go through it slowly again, Bill. We've got the general hang of things now and so shall be able to pick out what's important and what's not. We'll question you as you go along. Start from the beginning and give us more details. Tell us more, too, about all the parties concerned, apart from the actual murder."

The Superintendent made a grimace as of faint protest, but then began in brisk and policeman-like tones——

"The village of Stratford St. Mary is about six miles from here. The Priory, at the far end, is the most important residence in the neighborhood, and attached to it is a considerable estate, extensive enough, at any rate, to necessitate an agent to look after its affairs. The place has been in the possession of the Brabazon-Fanes, who are one of the best county families round here, for hundreds of years, but I gather the estate is somewhat impoverished now and that its rent-bill is not anything like it used to be. The late General Brabazon-Fane, the last male of the line, died two years ago and the property descended to his three daughters Beatrice, Eva, and Margaret. Beatrice is the eldest, unmarried and twenty-eight. Then comes Eva, also unmarried, twenty-six, and finally, the youngest Margaret, Lady Mentone, twenty-five and married to Sir Charles Mentone, a director of the Orion line of steamers." He sighed. "They are three lovely girls and noted for their good looks."

"This Sir Charles Mentone is, of course, the member of Parliament," commented Inspector Stone.

"Yes, for the Ashburton division of Devonshire and he's thirty years his wife's senior. There are no children as yet." The Superintendent raised his eyebrows. "By-the-by, this girl, Lady Mentone, went on the stage when she was eighteen and there was a family quarrel, but when she married Sir Charles, five years ago, everything was made up and she's been a frequent visitor at the Priory ever since."

"No mother living?" asked Inspector Stone.

The Superintendent shook his head. "No, she has been dead for many years." He went on. "Well, Edwin Asher Toller was the bailiff or agent of the estate and had been so for the last three years. His salary was £6 a week. He was a good-looking, well-groomed man of thirty-five, of a decided personality and most capable in his work. It happened I had met him, personally, in connection with some poachers he was prosecuting then on behalf of the estate."

"How long ago?" asked the other Inspector, Carter.

"About two months. The last week in April, if I remember rightly."

"And what opinion did you form of him then," asked Stone, "apart from his being so capable, as you say?"

"For one thing, that he ought to have been in a much better position than he was at his time of life, as he impressed me as being a very knowledgeable and travelled man of the world." The Superintendent shook his head. "Yet I didn't take to him, for he seemed a bit deep, and you could never tell exactly what was in his mind. He thought a deuced lot of himself, too. Moreover, he was very hard, and pressed for sharp punishment upon those two poor devils who had only been caught snaring a few hares."

The Superintendent paused, but, no further question being asked, went on. "Well, the Priory is situated in about forty acres of walled grounds and the agent lived in a small modern bungalow close to the wall, about three hundred yards distant from the main building. He was looked after by an elderly housekeeper who has been in the Brabazon-Fane service for more than thirty years. Upon the night of the murder, on Tuesday, four days ago, she was absent from the bungalow, having come in here for a concert at the assembly rooms, and was not expected back until about half-past eleven, when it was known she would return by the village bus."

"Did she go to the concert alone?" asked Carter.

"No, Mrs. Evans, the wife of the Priory gardener was with her, and the cook would have accompanied them, too, had she not been feeling tired after the annual tenants' ball which had been held the previous night, and decided to stay at home. Well, just before half-past ten, the gardener, who was sitting up for his wife, and whose cottage is only about 100 yards distant from the agent's bungalow, heard the sharp crack of a rifle fired evidently not far away, and, immediately stepping to his front door, was just in time to see—there was a bit of a moon up to then—a figure darting among some rhododendron bushes. Thinking it was a poacher after the pheasants, which are very tame all round the Priory and often roost among the trees within the grounds, he shouted to the runner to stop, but of course the party only went the faster, and being old and rheumaticky, the gardener was unable to give chase, and so after waiting a minute or two, and seeing and hearing nothing more, he returned indoors."

"But can he give no description of the person he saw?" asked Stone.

"Not the slightest. He just saw someone running and that was all. His sight's not too good and he's rather stupid, too. He's over seventy."

"And we can be perfectly exact about the time?"

"Yes, we can be absolutely certain there, for he heard the clock of the village church strike the half-hour just as he came out of his door." The Superintendent became most impressive. "And now the Priory butler, Samuel Chime, comes into the picture, and he, too, heard the half-hour strike. He was sitting in the kitchen then with the maids, and, an old army man, and, most precise in his habits, he rose up at once and ordered them to bed. He went into his pantry to get a drink of water and he said it couldn't have been two minutes after the clock had struck, when, just as he was raising the tumbler to his lips, he thought he heard the faint click of the inner door of the hall being shut, followed by the sound of some faint movement in the hall. He says he paused and stood still to listen, but, hearing nothing more, he imagined he must have been mistaken, because he knew all the young ladies had gone up to their rooms an hour and more before. Still, he told us that. Nevertheless he went into all the four rooms leading out of the hall and, switching on the lights, had a good look round. Then, he says, he locked and bolted the outer hall door and was in the very act of switching off the lights there, when he noticed that a little rook-rifle was missing from its accustomed place upon the wall, just above where he was standing."

"A rook-rifle kept in the hall!" exclaimed Stone.

"Yes, because it is a treasured memento of the old General who, during the last years of his life used to potter about with it in the grounds, to shoot at any birds eating his fruit."

"But it wasn't kept loaded, of course?" asked Stone.

"No, but there was a broken box of cartridges close handy in the drawer of the umbrella stand. The butler was a little surprised about the rifle not being there, but thought that perhaps one of the young ladies might have taken it to polish it—they were the only ones ever to touch it—and had omitted to put it back. At any rate he didn't then associate its absence with the clicking of the door that he had heard, and at once dismissing the matter from his mind, he switched off the lights and took himself off to bed."

The Superintendent glanced down at a paper upon his desk and went on. "Then nothing more happened until twenty minutes past eleven when the agent's housekeeper, Sarah Bowman, came back from the concert. She had been dropped by the village bus, along with the gardener's wife, just outside the Priory grounds and, bidding good-night to her companion, proceeded to walk across a short stretch of lawn to the bungalow, less than a hundred yards away. Then, having to pass before the window of Toller's office, she saw that the light was on, the window open, and that the blind had not been drawn. I must tell you here that it was a close and sultry night, with a storm threatening, and not a breath of air stirring. Well, she glanced in, going by, and was about to say good-night, when to her horror she saw Toller in the big armchair only a few feet from the window, lying back in an unnatural pose, with his head bent down and his face covered in blood. Naturally she was terrified, and at once called out to him, and receiving no answer, she rushed into the bungalow and into his room."

"Were the doors shut?" asked Carter.

"No, neither of them"—the Superintendent paused impressively—"and in his basket in the hall was curled the agent's little fox terrier."

"Drugged, eh?" queried Stone quickly.

The Superintendent laughed. "Not a bit of it, and he came up at once, wagging his tail." He went on—"She ran into the office and laid her hand upon Toller's arm, but the sight of blood at once made her feel sick, she dashed to the telephone and rang up the Priory. It is a private phone, and only rings up to there, but it has an extension into the butler's room at night, and Chime answered her at once. She wailed wildly that she didn't know what had happened, but that she had come home to find Toller lying back quite still in his chair and all covered with blood, and she was sure he must be dead."

"She didn't say then he had been murdered?" asked Stone sharply.

"No, and she says it hadn't occurred to her, for she was too dazed to think of anything, but Chime thought of murder or suicide at once, and so rang up Dr. Athol, the village doctor, a very smart man, by the by, asking him to come immediately. He also says he asked him to bring the village Constable along with him but the doctor said later he did not take in that part of the message, and in consequence he came alone. Dr. Athol is both the a medical man and a friend of the Brabazon-Fanes, and, living not half a mile away, he arrived at the bungalow just at the very same moment as the butler, who had hastily thrown on some clothes and rushed there himself."

"Had the butler said anything to any of them at the Priory?" asked Stone.

"No, he had told no one, but had come straight off on his own, taking the precaution, however, to lock the hall door of the house behind him. They found the housekeeper standing outside the bungalow, sobbing hysterically and clutching the little fox terrier she was holding. She pointed to the open window, and they looked through. Then the doctor ran in, and seeing instantly that the man was dead, with no delay sent Chime back to the house to ring up the village constable and tell him, too, to acquaint us here with what had happened. Also, he ordered Chime to wait at the entrance to the grounds, and, when we arrived, bring us straight to the bungalow without going near the house. He didn't want to alarm anybody there, and particularly so, because he had been called in that very day to attend Lady Mentone, who had not been well after the ball of the previous night." The Superintendent nodded here. "I learnt later that a baby is expected next year."

He went on—"I was just going to turn in when we got the ring from the Constable, and I decided at once to go out myself with two of my men." He frowned. "But we had the devil's own luck that night. We were shorthanded, and couldn't get in touch with our special photographer, as he was off duty, and no one knew where he was. Also, our own surgeon had gone up to town to a medical dinner, and to cap all we ran into one of the most awful storms I have ever encountered. It was quite fine when we started, but a mile off Stratford St. Mary it was thundering, and the lightning was flashing and the rain simply coming down in torrents.

"We picked up the butler at the entrance to the grounds, and, reaching the bungalow, found Dr. Athol waiting for us in the passage. He said that as the man was stone dead when he arrived he had not disturbed the body, but had left everything exactly as it had been when he came in. It appeared, too, that the housekeeper had collapsed, and it had taken him all his time to attend to her."

"But, of course, he was with you when you examined the body?" asked Carter.

The Superintendent nodded. "It was still quite warm, and he estimated that death had taken place less than two hours previously. There was not much blood about, very little in fact, and the hole in the forehead was very small. From the position of the body we were of opinion that the deceased had undoubtedly been shot through the open window, and, from the size of the wound, that a weapon firing a .22 bullet had been used." He paused dramatically. "And then, hardly able to articulate in his excitement, the butler, who had been standing alongside us while we had been examining the body, burst out impetuously with a story of how the small .22 rifle was missing from the Priory Hall, and how earlier in the night he had thought he heard someone stealthily closing the hall door when all the lawful inmates of the house were at that moment accounted for in other parts of the building."

The Superintendent shook his head vexatiously. "And I confess candidly I was guilty of a great error of judgment then, for after listening to the man, I didn't attach much importance to what he had told us, in fact I didn't altogether believe him. I sized him up as only a busybody, who just wanted to get into the limelight, as he was obviously so anxious to make all things fit in—that the agent had been shot with that particular rifle. Then——"

"One moment, please," interrupted Stone, "you told us, did you not, that the butler said he had heard the movements in the hall after the clicking of the hall door, not, before?"

"Yes, that's it," nodded the Superintendent, "and, remembering that there was then no association in our minds with the murderer and the person who clicked that door, you can understand my blunder." He shrugged his shoulders disgustedly. "We had not learnt then that the gardener had seen the murderer running towards the Priory only two minutes before the time of the clicking of the door. So when Chime said he had heard those movements after the clicking, I dismissed them as unimportant, just thinking that perhaps one of the young ladies had been out for a late stroll, although he had imagined they had all gone to bed."

"And naturally," commented Stone, "you did not think the sounds had anything to do with any theft of the missing rifle?"

The Superintendent shook his head. "No, I did not," he replied emphatically. "And about the disappearance of that rifle from its accustomed place; when I asked Chime if it had ever been missing from the hall before, he began to hum and haw, and then admitted that Miss Eva, the second girl, had taken it into her bedroom, only a few nights previously, to shoot at an owl that had began hooting in the tree just opposite her window."

He sighed heavily. "No, that night the butler didn't impress me, and the next morning I saw I had lost my chance"—his voice hardened—"for he had become an evasive and unwilling witness. He had been out and heard what the gardener had to say, and, undoubtedly comparing the latter's story with his own, was realising how damning he was making things look for one or other of his young mistresses."

Inspector Carter emitted an exclamation of surprise. "But hadn't the gardener," he asked incredulously, "at once told his wife what he had heard and seen the very moment she had got home the previous night?"

"He had certainly told her," replied the Superintendent, "but unhappily he had told no one else, and"—he looked rather sheepish—"as a plain statement of fact, we were not even aware of the gardener's existence that night." He went on quickly. "I have said we were dogged by evil luck, and that terrific storm upset everything. When we arrived at the bungalow the rain was simply coming down in sheets and it was so pitch dark that we didn't see, and no one thought to mention to us, that there was any gardener's cottage so near. Consequently, the gardener never entered into our minds, and we were all unconscious that there was almost an eye-witness of the actual crime, in possession of a most valuable clue as to the identity of the murderer." He almost groaned. "I could have kicked myself when, returning the next morning, I saw the cottage there, for then I guessed instantly that in the stillness that had preceded the thunderstorm, its inmates would most certainly have heard the firing of the shot that killed the agent."

"But I should have thought this smart doctor you talk about," growled Stone, "would have had the intelligence to suggest your questioning the gardener as to whether he had heard anything, seeing that his cottage was such a little way away!"

"Well, be didn't," replied the Superintendent and then he added after a moment, "but I think that was because he was much too concerned about the condition of the housekeeper, she is a patient of his and he was aware she has valvular disease of the heart. Indeed, she was so bad that night that he had to give her a strychnine injection." He sighed. "There again we were most unfortunate, for we didn't get her story until the following morning."

"Then didn't you attempt to ask her any questions at all?" asked Stone, very surprised.

"I didn't even see her," replied the Superintendent, "for the doctor said we had better not go into her room." He shook his head angrily. "Yes, and another thing, we didn't learn that night that all the time there had been a dog upon the premises, for the doctor had put the little beast upon the bed by the woman's side, to comfort her, so he says."

"And the significance there?" asked Carter.

The Superintendent nodded emphatically. "That the dog had not barked, or maybe had not even left his basket, when the killer had crept up to the open window through which the agent had undoubtedly been shot, which means surely"—he spoke very solemnly—"that the animal was familiar with his or her footsteps."

"And does the fox terrier know the young ladies well?" asked Carter.

"Sure," replied the Superintendent. "He's always up at the house after scraps; and he meets me, barking like the very devil, every time I appear."

"And the butler," went on Carter, looking rather puzzled, "didn't even he suggest that perhaps the gardener might have heard something?"

"Never said a word," replied the Superintendent, and he shook his head disgustedly. "You see, that awful thunderstorm, apart from the distraction of the noise, was actually filling us with physical discomfort and dulling all our senses. The butler had got wet through, waiting for us, and was shivering as if he were seized with an ague, and we, driving with no side curtains up, were no better off, for we were soaked almost to the skin, too. As I have already told you, it wasn't raining when we started out, and naturally in a great hurry, we had just jumped into the car as it was."

"Well, what did you do next?" asked Stone.

"Decided to leave everything as it was until the morning, touching nothing in the room and even letting the body remain in the position we had found it. We locked the door and one of my men, Detective Lesser, was left in charge of the bungalow with strict injunctions that no one was to enter on any pretence."

"And what time was it, then?" asked Stone.

"A quarter to one and still raining heavily. Well, in the morning we were back again by eight o'clock and then things began to move quickly. We got the gardener's story straight away, and then knowing the exact moment when the murder had been committed, and at once realising the significance of what the butler had told us"—he paused dramatically—"we began to have ideas."

He paused a long moment to marshal his facts in their proper order, and then resumed his tale. "Some things, at any rate, seemed perfectly obvious to us. A murder had been committed with a .22 bullet and a rifle of that calibre had been taken from the hall of the Priory not long before the murder had been done. Presumably, therefore, the murder had been carried out with that rifle. Then the murderer had been seen running in the direction of the Priory, and not two minutes later someone had been heard to enter there. Therefore, again, we can presume it was the murderer who had gone in, and if the rifle had not been returned to its place, then undoubtedly it had been thrown away so as not to impede the murderer's flight." He smiled. "All justified deductions, were they not?"

The Inspectors nodded and he continued. "So we started to search for that rifle, and we found it in less than a couple of minutes"—his voice hardened grimly—"at the very spot where the murderer had been passing when the old gardener, seeing the running figure, had shouted to him or her to stop, and as I have already told you among a clump of rhododendrons."

"And after the rain, no fingermarks of course, on it?" asked Carter.

"Not a sign of one, for it was muddied all over," replied the Superintendent. He lent forward over his desk. "Now comes an interesting point, for the rifle, being a light one, to a running man it would have been of small impediment, but"—he spoke very slowly—"to a woman, and especially to one of slight physique, such as all these three girls, carrying it in flight would certainly have been a handicap."

"And you thought at once of these sisters!" suggested Stone.

"Of course I did," replied the Superintendent instantly, "and I went straight up to the house to have a talk with them. The butler opened the door, and his jaw dropped and he looked darned scared the moment he set eyes upon me. 'Found that rifle?' I asked with no preliminaries. 'No-o,' he stammered, 'and no one knows any thing about it.' 'Good,' I said, 'and now don't you forget about those noises you heard in this hall after the clicking of this door.' 'No, no,' he exclaimed at once, some firmness coming into his voice. 'I made a mistake last night, and it has come back to me now that the sounds I heard were footsteps upon the gravel outside, and they were not in here at all.'"

He paused and made a gesture of contempt. "But I took no notice of his denial and, asking where the young ladies were, was informed that they were just finishing breakfast in the morning room. So I ordered him to announce me, and, intending to give him no opportunity to warn them, followed straight upon his heels. Detective Jennings came with me."

"But didn't the butler want to go and ask the girls, first, if it were convenient to them to see you?" asked Inspector Carter.

"Of course he did," replied the Superintendent. "He didn't want me to follow him. But I waved him on angrily and he shuffled before me with the gait of a very frightened man. Well the three girls were standing talking by the window when he opened the door"—he frowned here and shook his head—"and the instant I set eyes upon them, I confess quite frankly that I didn't feel quite so sure one of them had shot the man. They looked so dainty and such perfect ladies and there was an air of refinement about them that I couldn't well associate with crime. They are women——"

"Yes, of course they are women," Interrupted Stone testily, "and being women, at your time of life you ought to know you can never judge by appearance what they will or will not do. A woman in a fury or a passion is much nearer to the savage than we men are and I've seen——"

"Never mind what you've seen, Charlie," broke in Inspector Carter rudely, "everyone knows you've seen a lot that you ought not to have seen but you needn't tell us about it now, for it's not to the point." He waved to the Superintendent. "Go on Bill. Take no notice of him."

The eyes of the burly Stone twinkled good-humoredly, but he subsided into silence and the Superintendent went on.

"Well, I can tell you I didn't beat about the bush, and after I'd told them who I was, I went straight to the point. 'One of you young ladies,' I said sharply, 'came into the hall just after half-past ten last night,' I eyed them very sternly. 'Now which one of you was it?' They all went white as chalk, and for a few seconds looked at one another bewilderedly. Then the eldest, Miss Beatrice, said very quietly, but with a choke in her voice. 'None of us. We were all in bed by half-past nine!' 'That not true,' I said. 'The gardener saw one of you running by the rhododendrons, and your butler heard whoever it was, not two minutes after, creep into the hall here.' Then I raised my hand accusingly and went on: 'One of you killed your agent; you shot him with that rifle you took from the hall. You——'"

"One moment," said Stone. "Did they go white before you said a word to them—before you had spoken at all?"

"No but they all looked very agitated, as if the way I had come into the room was upsetting to them."

"But did they know then what the gardener had seen?" went on the stout Inspector.

The Superintendent frowned. "Yes, unfortunately, for as I have said, the butler had been over to the gardener, very early, to tell him all that had happened during the night, and then, in turn the gardener had told his story, and back had come Chime to the house and informed the young ladies."

"But when they had first learnt that the man had been murdered?" asked Stone.

"The eldest one had learnt it a few minutes after we had gone the previous night, because Dr. Athol, taking the housekeeper home with him—he had decided he dare not leave her in the bungalow with the body there—had called at the Priory in passing and made the butler go and fetch Miss Beatrice. Then he had broken the news to her and the first thing in the morning, so she says, she told her sisters."

"Then if one of these girls was the killer," remarked Carter, "she was prepared to meet you with an expression of innocence, when you appeared!"

"Yes, unhappily she not taken by surprise as far as the knowledge of the agent's death and the gardener's story were concerned"—the Superintendent nodded grimly—"but she was undoubtedly deuced surprised to be confronted with an accusation of murder so speedily, for when I entered the room no one in the Priory was aware that the old General's rifle had been picked up among the rhododendrons."

"Well, go on," said Stone. "How did they take it when you accused them point blank?" asked Carter.

"They gasped and went more ghastly than ever. Lady Mentone gave a little cry and dropped into an armchair as if she were going to faint, and Beatrice rushed and put her arms round her. Then the third one, Eva, from pallor turned to a flaming red and stamping her feet, but without raising her voice, turned on me like a tigress and exclaimed furiously. 'You fool! You senseless fool!'"

"It looked the real thing, as if they were very surprised?" queried Stone.

"Very much like it," frowned the Superintendent, "and then in a few moments they had all, so to speak, recovered themselves and were lashing in to me as if I were trying to blackmail them. Oh, yes, the breeding came out right enough then, for they had got their tempers well under control. They became now sarcastic and icily cold. 'Where's your proof that it was one of us?' they kept asking. 'What motive could we have had?' 'Why should we have wanted to harm him?' and adding that Toller was a valuable employee of theirs." He looked scornful. "Employee! mind you, to rub it in that he was only a servant. They all denied, too, that they had touched the rifle. Then I asked them if any one of them could bear witness as to where any other of them was after ten, and they reiterated they had said good-night to one another and were in their separate rooms by half-past nine."

The Superintendent mopped his forehead with his pocket handkerchief, as if he were still thinking of the gruelling nature of the interview, and then went on. "I could get nothing out of them. As I say, I was up against a blank wall, and so with the intimation that they must practically consider themselves as prisoners, and and extracting from each a solemn promise she would not go beyond the Priory grounds, I left them and went to have another talk with the butler. In the hall, however, I met this Dr. Athol who had just arrived to see Lady Mentone, as a patient. As I have told you, she had overtired herself at the ball and he was apprehensive about her."

"But did he tell you that straightaway?" asked Stone.

"No, but when I told him how the girls had come to be under the gravest suspicion"—the Superintendent nodded viciously—"I tell you I made no secret of it, he looked very disturbed and said any bad shock might have very serious consequences for Lady Mentone. Then when, in reply to his questioning, I informed him how the girls had taken the accusation, he said that as a medical man, whose special study up to his coming to Stratford St. Mary less than a year previously, had been nervous diseases, in his opinion it was quite impossible for anyone of their temperaments to have committed any such crime and not be hysterical and absolutely prostrated after it. He was convinced that if any one of them were really a murderess, then her mental state would be so noticeable that it would be patent to anyone."

"And without having seen any of these girls I don't agree with him," growled Carter. "Why, I knew a woman once, a fragile little flower of a thing, whom it turned out later had been the party to kill her husband with an axe, and who, when we called in not a couple of hours after she had committed the crime, choked back her sobs to make us a cup of tea. I have also known——"

"Never mind what you have also known, Elias," interrupted Stone with a grin, and evidently remembering the snub he had received a few minutes previously. "You've known a great deal too much in your time for the peace of mind of your missus if anyone only told her." He turned to the Superintendent. "Go on, Bill!"

"Then I returned to that precious butler again," went on the Superintendent disgustedly, "and at once was of opinion that he'd been listening at the keyhole when I was questioning those girls, and was heartened at the way they had denied everything, for he now swore most confidently to his tale about the footsteps on the gravelled drive. I was pretty sharp with him, but I couldn't shake him, and he began to get impudent and finally stated he wasn't going to suppress facts to please anyone. I gave him up at last and went back to the bungalow. We——"

"One moment, please," interrupted Stone. "Had the body been taken away by then?"

"Yes, we had brought an ambulance along with us that morning, as well as our own surgeon and our photographer; the latter is also a fingerprint expert."

"What did the surgeon say?"

"Corroborated all Dr. Athol had said. Death had been instantaneous, and it was undoubtedly a .22 bullet that had killed him." The Superintendent shook his head. "Now comes a very mystifying thing for, quite in the dark as to the motive for the murder, as a matter of routine we proceeded to get all the fingerprints that were in the room."

He paused here so long that Stone began to become impatient. "Get along, man," he said sharply. "You found——"

"None at all," exclaimed the Superintendent, "or practically none! Just a few of the dead man's upon the arms of the chair in which he was sitting, but none anywhere else." He threw out his hands. "None where we should have expected to find them. None upon the knobs of the desk drawers, none upon the desk itself, none upon the door of the safe and none even upon either the outside or inside handles of the door."

"Curious!" nodded Stone thoughtfully. "Very curious!"

The Superintendent went on. "Our expert said he could not remember finding so few in a tenanted room, and the only explanation I can put forward there is that furnished by the housekeeper. She says Toller had hardly used the office at all that day, having come into this town very early upon some income tax business connected with the estate, and returning just in time for his evening meal, after seven o'clock."

"But what was he doing when he was killed?" asked Carter.

"Leaning back in an armchair and either asleep, or else smoking his pipe—we picked one up on the floor close near—and looking through a catalogue of motor cars that we found upon his lap. This catalogue, we learnt later, he had obtained from a firm in Colchester. It was fouled with blood."

"And the search in the office yielded nothing, you say," remarked Stone.

"Nothing of any service," was the reply, "except as I have already told you, that from the number of pictures of girls that we found in the desk he must have been very interested in the other sex. There are eight drawers to the desk, and four he used for the estate and four for himself. They were all closed, because the roll-top of the desk was down, likewise the safe was locked, and the keys were in his pocket. Nothing apparently had been disturbed."

"But about these pictures of girls?" asked Carter. "Whose were they?"

"Oh, film stars, actresses, girls in beauty competitions and girls in bathing costumes. They had all been cut out of newspapers and magazines. As for the other private things, they were a lawyer's letters in relation to his wife's separation, bills from tradesmen"—the Superintendent nodded impressively—"he owed a devilish lot of money and seemed to have been living greatly beyond his means, for there were three letters from firms in this town threatening summonses, and one from a money-lender who was pressing him for the payment of thirty-odd pounds. Then there were a number of racing programmes."

"But no letters from any woman?" asked Stone.

"No, and when subsequently, we came to make enquiries about his private life, we could learn nothing, although"—the Superintendent nodded again here—"there's undoubtedly a lot to learn, for nearly every week-end of late it had been his custom to go away on his motor cycle, but to where, no one knows."

"Were his accounts all right?"

"Quite, and he had little chance of going crook there, for every fortnight an accountant from this town, one of the girls' trustees, used to go down to check them up. This chap, by the by, gives the murdered man a most excellent character."

"And you say you can gather no evidence of the slightest friendship existing between him and any of these Brabazon-Fane girls?" asked Stone.

"None whatever, and I cannot discover either that any of them had ever set eyes on him before he came there as agent. We have not been able to get in touch with his wife, but we are assured by the lawyer who acted for her in the separation agreement against Toller that she is now somewhere in America. The accountant, too, tells me the General engaged Toller through some agency, but he doesn't know which agency it was."

"But did the girls have nothing at all to do with him?" asked Stone. "If he were well-dressed, educated and good-looking, as you say, did they never ask him up to the Priory to a meal or a game of tennis?" He looked puzzled. "It doesn't seem natural to me, for women are women all the world over, and a handsome man always appeals."

"Well, outwardly, it didn't here," replied the Superintendent, "for they had nothing at all to do with him except in a purely business way, and then it was only Miss Beatrice whom he saw. He had been rather hard upon certain of the tenants lately and had threatened to turn them out, because they were behind with the payment of their rents, and I have learnt they had appealed direct to her for leniency."

"Then he wasn't too popular with the tenants?" queried Carter.

"No, but then agents never are, as all the dirty work falls upon them."

"But are they a cold and passionless lot, these Brabazon-Fane girls?" asked Stone after a moment's silence.

The Superintendent laughed. "Not a bit of it. Eva's a desperate little flirt, if ever I saw one. She's engaged to a barrister in the city but, with all her rudeness to me, tilts up her chin provokingly to make me feel that, after all, I'm only a man. Then Lady Mentone—they call her Billy among themselves—can make herself most fascinating if she wants to, and Beatrice—I am inclined to like her best of the three—for all her nun-like face, somehow gives me the impression that she could be very affectionate." He nodded. "By-the-by, three years back this sister was upon the point of being married to the Honorable Ian James, but he was killed in a motor accident and now she is being paid a lot of attention by the rector of Stratford St. Mary, a middle-aged widower." He screwed up his face thoughtfully. "In passing, I should be more inclined to regard this girl, than either of the other two, as the killer, for with all her gentleness she seems to have a most decisive determination of character."

A short silence followed and then Stone remarked frowningly. "Well, if they have dispositions such as you say, why again, I ask, did they keep the agent at such a distance? I contend it wasn't natural, and there must have been a reason for it."

The Superintendent considered. "Well, they are very proud," he replied after a few moments, "and I think it was simply because the man was employed by them and that therefore they held him to be in a socially inferior position."

"Have you got a photograph of him?" asked Carter.

"We haven't, but they have one up at the Priory, in a flashlight photo taken of all the guests at the ball, the night before he was murdered. He comes out very well, too." He grinned suddenly. "Oh, yes. I have evidence of intimacy of a kind, for that night he danced once with Beatrice and Eva, and twice with Lady Mentone. We saw that from the dance programme we came upon, in one of his drawers."

"Oh! he had two dances with Lady Mentone, did he?" commented Stone. "Hum! there may be something in that."

Again a short silence followed and then Carter remarked slowly. "Then we are to take it that your whole case against one of these girls depends upon that clicking of the door the butler heard, and if it were not for that, you would never have thought of them?"

"Exactly," replied the Superintendent, "for it was that clicking that started us at once upon their trail."

"And there are no suspicions about anyone else in any other direction?" went on Carter.

"None that I regard of any value," was the instant reply. The Superintendent shrugged his shoulders. "It is true there was a tale of two hikers who had been camping the previous night not far from the Priory grounds, and whose subsequent movements we have not been able to follow up. Also the gardener came to us the next afternoon with a handful of feathers which he found under some trees, as least a quarter of a mile distant from his cottage, and there was no doubt they had come recently from some pheasant. But we could be sure of no footmarks among the thick layer of leaves about where he said he had found them, and I gave the matter no further thought." He laughed drily. "You see, the girls are all very well liked, and at once everyone wanted to shield them, whereas the agent, with his haughty manners and high ways of carrying on, was by no means popular."

"But how did the gardener come to be looking among the trees so far away from his cottage?" asked Stone.

"Oh, he said a couple of sheep had wandered into the grounds and he had followed them to drive them out."

No one spoke for a few moments and then Stone asked another question. "And the girls, of course, have had proper legal advice?"

"Oh! yes, plenty of it. I had a call here, the next day but one, from this future husband of Miss Eva. He is Jimmy Aker-Banks, the K.C., and he was very venomous. He tried to bully, and advised me to be more careful, or he didn't know what might happen to me. Of course, he wanted to make out that the whole idea of the girls having anything to do with the murder was absolutely preposterous." The Superintendent laughed contemptuously. "I know he's a big man at the Bar, but I think, in fact I'm perfectly sure, I gave him something to ponder over after he'd gone away. Then Sir Charles Mentone called here, and wanted to poo-pooh the whole matter, too, but I tell you I gave him very short shrift, and told him pretty sharply that I was going to do my duty whatever the consequences."

They chatted for a few minutes and then the burly Inspector Stone rose briskly to his feet. "Well, we'll go and have a talk with them now and see what we can find out." He made a grimace. "It doesn't seem quite the thing for three big men to go and put the third degree upon three defenceless girls, but we'll have to do it. It appears we've got to trap one of them into some admission that will incriminate her and then"—he heaved a deep sigh—"but we'll talk about that later on." He scowled at Inspector Carter. "Come on, you old ruffian. You always boast you can see through any woman, and now we'll try you out." He grinned at the Superintendent. "But Bill here says they are so pretty that I almost hope you'll turn out to be a dud."


CHAPTER II.—BEATRICE'S DIARY

July 10th. I do not wonder it is three days since I have written a line, and even now I scarcely have the heart to take up my pen, for it is so dreadful to think that in the years to come everything will be down here in black and white, to recall what happened.

But whether I write or not we shall forget nothing, and all our lives the memory will remain with us that we have been accused of being murderesses.

Oh! that awful night, and the much more awful days that have followed!

And we had been so happy, too, up to then, and there had not seemed to be a single cloud in the sky. The ball had been such a great success, and in a few days we were going to town to help Eva choose her own trousseau.

Then, in a few hours, down came the avalanche, and we were hunted and haunted creatures. Policemen and Detectives were spying into our lives, asking us the most terrible questions, and as good as telling us, too, that one of us was going to be hanged.

But how could any sane person have imagined that one of us could have killed Mr. Toller; that Billy could have crept out into the night to commit a murder, or that Eva, in the joy and happiness of being about to marry the man she loves, had carried out such an awful crime? How could I, too, like a mad woman on the talkies, have been so dead to the sacredness of father's memory as to use his rifle to murder anyone—even if I had wanted to?

And yet they were all so sure of it, and that hard-voiced Superintendent, with such insolent contempt, refused altogether to believe that after we had gone off to bed none of us had left our rooms again that night, and he glared at us as if he were a judge condemning us to death.

But I will put down exactly what happened that dreadful night, and afterwards, before my brain gets addled and my memory too confused to write everything in its proper order.

We went to bed a few minutes before half-past nine, and I was so tired that, almost the moment my head had touched the pillow, I fell asleep. I remembered nothing more until I was awakened by an insistent tapping upon my door, and instantly it flashed into my mind that one of the maids had been taken ill, and I thought at once of Rose, because she had fainted the previous night at the ball. But when I switched on the light and, opening the door, saw Chime standing there as white as a ghost, and he whispered to me that Mr. Toller had met with an accident, and that Dr. Athol was waiting downstairs to tell me about it, an instinct warned me that something terrible had happened.

Chime went off instantly after giving me the message, and so, hurriedly throwing on my dressing gown, I came down to the hall to find him standing with Dr. Athol there, perfectly silent and the very picture of gloom. Then Dr. Athol told me very quietly that Mr. Toller had just been found murdered in his office, and that he had been shot through the open window.

When I was gasping at the horror of the news, he pointed to the wall and asked me sharply if any of us had moved father's rifle. For the moment I was so dazed that I couldn't grasp what he was asking, and he had to repeat the question. Then when I shook my head numbly, he went on to say, very solemnly, that the dreadful feature of the crime was, that in all probability it had been done with that very rifle. Someone must have come in and stolen it, for just before Chime had shut up the house for the night he had heard the hall door being shut, and, immediately afterwards had noticed that the rifle was missing.

Then he warned me on no account to tell Billy or Eva that night, and to break the news most carefully to Billy the next morning. I was to make out to her that the police thought it must have been an accident and that some poacher might have done it when he had come after the pheasants. I was to tell her, too, that the doctor would come round as early as he could in the morning.

Oh, I felt so dreadfully ill when I got back to my room and would have given anything for some brandy. But I dared not go down again to get it. I was afraid of the darkness of the stairs.

So, with my heart beating so fast that every moment I thought I was going to faint, I lay on the bed wondering and wondering who could have been the murderer, if it had been done with poor father's rifle and a cartridge had been taken from the hall-stand, then the murderer must have been someone who knew the house well.

I went over all the tenants in my mind, one by one, and especially those who had particular reason to dislike Mr. Toller. But then nobody had liked Mr. Toller very much. He was too curt and brusque with everyone who had to come to him about the affairs of the estate, and although we girls knew he was very capable and was managing everything splendidly for us, we didn't like him for other reasons.

Certainly, he had always kept his place with us, and had never shown himself in the slightest respect familiar, but we had all agreed he had a bold way of looking at women, and it wasn't pleasing. Eva said it was a sort of veiled insolence, as if he thought he could make any woman fall in love with him, if he wanted to.

So, in a personal way, we had never taken to him, and from the beginning we had made up our minds to keep him at a distance. No one could deny he was good looking, and with people talking so much, as they do in little country places, we didn't want the slightest whisper of any scandal.

Then when I thought of scandal I could feel my eyes fill with burning tears. What an awful scandal this would mean now! The police would come again in the morning, they would bring detectives with them who would cross-examine everyone, there would be an inquest and the newspapers would be full of it.

What a dreadful time we were in for, and how broken now would be the peace and quietness of our lives!

Directly it was light I slipped out of my room and told Eva and Billy everything. Darling Billy went as white as a sheet and couldn't get her breath, but Eva didn't turn a hair, and said at once she wasn't a bit surprised. She was sure some girl must have killed him and no doubt he had deserved it.

Then when we were at breakfast the many dreadful shocks of the day began, for Chime came in, looking very upset, and told us Evans had heard the shot that killed Mr. Toller, and had actually seen the murderer running away as if he were coming up to the Priory.

Then, not half an hour afterwards, we heard loud voices in the hall and Superintendent Russell from Colchester burst rudely into the room and began shouting that he had evidence one of us had gone out of the house late the previous night, and he hadn't the slightest doubt, whichever one it was, that she had killed Mr. Toller.

It was awful the way he started to rave at us, and I was terrified.

The Superintendent went on repeating, over and over again, that it must be one of us, and he tried to twist what poor Chime had said, when they were looking at Mr. Toller's dead body, so that it would seem likely.

But we soon saw he had not a scrap of real evidence against us, and once the shock of his accusations was over, we answered him quite coolly, and I am sure let him see we were not in the least afraid of him.

Then afterwards Dr. Athol came in, and, with that grave, quiet smile of his, told us to take no notice at all of the Superintendent. He said the police were up against a blank wall. They had found out nothing and it was only that that made them so ready to accuse anyone. He comforted us at once, and it was delightful to see how Billy seemed to revive.

All day long the detectives were in and out of the house, asking questions of all the servants and demanding to search everyone's room. They said, too, we were on no account to go out of the grounds, and they put a policeman by the gates to keep guard.

It was a dreadful day, and yesterday and today have been almost as bad. It has been a relief not to have seen the Superintendent, but there have been detectives and police searching the grounds and they have kept on coming in to ask us more questions. One of the detectives is occupying the bungalow, and we can see the lights on there until one and two in the morning. I wonder if they are expecting the murderer to come back and try to kill someone else.

Thank goodness, Eva telephoned at once to Jimmy to come down, and since he talked to the detectives, they have been much more polite. Of course, Charles has been here as well, but although he is Sir Charles Mentone, they didn't pay as much attention to him as they did to Jimmy. The dear old fellow kept on losing his temper, and then they answered back that they were only doing their duty, and had been obliged to ask all the questions they thought necessary.

All the good Charles really did was to frighten off some reporters who came from the London newspapers. One man said he was prepared to offer what he called 'big money' if we would allow him to take our photographs.

Mary has been to see us every day and has brightened us up a lot. Augustine has come too, and he couldn't have been kinder or more sympathetic. Really, I have never liked him so much before, and I didn't draw away my hand, as I usually do, when he holds it longer than necessary, in saying good-bye. He wanted us to go to evensong tonight, and said no one had the right to stop us, but we knew how the people would stare, and so we decided to keep away.

Dear me, I wonder how it would feel for a murderess to find herself a clergyman's wife?

But I am wrong to smile, even to myself. Our trouble is so dreadful, and it can really have no end. Always, always, people will look at us and they will think to themselves: "One of those girls committed a murder once. Now which of them can it be?"

I am so tired. I do hope I get some sleep tonight.

July 11th. I have written to Gilbert Larose. I have asked him to come and help us.

No one knows we have done it, and it was Eva's suggestion.

She had been talking over the phone to Jimmy and he had happened to mention that Mr. Larose had been the best detective anyone had ever known, and if he had only been at Scotland Yard now and had been put on the case, he would have found out who the murderer was long ago, and we should have been saved this terrible shame.

Then Eva came and told us what Jimmy had said and wanted to telephone in a hurry to Carmel Abbey in Norfolk, where Mr. Larose lives. But I reminded her that Mr. Larose had married that rich widow, Lady Helen Ardane, and it would be no good us offering him money to come. I said it would be an impertinence, too, for perfect strangers to ask him for help and especially to telephone him, as over the phone we could explain so little.

We argued over it for a long time and in the end it was arranged we should send him a letter. So I wrote it, and it was posted tonight. I feel rather ashamed now that we have done it, for I feel certain he won't come.

More detectives have been here today and one is still staying on at the bungalow. He is a horrid man, called Lesser, with big, deep-sunk eyes. He walks round and round the Priory and keeps staring up at the windows, as if he expected to see the murderer standing there.

He went into the kitchen this afternoon and asked Susan to give him a cup of tea. He told her they had not done with us yet, and there would be some surprises for us before long.

It is simply awful for us all, and the strain has told a lot upon Billy. She has been looking very pale and drawn today, and I can see Norman Athol is getting anxious about her. He has given us all a double dose of sleeping tablets to take tonight. I feel worn out. I wonder if Mr. Larose will come.

July 12.—We are thrilled! Mr. Larose is coming! He says he will be here early tomorrow morning! He telephoned tonight, when we were in the middle of dinner, and apologised that he had only just come in and read my letter.

But, oh! how my heart beat when Chime came in and said there was a trunk call for me from Downham Market. I was dreadfully afraid I was going to get an awful snub. Instead, Mr. Larose sounded ever so nice. He said he had read about Mr. Toller's death, and would be only too happy to help us. It would be like old times to him. He told me to cheer up and to worry as little as possible.

We were delighted, and when, as a great secret, Chime was told, his eyes filled with tears, he was so relieved. Eva insisted we should open a bottle of champagne, and Billy had her first good meal since the night Mr. Toller was killed.

After dinner Dr. Athol came with Mary, and he was most astonished when we told him Mr. Larose was coming. But he was very pleased about it, and told us, laughingly, that leading spiritualists say Mr. Larose could be the greatest medium in the world if he wanted to, for they fully believe he can call up the spirits of the murdered dead.

We had quite a happy evening, but something has rather disturbed me, and, with all our own troubles, I cannot understand how I can yet come to dwell upon it.

We are very fond of Mary and Norman, and, as I was watching them tonight the dreadful thought came to me suddenly that she does not love him as she should.

Several times she seemed to look very peculiarly at him, and it made me wonder if, after all, she is only marrying him to become Lady Athol when his uncle dies.

Can she possibly be jealous of Billy—I can hardly think it, with her fine nature, but then, it's a very sad and unkind world.


CHAPTER III.—THE MASTER MINDS

"This is Stratford St. Mary we are just coming to," remarked Superintendent Russell to the two Inspectors from the Yard, "and to the ordinary person it might seem quite impossible that so beautiful a village could be associated with a dreadful crime."

"That's so," nodded Inspector Carter thoughtfully, "but it has often been noted that, in proportion to the number of its inhabitants, the countryside is undoubtedly more criminally inclined than any cities or big towns. We might imagine wickedness and vice would flourish best among the crowded slums, but very lonely places often produce the worst cases of homicide."

"Exactly," commented Stone, his eyes twinkling, "and if we only knew it, many a rosy-cheeked farmer round here hides a dead body in his haystack, and the cellar of the old woman who keeps the village shop would get her hanged, if the authorities only dug it up."

"Don't take any notice of him, Superintendent," said Carter with a frown. "He's always most frivolous when he should be concentrating his thoughts." He eyed his colleague contemptuously. "And it all come from his being too greedy with his food."

A short silence followed, and then as the car turned out of the main road and shot between some high gates it slowed down a little to pass a single seater car coming out. "That's Miss Arbour," said the Superintendent. "She's a great friend of theirs and engaged to that Dr. Athol."

"Well, she's very good-looking," nodded Stone. "Does she live in the village, too?"

"Yes, not a quarter of a mile away and just outside the Priory grounds." The Superintendent smiled grimly. "She's been coming here every day to give them moral support."

Entering the grounds, the Superintendent made a little detour to point out to them the bungalow and the gardener's cottage, and then drove up to the front door. Jumping briskly out of the car he rang the bell. "Now the butler generally answers it," he said, "and you just notice the hang-dog look he'll put on when he sees me."

"To speak to the young ladies," he announced curtly when, as he had expected, the butler appeared, and immediately they were ushered into the hall.

"If you'll please wait here a moment, sir," said Chime most deferentially, "I'll tell them you have come. They have a visitor with them in the library, but I expect they'll see you at once."

"But he didn't look hang-dog," remarked Stone with a smile when the butler had gone off. "In fact, the fellow seemed to me to be suppressing a grin."

"But he'll not grin presently," said the Superintendent, rather annoyed. "It'll frighten the life out of him when he learns from where you've come."

Chime returned almost immediately with the intimation that the Misses Brabazon-Fanes would see them at once, but the Superintendent made no movement to leave the hall, and, instead, stood pointing out to the Inspectors where the small rifle had hung upon the wall, and the drawer in the hall stand from which it was supposed the cartridge had been taken. Then he opened and shut the hall door several times to let them hear the clicking it made, and, indeed, was evidently intending, in a most studied way, to make those who were expecting him realise they must wait upon his pleasure and not he upon theirs.

But Stone frowned, and with an impatient movement of his head towards Chime, intimated most plainly that they must not keep those waiting for them any longer. So, reddening slightly at the implied reproof, the Superintendent followed the butler up the long lounge hall.

Chime threw open the door of the library. "Mr. Russell and the two gentlemen," he announced, and he stepped back for the others to pass in.

Four people were sitting in the room and they all rose to their feet at once as the little party came in. Stone had the instant impression of three very pretty girls and a youngish and smartly dressed man who was standing just behind them. But he was all eyes for the girls, whose good looks, he thought admiringly, did not certainly fall short of what the Superintendent had stated.

"Inspectors Carter and Stone," said the Superintendent curtly, "and they want a few words with you." He turned to his companions. "The Misses Brabazon-Fane. Mr. Carter and Mr Stone," and then he frowned in annoyance at the presence there of a man he did not know.

The two Inspectors bowed gravely. "Good morning, young ladies. We are very sorry——" began Stone politely, but then his grave expression passed suddenly and his face broke into a surprised and pleasant smile. "Ah! Mr. Larose!" he exclaimed with great animation. "Now, we certainly did not expect to find you here," and he at once stepped forward to shake hands, with Carter immediately following suit.

"I arrived only a few minutes ago," explained Larose returning the smile, "I'm a friend of the Misses Brabazon-Fane."

"And a very good friend for them to have, too," smiled the stout Inspector. "I'm sure I wouldn't wish for a better one myself, if I were in any difficulty or trouble." He turned to the Superintendent. "This is Mr. Gilbert Larose, Mr. Russell, and, as you know, he was once a colleague of ours at the Yard. We've worked on many cases together."

The Superintendent just nodded. He was in no mood for any politeness, and was downright annoyed that Stone should be speaking so pleasantly in the presence of a murderess.

"But won't you sit down, gentlemen?" said one of the girls, the one whom both the Inspectors were already inclined to register in their minds as being the prettiest. She inclined her head proudly. "We'd better make ourselves known to you. I am Beatrice Brabazon-Fane, the eldest; this is my sister, Eva, who comes next, and this is the youngest of us, Lady Mentone."

"Pleased to meet you," bowed Stone, "and we only wish it had been under happier circumstances." He smiled his kind, fatherly smile. "You can count on us being as considerate as possible."

"And you won't mind Mr. Larose being here when you question us?" went on Beatrice sweetly. "He can stay with us?"

"Certainly, he can," replied Stone heartily. "Neither my colleague nor I will have the slightest objection." He spread out his hands. "We are not any more for the prosecution than, I take it, is Mr. Larose for the defence. All we are after is to get at the truth. We want to find the person who killed that poor man, and if none of you had any part in it, then you needn't have the slightest fear of us or be afraid of being tripped up by any questions we may ask you."

"Thank you," said Beatrice quietly. "Then you can ask us anything you like and we'll try to help you all we can."

"That's it," said Stone quickly. "It's your help we want." He spoke very solemnly. "But you must realise the exact position you are in, young ladies, and how, under all the circumstances, we cannot but regard you are being under the very gravest suspicion." He shook his head slowly. "Indeed I tell you quite frankly that if, instead of three of you, there was only one, then we should not have the very slightest compunction in ordering her immediate arrest."

"But no grand jury would allow the case to go up for trial," rapped out Eva sharply. "No one murders without a motive and you'll never discover any of us had the faintest reason for wanting to kill Mr. Toller." She laughed scornfully. "No grand jury, I say, would return a true bill."

Stone regarded her half in amusement and half with a frown, but before he could make any comment the Superintendent broke in dryly. "This one is the young lady I told you of Mr. Stone, who is engaged to that King's Counsel, Mr. Aker-Banks, and upon several occasions, already, she has been good enough to enlighten me as to the law of evidence."

"Ah!" exclaimed Stone smilingly, "I understand." He turned to the girl and went on. "But if one of you did commit this crime, Miss Eva, then the motive will assuredly be found. So, if we come to the conclusion that one of you is the guilty party, then we shall have to trace back for the reason why the murder was done." He took some papers out of his pocket. "Now you all express your perfect willingness to help us all you can and will, voluntarily, answer any questions we ask? Good, then we'll start straight away."

"But I think, Mr. Stone," said Inspector Carter, speaking for the first time, "it will be better if we question those young ladies separately."

"Why?" asked Beatrice immediately and in rather a sharp tone of voice.

"Because we shall then see," replied the Inspector imperturbably, "if your stories exactly coincide." He turned to the Superintendent. "You haven't spoken to any of these ladies alone as yet, Mr. Russell?"

"No," jerked out the Superintendent crossly. "I didn't suggest it and they wouldn't have been willing if I had. They've been on the defensive all along."

"Well, Miss Brabazon-Fane," said Stone suavely, "will you now very kindly come into another room and prove the sincerity of your willingness to help and of your having nothing to hide. Mr. Larose can be present and then you won't feel quite so much on your own."

So Beatrice, a little pale but appearing quite self-possessed, left the library with the four men. Then when they were out in the hall Inspector Stone stopped suddenly and said to the girl. "But now I come to think of it, will you please take us upstairs and just show us the rooms where you young ladies sleep. It may make it clearer for us to understand where you all were that night." He smiled reassuringly. "We don't want to examine anything, but only to see the situation of the rooms."

Without a word Beatrice led the way up the broad staircase and, gaining the landing above, opened the first door she came to. "This is my bedroom," she said quietly, "and my sisters' are the adjoining ones up the passage."

They all stepped inside. The room was a good-sized one and furnished in excellent taste. The men looked round with varied feelings. Stone could smell dried lavender somewhere and the expression upon his face was reverential and almost timid. Carter was cold and calculating, and nothing escaped his eye; the Superintendent was scowling, as if he were not too pleased that a murderess, or a sister of one, should sleep so daintily, and Larose was turning his head in all directions and taking instantaneous mental photographs of everything before him.

It was only Stone who moved from beyond the threshold of the room, and he tip-toed to one of the open windows and, stretching his head outside, took a good look round over the grounds.

Then they went into the next room, Lady Mentone's, which was furnished in pale blue, and finally they looked into Eva's cream-tinted bedroom.

"Thank you," said Stone, "and now for the few little questions we would like to ask you."

They proceeded to a small room off the lounge ball, and when they were seated, Stone started to speak at once.

"Now, please, Miss Brabazon-Fane," he said kindly, "as I say, don't look upon us as your enemies. Look upon us as your friends who want to clear you of this suspicion. So just tell us, in a conversational and unrestrained sort of way, exactly what you did that night after you separated from your sisters. Tell us everything. Oh, first, where did you part company?"

"They left me just outside my bedroom door," replied Beatrice. "I said good-night to them there, and they went on up the corridor to their own rooms."

"And what, exactly, were your last words to them?" asked Stone. He bent towards her. "I want, particularly, to know your last words."

Beatrice appeared to be surprised at the question. Then she hesitated for an appreciable time before she spoke. "I think they were, 'Good-night' to Eva, and to Lady Mentone, 'Now, mind you don't read for a single moment.'" She nodded. "Yes, that's what I said, because Dr. Athol had, only that morning, forbidden Lady Mentone to read in bed."

"And then you went into your room and got ready for bed!" suggested Stone.

"Yes, I undressed at once, switched off the light, and got straight into bed."

"You mean you got into bed," smiled Stone, "and then switched off the light. I noticed you have a light over your bed, with a double switch."

Beatrice shook her head. "No, I switched off the light first, as I always do, because I went over to the windows and pulled up the blinds. I always sleep with the blinds up."

Stone accepted the explanation. "Are you a light sleeper?" he asked.

Beatrice nodded. "Oh, yes, quite light. I wake up very quickly."

"Go on," said Stone. "Tell us everything you remember."

"Well, I was dead tired and I think I fell asleep at once. Then the thunder woke me and I got out of bed to see if the rain was coming in either of the windows, but finding it wasn't I got back quickly and then I don't think I was awake long. I didn't fully wake up again until I heard someone tapping on my door, and I called out. 'Who is it?' Then Chime answered, and I jumped out of bed at once and, after switching on the light, opened the door."

"Oh!" exclaimed Stone, "then you switched on the light, forgetting the blinds were pulled up! You must have been very startled to forget that."

"I didn't forget it," replied Beatrice quickly, "but as I wasn't going near the window it didn't matter then." She nodded. "Yes, I was startled. I thought one of the maids had been taken ill."

Stone went off on another tack. "Now, do you usually sleep with your door bolted?"

Beatrice shook her head. "No, never. It is always unbolted, so that the maid can bring in the tea when she calls me in the morning."

"And does the maid knock before entering?" asked Stone carelessly.

"Most certainly she does."

"And she waits for you to speak before she comes in?"

"Of course. She's been properly trained. She waits until I call out that she can come in."

"And I suppose it is only the maids who come up on your floor; never Chime!"

"Yes, only the maids; never Chime. His room is in a different wing, and he goes up by another staircase."

Stone went on. "Well, now another thing. Did you know Mr. Toller's housekeeper would be away from the bungalow that evening?"

"Yes, I did."

"Then how did you come to know it?"

"Because that morning cook told me and had asked for permission to go with her into Colchester."

"But did you know the cook hadn't gone?"

"Yes, I happened to go into the kitchen later in the day, and cook said then she was feeling too tired to go out."

Stone leaned back in his chair. "Well suppose," he said slowly, "you had really been the one to shoot Mr. Toller and leave him where he was found, you would have known that everything would have been discovered when his housekeeper returned from Colchester by the bus about half-past 11." He eyed her frowningly. "That is so, is it not?"

Beatrice did not hesitate a moment. "Yes, I expect I should," she replied quickly. "Mrs. Bowman would have had to pass by the open window, and with the blind drawn up, of course, she would have seen him lying there."

"And that being so," continued the Inspector, "you would have guessed the housekeepers first thought would have been to ring here for help?"

"Yes, I certainly should have been expecting her to have rung up Chime," replied Beatrice. She went on coolly. "Then Chime, after he had made sure what had really happened, would have come up and informed me, for I am the mistress here and it would have been the natural thing for him to do."

The Inspector's voice now took on an almost accusing note, and he spoke even more slowly still. "And if guilty of the murder and expecting all this to happen, when Chime had come to knock at the door you would have called out to him exactly what you have just told us—as an innocent person—you did?" He shook his finger warningly. "You said 'Who's there,' and not 'Come in,' which you would have said if you had thought it was one of the maids!"

But Beatrice seemed in no wise disconcerted. "You are inferring a great deal from a very little, aren't you?" she asked quietly. She looked fearlessly at him. "Tell me exactly what you mean?"

"I mean, Miss Beatrice," said Stone sternly, "that when Chime knocked upon your door that night your actions and speech appeared not unlike those of the guilty woman. You acted and spoke exactly as if you had been expecting Chime—and no one else—to knock upon the door, and you were prepared to cry out at once 'Who's there?' Now if you had thought it was one of the maids knocking, which, of course, in the ordinary way you would have thought—for you have just told us Chime never came up on your floor—you would have called out, as you say you always do, 'Come in!'" He shook his head frowningly. "Now that, to my mind, is decidedly suspicious."

"And to mine," retorted Beatrice with some heat, "decidedly ridiculous." She looked scornful. "Good gracious, when a girl is suddenly awakened in the middle of the night by tapping upon her door, is it likely, do you think, she is going to call out 'Come in'? There was something frightening about Chime's knocking. I have told you it was quiet, but it was insistent, as of someone in a desperate hurry. He knocked quickly, quite half a dozen times, and the knocking was as different from that of any of the maids as is an unfamiliar footstep from one you know quite well." She shrugged her shoulders. "You are making a lot out of nothing at all."

Stone frowned and gave a quick glance round at the others, especially at Larose. But the latter's expression was quite inscrutable, and if he thought the Inspector was not coming out too well from the encounter, his face did not show it.

Stone turned back to Beatrice. "And so you think you've explained that to our satisfaction," he said, not unpleasantly. "Well, we'll go on. What happened next?"

"I put my head round the door," went on Beatrice, "and Chime whispered that Mr. Toller had met with a dreadful accident, and Dr. Athol was waiting in the hall to tell me about it. So I threw on my dressing gown and ran downstairs. Then Dr. Athol told me Mr. Toller had been shot, and everything that had happened. Then——"

"One moment, please. How did he begin telling you?"

"By saying he had dreadful news, or something like that."

"And what did you say then? What exactly were your first words?"

Beatrice shook her head. "Oh, I don't remember. I haven't the remotest idea. All I recollect is I was sick with horror. Hardly any conversation ensued, and Dr. Athol went off almost at once."

"And what did you say to Chime when he had gone?"

"Nothing. I went straight back to my room. I never said a word to him, nor he to me."

The Inspector looked incredulous. "Come, come," he said sharply. "You don't mean to tell us you weren't curious about a lot of things, as to the finding of the body, what police had come, and when Chime had heard someone shutting the door?" He scoffed. "To say nothing of the murder having been done with your own rifle, stolen from the hall!" He shook his heard frowningly. "Surely you don't mean us to believe you never asked your butler anything?"

"But I do," said Beatrice with the utmost firmness, "for it's the truth. I couldn't think properly and I never gave a thought to any details. All I realised was that I had been standing in the dimly lighted hall, with the noise of the pouring rain so loud that Dr. Athol had had to raise his voice to make himself heard, and I had been told that a man I had been seeing and speaking to almost daily, for more than two years, had been brutally murdered." Her voice choked. "Can't you understand what my mental condition must have been then?"

Stone turned to the Superintendent. "Just touch that bell, please." He spoke ominously. "We'll verify this straight away."

A dramatic hush came over the room. It was a critical moment and the Superintendent was the only one there who was not feeling sorry for the girl. She was leaning back in her chair and her eyes were cast down. Her face was very pale. Stone and Carter were, purposely, looking away from her, but the Superintendent was regarding her with a cold, sarcastic smile.

Larose was troubled. Beatrice had certainly held her own most ably up to then, but, somehow, he thought he sensed she had all along been playing a part, and behind all her quick and ready answers had been a background of anxiety as if she were not absolutely certain of herself.

A tense minute followed and then they heard footsteps outside, there was a gentle tap upon the door and Chime entered. He looked interrogatively at his mistress.

Beatrice indicated Inspector Stone. "This gentleman wants to ask you some questions," she said quietly, "and of course you'll answer him as fully as you can."

"Yes, Miss," said Chime, and he looked respectfully at the Inspector.

"So you see, Mr. Chime," smiled Stone, "your mistress wishes you to be quite frank with us and not keep back anything. You understand?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well," went on Stone briskly, "you fetched your mistress down that night and were present in the hall when Dr. Athol was telling her what happened?"

Chime nodded. "Yes, sir, I was there all the time."

"And then you let the doctor out and, of course, bolted the door behind him?"

"Yes, sir."

Stone leaned forward and spoke very sharply. "Now, are you quite sure you bolted that door after he had gone out?"

The Superintendent regarded Stone admiringly. This big man from the yard would make Chime convict his mistress of falsehood, but was so masking his intention by questions that were of no importance, that the butler would not realise he was tailing into a trap.

Chime replied without the slightest hesitation. "Yes, sir, I am quite sure."

"And your mistress saw you do it?" went on Stone, very quietly.

Chime hesitated. "I don't quite know about that, sir," he replied very slowly, "but she must have heard me shoot the bolts, anyhow," he explained. "You see she was half-way up the stairs when I turned round and so I can't say whether she had been watching me."

"Oh, then she didn't speak to you?" said Stone quickly.

"No, sir, she didn't say anything. She appeared very ill."

"But if she were half-way up the stairs, as you say," snapped Stone viciously, "how could she appear to you to be very ill? You would have only seen her back."

"Yes, sir," said the butler, "but she was hanging on to the bannister as she went up. She looked as if, any moment, she were going to fall. I was relieved to see her reach the landing safely."

A short silence followed and then Stone said quietly, "Thank you, Mr. Chime. That's all. You can go now," and when the butler had left the room he turned to Beatrice and went on briskly—"Then the next morning you informed your sisters. Tell us what happened."

"I told my sister Eva, first," said Beatrice, "as I thought it best we should both go together to Lady Mentone. So I went into Eva's room just after half-past six and woke her up. She was dazed and I had to tell her twice before she could take in what I was saying. Then——"

"Then what were her exact words?" interrupted Stone. "Her exact words, please?"

Beatrice thought for a moment. "Something like 'My God, how dreadful! But his wife or some other woman did it, and I'm not at all surprised. It probably served him right!'"

"Then you went and told Lady Mentone? Was she asleep, too?"

"No, she was sitting up in bed and brushing her hair. She always wakes up early."

"Who spoke first when you went in?"

"She did. She asked us what we were doing wandering about so early. Then I told her what had happened."

"Your exact words, please," said Stone.

Beatrice was quite ready with her reply. "I said, 'Now, don't be frightened, Billy, but there was a dreadful accident at the bungalow last night. Someone shot Mr. Toller and he's dead. He was shot through the window, and the police think it must have been some poacher who had come after the pheasants.'"

Stone eyed her very sternly. "And you can reel off the exact words there," he said slowly, "and yet you tell us you can remember nothing of what you said at the much more tragic moment when Dr. Athol had just told you Mr. Toller had been murdered!" He looked scornful. "Don't you think that rather peculiar?"

"No, I don't," replied Beatrice sharply, "for when Dr. Athol told me of the murder I was too horror-struck to retain any recollection of what I said, but——" she nodded emphatically—"I had been all night rehearsing the exact words I should use to Lady Mentone, and they are clearly impressed upon my memory." She spoke very quietly.

"Oh, that's your explanation, is it?" grunted Stone. He thought for a moment. "Then how did Lady Mentone take it?"

Beatrice looked troubled at the recollection. "She went ghastly pale and then fell back upon the pillow and began to cry. We expected she would take it badly, for she's emotional and very highly strung. She was terribly shocked."

"But for all that," commented Stone grimly, "not two hours later she was downstairs having breakfast with you."

"She never makes an invalid of herself," retorted Beatrice calmly. "That's the trouble. She does much too much, and that day she had to go back to bed before lunch."

"Well, now about that dog of Mr. Toller's," went on Stone, after having scanned his notes. "The animal knows you quite well, doesn't he?"

"Very well," replied Beatrice carelessly. "He's always up here round the house."

"And therefore, if that night you had gone tip-toeing up to Mr. Toller's window," suggested Stone, "he would not have barked because he would have recognised your footsteps."

"I doubt it," retorted Beatrice instantly, "because if I had tip-toed up, the footsteps then would have sounded quite different from my usual ones." She looked scornful. "As a rule, I don't tip-toe."

Stone half smiled and looked down his nose. Then a short silence ensuing, Inspector Carter, speaking for the first time, asked, "Have you been accustomed to shoot much with that rifle, Miss Brabazon-Fane?"

"Yes, I've often shot rooks with it," replied Beatrice, "but I haven't used it since my father's death."

"Are you a good shot?"

"Quite passable."

"Then you would have had no need," suggested Carter, "to go close up to the window if you had wanted to shoot Mr. Toller. You could have fired across that flower bed I noticed, when driving in just now. I don't suppose you would have been more than thirty yards away."

"But if I had done that," said Beatrice promptly, "I should not have been seen running by the rhododendrons just afterwards. I should have cut across the lawn as the nearest way to the front door here."

Inspector Carter made no comment, and then Stone took up the questioning again.

"Now as to your personal relations with Mr. Toller," he said. "I understand you young ladies were never friendly with him. In fact, it is suggested from your line of conduct that you didn't like him."

"It was not a case of like or dislike in any personal way," said Beatrice sharply. She shrugged her shoulders. "He was just our agent, and that was all. He was particularly an acquisition to the estate, because he had had something of an architect's training, and was a very good draughtsman."

"Were you yourself brought much in contact with him?" asked Stone.

"Certainly. I saw him at least two or three times every week, for it was I who finalised all the estate business with him."

"Did he came up here, then?"

"No. I went down to the office. He never came up here at all." Beatrice nodded. "That was the arrangement my father made when Mr. Toller was first engaged and when father died I continued it."

"Then upon those very many occasions you refer to," said Stone sharply, "you were closeted with Mr. Toller alone."

"I was certainly alone with him in the office," admitted Beatrice calmly, "but almost invariably one of my sisters was waiting for me outside. We always made these occasions of visiting the office part of our usual morning walk in the grounds."

"Hum!" remarked Stone thoughtfully, and then he asked, "Have you been aware all along that Mr. Toller was a married man?"

"No, we did not any of us know that until we saw in the newspapers about six months ago that his wife had got a separation from him."

Stone shook his head decisively. "Then we cannot understand this lack of friendliness," he said, "and I tell you frankly, we are suspicious there was some very good reason for it. It's all nonsense to say you neither liked nor disliked the man. You can't have employed him for upwards of three years and not formed some estimation of his character."

"I have never said we hadn't formed any estimation of his character," declared Beatrice warmly. "On the contrary, right at the beginning we judged him to be a man who would become familiar upon the slightest encouragement and that is why we left him alone." She shrugged her shoulders. "He was our agent, and nothing more, and we never let him get any further."

"You danced with him at the tenants' ball," said Stone with a frown.

"As I danced with the blacksmith and the verger of the church," commented Beatrice. "We all had one dance with him. It was a duty dance."

"And you have told Mr. Russell," went on Stone, "that you have no idea of anyone who might have had cause to wish Mr. Toller ill!"

"Not to the extent of murdering him," replied Beatrice. "Certainly, very few of the tenants liked him, as his manner was rather overbearing, but we can imagine no one who would have hated him enough to carry out so dreadful a revenge."

"Well, one question more," said Stone, "and it is a very important one." He bent forward smilingly. "Now how long have you known Mr. Gilbert Larose?"

Beatrice looked at her wrist-watch. "Exactly an hour and five minutes. He arrived only just before you did."

Stone elevated his eyebrows as if surprised. Then he seemed rather amused. But he made no comment, and went on briskly. "Well, now we'll have Miss Eva in. No, no, you needn't go, Miss Beatrice. You can sit and listen. I don't expect we shall be long with either of your sisters."

"But one thing first, please," said Beatrice. "I want to know when we shall be able to use the office again. It is most inconvenient not to be able to get to the books and the safe. Our trustee, Mr. Oliver Redding, the Colchester accountant, has rung up Superintendent Russell twice, but he's got no satisfaction at all, and it is most annoying, as a new agent has been engaged, and is waiting to take up his duties."

Stone looked interrogatively at the Superintendent, and the latter said, frowningly to Beatrice. "You may be able to have it after today. It all depends upon these gentlemen here."

Eva Brabazon-Fane came into the room with her head held very high, but the moment she set eyes upon her sister her studied expression of defiance passed instantly away.

"Oh, Beatrice, darling!" she exclaimed in some dismay, "have they been bullying you? You look so pale."

"No, we have not been bullying her," exclaimed Stone at once. He laughed slyly. "And you must know quite well she's not the sort of young lady to stand bullying at any time. From all I've learnt of her these last few minutes she can hold her own with anyone."

"Well what do you want to ask me?" said Eva coldly, and in no wise responding to the Inspector's good-natured attitude.

"The first thing you knew of the murder," began Stone, "was when your sister came into your room the next morning! That is so, is it not?"

"Yes, when she woke me up," replied Eva curtly.

"Oh, you were asleep when she came in, were you?" exclaimed Stone, as if very surprised.

"Yes, fast asleep, and she had to almost shake me to wake me up."

"And what did you say when she had told you Mr. Toller had been killed? Your exact words, please."

Eva looked scornful. "Oh, I don t remember," she replied sharply. She corrected herself quickly. "Oh, yes, I do." She shook her head. "But I'm not going to tell you. I made a remark I should not have done."

"But you must tell me," said Stone sternly. "It's one of the things I asked you in here to find out." He spoke very quietly. "Take in fully, please, Miss Eva, what I have already told you—that you and your sisters are under the very gravest suspicion. Indeed, in all my life's work among crime, I do not think I have ever known circumstantial evidence of a stronger nature than that we have now against one of you three girls." He raised his hand in emphasis. "Realise that we are now accusing you, and that if the accusation be unwarranted, then it will be much better for you all to rebut it here, rather than compel us to fight it out later in court." He smiled quite pleasantly. "Therefore, just you try to satisfy us that, although we may suspect, we cannot adduce one single fact in proof, and in consequence we should be very foolish if we brought you before the magistrates in Colchester tomorrow."

Eva looked contemptuous and if she sensed a veiled threat in the Inspector's words she certainly showed no fear, but continued to object to giving him the information he asked for.

"But why," she asked boldly, "should I repeat a remark I regret having made? It won't help you in any way."

"I'll be the judge of that," retorted Stone sharply. He spoke pleasantly again. "You see, Miss Eva, we want to find out if there is any collusion between you three; if one of you committed the murder and the others knew it; in fact, if two of you are trying to shield the third. So, I am asking you questions to catch you tripping."

Eva tossed her head. "Oh, in that case, then I'll tell you. I said something to the effect that I wasn't very surprised, some woman might have done it, and no doubt it served him right."

"Ah!" exclaimed Stone, "then you must have had some very good reason to make that remark!"

"Only that it was public knowledge he had served one woman badly, his wife," returned Eva coolly, "and that it was his habit to regard every woman insolently."

"And yet you danced with him at the tenants' ball?" frowned Stone incredulously.

Eva nodded. "If I hadn't," she replied, "he might have imagined I thought him different from the others there, and was afraid of his powers of seduction."

"Then you positively disliked him?" asked Stone.

"Detested him," was the calm reply. "Always regarded him as a good-looking blackguard."

Stone repressed a smile. "But Miss Beatrice here has just told us that she did not dislike him."

Eva looked affectionately at Beatrice "That's not true," she said quietly. "She did dislike him, but her nature is much too kind to admit it."

"And can you suggest no one," asked Stone, "who wanted to take revenge on Mr. Toller?"

"I could suggest every pretty girl he'd ever spoken to," replied Eva scornfully, "but I know of no one in particular."

"Have you shot with that rifle?" was Stone's next question.

"Yes, quite often. I shot an owl with it, not a fortnight ago."

"Are you a good shot?"

Eva nodded. "Quite a good one. I could shoot you"—the faintest expression of amusement flickered into her eyes—"or Superintendent Russell here, in the forehead, three times out of five at sixty yards."

"And could either of your sisters do that?" asked Stone, noting with a grim smile the scowl upon the Superintendent's face.

"Oh, no," replied Eva, "ten yards would be their limit or, perhaps, only five." She looked nonchalantly round the room. "But my marksmanship is different."

Stone was annoyed at her flippant tones. "But have you really taken in yet, young lady," he asked, "that we feel almost certain one of you girls is the criminal?"

"Certainly, I have," she replied, and then she added scornfully, "Thanks to Chime and his very lively imagination."

"Ah!" exclaimed Stone, "you think it imagination on Chime's part, do you?" He regarded her very sternly. "Well, we do not."

"But you don't know Chime," laughed the girl, "and how little he can be depended upon for anything except his routine duties as a butler." She looked very amused. "His sole recreation is reading penny-dreadfuls, and he's bursting with imagination. He's always warning us the house will be broken into one night, and he's always telling us he's heard poachers in the grounds. He goes out looking for footprints in the morning."

"Then you believe Chime didn't hear the clicking of the door and those sounds in the hall that night?" asked Stone frowningly.

"Oh, I don't say that," replied Eva instantly, "but I am certainly of opinion that he wasn't certain he heard them until they fitted in with someone having come into the house to steal that rifle to shoot Mr. Toller with." She nodded emphatically. "Then he was at once quite sure he heard the clicking of the door."

"And the footsteps in the hall?" queried Stone sarcastically. "They were an afterthought, too, were they?"

"Yes, in the same way as the crunching on the gravel," replied Eva. "The crunching is his obsession now, and you won't get him away from it. Chime has a strong vein of obstinacy in his character, and a whole bench of judges won't shake him there. That's his final decision and he'll stick to it, although he may keep on telling his story in a different way." She laughed. "That'll be your snag. You see."

"Then you've discussed it with Chime?" asked Stone frowningly.

"Of course we have," replied Eva. "We've tried to get at the real truth of everything"—she looked round disdainfully—"but without any success."

Stone smiled ironically. "These assertions of yours that Chime's testimony can never be relied upon are ingenious and cleverly put, but"—he shook his head grimly—"they don't shake our belief in him in the very slightest. His mentioning having heard that church clock chime at half-past ten, just before he heard the clicking of the door and those footsteps in the hall, is proof positive to us that his story told, when by the dead man's side, is absolutely the truth."

"I don't see it," scoffed Eva. "Explain, please."

"Well, bear in mind," said Stone, raising one fat forefinger impressively, "that your butler knew nothing then of the gardener having heard the fatal shot a few seconds before that chiming of the clock, or of his having seen the assassin flying towards this house a few seconds afterwards, but for all that he was able to give Superintendent Russell certain information, not understandable at the time he gave it, but which fitted in exactly when the gardener's tale became known. In effect, he gave the end of the story without having heard the beginning. He knew the key to the puzzle without having seen the puzzle itself."

Stone went on. "And another of the times so well fits in, too. It was a little over a minute after the half-hour that Chime heard the hall door bang shut and it would take any of you young ladies about that time to run, from where the gardener saw the flying figure, to the door itself."

"And do you think, if it had been one of us," asked Eva scornfully, "that we should have been so dead to the first principles of safety, as to throw away the rifle, the only thing that could have incriminated us. How did we know it was going to pour with rain and there would be no fingermarks upon it?"

"You may have been wearing gloves," said Stone.

"But why throw the rifle away at all?" asked Eva. "Why shouldn't we have put it back to its accustomed place in the hall, and then it might never have been found out that the murder had been committed with it?"

"The rifle was hampering your running," said Stone, "and you were in a panic. You heard the gardener shouting after you and you were afraid you might be caught."

"Caught by the gardener," laughed Eva mockingly, "whom we know is 74, and is so crippled by rheumatism that he can hardly walk, let alone run!"

"Well, you had heard the church clock strike the half-hour," said Stone testily, "and knowing Chime was always punctual to the minute in locking up, you were realising the urgency of getting into the house before it was closed up."

"And knowing all that," laughed Eva merrily, "why should we have cut the time for shooting Mr. Toller so fine? Why should we not have made the shooting half an hour earlier and walked home at our leisure?" She made a gesture of contempt. "But if the door had been shut, I could have got into my room with no difficulty, for as a young girl I have many times climbed through my window, up the ivy, and I could have done it that night again, if I had wanted to."

Stone looked at Carter interrogatively, but as the latter had apparently no questions to ask, he nodded to the Superintendent to ring the bell, and very soon Lady Mentone was being ushered in. Both Beatrice and Eva wanted to remain while she was being questioned, but the Inspector firmly but smilingly insisted they must withdraw.

Lady Mentone was quite as good-looking as her sisters, and not dissimilar to them in appearance. She had the same clear-cut profile, pretty mouth, and flawless complexion, but her eyes were bigger and of a lighter blue. Her chin, however, was not so firm and her face, generally, suggested not such a strong and self-reliant character as either Beatrice's or Eva's. Just now she was looking rather haggard and wan.

She settled herself in her chair and took out a cigarette. "I'll smoke, if you don't mind," she said in her beautifully-modulated voice. She smiled. "I feel a little nervous."

Stone took her over much the same ground as he had done Eva, and she answered readily enough, corroborating in many details what her sisters had said. Then Stone, remembering the Superintendent had told him her name was down twice on Toller's dance programme, asked carelessly. "And I understand you danced with Mr. Toller at the tenants' ball?"

"Yes," she replied. "I had one dance with him."

"Only one," queried Stone, and when she nodded, he went on sharply. "But your name was twice on his programme."

"I know it was," she smiled, "but we sat out the second dance."

"Oh, you sat it out, did you," he exclaimed. "Well, how did you come to do that, if as, with your sisters, you say, you didn't like the man."

She spoke with no embarrassment. "The explanation is quite simple. The first dance was the one we give to anyone and it came to an end just when I was finding his conversation interesting. Then, as I was looking down my programme to see who was going to claim me next, he saw I was not full up and asked me for another dance later on. I couldn't well refuse him without being downright rude, and to some extent I didn't want to refuse him. So I let him put down his name again."

"But you didn't have another dance, you say," said Stone.

"No, when it came to the time I was feeling tired, and said I would rather sit it out."

"Then where did you go?"

"Into the conservatory. It was more secluded and the light was dim there, and to be quite frank with you, I wasn't over-anxious to be seen with him. I knew my sisters would disapprove of it."

"And what had been his conversation to make it so interesting to you?" asked Stone.

"Oh, it was about theatres and plays and actors and actresses. He knew quite a lot about theatrical matters."

"Did he know you had been on the stage?"

"Yes, he said he remembered seeing me in 'The Moss Rose.'"

Stone eyed her very intently. "And do you remember seeing him then?" he asked sharply.

"Good gracious, no!" was the instant reply. "I had never set eyes upon him before he came up here as the agent."

"But how did he come to know such a lot about actors and actresses?" asked Stone.

Just for one second Lady Mentone hesitated. Then she shook her head. "I don't know," she replied. "He didn't say."

"And how long were you two sitting out?" was Stone's next question.

"Something under ten minutes I should say. Not any longer, certainly."

"And how do you explain," asked Stone very sternly, "this willingness on your part to remain, even for that time, with a man whom you have all said you disliked, alone, in a secluded spot, and in the semi-darkness."

Lady Mentone's laugh was like the tinkling of a silver bell. "It requires no explanation," she said. "I was just bored with the whole evening and his conversation was more interesting than would have been a dance with the local baker, the village butcher, or the other tradesmen who are tenants of ours." She flared up angrily. "I, Mr. Inspector, am not like my sisters. I have seen more of the world than they have, and can put any man in his place quick and lively, if he presumes upon any politeness I show him." She looked scornful. "Any girl who's been on the stage as I have, sees no significance in being alone with a man."

"Did you consider Mr. Toller a gentleman?" asked Stone, ignoring her display of temper.

"Certainly not. He always gave me the impression of being a clever but unscrupulous adventurer."

Stone asked her a few more questions and then, thanking her most politely, said he had finished with her for the present.

Larose, too, got up from his chair. "And I'll go as well," he said. "I'd like, however, to be with you when you go through the bungalow, if I may."

"Certainly," smiled Stone, "and we'll send Chime for you in a few minutes." Then when the door was closed behind the two he turned and nodded to his companions. "And I'm not sorry he didn't want to stop. He's a fine fellow, Gilbert Larose, but too much of a sentimentalist at heart, and he would be inclined to shield those girls if he could find any excuse for doing so." He made a grimace. "Well, gentlemen, what's the verdict? What do you two think?"

"There's no collusion between them," said Carter promptly, "but I believe two of them are holding something back, that last one and the elder sister." He nodded. "They know more than they have told us."

"But I'm not so certain there's no collusion," snapped the Superintendent decisively. "I believe they are all involved in the murder and, to my thinking, that Eva girl put up the biggest bluff of all."

A long silence followed and then Carter asked: "Well, Charles Stone, what do you say?"

The stout Inspector looked very troubled. "I'm afraid. I'm afraid," he whispered. "I would like to think none of them had had a hand in it, but somehow I've got the impression the curtain has just been rung down upon a little drama, specially staged for us. They were all three much too ready with their answers, as if they'd thought out every question that was likely to be put to them." He shook his head frowningly. "They wanted to appear quite unconcerned, but there was tragedy behind Beatrice's eyes, Eva put much too bold a front on, and this last girl was, in part, lying to us, although I don't quite know where." He drew in a deep breath. "We all suspect these girls, but we must explore all other avenues in case we are wrong."

He rose briskly to his feet. "Now, for the bungalow, please, Superintendent."

"But aren't you going to have Chime in now?" frowned the latter. "He's the most damning witness against them."

"I think," said Stone slowly, "I think we'd best leave him for a little while. Then we may be able to see if the girls have been priming him what to say, following upon the questions we have just been asking them. Yes, we'll do the bungalow first, and then we can go through the statements of all the staff here"—he nodded—"not by any means forgetting Toller's housekeeper. She's most important."


CHAPTER IV.—THE SUSPICIONS OF LAROSE

Their deliberations over, the three men left the little room to make their next business the inspection of the bungalow, but passing down the long lounge hall, the Superintendent suddenly stopped and laid a hand upon the others. "Look!" he exclaimed quickly, and pointing through one of the windows, "that chap to whom Lady Mentone is talking is Dr. Athol, the quack who saw the body first."

"Oh! Oh!" exclaimed Stone interestedly, and then they all stood still to watch the animated conversation that was going on upon the gravel drive, not five yards from the window through which they were looking.

The conversation was at any rate animated upon Lady Mentone's part, but the doctor appeared to be contenting himself with nodding every now and then. Presently Lady Mentone made a movement with her head in the direction of that part of the building in which was situated the room the Inspectors and the Superintendent had just vacated.

"She's talking about us," nodded Stone with a grin, "and I shouldn't wonder if we are none of us getting too good a character." His face puckered up into a frown. "Hum! They seem pretty good friends, those two, and from the way he's looking at her, he might be her sweetheart."

"Oh, they're good friends, right enough," commented the Superintendent. "He's up here every day, and that girl has been a patient of his for some time. The servants tell me whenever she's not feeling well now, she comes up here to be under his care."

"Well, we'll have a little talk with him at once," said Stone briskly. "We'll button-hole him straightaway."

But when they got outside they found Larose just being introduced to the doctor, and the latter seemed amused when the Superintendent made known who Stone and Carter were.

"Really," he exclaimed laughingly, "it overwhelms me being introduced to so many stars in the crime world all at once."

"Well, we'd like to speak to you for a few minutes, Doctor, if you can spare the time," said Stone. "We won't keep you long."

"Certainly," nodded the doctor, "with pleasure," and Lady Mentone at once moved off, but Larose, receiving no hint that his presence was not desired, remained.

Dr. Athol was a tall, good-looking man of aristocratic appearance, and in the early thirties. His face was grave and thoughtful, with keen grey eyes. His mouth and chin suggested courage. There was no mistaking he was a professional man.

"You were the first to arrive upon the scene of the murder, after the housekeeper, I understand," began Stone.

"Well, Chime and I arrived at exactly the same moment," replied the doctor.

"And where was the housekeeper when you got there?"

"Standing outside, leaning against the wall and holding the little fox terrier in her arms."

"But I thought she was very faint and ill!" frowned Stone.

"She became so," said Dr. Athol, "but she had kept herself up until we arrived, and even then was able to get to her bedroom by herself."

"And we are told that neither you nor the butler touched anything in the office."

"Chime touched nothing," was the reply, "and all I did was to lift up and drop one of the dead man's arms and put my finger upon a splash of blood on the arm of the chair to ascertain roughly how long he had been dead."

"And after you had sent Chime off for the police," went on Stone, "did you wait in the room where the deceased was?"

The doctor shook his head. "No, I just pulled down the blind and then——"

"You pulled down the blind!" interrupted Stone, as if very surprised "What did you do that for?"

The doctor smiled. "Well, it was hardly seemly, was it, to leave a corpse before the open window?" he asked. "And such a corpse, too, with its face mottled over in black blood! Why, it would have been terrifying to anyone who had happened to pass the window."

"But who was likely to pass," frowned Stone, "at that time of night."

Dr. Athol seemed suddenly to become nettled at the Inspector's tone. "Well, as a matter of fact," he said coldly, "that aspect of the matter never really entered my mind. There was a dead body there, and according to all usages of civilisation and ideas of respect for the dead, it should not be left exposed to view. So that was why I pulled down the blind."

"But why didn't you switch off the light?" went on Stone. "That would have done just as well."

"I didn't think of it until afterwards," said the doctor, "and then was glad I hadn't done it. Of express purpose, neither I nor Chime had touched anything in the office that would take a finger mark, and if I had switched the light off I might have been rubbing away the finger marks of someone else."

Stone at once smiled most pleasantly, as if he were not desirous of arousing any antagonism in the doctor's mind.

"Of course, of course," he exclaimed, "and I've no doubt you did the right thing. It is only we nasty-minded policemen who think of nothing but the urges of our trade when a body is found." He waved the matter to one side. "And what did you do next?"

"Stepped into the passage and called to Mrs. Bowman to know how she was."

"And what did she say?"

The doctor shook his head. "I received no answer and so I went into her room. She was on the verge of unconsciousness, and knowing the state of her heart—she is a patient of mine—I got my hypodermic case out of the car and gave her a strychnine injection. She was very bad."

"And you remained with her the whole time," asked Stone, "until Chime returned with the police officers?"

"Except for going out once," replied the doctor, "when the storm broke and the rain began to fall so heavily. I was wondering then if it would beat through the open office window and went to see."

"And where was the dog all this time?"

"Curled up in his basket in the hall. He went into it directly Mrs. Bowman put him down and he didn't come out until I lifted him out. He was frightened at the thunder, and was whining, so I brought him in and put him on Mrs. Bowman's bed."

"And was the woman so ill," asked Stone, "that it would have been impossible to get any reply from her if questions had been put to her straight away?"

The doctor shook his head. "Oh, no, she wasn't as bad as that, but she'd nearly had one bout of unconsciousness and I didn't want to risk anything." He frowned. "Besides, her testimony was of no urgency. She had told Chime all she knew, that she had come home and found Mr. Toller dead, and that was all."

"And how is it you never came to suggest to Mr. Russell," asked Stone, "that the gardener's cottage being so near, the gardener might have heard the shot fired?"

Dr. Athol shrugged his shoulders. "I just didn't think of it. I was occupied with my patient until the officers arrived and then to carry on any conversation was painful. The noise of the storm was so deafening that we had to shout to make ourselves heard."

"Well, thank you, Doctor," said Stone after a few moments' pause. "That's all I want and I'm much obliged to you. We'll go off now to the bungalow." Then as they turned away, he whispered to the Superintendent, "Get that housekeeper, quickly, before the doctor has a chance to speak to her. Bring her over to the bungalow and we'll talk to her there."

The Superintendent winked his eye and disappeared in the direction of the kitchen regions of the Priory, while the others proceeded to walk slowly across the grounds.

Stone turned at once to Larose. "It must be funny to you, my boy," he said smilingly, "to be taking a back seat like you are now and watching someone else do the questioning."

"Not at all," laughed Larose. "I'm only just beginning to get a grasp of the story as a whole. I had read all there was in the newspapers, of course; then Miss Brabazon-Fane had enclosed a long statement when she wrote asking me if I would come here; and finally"—he regarded the burly Inspector in a most friendly way. "I have heard your very admirable examination of the three girls." He nodded. "Yes, I am just getting a grip of everything now."

"Well, you must admit, Gilbert," said Stone very solemnly, "that things look devilish black against these girls."

"In a circumstantial way they certainly do," agreed Larose at once, "but still"—he shook his head—"if one of them did it, do you think they would have all three, been so anxious for me to come here?"

"Two of them may have wanted you," said Stone, "and the other one did not dare to object." He spoke sharply. "But look here, Gilbert; I want to know exactly how we stand. If you discover anything implicating one of these girls you're not likely to pass it on to us, are you?"

"No-o," said Larose hesitatingly, "I hardly think that I am." He looked troubled. "You see, I shall be making all my investigations here on the assumption that these girls are innocent, and if I come to learn anything to the contrary"—he hesitated again—"well, it will be deuced awkward and I shall have to drop the case." He shook his head. "'No, Charlie, you mustn't depend upon me helping you against any of those girls."

"I thought not," said Stone grimly, "and therefore after you've been over the bungalow with us, we'd better part company." He nodded. "We'll be quite good friends, but we'll keep any little discoveries we make—to ourselves."

"Good!" thought Larose, "then he thinks he's just picked up a clue! He suspects that doctor about something!" But he said aloud. "Quite right, Charlie, that'll be the best plan. Any discoveries about outsiders we'll pool, but anything we find out about the girls well keep to ourselves."

As they approached the bungalow, the front door of which was standing open, a man appeared from inside and planted himself frowningly in the doorway, with the evident intention of barring their entrance.

"It's all right," nodded Stone. "We're from the Yard, but we'll wait here for Superintendent Russell. He'll be coming in a minute." He eyed the man interestedly. "So you're the officer who's been left in charge since the night of the murder?"

"Yes, sir, I'm Detective Lesser," replied the man.

"And how the deuce did you come to miss that cottage there?" asked Stone, jerking his head in the direction of the gardener's habitation, not a hundred yards away.

"Simply bad luck, sir," said the detective. "The Superintendent backed his car round the corner of the bungalow to get out of the rain and by doing that his lights didn't pick up the cottage."

At that moment the Superintendent himself appeared, with an elderly-looking woman walking beside him. "Just go and wait in your own room, please, Mrs. Bowman," he said to her. "We shan't keep you very long," and then he whispered to Stone, "It's all right. He's not had a chance of speaking to her."

Stone frowned, without replying, and the door of the office being unlocked, the little party trooped into the room. Then Detective Lesser said suddenly to the Superintendent. "Something happened here last night, sir. Somebody got into the bungalow when I was away."

The Superintendent turned in a flash. "What!" he exclaimed in consternation, "they've robbed the safe?"

"No, sir, they didn't touch it," replied the man. "You can see the seals are quite intact. But they tried to open the desk here, and they went through some of the things in the other room."

"But what did they take?" asked the Superintendent quickly.

"Nothing that I can see, sir. My coming back must have disturbed them, and they bolted away."

"But what happened?" asked the Superintendent. "Tell me, quick."

"I left here on my bicycle, sir," said the detective, "just before it got dark, to come in and report to you, and was away not quite an hour and a half. When I got back, directly I opened the front door, I knew something had happened, for I felt a draught in this passage, which I knew should not have been, and I smelt a smell of varnish. I thought someone had been blowing the safe. I switched on the light and found this door was unlatched. Then——"

"But are you sure you left it shut?" interrupted the Superintendent.

"Quite sure, sir, shut and locked, and I had the key in my pocket with me. Then, seeing the seals were still on the safe, I ran out of here and up the passage, to find the back door was open. I rushed outside and flashed my torch, but it was pitch dark, and I could not see anyone. Then I came and examined the whole place thoroughly. Look at the desk there. They first tried to tamper with the lock, and then they used something like a screwdriver to prize the roll-top up. See where they put in the wedge."

Everyone bent over the desk, and Stone exclaimed scornfully, "The fool! He tried to lift it up from the middle, whereas if he'd put in the screwdriver or whatever it was at one of the ends the leverage would have been much greater, and he'd have probably broken the lock at once." He sniffed. "He was an amateur."

"But the work on the back door, sir," said the detective, "was not like that of an amateur. It was very clever, for not only was the door there locked, but the key was left in the lock on the inside. But he used a pair of fine pincers with serrated jaws, and, pushing them in the keyhole, he caught hold of the end of the key and turned it round bodily." He produced a key from his pocket. "You can see the pincer marks here quite plainly."

"But what on earth did he come for?" asked the Superintendent irritably. "It could only have been for the money in the safe."

"Perhaps he was going for the safe after he had opened the desk," suggested Lesser. "I am sure I must have interrupted him."

"What's in the safe?" asked Stone.

"Eighty-two pound odd in cash," replied the Superintendent. "We wouldn't let anything be disturbed."

"And he must have been watching me," said Lesser, "to be aware I was away, for it was the first time I had been more than a few hundred yards from the place."

"Why didn't you report it at once last night?" snapped Stone.

"I told him never to use the phone," explained the Superintendent, "because they could listen in to everything at the Priory. He would have had to ring through from there." He turned to Lesser. "But what was that varnish you say you smelt?"

The detective shook his head. "I don't know, sir. It's puzzled me ever since," and then, seeing the scornful look upon his superior's face, he added quickly: "But I'm positive I smelt it, sir. I'm a non-smoker and I've got a very keen sense of smell."

The Superintendent walked over to the safe and, breaking the seals, unlocked the door and rapidly checked over the contents. "Quite all right," he said. "Nothing's been taken." He looked at the Inspectors. "There's nothing here of a private nature and I'll give everything back today to the estate accountant. You can now examine the contents of the desk."

"And I understand that everything here," said Stone, looking round the room, "is much the same as upon the night the murder was done."

"Yes," nodded the Superintendent, "but I'm afraid it won't help you much. That's the chair in which he was lying back and that's the catalogue of motor cars we found on his lap. That's the pipe that was on the floor, and that's the pipe cleaner he'd recently been using." He unlocked the desk and rolled back the top. "See, you can open the drawers now. These on the right were the ones he used for his private affairs."

"Was the desk closed when you found the body?"' asked Stone.

"Yes, and his keys were in his pocket." The Superintendent looked puzzled. "But the funny thing to me is about those fingermarks, or rather the absence of them. None on the handles of the door, either inside or outside. Not a single one anywhere upon the desk top or the drawer handles, not one upon any of the chairs, except upon the arms of the one in which he was lying, and not a single one on the outside of the safe. Inside the safe—plenty of them—and they're all of the dead man himself." He shook his head. "It's most peculiar to me."

But Stone seemed not a bit interested in the fingermarks. Instead, he remarked a little testily, "Well, let's look at the contents of his drawers, for those seem the only things likely to help us."

In the meantime Larose had picked up the catalogue of motor cars and, after one frowning glance at the blood splashed cover, was idly turning the pages of the book. It consisted of about thirty pages of well illustrated matter, featuring cars of most expensive makes, and was issued, he noted, by a big firm in Colchester, with many agencies.

Presently he put it up on the mantelshelf and turned to watch Stone, who was frowningly going through a large number of photographs that he was taking from the drawers. The photos were all of girls and cut from newspapers or magazines. There were a few pencilled sketches that the dead man had apparently done himself, as they were marked at the foot with his initials. 'C.A.T.'

"Hum," remarked Stone, "I don't wonder those Brabazon-Fane girls say they kept away from him."

Then he picked up three stained-looking envelopes and examining their contents, found they each contained a faded flower, one a small white rose, one a pink carnation, and the third a camellia. "No doubt mementoes of some particular conquests," he commented, "taken off some girls who probably thought him a very charming fellow." He picked up a small length of faded blue ribbon, exclaimed, "Hallo! what's this?"

He scrutinized the ribbon for a few moments, and then held it out to Larose. "Here, my son," he smiled, "tell us the name of the girl who wore that."

Larose took the ribbon, and in his turn scrutinized it carefully. It was about eighteen inches long and half an inch wide. "A hair ribbon," he smiled back, and then he took it over to the window to get a better light. His back was now towards the others, and he seemed to juggle with the ribbon. He rolled it up, unrolled it and let it fall loosely across the fingers of one hand. Then for a long moment he regarded the creases in it very thoughtfully, before finally turning round again and replacing it upon the desk.

Stone was now looking at the dead man's dance programme of the tenants ball. "Now, we must find out who each one of his partners was," he said, "for it is quite possible that something that happened on that night was the cause of this crime the night after." He turned to the Superintendent. "Have all his private effects put away, somewhere, and then I think we can return to the bungalow to the Miss Brabazon-Fanes. It seems there's nothing further to be gained by keeping it shut up."

"One moment, please," said Larose. "May I have a copy of that dance programme?"

"Certainly," said Stone. He smiled. "Now, would you like to take it up with Mr. Lesser to the Priory, and find out from the young ladies or the maids whom all the initials represent? They are sure to know."

Larose sensed that Stone was anxious to get rid of him and, so taking the hint, he straightway left the bungalow with Detective Lesser.

The moment he had gone Stone said briskly. "Now we'll have that woman in."

Mrs. Bowman showed herself to be a very sensible woman, and she answered the questions put to her quickly and concisely. She said she had fought off her faintness until Chime and the doctor had arrived and then had just managed to get on to her bed. No she had not fainted right off, but she had been very near to it. Still, she remembered everything that had happened that night most clearly. Yes, she had heard the doctor send Chime off to ring for the police.

"And what happened then?" asked Stone. "Did Dr. Athol come to you at once?"

"Oh, no, not for a few minutes, but I can't tell you for how long."

"But what was he doing?" asked Stone carelessly.

"I don't know. I heard him pull down the blind, and then I think he seemed to be walking about."

"In the passage, you mean?" suggested Stone.

"N-o, I think he was in here. The sounds seemed to come from this room."

"And then he called out to know how you were?" asked Stone.

"No, he came in of his own accord, to see me, and felt my pulse. Then we talked about how terrible it was, and we wondered who could have done it."

"Oh, then you had a conversation?"

"Yes, we were talking until it began to thunder, and that upset me a bit, for the dog began to whine. Then Dr. Athol brought the dog on to the bed, and said he had better give me a prick to quieten me down. He said, too, he would take me home with him, so that I should not be worried with any questions that night."

"Hum!" remarked Stone, "very considerate of him, I am sure," and he gave a quick glance round at the others. Then he pointed to one of the open drawers in the desk, and asked:—"Ever seen any of these pictures here?"

Mrs. Bowman nodded carelessly. "Oh, yes, he's often left the drawers half open. He was careless about his own things, but he knew I wasn't a curious woman, and took no notice of me. As often as not, he never shut down the top of the desk."

"Did he tell you anything about his private affairs?" asked Stone.

"Never a word," replied the woman. "He was a very secretive man. He hardly spoke to me at all."

Then Stone proceeded to ask her a lot more questions about the dead man's routine of life, finally dismissing her with thanks for the intelligent way in which she had answered all his questions.

"A very useful little interview that," remarked Stone, when the door had closed behind her, "and it should give us quite a lot to think about." He suddenly leant forward impressively and lowered his voice to a whisper. "That doctor has deliberately lied to us, and we must ask ourselves what was he doing it for. He told us he went in to that woman directly he had pulled down the blind, but she now says it was some minutes before he came in, and in the interval she had heard him moving about here in this room." His face was all puckered into a frown. "What does it mean?"

"A lot," exclaimed the Superintendent sourly, "and for one thing, that I've been a darned fool."

Stone turned sharply to him. "You found no fingermarks here because they had all been wiped off, and think—who was it who had the opportunity to wipe them off?"

"That doctor quack," snarled the Superintendent, "and I can see now he's been baulking us all along." He spoke very quickly. "To begin with, when Chime phoned him that night to come at once and bring the village constable with him, he pretended he hadn't heard about the constable, and so came alone. Then he sent Chime to ring us up and directly Chime had gone he pulled down the blind and proceeded methodically to rub away any fingermarks that some visitor to Toller might have left, and, finally, he bamboozled us that the housekeeper was so ill we must not get her story that night." He shook his head angrily. "Yes, yes, if we had, the woman would undoubtedly have mentioned her having come home with the gardener's wife and then we should have at once thought of the gardener and have wakened him up to know if he had seen or heard anything."

"That's it," nodded Stone emphatically, as the Superintendent paused to get his breath, "and with the gardener's story told to you, you would have gone straight up to the Priory and perhaps have caught out one of those girls when she was trembling and upset and before she had had time to make up any tale." He thumped his fist upon the desk. "Yes, that doctor knew or guessed that one of those girls had done it and at once tried to shield her all he could."

"Steady, steady," exclaimed Carter with a frown, "you're guessing wildly now." He nodded. "You're splendid, Charlie, at getting the truth out of anyone, but when you come to summing everything up, you're much too prejudiced in your opinions." He spoke sharply. "How do you know this Bowman woman isn't making a mistake? She said she could only just crawl on to her bed and in that condition she is quite likely to be mistaken about the doctor's movements. Then how do we know there was any wiping off of fingermarks at all? Bowman says Toller was away all day after she had dusted the room and did not come in here that night until after she had left with the gardener's wife at nearly half past seven. Then what is more likely than that Toller, tired out with his day's work, threw himself straight into the armchair and never moved to touch anything in the room?"

"But no fingermarks on the door handle, Elias!" said Stone, pursing up his lips, "that's suspicious isn't it?"

"Not necessarily," replied Carter. "Toller may have just washed his hands before opening the door and they may have been clean and cool and have left no marks." He spoke scornfully. "And why should Dr. Athol have been guessing one of these girls had done it. They had been quite amiably disposed towards Toller the previous night, as witness their dancing with him. They had none of them seen him again after that, for he was off to Colchester by half-past eight the next morning, so what in Heaven's name could he have done to make them want to murder him so suddenly, and the doctor be aware of it, too?"

"Well, if the quack was not shielding one of them, he was shielding somebody else," said Stone stubbornly. "The discrepancies in the two last stories we have heard and the absence of fingermarks here make me almost certain of that."

"But if Toller were shot through the open window, as we know he was," persisted Carter, "why should there be any finger marks in this room?" He went on decisively. "No, no, Charlie, it is no good us making blind guesses. This is undoubtedly a crime of passion, and our only hope of getting the murderer is to look back over Toller's life to find who among those he has recently been brought in contact with would have had reason to wish him ill. It is too late now to catch anyone red-handed, and all we can do to pick out the murderer is to first find the motive for the murder."

"A woman did it," asserted the Superintendent. "I'm sure of that."

"And I'm equally sure her name or initials are upon that dance programme," said Stone. "Something came to a climax that night of the ball, and the bullet here twenty-four hours later was the sequel. Well, now we'll go and talk to the other servants, commencing with the simple-minded Mr. Chime." He turned smilingly to Carter. "But all the same, I'm not forgetting that doctor chap. In spite of the white washing you would like to give him."

In the meantime Larose had been keeping an eye to catch Mrs. Bowman when the Inspector had finished with her, and following her into the kitchen garden, started an informal little talk, out of sight of the windows of the house. He had begun to introduce himself, but soon found that was quite unnecessary. She had heard about him from Chime, and, in common with the other servants, was regarding him as having come to the Priory to save the young mistresses from the rudeness and bullying of the police.

"And I suppose," smiled Larose, "you had a rough time with those gentlemen from Scotland Yard?"

"Oh, no," replied the woman, "they were quite nice with me. The stout one did nearly all the questioning, and he was very polite." She looked shrewdly at Larose. "But why did they ask me such a lot about Dr. Athol? Surely they don't suspect him now?" Then, with tactful handling on the part of Larose, she had soon told all that had taken place at the interview with the Inspectors.

"And was the doctor friendly with Mr. Toller?" asked Larose.

"Well, not exactly friendly," replied the woman, "but Mr. Toller had been to him when he cut his hand a few months ago, and they were on good speaking terms. As a matter of fact, Dr. Athol called to see Mr. Toller on the very morning of the day when he was killed."

"Oh, when he was away in Colchester?" Larose exclaimed, very interested.

"Yes, but he didn't, of course, know he had gone. He only came to find out where Mr. Toller had got his fox terrier. He wanted one like him, he said."

"Did you tell that to those gentlemen from Scotland Yard?" asked Larose.

The woman shook her head. "No, I just answered the questions they asked me and that was all. That Superintendent has been very rude to us, and he's put everyone against the police."

Larose thought for a moment. "When did you first know Mr. Toller was going into Colchester that day?"

"Not until that morning. He didn't know himself before the letters came. Then he rang up Miss Beatrice, and I heard him say the income tax people were making a fuss about something and he'd better go in at once and clear it up."

"What time did he get back home that evening?" asked Larose.

"About a quarter-past seven. He was very late and I was quite relieved to see him, as I wanted to catch the half-past seven bus to go to that concert."

"But surely the income tax people hadn't kept him all that time," suggested Larose.

"Of course not," said the woman, "but he had remained on in the town to enjoy himself." She nodded. "I could see he'd had a spot or two and he had brought a small flask of whisky home with him as well."

"But he wasn't drunk?" exclaimed Larose.

"Oh, no, but he was lively for him," replied Mrs. Bowman instantly. "He very seldom touched anything, but I knew at once that he had that evening."

"And when he'd had his tea, was it his custom to be in the office until he went to bed?" asked Larose.

"Yes, he was always either at the desk or in the armchair where he was found."

"Did he usually have the window open and the blind drawn up?"

"On hot nights, yes, and then he'd often doze off in the chair."

Larose spoke very solemnly. "Well now Mrs. Bowman, you probably know more about Mr. Toller than anyone, and so please tell me if any lady visitors ever came to the bungalow to see him."

"Never," she replied emphatically. "The only lady who ever came was Miss Beatrice. He was a lonely man with no friends, and no strangers ever came to see him."

"And what about his letters?" asked Larose. "Did you take in the letters when they arrived?"

"Yes, nearly always. They were delivered at the Priory with the newspapers and one of the maids brought them here. She generally passed them on to me through the kitchen window. No, he very seldom had private ones, in fact I think it must be months"—she hesitated—"oh, but he had one a little while ago. I remember now, for it upset him and he didn't finish his breakfast."

"Where was it from?" Larose asked.

"I don't remember. It was addressed in bad handwriting, and then the next morning he went away early and didn't come back until the next day." Mrs Bowman nodded. "I think someone must have died, for some days after I found a black tie when I was tidying up his things, and I had never seen it among them before."

"And how long ago is it since he was away for that night?"

"Oh, I don't know. I couldn't possibly tell you. I should say it was from three weeks to about a month ago. At any rate, Miss Beatrice can tell you, for of course, he had to get permission from her to go." She smiled. "Miss Beatrice is very strict with everyone in that respect, and with all her gentleness, no one takes any liberties with her."

"Now another question," said Larose after a few moments' pause. "Have you ever seen the contents of his private drawers in the desk?"

Mrs. Bowman looked amused. "I could have seen them every day in the week if I had wanted to, for the top of the desk was, as often as not, not pulled down. Yes, I've seen them sometimes when they've been left half open, but they didn't interest me, and I've just pushed the drawers to."

"Have you ever seen some envelopes containing faded flowers?"

"No, I've never noticed them. I shouldn't have among all the papers there."

Larose spoke very carelessly. "Have you ever noticed a piece of faded blue ribbon about?"

"Yes," she nodded, "it was hanging out of one of the pigeon-holes a few days ago."

"And you'd never seen it until then?"

"No, and I did rather wonder where he'd got it from. It looked like a girl's hair ribbon to me."

Giving a new turn to the conversation, Larose questioned her about Toller's week-ends away, and she told him that on many Saturdays it had been the agent's custom to leave the bungalow, on his motor cycle, some time after two o'clock and not return until well after dark upon the Sunday night. These excursions had commenced about six months previously, and at one time it had taken very bad weather to keep him at home. Latterly, however, he missed occasional Saturdays, and, indeed, had not gone away upon the three week-ends just before he was killed.

Larose parted with her with the injunction that she was on no account to mention to anyone the questions he had asked her, and he felt sure he could trust her in that respect.

Walking back to the bungalow, he found, as he had expected, that only Lesser was there. The detective was in the office and was just preparing to empty the contents of Toller's private drawers upon a large sheet of brown paper that he had spread out upon the floor.

"Hullo," exclaimed Larose, as if surprised that the two Inspectors were no longer there, "they've gone, have they?"

"Yes, sir," replied the detective, "they're up at the house."

Larose took out a cigarette. "Got a match?" he asked.

"No, sir, but I'll get you one from the kitchen," said Lesser. As he passed into the passage Larose darted over to the mantelshelf, and in the twinkling of an eye had pushed the blood-splashed catalogue of motor cars up his waistcoat and buttoned up his coat.

The detective returning with the matches, Larose thanked him, and then brought up the matter of the entry into the bungalow the previous night. Lesser was of the opinion that someone must have noticed him cycling through the village, and guessing he would be going into Colchester, had thought it a heaven-sent opportunity to break in.

"But do you think anyone in the village would have recognised you?" asked Larose.

"Oh, yes. The tradesmen have been up here every day and seen me about," replied the man. "Besides, I happened to meet the constable then, and stopped to have a short talk with him. I noticed that several people were eyeing us, and no doubt they learnt who I was."

Returning to the Priory, Larose had lunch with the three sisters, a dainty meal in a beautiful old oak-panelled room, and they were waited upon by the soft-footed Chime and a smart parlormaid.

He admired the girls more than ever, and thought to himself with something of a pang of conscience that the older he grew the more susceptible he was to female beauty. He decided that Beatrice and Lady Mentone were the prettiest, Eva lacking their gentleness of feature.

After lunch and alone with them in the lounge, he said he wanted to know anything that had happened lately that was different from the ordinary routine of their agent's daily life, but he did not mention he knew Toller had been away for one night, only a little time ago.

"Well, we can quickly give you chapter and verse then," exclaimed Eva with animation, "for Beatrice keeps a diary, and puts down everything that happens day by day. We always go to her when we want to remember anything."

"That's splendid," said Larose, and, turning to Beatrice, he asked her if her diary were too private for him to read.

A shadow, he thought, crossed over her face, and then she replied hesitatingly, "N—no, I don't think so. At any rate, I'll go through it this evening and then either lend you the whole diary or else read out anything that refers to Mr. Toller."

"And one other thing," said Larose. "I want your permission to go anywhere and everywhere in this house and not to be questioned about my actions."

"You mean even in our bedrooms?" queried Eva, looking rather surprised.

"Everywhere," smiled Larose. He nodded. "Yes, and perhaps particularly in yours, Miss Eva, now that you've told us you can go in and out through your window down the ivy."

"But surely you don't suspect any of us, do you?" asked Eva with a pretty frown.

"Hardly," laughed Larose, "considering that you asked me to come here." His face became grave. "Still, if one of you did do it. I want to be in a position, if necessary, to tell the other two." He shook his head. "But if I did find out anything about any of you, I shouldn't acquaint our friends from Scotland Yard. I'm not working with them, and, as a matter of fact, have just been politely told by Inspector Stone to keep away from them in future."

"But, Mr. Larose," said Beatrice with her face looking rather white and drawn, "you frighten me. I know I didn't do it, and I can't dream of either Billy or Eva having done it either."

"Of course, you can't," nodded Larose reassuringly, "but then, as Inspector Stone said, the suspicion seems so very strong against one of you, that in looking for the murderer I must take you all into account." He shook his head frowningly. "But mind you, whoever it was that killed your agent, I am sure he or she did not do it except under the greatest provocation, for I take it your Mr. Toller was a bad man."

"But what makes you think that?" asked Billy breathlessly.

"Well," said Larose slowly, "you've shown me his photograph and I know his type: clever and unscrupulous, and the very man to have mystery in his life. Besides, the police know other things about him, which perhaps later you may learn." He spoke briskly and decisively. "Now, of course I'm going to have a talk with your servants, and I think I shall see the gardener first." He looked thoughtful. "I understand the gardener has no idea whether the flying figure he saw belonged to a woman or a man?"

"No," said Beatrice, "he has no idea."

"And what colored frocks were you wearing that night?" asked Larose.

Eva supplied the information, seemingly very amused. "Beatrice's was pink, Billy's was blue, and mine was cream."

"Well that, at least, ought to have helped the gardener to determine whether it was a woman or a man he saw," said Larose, "for a man wouldn't be in light clothes, unless, of course, he had taken his coat off, and was in his shirt sleeves." He rose up from the settee. "Now, which of you will come and introduce me to the gardener." He smiled at Beatrice. "I think it had better be you and we can have a chat together at the same time."

Beatrice rose from her seat and, smiling back, pretended to heave a big sigh. "Yes, I'll be your first victim," she said, "for it seems I'm the most suspected of us all."


CHAPTER V.—GATHERING UP THE THREADS

Larose spent the afternoon in talking to the domestics, and if his questions were much more pleasantly put than the Superintendent's had been, and if he were much more genial-looking than Inspector Stone, he nevertheless went over the ground in an equally searching and thorough manner.

Then he had tea in the lounge with the girls and two visitors who called, and later, sauntering idly through the grounds, passed out on to the high road and at once proceeded to quicken his steps as he walked into the village.

Making his way to where he had learnt the village constable lived, he was fortunate to find him at home. The constable was a big-faced portly man, and upon Larose introducing himself, he beamed at once.

"I know you, sir," he smiled. "I was stationed in Hammersmith when you came down about the Bridge road murder, and I remembered seeing you then."

"Well, of course, I'm only an outsider now," smiled back Larose, "but I happen to be a friend of the young ladies at the Priory, and so I'm just scouting about to find out anything I can."

"And I hope, sir, the criminal doesn't turn out to be one of them," said the constable emphatically. "I only know them by sight, but everyone speaks well of them, and it seems impossible they could have had any part in it."

"It was you whom Mr. Chime rang up that night, wasn't it?" asked Larose, and when the constable nodded he went on. "But why didn't you go up to the Priory yourself, at once?"

"They told me not to, at Colchester, sir," replied the constable. "You see, I rang them up to tell them what had happened here, and then was explaining to the Superintendent how to find the Priory, when he said, as they would have to pass my house, I had better wait outside in the road for their car and show them the way. They were coming at once, and so it wouldn't mean five minutes delay."

"Well, how is it you didn't tell them about the gardener's cottage being so near?" asked Larose.

"I didn't know it was there," replied the constable. He smiled. "I've only been stationed here just over a month, and I had never been in the Priory grounds."

They discussed the murder for a few minutes, and then Larose casually brought round the conversation to Dr. Athol. The constable said the doctor was considered to be very clever and was particularly esteemed by everyone in the village because he never seemed to trouble about getting his fees.

"But he's very well-off," he said, "and they say he only settled here so that he could be quiet and write his books."

"Does he do many operations?" asked Larose.

The constable shook his head. "None at all, sir, I believe. He's only a physician, and as the village is so near to Colchester he sends in any surgical cases to the hospitals there."

"Well, do you know if there was any accident about here last night?" asked Larose. "Did anyone break their legs or arms, for instance?"

The constable looked very puzzled at the question. "No one that I've heard of, sir," he replied, and then suddenly he grinned. "Oh, yes, there was what you might call an accident in these days. Mrs. Benger, the baker's wife, had a baby last night."

Larose grinned too. "Did Dr. Athol attend her?" he asked.

"Yes, and it was a bad case. He had a lot of trouble with her."

Larose looked amused. "And how do you know it was a bad case? Did he call you into consultation?"

"Not quite," laughed the constable, "but I heard about it afterwards. Besides, I know he was in the house for more than two hours, as I saw him arrive just as I was coming home for my tea, and then I happened to be just saying good-night to that detective staying up at the Priory, when he passed us coming out." He waved his arm round. "The baker's is only a little way up the road."

They talked on for a little while and then Larose bade him good-bye, and proceeded on his walk back to the Priory. "Whew!" he whistled, "what a bulls-eye! As I thought that doctor's mixed up in it somehow! It was he who got into the bungalow when Lesser was away last night and that varnish smell Lesser noticed was the chloroform the doc had been using for the confinement. He saw Lesser cycling off towards Colchester and, upon the spur of the moment, must have gone straight off to the bungalow with the reek of the chloroform strong upon his clothes." He screwed up his eyes. "Now what on earth could he have gone there for?"

But his train of thought was interrupted just as he was passing into the Priory grounds. He met a car coming out and, its occupants catching sight of him, it was pulled up with a jerk and Stone put his head out of the window.

"So you're loafing, are you, my boy!" he exclaimed. "What have you left the Priory for?"

"Oh, just for a little walk to collect my thoughts," replied Larose. He smiled. "I can't think properly with so many pretty girls about."

"Yes," commented Stone sternly, "that's where you'll go wrong. A pretty face has always been your downfall. You'll be compounding a felony soon and all, perhaps, for a squeeze of the hand and a few unlawful kisses." He shook his head warningly. "Don't forget you're a married man now, Gilbert."

Larose regarded him disdainfully. "And how have you been getting on?" he asked. "Have you picked up any clues?"

"Several," replied Stone darkly, "but none are going to be passed on to you." He let in his clutch. "Good-bye, we'll be seeing you again soon. We've not finished here, by a long chalk."

Returning to the Priory and encountering Beatrice in the lounge, Larose asked her if the key of the bungalow had been given up.

"No," she replied, "at the last moment Mr. Stone said that detectives had some more enquiries to make here and so it would be more convenient if he could remain until tomorrow. I'm going to have the key back then."

That night, towards midnight, all in the Priory except Larose were wrapped in slumber, and he was in his bedroom writing to his wife. The room was in darkness, except for a small reading lamp upon the desk.

"The Priory,

"Stratford St. Mary,

"July 14th.

"My dearest Helen," he wrote.

"Well, here I am at the delightful old Priory, quite enjoying myself, but confronted with a problem that is certainly among the most difficult I have ever been set to solve. As you know, I have come to clear three extremely pretty girls of the suspicion of having committed a most cold-blooded murder. Imagine my uneasiness and the apparent hopelessness of my task when I tell you that two of the ablest and most experienced men of the Yard, after having exhaustively cross-examined these girls, are definitely of the opinion that one of them is the murderer.

"The dreadful thing is, these two Scotland Yard men have been all their lives in crime, they are profound students of human nature, and, as I well know, they are possessed of a sort of instinct that tells them whether they are being lied to or not.

"I have worked with both of them on many cases, I know their capacity, and have the greatest respect for their opinions."

Larose stopped writing here and, looking up, stared meditatively into the shadows of the room. "Yes," he murmured softly, "Stone thought Beatrice was in part untruthful and I think she was, too. A lot of what she told us was no doubt fact, but, there were patches of falsehood in between and she was very much on the defensive then. Of express purpose, because she knows Chime cannot lie readily, she did not ask him a single question that night in the hall, but I am of the same opinion as Stone, that she had not been to sleep at all, and it was Chime, and Chime only, whom she was expecting to knock upon her door." He sighed. "And she has such a lovely, Madonna-like face, you would think a lie would scorch those beautiful lips of hers."

He picked up his pen again and wrote on.

"But I will not bore you with my speculations, which are, of course, so inconclusive as yet, and will only just write you a chatty letter about some of those having parts in this dreadful drama. As I have said, the girls are very pretty, and they are much of the same type, with aristocratic features, lovely eyes, and the most beautiful complexions imaginable. I think I like the eldest one, Beatrice, best. She, of course, is the mistress of the Priory, and with all her gentleness of disposition, carries herself with a proud dignity, and he would be a bold man, indeed, who attempted any familiarity with her. Anyone can see she is devoted to her sisters, and she mothers them in a quiet and unobtrusive manner.

"Then there is Eva, the second girl, and she is quite as good-looking, but of a bolder type of character."

He paused again here and considered.

"Ay, bolder," he ruminated, "but was that boldness, when Stone was questioning her, all put on? To me, she seemed deuced anxious to repeatedly thrust herself into the limelight on purpose to draw attention away from the others, just as if she knew they were in some peril. She's cleverer than her sisters, too, and realised that if the hunt were not shaken off quick and lively, with every hour's delay there was increasing danger that something might be found out." He nodded. "Yes, Eva is a bluffer and a determined one at that. She looks to me the most innocent of them all, but she's very uneasy about something, for all that."

He wrote on.

"Then there is Lady Mentone, the youngest of the three, the young wife of an elderly husband. Quite as pretty as the others, but a more finished and sophisticated product of the sex, undoubtedly because she was on the stage for two years. Her natural character, however, is quite child-like, and she wants a lot of petting and taking care of to be happy."

He looked up once more and laughed softly.

"Yes, child-like, but for all that a consummate actress, and an accomplished little liar. She was lying heavily when she was telling Stone about her conversation with Toller at the ball. She said she had become suddenly interested in Toller because he knew so much about theatrical matters, but she added she didn't know how he had come to acquire that knowledge." He scoffed. "Just as if that wouldn't have been the first thing she would have asked him, if he had not volunteered the information himself. But he would certainly have said something like:—'Oh, I was on the stage once myself,' or 'I had many friends in the profession,' or 'I was an ardent theatre-goer.' I am sure he would have said something of his own accord, to make his display of knowledge intelligible to her, and I am equally as sure that if he hadn't she would have enquired into it at once." He shook his head. "No, she lied there, and the question is—why did she think it imperative she must do so? What was she keeping back from us?"

He screwed up his face.

"Now another thing struck me. According to the cook, who is an intelligent woman, and very observant, both Beatrice and Lady Mentone, long before the ball was over, that night, looked very worn out. She says she met Beatrice in the lounge, looking very white and tired, and the other one didn't take part in any of the last dances. And she so particularly noticed it about Lady Mentone because, as a rule, she says, that young woman is energetic and lively almost up to the last moment before she is ready to collapse."

He looked very thoughtful. "I am interested in what the cook says, because that night of the ball seems a turning point somehow, both to Beatrice and Lady Mentone. Before the ball, all animation and excitement, then towards the end of the ball both are suddenly not themselves, and then the next day Beatrice is very quiet and preoccupied—she forgets to arrange for the day's meals, and the cook has to go after her and remind her—and Lady Mentone is so out-of-sorts that Dr. Athol is sent for and he remains with her for nearly a whole hour."

He thought on for a long while and then with a frown of perplexity picked up his pen and wrote on.

"Then, Helen, there are the servants, just the typical good-class ones that you would expert to find in a family like the Brabazon-Fanes, and all devoted to their young mistress, especially to Beatrice. There is the butler, most respectable and trustworthy, very simple-minded and now very much in a fog as to what he really did hear that fateful night; not an intentional liar, but without a shadow of a doubt now shaping his testimony so that it will tend to exonerate the girls as much as possible. Then there is the cook, a stout, motherly woman of middle-age, and very inquisitive in a pleasant sort of way. The two maids are nonentities and need not be considered."

"Now I come to three interesting persons, and the first is the Rector of Stratford St. Mary. He called this afternoon when we were having tea in the lounge, and it needed no second sight to see that he is paying stately court to Beatrice. He is a well-preserved and handsome widower of about forty-five and inclined to be rather pompous. His father was an Honorable and his uncle is Lord Vavasour. To a large extent he is supposed to rule the village with a rod of iron, but I rather fancy the secret of his power lies in the fact that he is possessed of ample private means and is very generous to all his parishioners."

"This rector seemed very worried about the predicament of the sisters and most interested in me. He shook his head a lot, and several times remarked enigmatically to me that the suspicion about them must be cleared up at all costs. I couldn't make out what he meant, he said it in such a funny sort of way, as if he thought I was missing something, and he asked me twice to come and call upon him and he would show me over the church. He appears to be very much in love with Beatrice and, naturally, she is flattered by his attention. But she has had one romance in her life; her lover was killed in an accident, and I think she is not the sort of girl who will love easily again.

"Now for a very interesting man—that Dr. Athol who was called first to the dead man, and who is a great friend of the family as well as their medical attendant. He will be Sir Norman Athol when his uncle dies. He is about thirty, very clever and distinguished-looking, and has a very kind face. I was introduced to him this morning and then met him again at dinner tonight. I should say that he is usually of a very reserved disposition, but he was certainly very friendly towards me. He was once one of the medical officers of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, and he invited me to come up to his place and look over a collection of photographs of some of the inmates he'd got. He also suggested that perhaps I might like to attend a lecture he is giving tomorrow night in Colchester upon 'Genius and Insanity.'"

"His fiancee, a Miss Mary Arbour was dining with us, too. She is a great friend of Beatrice, and I could enthuse a lot about her if I had time. She is a very beautiful woman, not a girl, but a woman, although she is only of Beatrice's age, twenty-eight. She is tall and stately with a beautifully-proportioned figure. She has nice features, beautiful deep blue eyes, and, what you know I always admire in a woman, a beautiful mouth. In repose her face is rather sad, but when she smiles everything lights up, and you can then hardly take your eyes off her. I could see Dr. Athol is very proud of her. Eva told me she was generally very distant towards strangers, but she certainly could not have been nicer than she was to me. She is well-to-do, but has no relations, and lives with a companion in a house called 'The Towers,' only about a stone's throw outside the walls of the Priory's grounds. She asked me, particularly, to come and see some very special roses she has got. She is going to be married to the doctor in six weeks, and I was laughingly informed that her companion is very annoyed about it as she, the companion, will then have to look for another situation."

"I have given you all these details about Dr. Athol and his bride-to-be for special reasons which I will make clear to you later. The doctor is a very charming man.

"Well, my best love to you, sweetheart.

Your loving husband,

Gilbert."

Larose leant back in his chair and laughed softly. "Yes, certainly, a very charming man this Dr. Athol, but I have not the slightest doubt now that he is mixed up in some way with this murder. Stone has dropped on to it, too, for I can tell, by the questions he put to that housekeeper, he is of opinion that the doctor was not speaking the truth about what he told us he did that night in the bungalow, when he was waiting for the police. And if the doc. was lying then, of course, it was because he did something that he doesn't want us to know. Yes, yes, he was busy wiping away all the possible fingermarks left by someone who might have been in the bungalow that night."

He looked very puzzled. "But whose finger-prints were they? Were they his own or someone else's? Still, one thing is quite certain. If he himself had not left any there, nevertheless he sensed the possibility of someone else having left some, and, as I say, he wanted to shield whomsoever it was."

He chuckled softly. "But I have more against the doctor than Stone, for I know he saw Lesser cycling off towards Colchester and went straight up and broke into the bungalow. As Stone said, it was an amateur who tried to open that desk, and it just fits in, too, that someone who was in possession of surgical instruments should have opened the back door. When I saw those marks on the key that had been turned in the lock, I knew they were certainly not made by any mechanic's tool, with sharp and fine serrations in the jaws. They were made by an instrument with blunt serrations, set wide apart, such as a pair of the artery forceps, in the possession of every medical man. And those are just what Dr. Athol would have had that night, handy in his bag, when coming straight from a confinement case."

His thoughts ran on. "And what he broke into the bungalow for he didn't get. He was surprised by Lesser's return home when he was trying to open the desk, which would, of course, have yielded very quickly to that big screw driver, although he had set about the job in a stupid manner. Again, as proof that he was hurried off, he didn't shut the back door after him, fearful no doubt that Lesser would hear him making his get-away."

He rose softly from his chair and walking to the window, leaned out and stared into the night. There was no moon showing, but the stars gave a faint light, and his eyes becoming accustomed to the darkness, he could pick out the dim outlines of the bungalow that was so much occupying his thoughts.

"And if that chap weren't still there," he murmured, "I'd go straightaway and try to find out what the doctor was looking for"—he shook his head frowningly—"but it may have been taken away now, in that big parcel of Toller's effects I saw they had got in the car this afternoon."

But noticing how late the hour was getting, he gave no further rein to his meditations, and undressing quickly, proceeded to get into bed. He shut his thoughts away from everything, even from the pretty face of Beatrice Brabazon-Fane, and in a few minutes was asleep.


CHAPTER VI.—GHOSTS

The following morning at breakfast-time Beatrice handed over her diary to Larose with the smiling intimation that she had run briefly through it, and there was nothing in it he might not read.

The book was bound in black morocco, with 'Diary' in gold letters upon the cover, and was about an inch thick. It was for no particular year, and was not dated in any way, neither were its pages numbered. It was provided with a lock and key.

"Dr. Athol gave us all one for a Christmas present last year," said Beatrice, "but I am the only one who has written it up regularly. He has kept one for many years and says he finds it most useful, and I quite agree with him."

Larose retired to the library and spent a good half an hour going most carefully through the later entries in the diary. They were made of domestic, personal, and social matters, with many references to the affairs of the estate. Every time, apparently, that Beatrice had been over to the bungalow she had put it down, and Toller's name appeared many times in reference to requests and complaints of the tenants. He noticed that Toller had been away from the Priory on the third and fourth days of the preceding month, a Tuesday and a Wednesday.

His perusal of the diary over, Larose regarded it very thoughtfully. He balanced it upon the palm of his hand many times, and let it open itself; he scrutinised the stitching that bound the pages together; and finally he very carefully counted the number of pages it contained.

Then, making a note of something in a little pocket book he carried, he returned the diary to Beatrice with many thanks and the remark that he would know later whether its perusal had been of any service to him. Then he went to pay a visit to Dr. Athol. He had learnt where he lived, and expected him to be out at that time in the morning. But that did not trouble him in any way, as all he wanted was to get some idea of the geography of the house. He remembered the doctor had told him he was lecturing in Colchester that night, and he, Larose, was intending then to get inside the house through some window and have a look at the surgical instruments. Also he very much wanted to get a glimpse of the diary the doctor was known to keep, and see what entry there was for the night of the murder.

The doctor's house was just off the main road, and was two-storied, old, and covered in ivy. It was approached by a pretty little lane, and a short drive led up to the front door.

Just as Larose was passing up the lane, a butcher's cart dashed by him, and he saw it turn into the doctor's drive! He followed, but it was not in sight as he approached the house. He heard a merry voice call out "Butcher! Butcher!" at the back, followed by shrill female voices and much laughter.

Gaining the hall door, he found it wide open, and from the dust-pan and brush upon the carpet, he guessed that one of the maids had been interrupted in her work by the arrival of the butcher, and had gone to the back door to join in a chat with him.

The house was low and long, and at the end of the rather narrow hall was the door leading to the kitchen regions. Larose hesitated about ringing the bell, and then, the laughter continuing, he walked boldly inside and peered quickly one after another into the four rooms opening into the hall.

"Breakfast room, dining room, drawing room, and consulting room," he muttered, "and all the windows kept opened and with only very old-fashioned catches. Excellent! Couldn't be better!" He took a lightning glance at a big bureau in a corner. "And I shall have no difficulty there. Really, things seem so propitious that I'm half inclined to take a chance now." But hearing the wheels of the butcher's cart upon the drive, he thought better of it, and tip-toed back quickly into the hall.

No, the doctor was not at home, the maid told him, but he would be in at two o'clock, and Larose noted with some satisfaction that she looked a careless sort of girl and just the kind to leave doors unlocked and windows unbolted at night.

Returning towards the Priory by a rather roundabout way, he came to the entrance to 'The Towers', and, after a moment's hesitation, walked into the drive there.

"I may as well have a little talk with Miss Arbour," he thought. "She asked me to come and look at her roses, and it struck me, too, last night, she doesn't like Lady Mentone overmuch, so perhaps she may tell me something about her that I haven't heard. I could see Billy is half in love with the doctor herself, and of course Miss Arbour must know it as well."

Walking up the drive, he came upon a thin elderly woman cutting roses from some trees by the hall door, and she looked up at him enquiringly.

"Is Miss Arbour at home?" he asked, rather thinking he was in the presence of the companion.

"No," replied the woman; "but what is it you want?"

"Oh, nothing particular," said Larose, "but I met her last night, and was coming to pay a little call."

"You met her last night!" exclaimed the woman. Her eyes grew very wide. "Then are you Mr. Larose?" and when Larose smilingly nodded assent, she burst out excitedly. "Have you found out anything about the murderer yet?"

"Hardly!" laughed Larose, "and I'm afraid it'll take us some time."

"I'm Miss Arbour's friend, Miss Carrington," explained the woman. "I live here with her, and, of course, have heard everything that's been happening day by day at the Priory. It's been a dreadful shock to us."

"It must have been," agreed Larose. He looked up at the house. "But what a wonderful view there should be over the country from the turret of that tower."

"There is," said Miss Carrington. She lowered her voice darkly. "And we happened to be sitting up there the very night of the murder." She shuddered. "If we had only known it, the crime was being done under our very eyes, and only a big oak tree that stands in the way may have prevented us seeing the murderer." A thought struck her. "But would you like to go up into the turret and see how near everything seems?"

Larose expressed his pleasure at the idea, and so was taken into the house, and by a little winding staircase from the second story ascended to the tower. A glorious stretch of country was unfolded to him. He was looking right over the Priory grounds, and only a thick row of trees hid the Priory itself from view.

"Yes," went on Miss Arbour's companion, "and that night we were up here from soon after dinner until past midnight"—she nodded mysteriously—"and quite a lot of things happened. First a courting couple came up that little lane running round the Priory wall, which is very unusual, because some years ago a man hanged himself on one of the trees there, and the place is supposed to be haunted. Then later I saw a woman coming in a great hurry up the lane. Her head was muffled in a scarf, and, of course, I could not see who she was from here, but I thought she was swinging herself along like Lady Mentone does when she is walking very quickly. I started to point her out to Mary, that's Miss Arbour, but she was reading, and looked up too late to see her before she was among the shadows of the trees."

"You saw Lady Mentone then that night!" ejaculated Larose, hardly able to contain his surprise.

"Oh, no, no!" exclaimed Miss Carrington quickly. "I don't say I positively recognised Lady Mentone. I only say this woman was walking like Lady Mentone does, with a swing from the hips."

"And what time would that have been?" asked Larose, very puzzled.

"Oh, quite early that night, long before ten o'clock."

Larose regarded her thoughtfully. She had been gabbling on as if only for the pleasure of hearing herself talk, but he was now wondering, all at once, if she really meant to convey some information to him.

She went on. "And then another thing happened, and I'll only tell you that if you promise me you'll not let anyone know I have mentioned it. Miss Arbour is always getting angry with me for what she calls gossiping."

"Oh, I won't mention it," said Larose. "I'll be mum as an oyster."

"Well, much later on," said Miss Carrington, "a man appeared in the lane and he appeared so quickly that I was sure he must have dropped down over the Priory wall. 'Look.' I called out to Mary, 'there's Dr. Athol there. I'm sure it is,' and Mary got very angry and said he was nothing like him. The man ran up the lane." She cast down her eyes. "Of course I must have been mistaken and it was probably only because I'd thought that the woman I had seen before was walking like Lady Mentone that I then thought the man looked like Dr. Athol. You see they're such great friends that I always think of them together." She laughed meaningly. "Really, they ought to be the couple getting married next month," she nodded. "I'm sure he thinks more of her than he does of Mary, and I believe, too, Mary's beginning to know it."

There could be no mistaking her meaning now, Larose realised. She was definitely spiteful and no doubt because, as he had learned the previous night, she would be leaving Miss Arbour upon the latter's marriage. So she was now bringing up about the man and the woman in the lane to suggest that they had been Dr. Athol and Lady Mentone who must have had a rendezvous there.

"And what time was it that you saw this man?" asked Larose carelessly.

"Well, I don't know that," she replied, "because I dozed off afterwards and I remember the eleven o'clock chimes waking me up with a start."

When a few minutes later Larose left her, he was in a very puzzled frame of mind. If what she had told him was the truth, then besides adding to his suspicions about Dr. Athol, it brought Billy Mentone definitely into the picture. But was it true, he asked himself, or was this spiteful woman just making it all up to bring scandal upon Dr. Athol and so, at the last moment, prevent his marrying Miss Arbour?

Then all at once Larose drew in a deep breath. There must be something in it, he told himself excitedly, for it could not be just a coincidence that this woman was bringing Dr. Athol upon the scene too.

Here was he tracking the doctor and suspecting him of knowing something about the murder, and now from a totally unexpected quarter were coming insinuations, whether or not put forward in spite it did not matter, suggesting also that he was involved in it!

And not only that, but by the woman bringing in Lady Mentone, she was supplying the motive that he, Larose, had been groping for all along.

A wild rush of thoughts surged through Larose's mind, and he let his imagination run riot wheresoever it would.

Lady Mentone was Toller's victim! She had fallen into his power somehow and she had appealed to Dr. Athol to save her! Toller had been trying to blackmail her! He had shown his hand that night when they were sitting out in the conservatory! The next morning she had been ill, and in that long interview with Dr. Athol had told him everything, and the doctor had promised to save her! He had at once gone to see Toller, but had found him out, and had made that excuse to the housekeeper about a dog. Then had come the events of that night, and nothing was as yet clear then, except that the doctor had taken some part in them!

His thoughts ran on. Then, if it were a case of blackmailing Lady Mentone, it could only be that Toller had found out something in Lady Mentone's past life, most likely something that had happened when she was on the stage and so—ah! but another thought thrilled through him! That length of hair ribbon that had been among Toller's effects! It was creased in a peculiar way! Of course, of course, it had been tied round a bundle of letters, and, oh! oh! blue was Lady Mentone's favorite color, as evidenced by the color scheme of her bedroom, and the blue dress she was actually wearing that very day.

About half an hour later, sitting at lunch opposite to the girl who was now so occupying his thoughts, he wondered, as he watched her laughing eyes when she smiled, and the play of her pretty mouth when she spoke, if it could be possible such a dainty and glorious creature were a murderess. He looked at her hands. They were small and white and beautifully shaped, and yet it was one of those soft fingers, he was wanting to make out, which had pressed the trigger of that rifle and sent a fellow being into eternity.

It was a particularly bright and lively meal, as if, with the withdrawal of the policemen and detectives, the girls were now freed from all their anxieties. Both Beatrice and Lady Mentone had lost their careworn looks and chatted confidently with Larose, exactly as they would to an old friend of the family, as well as to an honored guest.

And then suddenly a great revulsion of feeling came over Larose, and he realised that he had absolutely no evidence against anyone, and that their guilt was all conjecture on his part. So, with the meal over, with no pang of conscience, he accepted a cigarette from Lady Mentone, admiring once again the beauty of the hand that held the cigarette case out to him.

But he did not dally long with his fair companions, and early in the afternoon found him entering the showroom of the Colchester Motoring Company. He asked to see a Mr. R. Messenger, and upon a young fellow coming forward, he held out for inspection the cover of the motor car catalogue that he smuggled out of Toller's office. He had, however, so folded the cover that the blood-marks upon it could not be seen.

"Did you write your name there?" he asked, pointing to 'R. Messenger' on the cover.

"Yes, sir," replied the man. "I generally do so when I give anyone a catalogue, so that if they return they will know who waited upon them and will ask for me again."

"Well, do you remember a gentleman coming here last Tuesday," asked Larose, "a tall, good-looking man, well-dressed, with a moustache?"

"Certainly," replied the man at once. "The gentleman was particularly interested in the Ormonde cars for which we are the agents, and I gave him a demonstration in one."

"Did he seem a serious customer?" asked Larose. "I mean did he give you the impression that he was really in the position of being able to buy such a car?"

"Most assuredly," replied the man. "Indeed, he asked what discount there would be upon an immediate cash purchase."

"Did he give you his name?" was the next question.

"No. I asked him, but he said it didn't matter and he would call again."

"Thank you," said Larose. "That's all I wanted to know." Then, noting the puzzled look upon the salesman's face, he added with a smile. "And if he does come in again to purchase the car, be sure you don't take a cheque."

"Oh, thank you, sir," said the man, nodding significantly. "I'm sure we are very much obliged to you for the hint. I understand."

"And that means," commented Larose grimly when he was out again in the street, "that Toller was undoubtedly expecting he would shortly be in the possession of money." His face assumed a stern expression. "Yes, he was certainly on the blackmail"—he hesitated and looked rather worried—"unless money were coming to him from the estate of that person for whose funeral he bought the black tie."

His next visit was to the Public Library and he was going to take a long shot there. It was on Tuesday the second of June that Toller had received the letter that caused him to be away from Stratford St. Mary on the following Wednesday and Thursday and return with a black tie in his possession. Therefore, presumably, Larose was arguing, someone in whom he was interested had died on the Monday. In that case the decease of that person, if it were advertised at all, would be in the death column of some newspaper on the Tuesday or Wednesday, and there was just a chance the dead person might have been a relative of Toller, and of the same name.

Larose was particularly wanting to find out who had died, for it was insistently ringing in his mind that it was then Toller had obtained the material for the blackmailing, if indeed he had been blackmailing. He argued that, because the going away of Toller for those two days had been apparently the only unusual happening for a long time in Toller's usually uneventful life, and the very occasion, if someone had died, of finding something among the latter's papers.

Then again, if Lady Mentone were the victim of the blackmailing, it would account for Toller having held his hand until he could get in close touch with her. She was known to be arriving upon a visit to the Priory a few days before the tenants' ball, and Toller would be sure he would get a chance, under the most auspicious circumstances possible, of speaking to her alone.

He knew it was a slender chance of any of Toller's relations considering themselves important enough to advertise the death of any of their number, but still there was always the chance.

So he started looking through the files of the daily papers for June 3 and 4 for anyone of the name of Toller who had died, but he was soon regarding his labor as a very unprofitable one.

'The Daily Telegraph,' 'The Express,' 'The Daily Mail,' and the other daily papers were patiently gone through, but there was no Toller anywhere, and coming at last to 'The Times,' he smiled faintly at the thought of finding the name there. No, still no Toller; and then, as with the previous newspapers, he began to con through all the Christian names of the deceased. Then suddenly he frowned, caught his breath, and gave a low whistle as he read over to himself:—

"Wedlake—On the 2nd of June, at 28 Lissom street, Tottenham Court road. Daniel Edwin, for twenty-nine years in the box office of the Olympic Theatre. Aged 68."

"Whew!" he whistled. "An Edwin in the box office of a theatre for twenty-nine years and one of Toller's names was Edwin! Great Scott! If they were related then no wonder Toller knew something about theatrical matters!"

He looked quickly at his watch. "Nearly four o'clock and it's 52 miles to town." He made a rapid calculation. "No, I couldn't do it in time. The doctor's going to be out tonight, and I may not get such an opportunity again." His eyes glinted. "But I'll pay a visit to Lissom street, sure enough, tomorrow."

That night, as soon as it was dark, Larose slipped out of the Priory and made his way across the grounds towards the wall where it was nearest to Dr. Athol's house. He had no fear that he would be seen by anyone in 'The Towers', for the night was pitch black, and the moon would not be up for some hours.

Reaching the belt of trees close to the wall, he had almost to feel his way between them, but he had marked out the way he would go, earlier in the evening, and so soon dropped into the narrow lane where Miss Arbour's companion had seen so much to interest her upon the night of the murder.

He crept up the doctor's drive and reconnoitring round the house saw there was only one light showing and that, in the kitchen. He had learnt that the doctor kept only two maids, and so, hearing voices there, he felt quite confident he would have all the front rooms of the house to himself.

Approaching the window of the consulting room, he found it was not only unlatched, but was also open for some inches at the top. He lifted the sash very quietly and stepped into the room. Then his first action was to place a small wooden wedge under the door so that he could not be taken by surprise if anyone attempted to enter.

Then he flashed a small torch and made for the surgical instruments that he had noticed that morning in a glass case upon a small table in one of the corners of the room. There were quite a large number of artery and other forceps among them, and, quickly examining their jaws, one by one, he was extremely disappointed to find that none of them showed any signs of having been used for a purpose other than that for which they were intended.

"But there are no midwifery instruments here," he muttered, "so he must have kept those in a different place."

Then his light fell upon a good-sized black leather bag under the table desk and his eyes sparkled when, upon opening it, he found another glittering array of nickel-plated instruments. Then his search was a very short one, for the jaws of almost the very first pair of artery forceps he picked up showed signs of rough usage. The serrations were flattened and shiney, with much of the nickel-plating worn off. Also, the jaws no longer met as closely as they should have done. A few moments' search and he found a second and slightly stouter pair in the same condition.

He replaced them quickly and, closing the bag, restored it to its place under the desk. He made no comment, contenting himself with a grim smile.

He next approached a beautiful Sheraton bureau. There were six good-sized drawers to it and all were locked. The locks gave him some little trouble, refusing to yield to any of the skeleton keys he had brought with him, but some very stiff strips of half-round wire and a pair of pincers, after some patience, overcame the difficulty, and the locks, in turn clicked open.

In the first drawer he looked into he found four diaries, each one the facsimile of the one Beatrice had lent him that morning, and they were all unlocked. A quick glance showed him they went back for several years. He saw, too, at once that they were in no sense medical case books and contained no record of the doctor's purely professional dealings with his patients. Instead, they were just the happenings of his personal and social life, chattily put down.

Larose turned to the entries of that week and at once he frowned. There was a whole page given to the day of the Priory Tenants' Ball and most of that to the ball itself. Then for the next day there were just the terse entries. "Very sultry day. Thunderstorm at night. Chime rang me up 11.30 p.m. Toller shot." Then the entries for the next day were very restrained, just mentioning that Superintendent Russell of Colchester and several detectives were all day up at the Priory and that the Brabazon-Fane girls were very upset. For the following day the entries were much fuller, and it seemed that, as far as writing up his diary, the doctor's equilibrium had been restored.

For a long moment Larose stood hesitating, listening intently for any sounds out in the hall, but everything was perfectly quiet and so he seated himself down and laying his torch upon the desk, began very quickly to count how many pages the diary contained.

"Exactly as I thought," was his whispered comment presently. "There are 416 pages here and in Beatrice's only 412. She has torn two leaves out."

Hurriedly replacing the diary, he closed the top drawer, and then proceeded to go quickly through the other three. "If he is hiding anything he's found in the bungalow, it will be here," he murmured, "but I don't think he got what he was after that night, or, at any rate, not all that he wanted then."

But he found nothing to interest him for a few moments, and then suddenly, at the very bottom of the last drawer, he came upon a little packet of letters with a dance programme on top and just underneath that what felt like a withered flower in an envelope. The packet was tied round with a piece of blue ribbon.

"Good God!" he gasped. "What a coincidence!" His eyebrows dropped to one straight line, and he added grimly. "But is it a coincidence? This ribbon is almost the very spit of the piece that was in Toller's drawer."

And then, to his horror, he heard a door opening at the back of the house and the sound of quickly approaching voices in the hall. He caught his breath in his dismay, but, not for one moment losing his presence of mind, thrust the packet into his pocket and softly but swiftly pushed to the drawers of the bureau. Then he darted across to the door and stood hesitating, doubtful as to whether he should withdraw the wedge or not.

But to his great relief there came a loud burst of music, and he realised the maids had switched on the wireless in some other room. So he promptly pulled away the wedge from under the door, and slipping out of the window, pulled down the sash and disappeared into the darkness of the night.

Arriving back at the Priory and in the silence of his own room, with everyone else in the house apparently asleep, Larose proceeded to examine the little packet.

He untied the ribbon and studied it critically. Certainly it was of exactly the same color as the piece in Toller's desk, but he could not be sure it was of the same width. Still, the coincidence of the two ribbons was certainly extraordinary. Then he scrutinised the dance programme. It was one of the Horsham Tennis Club. It was faded and discolored, and he was not surprised to see the date upon it was more than ten years back—May 29, 1922. There were no names upon it that struck any chord of memory in him.

"Hum!" he remarked. "E. Ransome, R. Bailey, A. Chandos, Eva Brown. Almost always the full name put down, so it looks as if he did not know anyone there too well. Still 'A.C.' comes twice in the second half of the programme, and as, apparently, he took her into supper as well, it would seem that at any rate he is getting acquainted with one of them."

He picked up the first envelope. It was yellow and discolored, and the ink of the very girlish-looking handwriting upon it was faded, it was postmarked "Faygate, August 2, 1922," and addressed to "Norman Athol, Esq., St. Benger's Hospital, London, E." He abstracted the letter from it and read:

"The Hall,

Faygate,

Surrey.

Dear Mr. Athol,

I want to see you particularly. Can you come down this week? We are not on the telephone as you know, but if you wire or write, I will meet you at the station at any time you mention, in the evening preferred.

Sincerely yours.

Adele Chandos."

"Hum!" remarked Larose, "and so she was the Adele Chandos and the 'A.C.' he had had four dances with that night and took into supper."

The next letter was in the same handwriting, and from the same place, but written a fortnight later. It read:

"Dear Mr. Athol,

You must have got my letter! Then what does it mean that you have not replied to it? Surely you are not going to be so despicable as to take no notice. I tell you it is very urgent that I see you at once.

Sincerely yours.

Adele Chandos."

"Dear me! dear me!" exclaimed Larose. "I'm afraid it looks like tragedy here." He frowned heavily. "Really, I do hope I find I was justified in taking these letters."

The third envelope had got a French stamp upon it and was thickly covered with postmarks. It had not reached its destination, but had been returned to the sender through the London Dead Letter Office marked, "Gone away. Address unknown." Its earliest postmark was "Marseilles, October 18th, 1922." It was addressed in a very shaky hand writing to:

"Miss Adele Chandos,

care of Miss Neave,

The Hall,

Faygate, l'Angleterre."

Larose felt very uncomfortable as he drew out the letter.

It was written from the Hospital de St. Pierre, Marseilles, and read:

"My dear Miss Chandos,

I hope everything is quite well with you and that you are enjoying nice autumn weather. You will no doubt have been wondering what has become of me, but I have been desperately ill with typhoid fever and, even now, can hardly grasp my pen. As I told you, I went to Cairo to visit my uncle, but I was kept there a fortnight longer than I had anticipated, and then, coming up the Mediterranean, I became sick, and was landed here at Marseilles and brought to this hospital. It has been a long and wearying illness for it slightly affected my spine. Indeed the doctors here tell me that only these last few days have they felt confident that I was going to get well.

However, I fear the convalescence will be very slow and it may even be a month and more before I am able to leave here. So do please write and tell me everything about yourself. I always look upon those few days in Horsham as the happiest and most thrilling of all my life.

With my very kindest regards.

Very Sincerely yours,

Norman Athol.

P.S.—I have still got that carnation you gave me, that last wonderful evening."

The fourth letter was again from Norman Athol, still a patient at the St. Pierre Hospital, and it had met with the same fate as its predecessor, being, like it, returned to Marseilles through the Dead Letter Office. It had told of the sufferer, rapidly gathering strength and hoping soon to be in London and back at his medical studies.

The fifth and last letter was from some woman, or at least, Larose judged from the handwriting that it was from a woman, living at Horsham, and it was dated December 2nd of the same year as the other letters. It was addressed to Norman Athol at St. Benger's Hospital, and the writer twitted him with being so interested in Adele Chandos.

"No, we never knew what became of her," she wrote, "for within three days of old Miss Neave's death she went off, without saying good-bye to anyone. Then the house was shut up and within a month all the furniture and the house itself had been sold by auction. I don't wonder you were taken with the pretty Adele. She was a lovely girl." The letter finished up with "Sincerely yours, L. Barton."

Larose made up the little bundle with its blue ribbon, frowning all the time. "And he has kept them all these years," ran his thoughts, "hoping that he may one day meet her again and vindicate himself in her eyes. Of course, he shall have them back. I'll mail them to him directly this business is all over. I ought never to have touched them, but I didn't know." He shook his head. "Now, I wonder, I wonder what that girls letter really meant? Did she"—but he pulled himself up short. "There, there, Gilbert, what's that to do with you? Just leave it alone and get quickly into bed. You've a hard day's work tomorrow, and there's a hot trail to follow."


CHAPTER VII.—THE PERILS OF A PRETTY FACE

The following morning, shortly after ten o'clock, Larose rang the bell of number 28 Lissom street, and a slatternly-looking woman of about middle age, with inflamed eyes, answered the door.

The street was a poor-class one, and if Larose had not been impressed by the look of the house from outside, his unfavorable opinion of things generally, deepened when the door was opened. The passage looked dirty and untended, the linoleum was worn, and full of holes, and the unpleasant smell of unventilated rooms offended his nostrils.

"I want to get a few details of the late Mr. Wedlake's life," he said most politely. "I understand he used to live here."

"But he's been dead now for some weeks," snapped the woman sharply. "He died the beginning of last month."

"Yes, I saw the announcement when it appeared in the newspapers," smiled Larose. "That's how I knew he lived here."

"Oh! it was in the newspapers, was it?" grunted the woman. "Well, I didn't see it. I never have time to read the newspapers now. I'm a busy woman." She glared significantly at Larose. "I am busy now. I have four lodgers to attend to."

"But I came from a newspaper," fibbed Larose, "and, of course, we're going to pay you for any information you give," and producing a one pound note, he held it out for her acceptance.

Her face showed her surprise. She took the note, and then immediately her manner changed, and she spoke most politely. "Come in, sir. Of course I'll tell you all I can," and Larose was ushered into a stuffy little parlor and invited to take a chair.

"You see," began Larose suavely, "Mr. Wedlake was a bit of a celebrity in theatrical circles, as he'd been in charge of the box office at the Olympic Theatre for nearly thirty years."

"And don't I know that," smiled the woman. "The poor old gent was always talking about it, and I've had to listen to it for five years."

"Five years!" ejaculated Larose, as if very surprised. "Good gracious! Had he lived here all that time?"

"Ever since his old master, Mr. Aaronson died," said the woman. "The family allowed him £2 a week, which was quite generous, considering Mr. Aaronson had been living away from his wife, and the two children had taken their mother's part. I am always astonished that they gave Mr. Wedlake anything."

"Did any of them come to Mr Wedlake's funeral?" asked Larose beginning to turn the conversation into the channel he wanted.

"Yes, one of them," said the woman. "He and Mr. Wedlake's nephew were the only mourners."

"Mr. Wedlake's nephew," frowned Larose, looking rather puzzled, and then he took the plunge. "Ah! that would be Mr. Toller, from Stratford St. Mary, of course?"

"Yes," nodded the woman. "Mr. Toller was the only relation he had."

Larose's heart gave a great bound. He had struck plumb on to the very middle of the target! He had picked up a trail that not one in a thousand would have known existed!

"And Mr. Wedlake's old master, this Mr. Aaronson," he said hesitatingly, "let me think. Who was he?"

"THE Mr. Aaronson," laughed the woman. "Mark Aaronson who owned the Olympic Theatre. You must have heard of him. He had been owner and manager there for many years, and he must have produced scores of plays in his time."

"Yes, yes, of course!" exclaimed Larose, "but I didn't remember him for the moment." He spoke eagerly. "It was he who produced 'The Moss Rose.'"

"Oh, I don't know about that," said the woman. "I've been to no theatre for twenty years. My life's been much too hard and busy to go gadding about on pleasure." Her face brightened. "But there are a bundle of old playbills in the attic and you might find it there. Mr. Wedlake had got a lot of playbills and when he died and Mr. Toller went through his things, he told me he was going to take some of them, although they were of no value to any one." She fingered the crisp note Larose had given her, and added:—"But he forgot them and you can have them, if you like. I meant to have burnt them, as I don't suppose Toller will come back and I don't want rubbish lying about and collecting the dust."

Larose thanked her gratefully and then, continuing the conversation, asked: "And Mr. Wedlake was working for Mr. Aaronson up to the time Mr. Aaronson died?"

"Oh, yes," was the reply, "but he had left the box office several years before that. He had got too old, and Mr. Aaronson had taken him on to be his confidential attendant at home. Mr. Wedlake was always to be trusted, and I think he did many things for Mr. Aaronson that it was wise shouldn't get known." She laughed meaningly. "Mr. Aaronson was a gay bird, they say, and he was only forty-eight when he died. Mr. Wedlake said he was a wonderfully handsome man, and very fascinating."

"He died suddenly?" guessed Larose.

"Yes, of pneumonia, and he'd left no will. If he had, I'm sure he'd have left something substantial to Mr. Wedlake."

"Did Mr. Wedlake leave anything?"

"Twelve and ninepence," laughed the woman, "and the clothes he stood up in. He died very suddenly, too. He had a stroke, and was dead in two minutes. I went out and rang up young Mr. Aaronson, and he arranged for the funeral."

"Did Mr. Toller often come here?" asked Larose.

"On a Sunday, every two or three months." The woman grinned. "I fancy he thought the old gent had got a bit of money put away, and he would come into it. But he was mistaken and looked very glum as he went through his box."

"What is Mr. Toller?" asked Larose, guessing as she did not read the newspapers she did not know he was dead.

"A clerk, I think, now, down at that place in Essex. But I've heard Mr. Wedlake say he's been lots of things; something in a money-lender's office, a gentleman's valet, and a waiter in a flash night club. His mother was only a charwoman."

Larose smiled to himself. How well, he thought, he could now understand Toller's personality! A scheming, imitative man, who had picked up his poise and bearing from the better class people with whom he had mixed in a menial capacity! It was indeed a strange world!

Chatting a few minutes longer, he left the house with a thick bundle under his arm, and then turning into a little coffee house in Tottenham Court road, which was quite empty at that time of the morning, he ordered a cup of coffee and proceeded to go through the playbills.

Yes, there was the one of 'The Moss Rose,' the very first one upon the top of all of them, and it almost seemed from its position, that Toller might have placed it there.

He scanned eagerly down the cast for a Margaret Brabazon-Fane, and then he smiled. "Of course, of course," he murmured, "this Phyllis Fane is she! She didn't make use of her own name!" He nodded. "And from the size of the letters she had quite an important part."

He sipped his coffee thoughtfully. "And what is all this leading up to?" he asked himself. "Six and a half years ago a very beautiful young girl, only just over eighteen, who had run away from her home, was in the employ of a very attractive man nearly five and twenty years older than she. This man was separated from his wife and reputed to be gay, and five and a half years ago he died very suddenly. Then six weeks ago we have his confidential servant dying and this servant's nephew goes through his uncle's papers. This nephew happens to be employed by this one-time beautiful girl—now a beautiful woman and married to a wealthy elderly man—and he has a private talk with her. At once, then, it seems as if a bomb had burst in this woman's house. She becomes suddenly ill, she secretly goes out at night, and this nephew is found murdered. Now, what does it all mean, I ask myself? What is the most natural explanation?"

He pursed up his lips. "Of course, blackmail would account for everything. Suppose this girl had had an affair with her employer and had written him compromising letters, which he had kept for sentimental reasons, and tied round with a piece of ribbon from her hair." He nodded. "Often a gay lover who has carelessly plucked many a bright flower in his early days, suddenly finds himself, when well advanced into middle age, really and hopelessly in love for the first time. Then he's more romantic a hundredfold than a young boy in the calf-love of his 'teens."

He went on. "Well, this servant perhaps kept his old master's letters. If he did, for what purpose we shall never know. Perhaps in the capacity of almost a confidential friend he had known the girl too, and had kept them for sentimental reasons of his own. Perhaps he had brought them away from his dead master's house so that they should not fall into the hands of the family and then—forgot them. That woman said she was sure the box where Wedlake's papers were had not been touched for years until Toller opened it after the funeral."

He paused a moment to collect his thoughts.

"Then how was it the letters became separated from the ribbon? Was it, perhaps, that Toller realised in attempting to blackmail Lady Mentone he was playing a most dangerous game and, if the contents of the letters were not too damning, she might confess everything to her husband, and then the police would be down upon him without a second's warning? Was it that he realised that and wanted to be able to deny everything if he were accused? Perhaps there were a dozen or more letters, forming a bulky packet, and so he separated them in order to hide them the easier!"

Larose laughed softly. What concrete form he was now giving to his conjectures and yet—his face grew very stern—he had a sure foundation upon which to build them.

Early in the afternoon found him at the stage door of the Olympic Theatre. A rehearsal was on and the door was open. A well-built and shrewd-looking attendant was seated just inside, but Larose noticed there was an empty sleeve instead of a right arm.

"Good afternoon!" said Larose.

"Good afternoon, sir," returned the man, and he eyed Larose very intently.

"Do you want to make an easy pound?" asked Larose.

"That depends," said the man, and then he added sternly. "You can't come in here?"

Larose smiled. "I don't want to," he said. "I only want some information. First have you been the attendant here for long?"

"Eight years," replied the man laconically, still continuing to eye Larose very intently.

"Well, that's splendid," said Larose. He took the playbill of 'The Moss Rose' from his pocket and went on briskly. "Now, I'm collecting reminiscences of various actors and actresses for a book I'm writing, and I want to know if you remember some of the people who played in 'The Moss Rose.'"

The man took the playbill in his hand and glanced down it. "Certainly I do," he said, "and I think I could tell you something about nearly all of them"—he looked up sharply at Larose and added, "if I chose."

"But of course you'll choose," smiled Larose.

"I'm not so sure about that," said the man. "I want to know what I'm going to give the information for." He scoffed. "I don't believe it's for a book. You look like a detective to me, except that you're a bit better dressed than most detectives usually are."

Larose's jaw dropped in his surprise.

"But I assure you I'm not one," he said warmly. "I'm nothing at all to do with detectives or the police."

The man grinned delightedly. "Come, come, Mr. Larose," he said, "put down all your cards. I know you quite well. I was in the city police once and remember you in the Munro street burglary," and he chuckled, enjoying the good joke.

Larose laughed merrily. "Fairly caught," he said, "but you should have kept it up a little bit longer. I felt the perspiration dripping into my boots."

"Well, how can I help you, sir," asked the man. "I shall be very pleased to do anything I can for you."

"It's like this," said Larose. "I'm enquiring into a matter of Mark Aaronson's days, and as far as I am concerned, it's not going to be a police matter, whatever I may find out. It's just a little private enquiry I am making. Now you knew Mr. Aaronson, didn't you."

"Very well, and I couldn't have wished for a better employer. Certainly, he was a Jew, but he was a thorough gentleman, and everybody liked him."

"But he was a bit gay, wasn't he?" suggested Larose. "In his private life, I mean."

"Oh, yes, he was fond enough of the girls," laughed the man, "and they were all ready to fall for him, even the prettiest of them, like ripe peaches off a tree." He shook his head. "But you must understand there was nothing nasty about Mr. Aaronson. He was the very opposite of a bad man. Although very fond of the girls, he was never making a fuss of more than one at a time. In fact, in the last year of his life he had, so to speak, settled down and become a sort of prim married man."

"But he was married already!" exclaimed Larose.

"Yes, yes," nodded the attendant, "but his legal wife was a cold, unpleasant woman, and they had been separated for some years." He nodded more vigorously still. "But she must have had a kink in her not to have got on with him, for he had one of the nicest natures I have ever known. He was a father to everyone here, and kindness itself to everyone, old and young, pretty and plain."

"Well, just cast your eye down this playbill," said Larose, "and tell me if there is anyone there in whom he was particularly interested about the time he died. You need mention no names."

The man gave one glance at the playbill, and then looked up and smiled. "Yes, and she was as sweet and pretty a little lady as you could ever find. He never looked at another girl after he became friends with her."

"Then did he, did he——" began Larose hesitatingly, and then he stopped.

The man laughed. "I should think so," he said, "but we never knew." He went on quickly. "You see, sir, he was a very wealthy man and could cover his tracks in a way that no one could follow. We all guessed their relations, but we were never sure. No one knew anything for certain." He shrugged his shoulders. "At any rate there was never any public scandal. When she was away once, recovering from an illness, I knew she used to write to him every day. The letters used to come here and I put them in his room. The envelopes were typed, and I always noticed he picked out that particular one first."

"Where did they come from?" asked Larose.

The man winked. "Cromer, a nice quiet place. Very select, and not many trippers about!"

Picking up his car from the garage where he had left it, and driving back swiftly along the road towards Colchester, Larose, notwithstanding all he had found out, was in a rather subdued frame of mind.

That there were happenings in Lady Mentone's past life that could make her an easy target for blackmailers he was now absolutely sure, and he was equally as sure that it was because Toller had been attempting to blackmail her that the latter had come to his death.

Then who was it who had actually committed the murder?

From all he had found out it must have been either Lady Mentone or Dr. Athol, and for many reasons he was inclined to give the preference to the doctor, notwithstanding the strong suspicion that Chime's first testimony threw upon the girl!

Then what had been the threat Toller had been holding over Lady Mentone? Undoubtedly, to send some letters she had once written to Mark Aaronson to her husband, Sir Charles Mentone.

Then a last question. Where were those letters now? Had Lady Mentone or the doctor got hold of them, or were they still hidden where neither she nor the doctor could find them?

He thought for a long time, and then shook his head. "Somehow, I don't think they've found them and yet, from her manner, her ladyship seems to think she's quite safe now." He sighed. "Yes, I've got a lot to find out yet."

And then suddenly it was as if a bomb had exploded in his mind and all his ideas became as chaotic as they could possibly be.

Arriving at the outskirts of the village of Stratford St. Mary, and just about to pass the churchyard, which abutted on to the main road, he became aware that the rector was standing by the Lychgate and waving his arms energetically for him to stop.

He pulled up instantly and the reverend gentleman walked quickly over to the car.

"Well met, sir," he called out. "Now just you spare a few minutes and come and look over the church."

Larose glanced at his wrist watch. "But it's rather late, Mr. Vavasour," he began, "and I——"

"But you must come," said the rector, and then lowering his voice mysteriously added. "Don't make any bones about it, for I want to speak to you most particularly, and anyone seeing your car here will only think I'm showing you over the church. I've been worrying all day how to get in touch with you without arousing any suspicions."

Very puzzled, Larose alighted from the car and followed the rector up the path to the church door. The rector unlocked it, and lead the way up the dim aisle and ushered him into the vestry. He closed the door carefully behind them.

"Sit down, Mr. Larose," he said. "I am very disturbed in my mind, and want your advice upon a very important matter."

More puzzled than ever, because he could see the rector was looking very upset, Larose complied with his request, and then sat, waiting for him to speak.

But the rector seemed reluctant to begin and moistened his lips and swallowed hard several times before, finally he spoke.

"See here, Mr. Larose," he said nervously, "you've seen many people tried haven't you? Well, in sentencing a convicted person, and particularly a woman, a judge always takes into consideration all the circumstances of the crime, doesn't he? I mean, judges are as lenient as possible when great provocation has been shown for the committing of the offence. That is so is it not?"

"Certainly," agreed Larose, wondering what on earth was coming next. "They invariably lean to the side of mercy whenever they can find any excuse. Our judges are very humane men."

"Well, that being so," said the rector, "I shall not hesitate to tell you all I know, although as a priest, I am very reluctant to break silence." His face brightened. "Still, it was not told me under the seal of the confessional, and so I am breaking no sacred trust."

But then he was silent for such a long time that Larose asked rather testily—"And what is it you want to tell me, sir?"

The rector awoke from his reverie. "The young ladies up at the Priory must be cleared of suspicion at all costs," he said sharply, "and the guilty must be punished so that the innocent may go free." He eyed Larose intently and burst out fiercely. "That Toller was a bad man. He betrayed a young girl who was a native of these parts, and she shot him in revenge."

"Good God!" exclaimed Larose, "you know that?"

The rector nodded. "Last Monday week," he went on solemnly—"I remember the day perfectly well, because on that night the ball was taking place at the Priory—a woman of the village here, one of the most devout members of my congregation, came into the vestry after evensong to ask for my advice and help for a niece of hers who was in great trouble. She said that the previous week this niece, who is in a situation at Woodbridge, came to stay with her upon a short holiday, and feeling out of sorts, the girl went to Dr. Athol for a tonic. The doctor told her what was the matter with her. Then she went to the Priory to acquaint Toller with her condition, and ask him to marry her, as he had often promised to do. To Toller's great anger, because he was afraid of people seeing him speaking to her, she met him just coming out of the grounds. A heated conversation ensued, in which Toller told her he was married already. Then——"

"But surely she had known all along that he was married," interrupted Larose. "It was public knowledge. Everyone knew it."

"Well, she didn't," said the rector. "She had been away from here for longer than a year and a half, and had not noticed it in the newspapers. Well, she returned to her aunt, nearly demented, and, confessing everything, threatening to have a dreadful revenge on Toller, cut short her holiday, and returned, as she said she was going to, to Woodbridge."

"What day was that?" asked Larose sharply.

"Last Sunday week," replied the rector.

"Well, she wasn't here when the murder was committed!" frowned Larose.

"Who can say that?" asked the rector scornfully. "She has a bicycle, and Woodbridge is only sixteen or seventeen miles from here, so she could easily have covered the distance in a couple of hours."

Larose thought for a moment. "Does anybody else besides the girl's aunt know what you have told me?"

The Rector hesitated. "I'm not certain about that. I impressed upon her to tell no one, but she may have spoken to her brother. He is devoted to the girl, who is the child of his favorite sister, now dead."

"Who's her brother?" asked Larose.

"Chime, the butler at the Priory," replied the Rector.

Larose gasped. "Good God!" he exclaimed again, and then in sheer amazement he felt stifled and could not get his breath. Chime the uncle of the wronged girl! Chime, devoted to her, and Chime upon whose testimony everything depended, if the crime were to be brought home to one of the inmates of the Priory!

Larose's thoughts raced like lightning through him. But Chime could not be the killer, for he was in the Priory kitchen along with the three maids when the church clock had struck half-past ten! Ah! but was he really in the kitchen then as he had said he was? He might easily at some time earlier in the evening have put back the kitchen clock, and no one but he in the kitchen have heard the chimes! All the maids said they hadn't noticed them. They had been too absorbed in their game of cards! Then had Chime, on the spur of the moment, faked all the evidence about the clicking of the door and the footsteps in the hall, not realising then the dire consequences for his young mistresses? Chime was an insatiable devourer of detective stories, and it would just enthrall a mentality such as his to lay down false clues and baffle everyone! As for the actual killing of Toller, would that trouble him afterwards! No, perhaps not, as he was a simple soul, and he would be arguing he had done quite right in punishing a wretch like Toller.

Larose was jerked out of reverie by the Rector asking hoarsely—"Will they hang that girl, do you think?"

"No of course not," said Larose sharply. "She may get seven years, reduced to under five by good conduct or if she makes out the rifle went off by accident, the jury may let her off altogether."

"Then what are you going to do?" asked the rector uncomfortably.

"See this aunt first," said Larose. "Who is she and where does she live?"

"She's a Mrs. Jackson, a widow with no children, and she lives just behind the Black Swan. Her husband was employed on the railway, and she has a small pension."

"Well, I won't go now," said Larose. "I'll go after dark tonight." He smiled. "If I find she's told Chime. I may not have to bring you in at all."

The rector looked relieved. "But it was my duty to tell you," he said.

"Of course it was," replied Larose. "You need have no regrets about that." Larose left the church by himself and driving off in his car, sighed heavily. "What a mix up! It seems there was a whole crowd of people hovering about Toller that night, and if this Marriott girl was the one who shot him, then it would, in part, account for the doctor's subsequent actions, too. She might have disclosed to him who her betrayer was, and so, thinking it must be she who had shot him, and to prevent her being found out, he had wiped away any possible fingermarks she might have left. Of course, the girl herself would have known quite well, from her many visits to her uncle at the Priory, that there was a rifle there. Really, things had become a greater puzzle than ever!"

Darkness had just fallen when Larose knocked upon Mrs. Jackson's door, and he knew it was the woman herself, directly she opened it. She was wizened and frail looking, and she eyed him, he thought rather uneasily. She opened the door only a few inches.

"Mrs. Jackson, isn't it?" he asked, with a smile. "Then, I should like to speak to you for a few minutes. May I come in?"

"But what is it you want?" she asked sharply. "Who are you?"

"I'm a friend of the young ladies at the Priory," replied Larose, "and I want to speak to you about Myrtle. No, no," he went on quickly, for he saw a terrified expression had come over her face. "I have nothing whatever to do with the police. I assure you of that."

"Then has the rector been saying anything to you?" she asked instantly. Her eyes filled with tears. "Oh, I do wish I had never spoken to him about her."

"But it was certain to have come out sometime," said Larose, shaking his head. "The detectives were trying to trace where Mr. Toller used to go for those week-ends, and sooner or later they would have found out everything." He frowned. "Besides, it was Mr. Vavasour's duty to speak. It wouldn't have been right for him to have kept silent."

"No, no, I know it wouldn't have been," choked the woman, she opened the door quite wide. "Yes, you can come in," and then, taking him into the kitchen, she pointed to a chair, for the moment too overcome to say anything more.

"Of course, I know this is all most distressing," said Larose kindly. He spoke with the utmost sympathy. "But you must tell me everything your niece confessed to you."

So haltingly and in great distress she told him the same story that he had heard at the rectory. "But I can't believe she was the one to shoot him, sir," she said tearfully. "I know she's a very determined girl, and, once she makes up her mind, it is difficult to turn her. Still, she never said she was going to shoot him. She only threatened to throw something over him, and she even went so far as to buy the stuff at a chemist's in Colchester."

"To throw something over him!" exclaimed Larose, a cold shiver running down his spine. "What was it?"

"I don't know," she replied, "but she said it would blind him, and I was so frightened that I got it away from her and emptied the bottle on to the earth in the garden. It made a lot of smoke come up."

"Oh, but that would have been awful!" said Larose, looking very horrified. "It must have been vitriol, and it would have turned everybody's sympathy away from her."

"I told her that," almost wept the woman, "and the chemist oughtn't to have sold it to her. It was Mr. Glass in the High street, and she told him she wanted it to clean the washhouse copper with it. He made her sign in a book, so he must have known how dangerous it was."

"And what day did she go back to her situation?" asked Larose, after a moment's silence.

"The Sunday afternoon. I worried and worried her to get her out of the village."

"And when did Mr. Chime first know anything about all this?" asked Larose.

"Not until the Thursday after the ball. She hadn't been near him, and he called to know why she hadn't been to the ball. He said he had no idea she had gone back to Woodbridge?"

"How did he take it?" asked Larose.

"Oh, he was shocked! He was horrified, and we both cried together. He is a very gentle man, my brother, and he was very fond of Myrtle. He was always buying her presents, and last Christmas he spent £12 on a bicycle for her."

"And how long has this friendship with Toller been going on?"

"For longer than six months. She met him first when she was on a week-end visit to me just before Christmas. The wheel of her bicycle became loose on the Ipswich road, and he was passing and put it right for her. Then she met him, by arrangement, the next night in the Priory lane, and after that he used to visit her regularly, at Miss Bain's, the old lady she was working for near Woodbridge." The woman shook her head. "I would have warned her against him if I had known what was going on, but she never told me a word until last week. She did not know he was married, and considered herself engaged to him." She almost broke down. "But now what are you going to do with her?"

"First," replied Larose, "I shall go and speak to her." He leaned forward to the woman. "You see, Mrs. Jackson, it isn't fair that those young ladies up at the Priory should be under the suspicion that they are, now, is it?"

"No, it is not," agreed the woman. "They are so kind to everyone. When I was ill last year, Miss Beatrice was always bringing me soup and things, and they paid the doctor's bill for me, too."

"Ah! that reminds me," said Larose, who had got up to take his leave. "Do you know if your niece by any chance told Dr. Athol who the man was?"

The woman nodded. "She went to him again after she had seen Toller, and then I think she told him who was the cause of the trouble. Dr. Athol was awfully kind to her, and said that when the time came he would find a hospital for her and no one need learn anything about it in the village here."

The next morning after breakfast, Larose said he was going out in his car and did not know whether he would be in for lunch.

Eva frowned prettily. "Then are you giving it up, Mr. Larose?" she asked, and when he smilingly shook his head, she went on. "I think you might tell us something of what you are doing. It is so worrying for us to think that everything is standing still."

"Nothing is standing still, Miss Eva," he said gravely, "neither I, nor those officers from Scotland Yard. You can be sure of that. But in cases like this, if you don't catch the criminal red-handed it often takes a long time before you can bring home the crime to anyone," and then he swore at himself under his breath, for his eyes falling upon Beatrice, he saw how pale she had become.

Eva followed him into the hall. "I think you were horrid to talk like that," she said angrily, "just as if you wanted, on purpose, to rub in that this suspicion against us is going to drag on and on for ever. Didn't you see how you upset Beatrice?"

Larose appeared very contrite. "I'm sorry, Miss Eva," he said, "but you shouldn't have asked me so pointedly. Remember, our bargain was that you should give me a free hand and ask no questions." A thought suddenly struck him. "But look here, I'm going into Ipswich this morning, and what about taking Miss Beatrice with me. The ride would do her good. I'll drop her at some hotel and then we'll meet again later." He smiled. "We might even have a romantic tete-a-tete lunch together."

Eva's face flushed and her eyes opened wide in her surprise. "Oh, how nice of you, Mr. Larose," she said gratefully. "I am sure it will do Beatrice a lot of good, and she'll feel so protected with you."

Beatrice blushed crimson when the proposal was put to her, but she accepted it at once and so in a few minutes she and Larose were driving off together. The blush was still upon her face, and it continued so, long after the car had passed out of the grounds and on to the Ipswich road.

Neither of them spoke for a few minutes, and then Beatrice asked a little nervously! "Is it to find out something that you are now going into Ipswich?"

"Certainly," smiled Larose. "I'm working hard, as I told you, and the matter is really never out of my mind."

"And are we in it today?" she said hesitatingly. "Does this journey concern us."

Larose laughed happily. "No, this is your day off. I'm forgetting about all of you, for the time being." The road was quite clear and he looked down admiringly at the pretty face beside him. "Still as we are alone together, I'd like to ask you a few questions."

"What about?" she asked quickly, and he noticed she now held her hands clasped tightly together.

"Yourself, principally," he replied. He waited for a few moments until he had another straight run before him and then, looking down at her again, asked quickly. "Why did you tear those two leaves out of your diary before you gave it me to read? No, answer at once, please. I want to watch your face as you speak. Don't stop to make anything up."

"Thank you," said Beatrice in offended dignity. "Then do you think I would tell you a lie?"

"Certainly," smiled Larose, "I'm quite sure of it." He corrected himself quickly. "No, we won't use the word lie. We'll call it a story, instead." He laughed. "It's the privilege of your charming sex to be untruthful, and it by no means signifies a very deplorable state of mind. It's often your only defence against us, we much coarser menfolk." He looked down for the third time. "But come, answer my question please, Miss Beatrice. Why did you tear out those leaves?"

"Because there was something on them I didn't want you to see," she replied coldly.

"Naturally," commented Larose, "but that's not my point. I want to know what it was you didn't wish me to see."

Beatrice spoke very calmly. "Don't you realise, Mr. Larose, a woman may write things in a diary that she does not desire any man, and especially a strange man, to read."

"Oh, I know all about that," said Larose with now a note of solemnity in his tones, "but you must remember, Miss Beatrice, that one of those two leaves you tore out was the very keystone of the arch to me, having been written, as it was, upon the night of the ball or during the day after."

"But why should the ball interest you?" asked Beatrice sharply. "Mr. Toller was alive and well then, and the ball had nothing to do with his death."

"I'm not so sure," said Larose, "for to my thinking it was upon that night someone set a match to the trail of gunpowder destined to explode that dreadful mine not 24 hours after." He spoke cheerfully. "But come, we'll dismiss consideration of that now, for this present journey may turn my thoughts into quite a different direction."

And then, Beatrice quite recovering her equanimity, they chatted gaily about plays, pictures, and social matters, causing Larose to think many times what an agreeable and charming companion he had with him.

He dropped her in Ipswich, near the White Horse Hotel, arranging to meet her for lunch there, if he could possibly finish his business in time, if not, he said, he would be sure to call for her later in the afternoon.

"A very charming girl," was his comment, "and whatever she did she would never be a bad one. She's of a very sweet disposition, and if I were single she is the very kind of girl I would choose." He sighed whimsically. "Yes, when I get back, I'll talk to Helen and see if something can't be arranged. I'll——" but he pulled himself up sharply. "Gilbert, Gilbert," he went on, "you're always ready to fall in love with every pretty face you see. Really, really, you are too much like the normal man—much too natural."

In a very few minutes he was at Woodbridge, and being directed to where Miss Bain lived. Hers was a pretty little house, in a large garden, upon the outskirts of the town. It was obvious she was quite well-to-do, as the garden was well trimmed, and everything in perfect order.

He rang the bell and the door was opened by a smart maid in uniform. He saw a kindly looking little old lady just behind her.

"Can I speak to Miss Marriott?" he asked, and the old lady at once came forward.

"I'm sorry," she said, "but she's away on holiday." She looked curiously at the well-dressed Larose. "What did you want with her?"

"I come from her aunt, Mrs. Jackson, of Stratford St. Mary, and I wanted——" began Larose, when the old lady interrupted.

"But she's with her aunt now," she said rather sharply. "She went away to stay with her last Thursday."

"Well, she's not there now," said Larose. "I've just come from Stratford St. Mary. The week before last she was certainly with her aunt but she left her on Sunday week to return here."

"She did return here on that Sunday," said Miss Bain. "Her aunt had other visitors then and it wasn't quite convenient for her to stay on, but she went back to her as arranged, I understand, on the Thursday."

Larose frowned. "Then Mrs. Jackson will be very worried when she hears that," he said, "for Myrtle was not too well when she left her that Sunday."

The old lady was evidently a woman of intelligence and quick decision. "Come in, will you," she said to Larose, and then in a little room with the door shut behind them, she asked sharply "Now, tell me what it all means, please."

"That's what I don't know," replied Larose, taking the chair she offered. "I am a friend of Mrs. Jackson, and knowing I was coming out this way on business, she asked me to call here and enquire how her niece was. As I say, she was uneasy about her that Sunday."

"And I was uneasy then, too," said Miss Bain. "Myrtle is a good maid and we are quite fond of her. When she returned that evening we could see she was in great distress but she refused to say anything. The next day she seemed better, but she wasn't herself again, and she looked downright ill when she left on Thursday."

Larose was thinking hard. "When she came home on the Sunday," he asked, "did she say she would be wanting to go back to Stratford St. Mary on the following Thursday?"

"No," she said, "nothing at all about going back until the Thursday morning. Then she asked me if I could spare her, and as she had only had part of her yearly holiday, I of course let her go."

"Did she leave here on her bicycle?" asked Larose.

"Yes, she and her bicycle are inseparable. She is very fond of going about the country upon it."

"Did she ever go out at night?" was the next question.

"Oh, yes, often." The old lady nodded. "Myrtle is a very self-reliant girl and we always trust her, she sometimes cycles into Ipswich to meet the man she is engaged to, and then they go to the pictures."

"And do you happen to know," asked Larose, "if between the Sunday when she returned here, and last Thursday when she went away again, she went out any night on her bicycle?"

"Oh, I couldn't tell you that. She might have done. She often came in when we were all in bed. As I say, we trusted her."

"And have you seen the man she's engaged to?" asked Larose.

"Certainly, Mr. James has many times been here to dinner on Sunday," she replied. "As I expect you know, of course, he's a clerk in Colchester." She frowned. "He seems above her station in life, and I'm not quite pleased with that. He's a very agreeable man to speak to, but I think such marriages often turn out to be a failure." She looked very worried. "Well, what do you think we ought to do?"

Larose made a grimace. "It won't be too pleasant for me to go back and tell her aunt," he said. A thought seemed suddenly to strike him. "Did she take many clothes away this time?"

"I don't really know," said Miss Bain. "I haven't been in her room since she left." She rose from her chair. "I'll go up at once and see." She looked anxious. "This is really becoming very worrying."

Larose stood up too. "And I'll come with you if I may," he said briskly, and then, seeing the old lady's indignant astonishment at the suggestion, he smiled his most pleasant smile and added. "You see, I may be of help as I was once a detective attached to Scotland Yard."

Miss Bain's eyes opened and her face assumed a very frightened expression. "O-oh, then you've come here as a detective. You think something dreadful has happened to Myrtle?"

"No, not necessarily," said Larose and then, seeing her so obvious distress, he went on fibbingly. "The girl may have just gone off after some petty quarrel with her sweetheart,"—he nodded, "but that we shall have to find out."

"What's your name?" asked the old lady faintly.

"Larose. Gilbert Larose, and I have done quite a lot of work for the Criminal Investigation Department."

"Oh, I've heard of you," she exclaimed, and her face brightened at once. "You are said to be very clever." She moved to the door. "Yes, come with me by all means."

The bedroom of the missing maid was at the end of a passage upon the first floor, and it was comfortably, if plainly, furnished. Miss Bain opened the wardrobe.

"Of course, she couldn't take much," said Larose, "if she went away on her bicycle."

"But there was a good-sized carrier on it," said Miss Bain, "that took a suitcase, specially made." She made a quick survey of the wardrobe. "No, she has taken none of her dresses and no extra pair of shoes. She must have just gone off in what she stood up in. She was wearing her winter coat and skirt." She looked in the chest of drawers. "And she doesn't seem to have taken much from here."

"Had she any other relations to go to?" asked Larose.

"No, Mrs. Jackson and her uncle, Samuel Chime, the butler up at the Priory in Stratford St. Mary, are the only relations she has."

Larose hesitated a moment. "And, of course, you have seen in the newspapers the dreadful murder that took place in Stratford St. Mary last week?"

"Yes," shuddered the old lady, "and we half thought, at the time, it was that that made her want to return there so suddenly last Thursday. She was a girl who liked to see exciting pictures and she loved books with murders in them."

Larose was back at the White Horse Hotel in good time for lunch, to find Beatrice sitting in the lounge, waiting for him. They had lunch together, and Larose thought it could not have been a more pleasant little meal. He saw quite a different Beatrice then. She was no longer the careworn mistress of the Priory, but had become a happy and smiling woman, enjoying everything to the full.

She recalled his life when at Scotland Yard, and asked him presently if the many criminals he must have been responsible for bringing to punishment had been all really bad people.

"No, certainly not," he replied smilingly. "Some of the women were almost as charming and attractive as yourself. So often theirs was the crime of the moment, and it was their misfortune they had to suffer all the rest of their lives for the lapse of a few seconds."

She lowered her voice to a whisper. "Then if it were really I who had shot Mr. Toller," she asked, "you would not necessarily be horrified at sitting with me here?"

"By no means," he replied, "for until I knew all the circumstances preceding the murder, I could not determine whether you were really a bad woman or not. You might have killed under great provocation, and in righteous anger, and from a moral point of view you might be equally as worthy of respect as the judge who was sentencing you to death." He laughed. "That's justice, but not law. The law demands its pound of flesh in every circumstance."

Driving back in the car, Larose took a sudden resolution and told her all about Myrtle Marriott. After the first horrified exclamation, she sat very silent, with her face blanched, and her hands clasped tightly together as when he had been questioning her about the missing leaves from the diary.

His story finished, they neither of them spoke for a long minute, and then she exclaimed with some feeling. "And now I suppose you are going to try to hound down this poor girl, as if you were certain it was she who shot Mr. Toller. She may have had nothing whatever to do with it, and yet just because you are suspicious about her, you are going to uncover her shame in quite a different matter, to the glare of an awful publicity."

"Naturally her disappearance will have to be broadcast," said Larose, "as would the disappearance from her home of any other young girl, but no suggestion will be given out that she is wanted for murder, and, of course, the other matter will not be mentioned at all."

"And what proof is there that she killed Mr. Toller?" asked Beatrice.

"None," replied Larose, "and even if she did kill him, we may never get that proof." He asked. "You know her, of course?"

"Yes, and she's a very nice girl," replied Beatrice. She sighed. "I don't wonder poor old Chime has been so quiet lately."

"I shall have to question him about it," said Larose, "for it brings him into the picture as the possible murderer."

"What!" exclaimed Beatrice indignantly. "Can you think for one moment that Chime did it?"

Larose frowned. "It certainly seems hardly probable, but we must realise now he would have had very good reason for doing it." He looked cheerful again. "But come, I don't want to take you back home looking pale and worried. I want you to have some roses in your cheeks, so what about turning off here and running down to Dovercourt for a breath of the sea. We can have a cup of tea there, although I really ought not to be wasting my time, gallivanting about with a strange young woman I have only known for three days."

"But will it really be wasting your time?" asked Beatrice archly, and then they both smiled.


CHAPTER VII.—THE PASSING YEARS

Shortly after half-past eight the next morning, Inspector Carter was busy writing in his private office in Scotland Yard, when his colleague, Inspector Stone, walked unceremoniously into the room and with a deep sigh lowered his huge body into an armchair.

"Was chasing a woman all yesterday," he grunted, "and I didn't get any proper meals. I always feel upset the next day."

"Then why not leave women alone for a change?" commented Carter, looking up from his writing. "Your gross body can have no possible interest for anyone now, except in the depraved way we are all apt to regard a monstrosity."

Stone ignored the insult. "I know for certain now," he remarked carelessly, "which of those pretty creatures up at Stratford St. Mary shot that man, and it is now almost only a matter of putting on the handcuffs," and he stopped speaking to enjoy the surprised expression upon Carter's face.

"Oh! oh!" exclaimed the latter, laying down his pen and at once all attention. "Then which one was it, and how did you come to find out?"

"It was Margaret, Lady Mentone," said Stone with aplomb, "and I found it out by using that intelligence of which I alone here at the Yard appear to have the monopoly." He frowned darkly. "I'll make you sit up, too, by something else I've got to tell." He spoke briskly. "Yes, Toller had unearthed a hefty scandal of her ladyship's pre-nuptial days, and when he was sitting out with her in the conservatory that night he told her he was intending to capitalise his discovery."

"Good!" exclaimed Carter smilingly, "then I am proud of you as my pupil. Tell me the whole story."

"Well, I thought, as with you," began Stone, "that if there were anything fishy about any of those girls, it was most likely it would be about the youngest one, as she had been away from home and on the stage for two years. So yesterday morning I went to an old journalist friend of mine upon the staff of the 'Era.' He's been on theatre work for longer than thirty years, and, in his time, has hobnobbed with everyone of any importance. So I asked him if he remembered a Miss Margaret Brabazon-Fane who, among other plays, had had a part in 'The Moss Rose' about six or seven years ago."

"Splendid!" exclaimed Carter, "it was a bad slip of hers when she mentioned 'The Moss Rose.'"

Stone nodded and went on. "So my friend called for some of the files of his paper to refresh his memory, and then pointed to the name of Phyllis Fane on the cast of 'The Moss Rose.' 'That's the young woman,' he said, 'and I remember all about her.' Then he told me the pretty Margaret had been a favored protege of the great Mark Aaronson, the proprietor of the Olympic Theatre, who died about five years ago."

Stone shook his head. "Mind you," he said, "he had no absolute proof, but Margaret had been known to have stayed at his place in Cromer, a little seaside bungalow."

Stone took out a piece of paper with some notes upon it and continued. "Then I asked him if he knew how I could get in touch with anyone who had known Aaronson in his private life, and he at once said I was deuced unlucky there, as Aaronson's confidential servant, an old man called Wedlake, had died only a few weeks back, and he could have told me everything. Of course I wanted to know where the man had lived, hoping there was a wife still about, who might relate something, and more files of the 'Era' being gone through, I got the address of a house in a street off Tottenham Court road."

Stone spoke most impressively. "I was there for a good hour, and found out"—he looked very solemn—"quite a lot of things. The landlady told me Wedlake had lived alone at her place for five years, and, dying upon the fourth of last month, had had only two mourners at his funeral. One of those mourners was Mark Aaronson's son, and the other was the dead man's nephew,"—he paused dramatically here—"Edwin Asher Toller."

"Toller!" exclaimed Carter incredulously. "Toller, in touch with anyone who knew of the scandal! Good heavens, what possibilities that opens up!"

"Of course it does," said Stone with a triumphant smile. "Why, it almost clinches the whole thing!" He went on. "Well, after the funeral Toller went through some papers that his uncle had had for years and kept in an old wooden box, and, in the light of what took place afterwards, it is any odds on that he found among them some of this little Phyllis Fane's letters, written to Mark Aaronson when he and she were lovers. I may add that the landlady says this box had not been opened since the first week when Wedlake came to her as a lodger, until Toller opened it then."

"But why," asked Carter, looking very puzzled, "should this Wedlake have had any of his master's most private letters in his possession." He shook his head. "It seems very unlikely to me."

"I don't attempt to explain it," replied Stone, frowningly, "but if there were any such letters there, then he undoubtedly brought them away with him after his master's death. Knowing nothing of Wedlake's character, of course, we might be inclined to think he took them to do a bit of blackmailing himself, but from the character his landlady gave him, I don't believe that for one moment. She says he was always a silly, sentimental old man, and had actually been keeping one of his dead master's gloves as a memento for all those years. He had it in a drawer, wrapped up in tissue paper, and he often took it out to weep over it." He threw up his hands. "Can't you see the possibility of his having some of Aaronson's letters? He had been Aaronson's most trusted and confidential servant for many years, and we may therefore take it for granted he was deep in most of his master's secrets. Then, what is more likely than that what his master prized, he might prize, too, and for purely sentimental reasons he did not like to give those letters to the flames?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "Besides, he may have taken them to prevent any of the estranged family getting them and then might have forgotten their existence. The landlady said she was certain he had not looked in his box for many years. It was a medium-sized wooden one, and the key to it was so clogged with dirt that, she said, Toller could not even get it in the locker until he had cleaned it."

"Did she see what Toller took from the box?" asked Carter.

"No, but she was present when Toller opened it," replied Stone, "and saw it was three parts empty, with its contents appearing to be all old newspapers and playbills." He raised one fat forefinger in emphasis and shook it in Carter's face. "Now comes something important. She says she was not much interested in the contents of the box, because she knew there was no money there, and——"

"But how did she know there was no money there?" interrupted Carter sharply.

"Because Wedlake was a spendthrift and could never keep a penny," frowned Stone, annoyed at the interruption. "He had two pounds sent him every Monday by the Aaronson family, but he never had a farthing of it left by the end of the week, and she was sick of his cadging round everyone to get a few coppers for his tobacco. He was always hard up."

"Go on," said Carter, because Stone had stopped speaking.

"You interrupted my train of thought," said Stone testily, "and I can't—ah! now I remember. I was just going to tell you something very important, and it is this. The door bell rang when she was standing over Toller, watching him rummaging among the papers, but she recollects that as she was turning away to go out of the room"—his face was all elation—"she caught sight of a piece of ribbon showing among the papers and the color of it was blue." He leant back triumphantly in his chair. "Now, what do you think of that?"

Carter frowned. "You mean it was probably the same piece we saw in the office in Toller's drawers."

"Exactly!" exclaimed Stone. His face clouded over. "And by the creases in it we ought to have guessed then it had been used to tie up some letters. It was very remiss of us."

A long silence followed, and then Carter said very thoughtfully. "This piece of ribbon, Charles, is the strongest part of your case, otherwise I should have said it was very weak." His face brightened. "Still, at all events we've now something solid to go on. We can be sure Lady Mentone's version of her conversation with Toller that night was an untruthful one, and if she was lying to us, she had some very good reason for it."

"Of course she had!" exclaimed Stone. "There's not the slightest doubt about it!" He spoke briskly and in a business-like manner. "Now let us consider the exact position. Assuming that Toller did get hold of some incriminating letters and met with his death because he was threatening to blackmail Lady Mentone with them—where are they now?"

Carter weighed every word as he answered very slowly, "We did not find them among Toller's effects; those girls had not got them when we went down to the Priory three days ago, for otherwise Beatrice and Lady Mentone would not have been so frightened of us that morning, therefore——"

"We have no knowledge of what has become of them," interrupted Stone, "but," and here glared hard at his colleague—"do you not see the significance of two things now? What was that unknown person looking for when he broke into the bungalow that evening when the detective had gone into Colchester, and why were those girls so anxious to have the bungalow given back to them?" He snapped his fingers together. "Can't you understand it now?"

Carter gave a grim nod. "Yes, and they've had two days now to find them," he said ruefully. He shrugged his shoulders, "I expect they've beaten us there."

Stone nodded back. "Yes," he said fiercely, "but knowing what we do now, we may yet be able to trap that Lady Mentone into some admission that will convict her out of her own mouth. She's not as clever as the other two are, remember."

He laughed ironically. "Now, I'll tell you the other thing that I've got to surprise you." A twinkle came into his eyes. "The day before I went there a man called at this same house in Lissom street, upon an enquiry such as mine. He was well-dressed, very pleasant and plausible and, giving the woman a pound note, was allowed to go off with a bundle of what she said were old playbills which Toller had mentioned he was going to take away with him, but had forgotten to do so."

He rapped his fist sharply upon the desk. "Now, who was that man, Elias, and what was he up to?"

Instantly Carter's expression became a startled one, his jaw dropped, and his eyes opened to their fullest extent. "Gilbert La——" he began falteringly, and then he was interrupted by a knock upon the door and a young constable entered.

"A gentleman to see you, sir," he announced, addressing himself to Stone, and he handed him a card upon a salver.

Stone picked up the card, and then, elevating his eyebrows with a jerk, looked intently at Inspector Carter. "Mr. Gilbert Larose, Carmel Abbey, Downham, Norfolk," he remarked dryly. He turned to the constable. "Bring him in here, please."

"Gosh!" he whispered when the constable had retired, "then has Gilbert come to make a clean breast of everything"—he grinned—"to just show us how mighty clever he can be?" He nodded significantly. "Well, we'll give him the surprise of his life when we let him know we are quite aware how this pretty creature once carried on."

Larose came in looking very spic and span and shook hands with both of them. "Boys!" he exclaimed gaily, "I've come to give you the oil and I shall be most interested to learn what you think of it."

Stone pretended to look very disappointed. "Oh, I quite thought you had come to tell us there was going to be a revival of 'The Moss Rose' with the original cast, and you were bringing us a couple of tickets." He smiled. "You think you've stolen our thunder, do you? But as it happens, you just haven't." He nodded. "Still, I'm glad you've managed to resist those unlawful kisses and are going to show yourself a respectable character for once."

"Don't try to bluff, Charlie," smiled Larose. "You know perfectly well you'd be quite at a dead end if it weren't for me." He spoke very solemnly. "Yes. I've found a motive for the crime at last! A one-time girl of the village, whom Toller had wronged and promised to marry, found out three days before he was killed, that he was already a married man. She upbraided him violently and threatened him with her revenge. Indeed, we can prove that her threat was no empty one, for she went so far as to buy a bottle of vitriol to throw over him," and then he went on to relate all he had found out about Myrtle Marriott.

After an exclamation of stark surprise from Stone, neither of the two Inspectors interrupted while he was telling his story. Their eyes, however, never left his face. Stone was scowling hard, and Carter's expression, too, was a frowning one.

A short silence followed when Larose had finished. Stone was not a little annoyed, and disappointed as well. He had been fully expecting that Larose was going to tell them about his visit to the dead Wedlake's landlady, and he had been hoping to cover him with mortification by the announcement that they knew all about it. The stout Inspector was not too pleased either, that the trail appeared to be now leading right away from Lady Mentone.

However, he could but realise the extreme importance of Larose's news, and so, swallowing his annoyance, he asked, "And about this precious butler—when you questioned him last night, did you form the opinion that he was speaking the truth when he said he had not heard of his niece's trouble until two days after the murder?"

Larose hesitated. "I don't know, Charlie," he replied. "Honestly, I can't say. One moment I think of him as simple as a little child, and the next moment I am wondering if this simplicity is masking cunning of a very subtle kind. You know as well as I do that if his simplicity is child-like, then his conscience may be as undeveloped as a child's, too." He frowned. "But if he was lying to me, he is a born actor, for he appeared to be on the verge of breaking down when I was questioning him."

"And do those girls at the Priory know about his niece's trouble?" asked Stone.

Larose nodded. "Yes, if I hadn't told them Chime would certainly have done so when he knew I had learnt about it." He looked thoughtful. "Besides, I wanted to see how they would take it."

"Then you still suspect them, the same as we do?" snapped Stone.

Again Larose hesitated, and then he laughed lightly. "Of course, I've been suspecting them all along. One couldn't help it. The evidence pointing their way was so strong." He spoke firmly. "And yet from my association with them during the last few days, however strong may be my suspicion, I am more and more convinced that none of them could have been the actual murderer." He shrugged his shoulders. "Of course, I know anyone might kill in the moment of passionate anger, but my point is, the temperament of each of those girls is such that it would not stand up to the strain of plotting and preparing for a deliberate murder."

Stone looked unconvinced. "And how did they respond," he asked dryly, "when you suggested the possibility of their pet butler having shot the man?"

"I didn't suggest it," said Larose sharply. "I let them realise the possibility for themselves, and they were indignant at once."

They talked on for a long time and then Larose left them, very uneasy in his mind. He had passed over, as if unnoticed, Stone's mocking reference to the revival of 'The Moss Rose,' but he realised quite well that there was something behind it. As he had told the three girls, no one was standing still, and from his knowledge of Stone, the latter least of anyone, would be likely to be marking time. No, Stone had, of course, been looking into Lady Mentone's stage career, and without doubt he had learnt something of her association with the fascinating Mark Aaronson. Then, once upon the trail, no intelligence would show to greater advantage than would Stone's, for with his lively imagination he would jump from one stepping stone to another with the agility of an acrobat.

Then Larose frowned suddenly. Yes, Stone's opening remarks, a few minutes back, almost suggested that he knew where he, Larose, had been and, if the matter of Myrtle Marriott had not been mentioned first, that the stout Inspector was going to poke fun at him for thinking he could steal the thunder of Scotland Yard and get away with it.

For a few moments Larose stood hesitating upon the pavement and then, hailing a taxi, he directed the driver to take him to Lissom street, off Tottenham Court road. Then his first glimpse of the landlady, when she opened the door to his ring, made all his suspicions a certainty.

"Ah!" exclaimed the woman instantly, "you told me an untruth the day before yesterday. You said you came from a newspaper, and now I know you are a detective. Another one's been here barely an hour ago, and he asked me all about you." Her voice rose in anger. "And you never told me poor Mr. Toller had been murdered."

Larose bowed his head to the storm. "I didn't want you to know," he said. "You told me you didn't read the newspapers, and so what was the good of horrifying you?" He took out two pound notes and handed them over to her. "Here, take these as some little compensation for the shock you must have got when my colleague told you."

The woman hesitated a moment and then, taking the proffered notes, smiled quite amiably. "Well, you're a gentleman, anyhow," she said, "even if you weren't as truthful as you might have been. That other detective tried to frighten me, and said I had no business to let you have those papers." She looked very uneasy. "Can they do anything to me?"

Larose laughed. "No, no, of course not," he replied. "He was only jealous because I got them before him." He looked very amused. "How did you come to tell him I'd been here?"

"He showed me his card and began asking me if Mr. Wedlake had ever told me anything about Mr. Aaronson's private affairs, and I said at once it was funny he should come about Mr. Wedlake, as a gentleman from the newspapers had been here only the day before yesterday to ask all about Mr. Wedlake's funeral. He seemed very surprised, and asked me what you wanted to know about it. Then when I happened to mention Mr. Toller's name, he almost jumped out of his skin, he was so excited, and he told me then about Mr. Toller having been murdered last week. He had no idea Mr. Toller was Mr. Wedlake's nephew."

"No, very few people knew that," remarked Larose endeavoring to look very important. "It wasn't generally known." He laughed as if it were a good joke. "Did he go on to ask you anything about me?"

The woman nodded. "I should think he did. I had to tell him as much as I could about what you were like, the color of your eyes, and if you showed your teeth when you smiled, and how you were dressed."

"Did you tell him I asked you about 'The Moss Rose?'" was Larose's next question.

"Yes, and he clicked his tongue. Then when I told him you had taken those old playbills away, he looked very cross and said I had no business to let you have them. He went upstairs to see Mr. Wedlake's box, but I had burnt the rest of the papers, to get rid of them, directly after you had gone the other day. So all he did was to stare at Mr. Wedlake's name painted upon the lid of the box. Of course, I had told him Mr. Toller had looked through it after the funeral, but what he had taken away I did not know, as I had not been with him all the time."

"Well, did you tell him anything you didn't tell me?" asked Larose after a few moments' silence. "I mean, did you remember anything more of any interest?"

The woman considered and then shook her head. "No nothing, I think, except that when I was looking over Mr. Toller's shoulder as he was rummaging in the box, I told him I had seen something tied round with a piece of blue ribbon."

"Blue ribbon!" ejaculated Larose. He forced himself to speak calmly. "What did it look like?"

"Just faded blue ribbon. That's all. I only just caught a glimpse of it among the newspapers as I was hurrying off to answer the bell."

"Was my colleague interested about it?" asked Larose after a long pause.

"Oh, yes, he was very curious and quite disappointed that I could not tell him any more."

Larose remained talking to her for only a few minutes longer, and, as he drove away, no longer wondered why his old friends Carter and Stone had parted with him so coldly.

In the meantime the two Inspectors had been having a very earnest deliberation together.

"And what do you think of it, Elias?" had been the first question Stone had asked when Larose had gone out of the room.

Carter frowned and shook his head. "It's a wee bit disappointing, Charlie," he said, "that when with some intelligence you have picked up a trail that leads direct to that Mentone girl, you should now have to switch on to one picked up by somebody else that leads to quite a different party."

"Oh!" exclaimed Stone instantly. "I have no intention for one moment of dropping this Mentone girl. She still seems more likely to be the one who killed Toller." He nodded. "Remember, if we do get hold of this Myrtle Marriott, and if we do know she had good reason for wanting to do violence to Toller, we haven't the slightest proof that she killed him."

Carter smiled drily. "And if we do know Toller was attempting to blackmail Lady Mentone, with letters he had obtained from his dead uncle's effects, and she had every reason to wish him dead"—he looked amused—"we haven't the slightest proof she fired the fatal shot."

"All in good time," growled Stone. "We'll trap her into some admission yet."

"Another thing, too, strikes me," said Carter thoughtfully. "I don't think anyone will ever see that Marriott girl again. It looks to me as if she meant to destroy herself when she went off with only the clothes she stood up in. She's probably drowned by now."

"But she took her Savings Bank book with her, her mistress said," commented Stone. "That doesn't look like drowning to me!"

"Perhaps she intended to draw out the money first, and send it to her aunt," said Carter. "Gilbert said there was a great friendship between them, and the £12 she had would be a windfall for a poor woman." He shook his head. "No, I think she's dead."

Stone looked at his watch. "Well, we'll run straight down to Woodbridge now," he smiled, "and see if she came back." The smile dropped from his face. "Then we'll call in at the Priory and talk to that pretty Phyllis Fane of 'The Moss Rose' fame, and the simple-minded butler whom our dear Gilbert says he can't place."

And so it came about that a little after four o'clock that afternoon the two Inspectors were driving into the Priory grounds. They had called upon Miss Bain and learnt that there was no further news of the missing girl, and the weeping aunt at Stratford St. Mary had likewise been of no help to them. Now they were going to interview both Lady Mentone and Chime, and it was evident from the happy expression upon his face that Inspector Stone was regarding this part of his day's work as quite a pleasing little adventure.

"We'll catch her on the hop, eh, Elias?" he said, "and she'll be so astounded at what we've learnt, that maybe, she won't be able to make up anything plausible upon the spur of the moment."

Chime answered the door to their ring, just as Larose, from a secluded seat in the rose garden, caught sight of them.

"We want to see Lady Mentone," said Stone pleasantly. "Is she at home?"

"Yes, sir," replied Chime, whose knees were shaking under him. "She is, but the other young ladies are out. I'll go and fetch her at once."

He showed them into a little room off the lounge hall and went off to inform her ladyship. He found her alone, in the music room, reclining luxuriously upon a big settee and reading a magazine. She went as white as chalk when he delivered his message, but just managed to say, "Thank you. Tell them I'll be there in a minute." But with his departure and the door closed behind her, she sank back, half fainting, upon the settee.

At that moment, and as if he had only been waiting for Chime to go; Larose pushed open one of the large French windows and stepped into the room. He put his finger to his lips. "Hush!" he whispered, "and don't raise your voice." He smiled. "They've asked particularly for you, haven't they?"

Lady Mentone just inclined her head. She was too overcome to speak. Larose came over and stood beside her. He spoke very sharply now.

"Pull yourself together," he ordered, "and don't give in. You've nothing to be afraid of, if you do as I tell you." He looked round to make sure the door was shut and went on quickly. "Now they've probably picked up some little tattle about you when you were on the stage and your clue is to decline to discuss it with them. If they bring up any of your private affairs, if you choose, just refuse point-blank to say anything about them." He bent down and put his face close to hers. "Just ride the high horse and defy them. You understand?"

A faint tinge of color had come back into her face. "But I am so frightened," she shivered. "That man Stone is so clever, he'll trap to trick me into saying something I don't mean."

"Of course he will if you let him," said Larose. "He'll try to make you confused and then you'll admit things that you'll realise too late you needn't have admitted at all. In the city today I heard rumors of what they've been up to." He was most emphatic. "They've found nothing whatsoever to connect you with the shooting of your agent, but"—he shrugged his shoulders disdainfully—"they may have unearthed happenings in your life, before you were married, that you don't broadcast everywhere." He spoke very sternly. "Remember, however, that they are your own secrets, and for your husband's sake don't let them become further known." He took her by the arm and helped her from the settee. "Come on," he said smilingly, "show them the actress that everyone so applauded in the old 'Moss Rose' days."

A profound student of human nature, Larose had struck just the right chord, and on the instant, as it were, Lady Mentone became a different woman. She drew herself up proudly, the color rushed back into her face, and there was a bright sparkle to her eyes. She took Larose's hand and squeezed it. "You are a dear," she said impulsively. "If I did not want to add another secret to my life, I'd throw my arms round your neck and kiss you."

She dashed over to the mirror and, with a beautiful white hand smoothed down her hair. "Now, kind friend," she said smilingly, "give me a cigarette and I'll go in and play my part before this unfriendly audience." Her eyes danced mischievously. "My only regret is that you will not be there to see me act."

So it was a very dignified and unruffled young woman that presented herself before the two Inspectors. With a gracious little bow and the air of a queen, she waved them back to the chairs from which they had both risen upon her entrance, and then in that rich voice which had thrilled so many in her old stage days, she bade them smoke if they wanted to. "I am smoking, as you see," she said, "and a cigarette may make us more polite to one another."

Stone looked as grim as death and was not too pleased with her jaunty air. He remembered her nervousness upon the occasion when he had last questioned her and he had fully expected now to be handling a frightened and shrinking creature. "We want to ask you some questions," he said gruffly, "and please be very precise as you answer them."

"Certainly," she replied carelessly, "I'll answer anything as long as you are not too personal and keep strictly to the point."

"Well, I believe you knew Mark Aaronson when he was alive!" burst out Stone gruffly, and with no preliminary skirmishing.

A shadow fell at once across her face, and she replied sadly. "Yes, I knew him"—she paused a moment—"well."

"And what were your relations with him?" went on Stone brusquely

"I had engagements under him in three plays," she replied, "and besides that he was my greatest friend." She spoke wistfully. "Except for my husband he was the greatest friend I have ever had in my whole life."

"So we're heard," commented Stone drily, "and we know, too, there was far more than friendship between you. In fact, to put it bluntly, and in plain English, you were——"

"——his mistress," prompted Lady Mentone gently, because Stone had hesitated, as if unwilling to say the word. She went on very quietly, apparently having taken no offence. "No, I wasn't his mistress, although with a man of less noble nature I might easily have become so." She spoke reminiscently. "I was a romantic girl of only eighteen then, and he was such a handsome man. Any girl in my then circumstances might have fallen for——"

"That'll do," interrupted Stone brusquely. "We don't want any play acting now, and you don't deceive us in the slightest. We know you were his mistress, and among other places you lived together at Cromer as man and wife."

"You say so," said Lady Mentone calmly, and then suddenly her eyes flashed and she rapped out scornfully—"But look here, Inspector Stone, of Scotland Yard, what's that to do with you if I was?" She nodded angrily. "Just mind your own business, and keep to the matter in hand—who killed our agent Toller?"

"Ah, Toller!" exclaimed Stone significantly, "I'll come to him in a minute." He dropped his voice to quiet tones again. "Now I'll come to another person." He spoke slowly and deliberately. "Have you ever known anyone called Wedlake?"

"Certainly I have," replied Lady Mentone, "and if it was Mr. Aaronson's servant you refer to, I knew him well." She laughed maliciously. "And because I admit that, are you going to suggest I was his mistress, too?" She nodded. "I saw in the newspapers a few weeks ago that he had died."

Stone ignored her question with contempt. "And do you remember his Christian names?" he asked.

"I should think so," she laughed, "considering that he had been with Mr. Aaronson for many years." She nodded. "George Edwin were his Christian names."

Stone's voice was like the hiss of a snake. "And do you know," he whispered, "that the late Edwin Asher Toller was his nephew?" His voice rose abruptly to a higher key. "No, no; it's no good your attempting to deny it. He told it to you that night of the ball."

Lady Mentone's face was the very picture of astonishment. All the laughter and amusement had died away, and she stared at him wide-eyed, and with her mouth open.

"His nephew!" she gasped. "But Mr. Wedlake had always told us his nephew had become a waiter!" She recovered quickly from her surprise. "How do you know he was Mr. Wedlake's nephew?"

"Never mind how we know," snapped Stone fiercely. "We know as well as you do, and when Toller told you that night he threatened you at the same time."

"Both statements are untrue," snapped Lady Mentone, equally as fiercely. She looked him straight in the face. "How do you know what happened at the ball? You weren't there."

"But in the light of what happened afterwards," retorted Stone, "we can surmise most accurately what took place."

"Surmise!" she scoffed with biting sarcasm. "Anyone can surmise anything if he wants to so as to fit in with his preconceived ideas." She looked very amused. "Besides, if Mr. Toller were really poor old Wedlake's nephew, he least of all, would have told me so, because he would have guessed I knew he had once been put in prison. He forged a cheque with someone's signature when he was working for a money lender, and his uncle had to borrow the money from Mr. Aaronson to pay for the defence." She shook her head. "No, he would certainly not have made his identity known to me." She spoke scoffingly again. "As for threats, no one has anything to threaten me with"—she bowed smilingly—"not even a great detective from Scotland Yard."

"But this won't do for us," exclaimed Stone viciously, "for Toller, as the nephew of Mark Aaronson's servant, must have heard something of the scandal of your association with his uncle's master."

"There was no scandal," said Lady Mentone with quiet dignity. She looked amused again. "And if there had been any, no one would have ever learnt it from Mr. Wedlake. He was Mr. Aaronson's friend as well as his servant and would have told no tales."

"But Wedlake dying," went on Stone, stung by her defiance into taking a long shot, "and his nephew attending the funeral, he found among his effects, documentary evidence of your guilty relations with Aaronson that he threatened to show to your husband," and he put his hand in his pocket to feel for his handkerchief and wipe the sweat of annoyance from his forehead.

Then for the first time during the interview it seemed that Lady Mentone had lost her confident poise. Her face had paled, her eyes had opened wide and she had drawn in a sharp breath. But her lapse was only momentary, and as the perspiring Stone mopped his forehead, she exclaimed shakily, and obviously, steadying herself with an effort, "Well, produce this evidence, Inspector, and we shall see what it is worth."

Then suddenly she threw back her head and broke into a low rippling laugh, quite regardless of the angry looks of the two men before her.

"Oh, I am so sorry," she said when she had in part recovered herself, "and I must apologise." Her eyes sparkled in merriment. "But the idea came suddenly to me that you must be about the two sickest detectives in all the kingdom. You came here evidently expecting to find me a shrinking, frightened woman, whereas I tell you honestly I entered this room with the full intention of enjoying myself, having realised that I had nothing to fear from you and you could be as bullying as you liked."

She rose from her chair. "But I think we'll leave off here, if you don't mind, for you've brought back memories that are very dear to me, and made me feel very sad." She moved over to the door. "But you'll have a cup of tea, won't you? No, of course you must. At any rate, I'll send Chime in with it and you can have your talk with him at the same time. I understand he's another suspect now." She smiled archly. "Perhaps there are some black pages in his past that you may uncover. Certainly, he doesn't look romantic to me, but then—you never can tell," and with a friendly good-bye, and before they could recover from their astonishment, she was out of the room and had closed the door behind her.

The two Inspectors regarded each other very solemnly, and then Carter remarked drily. "Nothing doing, Charlie, and if there were any letters, she's got them now and feels quite safe. I am afraid we shall have to wipe her off the slate."

"Not at all, not at all," snapped Stone irritably. "She's just been playacting all the time. She had simply nerved herself up to play the part she did, and every emotion she portrayed was artificial. Her condescending politeness, her appearance of perfect ease, her scorn, her anger and her defiance were all put on." He ground his teeth together. "It is just as if that galoot, Gilbert, had prompted her and had told her exactly what we were going to ask her and exactly what to say."

"Well, in that case," smiled Carter, "Gilbert should be very proud of his pupil, for if she were acting she was one of the finest actresses I have seen." He shook his head. "No, Charlie, we're bested this time right enough."

"I don't agree," commented Stone savagely, "and I'm not cornered yet. The mask dropped off her face for those few seconds when I was mentioning documentary evidence, and I'll have to think out what it meant. There's a chink in her armor somewhere and well have to find out where it is."

Chime came in with the tea and bread and butter in a few minutes, and was submitted to some sharp questioning, but he stuck valiantly to his point that he knew nothing about his niece's trouble until told by his sister, two days after the murder, and that he had never fired a rifle or a gun in his life.

"Not that I wouldn't have killed him if I had known everything," he said, with more spirit than the Inspectors had ever seen him show, "but it just happens I didn't know and so it was not me who gave him his punishment."

He seemed to become quite brave. "And I don't believe it was Myrtle either. She had seen the rifle many times and even taken it down and handled it, but she didn't know where the cartridges were, of that I'm quite sure."

"That doesn't let her out," said Carter, frowningly, "for there were plenty of .22 cartridges at Miss Bain's. The old lady's nephew kept a small rifle there for his holidays."

Chime was not detained very long, and then he stood waiting in the hall to show the Inspectors out. He no longer looked frightened, but only very miserable.

In the meantime Lady Mentone, with her heart still beating quickly, had returned to Larose in the music room.

"I got on beautifully——" she began gaily, and then suddenly her face grew white as death, her legs tottered, and Larose had just time to dash forward and catch her as she went into a dead faint.

Larose was quite imperturbable, and, laying her flat upon the carpet, he took her handkerchief, and, dipping it in the water of a bowl of flowers, proceeded to dab her forehead. Stopping for a moment to feel her pulse, he opened her hand, and noticed where her finger nails had been impressed deeply into her palm.

"Poor little Billy!" he murmured. "She's been through an ordeal." He sighed. "Why is it, I wonder, that the sweetest emotions of life so often exact the most dreadful payments?"

Lady Mentone soon began to come to. She drew a deep breath, her eyes opened, she stared round and then she made an effort to get up.

"No, don't be in a hurry," said Larose quietly, "you're quite all right. Wait a minute or two, until you feel stronger."

She did as he bade her, and her color began to come back. Then Larose, disregarding her blushes, lifted her bodily and propped her up with cushions on the settee.

"And so you got on well, with those dreadful Inspectors," he smiled. "You didn't let them frighten you?"

"No, I defied them as you told me to," she smiled back, "and then they didn't seem at all formidable." She laid one of her hands upon his. "Oh, I'm grateful to you, Mr. Larose. If you hadn't warned me what to expect I'm sure I should have broken down."

"What did they say?" asked Larose. "Tell me if you feel strong enough."

"Thank you, I feel quite all right again now, and I will tell you everything," she replied, and then she went on as if she were quite amused at what had taken place. "They said there had been some dreadful scandal about me when I was on the stage. They said that Mr. Aaronson's servant, a man called Wedlake, was Mr. Toller's uncle, and this Wedlake having died a few weeks ago, and Mr. Toller going to his funeral, he had found what they called 'documentary evidence' about me among some papers, and upon the night of the ball here had tried to blackmail me by threatening to show them to my husband."

"Did they produce this documentary evidence?" asked Larose with a frown.

She laughed merrily. "No, when I asked them to show it to me, they just stared and said nothing."

"Of course, they meant 'letters'," commented Larose thoughtfully.

"Yes, I suppose so," she said carelessly, but Larose noticed she had flushed a little, and was now avoiding his eyes.

A short silence followed, and then Lady Mentone exclaimed suddenly. "But, oh! how worried Beatrice and Eva will be when they hear that these detectives have been again, and especially that they are now making a dead set at me. We had all been so hoping that their suspicions, as far as we were concerned, had died away." She looked very troubled. "Oh, what will they think when I tell them?"

"That Scotland Yard has shot its bolt with you girls," replied Larose cheerfully, "and that they won't be troubling you any more. It is evident your two sisters were out of the picture long ago, and that you were the only one about whom they had any suspicions. Make light of the whole matter when you tell Miss Beatrice, and oh, I say"—he shook his head—"don't mention that I gave you that warning, and for goodness sake don't let them know you fainted in here."

"I certainly won't," said Lady Mentone blushing again. She smiled prettily. "You've been awfully kind to me, Mr. Larose, and I'm so grateful to you."

So when Beatrice and Eva returned home from having tea with Miss Arbour at 'The Towers', they were given a very entertaining account of Billy's interview with the Inspectors, and of all she had learnt from them about Toller.

"And now you come to think of it," exclaimed Eva, "Mr. Toller did look very much like a high-class waiter. One could tell, somehow, he wasn't a gentleman, although he had the manners of one."

Dinner that night was another bright meal, with Lady Mentone showing no signs of the ordeal she had been through. Indeed, Larose thought he had never seen her look prettier, and he could understand, as he could also with Beatrice, anyone falling in love with her.

Presently, when they were all together in the lounge. Larose gave them something of a shock.

"Will you please let me have the keys of the bungalow?" he said to Beatrice. "I want to go in there for an hour or two tonight."

Beatrice almost gasped. "What on earth for?" she asked.

Larose smiled. "I can always think better when I'm on the actual scene of any tragedy," he said, "and sometimes I believe I can almost recall the atmosphere that preceded the crime." He smiled at their astonished faces. "At any rate, my imagination is most active then."

"But what exactly are you going to do?" asked Eva sarcastically, when a short silence had ensued. "Are you going to sit in the armchair, with the window open, and the blind up, and imagine you're Mr. Toller?"

"Something like that," he laughed. He made a wry face. "But I'm glad that rifle is no longer available. I shall feel rather safer in consequence."

"Shall I come with you?" asked Beatrice with a demure smile.

Larose pretended to look at first pleased, and then doubtful. He shook his head and asked, "What would Mr. Vavasour say?"

In the meantime during the journey back to town, Stone had been very quiet and had hardly spoken a word to his companion. Arriving at Scotland Yard, he had left the arranging of the broadcast for the missing Myrtle Marriott to Carter, and had gone off with only a curt nod.

Then at his own home, contrary to his usual custom, he hardly spoke to any of his family and, finally, long after everybody else was in bed and asleep, he had lain in his own particular armchair in the dining-room, thinking, thinking, thinking.

He was trying to determine what, in the middle of her bold defiance of them that afternoon, had so suddenly made Lady Mentone's face blanch for those few fleeting seconds as it had done, just after he had stated that Toller had found documentary evidence of her guilty intrigue with Mark Aaronson.

That she had not been frightened at what he had said, he felt quite sure, for after he had spoken the words, she had been wreathing her features for a mocking laugh, the like of which she gave them the moment she had recovered herself. But the laugh then had frozen on her face, she had gasped for breath, and there had been a terrified expression in her eyes.

Then what had been the cause of the sudden change that followed? What thought had avalanched into her mind to give her such instantaneous relief? What had so assured her in a lightning flash that he was not about to produce the evidence that he had said existed?

He thought on and on, and then, like the exploding of a bomb, the answer came to him.

He had told her Toller had found the evidence that incriminated her and that could only have meant letters of some kind. Then he had put his hand in his pocket for his handkerchief to wipe his face and—she had thought he was going to produce the letters!

Yes, that was it. There could be no doubt about it, for it would explain everything. She had seen the handkerchief come out instead of the letters, and the relief had been so great that she had burst into that high-pitched and half-hysterical laugh, clothing it with mockery to mask the real state of her emotions.

Yes, and that was why she had cut short the interview so precipitately. She had been strung up to the last point of endurance and could stand no more. Inspector Stone took out his handkerchief once again and mopped over his face with a grim smile.

So that meant the letters had not been found! Well, he would find them! Toller had hidden them somewhere, and his, Stone's, search would not be like anyone else's. It would be the search of a man well versed in crime and who, all his adult life, had accustomed himself to the ways of criminals and the trend of their thoughts. He would be off to the Priory, once again, on the morrow.

He went to bed quickly, and the loud snores that so soon followed testified to his healthy and unemotional state of mind.


CHAPTER IX.—STIRRING DEAD WATERS

The clock of the old Stratford St. Mary church was just chiming midnight when Larose let himself into the bungalow and gently closed the door behind him. The night was pitch black and not a star was shining, and he had with difficulty found his way there, without flashing his torch.

He had delayed leaving the Priory until so late, because he was wishing when he came to switch on any of the lights in the bungalow that none of the Priory servants or anyone in 'The Towers' should be awake to see them and wonder what was going on.

It was generally known that although the new agent had been appointed, he had not as yet taken up his residence there, preferring to cycle in every day from Colchester.

Once in the passage, Larose flashed his torch to get his bearings, and then, tip-toeing into the office, settled himself comfortably into the armchair in which the former agent had been sitting when death had come to him so suddenly.

He shut his eyes and gave himself up to his thoughts.

Now he had come there, he told himself because he believed that somewhere hidden in the bungalow were letters that had formed the basis of Toller's threats to Lady Mentone—and they must be found without delay.

He would not go over the old ground again, he frowned, but would take it for granted, as did both Stone and Carter, that there had been letters in Toller's possession that incriminated Lady Mentone.

Then, certainly, he went on, Lady Mentone had not recovered them, as proved by her terror that afternoon in the music room when Chime had entered to announce that the two Inspectors were wanting to see her. She had been terrified then that they might be going to spring some dreadful surprise upon her, whereas with the letters in her possession, or burnt, she would have had no need to be frightened about anything, for it was only those letters that could in any way link her up with a reason for wishing Toller dead.

Then again, Scotland Yard had not got hold of them either, as proved by Stone's attitude towards Lady Mentone only a few hours ago. He had tried to bluff her into admitting their existence, by referring to documentary evidence Toller had obtained, as if that evidence were now secure in their hands. But she had called his bluff and at once he had apparently collapsed like a pricked balloon.

Larose smiled here. Then Stone had returned to the city, undoubtedly thinking that she herself had recovered the letters and most probably had burnt them.

The smile dropped quickly from Larose's face. Ah! but Stone might not be so easily shaken off as all that, and when he had thought things over he might yet return, as quickly as the strike of a snake, to the attack. Stone was a shrewd judge of character, and he might not, perhaps, have been quite so completely taken in by Lady Mentone's defiance, as that young woman imagining.

Long after Stone had left the Priory, he would be re-weighing every word she had spoken; he would be recalling every inflexion of her voice and he would be going over every emotional sign she had exhibited. He might easily, too, be reasoning that she had terminated the interview so quickly because her resistance was on the verge of breaking down.

And then suddenly he would drop on to it that her fears had been still with her, and if Toller had got possession of any letters, which all things seemed to point that he had, then even as he, Stone, was wondering where they were, so was she.

Then down again to the Priory he would come post-haste, knowing that if no one had got hold of them as yet, then it must be in the bungalow that they would be found, and he would search every nook and cranny with the thoroughness of an expert.

Larose began talking to himself. "Now, I am Edwin Asher Toller. It is the night of the ball and I just returned here. I have danced with three beautiful girls and I have drunk deeply of their beauty. I have gloated, too, that I have let one of them know she is in my power."

"But I am a little uneasy about my victim, for women the world over are highly emotional creatures, and it may be she will not be able to hide the terror she must feel. I am threatening to expose her past to her husband, and if she will not or cannot comply with my requirements, then, rather than he shall hear the truth from me, she may, perhaps, confess everything to him and throw herself upon his mercy."

"Yes, I am doubtful about her, as her strength of character is not very great, and in letting her know I am in the possession of these letters, I realise that I have at once placed myself in a position of some danger. So I must now take due precautions and so secrete these letters, that in the event of any charge of blackmail being brought against me, they will not be found anywhere and I shall be able to deny everything."

"But I am not going to hide them where the first mug plainclothes man can lay hands upon them. There will be no 'behind pictures' or 'inside mattresses' or 'up chimneys' for me. I will think of something original. They make quite a bulky packet, tied with this ribbon, so I will untie them to make them easier to hide, as separated, they can be disposed of somewhere a few at a time."

With a deep sigh at the probable difficulty of the task before him, Larose switched on his torch, and rising from his chair, after a long and thoughtful stare at the big roll-top desk, proceeded to go through the other rooms of the bungalow, one by one.

Nothing escaped his eyes and to all places where even a single envelope could be hidden, he gave a close scrutiny. To the wainscotting of the rooms he gave special attention, but there was not the slightest sign of any of them having been disturbed lately.

"But I am wasting my time," he frowned disgustedly. "They are the very places everyone would think of. So, I will go back to my first idea, the roll-top desk. That appears so obvious a place to secrete any letters in that no one would dream Toller had chosen such a hiding place."

Returning to the office, he switched on the light and proceeded to unlock the big desk and roll back the shutter. Then he took out every one of the drawers, until the lower part of the desk was empty and skeleton-like framework. He lay down upon the floor and flashed his torch everywhere under the well, and at the back from where the drawers had come out. Then he wriggled at the framework of the eighteen pigeon-holes, without disturbing their contents. But everything was unyielding and immovable, and he paused to take a breath. Then he pulled the roll-top shutter up and down many times listening intently for any unusual sounds.

"No help for it," he remarked finally. "I'll have to get the top off. Toller could have pushed a dozen letters alone under that shutter and there would be nothing to show for it." He nodded. "But he'd have had to lift that top off, as I am going to do, to get them out again." He nodded a second time. "It's just as well I anticipated this and am able to do it without leaving anything to show it has been done."

The desk was a good-class one and very highly polished. Its top was thick and heavy and had been screwed on with six screws. But the heads of the screws had been sunk well below the surface of the wood, then the screw-holes had been plugged with wood of exactly the same kind and the plugs cut off level. Finally the top had been planed smoothly before the polishing had been done. The result was, the holes where the screws had gone in showed only very faintly.

Larose took a fine hack-saw blade out of his breast pocket and rubbing it well over with a piece of soap which he fetched from the kitchen, began the rather arduous task of cutting all round the top where it was joined to the main body of the desk. He had spread a curtain that he had taken from one of the bedroom windows upon the floor to catch the sawdust and, in addition to that, he held his handkerchief just below the saw all the time he was using it.

It was quite a long business, and he sighed with relief as he felt his saw pass through the last screw. He had made a good job of it, and kept a straight line the whole way round.

He lifted the lid off and peered into the cavity he had exposed. Flashing his torch all round where the shutter was coiled, for the moment a great disappointment surged through him. He could see nothing. But thrusting his hand down underneath, however, he gave a triumphant "A-ah," as his fingers came in contact with what was undoubtedly an envelope with a letter inside. Instantly he leant over and pulled down the shutter over the inside of the desk and then at once a number of envelopes came into view. He took them out quickly, eleven of them in all, and each one with the typed address 'Mark Aaronson, Esq., The Olympic Theatre, Haymarket, London,' marked 'private' and with the post-mark Cromer on it.

He showed no elation at his success, but, rather, the expression upon his face was a sad one.

"And because of these," he said solemnly, "a man died." He sighed. "Had she only known it, she was writing them in blood."

Then for the moment, he gave no thought to the letters and, laying them upon the mantelshelf, prepared to replace the top of the desk, so that there should be no sign to show it had been taken off.

Producing a match box from his pocket, he took out a number of small brass nails, of the kind used for fastening on the sole of a shoe. These, at regular intervals, he proceeded to hammer in, softly, with the office poker, all round that part of the wood that had supported the desk top. He left, however, half of their lengths protruding.

Then he filed off all their heads and gave to them a sharply pointed end. Next, he lifted up the heavy desk top, and adjusting its position with great care pressed it hard down into its original place. The nails gripped and at once the top was firm and steady, and, apparently, held as tightly as it had been before the screws were cut through.

"That'll do," he remarked, regarding everything with satisfaction, "and unless anyone gives it a good tug, it will keep on for years."

Then he rolled up the curtain upon the floor and, carrying it into the back garden, shook it out very carefully before replacing it on the window. Finally he washed his hands at the kitchen sink and returned to the office. Then he picked up the letters from the mantelshelf, and, subsiding once again in the armchair, proceeded to go through them.

They were dated, as he had expected, nearly six years previously, and the handwriting was delicate and refined. They were signed "Billy."

Frowning all the time, Larose read them through. They were real love letters and beautifully written, and he could quite understand why Mark Aaronson had treasured them.

They breathed the very ardent passion of a young girl, in her first love affair, and their burden was the wonder to the writer that life could hold such happiness as she was then experiencing.

They were written within the space of three weeks and he gathered she was not able to walk then, because of some injury to her ankle. They referred to many intimate little details of her life when he was not with her, and it seemed the greater part of each day was spent by her upon a couch, before a window overlooking the sea. Apparently it was Mark Aaronson's custom to come down to her in the early hours of each Sunday morning, and return to town each Monday afternoon.

She referred several times to the play of 'The Moss Rose,' and mentioned how glad she would be to resume her part in it when she was all right again.

"And there can be no doubt," commented Larose, "what their relations were, but who is there who has the right to judge her? Aaronson was the one to blame, because of his age. Eighteen and forty-four! What a difference. Still, it would have been a great temptation to the strongest of us, for she must have been very beautiful."

He made a grimace. "But was it really, then, this pretty creature who shot Toller? Has she committed a murder?"

He started to argue with himself. "But if she has done all those things. I wouldn't necessarily consider her a really bad woman. She's anything but bad, and in this dreadful business here she may have had a certain claim to the right to both lie and kill. To lie—because from all accounts her husband worships her. And to kill—because a blackmailer is always an outlaw, and who knows yet what this one's terms for secrecy were?"

He rose up from his chair. "But I'm not certain yet she did fire that fatal shot. It may have been that Marriott girl, or yet again"—he hesitated quite a lone time—"Dr. Athol."

The following morning when Chime came into Larose's room at seven o'clock, he brought the startling news that there had been a fire at Dr. Athol's during the night, and most of the front rooms of the house had been completely burnt out, with nothing of their contents saved. The fire brigade from Colchester had managed to put the fire out, but they had made an awful mess of everything.

"Of course they can't explain it, sir," went on the butler, "but they think it must have originated in the doctor's consulting room after he had gone to bed."

"Hum!" remarked Larose to himself when Chime had left the room, "and that destroys every shred of evidence that it was Dr. Athol who broke into the bungalow." He looked troubled. "But I've an unpleasant time before me for I must tackle Lady Mentone at once."

Arriving in the breakfast room a few minutes after the family had all sat down, he was rather surprised to see a stranger seated next to Lady Mentone.

"My husband, Mr. Larose," smiled the latter, evidently with great pride, as the man rose and shook hands most cordially with the master of Carmel Abbey, "and he's come down at this unearthly hour to tell us he's just been made Home Secretary."

"And very pleased to meet you, sir," smiled Sir Charles Mentone. "I am most grateful to you for coming here to help these poor girls. I should have come down some days ago to thank you, but most urgent matters in the House prevented me. However, directly I was free, I have lost no time in paying my respects. I left the city before seven this morning."

Larose, making a suitable rejoinder, regarded him critically.

He saw a tall, distinguished-looking man in the late fifties with a clean-shaven, intellectual face, a very kind expression, and humorous, twinkling blue eyes. It was evident by the way he looked at his wife that he was immensely proud of her, as well as being very much in love.

"Gosh!" thought Larose with a dreadful pang, "if he only knew of those letters, what would he think of her?" He lowered his eyes to his plate to hide any expression. "If it were not that she might be always worrying, I would burn them and she would never know what had become of them."

Everyone at the table seemed bright and happy, and the conversation was an animated one. The main topic of conversation was, of course, the burning of Dr. Athol's house in the night, and it appeared that Beatrice had already had a long conversation over the phone with Mary Arbour about it. It had taken place about two o'clock in the morning, and all being over in an hour, the doctor and his two maids had been given refuge for the remainder of the night at 'The Towers'. The fire had spread so rapidly, that nothing in the front of the house had been saved.

The conversation was interrupted by the appearance of Chime, who shuffled into the room with a very scared face and whispered something to Beatrice.

"What is it?" asked Eva instantly, seeing that her sister's face had gone very pale.

Beatrice smiled with a great effort. "Nothing much, dear," she replied. Her voice gathered strength. "Only that Inspector Stone wants to speak to me."

"It's very inconvenient his disturbing us so early," snapped Eva crossly. She turned to the butler. "Has he come by himself?"

Chime gulped down something in his throat. "No, miss, there are two others with him." His voice choked. "They look like plainclothes men."

A dreadful silence followed, and all the three sisters looked frightened. Beatrice was ghastly pale, and so was Lady Mentone. Sir Charles looked very puzzled, not understanding why any of them should appear to be so upset.

But Larose came instantly to the rescue. "Don't look so worried everyone," he smiled, "he's not come to arrest any of you, or there would be women with him instead of men." He laughed merrily. "Don't I know only too well the ways of the Yard." He nodded confidently to Beatrice. "Just send him a message that you're at breakfast, and it's not convenient to see him"—his eyes twinkled—"or, better still, invite him to join us and have a cup of coffee. He may be tired after his long drive."

Instant relief flooded everyone's face at Larose's words, and Beatrice sent out the message he suggested. Then with Chime out of the room, Larose went on. "He's probably only come to ask for the loan of the keys of the bungalow again. It doesn't do for the Yard to appear to drop everything all at once, and they have to make out they're busy." He put his finger to his lips. "But for heaven's sake don't tell him I had those keys last night. They're all back in the study drawer, where you told me to put them."

Chime reappeared, looking now much more cheerful. "He says he'd rather not come in, Miss," he announced, "as he breakfasted before he left town, but he'll be very much obliged if you'll let him have the keys of the bungalow for a little while," and then poor Chime was astonished at the ripple of laughter that rolled round the room.

Eva leant over the table towards Larose with her face flushed and her eyes sparkling. "Really, Mr. Larose," she said warmly, "if I didn't remember that you had a wife, and I a very jealous husband-to-be"—she waved her hand round the room—"I'd suggest we should slip away from all this crowd and I'd"—she blushed prettily—"well, I don't know what I wouldn't do."

Larose appeared to look most eager and made to rise with no delay from his chair. "My memory's often bad," he smiled, "and if you would let yours go for once"—he nodded darkly—"your suggestion might not turn out to be such a bad one," and then feeling the gentle pressure of a foot upon one of his, and knowing that it could only be Beatrice's, he blushed himself, in his turn.

In the meantime Stone had bustled into the bungalow with his two assistants. "Now lads," he said briskly, as they made their way into the office, "you know all the circumstances, and it's some letters you've got to look for. I don't think they'll be very far away." He took a long envelope out of his breast pocket and produced the length of blue ribbon that had been found in one of the desk drawers upon the occasion of his previous visit to the bungalow. "See, they were at one time tied up in this and, from the creases here, there should be quite a tidy few."

"Well, sir," said one of the plainclothes men, looking round, "where should we start first. I would suggest trying this desk. It's a heavy bit of furniture and most people would be unlikely to think of it, as it is so obvious."

"I quite agree with you," said Stone, "so we'll take all the drawers out and move it a bit nearer to the light. Then well turn it upside down and see if he's by any chance tin-tacked the letters to the bottom. I've known of that trick being done once with some stolen bank notes."

So once again, within a few short hours, the drawers of the big desk were removed and laid to one side. Then, in order not to scratch the linoleum upon the floor, the three men proceeded to lift the desk bodily up.

"One moment," cried Stone, "turn it round this way first," and he put his hands to swing it in the right direction. Then, to everyone's amazement the top came off in his hands, and it was only by good fortune that he retained hold of it and it did not fall upon his feet. He stared blankly at it for a few moments, while the plainclothes men lowered the desk on to the floor again and joined interestedly in the scrutiny.

They saw the frayed wood along which the hack saw blade had passed, the bright ends of the sawn screws and the little brass nails, sticking up in a row.

"Hell!" exploded Stone violently, "someone's been before us!" He thrust his face down in the cavity where the roll top coiled. "The letters are gone!"

One of the plainclothes men recovered from his astonishment first. "But can we be sure, sir," he began.

"Be sure!" snarled Stone. "No, we can be sure of nothing, of course. But it looks darned likely that someone has guessed the letters were here and did what we'd have done to get at them."

"Of course, no one would have gone to all that trouble to put any letters in," went on the man. "He would have just slipped them up under the shutter and——"

"Don't be an ass," interrupted Stone fiercely. "We needn't be told that." He calmed down at once and added thoughtfully. "No, it was a very different matter getting them out to putting them in, and our only doubt can be whether the person who made this their hiding place thought better of it afterwards, and removed them to hide them somewhere else." He glued his eyes to the desk top. "Now when was this cut off?"

"Very recently, sir," said the plainclothes man meekly. "I can smell the soap he used to grease the saw."

"Good!" nodded Stone, and he at once darted out of the office, to return, however, very quickly. "Only one piece of soap in the place," he remarked disappointedly, "and that looks as if it was probably last used by someone to wash his hands with, in the kitchen sink."

The other plainclothes man now spoke for the first time, and he was evidently of a much more pugnacious temperament than his colleague. "But how do we know, Inspector, that any letters were ever put there?" he asked brusquely. "The shutter may have gone wrong and the top taken off to put it right."

"Well, it must have been done in the last few days, and since the agent was killed," commented Stone dryly, "or the smell of the soap wouldn't be hanging about, as it is now."

"But we don't know," persisted the second man boldly, "that whoever took this top off found anything at all. He may have found nothing there, just as we have."

"Quite so," smiled Stone pleasantly. He nodded. "But you agree the attempt to find something has been done very recently?"

"Oh, yes," nodded back the man at once, "and whoever he was, he made a damned good job of it. I'm a pretty good carpenter myself, and I couldn't have done it better."

"You don't think it could have been done by a woman?" queried Stone, with a frown.

"My oath no!" replied the man. He hesitated a moment. "If it was, then she was no ordinary woman. She'd been brought up in the trade."

But at that moment they heard footsteps outside, and Stone darted into the passage, just in time to intercept Chime before the latter reached the office door.

"Superintendent Russell has just rung up, sir," said the butler. "He had found out that you were here, and he wants to speak to you. He said will you please ring him up within the next half hour or so."

"Thank you," said Stone. "I'll see to it." Then a thought seemed to strike him. "Here, I say," he called out, as Chime had proceeded a few paces, "are you much of a carpenter, Mr. Chime?"

The butler turned in his tracks. "No, sir," he smiled, "but I do odd jobs about the house sometimes."

"Well, have you got a good kit of tools?" asked Stone.

Chime smiled again. "No, sir. What we have are kept in one of the kitchen drawers, all except the big saw."

"Well, have you got a fine saw of any kind, a hack-saw, for instance?"

"No, sir, we have only very plain tools. If anything out of the way wants doing we ring up Mr. Collins in the village."

Stone went back into the office and one of the men at once asked, "Are we to go on with the search, sir?"

"Yes, I think you'd better," replied Stone. "Do this room first, because I understand the agent will be here in a few minutes. Then search the other rooms most thoroughly and don't hesitate to look behind any wainscoting if it appears to have been disturbed lately. Then go over the garage and the garden and cast your eye over those trees just behind. There's just a chance we may be quite mistaken the letters were ever in this desk, although I'm not very hopeful. I am going away for a while, but at any rate, hang about until I come back. Oh, and be sure to put that desk right, so that no one can see we've touched it."

"Very good, sir," replied the man, and Stone walked out of the bungalow.

The Inspector was feeling intensely disappointed. He had not candidly admitted it to himself, but he had been depending so much upon finding the letters somewhere about that big desk for, as with Larose, he had been thinking Toller might have imagined everyone would regard it as the most unlikely place wherein to hide anything.

It was so much in the mind's eye. It would seem to be so foolhardy to keep the letters at his very elbow, so to speak, and there were, apparently, so many other places that would be so much more difficult to find.

Stone had no intention now of going into the Priory to ring up the Superintendent. He was tired of the sight of everybody there, he told himself, and besides, he did not want anyone to hazard from his own rejoinders over the 'phone what the Superintendent in Colchester might be talking about. So, he walked the short distance to the village constable's little house and got in touch with Colchester from there.

The Superintendent had quite a lot to tell him about the missing Myrtle Marriott, for the broadcast of the previous evening had already brought some important news.

The big carrier upon the back of Myrtle's bicycle had apparently caused people to remember her, and the dreadful storm upon the night of Toller's murder had made the date easy to recall to their minds.

A porter at the railway station in Ipswich had rung the Colchester police and stated that a young woman answering to her description had sheltered for more than two hours under the railway arch upon that particular night. Also, a man who kept a small shop in the little village of Washbrook, about four miles the Colchester side of Ipswich, had phoned that she had knocked him up the same night some time about eleven for some oil for her lamp, which had gone out, and, finally, a chemist in Ipswich stated that he had sold six ounces of sulphuric acid to her on the afternoon of the previous day.

Stone had received the three items of information with a frown, and then, ringing off, had stayed on for a few minutes to chat with the village constable.

Then, when about to leave the constable's house and standing with him on the door-step, he asked him if he happened to have heard anything about the Mr. Larose who was staying up at the Priory.

"Yes, he called here and made himself known to me one day last week," replied the constable. "I think it was upon the day you and Inspector Carter came up."

"Oh!" exclaimed Stone with a frown, "and what did be come to you for?"

"Nothing particular, sir. He asked me about what happened when I went up to the house with the Superintendent that night of the murder. Just a little chat to pass the time, I think."

The frown upon Stone's face deepened and he shook his head. "No, no, my friend," he said sharply, "Mr. Larose never indulges in little chats, as you call them, just to pass the time. There is purpose in everything he does, and he never wastes his time. He came here expecting to pump you about something, so think now what questions he asked you."

The constable hesitated. "Well, he seemed interested about Dr. Athol, and how he was liked in the village, and if he performed operations, and things like that." He looked rather sheepish. "And we discussed the bad time the baker's wife had had in her confinement the previous night, when the doctor had been attending her."

"Great Jupiter!" ejaculated Stone, looking very puzzled. "He wanted to know if Dr. Athol performed operations and you discussed some confinement. Then depend upon it, he was curious for some reason."

But the constable could suggest no reason, and Stone was frowning all the time. Then suddenly he asked sharply, "Who is that woman passing now? Quick!"

The constable looked across the road and answered in a stage whisper. "Miss Carrington, one of the ladies who lives up at 'The Towers.' She's Miss Arbour's companion there."

"Well, she's passed twice," grunted Stone, "and each time I noticed she stared hard at me."

He left the constable for a few minutes, and, walking thoughtfully through the village, became aware, when he was just beyond the last house, that the woman he had referred to was close behind him.

He slowed down to let her get ahead, but when she drew level, to his surprise, there came a hoarse whisper—"You're one of the Inspectors from Scotland Yard aren't you? I thought so, and I want to speak to you about something very important. Don't stop, for I mustn't be seen talking to you. Watch where I turn off into the lane past those trees and come after me," and, accelerating her pace, she shot away in front of him.

"Hum!" remarked Stone, winking to himself, "an assignation with a female in some lonely place!" His eyes twinkled. "But I wish she were a bit younger. Men get particular at my age."

She was waiting for him round the corner of the lane, and opened the conversation at once. "Seeing you were a stranger and talking to the constable here," she said, nodding her head vigorously, "I guessed you came from the London police, and I asked Mr. Cowles, the butcher, and he said you did." She looked rather nervous. "Now, if I give you information, you are not bound to tell from whom you received it, are you?"

"Certainly not," replied Stone. He smiled. "We just say, 'from information received.'"

"Well, it's about Mr. Toller's murder I'm going to speak to you," she said breathlessly, "and I consider it my duty to inform you that I think Dr. Athol was mixed up in it." And then she proceeded to tell the astonished and very interested Inspector all that she thought she had seen from the tower of their house the night when the Priory agent had been shot.

"Are you sure it was Dr. Athol who dropped over the wall then?" asked Stone sharply. "Were you positive about it at the time?"

"I was almost positive I recognised him," she replied, "the moment I caught sight of the man in the lane, and then I became quite positive when Miss Arbour bridled up so quickly and said it was ridiculous. Of course, she was very put out, because undoubtedly it looked as if he had been visiting Lady Mentone secretly in the Priory grounds."

"Then are he and Lady Mentone suspected of being more than friends?" asked Stone with a frown.

"I suspect them," replied Miss Carrington, "and I think many others do, too. She comes down here on purpose to be attended by him, and the Priory maids have told ours that when he visits her, he nearly always stays half an hour." She looked very mysterious. "I am sure she was going to him at his house that night."

"And why are you telling me all this about Dr. Athol and Lady Mentone?" asked Stone sternly.

"Because," she replied firmly, "I have no wish for my friend, Miss Arbour, to throw herself away upon such a man, who, besides, has no affection for her." She glared at the Inspector. "Unless I can open her eyes, the marriage will take place in a month."

Stone cross-examined her sharply, and then, learning from her that Dr. Athol's house had been burnt down and that the doctor was now a guest at 'The Towers,' announced his intention of at once going to see him.

"Then please let me go on alone first," ordered Miss Carrington peremptorily, "and wait at least five minutes before you move. I must not be seen anywhere near you or Miss Arbour may suspect something."

So it happened that Larose, returning from a quick inspection of the doctor's gutted house, came upon the Inspector leaning idly against a tree, not very far from the entrance to the Priory grounds.

"Hullo!" they exclaimed simultaneously, and then they both smiled and shook hands.

"But I thought you were picking up clues in the bungalow!" said Larose.

Stone shook his head. "No, my men are doing that." He regarded Larose in a most friendly manner. "I've got some interesting news for you," and he proceeded to pass on to him all that had resulted from the broadcast of the previous night for the missing Myrtle Marriott, and of which he had just heard from Colchester.

"And that upsets your apple-cart, Gilbert," he smiled, "in exactly the same way it upsets mine. No, no, don't you attempt to deny it, for you suspect that pretty petal of 'The Moss Rose' every bit as much as I do." He shook his head. "If I had only found those love letters tied with the blue ribbon, the dainty creature would have been in the cells long ago."

Larose made no pretence that he did not understand what the Inspector meant. "But look here, Charlie," he said earnestly, "with all that has now come to light, is not the evidence against the Marriott girl far stronger than any we possess against Lady Mentone?"

"In a way, yes," agreed Stone readily, "but for all that I am still of the opinion that the pretty one killed him. As far as we can learn, Myrtle has never fired a rifle in all her life and besides, she is not of the killing type. She fits in so essentially to the type of vitriol-throwing woman, vulgarly passionate, afraid of nothing—note her bicycle rides in the dead of night—and very spiteful and revengeful for any fancied wrong done to her by anyone. So she would a hundred times rather have seen Toller writhing in agony than kill him outright. She told her aunt she was going to 'do him cruel.'"

He lowered his voice dramatically. "Then I ask you, if she came here that night with the second bottle of vitriol in her possession, why did she not throw it over him? And I answer my own question by replying"—his voice was only a whisper now—"because when she crept up to the window of the bungalow she saw Toller was already dead!"

The face of Larose was quite expressionless. "Dreams! Charlie," he said, "just dreams! Lady Mentone has become your obsession and you can't think of anybody else."

Stone ignored his comment and sighed heavily. "Yes, my lad, you and I came to learn about the existence of those letters just two days too late, and I'm very much afraid now they've hopped in and got them, since the keys of the bungalow were given back!" He nodded. "I say they, because I am sure there was someone helping the girl to get them back." He eyed Larose very intently. "Look here Gilbert, is that doctor chap another lover of hers?"

Larose shook his head. "I shouldn't think so," he replied. "At any rate, I saw her with her husband at breakfast this morning, and she seemed pretty keen on him." Then seeing the sceptical smile upon Stone's face, he added. "And you'd better go a bit easy there now. Sir Charles was made Home Secretary last night."

Stone smiled. "That makes no difference, and if I nabbed her, what a feather it would be in my cap!" He looked at his watch and began to move away. "Well, I'm off now, to have a word with Dr. Athol, and I'll ask him, straight, to account for his movements the night Toller was killed."

Dr. Athol and Mary Arbour were in the library of 'The Towers.' He had breakfasted alone and been out to see some patients and then, returning to the house of his fiancee, had found her busy arranging some flowers.

"Good morning, dear," he said as he drew her to him and kissed her quickly, "then you're not upset by last night's, or rather this morning's, shock? Splendid! It shows your nerves are A1. No, kiss me properly. Ah, that's better." He laughed lightly. "We're not a very passionate couple, are we?"

Mary blushed ever so little, and then flashed him her beautiful, sunny smile. "But you do love me, don't you, Norman?"

"Of course I do, sweetheart"—he looked fondly down at her—"and always shall. If you went out of my life now it would be terrible for me."

They talked on for a few minutes and then one of the maids came in to announce that Inspector Stone had just come, and wanted to speak to the doctor. She had put him in the morning room.

Dr. Athol frowned. "All right," he said. "Tell him I'll be there in a minute."

A shadow crossed over Mary's face. "What do you think he wants, Norman?" she asked quickly.

"Oh, to ask me about that Marriott girl, I expect," replied the doctor carelessly. He rose up from his chair. "I'll be back very soon."

Mary's face was all calmness and serenity until he had left the room, but the instant the door had closed behind him, a great change came over her. She started up from her chair, her lips parted nervously, and a look of fear came into her eyes. She moved over to the door and stood listening.

A half-minute went by and then very quickly opening the door, she tip-toed across the hall and through the French window of the dining room into the garden. Then picking her steps very carefully so that she should make no sound upon the gravelled drive, she proceeded about twenty yards along by the side of the house until she reached a door leading into the conservatory. She opened the door very quietly, and as quietly closed it behind her. Still tip-toeing she threaded her way among the big palm-tubs until she came nearly to the end of the long conservatory. Then, through a window of the house that opened, there came the sound of voices, and with her attitude one of intense attention, she stood listening.

A deep voice that she knew could be only that of the Scotland Yard Inspector, was saying, "And of course, doctor, in discussing the girl with me, you are violating no canons of professional secrecy. The girl has spoken openly to her aunt about everything and, in turn, the aunt has spoken equally as openly to me."

"Quite so," commented Dr. Athol quietly, "and in my opinion the girl's mental state was such that she would go to any lengths to obtain vengeance upon Toller."

Stone nodded. "Bah!" he snorted, "that Toller was a devil!"

"And I should say," went on the doctor drily, "that who ever killed him, rid the world of one of the worst types of man, and benefited his fellows."

"That may be quite true, doctor," snapped Stone instantly, "but it is not what the law allows. As you know quite well, the law does not admit the right of any private individual to take things into his own hands. If it did, then there would be no end to personal vengeance and anyone with a fancied grievance could be judge, jury, and hangman, all himself." He shook his head. "No, that would never do."

A short silence ensued and then Stone, eyeing the doctor very intently, spoke again. "And now another matter Dr. Athol, and it concerns you this time." He looked very stern. "I am not satisfied with your reply to my questions the other day. In fact, there is no doubt in my mind that you were deliberately untruthful."

The doctor's face flushed, and he frowned angrily, but he kept his temper, and said very quietly. "Particularise, please, Inspector Stone. Give chapter and verse."

"Your story of what you did that night in the bungalow when you had sent Chime off and were waiting for the police to come," retorted Stone, "does not tally with that given by Mrs. Bowman. She says you were moving about in the office for a considerable time after Chime had left, and yet you averred you went into her bedroom at once."

"And why should Mrs. Bowman's word be preferred to mine?" asked the doctor scornfully, "particularly so as she was, upon that night, in a far greater state of mental upset than was I?"

"Because we have other suspicions about you," replied Stone instantly, "that are occasioning us to, altogether, doubt your good faith." He rapped out quickly. "Now, can you account to us how you spent the time between 9.30 and 11 upon the night of the murder?" He shook his head very sternly. "It has come to that, Dr. Athol, and you'll have to put down all your cards to satisfy us."

The first expression upon the doctor's face was one of sheer amazement, then it became one of anger, and finally it passed to one of mild amusement. Then he appeared to be thinking very hard, and in the end he frowned. "I suppose you have a right to ask," he said slowly, "and I have not the slightest objection to telling you. Now, let me see. I had dined late that night, because I had been called to an accident at Higham. I saw two patients in the surgery after dinner. I read a little, and about nine o'clock I went out to see another patient, a Mrs. Batley, and probably stayed there half an hour. I was back soon after 9.30, and I read again." He looked straight at Stone. "And I read on until Chime's 'phone call came about twenty minutes to twelve."

"And no doubt," asked Stone very pleasantly, "you were seen by one of your maids."

"No," replied the doctor calmly, "no one came into the room." He smiled carelessly. "I am sorry I can only give you my word."

Stone's eyes were resting idly upon a bowl of beautiful white roses on a table, and then suddenly he darted a lightning glance at Dr. Athol. "But you saw Lady Mentone during that time," he snapped viciously. "We have witnesses that you did."

If he had expected the doctor to start and gasp, he was disappointed, for not a muscle of the doctor's face moved. He just looked at Stone thoughtfully, without the faintest suggestion of any surprise.

"So that's your idea, is it?" he said very quietly, at length. His voice rose ever so little. "Well, it's a rotten one, let me tell you, for I neither went out, nor did Lady Mentone come in."

But if the doctor had his face under perfect control, Stone had nevertheless seen out of the corner of his eye a contraction of the muscles of one of his hands. He had clenched his fingers together.

"No good, doctor," said Stone sharply. "You were seen together in the Priory lane, and we can prove it." He picked his hat up from a chair and jerked his head in the direction of the door. "Come over with me to the Priory and I'll tax her ladyship with it in front of you. That'll settle it to the satisfaction of us both. I shall tell instantly by her expression if she is speaking the truth."

Dr. Athol hesitated. There was no doubt now that he was upset and that some of his self-confidence had gone. His face had whitened, under its tan, and he moistened his lips with his tongue and swallowed twice.

"I wouldn't put Lady Mentone to such a shock and——" he began hoarsely.

"Nonsense," interrupted Stone instantly. "If you've spoken the truth any questions I ask her will be no shock at all." His voice hardened. "Only if you've lied to me will it be any shock." He jerked his head again to the door. "Come on. I dare you to accept my challenge."

Dr. Athol bowed. "All right then," he said briskly, "we'll go. As a private individual I am very pleased to, but"—he frowned uneasily—"as Lady Mentone's medical man, I may not be doing right," and he led the way out of the room.

Stone followed close upon his heels, determined he should get no chance of going to the telephone and sending a warning to the Priory that they were coming. As the distance was so short, too, at Stone's suggestion they went on foot, and, turning out of the drive he smiled to himself at the way he had managed things. They would take Lady Mentone quite unprepared.

But the burly Inspector would not have been quite so pleased if he had been in 'The Towers' two minutes after, for Mary Arbour was putting through a ring to the Priory.

Chime answered it, and she exclaimed breathlessly. "Quick! I want to speak to Lady Mentone. Get her for me at once. Tell her it's important."

Chime left the receiver off and was gone for a long while. Then, when at length he returned, he said apologetically. "I'm very sorry, Miss Arbour, but I can't find her anywhere. Miss Beatrice and Miss Eva, I know, have gone to take some flowers to the church, and I rather think her ladyship must be with them."

Mary bit her lip in vexation. "Well, go and look again for her," she ordered, "and if she's not in, then tell her to ring me up at once when she returns, before speaking to anyone. You understand?"

"Yes, Miss," replied Chime, "I'll see to it."


CHAPTER X.—AN OLD MAN'S DARLING

In the meantime Larose had returned to the Priory with the intention, as soon as possible, of catching Lady Mentone alone. And his star was certainly in the ascendant there, for entering the grounds, he saw her at the far end of the garden picking flowers.

Making his way behind the trees, so that he would not be seen by anyone looking from the windows of the house, he came upon her just as she had finished filling a large basket with roses. She looked up brightly at him, as he approached.

"If you were wanting to help me," she smiled, "you've come too late. I've got an I want now."

He shook his head frowningly, and looked around to make sure no one was about. "No, it's not that, but I want to speak to you," he said, "and its very important. Is Sir Charles likely to come out?"

Her face sobered at once at his grave tones. "No, I think he'll be busy most of the morning," she replied. "He has a lot of letters to write."

"Well, let's go into that summer-house," went on Larose, "and if we sit behind the door, no one will see us even if they pass. Bring the basket in with you, too."

She looked a little nervous, but, complying with his request, in a minute or two they were seated in the summer-house and secure from observation, unless anyone came in. Through a small window they had a good view of the whole length of the garden.

Larose turned his eyes away from her and looked down at his shoes. "I have some letters of yours," he began very quietly, "and I'm going to give them back to you after I've asked you a few questions." He heard a faint gasp at his side, but did not look around, and went on carelessly. "I found them last night, where Toller had hidden them, under the roll-top of the office desk."

A deep silence followed, and although they were seated close together, Larose imagined he could feel the vibrations of the beating of her heart upon the back of the summer-house against which they were both leaning.

He looked round now. She was lying back heavily, and her bosom was heaving in her rapid breathing. Her face was blanched, her lips were parted, and she was regarding him with an expression of absolute terror.

"No, don't disturb yourself," he said kindly, "I'm not your enemy and no one is going to have them but you." He smiled reassuringly. "But it's lucky I got them when I did, for they are what Inspector Stone has come to search for this morning."

She found her voice at last. "Have you read them?" she asked chokingly.

"Oh, yes," he replied. "I had to, to learn the extent of the hold that Toller had got upon you, and to know if his death was justified."

She sat up sharply and her face crimsoned to the roots of her hair. Face, neck, and bosom were now one furious red.

"Oh, what must you think of me?" she gasped. "What a dreadful woman I must appear to you now!"

"Not necessarily," he replied calmly. He shrugged his shoulders. "I don't judge people in those matters. They belong to themselves and we seldom know the whole truth."

"But the lies I've told!" she wailed. "And I've lied to you as much as I did to everybody else."

"Well, you had to," he smiled rather sadly. "Lies were your only defence." The smile dropped from his face and he regarded her very sternly. "But there must be no more of them now, please, Lady Mentone, for you must tell me the absolute truth. I was going to give you back these letters unreservedly, but there's another suspected woman in it now, and we can't let Myrtle Marriott suffer, if she's not really guilty. We shall have to——"

"But she must be guilty," broke in Lady Mentone passionately. "We did not shoot him, and it has been the greatest puzzle to us who did."

"'We' and 'us,'" commented Larose quietly. "Please explain. No, no," he went on quickly, for she had drawn back sharply and was again regarding him with terror. "I tell you I must have absolute truth from you now, and there most be no holding back." He nodded. "And much of what you tell me I shall be able to check up, for I have found out a great deal more than you imagine." He smiled again. "So now, please, who are 'we' and 'us'?"

"But I shall be bringing possible punishment upon someone else," protested Lady Mentone piteously, "and it'll be the blackest ingratitude on my part after the kindness that has been shown me."

"But you can't help it," retorted Larose sternly, "and, knowing the danger you are in, I am sure that person will be only too thankful for you to speak." He spoke more gently. "It may perhaps comfort you a little that I know perfectly well who that person is."

And then, holding herself in bravely, Lady Mentone told the whole story as far as she and Dr. Athol were concerned.

On the night of the tenants' ball, in her first dance with Toller, they had not taken a dozen steps before he had informed her he had been waiting longer than a month for that opportunity to speak to her, when no one would regard with suspicion their talking together. He told her the dead Wedlake had been his uncle, and that upon his death certain letters of hers to Mark Aaronson had come into his, Toller's, possession. Then he said that of course he was going to give them back to her but, as a poor man and always wanting money, he was sure she would see it would be a gracious act on her part to make him a little present.

"And the brute didn't frighten me very much when we were dancing," said Lady Mentone tearfully. "He put it in quite a friendly way then, and I thought he only meant a few pounds that I could squeeze out of my dress allowance money. But when we were sitting in the conservatory, I almost fainted when he said he must have £5,000, and not only that"—her face became suffused with blushes again—"but he leered at me in a horrible way, and said I must come and see him in the bungalow next night."

"Don't rub your eyes," said Larose sharply, "you don't want everyone to see you've been crying. Remember, that Inspector Stone will be furious at not finding those letters today; and if he comes for another talk with you, you must be at your best to outwit him. Don't forget you are absolutely safe now, and he can't touch you unless you give yourself away."

"All right," she said, pulling herself together at once, "I won't let myself go." She smiled wanly. "I'll try to show myself a decently worthy object of your great kindness."

Then she told him how she had felt desperately ill the next day and Beatrice had insisted in calling in Dr. Athol.

"And I broke down completely," she said, "and I told him everything." She looked up meaningly. "No, we have never been lovers. Please don't think that. He's only been a great friend." She drew herself up with dignity. "I've been as straight as a die since I married, and honestly, the only lover I ever had before was Mr. Aaronson."

Then she told him Dr. Athol had promised her he would get the letters back from Toller directly he could manage to see him. He was going to give him the fright of his life, too, and make him find some excuse to resign from his situation at the Priory immediately.

"And he was so certain he would come back very soon that day," said Lady Mentone, "but we didn't know then that Mr. Toller had gone into Colchester and it was only when Dr. Athol called in at the bungalow that he learnt it from the housekeeper. She told him she didn't expect Mr. Toller back until evening. Then when evening came the doctor had to go about 10 miles away, where someone had met with an accident, and he had to stay and give the anaesthetic for another doctor. So he did not get home until late, and then decided to go and see Mr. Toller the last thing, when it was less likely his visit to him would be noticed." She shook her head. "But I knew nothing of the reason for the delay and, getting worried, and anxious, because I had not heard from Dr. Athol, I slipped out when we were all supposed to be in bed, and went off to see him."

"What time was that?" asked Larose.

"Just before 10. I waited until I thought Beatrice and Eva would be asleep, for they were the only ones who would be likely to hear me moving about. Then I went up the short way, by our lane, terrified all the time that I might be seen by someone in 'The Towers', for there was a light burning in one of the turrets there."

"You were seen," interrupted Larose, "by that Miss Carrington, and she declares she recognised you by your walk."

"Oh, how awful!" exclaimed Lady Mentone, looking very frightened. "Then I've been living in a fool's paradise all the time?"

"Perhaps you have," nodded Larose. "But still, don't worry, for the evidence would be worth very little in a court of law. The woman did not see your face, and it's only guesswork or spite. Go on, and please tell me everything in detail."

"I saw a light in the doctor's study," she said shakily, "and I tapped on the window and he came out and spoke to me. He told me he would go to the bungalow directly he reckoned I had had time to get home. He would have returned with me, he said, if it hadn't been unwise to run the risk of anyone seeing us together in the grounds so late at night."

"And what time did you get home?" asked Larose.

"I don't know, but I was in bed by the time the chimes were striking half-past ten. I heard them distinctly. Then I remember very little more, for I must have fallen asleep almost at once. I must tell you I had taken a strong sleeping draught."

"And Dr. Athol," asked Larose. "What happened to him?"

Lady Mentone shivered. "He went to the bungalow and found Mr. Toller dead."

"Yes, yes," ejaculated Larose, "but tell me exactly what he says he did."

"He waited at home a little longer than he had intended to give me time to get home, because he said he was finishing a cigar and thinking of what he was going to say to Mr. Toller. Then he climbed over our wall and made his way quickly to the bungalow. Every one knew Mr. Toller never went to bed much before midnight, and so he expected to see the office lit up. He got close to the window and saw Mr. Toller was lying back in the armchair with blood streaked down his face from his forehead. Then he knew instantly that he was dead, and he came away as quickly as he could."

"But why?" asked Larose sharply. "As a medical man, he wouldn't be frightened of death, and didn't he realise it was his duty to go in and see what had happened?"

Lady Mentone looked very uncomfortable. "But he was thinking of other things," she replied. "He says if he has raised the alarm then, there was no excuse that he could give for being there at that time of night, and besides——" she looked more uncomfortable than ever—"he thought at once that Eva had done it."

"Why, Eva?" ejaculated Larose with astonishment.

Lady Mentone spoke very quickly. "Because when I had told him everything that morning, he had warned me on no account to mention a word to either Beatrice or Eva, and I had said I would never dare to, for Eva was so quick-tempered she would shoot Mr. Toller at once if I did. So, seeing the body lying there covered in blood, it jumped into his mind at once that Eva had caught me coming back into the house and I had confessed everything to her and she had done exactly as I had said."

"Well, he must have realised it would be discovered directly the housekeeper came home!" frowned Larose.

"Yes," said Lady Mentone, "but he wanted to give Eva time to calm down and he hoped, too, she would remember then to clean father's rifle, so that no one would think it had been used. Then directly he got back home he began to worry whether Eva had been inside the office and left her fingermarks anywhere, and he was so hoping he would be rung up before the constable and get a chance to wipe round everywhere with a handkerchief."

"And he did get the chance," nodded Larose grimly, "and it was the absence of those fingermarks that turned Inspector Stone's suspicions upon him."

"Oh! then does the Inspector really suspect him?" asked Lady Mentone fearfully, and with her eyes opened very wide. "Norman has been thinking all along from the questions he put to him that he did."

"Yes, he suspects him right enough," replied Larose, "and he's gone up to 'The Towers' to question him now. No, don't worry. He'll get nothing out of him. The doctor will know it's all suspicion and that there is no proof. Go on, please. What happened the next morning when the doctor came up to the Priory?"

Lady Mentone smiled again, a very wan little smile, however. "He nearly gave himself away, for, meeting Eva alone as he came into the hall, he whispered. 'And what did you do, young woman, last night?' But then, instantly, seeing from her face that she didn't understand what he meant, and that he'd made a dreadful mistake, he managed to turn it off by pretending he'd been guilty of a joke in very bad taste." She clasped her hands. "Oh, but Eva's been worried all the time, and I'm sure she's suspected something ever since. She doesn't know what or why, but she's anxious about me, and so is Beatrice." She sighed deeply. "I think they've been talking together about me and Dr. Athol, because they can't understand why the doctor was so long with me that morning when I was telling him everything, and twice, Beatrice has caught him speaking to me in a very low voice."

"Well, what did the doctor say to you, when he came the morning after the murder?" asked Larose.

Once again Lady Mentone smiled, but this time with some amusement. "It was an awful mix up." She made a grimace. "With Eva out of it, he thought I'd done it, and I thought he'd done it,"—she sighed—"and it wanted a lot of explaining before we were convinced that each of us was innocent."

She was silent for a few moments, and then went on. "Then came those days of awful suspense. Every moment I was expecting that the letters would be found, and each time the Superintendent asked to see us, I thought he had come to arrest me. Still the days went on and, with nothing happening, my dread became a little less, especially as all the time Norman was awaiting his opportunity to get into the bungalow and search Mr. Toller's bedroom. He thought the letters must be there seeing that they hadn't been found in the office."

"He got the opportunity?" suggested Larose.

"Yes, one evening when Detective Lesser had gone into Colchester for a short time, but he found nothing in the bedroom and the detective came back when he was searching in the office, and he narrowly escaped being caught. He only just got away in time." She looked enquiringly at Larose. "But you must have been very clever to find them, for after the bungalow had been given back to us, the doctor spent one whole night searching everywhere. I got the keys from Beatrice's drawer for him. Where did you find them?"

Larose told her, and then said very impressively. "Now, Lady Mentone, I am trusting you, and have you honestly told me everything you know? What you have told me is the absolute truth?"

"The absolute truth, Mr. Larose," she replied earnestly. "I have told you everything." She laughed a little bitterly. "I won't say upon my honor, because after what you know of me you may think I have not got any honor and——"

"Nonsense," interrupted Larose sharply. "I regard you as quite a good woman"—he smiled—"and a very charming one, too." He laughed lightly. "Who knows that my life has not its secrets, too? Your misfortune is you have been found out." He made a gesture as if dismissing the whole matter, and putting his hand in one of his side pockets, produced a small packet. "Well, here are the letters, eleven of them. Are they all you wrote? You don't remember? Still, don't worry, for they are undoubtedly all that were kept." He hesitated a moment before giving them to her. "But should I burn them for you? Perhaps it would be safer!" He smiled. "Remember, you are quite two hundred yards from the house, and the Inspector may turn up at any moment."

"No, I'll take them," she said eagerly, "and then with my own eyes I shall see that they are burnt," and with hands that trembled, she thrust the little packet under the roses in her basket.

"Thank you so much, Mr. Larose," she said, stretching out her hand for his. Her eyes moistened and she choked back a sob. "But for you I should be a broken woman and the happiness of life for ever closed." She nodded towards the basket. "No one knows about those except you and I?"

"No, no one," nodded back Larose. "It is a secret between us." He pretended to sigh. "But a very different secret for you from the last one."

"Of course it is," she said. She shook her head with a pretty frown, "I couldn't give and you wouldn't want to take."

"Of course not," Larose said, and then he smiled.

"Of course not," she echoed back, and then she let go his hand and smiled archly.

They moved out of the summer-house and proceeded to walk thoughtfully down the narrow path, just wide enough for two. Lady Mentone would insist upon carrying her basket.

"No," she said, "these are not going out of my hands until I place them in the kitchen fire, and then——"

"Hullo!" interrupted Larose sharply. "Here are Dr. Athol and the Inspector. No, don't stop. Look, they've seen us and are coming this way."

Lady Mentone felt her knees shaking under her, but she took a good grip of herself and glanced smilingly at the basket of roses to make sure the little packet was well out of sight.

"By Jove, what glum faces they've got!" said Larose softly. His voice dropped to an intense whisper. "Look out, and mind your step now. The Inspector may be wanting to question you and the doctor together. Yes, you look out for squally weather."

But there were no signs of impending danger upon Lady Mentone's smiling face. She just looked sweet and dainty, as if she were part of the beautiful and fragrant roses she was carrying in her basket.

The two men walked quickly up and lifted their hats. Stone looked fierce and pugnacious, and the doctor very calm and rather bored. The former spoke up at once.

"I want to ask you a couple of questions, please, Lady Mentone," he said brusquely, "and I want you to answer them instantly so that I shall know you're not making anything up." He became most polite. "Excuse me, Mr. Larose, but would you mind very kindly moving back." He smiled. "I want to see her ladyship and the doctor, standing side by side, so that they won't be able to prompt each other as to what to say."

And so upon that narrow gravelled path between the rose trees began another battle royal between the Inspector of bull-dog tenacity and the gentle-looking aristocrat, Margaret, Lady Mentone. The latter's heart was fluttering wildly, but she held her head high and her lips were parted in a gracious smile.

"Now, your ladyship," said Stone sharply, "upon the night of your agent's murder both you and Dr. Athol were seen by certain inmates of 'The Towers' in the Priory lane. That is so, is it not?"

"Upon the night of the murder!" echoed Lady Mentone very quietly. "Dr. Athol and I together in the Priory lane!" She spoke with the utmost calmness. "Who said so, Inspector Stone?"

"Answer my question first," rapped out the Inspector angrily. "You don't deny you both passed up the lane!"

As in a lightning flash, Lady Mentone drew herself up to her full height, her careless pose was flung from her, and the expression upon her face became one of bitter scorn.

"And so you come again," she exclaimed, "with your trumped-up evidence to prove me a liar and worse. You said yesterday you had documentary evidence against me of a guilty intrigue, and when I challenged you——"

"Never mind about yesterday," interrupted Stone hotly, "I can bring witnesses to prove that you and Dr. Athol here were in the lane around the time when Edwin Asher Toller was murdered." He glared fiercely at her. "What do you say to that?"

Lady Mentone was quite calm again now, and her anger appeared to have died down. "I only say you can't bring them," she replied quietly. Her eyes flashed. "You might find some scandal-mongering person who suggested to you that I was there, and who then, finding you credulous about everything to do with me, stated it as a fact."

"But why should anybody suggest to me that you, in particular, were there," asked Stone scornfully, "if there was no truth in it?"

"Because it's no doubt all over the village now," scoffed Lady Mentone, "that you have been making a dead set at me." She nodded darkly. "Servants talk, Inspector Stone, and you remember yesterday, you were shouting at me."

"You visited the doctor and were in his home that night," said Stone fiercely.

Lady Mentone felt a thrill of great relief surge through her. She was on safe ground at last and saw that the Inspector was now floundering out of his depth. He must be only wildly guessing she felt sure, for she knew she had never been actually in the doctor's house that night.

"I tell you I was not," she said very firmly, "and I defy you to bring any witnesses to say that I was."

"But I am confident," insisted Stone, "that you both know much more about that agent's death than you make out, and also"—he glared fiercely at them—"that there is some secret understanding between you in connection with it."

"Then prove it, Inspector," said Lady Mentone sweetly, "and get out the warrants at once. As for this secret understanding between us"—she looked round and smiled—"well, tell my husband about it. Here he comes," and they all turned to see the newly-appointed Home Secretary striding up the path.

Sir Charles advanced briskly. "Hullo!" he called out genially, "a solemn conclave considering all the aspects of the dreadful case!"

Lady Mentone laughed. Then she directed her husband's attention to Stone. "Charles, this is Inspector Stone," she said sweetly. "You must have heard of him. He's one of the chiefs at Scotland Yard."

"Of course, I've heard of him," exclaimed Sir Charles heartily, and at once moving forward to shake hands. He bowed with old-world courtesy. "One of the most distinguished and capable officers we have."

Stone was looking rather red, but his eyes twinkled merrily. He had quite got over the annoyance of his rebuffs from Lady Mentone and the situation now was appealing to his sense of humor.

"Very pleased to meet you, Sir Charles," he said. "I saw in the paper this morning that you had been made Home Secretary, and now, of course, we shall have to be extra careful at the Yard."

"Not any officers such as you, Inspector," laughed Sir Charles. "You are one of our shining stars, and I tell you I was greatly relieved when I heard you were taking charge of this case. Superintendent Russell is no doubt a very worthy man, but he is a little bit tactless and crude, I imagine." He turned to his wife. "But I want you, Margaret, for a few minutes. Will you please come indoors?" and then smilingly he took her basket of roses from her. "No, I'll carry this, dear."

But he was clumsy in getting hold of the basket and tipping it sideways, all its contents were spilled on to the ground.

"Dear me, dear me!" he exclaimed, "what a silly thing to do!"

Everyone at once jumped to gather up the roses, but the path was narrow and apart from Sir Charles, Dr. Athol was the only one able to assist in the picking up of the flowers. Inspector Stone, however, pounced upon the little brown paper packet of letters that had been flung on to a flower bed.

Out of the tail of her eye, Lady Mentone saw he had picked it up, but she made no comment, and with steady fingers arranged the roses in the basket, as they were handed up to her.

For a few seconds the Inspector held the little packet in his hand, with no interest, apparently, as to what its contents might be, but then gradually he began to press his fingers thoughtfully over it and then he suddenly glanced down. His glance was a very quick one, however, and looking up again he saw that Lady Mentone was watching him with a curious expression, that he could not for the instant fathom, upon her face.

"There was nothing to break in this, was there, your ladyship?" he asked frowningly. He fumbled with the packet openly now. "They seem to be only letters to me!"

Larose felt a cold shiver run down his spine and his forehead breaking out in little beads of sweat. If ever Lady Mentone had been menaced by Stone, she was in deadly peril from him now!

Larose had missed nothing of what had happened. He had seen Stone pick up the packet, he had watched his fingers running idly over it and then he had seen the startled expression that had come into Stone's face. Then, so well was he aware of Stone's uncanny power of intuition that he was terrified as to what would follow next.

As in one lightning flash Stone might have grouped together three happenings; his own failure to discover the letters that morning; finding him, Larose, talking with Lady Mentone and lastly, a packet of letters in so extraordinary a place as a rose basket that was being carried about in the garden.

He swore deeply under his breath.

But Lady Mentone's voice, although her heart was throbbing like a piston, came calm and unruffled and in its accustomed beautiful modulation.

"Yes, only letters," she nodded to the Inspector. She laughed slyly. "Some old love letters of mine, Mr. Stone, that I don't want my husband to read." She nodded to Sir Charles, who had now finished picking up what he considered his share of the spilled roses, and added carelessly. "Take that little packet from the Inspector, please, Charles, and put it in your pocket at once. Don't look at it whatever you do, or you'll never have any trust in me again," and she turned away to finish rearranging her roses.

Smiling tolerantly, Sir Charles stretched out his hand for the packet, but just for the fraction of a second Stone hesitated to pass it over. As Larose had surmised, his imagination had been quivering like a tuning-fork, but at the same time his reason shrieked to him that it was too miraculous a coincidence that the very letters he had been seeking so vainly should be now in his hands! Then Lady Mentone's calm indifference turned the scales.

He handed the packet with a bow to Sir Charles, who at once put it in hip pocket.

"And now I'll give you a rose for your button-hole, Inspector," said Lady Mentone graciously. Her ready smile lit up her face again. "I'm sure you don't get flowers like these at Scotland Yard." Her eyes were dancing with merriment. "Which color would you prefer?"

"The deepest crimson that you have," replied Stone solemnly, and he glared at Larose who was trying not to smile.

Sir Charles and his lady nodded a smiling good-bye and the three men stood watching them until they had entered the house.

"A very fascinating young woman that," sighed Stone, turning at last to his companions, "and I can understand any man falling in love with her."

"And yet you would believe her guilty of the most dreadful offences," commented Dr. Athol dryly.

"Certainly," agreed Stone readily, "but that in no wise detracts from her charm." He smiled. "Never before have I met anyone so untruthful, and yet who can get away with it as she does every time." He tapped the doctor in quite a friendly way upon the arm. "You lie very poorly, my friend. You fidget and clench your hands when you are doing it, but she lies with the demeanor of a nun saying her prayers, and then—almost I believe I am the liar myself." He shook his head frowningly. "Still, although I say it who shouldn't, it is almost a relief to me that she can do it, for I shouldn't like to see the handcuffs upon those pretty wrists of hers." He tapped the doctor upon the shoulder this time. "Put that down to his credit, sir, when you are judging Inspector Stone."

"I will," laughed Dr. Athol, "and if you should meet with any accident before you leave the Priory, I'll attend you with pleasure, without charging any fee." He looked at his watch. "But I must be going back now. I've a lot to do."

"And I'll come with you as far as the lane," said Larose. "I'm going into the village to get some tobacco," and with a nod of good-bye to the Inspector, they turned and walked on in the direction of the exit from the Priory grounds.

For a few moments Stone stood watching them, and then was turning away himself, when his eyes fell upon a deep heel-mark in the grass border just where Larose had been standing.

He regarded it curiously, he bent over it and then he frowned. His lips moved as if he were muttering an imprecation and he scowled. Then with a snap of his fingers he straightened himself up suddenly and walked smilingly away. His smile, however, was a very grim one.

"A suspicious man, that Inspector!" remarked Dr. Athol when he and Larose were out of earshot. "And he can be very bitter, too."

"Suspicious!" echoed Larose, as if very surprised. "Well, hasn't he good reason to be? And bitter! Well, wouldn't you be bitter in his circumstances?" He laughed. "But for rotten bad luck and being just a few hours too late, he would have been quite justified in taking both you and Lady Mentone back with him into Colchester this morning; her ladyship as the possible slayer of E. A. Toller, and you, as an accessory after the fact."

The doctor looked astonished. "Y-o-u think so," he stammered. "You believe——"

They had now turned into the road and were out of sight of the house, and Larose stopped suddenly to interrupt the doctor. "Now look here," he said impressively. "I know it must be most unpleasant for a gentleman, such as you are, to be continually uttering falsehoods, as you have been doing ever since Lady Mentone dragged you into this. So, I tell you straight away that in talking to me there is no need for any further untruths. Lady Mentone has told me everything."

He spoke in ordinary and matter-of-fact tones. "I found those letters Toller had hidden away, and gave them to her ladyship a little while ago and she, with no disloyalty to you, made known to me how you had been trying to help her," and then, very quickly, he told the doctor everything that had happened.

Dr. Athol's face was a study, and when Larose had finished he exclaimed fervently. "Oh, what a mercy you, and not the Inspector, found those letters! These past few days have been a nightmare to us! I had to lie, too, to protect that poor girl." He looked intently at Larose. "But I say, how did the Inspector get to know we had both passed up the lane that night?"

"Miss Carrington told him just before he came up to see you," replied Larose. "She and Miss Arbour were up in the turret that night!"

"Good God!" exclaimed the doctor looking very taken aback. "Then did Miss Arbour see us both, too?"

"She saw you, but said at once it wasn't you, and I don't think she caught sight of Lady Mentone at all. It was only Miss Carrington who said she saw her ladyship, and then she only thought it was she, because the walk was the same. I can tell you now she told me this about both of you two days ago, but I did not repeat it to anyone."

"Bah!" exclaimed the doctor, "that Carrington woman hates me and she would tell any lie about Lady Mentone because she knows she and I are friends. She's always trying to poison Miss Arbour's mind about her, too."

And at that very moment Mary Arbour was talking to Lady Mentone over the 'phone.

The latter had got Mary's urgent message directly she had come into the house with Sir Charles, but she had waited until she had hidden away the letters before ringing her up.

Strangely enough, after the mental agony they had occasioned her, she was yet not intending to destroy the letters until she had read them again, and, for one thing, seen if they had been very dreadful for Larose to have gone through. She was so exhilarated, too, with the way she had outwitted and outgeneralled the Inspector, when he was been actually holding the evidence he wanted against her in his own hands, that the very idea of taking yet further risks was thrilling to her.

So she ran upstairs and secreted the letters, not in her own bedroom—she chuckled here at the way her encounters with Scotland Yard had sharpened her wits—but behind one of the folds in the carpet up the main staircase that were held in place by the brass rods.

Then she rang up Mary.

"Oh, is that you, dear," came Mary's voice. "Well, I am afraid now I am too late to be of any good, but I wanted to tell you that that odious Inspector, the stout one, had been up here talking to Norman, and then gone off with him down the drive. I don't of course know what he wanted, but from a few words I caught as they were going out of the door I guessed he was coming to worry you again."

"And so he was, dear," said Lady Mentone gaily. "He had picked up some stupid gossip about Norman and me having been seen together in the grounds that awful night, and he wanted to question us together." She laughed merrily. "But he got nothing out of it, of course, and it ended in his going away with a rose I had given him in his button-hole."

"Was he pleasant, then, when he went away?" asked Mary, and had Lady Mentone only known it. Mary's face was white and drawn.

"Oh, quite pleasant, dear," she replied, "except that, to the very last he wanted to let us know he was still sure that one of us was guilty"—she laughed merrily—"by choosing the darkest blood red rose there was in my basket to imply something sanguinary."

Mary rang off, and then, subsiding into an armchair, covered her face with her hands. "And I could have been so fond of him!" she murmured brokenly. "He makes my path so very hard." Tears welled into her eyes. "How faithless men can be!"

But she heard quick steps upon the gravel outside, and darted out of the hall. A few moments later Dr. Athol was calling her.

"Mary, are you anywhere about?" he called out, and he began opening the doors of the rooms. She appeared at once. She had wiped her eyes, and there was now no trace of her recent emotion.

The doctor came up to her and took her hand. "I am sorry, dear, that I went off so abruptly," he said, "but that suspicious Inspector had heard some rubbish about Billy and me, and wanted to confront us together. He insisted that I should go to the Priory with him at once." He laughed a little bitterly. "But he came a nasty thud directly he spoke to Billy, and, in the end went off with his tail between his legs."

Mary looked troubled. "I guessed it was something like that," she said, "and tried to get Billy on the phone to prepare her, but I didn't speak to her until a few minutes ago, and then she told me what had happened."

The doctor drew her to him and kissed her tenderly. "But what made you think of it, dear?" he asked, feeling very uneasy.

Mary hesitated. "I was suspicious of Jane Carrington," she said slowly, and as if choosing her words very carefully, "and it was like this. I happened to be standing at my bedroom window a few minutes before the Inspector arrived, and I saw Jane coming up the lane in a funny manner. She was almost running, which she never does, and she kept looking back as if she thought she was being followed. Then directly she got in the drive she stared up at all the windows of the house as if to see it anyone was watching her come in. Then when the Inspector arrived I instantly put two and two together, and thought she had just been talking to him and had hurried home to get here first."

"But why should you think she had been talking to him?" asked the doctor, guessing instinctively that Mary was holding something back.

"Because I've recently found out that Jane can be very deceitful. On Monday Mr. Larose called to have a look at my roses. You remember I invited him that night at dinner? I was out, but Jane met him in the drive and introduced herself to him, and they talked for quite 20 minutes. Jane never told me about this, but cook happened to mention it casually to me the next day, and when I asked Jane about it, she got very red and said she'd forgotten to mention it."

"What had they talked about?" asked the doctor, although he knew quite well.

"Ah! That's just it," said Mary. She caught her breath ever so little. "I've not mentioned it to you before, because it seemed so ridiculous, but the night that man was killed Jane and I were sitting up in the turret and Jane said she first saw Billy coming up the lane and then you." She shook her head. "I didn't see the woman she saw, but the man was not a bit like you."

"And you think she told that to Inspector Stone?" asked Dr. Athol, as if in deep thought.

"She must have done, Norman, for how else could he have heard it? There were only us two in the turret."

"'Then have her in now and ask her," said the doctor grimly. "That'd stop her mouth at any rate."

Mary shook her head. "No, Norman, I have a better plan. A month tomorrow was to be our wedding day. Well——" she hesitated and a deep blush suffused her face; then she burst out quickly, as if anxious to get it over—"Let us get married at once, instead, and then we can send Jane away, and you can come to live here straightaway as the master."

Just for one moment Dr. Athol regarded her wonderingly, and then with a delighted smile he drew her again to him.

"Tomorrow, darling," he exclaimed breathlessly. "I'll go into Colchester this afternoon and get the special licence."

"No, not Colchester, Norman," she said, gently pushing him from her. "We'll be married in Ipswich." She gave a little shiver. "After all that has happened here, Colchester means only policemen and prisons to me." She smiled. "And don't you see what a wonderful excuse it will be to get rid of Jane, so that she won't be in the neighborhood any longer to spread her dreadful lies. I realise now that she's a woman capable of any spite." She frowned. "But I won't tell her until this evening, and then she shall go off on an early train."

"Yes," nodded the doctor grimly, "and I'll drive her myself into Colchester, so that she shan't do any more gossiping here."

"No, I'll do that, please." She sighed. "And, Norman, I think it would look better if you didn't come back here tonight. You could go to some hotel in Ipswich and I'd meet you there tomorrow, when you've got the licence?" She looked up shyly at him. "You can't sleep at your own house tonight, and if you stay here there's always such a chance of scandal with a woman like Jane about."

They arranged, too, that they should tell no one and give everyone the surprise of their returning on the morrow as man and wife.

Fate tried one last throw of the dice against Lady Mentone that afternoon.

Stone, hoping against hope, and with all his better judgment telling him he was wasting time, had put the bungalow and everywhere around it through a fine comb, but late afternoon found him, dispirited and thoroughly worn out, getting into his car to return to the city.

Then, just as he was sitting there waiting for his two men who were washing their hands, he saw a beautiful limousine driving out of the Priory grounds, with Sir Charles Mentone leaning out of the window, and waving his hand to a little group standing before the front door.

"Ah, the doting husband!" ejaculated Stone irritably, and then he added, under his breath. "But, by gosh, what a sensation there would have been if I had caught his pretty darling." He shook his head savagely. "And I'm almost sure I had her in my hands and like a blithering idiot, let her slip through my fingers. Gilbert didn't dig his heel in that turf for nothing. He was in a dreadful fright about something." He sighed. "Yes, Gilbert's been the snag here all along, and I can guess now it was he who found those letters. He'd just given them to her, too, this morning." He gritted his teeth together. "Yes, what a chance I've missed."

Then a sudden thought struck him and he caught his breath. He hesitated and then he jumped like lightning out of the car and started to run quickly towards the back door of the Priory. He opened it without ceremony, and marched into the kitchen. The cook was the only occupant there, and she was mixing the ingredients of a cake. A bright fire was burning in the stove.

"Good afternoon, Cook," said Stone. He jerked his head towards the stove "Now, is that the only fire burning in the house today?"

"Yes, sir," smiled the cook looking very puzzled, "and there wouldn't be one here if I could help it. It's been a very close afternoon."

"Have you been here all day?" asked Stone. "Has anyone been burning papers in that stove? Have you seen anyone put anything in it?"

The cook looked more puzzled than ever. "No, sir, no one's touched the range except me."

"And which of the young ladies has been in the kitchen today?"

"Only Miss Beatrice, sir. She came in to give the orders, after breakfast."

"Thank you," said Stone, and, with no ceremony again, he proceeded into the other part of the house. He met Chime in the hall. "Where's her ladyship?" he asked curtly.

"Here I am, Inspector," came a melodious voice, and Lady Mentone appeared from the dining-room. "Oh, are you just going?" she asked, seeing that Stone was carrying his hat in his hand. "Now, won't you stop and have a cup of tea? It's just coming in. Chime's going to fetch the others from the garden."

Stone ignored her suggested hospitality. "Where are those letters you had this morning?" he asked sternly. "I want to see them?"

At once Lady Mentone appeared to look the very picture of consternation. Her mouth gaped, her eyes opened, and she put her hand over her heart. "Good heavens!" she exclaimed. "My husband's gone off with them! I forgot to take them out of his pocket!"

"But I'm going to search your room," said Stone grimly. "I believe they are up there."

"Search my bedroom!" gasped her ladyship. Her look of incredulity passed and her face broke into a broad smile. "But you don't think——" she began.

"Yes, I do," snapped Stone. "I'm going up at once."

She looked at him with contempt. "Then go," she said, haughtily, and she made as if to walk out of the hall.

"No, you don't, please," went on Stone. "I won't let you out of my sight. You'll come up with me." He jerked his head in the direction of the front door, which was standing open. "Would you like to wait for one of your sisters to come with us."

Lady Mentone's face was as red as fire. "Certainly not," she replied scornfully. "I'm not afraid of being alone with you anywhere." She laughed mockingly as she led the way upstairs. "You have no sex-appeal for me, Inspector Stone."

They reached her bedroom, and she walked inside before him. Her composure was perfect. "As you see, it's quite tidy," she said quietly, "and so, please, don't upset it too much."

Stone got to business at once, frowning and now feeling very much annoyed. He was a fool, he told himself, and he had been much too imaginative and hasty. But all the same, he began his search most thoroughly.

Turning his attention first to the bed, he pushed his hands under the pillow and the bolster. He thrust his arms under the whole length of the bed-clothes and under the mattress. Then he examined the carpet all round and looked behind the pictures and up the chimney. He opened the wardrobe and lifted every hat from the shelf, following that by sweeping aside the dresses and peering all round, below.

He began upon the chest of drawers, rapidly going through the contents of the first two drawers and passing his hand under the paper linings. Then he opened the long drawer and saw upon the top of some underclothes a big catalogue from a well-known London emporium. But of the letters there was no trace.

He closed the drawer with a snap.

"Thank you, your ladyship," he said quietly. "I was mistaken," and in a few minutes Lady Mentone heard his car drive away.

That night Larose posted a little packet to Dr. Athol. It was enclosed in a long envelope with 'Important' written on the top left-hand corner, and the handwriting was in bold printed letters.


CHAPTER XI.—NEMESIS

The following morning, just as the highly disgusted Miss Jane Carrington was being driven into Colchester, with tears of baffled spite in her eyes and a crossed cheque for three months' salary in her bag, Mrs. Jackson arrived at the back door of the Priory to have speech with her brother, Samuel Chime.

Tears were streaming down her face and her voice was choking as she proceeded to tell him that the village constable had just been round to her to say that a body answering in all respects to the description of their niece, was now lying in the Southend mortuary and someone was to proceed there at once to identify it.

The body had been washed up on the shore between Southend and Shoeburyness and to all appearances it had been in the sea about a week.

The butler trembled like a leaf and tears welled from his eyes, too. "No, Sally, you shan't go," he choked. "Miss Beatrice will spare me, I'm quite sure."

The sisters were shocked at the news. "Of course, Mrs. Jackson is not to go Chime," said Beatrice peremptorily. "You'll go yourself"—she turned to Larose—"and Mr. Larose will drive you there."

So in due time, the poor butler, gripped firmly by the arm by Larose so that he should not fall, identified the sodden thing upon the mortuary table as the remains of one Myrtle Marriott whom, as a little child, he had fondled and cherished, deeming her then but little lower than the angels. The inquest had been fixed for the afternoon of the following day.

And in the same hour that Chime had been weeping over the dead in Southend, in Ipswich Mary Arbour had been promising to love, honor, and obey Norman Athol. There had been only five people present at the ceremony, and the two witnesses had been the verger and the church cleaner.

The ceremony over, the bridal couple had driven to an hotel for lunch. They had spoken very little, and Mary had seemed very nervous. She hardly looked at her husband and, indeed, appeared all the time to be avoiding his eyes. And it was the same during the drive home. Hardly a word was spoken and when the doctor made any remark, Mary answered it only in monosyllables.

Arriving at 'The Towers,' they left the car standing before the front door and walked inside. Then there being no one about in the hall, Dr. Athol made a movement to take his bride in his arms.

"No, not here, please Norman," she said hurriedly and gently pushing him away. "Come into the drawing-room. I want to tell you something very important."

"Goodness gracious," laughed Dr. Athol, "the only important thing I have to tell you, is that I love you."

Very puzzled, and now very much taken aback, because he saw that she was trembling violently, he followed her into the drawing-room, and the door being closed, to his amazement, she again repulsed him.

"No, Norman," she said, and her voice was little above a whisper, "keep away from me, please, and hear what I've got to say."

He caught his breath, for her face had gone a deathly color. "My darling, what is it?" he asked anxiously. "Are you feeling ill?"

She shook her head. "Not physically," she replied shakily, "but in other ways"—she could hardly speak—"I am a dead woman"—her eyes flashed—"at all events to you."

"Mary! Mary!" exclaimed the doctor, "whatever has come over you?"

"Nothing has come over me," she replied, speaking now in a much stronger tone. "As I am now, so I have always been since I came here and met you a year and a half ago. I am just the same except"—her eyes flashed again—"that the time has now come for me to drop the mask and speak plainly to you."

"Then speak, darling," said Dr. Athol, sinking wearily into a chair. "Speak and get it over at once." He affected a jovial spirit he did not feel. "There's a bee buzzing somewhere in your bonnet, but we'll soon drive it away."

Mary was now icily cold. "Have you had any lovers before me?" she asked, regarding him very intently.

The doctor looked greatly relieved. "Oh, then, it's only jealousy, is it? Well, we'll soon settle that." He laughed lightly. "Yes, dear, of course I have, when I was quite a young fellow." He seemed very amused. "I had plenty of flirtations in my student days."

But there was no answering amusement in Mary's eyes. "Then you have not always been what the world would call a good man?" she asked quietly.

Dr. Athol raised his eyebrows ever so little. "Well, it all depends upon what you call a 'good' man, sweetheart. The flaming days of youth were mine once, just as they come to everybody in their time." He nodded. "I won't tell you any falsehoods. I've just been a natural, ordinary man, nothing more, and nothing less."

Mary spoke with an assumption of great carelessness. "Well, I've been ordinary and natural, too, like you. Just an ordinary, natural woman." Her words now came very slowly. "Only it happens the consequences to me were more serious"—she looked him straight in the face—"for although I was not married—I had a child."

The doctor sat up in his chair with a jerk, his jaw dropped and his eyes opened very wide. "You—had—a—child!"

"Oh, yes," replied Mary calmly, "you could forget your love affairs, but I was not able to forget mine, and there has always been the child to remind me of them."

"Good God!" exclaimed the doctor.

Mary nodded. "Ah, that's how I used to commence my prayers." She sighed. "But they were not answered."

A long silence followed and then the doctor asked hoarsely. "And is the father of your child alive?"

Mary nodded again. "Most certainly—and his fatherhood has never occasioned him the slightest worry or anxiety."

Another silence followed, and then the doctor asked sharply. "Why didn't the father marry you?"

Mary shrugged her shoulders. "Why don't men always marry the woman who has given them everything?" She spoke as if it had been quite the natural thing for the father to have done. "He went away!"

"And when did all this happen?" frowned Dr. Athol.

"Ten years ago, when I was barely eighteen." She looked scornful. "I was poor and friendless, then, and he had known me"—she paused significantly—"for just three days—only three short days!"

"Oh the scoundrel," ejaculated the doctor warmly.

"Yes, the scoundrel!" exclaimed Mary in rising anger. "He left me, to nurse my dreadful fears, to bear my shame alone, and to walk that valley of the shadow with no dear faces near me and no one to comfort me." She made a gesture of contempt. "Bah! a brute like the very beasts of the field and worse even than they!"

"Where is the child now?" asked the doctor very quietly after a long pause.

Mary was now quite calm, too. "At school. It was a son I had, and a year and a half ago I put him away from me that I might enter the matrimonial lists unhampered and obtain a husband." Her tone was hard and bitter. "I intended to make one man pay for the wrong done me by another." She laughed mockingly. "Now, my dear husband, what are you going to do?"

For a long moment Dr. Athol regarded her very thoughtfully, and then he smiled. "It is not in your nature Mary, to be as heartless as you try to make out you are." He rose to his feet and held out his arms to her. "Come, dear. I'm very fond of you and I'll try to make up for everything. The child shall be ours, mine as well as yours, and we'll tell people we've adopted him."

But there was no answering tenderness in her face, as she stepped sharply away from him. "No, no, Norman keep back," she cried, "for I haven't finished yet." She lowered her voice to an intense whisper. "Do you think you can ever make up to me for all that I have gone through; for those nights of horror when I became aware of what was going to happen," she shook her head in passion. "I tell you I nearly went mad. I tried to find the father of my child, but he had gone away and my letters to him were unanswered."

"Mary! Mary!" exclaimed Dr. Athol reprovingly, "why do you work yourself up to this state of distress. I've told you I'll take you as you are, darling, and in time you will forget all this. I know you're a good woman, and——"

"I'm not a good woman," she interrupted fiercely, "for my heart has hardened, and all these long years I have thought of nothing but revenge, and now——" a clarion note of triumph rang in her voice—"I have obtained it. Yes, it has come to me at last!"

Then as suddenly as the calm follows the storm, her voice dropped and she spoke very quietly again. "Norman," she asked carelessly, "do you remember Faygate?"

Dr. Athol started. He went pale as death, and he swallowed hard. "Faygate! Faygate!" he muttered, as if he were awakening from a dream. He suddenly leant forward. "Oh, Adele, it can't be you!" He gasped. "But it can't be you!"

Adele Chandos inclined her head. "But it is, Norman," she replied coldly. "I am the Adele you betrayed and left ten years ago." She smiled sadly. "I do not wonder, however, that you have never recognised me, for my griefs have aged me, and as I say"—her voice was like the hiss of a snake—"you only knew me then for three days, remember, Norman."

"I was mad, I was mad," burst out Dr. Athol, the very picture of remorse. "It was the impulse of the moment and every hour of my life since has been one long regret." His face became illuminated suddenly with a great tenderness, and he held out his arms to her again. "But oh, Adele, what a happy ending for us to be married and for me to see my son!"

She swept back from him for the third time. "And do you think," she asked scornfully, "I have forgiven you—that I am ever going to let you see or touch your son? Do you imagine you are ever going to hear him call you 'Father,' and that he is to learn he was begotten by such a man?" Her eyes blazed. "Why, I only married you to legitimatise him and get my revenge upon you."

The doctor winced as if he had been struck a violent blow. "Revenge, Adele!" he choked hoarsely. "But you can't be such a bad woman as to want to——"

"I am a bad woman," she broke in fiercely, "bad as you have made me; bad, cruel, and hard, and all these years I have been waiting only to tell you how I hate you," she gritted her teeth together. "Yes, how I hate you! I——" but she bit her lip and with difficulty restrained herself from bursting into tears. Almost at once, however, she had pulled herself together to go on, speaking very quietly again. "Listen, when you left me,——"

"But I did not leave you," said the doctor sternly. "I did not know what was happening to you, and yet for fear of what might be, I tried in every way to——"

"Listen, please, Norman," she interrupted wearily and as if her passion had quite exhausted her. "Listen, I say, and when I have spoken you shall tell me anything you can think of to mitigate the contempt I feel for you."

Dr. Athol's expression was one of both anger and pity. "All right," he said sharply, "go on"—he looked very grim, "but don't be too bitter, or you may be regretting it in a few moments."

"I don't want to be bitter," she replied sadly, "although, God knows, I have suffered enough to make me so"—she was almost on the verge of tears again—"and I realise now, too, that in punishing you I am making it much more unhappy for myself than I had ever thought."

"Go on," said the doctor, "I'll talk to you in a minute."

She shook her head. "But I have schemed so long to make you suffer, Norman, that nothing will alter my decision that when you leave this room, you go out of my life for ever." She regarded him intently. "Are you fond of me? I have sometimes thought you were."

Dr. Athol nodded. "I have been for a long time, although"—he nodded again—"the passion I had once for Adele has made me a little cold towards Mary. I think you must have sensed something of that nature."

She frowned as if his words were stirring an unwelcome chord in her. "Do you realise," she went on, "that when I knew, I almost took my own life? And I should probably have done so if my employer had not died suddenly and, leaving me all she possessed, made me a rich woman. Then I went abroad to have my baby, and remained there until two years ago, when I came back to England to find out about you. As you had qualified as a doctor, you were easily traced, and I came here to be near you. I thought you wouldn't recognise me and, hating you like poison, I let you make love to me." Her lips curved in scorn. "You were an easy prey."

"Yes, because you reminded me of Adele," commented the doctor promptly. "I thought so from the very first, although the possibility of your being she, of course, never entered my mind." He frowned and asked abruptly. "But why did you marry me in all this hurry?"

A look of fear came into her face. "Because any moment," she replied quickly. "I have been expecting you to be arrested for murder." She nodded significantly. "Jane Carrington was spiteful, but she spoke only the truth. She did see you drop over the wall that night, and she had seen Billy Mentone there, too. You were together in the lane."

"No, we were never there together," said the doctor sharply. "We were there at different times. Billy was in great trouble and she came up to see me for help." He smiled. "And it may ease your mind a little to be assured that your husband had nothing whatever to do with the murder."

"Is that really the truth, Norman?" she asked very solemnly, and then she went on quickly. "As the father of my son I shall say nothing, and as your wife I shall bear no evidence against you."

"It's the absolute truth," replied Dr. Athol. He looked her straight in the face. "Mr. Larose knows everything that we did that evening, and it is upon his advice that Billy is disclosing nothing to the police."

"Then you are engaged in a conspiracy to defeat justice?" suggested Adele scornfully.

"Not justice," snapped Dr. Athol, "but the law." He regarded her very sternly. "Can't you see that poor woman has a secret she must hide from everyone," he nodded significantly—"even as you and I have now? She doesn't want half a dozen lives ruined to provide the public with a sensation."

"Then it was she who killed that man?" said Adele slowly. "She was the murderess!"

"Not at all. She had no more to do with it than I had. We were both, as it were, drawn into a dreadful whirlpool."

"But she was being blackmailed!" said Adele quietly. "Inspector Stone's suspicions are upon a sure foundation there!"

Dr. Athol smiled. "You say so." He shook his head. "But I can't tell you anything. Her secrets are not mine to give away."

Adele spoke in quite a casual manner. "Norman, tell me what are your exact relations with Billy Mentone?"

The doctor did not pretend to misunderstand. "Don't be foolish, Adele," he said, shaking his head reprovingly. "There is nothing like that between us. I am just her doctor and her friend—nothing more." He smiled again. "No, I have never kissed her, and have not even held her hand."

Adele shook her head. "I don't believe you, Norman," she said very quietly.

Dr. Athol's face flushed and he looked furiously angry, but he had his temper well in hand. "You are quite mistaken," he said, sternly, "but we won't discuss that now. You are wandering into trivialities when this other question is not settled." He dropped his voice to quiet tones. "Now, have you quite finished talking about what you call my desertion of you, ten years ago?"

Adele was cold as ice. "I have said all I want to," she replied, "and it now only remains for you to leave me."

"Oh, but there's much more to do than that," said Dr. Athol significantly, "for I have to tell you something." He drew in a deep breath. "Now I make no excuses, for nothing could have been worse than the wrong I did you. It was a dreadful crime and I deserve every punishment you can give me." He snapped his fingers together. "So much for that, and now for what followed afterwards." It was his turn now to reprove her. "You were a foolish girl, for after those two letters you wrote me from Faygate, which I did not receive until four months afterwards, you made no further effort to find me," and then he went on to tell her all that had happened, as Larose had read in the letters he had taken that night from the bureau in the consulting room.

"So you must realise, Adele," he finished up with, "my first fault was my only one and after that I tried in every way I could to obtain an opportunity to make atonement." He spoke with intense emotion. "I never forgot you and, until that fire two nights ago destroyed everything, I had kept both your letters and mine, always hoping that one day I might meet you again, and put myself right with you."

And all the time he had been speaking, Adele's eyes had never left his face. At first she had regarded him disdainfully, then it had been only with an effort that she had kept up an appearance of studied scorn and disbelief and finally her expression was a most unhappy one.

When at last he had finished and a few moments of intense silence followed, she sank back tremblingly into a chair. "I can't believe you, Norman," she said weakly. "I have nursed my wrongs for so long that they are not to be reasoned away in a few minutes by a few plausible words." She smiled, with a faint tinge of sarcasm. "It is unfortunate that those letters were burnt just when they were so needed."

There was a knock upon the door, and one of the maids entered with a small packet upon a salver. She advanced to Adele. "I am very sorry, Miss," she said apologetically, "but this came by post this morning when you were away with Miss Carrington, and I forgot to mention it when you came back. It is marked 'Important.'"

"Oh, it doesn't matter," said Adele frowningly. She looked down at the packet. "But it's for Dr. Athol. Give it to him," and when the doctor had taken it from her, the maid retired from the room.

Dr. Athol regarded the little packet curiously. It was addressed in a peculiar way and the post-mark on it was blurred and indistinct. "Now, that's funny," he remarked. "I wonder why it was addressed to me here. Anyhow, they've soon got to know about the fire."

"The handwriting looks disguised," said Adele sweetly. "Perhaps Billy Mentone has sent you a present and didn't want me to know anything about."

But Dr. Athol did not hear her. He had opened the packet and for the moment his faculties were paralysed. "What," he muttered, "where did these come from?" and then he gasped. "Good heavens! A miracle! One of the firemen must have picked them out of the ruins!"

He darted over to Adele's side. "Look, look!" he exclaimed excitedly, "the very letters I have just told you about! They must have played the hose upon the bureau they were in, and being in the lowest drawer the fire didn't reach them." He spoke with great emotion. "Now, Adele, will you believe me?"

She stared incredulously at what he had thrust into her hands; the two envelopes addressed in her handwriting, the three addressed in his, the dance programme of the Horsham Tennis Ball, and an envelope that she could feel contained a withered flower.

Then with shaking fingers she took out one of the letters that had been returned to Marseilles from the Dead Letter Office in London. But she only read a few lines and then turned back to the containing envelope and looked at the post-marks. Her scrutiny, however, was a very short one, and then she looked up at Dr. Athol.

"If you please, Norman," she said weakly, "will you go away. I'll let you know if I want to see you again." Her voice shook. "I can't bear any more just now."

"All right, dear," the doctor replied, "and take your time over it." He smiled. "I feel limp as a rag myself, and you must be almost done in." He walked over to the door. "I shall be at my own place when you want me. Some of the rooms will be quite habitable, now that the tarpaulins have been put up," and in a few seconds Adele Chandos was alone.

The doctor walked down the drive in a turmoil of emotion, but his thoughts were very quickly turned in another direction, when, by the entrance gates he met the village constable on his bicycle. Upon seeing him, the constable alighted, and, touching his cap, respectfully handed him a paper.

"A subpoena, sir," he said, "for you to attend the inquest at Southend tomorrow."

"What inquest?" snapped the doctor, his nerves all on edge.

"Oh, haven't you heard, sir?" exclaimed the constable. "I made sure they would have told you at the Priory. Myrtle Marriott's body was washed up on the sands yesterday near Southend, and Mr. Chime went over to identify it this morning."

"Are they sure it was the girl?" asked the doctor quickly.

"Oh, yes, quite sure, sir. Mr. Chime recognised it at once, and I've just served him with his subpoena to be present tomorrow, and one of the young ladies, as well."

"One of the young ladies at the Priory!" ejaculated Dr. Athol, very surprised. "Which one?"

"Miss Eva, sir."

The doctor frowned crossly. "Goodness gracious, what's she wanted at the inquest for?"

"I don't know, sir. I just had my instructions from Colchester to serve the subpoenas, and I don't know anything more."

The constable mounted his bicycle and rode away and Dr. Athol turned into the lane, as being the nearest way to the Priory. He had just passed through the gates of the grounds, when a movement behind some trees about twenty yards away caught his eye, and he looked round quickly to see a man bending down close to the wall. The man straightened himself and he saw that it was Larose.

"Good morning!" he called, and started to walk towards him.

Larose had looked round with a very startled and annoyed expression, at the same time making a quick movement to hide behind his back a small bottle that he had in his hand. But realising who had called to him, he allowed the bottle to come into view again, and his face broke into a smile.

"Oh, it's only you, is it?" he laughed. "But it might have been the Inspector and then I should have been very disgusted at my carelessness." He made a grimace. "It is always my boast that I have eyes at the back of my head when I'm on any very particular work."

"But what have you been doing?" asked Dr. Athol curiously.

The laughing expression dropped instantly from Larose's face and he held up the bottle for the doctor's inspection. "Looking for this," he replied very solemnly, "and I found it, pushed under the bricks at the bottom of the wall. It is the second bottle of vitriol that girl obtained, and so we can be quite certain now she brought it here to throw over Toller, the night he was murdered. Look, she never even troubled to scrape the label off. See—'John Bentley, Chemist and Druggist, Ipswich. Sulphuric Acid. Poison'."

"But how the devil did you come to find it?" asked the doctor wonderingly.

"A bit of luck," replied Larose, "and guessing she would have got rid of it not far from where she was most likely to have left her bicycle as she made her way up to the bungalow behind these trees. I thought——"

"But she didn't go straight up to the bungalow," interrupted the doctor. "She went up to the house first, to get that rifle."

"No, she never went near the house nor touched the rifle," replied Larose. "And she never shot the man nor used her vitriol, because she found him murdered when she arrived at the bungalow." He looked intently at the doctor. "But, of course, you know the girl is dead, don't you?"

Dr. Athol nodded. "Yes. I've just been served with a subpoena to attend the inquest tomorrow."

Larose laid his hand upon the doctor's arm and drew him a few paces away to the edge of the belt of trees.

"Now, there's something rather amusing," he said. "See those four clumsy men trampling among the flower beds. Lesser is one of them, and they've been sent post-haste from Colchester to find this bottle." He shook his head. "But they are going about it all wrong. They argue that coming here last night to throw the vitriol, and finding Toller dead, the girl would have immediately hurled the bottle away from her and bolted, exactly as you tell me you did, to get away as quickly as possible. But I didn't think she would have been quite such a fool, because she couldn't have helped realising the vitriol would be traced back to her, and, it being found where it was, she might be accused of the murder. So I argued she at least would have taken it as far away as where she had left her bicycle. Then she might have proceeded to get rid of it at once, because having certainly taken off its wrappings, and most likely loosened the stopper, the bottle would be both awkward and dangerous to carry on the machine." He waved his arm back in the direction of the wall. "And if you were not expecting the object to be looked for, what better hiding place could you want than under those bottom bricks where the earth has sunk away?" He nodded. "Remember, there was a moon shining and she could see quite well where to put the bottle."

"But how would it help them in any way if they did find it among those flower beds?" asked the doctor gloomily.

"Why, it would prove the girl did come here that night," replied Larose sharply, "but not to murder—only to throw vitriol. And it would be almost proof, too, that she did not throw the vitriol because she found Toller dead. Therefore, she was not the murderer."

He gripped him hard by the arm. "Don't you see, doctor, that because it will come out at the inquest upon Myrtle Marriott tomorrow that Toller had betrayed her and she had threatened him with her revenge, everyone will be quite sure she killed him. Then when this other inquest, the adjourned one on Toller, comes on here next week, the jury will almost certainly bring in a verdict of murder against the girl. It will seem the most natural thing to do."

"Certainly," agreed the doctor drily, "and if I were on the jury I wouldn't hesitate five seconds."

"But Scotland Yard won't have it," said Larose, "for its view is that the real murderer will be escaping under a smoke-screen." He shook his head vehemently. "Can't you see, doctor, how embarrassing that girl's death is to them? They can't get any story from her now, and a clever counsel will use her threats against Toller as a red herring, to draw the scent away from these girls here."

Dr. Athol looked incredulous. "But you surely don't still believe, Mr. Larose," he asked warmly, "that one of the girls here killed Toller?"

"One of the girls, or else Chime or you?" smiled Larose. "I am quite certain it's among one of you five." He looked very amused. "Just think of how the suspicions have been piling up against some of you! Why, if Inspector Stone had got hold of those letters, instead of me, where would poor Lady Mentone be today?"

"It can't bear thinking about," replied the doctor instantly. He eyed Larose curiously. "Do you still suspect her?"

Larose shrugged his shoulders. "I tell you I suspect you all, for you are all keeping something back from me. You've got some secret that's troubling you, now, I can tell that. Chime looks at me as furtively as if he had been committing murder every night. I saw at breakfast this morning that Miss Beatrice has got a load of trouble upon her and Miss Eva looked up sharply each time the door opened, as if she were——"

"Oh!" broke in the doctor suddenly, "and why's Eva been served with a subpoena, too, to attend that inquest tomorrow?"

"What!" exclaimed Larose, very surprised, "she's had a summons! I've not heard anything about it!"

"The constable happened to mention it when he was giving me mine not a quarter of an hour ago. He'd served one on Chime, too."

Larose's momentary uneasiness seemed to have passed. "Oh, well, I've not been in the house since lunch, so I expect I shall hear all about it when I go in."

"But what are you going to do about that vitriol?" asked the doctor. "Are you going to tell those men that you've got it?"

Larose shook his head. "No, the Superintendent has been rather curt and offhanded with me and I don't feel inclined to help him in any way," he grinned. "Besides, I haven't been helping the authorities too much already, have I? All innocently, I was asked to come here to be of service to these girls, and then, from the very beginning, it struck me it was only in unlawful service that I could help them."

The doctor sighed a deep sigh. "He was an awful brute that Toller, and deserved everything he got."

"Quite so," commented Larose briskly, "and we'll leave it at that. After all, if the shooting were brought home to either of those girls, it is quite probable their punishment would be only a nominal one. I believed every word of Lady Mentone when she spoke of the price Toller wanted her to pay. It would have been just like a man of his type."

That night after dinner Larose made the suggestion that both Beatrice and Lady Mentone should accompany Eva to the inquest next day.

Eva was up in arms at once. "What a horrible suggestion!" she exclaimed indignantly. "It will make them both downright ill, and upset them for the inquest next week."

"Nonsense," retorted Larose sharply. "On the contrary it will prepare them for it and they will be able to get an idea of what's in store for them. They've got an ordeal before them next week, but it won't be half so dreadful to look forward to if they realise that coroners are generally men who allow the police to take no liberties with any of the witnesses." He smiled encouragingly at the other two sisters. "You won't have nearly so gruelling a time as Inspector Stone gave you that morning when I first came."

So the next morning after an early lunch, Larose set off with the three girls in his own car. Dr. Athol was following with Chime and Mrs. Jackson.

The time for the inquest had been fixed for half-past one, and the large room, where the Southend coroner was holding his court, was well filled when he opened the proceedings. Something of the dead girl's relations with the murdered agent of Stratford St. Mary had evidently leaked out, for, in addition to the local reporters, two pressmen had come down from London.

Looking round the room, Larose at once caught sight of Inspector Stone seated next to the Colchester Superintendent of Police, and the former, catching his eye, nodded in a most friendly way. Then the Inspector, seeing who were sitting next to Larose, bowed most politely to each one of the three girls in turn.

The coroner, who was small of stature and rather frail, looked for all that a very shrewd man, and it was evident from the first moment he spoke that he would waste no time in the proceedings.

"Gentlemen," he began briskly to the twelve men in the jury box who were leaning forward to catch every word, "you have undergone the unpleasant task of viewing the body of this young woman and you now have to consider all the circumstances attending her death." He spoke very solemnly. "This is an unusual case, if indeed all deaths by drowning are not unusual, because in the course of our enquiry this afternoon we shall have to consider certain matters, which although not absolutely relevant, will nevertheless have to be brought in, in order that we may, to some extent, determine the state of the deceased's mind at the time of her death. I will just give you a brief outline of everything, so that you will be better able to take in the evidence as it is brought before you.

"Now this young woman, Mrytle Marriott, aged twenty, was a domestic servant in the employ of a Miss Bain of Woodbridge, in Suffolk, her home being with her aunt, a Mrs. Jackson, of the village of Stratford St. Mary, near Colchester. Her body was discovered at 4.25 yesterday morning, washed up on the sands in Thorpe Bay, two and a quarter miles east of Southend Pier, and, according to the medical evidence that will be tendered, she had probably been in the water about seven days. She was fully dressed, and in one of the pockets of her costume was a handkerchief wrapped round a ten shilling Treasury note and six shillings in silver."

"There were no signs of violence about the body, and you will be told that the ultimate cause of death was asphyxia by drowning. You will learn that the young woman was undoubtedly alive when she became first immersed in the sea, for signs then of vital activity are apparent.

"The post-mortem has revealed that although the body was well nourished, the deceased was not in perfect health at the time of her death.

"She was last seen alive upon the night of Tuesday last week, when one of the waitresses serving in the refreshment kiosk at the end of the pier here remembers her having a cup of tea and two pieces of cake, about nine o'clock. The medical evidence confirms she had partaken of just such a meal within half an hour, at most, of her death. This same waitress will tell you, also, that, going out of the kiosk a few minutes later to watch a big liner passing down to sea, she saw the deceased sitting half-way down the landing steps, apparently engaged in watching the big waves—it was a rather gusty night—breaking upon the iron steps just below her."

"Now we must go back and refer to those irrelevant matters that must, however, be brought in. Deceased's period of service in Woodbridge goes back for longer than a year and a half, and during the last year of that time she had been frequently visited by a man who was known to her employer by the surname of James, and who was supposed to be working in Ipswich. Deceased had often stated that the intentions of this man were serious, and that in course of time she would be married to him."

"I will remark here that James, as deceased herself well knew, was not her follower's real name, and, moreover, as she well knew, also, he did not work in Ipswich. He was Edwin Asher Toller, and was employed by Miss Beatrice Brabazon-Fane, of The Priory, Stratford St. Mary, as her agent."

"Well, on Wednesday, June 30th, just three weeks ago, deceased left Woodbridge for Stratford St. Mary on a few days' visit to her aunt, Mrs. Jackson. She was not feeling well and on the following day, consulted the local medical man, Dr. Athol, who at once informed her of her condition.

"Whereupon deceased immediately went to acquaint Toller as to what Dr. Athol had told her and arrange with him to be married at once. But according to the tale deceased unfolded to her aunt, Toller not only denied paternity, but he also informed deceased he was already a married man. Deceased said the interview was a very stormy one and she openly admitted she had stated her intention of having a cruel revenge upon Toller.

"That her threat was not an idle one is proved by her purchase the next day in Colchester of eight ounces of vitriol, which she was of course intending to throw over Toller. But she made no secret to her aunt of her purchase, and after much persuasion Mrs. Jackson ultimately prevailed upon her to give up the acid and go back to Woodbridge on the Sunday. Her return to her situation, however, evidently made no difference to her determination to obtain revenge for, upon the following day, Monday, we find her buying vitriol again, this time in Ipswich."

The coroner paused here and looked very gravely at the twelve jurors. Then he went on.

"We next hear of the deceased upon the Stratford St. Mary-Ipswich road on the following night at the village of of Washbrook, about six miles from Stratford St. Mary, and where she knocks up a storekeeper towards eleven o'clock to obtain some oil for her bicycle lamp, and we hear of her again about half an hour later, when she is taking refuge in the Ipswich railway station for upwards of two hours, from a terrific thunderstorm."

He made a gesture with his hands. "I have to bring this to your notice because, as I expect you all know, the man Toller was murdered that very night at exactly half-past ten and as yet no arrest has been made of his murderer."

He shrugged his shoulders. "Of course, it may be that deceased had nothing whatever to do with the crime, but taking into consideration the wrong done her by the murdered man, her threats of vengeance, her double purchase of the vitriol, thus so clearly evidencing her unaltered determination to injure him, and, finally, her undoubted presence near Stratford St. Mary about that very hour when the murder was carried out—you may be inclined to argue that her mental state was such as to goad her to the committing of deeds of violence that in the end did not stop short of taking her own life."

He paused to take breath. "I am sure, gentlemen, you will realise the difficulty of my position. This man, Toller, had to be mentioned to you in these proceedings, for if he had been alive he would have been the principal witness here this afternoon, and, now he's dead, the part he played in the tragedy of deceased's ending, still loses none of its importance to us. My duty and yours, however is to consider Toller in connection with the deceased only in as far as he might have been responsible for her mental state."

He shook his head. "A very difficult thing to do, gentlemen." He sat up stiffly in his chair. "We will now take the evidence."

And then in a quick procession, a score or more of witnesses filed through the witness box; Chime who had identified the body, the man who found it on the shore, the police surgeon who had performed the post-mortem, the lodging housekeeper with whom the girl had put up in Southend, the woman from the refreshment kiosk on the pier, the aunt in Stratford St. Mary, Dr. Athol, Miss Bain, and all the essential persons who had been brought in contact with Myrtle Marriott following upon the day she had first left Woodbridge to visit Mrs. Jackson.

The coroner was quick and sharp and did nearly all the questioning, with the local Inspector who was representing the police, intervening only occasionally. The spectators seemed to be getting very little for their trouble in attending the inquest, and a few of them drifted from the room, but a rustle of interest at last went round when the name of Eva Brabazon-Fane was called.

Eva stepped into the witness box with perfect self-possession, as if an appearance in a coroner's court were quite an every-day affair with her. She took the oath with no display of nervousness, and a few moments' silence ensued as the coroner looked down at his papers.

"You are Miss Eva Brabazon-Fane?" he asked as length, looking up.

"I am," replied Eva.

"And you live at the Priory, Stratford St. Mary?"

"I do."

"You were acquainted with the deceased?"

"I was."

"How long had you known her?"

"Practically all her life. She was born in Stratford St. Mary, and so was I."

"Were you on friendly terms with her?"

"Certainly. She was in my class in the Sunday school for three years and besides that she has done little odd jobs of dressmaking for me and my sisters."

The coroner bent forward and spoke very slowly. "Did you receive a letter from her, posted in Woodbridge on Wednesday, the 7th instant, the night after your agent had been murdered?"

Eva spoke very coolly. "I didn't notice when it was posted, but I received one from her by the first post on the Thursday morning."

"Have you still got that letter?"

"No, I didn't keep it."

"Well, will you please tell us what it contained?"

Eva considered her words very carefully. "She wrote first that she had heard I was going to be married next month, and she hoped I would be very happy. Then she went on that she was sorry she had not been up to see me when visiting her aunt the previous week, and the reason for it was that she was very worried. Finally, she told me she would be leaving her situation in Woodbridge almost at once and would I, please, not write to her there. She would be coming to see me very soon."

A short silence followed, and then the coroner asked. "And was that all?"

"Yes, that was all."

The coroner went on. "And did her handwriting seem agitated? I mean was it the usual handwriting? I ask you this, because one of her fellow servants at Miss Bain's happened to see her addressing the envelope and she said deceased seemed to be writing backhand."

"Yes, the handwriting upon the envelope was rather different to that of the letter inside," replied Eva. "No, there were no signs of agitation in the letter. It was just her ordinary handwriting."

"Did you speculate upon the fact that the handwriting on the envelope was different?" asked the coroner.

"Yes, I thought she had attempted to disguise it so that if our butler, who is her uncle, happened to take in the letters he would not know that one was from her, and so be likely to ask me how she was."

The coroner considered. "And that is all you can tell us, Miss Brabazon-Fane? Her letter in no wise suggested that she was going to take her life, which she did less than a week later?"

"Yes, that is all I can tell you," replied Eva. She shook her head. "No, her letter suggested nothing of the kind."

"Thank you," said the coroner with a polite little bow, and Eva was preparing to leave the witness-box when Inspector Russell jumped to his feet.

"One moment please, sir," he said. "I'd like to ask this witness some questions."

"Certainly," said the coroner, "I am sure the young lady will oblige you."

Eva's heart was bumping furiously, but, save for a slightly heightened color, she appeared as unconcerned as ever.

"Now, Miss Brabazon-Fane," began the Superintendent sharply. "You say you didn't keep the letter. Well, what did you do with it?"

"Tore it up," replied Eva quietly. "Tore it up into very little pieces and put it in the waste paper basket."

"And would those pieces be able to be found now?"

"Hardly, I should think. They would have been put in the incinerator, days ago."

"Then can you bring anyone to corroborate what you say was in the letter?"

"No, no one. I was the only person to read it."

The Superintendent elevated his eyebrows. "But surely you told your sisters about it."

Eva looked defiant. "No, I didn't. There was enough anxiety already in the house on account of the death of our agent, and I was not wanting to add to it."

"But when Mr. Larose and, later, your butler, the girl's uncle," persisted the Superintendent, "informed you that the girl had gone away, no one knew where, you, of course, told your sisters then of the letter you had received some days earlier."

"No, I didn't," replied Eva sharply. "I knew it would hurt their feelings to know I had kept back the information from them. I told nobody until I received the subpoena yesterday, and then I had to account for being served with it."

The Superintendent appeared to be impolitely incredulous, and paused for a long moment to regard her very sternly. Then he went, on with a cold, sarcastic smile. "And when you did learn that the murdered agent had been the one to cause the girl's trouble, were you not very surprised at the calm tone of the letter she had written to you the day after his death?"

Eva shook her head. "No, because I guessed she had not heard of his death when she wrote to me."

The Superintendent looked very fierce. "But she had heard," he retorted emphatically, "and the same fellow servant who informed us that Myrtle Marriott had sent a letter to you, also tells us that they had both read the account of the murder in that evening's paper. The Ipswich 'Evening News' is delivered regularly at Miss Bain's house before six o'clock." He bent forward exultingly. "Now what do you say to that?"

But Eva was still quite composed. "I say nothing to it," she replied calmly. "I am only here to state the facts of which I have any knowledge, and I know nothing about that."

A smile went round the court, and the Superintendent reddened in anger. "But that won't do for me," he exclaimed loudly. "I want to——"

"But I see no good in your pressing the witness, Superintendent," interposed the coroner suavely, "and it will only waste our time. The writer of the letter is dead, the letter is destroyed, and apparently, the witness here is the only one to have read it. That being so, we cannot go behind her evidence, and must accept it at its face value."

The Superintendent bottled his annoyance with a great effort. "Very good, sir," he said, and he subsided heavily into his seat.

"Thank you, Miss——," began the Coroner once again, when he was interrupted by Inspector Stone this time. "I should like to ask the witness one question, if I may, sir," and the Coroner bowing his assent, the Inspector addressed Miss Eva with his most pleasant smile.

"Concerning this letter, Miss Brabazon-Fane," he said. "Now there was nothing about it, was there, that struck you in any way that Myrtle Marriott was insane? I mean it was just an ordinary letter that anyone might have written in the same circumstances, sensible, reasonable, and suggesting no unusual emotional strain?"

"Yes, it was quite an ordinary and sensible letter," replied Eva, whereupon the Inspector bowed his thanks and sat down.

"Very clever that," whispered Larose to Beatrice. "He has impressed upon the jury that Myrtle could hold herself well in hand when she wanted to." He nodded. "A very important point when they come to return their verdict."

The coroner's summing up was very short, but very much to the point.

"Gentlemen," he said. "I am sure you have paid careful attention to the evidence that has been tendered, and it is now your duty to put on record how, in your opinion, deceased came to meet with her death. You can say it was a case of wilful murder, or it was one of self-destruction, or one of merely accidental death. And if you do not hold definitely to any of these views and are at all uncertain, then you can just bring in a verdict of 'found drowned.'"

"Of course, you can take it for granted that she was either pushed, or she threw herself, or she fell, into the sea from the landing steps of the pierhead. She was last seen there, and therefore that is the only reasonable supposition you can adopt."

"With regard to wilful murder, I think that you can rule that out at once. You have heard there were no signs of violence upon the body, and no appearances of rough handling before death; also no evidence has been put forward that anybody wished her ill, or that any doubtful characters were seen upon the pier head that night."

"Well, you have ruled out wilful murder, and you will next proceed to consider self-destruction. Did she deliberately throw herself into the sea?"

He paused here to regard the jury very thoughtfully. "Now, if you had not been put in possession of the facts concerning her physical condition, and if you did not know she had, at all events, been contemplating violence upon her murdered betrayer, and if you were not aware that she had come secretly to this town, unknown to all her relations, and taken lodgings under an assumed name—I think you would dismiss the idea of self-destruction, too.

"You would remember that she was not without money—there was that credit of £16 in the Savings Bank book left at her lodgings, and, more suggestive still, she had had a meal such a little while before she was drowned. Added to this last fact, you have heard that the meal was partly digested in her stomach."

He nodded impressively. "Now, if you were intending to destroy yourself in a few minutes by throwing yourself into the sea, would you have a cup of tea and two slices of rich cake by way of preparation, and, moreover, would your mental state allow of the digestion of that cake being well upon its way?" He shook his head. "No, I am sure not, and therefore, if deceased did throw herself into the sea that night, she was not contemplating so doing when partaking of her meal, and therefore it would have been a sudden act, carried out on the spur of the moment."

He went on. "You are bound to be in some perplexity here, but you must remember the deceased was of a very determined character, as evidenced by her second purchase of vitriol after the first had been taken from her, and if she had suddenly made up her mind to destroy herself, she would certainly have had the resolution to carry it through.

"Now we come to the third possibility, that of accidental death, and it is not unlikely that rising from those iron steps, she may have slipped into the sea. The sea was rough and it was a windy night and any brief cries she may have uttered would very possibly not have been heard. It is possible, too, she may have been swept under the iron steps of the pier and have uttered no cries at all.

"In conclusion, gentlemen, you will have to choose between suicide and accidental death, and if there be any doubt in your minds, your verdict can be just 'found drowned'."

With a great shuffling of feet the jury retired, but they were absent only a few minutes and then returned, as most people in the court were expecting, to deliver the last verdict suggested by the coroner.

As everyone was moving out of the room, Inspector Stone managed to edge himself up close to Larose.

"Clever, very, that pretty Eva," he whispered, "but she's another one who does not always speak the truth."

"But I don't think you will ever be able to prove it, Charlie," whispered back Larose.

"No, I don't think we ever shall," agreed Stone readily. He grinned. "And at the other inquest next week I suppose the verdict will be 'Found shot'," and he moved off, chuckling delightedly at his own joke.

Making for his car which was parked only a few yards away, he ran up against the local Inspector, who was standing on the pavement, regarding with frowning eyes the back of Dr. Athol's car that was just being driven away, and he stopped to shake hands with him.

"Good-bye Inspector," he said genially. He smiled. "But you look very worried about something."

"Not worried," laughed the local Inspector, an elderly man with a heavy grey moustache, "just puzzled." He screwed up his eyes. "All the afternoon I've been trying to think where I've seen one of those witnesses before. It was that Mrs Jackson, the aunt of the drowned girl. I'm sure I know her face and yet I can't place when I've seen it." He nodded. "And I'd swear she's seen me, too, for I caught her looking at me several times, and then she'd quickly turn her head away, as if she didn't want me to recognise her. I can't think——" but he stopped suddenly and ejaculated a triumphant, "Ah! I have it!" he exclaimed gleefully. "Of course! of course! What a fool I've been! Thirty odd years ago—she was Maisie Chime, whose dad had a shooting gallery in the Mile-End road. I lived quite near there then, and a very pretty girl she was." His eyes glistened. "Yes, yes, many a sixpence have I wasted at the gallery, to get a little yarn with her. She was as pretty as a peach."

It was now Stone's turn to look thoughtful. "Shooting gallery!" he commented slowly. "Then did she do any shooting herself?"

"Rather," replied the local Inspector enthusiastically. "Why, she'd hit a two bob piece at 20 yards every time," and then he was most agreeably surprised when Inspector Stone suggested they should at once adjourn for a little liquid refreshment.


CHAPTER XII.—THE QUICK AND THE DEAD

Before leaving Southend, Chime, upon the advice of his young mistress, arranged for the body of his niece to be brought back to Stratford St. Mary to be buried in the village churchyard, and that same evening Mrs. Jackson went to interview the rector about the funeral.

As the rector had told Larose, Mrs. Jackson was a zealous member of his congregation, and, indeed, no one in the village was a more regular attendant at the services than she, not only on Sundays, but on every week-day as well. Each daily evensong, wet or fine, would find her in her accustomed place, a small, frail figure, ecstatically contemplating a rather gruesome stained glass window depicting the martyrdom of the saints.

Now more than sixty years of age, she was a strange mixture of a profound reverence for things spiritual and a great shrewdness in her dealing with the world. She would religiously slip her penny in the alms-box by the church door, and then go out and haggle to the last farthing in her purchase of the daily necessities of life. It was said, too, that she always charged more than anyone in the village for her eggs, and also that if a strange fowl strayed into her yard, there it would remain until it was seen and claimed by its lawful owner, notwithstanding that she herself would, all along, have been quite aware to whom it belonged.

Her own personal relations, too, with the Deity, in her own mind, differed very greatly from those that ordinary people experienced. When their fowls escaped from their runs and were killed by speeding motorists, or when their cats and dogs sickened and died, everything was due to carelessness and improper feeding. But when her fowls were run over or she lost a pet cat, then a special significance was attached to the catastrophe, and she would declare solemnly that what had happened was a particular 'act of God.'

With a harsh and hard-drinking husband, she had not had a happy married life, and with no children of her own she had been very fond of her niece. For her brother, Samuel Chime, at the Priory, she had a mild affection, their main bond of union, however, being their mutual interest in the church.

She had a profound respect, and even fear, for the rector, and so her consternation can be imagined when, upon presenting herself before him in the study that night, he firmly, but as kindly as possible, refused to allow her niece to be buried in the village churchyard, for to her thinking it was the same thing as condemning the girl's soul to eternal damnation.

"I am very, very sorry, indeed, I can not permit it," declared the rector, "but I am unhappily compelled to refuse. It is not that she was a sinner, and, as far as we can determine, an unrepentant one at that, but she took her own life, and, according to all church tradition, a suicide must not be interred in consecrated ground."

"But she did not commit suicide, sir," choked the old woman. "I am sure it was quite by accident that she was drowned and they thought so today at the inquest."

"I'm afraid not," said the rector firmly. "I have read the account in the newspaper this evening, and there can be no doubt what the jury thought, although, to spare everyone's feelings, they brought in their verdict of 'found drowned.'" He eyed her very solemnly. "Besides, we all know, Mrs. Jackson, that had she lived she would have been proven guilty of an even more dreadful crime than self-destruction, namely that of taking the life of a fellow human being."

"But we don't know that for certain," sobbed the woman. "It may after all have been someone else."

The rector shook his head. "It is hardly possible. She took his punishment into her own hands, which is contrary to all laws, both divine and human." He opened the door to close the interview. "I repeat, I am very, very sorry, but Myrtle must be buried in the Colchester Cemetery in unconsecrated ground," and he showed the weeping woman out.

The following morning Inspector Stone received a four page letter from Miss Carrington, written from a London address. She said that two days previously she had been hurried out of Stratford St. Mary, with barely an hour's notice, in the undoubted expectation that thereby the police would not be able to obtain her evidence for the inquest next week. But she was determined to see justice done, and so she was sending word where she could be found. Thinking things over, she was certain now that it had been Dr. Athol she had seen that night in the lane and she was certain, too, from Miss Arbour's abrupt and startled manner that her employer had recognised him as well. She was equally certain now that the woman, seen also in the lane, had been Lady Mentone. There was no mistaking that swing of the hips, although the woman had been walking in a furtive manner. Of course, Miss Arbour was only wanting to marry the doctor to be Lady Athol one day, and that was why she was willing to perjure herself and declare that the man she had seen had not been her fiance. There was no doubt, too, that Dr. Athol and Lady Mentone were lovers and the former had murdered Mr. Toller because the agent had proof of their intrigue and was threatening to disclose it to Sir Charles Mentone, or in default of that, had been intending to blackmail the guilty wife.

In conclusion, she added there was a rumor, too, that the agent, a few days before he had been murdered, had been intending to purchase an expensive motor car from some firm in Colchester, and as he had hitherto been known to be always heavily in debt, that could only have meant he had been expecting to obtain a large sum of money from some source.

"Hum!" remarked the Inspector thoughtfully, "a very spiteful letter, but still that does not make any difference if she can deliver the goods." He nodded. "Yes, I'll have a little talk with this Miss Arbour, as well as with that Mrs. Jackson, straightaway."

But when, a little more than two hours later, he drew up in his car before Mrs. Jackson's cottage, just behind the 'Black Swan,' he got no response to his knocking upon the door. Peering through the kitchen window, however, he saw the fire was burning in the stove, and guessed from that that the woman would be returning before long. So leaving one of his men to await her coming, he drove to 'The Towers'.

Adele had spent a most unhappy two days, and her pallid face and the dark shadows under her eyes told of the misery she was going through.

The vengeance she had so longed for was certainly hers at last, but its flaming flowers had withered in her hands, and their possession now was only adding to her anguish. Against her will, with all the proofs before her, she had had, most reluctantly, to admit to herself that she had been entirely misjudging the character of her lover of those years ago, and that he was not guilty of the cruel and heartless conduct she had ascribed to him. Still, notwithstanding all his denials, she was determined not to let herself believe that he had had no part in the agent's murder and, worse still, that he had not been for a long time the lover of Margaret Mentone.

Her unhappiness was the sharper, for in her heart of hearts she realised now she could be very fond of the doctor if it were not for Margaret. The murder she could have forgiven if great provocation had been shown, but his infatuation for the wife of Sir Charles Mentone was an offence quite unpardonable.

Dr. Athol, according to his promise, had made no attempt to see her, but he had rung her up twice to know how she was, and each time she had spoken to him with a coldness she did not feel.

She was now reading a letter that had just come by that morning's post, and her lips curved in scornful contempt as she perused it. It was from her late companion and read:—

"To Mary Arbour—

"Now I have left you, I can tell you frankly that I have never liked you. I have always hated your proud and stuck-up ways, and the despicable manner in which you have now turned me out is a disgrace to anyone who calls herself a lady. If I can punish you I will, you can be sure of that. I am writing by this same post to Scotland Yard, so that they will know where to find me, when they want my evidence at the inquest. Dr. Athol does not care a button for you, and he is all for that other woman. He is only marrying you because he wants more money. He is a horrid man, and you two will be a well-matched couple. You will see me at the inquest next week."

The letter made Adele feel rather uneasy, and, its perusal over, she stared thoughtfully into space. But her meditations were interrupted by the ringing of the hall door bell, and then, after some talking in the hall, a maid entered the room with a card upon a salver.

"I told him, you were not well, Miss, and were receiving no visitors," said the girl, "but he insisted upon my bringing in the card."

Adele Athol's face was quite impassive as she picked up the card. "I'll see him, Mabel," she said. "Show him in here."

And so, a few moments later, Inspector Stone was standing before her.

As once before, the Inspector thought her a very beautiful woman, but she was much paler now, he told himself, than that day when he had seen her driving from the Priory in her car. Her pallor was, however, he thought due to nervousness and to the knowledge that she must be aware for what purpose he had come.

"Miss Arbour, I believe," he said politely, and Adele bowed in assent. "Well, I've just come to ask you a few questions about what you saw when you were in the turret on the night of the Priory agent's murder."

Adele shook her head. "But I have really nothing to tell you there," she said, smiling ever so faintly, "unless, of course, you want to hear my impression of that awful storm."

He smiled back. "No, it isn't the storm that interests me," he said. His face became grave. "It's about those people you saw in the lane I want to hear."

She shook her head again. "I saw no people at all or, at most, a shadow which might have been that of a man."

The Inspector looked stern. "Come, come, Miss Arbour," he said sharply, "it's no good your starting off with a lot of denials and then, in the end, having the truth dragged out of you, and your being shown to be an untruthful person. Be honest with me straight away, and, however distasteful to you, admit that you saw a man there whom you recognised as Dr. Athol."

Adele looked him straight in the face. "I shall never admit that, Inspector Stone," she said, "and it is best you should realise that once and for all that it is waste of time to worry me."

Stone spoke gently and persuasively. "But we know you recognised him, Miss Arbour, and we shall be able to prove it. They'll get it out of you, right enough, in the witness box."

"The witness box!" exclaimed Adele with a frown. "But knowing you'll get no admission out of me you won't surely put me there!"

"But we shall," replied the Inspector, pursing up his lips grimly, "and then the cross-examination of a smart counsel will be most unpleasant for you, when you are stating what you know is not the truth."

"I may not be here for the inquest," said Adele uneasily. "I am thinking of going away at the beginning of next week."

Stone looked sterner than ever. "That won't do for us, Miss Arbour, and if I think there's going to be anything like that I will have you served with a subpoena within an hour. Then if you don't appear at the inquest the coroner will issue a warrant for your arrest."

"But you'll not get me in the witness box to say anything about Dr. Athol," said Adele, with a gleam of triumph in her eyes. She hesitated just a moment. "A wife does not testify against her husband!"

"Her husband!" ejaculated the Inspector. "But you're not married yet!"

"We are," nodded Adele. "We were married in Ipswich the day before yesterday."

Stone smiled grimly. "Then we shall want proof of that."

Without a word, Adele walked over to a small bureau and abstracting a paper from a drawer handed it over to him. He glanced through it frowningly, and then gave it back to her.

"Hum!" he remarked, looking rather nonplussed, "you did that on purpose!"

"Of course," laughed Adele lightly. "People do not usually marry by accident, do they?" she spoke carelessly. "As a matter of fact, we did it because the fire at Dr. Athol's house had made it uninhabitable, and he was coming to stay here. So, once married, we could get rid of that Miss Carrington, who was spreading so many untruthful reports about him."

"How do you know she was?" snapped the Inspector.

Adele shrugged her shoulders. "Well, she approached both Mr. Larose and you and gave a very highly colored account of what she saw that night when she and I were sitting in the turret."

"We shall see whether the coroner's jury consider it very highly colored," remarked Stone dryly, "when she goes into the witness box."

Adele shook her head. "But I shouldn't rely too much upon Jane Carrington," she said sweetly. "You shall read a letter that I received from her this morning and judge if everyone will not think she is animated by pure malice when it is produced for their perusal."

She walked over to the bureau again and took out the letter she had been reading when the Inspector had arrived. Then, hesitating a moment, she pressed the bell, and stood waiting, with no attempt to hand over the letter, until one of the maids had come into the room.

"Mabel," she said sharply, "I dropped a small key at the back of the bureau yesterday. See if you can find it," and then when the girl was kneeling down and groping about, she at last gave the letter to the Inspector.

A good two minutes' silence followed, with the Inspector reading the letter, Adele standing just before him and the maid looking for the lost key. Then when Adele saw the letter had been read through, she stretched out her hand to receive it back, and with it again in her possession she turned to the maid.

"Oh, never mind about it now, Mabel," she said. "If you can't find it, some other time will do," and the girl at once left the room.

The Inspector shook his head reproachfully. "That was not necessary, Mrs. Athol," he said. "We at Scotland Yard would have no more thought of keeping your letter than of burgling your house."

Adele flushed crimson. "I apologise, Mr. Stone," she said contritely. She sighed wearily. "I have had a lot of worry lately, and sometimes I find it difficult to keep the correct balance of things."

They parted on quite friendly terms, the Inspector carrying away the impression of a very beautiful woman, but at the same time a very sad one.

"Not a bit as a woman should look when she's only been married two days," he muttered. He nodded. "But I suppose she knows she's given her heart to a man who is a murderer!"

In the meantime the weeping Mrs. Jackson had gone to the Priory to acquaint them that the rector would not allow Myrtle to be buried in the churchyard. Chime was horrified, but at the same time was prepared to accept the ban. His young mistresses, however, were very indignant and thought quite differently.

"I'll go round at once, Beatrice," said Eva with flaming cheeks, "and just tell him there'll be no wedding bells for him if he's not going to show himself more charitable. We're not going to allow any parson who's narrow-minded to come into the family."

Beatrice looked very distressed. "No, of course, you're not to go, Eva," she said quickly. "I'll go or else"—she looked round and caught Larose's eye—"perhaps, Mr. Larose would not mind." She blushed. "Then there will be no personal question about it."

Larose agreed at once, and so, not a quarter of an hour later, caught the rector as he was getting ready to set out for Colchester. He said there was a meeting he had to attend. Larose explained how upset everyone was at the Priory and asked the rector to reconsider his decision.

The rector appeared to be most uncomfortable. "But I cannot, Mr. Larose," he said earnestly, "for apart from my own personal opinion, my bishop is most strict about such matters, and already I am not in his good books. We differ strongly upon certain points of ritual." He shook his head. "No, I cannot alter my decision. That suicides should not be buried in consecrated ground is the well-established law and usage of the church, and we must conform to things accordingly."

"But in treating this girl as a suicide," protested Larose bluntly, "you are, in a most pointed manner, bringing contempt and discredit upon the law of the land, for the court, yesterday most decisively refused to record a verdict of self-destruction."

The rector looked very grave. "But, you and I know quite well it was suicide, and that she was a murderess as well."

"We know nothing of the kind," said Larose sharply. "As to the manner of her death I am quite content to think as the coroner's jury did, and as to her having murdered that man, our suspicion of her is no proof, and there are others we can suspect equally as well." He pointed to a beautiful double-barrelled gun propped up in a corner of the study, and went on, repressing a smile. "Why, perhaps I am even now beginning to have suspicions of you! You are evidently habituated to the use of lethal weapons, you knew Toller was a bad man, and you were aware of the existence of that rifle at the Priory and of the cartridges in the drawer. So, is it not possible you may have considered yourself an instrument of Providence and shot him?" He held up his hand warningly. "Remember, at the time Toller was killed only three persons in Stratford St. Mary knew what Toller had done, the aunt, Dr. Athol, and you."

"Mr. Larose! Mr. Larose!" ejaculated the rector reprovingly, and looking very taken aback, "you should not even make a joke of such things with a man in my position."

"Well, you never know whom the police may be suspecting next," said Larose darkly, "even, perhaps, it may be poor old Mrs. Jackson's turn soon."

The rector opened the door for him to pass out. "Tell Miss Brabazon-Fane, will you, please, that I'll come up to see her this evening and explain."

"And in the meantime?" asked Larose.

The rector hesitated. "I'll—I'll make arrangements for the grave to be got ready in Colchester."

Passing through the rectory gates Larose almost ran into Inspector Stone as the latter was coming in.

They both turned the corner at the same moment, and in their preoccupation a collision was avoided very narrowly. They both frowned and then, recognising each other, smiled.

"What! you here again!" exclaimed Larose. "Then have you come to reside in the village?"

"Almost, it seems," replied Stone. He grinned. "I'm trying to make bricks out of straw, Gilbert, and I tell you I'm not getting on too well with the job." He looked sharply at him. "But I say, what have you been doing at the rector's? I'm just going in to see him."

"I've been in about the burial of that girl," replied Larose. "He's turned nasty about it and doesn't want her buried here, because he's certain she committed suicide," and then he asked curiously. "But what do you want with him?"

Stone looked amused. "I've got another suspect. Old Mrs. Jackson this time. No, you needn't smile. Do you know, 35 years ago she was one of the finest shots with a small rifle in the show world, and the winner of many prizes," and then he went on to tell Larose all he had learnt about her the previous afternoon.

"And I've just been talking to her now," he went on, "and although she looks a frail and worn old woman, I can't quite make up my mind about her. She told me a downright lie to begin with, and said she knew nothing about rifles and had never fired one in her life. Then when I told her she'd been almost born in a shooting gallery, and had helped her father in one until she was 25, she looked as flabbergasted as any woman I have ever seen. Then, of course, she couldn't convincingly account for her actions upon the night of the murder. She says she was in her bed by nine o'clock and never left it again until the morning, but the landlord of the Black Swan swears he saw a light being moved about in her house, when he and his wife went up to their room about eleven o'clock, and he remarked upon it to his wife at the time. Then the next morning, quite early, she came into his bar and had a good sup of brandy, a thing that surprised him because she is known to be a teetotaller. She was looking pale and ill, and said the storm had upset her."

"Goodness gracious!" exclaimed Larose, "but you can't imagine a fragile-looking old woman like that committing a murder!"

"Oh, I don't know so much about that," said Stone. "She looks a deep one to me." He nodded. "Yes, and she's a bit of a mystery to everyone, too, for she's known to go out for long walks at night, and return home at any hour in the morning. Another thing, too. We know she received a letter last week, postmarked from London, and I am sure it was from her niece. But she says it was only a circular about some poultry food from somewhere, and she threw it away." He shook his head. "But I could tell by her manner she was lying again."

A short silence followed while Larose digested the news, and then he asked curiously. "But what do you want to see the rector for now?"

"To find out from his reverence exactly how she told her tale to him when she came here the night before Toller was killed, and what was her reason for coming to see him at all." He nodded. "You see, Gilbert, this woman has the reputation, among other things, of being a bit of a religious crank, almost, some think, to the point of fanaticism, and I am wondering if she's quite right. With people like that, it's always in the cards they may imagine themselves instruments of Providence and just commit any sort of crime with no qualm of conscience at all."

"Ah!" exclaimed Larose delightedly, "and you just mention that to the rector, and use those exact words. But don't say you've been speaking to me."

"All right," nodded Stone, looking at his watch; "Good-bye," but then, just as he was starting to move off, he stopped and went on speaking. "Oh, one moment, Gilbert." He looked at him very sternly. "I suppose it was you who put that doctor up to getting married so quickly, so that he should shut his wife's mouth." He shook his head reprovingly. "Well, I think you did a very wrong thing. I've just been up to see the lady, and for a two-days-old bride she looks miserable. I am sure she suspects that her husband had something to do with the murder, and when she showed me the marriage certificate, I felt devilish sorry for her."

With great difficulty Larose suppressed a gasp of surprise. What! the doctor married already to Mary Arbour and he'd told no one about it! What on earth did it mean, too, that the previous day he'd been looking so glum and unhappy?

He spoke earnestly. "No, Charlie I had nothing whatever to do with it and I didn't even know it had taken place until it was all over."

"Well, what makes Mrs. Athol look so glum?" asked Stone.

Larose shrugged his shoulders. "Disillusionment, I suppose." He grinned "Don't you remember how your poor missis looked, two days after she had married you?"

Stone ignored the insult and went on. "Well, she's spiked our guns, right enough, for I find we can't depend upon that Carrington woman and so we shan't put her in the box at all." He winked knowingly. "So you can tell your pretty little friend——"

"——Meaning," broke in Larose.

"The Mentone girl, of course, that she won't have to tell any more lies about not being in the lane that night with the doctor. It may ease her mind to know that I don't intend to bring up the matter again."

"Good! Charlie," said Larose, "I'll give her the message and no doubt she'll be sending you her love."

He walked quickly back to the Priory and made known to Beatrice the result of his mission to the rector. She set her lips firmly. "But I won't wait for him to come up here tonight," she said. "I'll go and talk to him in the vestry after evensong." She looked at Larose and smiled. "Then I can cut short the interview whenever I please."

"I think the stumbling-block is that his bishop at Chelmsford would be so angry," said Larose.

Beatrice looked scornful. "Then he'll have to choose between the bishop and me," she snapped.

Larose sighed. "I'm sorry for the poor bishop," he said. "He doesn't stand much chance," and they both laughed.

Then Larose told what he had heard from Stone about Dr. Athol and Mary having been married two days ago.

Beatrice was flabbergasted. "And he seemed so unhappy yesterday," she said. "We all remarked upon it and wondered, too, why Mary hasn't been round to see us for three days." She looked very troubled. "And I don't like to ask either of them about it, for they must have some reason for keeping it secret and would have told us if they wanted us to know." She shook her head. "Mary's such a great friend of mine that I can't understand it."

And Larose could not understand it, either, but, bound by no such scruples as Beatrice possessed, he determined to make it his business to find out at once. That Stone was right in his conjecture that they had married in order that the mistress of 'The Towers' could not be compelled to give evidence against her husband, he felt sure, and it annoyed him most intensely to think that perhaps, after all, Dr. Athol—and in that event Lady Mentone also—had been deceiving him as to their part in what happened upon the night of the agent's murder.

It would have been the basest ingratitude, he told himself, and not only that, but a great blow to his pride that he had allowed himself to be so hoodwinked by any woman, however pretty and attractive she might be.

He put on his hat and walked out of the Priory, intending to find Dr. Athol straight away, and then—the first person he encountered was Lady Mentone. She was in the drive, with her flower basket again, and this time was picking carnations.

"Hullo!" she called out gaily, "going for a walk? I wish I could come with you, but I've all the flowers to arrange before lunch. The Honorable Jimmy may be coming down today." Then when Larose had drawn level with her, she added smilingly. "Really, Mr. Larose, if you stay here much longer I shall be taking to calling you Gilbert, I am getting so accustomed to you."

"Oh, you are, are you?" commented Larose, but with no answering smile.

She looked at him curiously and her face clouded.

"What's the matter with you?" she asked. "You're not cross with me about anything, are you?"

"I don't know," he replied, and then he rapped out. "Look here, Lady Mentone. Have you been making a fool of me, and did you tell me the exact truth about what you and the doctor did upon that night of the murder?"

Lady Mentone flushed crimson and tears welled up into her eyes. "Oh, of course, I did!" she exclaimed indignantly. "I wouldn't be such a beast as to deceive you after all your kindness to me. Everything I told you was true and I didn't leave out anything, either." Her voice choked. "You know more about me than anyone in the world, and you could ruin my whole life if you chose."

"All right, all right," said Larose soothingly, and desirous at all costs to prevent her breaking into tears. "I quite believe you and I'm very sorry to have doubted you for one moment. Yes, I quite believe you and so please smile again."

"But what made you think they were all stories I told you?" she asked brokenly, and by no means having recovered her composure.

Larose thought it best to be quite frank with her and so proceeded to tell her not only about the secret marriage that had taken place, two days previously, but also that, in his opinion, the only inference that could be drawn was that Dr. Athol wanted to render it impossible for his wife to give evidence against him.

"So that's what made me wonder for a moment," he finished up, "whether Miss Arbour had not possibly witnessed that night more than you were willing to tell me."

And all the while Lady Mentone had listened wonder-eyed, her emotion of the moment or two previous being now all thrust into the background by her great surprise.

"And I saw him yesterday," she exclaimed, "and he said nothing! But he was looking very glum, I thought." She looked intently at Larose. "But what are you going to do? Are you going to ask him as you did me?"

"Yes," replied Larose. "I am going up now."

Arriving at 'The Towers,' Larose saw its mistress in the distance, at the far end of the garden, but he rang the front-door bell, and was then most surprised to learn from the maid that not only was Dr. Athol not staying there, but that he had returned to his own house two days previously. So round to the doctor's house he went, to find a number of workmen busy there. By means of large tarpaulins and planks, the unburnt part of the house had been made habitable. Asking to see the doctor, he was kept waiting for a few minutes and then conducted to a room at the back that had been temporarily converted into a study.

The doctor looked just the same as ever, the calm, unruffled, professional man, except that his eyes were heavy and his face was rather pale and drawn.

Larose came straight to the point, and telling the doctor frankly whence his information came about the marriage, asked him bluntly if he had arranged it to prevent his wife giving information about his movements upon the night of the murder.

The doctor looked very embarrassed at the question, but made no hesitation about his reply. "Myself, I did not for one moment arrange this sudden marriage for that reason," he replied, "but although I did not learn it until after the ceremony, I admit to you quite frankly that it was one of the reasons uppermost in my wife's mind." He shrugged his shoulders. "She thinks I am the murderer, or if not, am certainly shielding Lady Mentone."

"Hum!" commented Larose, "then she knows more than you told me."

"No, no," said the doctor instantly. "I was quite honest with you, and told you everything. I kept nothing back."

A short silence followed, and then Larose asked, "You are not living with her?"

Dr. Athol smiled sadly. "No, she sent me away from her within half an hour of our arriving at her house after we had been married." He sighed. "It was a terrible surprise."

"But why did she marry you at all if she thought you were a murderer and she had no intention of living with you?"

The doctor shook his head. "That is quite another matter, Mr. Larose, and of a very private nature. I am very sorry I cannot explain it to you."

"Well, what are you going to do?" asked Larose curiously.

"Leave the neighborhood directly this affair at the Priory is finished with. I can't very well run away before then."

Larose looked him straight in the face. "And does your wife think there has been anything between you and Lady Mentone?"

Dr. Athol raised his eyebrows. "Most certainly she does, and that is the trouble now. Another misunderstanding between us, I think I have explained away, but nothing will convince her that Lady Mentone and I have not been lovers, and indeed, are not still so."

Returning to the Priory, Larose told Lady Mentone the result of his conversation with the doctor, and she blushed hotly. "The little beast," she exclaimed, "but I've thought lately she was thinking that! She's often looked at me very curiously." She sighed. "I could easily have fallen in love with Norman if I'd wanted to, but I've never let myself give him a thought that way. Besides, I'm very fond of my husband." She looked troubled. "But now what ought we to do?"

Larose laughed. "It's not us, it's you." He became grave again. "I think you ought to go and see her. Go up boldly and tell her I got it out of the doctor and then told you. I should tell her what was in those letters, too. You have to startle her to show her you're in earnest and speaking the truth."

Lady Mentone made a grimace, but then nodded. "Yes, I'll go. Mary's a very nice girl at heart, and I'm sure she loves Norman." She nodded again. "Yes, that shall be my punishment. I'll tell her everything." She sighed. "But she is so cold and passionless I don't think she'll quite understand things."

"Oh, but I don't believe she is cold or passionless," said Larose sharply. "She looks to me a woman who's had a very sad life and is just starving for affection."

Lady Mentone sighed again. "But I shan't go up until tonight. It needs darkness and dim lights for what I'll have to tell her." She smiled roguishly. "But I wish you could come up with me, Gilbert, and hold my hand."

"Nothing doing!" said Larose emphatically. "I should be blushing all the time."

The daily evensong at Stratford St. Mary was always a choral one and a few minutes before five Larose, seeing Beatrice passing through the hall with her hat on, offered to accompany her.

"But I'll not go into the vestry with you," he said. "I'm a kind-hearted man and I don't want to see the rector grovelling at your feet."

So it came about that a most uneasy feeling stirred in the rector's heart, as when marching behind half a dozen diminutive choir-boys and to the soft strain of the beautiful organ, he caught sight of Beatrice and Larose sitting side by side at the end of a pew half way down the aisle.

But he repressed all outward signs of emotion and in his deep, rich voice and in beautifully modulated tones proceeded with the service of evening prayer. All told, there were only five in the congregation, and his voice was caught and echoed back from the empty spaces of the church. The light was dim, for the stained-glass windows were rich and deep in color and partly ivy covered. The church was very old.

The service was finely rendered but Larose's thoughts were wandering and, glancing covertly at the beautiful face beside him, he was of the opinion the reverend gentleman would not for long withstand the coming attack upon him.

The service over, Beatrice waited until the body of the church was empty, save for herself and Larose, and then with a smile at her companion, walked softly up the aisle and turned into the vestry.

The rector affected a deep sigh directly she came in. "Now, my dear Miss Brabazon-Fane," he said with an uneasy smile, "this is not fair of you to come and tackle me here. You ought to have waited until I came up to you tonight."

"No, Mr. Vavasour," said Beatrice sharply. "I wasn't going to have a light argument with you over a cigarette and a cup of coffee. You have made this a serious matter and it had best be settled within the walls of that same church where this poor girl used once to kneel and pray."

"Believe me, it's a real grief——" began the rector.

"I should think it could be," interrupted Beatrice, "for you are covering with perpetual shame a poor man and woman, who are in no way sinners, even if Myrtle was." She spoke with intense feeling. "How do you think Mrs. Jackson and Chime can live happily, with everyone pointing to them as having had one of their own flesh and blood denied a Christian burial."

"It is no question of her being denied Christian burial," said the rector quietly, "for I have arranged she shall be buried in Colchester by a minister of another denomination."

"And I have arranged that she shall be buried here," retorted Beatrice firmly, "and it is you who are going to conduct the burial service over her. She is going to rest here where her father and mother lie buried and their fathers and mothers before them."

The rector made no comment, but stood regarding Beatrice with a half smiling, half reproachful expression.

"Don't you see," went on Beatrice warmly, "that in refusing to give burial to Myrtle, you are punishing the living and not the dead. It is Chime and his unhappy sister who will suffer, not Myrtle, who is beyond all care of what you do to her."

"But it is the tradition of the church," said the rector solemnly, "that such as Myrtle should not lie among those who waited for their release at the divinely appointed hour." He shook his head. "Besides, you know quite well that, all apart from her having taken her own life, she was a murderess as well, and it is that which has so strengthened me in my decision. I do not wish——"

"But you don't know she was a murderess," broke in Beatrice sharply. "No one has the slightest proof that she was. It is all conjecture."

The rector heaved a big sigh. "I will not argue with you, Miss Brabazon-Fane. I will either accede to your request or else"—he drew himself up proudly—"refuse it."

"But you will accede to it," pleaded Beatrice. Her voice was very gentle. "Won't you, Augustine?"

The rector winced as if he had received a blow. "The priest says no," he replied sadly. He turned away his eyes. "But the man says yes."

"Oh, thank you so much!" exclaimed Beatrice with intense feeling and she laid her hand upon his arm. "I am very grateful indeed to you. I knew that in the end you would brave any censure from outsiders, rather than inflict pain upon the poor folks under your protection here."

"I am doing wrong," said the Rector quietly, "and I do not pretend I do not know it." He shook his head frowningly. "As many a better man before me I am waiving my clear duty for the sake of a woman's smile."

"Well, I'll give you a very nice one at any rate," said Beatrice, and then she added gaily. "You'll come up to night, just the same, of course? I'll reward you by playing some of your favorite Chopin."

But he shook his head gravely. "No, not tonight, now, if you don't mind." His face broke into a smile. "I'll call later for my thirty pieces of silver, when I have earned them." He opened the vestry door. "Is Mr. Larose waiting for you? Oh, then I'll come and tell him I have given in."

Larose knew at once with whom lay the victory when he saw Beatrice's face.

"Good Evening," said the rector genially. "I've had to capitulate, as no doubt you expected." He laughed. "You have no idea Mr. Larose what a little spit-fire this young lady can be." He turned enquiringly to Beatrice. "Now you've never been called that before, have you?"

"But I have," replied Beatrice, her face all at once sobering down, and then she wondered subconsciously why Larose had so suddenly turned to take an intense interest in a brass tablet upon the wall.

The rector saw them to the church door, and so strange is life that, although his conscience should have been tormenting him, all his thoughts that night were harking back to the small white hand that had been laid upon his arm!

Night had just fallen when Margaret, Lady Mentone, leaving Eva busy at some needlework, and Beatrice playing Chopin to Larose, slipped unnoticed out of the priory and proceeded to make her way by the narrow lane to 'The Towers'.

The lane was certainly supposed to be haunted and the night was certainly chilly, but the shivers that from time to time stirred her had nothing whatever to do with either ghosts or cold. But she walked resolutely on, and turning into the drive of 'The Towers', she saw a light burning in the room she knew to be Adele's boudoir.

Reaching the hall door she found it unlocked, and with no hesitation she let herself in. Then, with her heart beating violently, she tip-toed down the hall to the boudoir, and tapped lightly with her knuckles.

"Come in," said Adele's voice very quietly, and in a few seconds Lady Mentone was in the room and had closed the door behind her.

"Good evening," she said cheerily, "I've come to have a little talk with you. Don't be too astonished and don't get cross. No, do sit down again"—for Adele had risen to her feet and was facing her as white as a ghost—"and if you don't mind I'll sit down, too, for I've been walking quickly and what I'm going to tell you will be something of an ordeal to me." She put her hand over her heart and smiled faintly. "I'm not accustomed yet to making confessions and I find this one very unpleasant."

Adele resumed her seat, and with her face as expressionless as a mask, regarded her unwelcome visitor.

A short silence followed and then Margaret burst out quickly. "Look here, Mary, you're a perfect little fool, and I've come to tell you so. We won't beat about the bush either. You told Inspector Stone that you were married and it's all over the place now. Then Mr. Larose got it out of your husband that you were refusing to live with him, because you believed he and I were lovers."

Her face flushed furiously in indignation. "Well, I tell you your thoughts are evil ones, and there's not the very slightest shadow of foundation for them." Her voice rose ever so little. "Never once has Norman even held my hand a moment longer than necessary, never once has he kissed me, and in all the secrets between us never has there been one word of love."

Her breast heaved in her emotion. "Yes, there has been a secret between us and when you have learnt it, if you are anything like the girl I think you are, it will cut you to the quick that you have forced me to tell it to you."

She looked simply raging. "But why don't you speak? Why do you not say something, instead of sitting there like a china-faced doll?"

Adele answered her quietly. "What would you have me say, Billy? That I know you have a face for which any man might fall and that you can act beautifully? That I know Norman loves you and——"

"Norman doesn't love me, you stupid creature," burst out Margaret impetuously, "and you are so passionless yourself that you wouldn't recognise love if you saw it." She snapped her fingers together. "Norman's almost passionless, too, and until he met you he was like a man living on the memory of some woman he'd lost. I've often rallied him upon it, but he never said anything and only smiled. Then when you came to live here"—she shrugged her shoulders—"however good-looking you may be, nothing more astonished me than when he started to make love to you."

"But he's done a lot for you, Billy, hasn't he?" said Adele sarcastically, "even to"—she smiled coldly—"well, you know what he's done."

"Yes, I do," replied Margaret sharply, "and that's why I've come now to humiliate myself before you and lay bare a great shame in my life. Of all the world, only Norman and Mr. Larose know it"—her lips curled contemptuously—"No, Mr. Larose is not my lover either, and when you have heard it I shall not be at all surprised if you draw your skirts from me as if I were polluting you." She laughed as if she were amused. "A girl of your type will never be able to understand it."

Adele made no comment and Lady Mentone went on very solemnly. "Now listen intently, please. A little over seven years ago, a young girl became stage-struck and ran away from her home, and because she was not bad-looking, she was taken on in the chorus of a musical comedy. That she had talent was afterwards proved, for it happened she immediately attracted the attention of a very influential man in the theatrical world, and was given an important part in the comedy, in which she immediately made good."

She threw out her hands. "Well, of course, the not unnatural thing happened, she fell in love with her benefactor, which, according to all conventional ideas, was a very wrong thing for her to do, he was a married man. But the girl took no account of that, for she knew he was unhappy and separated from his wife. Incidentally, he was nearly thirty years older than she—and she was only eighteen."

Then for a moment Lady Mentone stopped speaking. She had seen Adele had suddenly dropped all her studied expression of indifference and was now biting her lip. She went on.

"Well, this girl, defying convention as if, indeed, she were not aware of it, went secretly to live with her lover and for a year and longer enjoyed such happiness as she had not believed could exist. Then, suddenly, the man died and she thought everything was ended for her. But almost at once another man came into her life, again a man far more than double her age, and caring very little what happened to her, she married him. She had no affection for him at the time, but he was very kind to her, and gradually she became fond of him. Then, when some years had gone by and she had just learnt she was going to have a baby, indeed, the very day when she first knew it, a dreadful calamity threatened her, for some compromising letters she had once written to her old lover fell into the hands of a scoundrel and he started to blackmail her."

A long silence followed, and then Lady Mentone laughed bitterly. "Of course, you know the girl was I and the blackmailer was Toller. He tackled me almost directly we were upon our feet in the first dance and then he made me sit out that other one in the conservatory, when he told me what he meant to do." She nodded. "You can understand what sort of a night I had and what was my condition the next morning. I felt so ill that I could hardly speak, and Beatrice rang Norman to come at once. Then when Norman came"—she with difficulty restrained her tears—"I thought I was going mad, and I broke down and told him everything."

Adele waited until she had in part recovered her composure, and then asked with no expression in her voice, "And what did Beatrice and Eva say when you told them, too?"

"I didn't tell them at all," exclaimed Lady Mentone sharply. "They don't know, now. I should die if Beatrice heard about everything, and Eva wouldn't speak to me again if she knew." Her voice rose in her earnestness. "I tell you no one but Norman and Mr. Larose know that these letters have existed, and only Mr. Larose has seen them. It was Mr. Larose who found them," and then she went on to tell everything that had happened from the day Larose had arrived at the Priory up to when, that same morning, he had said she must come up herself to 'The Towers' and convince Mary that she was so cruelly misjudging Norman Athol.

Adele regarded her thoughtfully and then asked quietly and with no trace of sarcasm. "And is this a little play you've been acting for me, Billy, or is it the truth?" She smiled wistfully. "Heaven knows I would like to believe you, but I've been afraid of you all the time I've been listening, for as a professional actress you would just revel in such a part as this."

"Yes," nodded Lady Mentone grimly. "I might revel in playing the part, but I can tell you I don't revel in having to convince you it is a tragedy of real life," and then from the pocket of her coat she took a bundle of letters, tied tightly round with string.

"Here, just glance through these," she said hoarsely, as she slipped off the string, "and yours are going to be the last eyes to see them, for then I'm going to throw them in the fire before you." She shrugged her shoulders. "It was Fate that made me keep them and not burn them three days ago." Her lips tightened. "If Inspector Stone got hold of them, I might hang for them, even now!"

Adele hesitated and then took the letters in her hand. "Which ones am I to read?" she asked nervously.

"Oh, any of them!" exclaimed Billy defiantly. "You'll think each one is as bad as the other."

"One moment, Billy," said Adele. "If neither you or Norman shot Toller, who did?"

"No one knows," replied Lady Mentone emphatically. "They've suspected everyone, but they haven't come upon a shred of real proof yet." She nodded. "I hope Myrtle did it, but she's innocent until they're sure about it, and that's why Beatrice has made the rector bury her in the church yard."

Adele sighed and glanced down at the letters. She picked out one and commenced to read. But she only turned the first page and then with a sudden movement she flung the whole lot into Lady Mentone's lap. "I believe you, Billy," she choked. "I don't want to read any more," and covering her face with her hands, she burst into tears.

Instantly Lady Mentone sprang up and leant over her, and the tears of the two girls mingled together.

A few minutes later, Adele saw Lady Mentone out of the front door and walked nervously, but with resolution, to the phone. She gave Dr. Athol's number and her heart was palpitating violently when she heard his voice.

"Norman," she began and then she had to steady herself before she could go on. "Norman, Billy's just been to see me and"—she could hardly speak—"she's made everything all right." Her voice became stronger and matter of fact. "You can come over at once it you like, and if you bring your things"—she spoke only in a whisper now—"you needn't go back if you don't want to. We'll explain to the servants."

And so that night saw Norman and Adele enter into a new life where the memory of those burning moments of the years ago were no longer a pain and dreadful memory to them.

Two days later Myrtle was laid to rest in the village churchyard, and because many people thought it a very wrong thing to do, and also because it had somehow leaked out that the Bishop of Colchester had most plainly intimated his displeasure to the rector, people came from all round to attend the funeral. Perhaps they hoped that at the last minute there would be some sensational intervention and even, maybe, the dramatic appearance of the bishop himself to stop the proceedings. At any rate, the church was crowded and the churchyard was filled with spectators.

But nothing untoward happened and in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection the body was lowered into the grave.

The three girls from the Priory were there and Dr. Athol and his beautiful bride. Beatrice had suggested that Larose should come, too, with the Priory party, but rather to her surprise, he had said he would rather not, as he had some particular work he wanted to do. Beatrice had frowned, thinking it to be only an excuse, but she would have realised in a most surprised fashion that Larose had been speaking the truth, had she been inside Mrs. Jackson's cottage a bare five minutes after the hearse had left the front door.

Ever since Inspector Stone had told him what he had found out about Mrs. Jackson, Larose had been thinking quite a lot about the woman, feeling certain with the Inspector that she had been lying about the letter she had received from London the week before.

The previous day, accompanying Beatrice to the cottage behind the Black Swan for the final arrangements to be made about the funeral, one thing in particular had struck him. The woman had undoubtedly been very fond of her niece, as she had tearfully exhibited for their inspection photographs of her at various ages. Also, she had showed them some letters of the girl that she was treasuring, ones of apparently no particular interest, but which Myrtle had written home during the past year, while in her situation at Woodbridge.

So he was arguing that if the last letter she had received had by any chance been from her niece, she would be keeping that also, particularly so, as if the girl were contemplating taking her life, it might have been a sort of farewell letter. In that case, he was thinking, it might in some way refer again to the subject matter of the letter written by her to Eva Brabazon-Fane. He was altogether scoffing at the idea that the contents of Eva's letter were such as she had testified at the inquest.

Then he was sure that if the aunt had kept the letter, unless she were carrying it about with her, which he thought highly improbable, he would easily be able to find it. The cottage was very barely furnished and, apart from that, the mentality of the woman was such that she would in all probability select the most likely hiding place.

Wearing a pair of old and worn suede gloves, he effected an entry into the cottage with no difficulty through one of the windows at the back and then, very quickly, he went through any likely places where the letter might have been put away.

There was nothing of any value in the place, and nothing was locked up. He started upon the chest of drawers and then at the bottom of the last drawer came upon a small sugar bag, the contents of which made him open his eyes. It contained half a dozen or so of stout wooden pegs and a number of peculiarly coiled lengths of thin copper wire.

"Whew!" he ejaculated, "the old woman's a poacher. These are snares! And that's why she takes her midnight walks and comes home at all hours of the morning! Goodness gracious! Who'd have thought it? What an eye opener as to her real character, and what she is capable of doing!"

Closing the drawer, he next turned his attention to the wardrobe and the kitchen cupboard. Then he felt all round the edges of the one solitary piece of linoleum the cottage contained, finally he very carefully turned back the bed-clothes of the narrow bed.

"Under the mattress or thereabouts is such a favorite place for hiding money and small articles," he sighed, "that a burglar of even very poor imagination should rarely come empty-handed out of small houses. Sometimes, the hider never seems to think of anyone looking there."

But it was not under the mattress he found anything and he was just beginning to frown in annoyance at his lack of success, when suddenly passing his hands over the mattress he felt the crackling feeling of paper, and a few seconds' search showed him where something had been thrust through a slit in the side of the mattress. He inserted his fingers gently and drew out a folded envelope. The postmark was London, E.C., and dated the previous Monday week, and the handwriting was very small.

With his heart beating quickly in his excitement, he drew out the letter and saw, as he had been expecting, that it was signed 'Myrtle,' the handwriting being now quite different. The letter was quite short.

"My dearest Aunty,—I have come up specially to post this, so that no one should find out by the postmark where I am staying. I cannot make up my mind what I shall do. Everything seems so hopeless, that almost every minute I wish I was dead. If you never see me again, remember I always loved you for your kindness to me, and my great worry is how grieved you and uncle will be. Good-bye, Aunty darling.

Your poor niece,—Myrtle."

"P.S.—I am glad he is dead, and I know who shot him, but I wrote them I would never tell."

"Ah!" exclaimed Larose, with a puzzled frown. "'I wrote them I would never tell!' 'Them,' not 'him' or 'her.'"

Then for a long minute he considered what he should do with the letter. If he left it, it was just possible that either Scotland Yard or the Colchester police might have another fit of energy and, obtaining a search warrant to go through the cottage, perhaps find it! If he took it, the old aunt might worry herself into desperation that the detectives had somehow got hold of it, and that she might be put in prison for her lying.

Then suddenly an idea came to him and he smiled as if he were very pleased with himself. He would in part destroy the letter and leave only enough of it that the aunt could be quite sure it was the same letter she had so carefully hidden away. So he held the letter over the kitchen stove and, striking match after match, scorched out so many words and lines that the paper became so riddled with holes that all the writing left upon it could convey no possible meaning to anyone. Then he treated the envelope in the same way, leaving no postmark and only a couple of words of the address.

Then he took out two of the girl's other letters that he had seen her aunt replace in the drawer after she had been showing them to himself and Beatrice the previous day and, sandwiching the scorched letter between them, tucked them all three through the slit in the mattress cover.

"And when the old woman next goes there," he grinned, "she'll think it's another act of God done on her special behalf!" And he let himself out of the cottage again and made his way back to the Priory.

The following morning, exactly as he had anticipated, two very angry detectives from Colchester were questioning and cross-questioning the very puzzled Mrs. Jackson as to the reason she had secreted three of her niece's letters in the mattress, and as to how one of them had come to be so riddled with burnt holes that its message was now quite unintelligible.

But the old woman could give no explanation and she seemed so surprised herself that the detectives told the Superintendent later that she was the most accomplished liar they had ever had any dealings with.


CHAPTER XIII.—PEACE

The adjourned inquest upon Edwin Asher Toller was fixed for the morning of Thursday following, and on the Tuesday Inspector Stone was closeted with Tresidder-Jarvis, the well-known King's Counsel, who had been briefed to appear for the police.

The K.C. was a big and ponderous man, with his massive head appearing to come straight off his shoulders. He had large bushy eyebrows and his eyes were like those of a brooding eagle. Just now he was frowning hard.

"Well, Inspector," he announced in the deep melodious voice that had so often in his career led juries from the clear and obvious path of duty, "you have certainly not given me much to go on." He tapped the thick sheaf of papers on his desk. "Gog and Magog! but there's not a meaty bone to pick on the whole dish. Nothing but suspicions, and every time I've thought I was just about to come upon something tangible, it's petered away to nothing."

The Inspector sighed. "I'm sorry, sir, but it's the best we could do. We've explored every avenue and each time have come up against a dead wall. The suspects have every time been too clever for us."

"But it can't be cleverness upon the part of them all," commented the K.C. sharply. "There are four women and two men upon your list, and only one of them can have fired the fatal shot. Therefore, five of them have no need to be clever to prevent us from proving them guilty."

"But there may have been collusion, sir," said the Inspector, "and if there were, then there was some deuced cleverness somewhere to make the stories dovetail."

The K.C. considered. "And from these memoranda," he said thoughtfully, "I gather it is your opinion that if collusion did exist, it was either between this doctor and Lady Mentone, or else between two or all three of the sisters. You do not suggest that this butler was in collusion with anyone!"

"Oh, no, sir, he's told too many different tales for that, and he's veered about the compass too much to be in collusion with anyone."

"Of course," went on Tresidder-Jarvis, "if he were reliable, this butler's evidence would really be the keystone of the arch, for undoubtedly, immediately after the crime, he was in proximity to the murderer."

"But you will no doubt have gathered that the cook's evidence is going to be the snag there," said Stone, "for remember, she recalls now that during that evening Chime went several times into his pantry to get a drink of water from the filter there. Therefore he may have heard the clicking of the front door upon an occasion much earlier than when he was lifting the glass to his lips, just after he had heard the clock strike half-past 10." He nodded. "I fully expect that Mr. Aker-Banks, who is appearing for the sisters, will make a great point of that."

"Naturally," agreed Tresidder-Jarvis, "and quite reasonable, too." He smiled. "I note the servants had had bloaters for tea that evening, and as they were very salty it is no wonder everyone was thirsty." He picked up a blue pencil and pulled the papers upon his desk nearer to him. "Well," he went on briskly, "we'll go through all the suspected parties, one by one." He cleared his voice. "Miss Beatrice Brabazon-Fane, now what of her?"

"I suspected her very strongly at first," said the Inspector, "for she's of the quiet, capable type, very conscientious, and would make an excellent martyr. I thought she might perhaps have shot the man to save the honor of the family."

The K.C. poked the papers with a stodgy finger. "But there's no suggestion of guilt in any of these answers she gave you. From your notes she answered readily and very much to the point."

"But it was instinct that told me——"

"Pshaw!" grunted Tresidder-Jarvis, "that kind of instinct will carry no weight with the coroner's jury. The only instinct that will appeal to them is her pretty face."

"Oh, she's pretty as a peach!" exclaimed Stone with some enthusiasm.

"Enough!" said the K.C., raising his hand protestingly. "I know her. I met her at a dinner a few months ago, and if I were on a jury I'd never convict her of anything except breaking mens hearts." He shook his head. "But we'll leave her for the moment. Now for the second one, Eva."

"Almost as pretty," said the Inspector, "but quite a different type; very self-reliant and as bold as brass." He pursed up his lips. "But she was anxious, for some reason, not for herself I think. She was afraid we should trip one of her sisters. I feel sure of that."

"But you've no evidence against her?" asked the K.C.

"No, none, except that what she told the coroner at the Marriott girls inquest did not ring true. What she said the letter had contained did not seem feasible. I am sure the dead girl had written to her about something connected with what happened upon the night of the murder, which was a secret between them."

Tresidder-Jarvis made a note upon the margin of one of the papers before him. "Good! Then I'll see what I can get out of her in that connection." He frowned. "Now, what about this Lady Mentone? As the wife of the Home Secretary we must tread very warily there." He considered. "Things certainly look most suspicious, but you have really no evidence that may implicate her, except the testimony of that woman Carrington, and according to that letter she wrote to Mrs. Athol and you read, the testimony would be altogether nullified by the open malice she shows." He nodded. "You'd be quite right in not calling upon her." He frowned again. "I say you have no evidence against Lady Mentone. That those compromising letters of hers had an actual existence you can only surmise, and therefore the blackmailing by the murdered man you can only surmise also. You are not prepared to prove that as Margaret Brabazon-Fane the girl was the mistress of Mark Aaronson and there is no justification for your attempting to prove it, unless you can produce the incriminating letters to follow it up. By itself, the raising of any scandal in her past life, when she was a single girl would be a most unwarranted and despicable thing to do. It would be hitting below the belt."

He shook his massive head. "No, against these girls, objectively, there may be very strong suspicion, but against any one of them individually, you have no real grounds of suspicion at all. Your stumbling block is that you can put forward no reason for the committing of the crime. Therefore, when I come to cross-examine them, I shall give no suggestion to the court that any individual suspicion exists."

He picked up another of the papers on his desk. "Now we will take this Dr. Norman Athol, and here again you have no evidence against him. You can suggest no motive for his wanting to kill the man, and none of his actions that night seem to me to warrant any real suspicion. The story of his being in the lane at the time of the murder is wholly discredited by reason of the person who tells it; you cannot prove he wiped any fingerprints away, and of the two versions as to how he passed the time while waiting for the arrival of the police, his and his housekeeper's, I would prefer his every time."

"But the housekeeper is a very sensible and level-headed woman," said Stone reproachfully. "A most reliable witness, as you will see."

"That may be," agreed the K.C. again, "when she's not upset. But when she's just seen the bloodied face of her dead master, and she's upon the verge of collapse"—he smiled—"well, I'd rather take the testimony of a cool and accustomed-to-death professional man, any day."

He went on. "Now we come to the aunt, Maria Jackson, and once again, directly we come to weigh matters up, everything fizzles out. As I take it, the only real suspicious circumstance against her is that five and thirty years ago she was a crack rifle shot. But what does that prove?" He chuckled in amusement. "Why, five and thirty years ago at the Varsity, I ran the 300 yards in record time! But could I do it now?" He renewed his merriment. "Bless my soul, a little child could beat me today; indeed, I couldn't run three hundred yards at all."

"But she lied to me," said Stone frowningly. "She said she had never handled a rifle in her life."

"What of that?" asked the K.C. instantly. "In all the circumstances the old woman would naturally have been afraid of any association with her and rifles at a time like this, and besides, as a most respected attendant of the parish church, she may not have wanted all the lads and lassies of the village to point at her as someone who had once earned her living in a lowdown shooting gallery in the East End, which probably made its largest earnings upon the Sabbath Day." He looked very dubious. "No, the jury will want something better than that lie to make them think she had anything to do with the murder."

"But at all events, we have the motive there," argued Stone, "——to punish the betrayer of her niece."

"Ah! the motive!" agreed Tresidder-Jarvis readily, "but not the carrying out of the crime. Great Scott! do you think that old woman could have bolted off as quickly as the gardener says the sharpshooter did?"

"I've considered that," said Stone. "She's very agile."

"But there again comes the problem," went on the K.C. leaning back in his chair. "Why should she or the Marriott girl, if either of them had committed the crime, have wanted to run at once into the Priory? What on earth could have been their object?"

He shook his head and turned once again to his papers. "As for this Samuel Chime, his prevarications are most irritating. I shan't be able, however, to sum him up properly until I've got him in the witness-box. But if he's not mental or of a very subtle character, I should take him to be just a meddling bungler. I gather from your notes that that is your opinion, too, and that you don't think he had anything to do with the crime. Now for that drowned girl."

He regarded the Inspector for a long time, very thoughtfully. "Now, on the evidence you can produce, I don't think any jury will bring in a verdict of wilful murder there. She threatened—that is what you can certainly prove—but a threat does not necessarily mean execution—and, another thing, when she threatened, she meant vitriol, you know. So, one of two things happened. Either she never went as far as the Priory grounds that night, or else, arriving at the bungalow, she found the man already dead and beyond her vengeance." He nodded. "That's what you think, isn't it?"

"Yes," replied Stone emphatically, "and I go farther. I say she arrived upon the scene just after the murder had been committed, and actually saw the murderer. She would have been approaching the bungalow behind the row of tall trees there, and, if so, almost certainly would have been unseen by whoever was running away. She might not have grasped then what was happening, but continuing on to the bungalow, she would have done so very soon."

"And you go on to surmise that the next day she wrote to Eva Brabazon-Fane about it." The ponderous K.C. elevated his eyebrows. "Why should she have done that?"

"Perhaps, to thank her," suggested the Inspector a little hesitatingly; "perhaps to assure her she wouldn't give her away."

The K.C. shook his head. "Weak! weak!" he exclaimed, "and besides, that would make Eva the murderer!"

"Not necessarily," retorted the Inspector. "It might have been one of the other girls she saw, and she wrote to Eva, because she knew her best."

"Then that implies a collusion," commented Tresidder-Jarvis sharply, "and yet you wrote here you can find no trace of it!" He smiled. "You say Gilbert Larose is in the complete confidence of these girls and he may possibly know more than you do! Well, why not subpoena him on some count, and I'll see then what I can get out of him?"

The Inspector shook his head. "No, sir, he's an old colleague of mine, and that would hardly do." He smiled. "Besides, I am quite certain you would get nothing out of him, as he's a very wily bird."

The K.C. laughed. "I agree there. I've met him in court several times, and, since he's been married, socially as well." He nodded. "His is a very attractive personality, but he has absolutely no respect for the law, and would throw dust in its eyes, every time, if he thought it advisable."

"Quite so," nodded the Inspector, "and I'm sure he's been helping these girls. He's a sentimentalist, and would take the view that whoever killed this Toller was doing the community a service."

Tresidder-Jarvis pursed up his lips. "Well, well, I'm afraid this inquest is going to turn out to be a very tame affair, and there'll be no fireworks for anyone. I don't really see why you briefed me."

And from a sensational point of view, a very tame affair the inquest did seem to be, the public, generally, being greatly disappointed that at its conclusion no one had been summarily arrested and carried struggling and protesting to prison.

The inquest was held in the village hall, and, although quite a fair-sized building, accommodation was taxed to the utmost. The coroner, qualified both as a legal practitioner and a doctor of medicine, was of suave and courtly manner, but with all the politeness with which it was his wont to treat everyone who came before him, there was no nonsense about him, and he could size up a witness as quickly as anyone.

The proceedings opened very quietly, and not much interest was occasioned until Chime stepped into the box. The butler started off with great confidence in his replies to the questions the coroner put to him, but presently the suggestion being made to him that he really must be more exact, he quickly became confused and began to qualify everything. From being quite certain he had heard no sounds in the hall before the village clock had struck the half-hour, he became almost certain, and then he was not quite sure. Then he admitted he was often being chaffed for 'hearing sounds' about the house at night, and that it was not unusual for him to declare there was someone moving about in the rooms above, when, upon investigation, no one could be found there.

Tresidder-Jarvis's cross-examination added nothing to what the coroner had elicited, and Aker-Bank drew from him the admission that, although he had certainly been thirsty that night, he did not think he had been into the pantry for water quite as many times as the cook alleged.

Beatrice gave her evidence very quietly and neither the coroner nor Tresidder-Jarvis suggested there was the slightest reason for disbelieving her when she averred she had not left her bedroom between the hour of half-past nine and when, later, she had been awakened by Chime, shortly after midnight. In reply to a question by Tresidder-Jarvis, however, she admitted there was no one to corroborate that fact.

Lady Mentone lied prettily and fluently, undoubtedly believing that her falsehoods were, at worst, very trivial sins, and given in the good cause of preserving her husband's honor. Eva was treated with deference, and regretted, both with the coroner and Tresidder-Jarvis, that she had not kept the letter Myrtle had written to her.

Dr. Athol told his falsehoods pleasantly and with conviction, but rejoicing all the time that his wife was not present to hear him. He, also, felt that he was justified in his untruths, because, thereby, he was saving Lady Mentone's reputation.

Mrs. Jackson admitted she had lied to the Inspector when she had told him she had never fired a rifle in her life, but explained that she had only done so because she did not want it noised about that she had once followed a calling that she did not now hold to be respectable. She denied, again, that she had any letter from her niece since the latter had left Woodbridge, and she admitted she could bring no witness to corroborate what she averred she had been doing upon the night of the murder.

The Reverend Augustine Vavasour made an impressive appearance in the witness box and in sonorous tones gave an account of his interview with Mrs. Jackson, when she had first come to ask him for help and advice about her niece. He stated that the aunt had been fearful that the girl was going to do something desperate. Tresidder-Jarvis did not cross-examine him, but to everyone's surprise, Aker-Banks at once jumped up to do so.

"I understand, Mr. Vavasour, you were the first one, to learn from Mrs. Jackson, of her niece's betrayal by deceased?" he asked.

"I believe that is so," replied the rector. "She said she had told no one up to then."

"And you were shocked, of course, and told her so?"

"Yes, I was very shocked, and, of course, expressed my opinion that he was a dastardly scoundrel."

"And you would have liked to have seen him punished?" asked Aker-Banks very quietly.

"Certainly," replied the rector, "most severely punished."

The K.C.'s next question startled the court. "And I am told you have many times gone rook shooting with the late General Brabazon-Fane?"

"That is so," replied the rector innocently. "We were great friends."

"And you knew all about his rifle being upon the wall of the Priory Hall?" asked Aker-Banks, slightly raising his voice.

The rector was now beginning to look uncomfortable, and his face flushed. "C-e-r-tainly," he stammered. "I've often seen it resting there."

"Well, now," said the K.C. suavely, "what were you doing about half-past ten upon the night of the murder?"

The rector looked horrified. "Reading in my study," he replied, with a distinct quaver in his voice.

"And can you bring forward anyone who is prepared to corroborate that statement?" asked Aker-Banks with great sternness.

"No—o," replied the rector, and there was a catch in his voice. "I expect the maids were all in bed."

"Thank you, Mr. Vavasour. That is all," bowed the K.C. His face broke into a beaming smile. "I only just wanted to bring home to the jury that, except for married couples, it might be difficult for many of us to bring proof as to what we were exactly doing at that late hour of the night." He bowed again. "No suggestion of your being involved in the murder, I assure you."

A ripple of amusement ran round the court, in which the perspiring rector joined.

The coroner summed up quickly. He told the jury that if from the evidence tendered they had gathered anything to implicate any person or persons in particular, then they must be much cleverer than he was, for he himself could see no light anywhere. It was undoubtedly a most mysterious crime, and he could not help remarking that its mystery had not been made any the less by the testimony of the witness Samuel Chime. Reading through the depositions prepared for him, he had certainly been of opinion that the butler's evidence was going to be most valuable, but upon seeing him and hearing him in the box, and noting the vagueness and uncertainty of his statements, his undoubted predilection for the marvellous, and his shocking memory, he had come to the conclusion that they must disregard him altogether, and with him out of the way, so much upon which the authorities had been depending to bring home the crime to its perpetrator, fell to the ground.

Then he went on to review all the other evidence, especially that relating to this dead Myrtle Marriott, warning them there, however, that although it was quite possible that she might have been the assassin, still they had no convincing proof, and therefore it was not meet they should cast such a slur upon her memory by recording a verdict of wilful murder against her.

In conclusion, he advised them that there was only one possible verdict for them to bring in, and it was that of wilful murder by some person or persons unknown.

The murmur of quiet conversation buzzed round the hall when the jury had retired to consider their verdict, but no one seemed in any doubt as to what it would be.

"A pity we couldn't have put that Carrington woman into the box," whispered Stone to the Superintendent, "but it would have led nowhere, and then directly the other side produced the letter she wrote to Mrs. Athol, then—bang would have gone everything. Her intentions were so undoubtedly malicious."

"I've just heard that she was in the village this morning," said the Superintendent, gloomily, "intending to thrust herself in here to make a fuss. But she was feeling faint from the long journey and went into the Goose and Feathers to lie down for a rest. Then the landlady persuaded her to have some brandy, and gave her so strong a dose that her legs became wobbly and she couldn't stand up. Then I hear she went to sleep and woke up feeling so sick and ashamed that she had herself driven away again at once."

"And a good thing for us, too," nodded Stone. "She would have brought discredit upon us whether she went into the box or not. The coroner would have only thought we were trying to throw dirt."

"Bah! he's too much of a society man," grunted the Superintendent, "and his wife went to the same boarding-school in Eastbourne as the two eldest Brabazon-Fane girls." He scowled angrily. "We've made a mess of this business somehow, although at one time I thought I had all the good cards in my hands." He looked scornful. "That Eva did it, right enough."

"No, Billy Mentone," said Stone quickly. He clicked with his tongue. "Gosh! but she's got a nerve! She shook hands with me as she was coming in here as if we were the greatest friends, and when she smiled at me I felt devilish glad she was going to get off." He sighed. "She's very fascinating isn't she?"

"No, she's not a bit to me," retorted the Superintendent. "She's just a high class society woman who, if she wants to, will break as many laws as the dirtiest little drab of the streets. But just because her clothes cost a lot of money and she uses nice smelling scent, elderly men like you——"

"Hush! hush! Here they come!" interrupted Stone.

The jury filed back into the box, and after the usual preliminaries, the foreman announced "Wilful murder by some person unknown."

"Certainly not," whispered Stone. "We know quite well who did it." He grinned as he rose from his seat. "But I'm going to have another sniff of that scent as she goes out of the door."

It was a very merry dinner that night at the Priory. Aker-Banks was delaying his departure until he had made a little love to Eva, and Sir Charles had run down for a couple of hours.

"I've been keeping away, on purpose," whispered the latter to Larose. "I knew everything would be all right, but I didn't want it to be said I was using my official position to influence anybody in any way."

Larose took Adele into dinner, and he noted what a different woman she appeared to be now. The hard, cold lines had dropped from her face, as it were like the stripping of a mask, and when she looked at her husband sitting opposite to her, as she very often did, her eyes had the look of tenderness in them as when a young girl just falls in love.

Eva's eyes were very bright and sparkling, and one of her cheeks was much redder than the other. Billy Mentone remarked demurely that Jimmy Aker-Banks ought really to bring his razor down with him.

Beatrice looked as beautiful and madonna-like as ever, and there was a quiet and restful peace upon her face that Larose had not seen before. Once, glancing round to see that everyone was being looked after, she caught Larose's eye, and blushing prettily, she lifted her glass of champagne and gave him a silent toast. He lifted his glass in return and then lowered his eyes.

"Gilbert, Gilbert," he chided himself angrily, "what would your wife say if she knew?" He nodded. "Perhaps, it's a good thing I'm going home tomorrow. I must be a bad man."

Just after nine o'clock Sir Charles and Eva's future husband took their departures and a few minutes later Dr. Athol and his wife prepared to go, too.

"I'm sure we all want a good long sleep," smiled the doctor. "I don't seem to have had a decent one for weeks," and when his wife had gone to put on her hat, he drew Larose to one side.

"Good-bye, sir," he said. He looked Larose straight in the face. "And if I don't see you again, I'll tell you now"—there was a catch in his voice—"you've been the best friend one man and one woman ever had."

"A great pleasure," commented Larose lightly. "We wicked people are often quite good at heart." He laughed. "The religion of kindness has no temples and no priests, but all the same it's not a bad faith to adhere to."

As they were making their way to the doctor's car, in the drive, Mrs. Athol lingered behind with Larose and then suddenly gripped him by the arm. "Tell me, did you ever hear of a girl called Adele?" she whispered quickly.

The muscles of Larose's arm became rigid, and he gave a big gasp. "Ah! I thought so," she went on. "An instinct told me it was you. But quick, how did you come to get hold of those letters?"

"I suspected your husband of the murder once, and searched his room one night," replied Larose, speaking very rapidly. "Then just as I had found that packet, and before I could go through its contents, I was interrupted, and had to run from the house. I thought they were the letters Lady Mentone had been blackmailed about, but I wouldn't have touched them for one moment if I had known whose they were."

"Well, it's a good thing you did," she whispered, bending close over to him, "or I should not be the happy woman I am tonight."

With the doctor and Adele gone, the little party returned to the lounge and a long silence fell upon them. Then Beatrice said a little nervously. "We're so sorry you are going tomorrow, Mr. Larose. You've been such a tower of strength to us through all this."

"Yes, you have," nodded Eva emphatically. She smiled. "And although you didn't actually drive the detectives away, and you didn't stop them from suspecting us"—she shrugged her shoulders—"you somehow gave us courage, and made us not half so much afraid of them as we should have been without you." She turned affectionately to Lady Mentone. "Isn't that so, Billy, dear?"

Billy nodded solemnly. "Yes, he's been a great friend and we've not felt lonely since he came." She sighed prettily. "Speaking for myself, I think, however, it is a good thing he's going, as I'm beginning to get quite fond of him."

They all laughed, and then Eva went on thoughtfully. "My great regret is you'll perhaps always be worrying that you didn't find the murderer."

Larose laughed. "Not at all," he replied. "When I've done all I can in a case, I put it out of my mind and think no more about it." He became grave all at once. "But look here. I've been thinking how I can best say good-bye to you all, and I'd like you to do me a favor." He took them all in in turn. "I'd like to have ten minutes' talk with each of you—alone." He smiled. "I think I can give you some good advice. So what about it?"

"Certainly," nodded Eva promptly. "I am quite agreeable, at all events," and then both Beatrice and Billy agreed, too, but in their cases, it almost seemed a little nervously.

"Well," went on Larose briskly, "you'll each come with me into the library, and you'll all promise me that when I have done with you, you'll go straight to bed and not see one another again until tomorrow morning." He held up his hand. "Also, you'll all promise me you'll never, all your lives, tell one another what I have said to you." He looked round very solemnly at them. "Now, is that a bargain?"

For quite a long moment none of them made any reply, and then it was Billy who spoke first. "Yes," she said, "I'll promise." She made a grimace. "I suppose you're going to lecture us!"

"No," laughed Larose carelessly. "I'm just curious and want to ask you all something," and then the other two sisters agreeing, too, he asked. "Well, which of you will come first?"

"Oh, I will," exclaimed Lady Mentone at once. "I'm scared and want to get it over."

"All right, the youngest first," said Larose, "and after you, I'll take Miss Eva."

So off Lady Mentone marched him to the library and then, with the door closed, she flung herself into an armchair. "Well, Sir Gilbert," she asked with a fine assumption of carelessness. "What is it?"

"I just want to suggest," said Larose gravely, "that you must not let your mind keep on wondering who killed that man." He spoke very slowly. "I think you had better take it for granted it was poor Myrtle."

"But are you certain she did it?" asked Lady Mentone quickly.

Larose smiled. "Who can be certain of anything?" he asked. He nodded. "Still the evidence against her is stronger than against anybody else, and we must leave it at that."

"All right," said Lady Mentone. "I won't worry." She looked round to make sure the door was closed, and suddenly bent forward towards Larose. "But do you know," she went on in a hoarse whisper, "that I've got a horrible idea Beatrice and Eva both suspect something about me. When we got home after the inquest they both made a special point of coming into my bedroom and kissing me, as if to say. 'Oh, you're quite safe now, and so don't worry any more!'" Her eyes opened very wide. "Do you think they've come to believe that Inspector Stone was right, and I had once written guilty letters?"

But Larose laughed it off, assuring her that it was only imagination and that no one but he, the doctor, and Mary Athol could possibly know.

They talked on for a few minutes and then Billy said suddenly, "You like Beatrice, best of us all, don't you, Mr. Larose? Oh, no, you needn't blush, but I'm quite sure of it. An instinct tells me so." She looked very solemn. "Well, she thinks a lot of you and will take notice of what you say. So, you just tell her to marry Mr. Vavasour. She doesn't love him, of course, but he'll make her a splendid husband, and she'll get very fond of him in time." She suddenly remembered something. "Oh, my husband told me on the quiet tonight that poor Augustine has got into a lot of hot water on account of burying Myrtle in our churchyard. Several bishops are down upon him, and only the Bishop of Norwich says he did right." She sighed. "Poor Augustine, he's such a stickler for propriety and tradition, and it was Beatrice who led him astray." She spoke most emphatically. "Yes, Beatrice must marry him, to make up for his lost reputation."

Larose saw her from the room and then went and fetched Eva. The latter's face was a little flushed and she eyed him rather defiantly. "And what is it you want?" she asked sharply.

Larose smiled. "First, a promise from you that you will speak the absolute truth, with no prevarication and keeping nothing back. Do you agree?"

Eva hesitated and, for her, looked very uncomfortable. "Y-e-s. I suppose so," she replied. She spoke quickly. "I mean, of course."

"I am obliged to mention that," said Larose quietly, "because a lot of untruths were told at the inquest today"—he nodded significantly—"and a lot more have been told before that."

Eva made no comment, but her eyes were fixed intently upon him. He rapped out sharply. "Now, do you know who killed that man?"

Eva's face was quite expressionless. "No," she retorted instantly in a tone that was equally as sharp as his. "I don't."

"Good!" commented Larose calmly. "Then don't you try to find out." He spoke in cold and mater-of-fact tones, "Never give either of your sisters the very slightest idea that you know it was one or other of them who did it. You understand?"

"I hear you," replied Eva a little breathlessly and suppressing her amazement, only with a great effort.

Larose went on. "Now, I said a lot of untruths were told at the inquest today and, among others, Mrs. Jackson and you both told them. I won't call your untruths lies, because that is a harsh word, and, to my thinking, should not be used about an untruth when that untruth is uttered justifiably." He spoke between his clenched teeth. "That Toller was a vile creature, Miss Eva, much viler than I hope you ever will learn. So, whoever shot him did so, as we would destroy a rat earning the infection of a dreadful plague. It was an act of God, if you will have it so, but it was carried out through human agency, and if you pray"—he inclined his head—"remember the killer in your prayers."

Eva's face was a study of most delighted and thankful relief. "Oh, thank you, thank you, Mr. Larose," she exclaimed fervently, and with all her caution now thrown to the winds. "I could embrace you for saving that. It takes such a load off my mind."

"Well, you need have no grieving about that man's death," said Larose emphatically. "Indeed, after his vile persecution of your sister his end was much too merciful. Of course, if he had fallen into the hands of the law he would have received a severe punishment of a kind, but it would have been nothing to the punishment and misery that would have come to you from the publicity that would have ensued."

"B-ut, Mr. Larose," began Eva hesitatingly, "then there were letters, and Inspector Stone was——"

Larose raised his hand protestingly. "Better not ask questions," he said smilingly, "and then all your life long there will be no critical thoughts to come between you and those you love." He spoke warmly. "I honor and respect both your sisters, and, looking at things sensibly, they neither of them have much to grieve over."

Eva gave a little shiver of fear. "But I knew all along that there was danger somewhere, yet somehow all along, too, I felt you were acting as our protector." A sudden thought came to her and she asked quickly. "And what part have you played in all this, Mr. Larose?"

Larose's eyes twinkled. "Oh, I came just in time to spike their guns. I was lucky, for by a few hours only I was able to make things safe." He looked intently at her. "Now, one thing more. Mrs. Jackson misled the court this morning. She did receive a letter from her niece in which the girl wrote she was glad Toller was dead, adding she 'had written them she would never tell.'" He nodded. "I suppose, of course, that was what was in her letter to you?"

Eva nodded back. "Yes, her letter to me contained just one brief line. 'You are quite safe, for I shall not tell anyone'." She sighed deeply. "And do you wonder everything became a nightmare to me then, and that I was horrified every moment what was going to come out next. I could see that both Beatrice and Billy were worried almost out of their lives about something, and although I dropped them hints, they wouldn't confide in me. I didn't want to ask them straight-out, for I was afraid, if I did not know the truth, what effect it might have upon me. As it was, being sure of nothing, I could keep up my courage and face those awful detectives bravely."

"And very bravely you did face them," nodded Larose. "I am sure it was you who made even Inspector Stone believe there was no collusion between you all." He made a grimace. "But you must agree that Chime had made everything look very black against you girls."

"Yes, I can't understand Chime," said Eva with a frown. "Thank Heaven, after that first night, he's never told the same story twice." She laughed. "But, really, I have never known him so absolutely stupid, as he was in the witness box today. In a general way, he's certainly by no means a fool, but this morning it was exactly as if he'd got no intelligence at all."

"And it was a good thing for you that he seemed like that," nodded Larose, "for he quite convinced the coroner that no reliance could be placed upon anything he said, and that therefore there might be no truth in that damning story which he gave to the police on that night."

"But Chime's always been a funny mixture," went on Eva, "and we have often said among ourselves that we can't quite make him out. He's like a child in some ways, and yet in others he's very intelligent. For instance, he's by far the best chess-player in the village here, and he can beat the rector, who used to think himself pretty good."

"Well, you know your cue," said Larose, when after a few moment's silence Eva had risen to her feet. "Never refer to this conversation and never try to find out which of your sisters killed him."

"I never will," said Eva earnestly. "Whichever one did it, although I don't think any the worse of her, I don't want to know." She held out her hand, "Good-night, Mr. Larose, I'll think of something nice to say tomorrow, when I bid you good-bye."

"Oh! one moment," exclaimed Larose. "One thing more. I'm puzzling now, as to why you suggested sending for me when you were already suspecting one of your sisters had killed the man." He frowned at her enquiringly. "Why did you do it?"

Eva looked most amused. "Because my Jimmy had, laughingly, told me I had better. He said in fun, over the phone, that if there really was a murderer in the family and one of us had shot Toller for a good cause—Jimmy had always hated him and complained about us keeping him on, because he said he looked such a satyr—then you would be the very man to help us, as you were quite capable of saving all our necks by leading all Scotland Yard away upon a false trail." She laughed merrily. "He declared you were criminally minded yourself, in a nice way."

"Oh, he did, did he?" laughed back Larose. "Well, you tell him I'll have a quarrel with him about it, one day."

Larose brought Beatrice into the library with a little quickening of the beating of his heart. She, however, was quite cool and collected.

"Well, what's the great secret?" she asked brightly, seating herself comfortably in a chair. "I am very curious as to why you should be wanting to interview us like this?"

"It was really only you that I wanted to speak to," replied Larose lightly, "but I didn't intend the others to know that." He spoke very quietly, dropping his voice almost to a whisper. "Yes, I just wanted to tell you that you could always be quite assured in your mind now that neither of your sisters would ever know it was you who shot your agent." He spoke as emphatically as possible. "Indeed, no one will ever know and it will be a secret between you and me for ever."

For a few seconds she stared at him as if she could not take in what he was telling her. Then she grew deathly pale and a look of frozen calm came over her face.

"No, no, don't look at me like that," he went on quickly. "You know I'm your friend and so you have nothing to fear from me." He shook his head emphatically. "You needn't be afraid of anybody now."

She pulled herself together with a great effort. "How do you know I did it?" she asked fiercely. "You haven't any proof?"

"No, I have no proof, and no one else will be able to have any either," he replied instantly. "I only surmise it." He smiled. "But it's a pretty good surmise, for lots of little things suggest it, and I half suspected it from the very first."

She made no attempt at any denial. "Yes, I did it," she said wearily, "and it will haunt me all my life. Always, when with others, I shall be wearing a mask, but when I'm by myself——"

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Larose. "Yours was an act of justice, and, although, of course, illegal, you have really nothing to reproach yourself with. You overheard him blackmailing your sister, and if you were listening when he made his vile demands, then——"

"I was," she interrupted fiercely, "but I didn't kill him for that, only. I—I——" her voice choked, and then with a sudden movement she drew herself up and slipped the shoulder strap of her dress. "Look, look, I killed him for that. He had been drinking, and he bit me there," and she fell back limply into the chair.

Larose gave just one lightning glance at the half healed and still angry wound upon the white shoulder as he sprang forward to catch her from slipping to the floor.

Then, to his great relief, she did not faint, but burst into a flood of passionate tears, her body shaking, and her breath coming convulsively.

Now in after-time and when thinking things over, Larose always told himself that, although he never could quite remember all that happened in the immediate minutes that followed, of some things he was quite sure. He knew that he took her in his arms and held her tightly to him, and that later he sat her up and put back the shoulder strap with shaking fingers. Also, he recollected that he dried her tears for her, and stroked her hair to comfort her. In fact, he took no shame in thinking he did the very best he could to help her recover her composure. But he was quite sure he never actually kissed her, although he might have just brushed her hair lightly with his lips.

At any rate, under his ministrations, she soon began to recover, and, with deep blushes, to rearrange her disordered dress.

Then haltingly, with long pauses and averted eyes, she told him her tale, and a pitiful and dreadful tale it was.

When the ball was in progress, she began to get worried early about Billy, because she thought her sister was looking unusually pale, and missing her from the ballroom about an hour later, she started to find out where she had gone. Then she was horrified to see her, through the palms in the conservatory, in earnest conversation with the agent.

For the moment she had been almost unable to believe her eyes, and had stopped dead in her astonishment. Then the first words that reached her made her crouch down in terror, and then, creeping up behind them, she had heard his demands.

Then all the next day she had watched with agony Billy's distress of mind, thinking of every possible way in which she could help her. When night came, she had made up her mind what she would do, and feeling quite sure that her sister was too ill to leave her room, she crept out and made her way to the agent's bungalow. The door was open and she walked straight into the office. Toller had risen to his feet upon hearing her footsteps and was smiling when she entered the room, but his face fell directly he saw who had come.

Then she tried a big bluff with him. She told him Billy had related everything to her, and if he did not at once hand over the letters, they were going into their friend, the Chief Constable, on the morrow, to lay everything before him. She also said Toller was to leave the bungalow by 9 o'clock the next morning.

At first, she thought Toller was frightened, but he soon recovered himself, and said sneeringly that it was no good her trying to bluff him, as no married woman would dare run the risk of her husband seeing letters such as Billy had written. He reiterated his demand for the money, and laughed contemptuously at any idea of his leaving the Priory until he had got it.

"Then he must have seen that I was frightened myself," went on Beatrice tearfully, "and had only been trying to bluff him, for he said the one alternative to the £5,000 was that I should marry him. Then, when I was glaring at him and quite speechless in my rage, he made a sudden grab at me." Her voice was only just a whisper. "Then when he had me in his arms and I was so paralysed with terror that I could do nothing to save myself, he bent over me and gave me that wound. But somehow he slipped on the floor and before he could get up, I had escaped and was out of the bungalow."

"Awful! awful!" ejaculated Larose, "enough to have driven you out of your mind." He shuddered. "You did right to kill him."

"I swore I would," said Beatrice brokenly. "I took down father's rifle and got two cartridges out of the box and——"

"Two cartridges?" queried Larose sharply. "Then what did you do with the other one?"

"I don't know," she replied. "I was holding it in my hand, I think. At any rate, I cannot remember what became of it. Well, I crept to the office window, which was open and, putting my hand inside, snapped up the blind. He was sitting back in the armchair, and I saw the whites of his eyes show when he saw me with the rifle." She covered her face with her hands. "Then I shot him, and the rest you know."

A long silence ensued and then Larose remarked thoughtfully. "And there was no barking from the dog, because he had followed you back here and then returned with you again to the bungalow." He nodded. "That was what puzzled us all—why the gardener had not heard him make any sound."

"He jumped at me the first time I went to the bungalow," said Beatrice, "but the second time I think he must have gone straight into his basket." Then a thought seemed to strike her suddenly, and at once she looked very frightened again. "But what about Billy?" she asked with a trembling voice. "Are those letters always going to be like a sword hanging over her head?"

"No. They are burnt and done with now," smiled Larose assuringly. And then he went on to relate to her the whole story of how he had come to learn of their existence, and all that had happened after. He passed over very lightly, however, her sister's one-time relations with Mark Aaronson.

"So now," he finished up cheerfully, "no motive can ever be found why any of you girls should have wished Toller harm."

Beatrice had listened with moist eyes, and then, when he had stopped speaking for a few moments she let her hand rest lightly upon one of his. "Oh! what should we have done without you?" she asked plaintively. "They would have arrested Billy, and then I should have had to come forward with the whole awful story."

Larose passed it off with a laugh. "Well, it's all over now," he said, "and it only remains for you to forget as much of it as you can. Time will soon blunt the sharpness of your memory, and when you're married you'll——"

"But I'm never going to marry," interrupted Beatrice quickly. "I'm not fit to be anyone's wife now."

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Larose emphatically. "There's no man in all the kingdom you are not fit to marry. Any woman would be perfectly justified if she shot such a man, and if you had actually been put on trial for it no jury would have been willing to say you had been guilty of a crime, and no judge would have punished you for what you did." He regarded her smilingly. "Besides, you'll have to marry that poor rector now as some compensation for his disgrace. Eva has just told me nearly all his superiors are furious with him because of that burial here—which, you know, was entirely your work."

Beatrice looked uncomfortable, and then, a little animation coming into her voice, she asked curiously, "What made you suspect me at all?"

"Lots of things," smiled Larose. "When Inspector Stone was questioning you and asking you why you did this and why you did that, you had all your reasons so ready to the tip of your tongue that I felt sure you must have been thinking them all out beforehand. Then those pages you tore from your diary made things look very suspicious, and I was pretty confident that you had written up all the four pages again especially for me. Then, when I found out about Billy, and got the confession from her about the blackmailing, you came into the picture at once. The cook had told me that upon the night of the ball, just as the orchestra had struck up 'The Merry Widow,' she saw you crossing the lounge—and you could only have been coming from the conservatory—looking very tired and white."

"I don't wonder," sighed Beatrice, "after what I'd just been through."

"Well," went on Larose, "looking up the memorandum I had made of Toller's dance programme and comparing it with the pieces played by the orchestra, I saw at once that you must have been in the conservatory when Billy was in there with that wretch. The dance before 'The Merry Widow' waltz was the one she sat out with him." He nodded. "Then I guessed you must have heard something of their conversation."

He smiled. "The stand you made about where the Marriott girl was to be buried made me think a lot, too. You were so determined she should be buried here, when exactly where she was going to be buried should have been of small interest to you. But I had got a very good idea of your character by then and judged that knowing she was not the murderer, your conscience was insisting her memory should not suffer because of what you yourself had done."

He took a folded paper out of his pocket. "And this made me quite certain you were the one who had shot the man. It is a page from the motor catalogue he was reading just before he was killed. See what he has drawn and written under the drawing in pencil."

With a shiver of repugnance, she took the page from him, and saw upon it the quite well-executed drawing of a man embracing a girl. The girl's face was not visible and she appeared to be struggling. Under the drawing was written 'little spit-fire.'

"And so when you admitted in the church that night to the rector," went on Larose, "that you had been called a little spit-fire before and admitted it, too, with such troubled expression upon your face, as if the memory were disturbing—the whole scene of what might perhaps have taken place that night in the bungalow flashed into my mind. You had gone there, unknown to everyone, and you had repulsed Toller when he had tried to kiss you."

He rose from his chair. "But now better go," he said. "It's nearly half-past ten, and you mustn't meet Chime with that tear-stained face, when he comes to lock up." He raised his hand warningly. "Remember now, none but you and I, in all the world, will ever know who killed Toller." He nodded. "So try to forget it as quickly as you can."

He moved to the door to open it for her. "Good-night, Beatrice," he said, very softly, and when she looked up shyly and answered, "Good-night—Gilbert," he took her hand and raised it reverently to his lips.

A few minutes later, as he was thoughtfully smoking a cigarette, Chime came to know if he wanted anything. "No, thank you," he replied and then remembering the gruelling the butler had received that afternoon at the inquest, he added kindly, "Oh, if I were you, Chime, I shouldn't take too much to heart what the coroner said about you, today. I shouldn't worry about it."

"I'm not, sir," replied Chime instantly. He smiled a slow, inscrutable smile. "I am sure I am very pleased if I was able to be of any service to the young ladies by appearing so stupid."

"What do you mean by that?" asked Larose sharply, rather puzzled at the curious expression upon the man's face.

The butler hesitated. "W-e-ll you see, sir," he replied, "it was me who brought all the trouble on them in the first instance, and it's been a great grief to me ever since. If I had only had the sense to have held my tongue and not butted in that night, no one would have had any suspicion about my mistresses, and we should all have been spared the dreadful time we have been through."

"But what's that to do with your being such a dope at the inquest today?" asked Larose with a frown.

"Well, it's like this, sir," explained the butler, looking rather sheepish. "When I came to hear the gardener's story, the next morning, I saw how unpleasant it was going to be for the young ladies here, because of what I had told the Superintendent about the noises I had heard in the hall." He dropped his eyes to the ground. "So I began to alter my tale a bit, and then to hum and haw and say I wasn't certain, and then I've kept on with it all along." He looked up furtively to see how Larose was taking his admissions. "No harm done, sir. Only a little prevarication just to make thinks easier for us, and I didn't at all mind them thinking I was an old fool."

Larose thought afterwards that he had never been more astonished in his life. "But goodness gracious!" he exclaimed very concerned, "you'll be had up for perjury if that gets's known. You mustn't tell it to a soul."

"Oh, no, I shan't sir," replied Chime instantly. He nodded. "I know when to keep a still tongue and I am only telling it to you, just as I would talk to a priest in the confessional." He smiled. "Besides, I know I am quite safe with you, sir, as you are the friend of the young mistresses. Why, I was just behind two of the Colchester detectives in the court this morning and I heard one of them say that Superintendent Russell had told someone that you had queered the pitch for the police by getting rid of some evidence that would certainly have secured a conviction." He nodded again. "Yes, I know I'm quite safe with you."

"And don't you repeat that again, either," said Larose sharply. He smiled. "Or I shall be getting a bad reputation. I'm a justice of the peace in my own county, you must understand."

A short silence followed, and then Chime said tentatively. "And I suppose it's quite certain, sir, we shan't be worried any more by the police?"

Larose shook his head. "No, they won't come here again. They've finished."

The butler still lingered. "I should like to believe it was Myrtle who killed him," he said meditatively, "but I can't think it was, for I'm certain she knew nothing about rifles." He paused for a moment. "So, I should like to believe one of the young ladies did it, instead."

"But why on earth should one of them want to do it?" asked Larose, curious at the turn the conversation was taking.

Chime pursed up his lips. "He was always insulting them, sir, if they had only realised it. Every look he gave them was an insult. He was a dreadful man!"

"But it was not one of them who killed him," said Larose sharply. "You understand that?"

"Oh, yes, sir," replied the butler instantly, "and I wouldn't for one moment suggest it." He cleared his throat embarrassedly. "But I had a dream, sir, the other night. A very peculiar one, and it shows what funny things one can dream." He looked intently at Larose. "I dreamt I had just come in from talking to that gardener upon the morning after the murder. It was still very early, it wasn't six o'clock, and none of the maids were yet about. I was just passing through the hall when something bright, half-way up the stairs, caught my eye. The sun was shining upon it, and I thought it must be something one of the young ladies had dropped, as that staircase is only used by them. So I went up the stairs and picked it up"—he was still looking intently at Larose—"and what do you think it was, sir?"

The face of Larose was like a wooden mark. He was preparing himself for some uncomfortable surprise. "How should I know?" he asked carelessly. "What was it?"

"A little cartridge, sir," replied the butler very solemnly, "just like those others, in the drawer, that belong to the little rifle." He smiled as if he were pleased at the memory of his sagacity. "I remember I slipped it back where I thought it had come from, as quickly as possible, and this time"—he nodded vigorously—"I was sensible enough to hold my tongue."

Larose stretched himself and yawned. "It was a dream, of course," he remarked in a tired voice, "only a dream!"

"Yes, sir, only a dream," agreed Chime instantly, "and it is one I shall never mention again to anyone." He cleared his throat. "I have only told it to you, sir, because I should like you to know I'm very fond of the young mistresses, and have done my best to atone for my first mistake. Good night, sir," and he glided out of the room closing the door noiselessly behind him.

"Whew!" whistled Larose softly, "and I thought I'd played the leading part in this drama, but now I see it's old Chime who's been the hero all along!" He whistled again. "Whew! but what an escape for that little lady!"

* * * *

The autumn leaves were falling when Larose, at his own home, Carmel Abbey, received a long and chatty letter from Lady Mentone. After mentioning that they were all quite well and had had no further dealings with policemen or detectives, she went on to say that, to the great surprise of everyone and to the great anger of not a few, Mr. Vavasour had been offered and had accepted the Deanery of Norwich Cathedral. So, he and Beatrice were going to be married next month, and of course he, Larose, and Mrs. Larose, would in due time be receiving an invitation to attend the ceremony.

She finished up with the postscript—"Beatrice sends her very kind regards to you, and I am to be sure and tell you that all her wounds are healed now."

"What does she mean by that?" asked Helen Larose, who had been reading the letter over her husband's shoulder.

"Oh, I suppose that she is beginning to get over the awful trial she went through," replied Larose carelessly. "She's very sensitive and, I think, suffered more than anybody."

Helen looked thoughtful. "But I'm always sorry you didn't find out who killed the man." She stroked her husband's head affectionately. "I should hate to think anyone had the impression you had become a back-number."

"Well, if I didn't find out much," laughed Larose, "I certainly made a good impression, or they wouldn't be asking us to this wedding that's coming on."

"Of course, I expect they liked you," smiled his wife. She pretended to look very severe. "And you liked one of them, too, for I remember now you were talking about some Beatrice the other night in your sleep."

"Ah!" exclaimed Larose readily, "but wasn't that the name you were suggesting to give the new heifer calf?" and then he looked very reproachfully at his wife when she laughed scornfully.

* * * * *

A little less than a year later Inspector Stone and Larose happened to meet one morning in Bond street, and they stopped and shook hands cordially.

After a few minute's conversation upon general matters, the Inspector said carelessly. "Oh, by the bye, last week I saw a paragraph in a Society paper, remarking how interesting it was that all of the three Brabazon-Fane girls had presented their husbands with a baby within the same twelve months."

"Well, what about it?" frowned Larose. "Does the Yard object?"

"Oh, no, not that I've heard of," replied Stone quickly. He looked intently at his friend. "But I was wondering what they've called them. Do you know?"

"Certainly, I do," said Larose, "and as a matter of fact I'm one of the godfathers of the baby the eldest sister had. It's a girl and she's called her Helen after my wife. They have become great friends. Then Lady Mentone's little boy is called Charles and——"

"It's called Charles after me?" broke in the Inspector, his face one broad and delighted smile.

"No, you silly old fool," laughed Larose, "after her husband, of course!"

"Oh, oh!" ejaculated Stone, pretending to be very disappointed, "but I quite thought——"

"And Eva's is called James," went on Larose, ignoring the interruption. "They are all beautiful babies. I've seen the lot of them."

"Well, well, but I'm delighted," frowned Stone, shaking his head mournfully, "for I did hope I might get a certain clue at last." He lowered his voice darkly. "I felt sure that, as some atonement, the guilty one would have named her firstborn Edwin, and then—down past-haste with a warrant we would have gone," but then, seeing the contemptuous scorn with which Larose was pretending to regard him, his face broke into another delighted smile.


THE END

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