Title: The Beachy Head Murder Author: Arthur Gask * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1203721h.html Language: English Date first posted: Sep 2012 Most recent update: Nov 2020 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy Colin Choat and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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As a writer of thrillers Arthur Gask is preeminent. Foremost critics of the great national and provincial press have unanimously praised his many books: H.G. Wells confessed to reading him in the small hours. His Gilbert Larose is outstanding amongst memorable characters in mystery fiction as such novels as The Tragedy of the Silver Moon and The House on the Fens clearly demonstrate.
The Beachy Head Murder is true to form. It tells the absorbing story of a crime perpetrated and atoned for, and of the later sequel in which the all but perfect murder was committed. Larose, however, was not deceived. Gifted with a profound insight into human nature and possessed of astonishing powers of observation, he identified the murderer and, in the dramatic climax, dispensed his own brand of justice.
IF everything about me were known, I am quite aware the greater number of people would insist that I must be by nature an evil man.
The thought of which amuses me, as in these latter years I appear to so conform to all the generally accepted ideas of solid British respectability.
At only thirty-five I am a well-to-do landowner, the squire of our village and the youngest Justice of the Peace in my country. I open Flower Shows, I give away prizes at the local sports and I am on the Boards of Management of several public institutions. Also, coming of good stock—my father was the grandson of an earl—I am held to be a worthy example of that class which in Britain's glorious history has done so much to win for her her world-wide greatness.
But I was not always so esteemed. I was a hunted man once. There was a reward of five hundred pounds for my capture and, for ought I know, the offer is still open. I was a thief, and worse than that, I killed the man who had been sent to catch me.
I don't deny I did very wrong, but I do plead in extenuation that I did my utmost to atone for my offences. Also, there was no premeditation about my crimes.
It was through one single foolish action, not in itself criminal, that I was drawn into the vortex of all that trouble. I always find consolation, too, in the thought that when I took that man's life I was sure I was only acting in self-defence. He gave me no chance, and I believe he was intending to murder me to obtain that bank-wallet. I did not dream he was a detective.
Of course, I know there are many who will always condemn irrevocably directly one false step is taken, but I hold such people are nearly always hypocrites. After all, wrong-doing is so often only a matter of courage, and in all probability the majority of those who would now be most bitter against me because of that theft, in similar circumstances would be just as bad as I was—if they only dared.
Yes, Nature has shaped us all very much in the same mould.
I mean who among us would care to write down for everyone to read all that his thoughts have been, all that he has longed for and all that he would have done if he had dared?
So many things which are forbidden are natural to us, and I always hold that every man, at heart, is more or less a criminal. In the lives of all of us, at one time or another, there must be many so-called crimes we would have liked to carry out, and we have only been prevented from doing so by the restraining influences of education, convention and the laws under which we live for our mutual protection.
And the more courage we have the greater must have been our temptations. The more mastery we have obtained over the affairs of life and the more successes we have had, the more we are inclined to exert that mastery and continue those successes wherever our inclinations may lead us. Remember, the timid man never digs deep into crime. He may rise to the paltry heights of a petty pilferer and sneak-thief, or a cheater of people where he is sure he will never be found out, but he never gives the authorities much trouble in bigger ways.
We cannot get away from it, that all his life long, from his earliest days, it has been the natural inclination of Man to take what is appealing to him. The wish, however, of itself, does not make him an evil person.
For example, I am devoted to Margaret and do not believe that any wife could be more beloved by her husband than is she. Still, I often see other women whom I would like to make a fuss about and whose lover I should not mind being.
Only the other day a young girl came to me in great distress. She was of my own class and very pretty. For the services I rendered her, it would have been hard for her to be unresponsive to me, if only out of gratitude, had I made any advances. She was about to be married to a man for whom I fancied she did not much care. It was, however, from a money point of view, going to be a splendid match for her, but her terror now was that an old flame was threatening to spoil everything with some letters of hers he was holding.
Feeling very sorry for her, I paid the man an unexpected visit, gave him a well-deserved thrashing, and practically took the letters from him by force. Then, for my reward I contented myself with the relief I saw in the girl's eyes. I admit frankly it was hard for me, as she seized my hand and kissed it fervently in her gratitude.
Then again, another thing I would like to do. There's a man I could cheerfully murder, if I only let myself go. I hate him, not only for his general mode of life, but also in particular for his treatment of his young wife. There is always murder in my heart whenever I meet him, but I have to repress all signs of my feelings and even be more than civil to him, because I am continually meeting him in the course of my public activities and, besides, because he is very wealthy and helps our charities a lot.
Yes, I am for ever repressing my longings in one way or another, and I have not the slightest doubt that all people go through repressions in the same way. So no one must be judged by what he or she would like to do.
To come, however, to the story I am going to tell.
Ten years ago I was working in a stock-broker's office in the city. My salary was four guineas a week and of this I paid thirty-five shillings to a boarding-house in West Kensington. My fares and lunches cost me another fifteen shillings. So, when I had paid for cigarettes, newspapers and clothes, there was not much left for amusements. Still, I managed to get in an occasional Saturday afternoon at the races, and from time to time to take a girl out to a cheap dinner in Soho and a cinema afterwards. I thought I was seeing life when I ordered a two-shilling bottle of claret with the meal, and later, kissed the girl in the park.
One summer I had saved up nearly ten pounds for my holiday and resolved to go for a walking tour along the South Coast. So, on the Sunday after the August Bank Holiday, I took the evening train to Brighton, intending the next day to tramp the twenty or more miles to Eastbourne.
I was travelling very light, my luggage consisting of only a brush and comb, a tooth-brush and a mackintosh. I had also brought a book, Winwood Reade's Martyrdom of Man, to read in the evenings.
The next morning, setting out early from Brighton, I happened to pass a small bicycle-repairing shop and saw by the door a bicycle ticketed 'only four pound.' The idea came into my mind instantaneously what a good investment it would be. I could use it for the greater part of my holiday and then sell it again. At most, I thought, I should lose thirty shillings by the transaction, as it could be easily resold anywhere for two pounds ten.
So, having made sure the machine and tyres were in good condition, ten minutes later I was blithely pedalling along the Newhaven Road. The day was fine and hot, but there was the feeling of thunder in the air. I had bought a pair of cheap dark glasses to keep out the glare of the sun. At Seaford I bought some sandwiches and, a few miles farther on, turned off the main Eastbourne Road, to reach the sea at Birling Gap and have a bathe.
I had had my swim, redressed and had just finished my sandwiches, when I heard a car pull up upon the low cliffs above and a couple of minutes or so later two men came down on to the beach, with towels thrown over their shoulders. The older of them was stout and red-faced, he was carrying a big leather wallet about a foot square. I noticed, subconsciously, that he had pushed the wallet carefully out of sight under his clothes directly after he had started undressing.
Then he angered me intensely by throwing a stone at some seagulls near him and laughing with great glee when they flew off, with one of them dangling a broken leg.
"Damned good shot that," he exclaimed boisterously, "but then I'm always pretty good at it. I got one last week, at home in just the same way. I detest the squealing crows."
I was furious with him for his cruelty, and always inclined to be hasty-tempered, for very little would have told him what I thought of him. He looked such an arrogant and over-bearing brute.
Wheeling my bicycle back up the Gap, I started off leisurely upon the winding road which runs by the cliffs towards Beachy Head. Not having ridden a bicycle for some time, my legs were already beginning to feel stiff and tired and I had to go slowly.
I had gone a little over a mile and was just under the old Belle Toute lighthouse when I heard a car coming up behind me. I did not look round, but the hooter was sounded in such fierce spasmodic jerks that, although the road was both wide and clear in front of me, I instinctively veered to its extreme side. Even then, the car, travelling at a great pace, roared by so unpleasantly close to me that I could distinctly feel the wind it made as it passed.
It was an open sports car and I swore angrily as I saw one of its two occupants turn his head round and grin. He evidently thought it good fun that I had been almost run off the road, and I was not at all surprised when I recognised him as the red-faced man who had been stoning those seagulls at the Gap.
Then, just when the grinning fool had got his back to me again and the car could only have been about a hundred and fifty yards farther on, I saw some object fly out over the back and bump on to the road. Arriving to where it lay, I recognised it at once as the big wallet the red-faced man had tucked under his clothes while he had been undressing.
Picking it up, I drew in a deep breath as I read upon the small brass plate attached to it, "Southern and Sussex Bank, Brighton Branch."
"Whew, money!" I whistled. "Perhaps thousands of pounds in notes!"
The car had by this time roared away out of sight. I was in a deep dip in the Downs and there was not a soul to be seen anywhere. About half a mile inland there was a flock of sheep, and the sheep and some wheeling seagulls were the only signs of life about.
Now I can never quite understand exactly what impulse urged me to make such a quick decision, but, instantly, I looked round for somewhere to hide the wallet. I really think my only idea then was to spite the red-faced man. He had been wantonly cruel to that seagull, and it had undoubtly been of sheer malicious purpose that the car had been driven so close to me. He had approved of it by his grin.
On both sides of the road, all the way along, there were a large number of big lumps of chalk, of varying sizes, scattered about upon the turf, and laying down my bicycle, I ran over to a big flat one about twenty yards away and pushed the wallet underneath.
Then I remounted my bicycle and started to ride up the road towards Beachy Head, chuckling at what I had done. The red-faced man would be in a great state when he discovered his loss and it would serve him right. He deserved to be punished and I did not mind if he never found the wallet at all. If he did find it, it would only be after a lot of trouble and he would never learn how it came to be placed under the lump of chalk.
Proceeding slowly along, I happened to glance round again at the flock of sheep, and to my annoyance, and in some way to my consternation, saw there was now a man moving among them. He must, I thought, have been bending down when I had first looked that way and it gave me a certain pang of uneasiness that perhaps he had seen my hurried run across the turf to hide the wallet. But I dismissed the idea as improbable. If, however, he had seen me, in all probability he would not have been interested and perhaps only thought I had been running after some paper which had fluttered away in the wind.
I pedalled on and then, when about half a mile farther upon my way heard a roar in the distance and saw the sports car tearing back towards me. Evidently the loss of the wallet had been discovered and they were returning poste-haste to find it.
The car was jerked to a standstill when it reached me. "Hi, you there!" shouted the red-faced man brusquely, as I dismounted from my machine with some reluctance. "Have you seen a bag on the road?" and his frowning eyes seemed to search me up and down, as if to make sure I had not got it tucked up under my jacket.
"No, I have not," I replied surlily, not liking the curt maimer in which he was addressing me, and without a word he threw in his clutch and roared the car back towards Birling Gap.
I grinned in delight at his discomfiture and rode on, but then, suddenly, a horrid fear gripped me. Suppose that man with the sheep had noticed everything, had saw me pushing something under the lump of chalk, after I had gone had run over to find out what it had been! Suppose, too, that the men in the car were, even now, stopping to speak to him, which they would certainly be doing if they encountered him anywhere near the road! Of course he would tell them he had seen a man on a bicycle hiding the wallet and then—good God, it would be a matter for the police!
My blood ran cold. What a fool I had been! By that silly action, taken thoughtlessly and upon the spur of the moment, I had put myself in a dreadful position, for it could only look as if I had hidden the wallet with the intention of coming back later to steal its contents.
And how could I hope to escape being caught? Things might happen very quickly and any moment the car might be coming back! A solitary cyclist, a young man all by himself, would be a conspicuous object, and even if I got among the crowd, nearly always to be found at the top of Beachy Head, I might easily be recognised and picked out.
I was always quick in my decisions, often too quick, and in less than a minute had turned off the road and thrown myself and the bicycle down behind a clump of blackberry bushes about twenty paces away.
Almost to the second as I flattened myself upon the turf, I heard a car in the distance, and not half a minute later the two-seater sports re-appeared. I had been only just in time.
It tore past me at an even more furious pace than ever, and I imagined the red-faced man was looking viciously angry.
What had happened, I asked myself with my heart pumping hard? Had they met the man with the sheep and, from what he told them he had seen, had they recovered the wallet? Or, had they gone the whole way back to Birling Gap and, encountering no one upon the road and yet not finding the wallet, had suddenly come to realise that I must have had something to do with its disappearance?
Either of these two things might have occurred, but they had been so quick in returning that I was inclined to think they must have met the man with the sheep. At any rate, their furious haste now could only mean that they were after me. They wanted the man on the bicycle and I expected they felt confident they would catch him.
For the moment I felt absolutely sick with consternation and then a thought leapt into my mind. Unless they saw me with the bicycle, surely they would not be able to recognise me again? If I got rid of my bicycle they could only have a very incomplete idea of what I looked like. When they had stood talking to me for those few seconds I had had the big sunglasses on and the peak of my cap pulled well down over my eyes because of the glare of the sun.
Then there was nothing either of the cycling tourist about my appearance. I was wearing perfectly ordinary clothes, with long trousers, the ends of which were tucked into the tops of my socks. So, in a few seconds I could become a pedestrian again, and with my trousers put straight, my sun-glasses back in my pocket, and my cap turned round, the cyclist would have completely disappeared.
I was so certain that by hiding that wretched wallet I had put myself in a most compromising position that I adopted no half measures. I determined the bicycle should vanish altogether, or at any rate not be found until it was too late to do me any harm.
The cliff three hundred and more feet high was only a few yards behind me and in a few seconds my newly-acquired machine was toppling over on to the rocks below. The tide was almost at its full and I knew there would be no one underneath. The five-mile stretch of beach between Beachy Head and Birling Gap is a dangerous place to be caught at all high tides, as in many places the sea washes right up to the foot of the cliffs.
At that very moment drops of rain began to fall, and it seemed to make sure my salvation. I put on my mackintosh and, with it well buttoned up to my chin, walked confidently along the edge of the cliff to the Head. It was still raining when I reached there, but only a fine drizzle and not enough to keep a goodly number of holiday makers from standing round to gaze down at the waves breaking upon the rocks so many hundreds of feet below.
I mingled with them, but the rain beginning to fall more heavily now, most of us soon began to move off towards the hotel about a hundred yards away. I saw no signs of the red-faced man or his companion. I had a drink in the crowded bar, remaining there for about half an hour.
The rain was continuing, but now only in an unpleasant drizzle, as I went outside again. I thought it best to be in no hurry to leave the Head in case a watch should have been set all round. Then, seeing a large empty char-a-banc parked by the side of the hotel, I approached the driver and conductor who were having a smoke inside, and enquired if they would have room to give me a lift when, later, they left to return to the town.
They told me there was plenty of room but that they would not be leaving for another hour. I said that would suit me nicely, and getting inside out of the rain, sat smoking and talking with them.
Then I began to think I had been much too hasty in getting rid of my bicycle in the way I had done. It looked very much to me now as if the two men had got back their wallet and, while they would have liked to have cursed me, they could not have done more. After all, they had no proof that I had touched the wallet and it would have been the shepherd's word against mine. Apart from that, too, as bank officers, they would certainly not have wanted it to come out how careless they had been. So, I began swearing at myself for having smashed up a perfectly good bicycle and wasted four pounds, a loss that I could ill afford. At any rate, I ought to have had the sense to have left it behind the blackberry bushes and gone back to fetch it later on when the coast would have been quite clear.
For a few minutes I felt furious at my stupidity, but then, suddenly, and all in a matter of seconds, I came to realise I had done the right thing.
I heard a car in the distance and, looking round, saw two coming from the direction of Eastbourne. Even before the first was close enough for me to be certain, my heart bumped, for an instinct told me it was that of the red-faced man. Both cars pulled up within a few yards of us and everyone jumped out. There were three men in the second car.
"'Tecs," whispered the driver of the char-a-banc excitedly to his mate. "That tall one's Joe Whitburn, a smart chap. I know him. What's up?"
After a glance in our direction, the man he indicated, followed by the others, came up. "Hullo, Henderson," he exclaimed addressing the driver. "Now do you happen to have noticed a young fellow going by on a push-bike towards the town? He's by himself, is wearing big sun-glasses and has got his cap pulled down low upon his forehead."
The driver considered. "Not that I took any notice of, Joe." He jerked his head in the direction of the cliffs. "But there are several cyclists over there."
The red-faced man was looking very worried. To my delight he hadn't given me a second glance. Evidently I was safe, I told myself, with a sigh of great relief. As I thought, they would not be able to recognise me unless I were with my bicycle.
The detective nodded his thanks and they all moved off towards the cliffs. I saw them again presently, and they all looked very glum. They had a short conversation by their cars and then drove off again in the direction of the town. An hour or so later, when we left, we passed a policeman at the cross-roads. He had obviously been stationed there to keep a look-out.
It was not until a couple of weeks later that I learnt all that had happened that eventful afternoon. Following upon the dreadful tragedy which took place so soon afterwards, reporters came down in droves and very quickly their newspapers put together a full story.
It appeared the red-faced man was the manager of the Brighton Bank and his destination that afternoon had been their Eastbourne Branch. His companion had been one of the bank clerks and they had turned off the main road, as I had done, to have a dip in the sea at Birling Gap.
They had missed the wallet just before reaching Beachy Head, and realising at once that it must have bumped out of the car, had turned back without a second's delay to recover it. After having spoken to me, they had been quite certain they would pick it up before they reached the Gap. Then, having arrived there and not seeing it anywhere on the road, and, moreover, meeting no one upon their return journey, they had suddenly come to the conclusion that I must have picked it up, for they now remembered seeing the wallet in the car just before they had come upon me the first time.
So they had raced back to the Head, and seeing no signs of me, had stopped at the hotel to put through a telephone call to the Eastbourne police, informing them what had happened and asking that a cordon be instantly drawn round the whole district, so that I should not escape. They said the wallet contained upwards of seven thousand pounds in treasury notes.
The call put through, they had continued on the road towards Eastbourne, with very little hope, however, seeing they had lost so little time, that they would find I had got in front of them there. Their surmise proving correct, they had driven on to the police-station in Eastbourne and returned to Beachy Head accompanied by the three detectives.
And that's where the story ended for that day, the police being, however, quite certain no man on a bicycle had got away with the wallet. Their cordon had been flung so quickly and so wide they were positive of that. Their opinion was I had hidden the bicycle and got away on foot. Moreover, they had no hope of catching me, as neither the bank manager nor his clerk could give any useful description of me. All the two last could say was that I was of medium height and build, was very sunburnt, had my cap pulled well down over my forehead, and was wearing big sun-glasses. They could not remember anything particular about my clothes.
As I say, at the time I knew nothing about any of these things, but I was feeling perfectly confident that I was safe from any recognition. I had got out of what might have been a very ugly situation with only the loss of my bicycle.
Arriving in Eastbourne, I put up at Benger's Hall, an old-fashioned coffee tavern in the poorer part of the town. It looked clean, and was certainly cheap. Anyhow, it was the best I could afford now, with my finances so depleted by the loss of the bicycle. There was no trouble about my having no luggage, as at the Coffee Hall you paid for your night's lodging in advance and your meals as you had them.
Originally I had meant my walking tour should extend right round the coast as far as Whitstable, and was not intending to stop longer than one night in any town. The next morning, however, I altered my plans. I found my bed at the coffee tavern very comfortable and the food good, indeed, I doubted if I should find as good a place anywhere along the route I had selected to follow.
So I resolved to remain on in Eastbourne for a few days, helped, too, to form this decision by something which had nothing to do with the coffee tavern. I had learnt that the local paper, the Eastbourne Chronicle, came out on the Wednesday morning and I wanted to see if there was any reference in it to the loss of the wallet. I wanted to know if the wallet had been found.
Besides, like the murderer whom, tradition says, always returns to the scene of his crime, I could not tear myself away so easily from Beachy Head. If there were no mention of the wallet in the morning in the Chronicle, I must go and see if it were still where I had hidden it. I could safely walk along the cliffs as far as Belle Toute and cock my eye round in passing. I remembered distinctly the flattish lump of chalk and would be able to pick it out at once.
So I lounged about all that morning, watching the people and listening to the band. In the afternoon, I spoke to two rather pretty girls who were walking on the promenade by themselves. They proved smilingly agreeable to my society and at first I was inclined to congratulate myself upon my charm. But soon finding them very greedy in the consumption of iced drinks, and, later, both of them informing me most pointedly of their firm intention to keep together for the whole time of their stay in the town, I came to the conclusion that the adventure would not be profitable to pursue any farther and so bade them good-bye. They had cost me four and sixpence.
The next morning, the moment the Chronicle appeared on the streets, I bought a copy, and proceeded to scan down its columns, for some reason with certain feelings of apprehension. A two-inch advertisement at once caught my eye.
The above sum will be paid to anyone providing information leading to the recovery of a leather bank-wallet and contents, dropped about two thirty-five p.m. on Monday last from car on the cliff road between Birling Gap and Beachy Head. Apply Southern and Sussex Bank, Eastbourne."
A shiver ran down my spine. So they had not recovered the wallet, and from the wording of the advertisement, they did not consider it had been 'Lost.' They knew it had been stolen! Then without doubt the police were working frenziedly to pick up my trail! There were eyes on the lookout all around me and if my identity were uncovered it would mean penal servitude for me!
My knees began to totter as I furtively wiped the perspiration from my forehead. Then, all in a second, a fierce glow of relief and thanksgiving surged through me. I was a fool, for what had the missing wallet now to do with me? It was not in my possession and there was nothing to link me up with its disappearance. Certainly, I had been in danger once, but I had slipped through their cordon and was now quite safe. Yes, I was quite safe! I need not be disturbed in the slightest. Things were only amusing.
And I continued in the same frame of mind for all the remainder of the day. I was hugging to myself a great secret in which no one had a share and it was most gratifying. I chuckled, too, with glee, thinking how I had repaid the red-faced man, both for his cruelty to the seagulls and the caddish, low-down trick of his car having been driven so dangerously close to me.
The next morning I went for a long walk over the Downs towards East Dean, first making my way round to where I had seen the man with the sheep. I sat on the edge of a big chalk-pit there, looking across the little valley which lay between me and the old lighthouse on the farther ridge of down and deliberating whether it would be safe to go and see if the wallet were where I had left it.
Different from the last time I had been there, quite a number of people were about, and, after a few minutes' rest, I strolled over towards Belle Toute. I walked round the lighthouse and then started in the direction of Beachy Head, proceeding quite leisurely and with my eyes upon the ground.
I had no difficulty in picking out the big slab of chalk, but to my annoyance saw at once that I could not be sure if the wallet were there unless I lifted it up. The slab seemed to be resting quite evenly on the turf.
I did not dare stop, for there was a picnic party not fifty yards away, and if they saw me disturbing the stone, their curiosity might become aroused and when I had left they might come over to see what had been interesting me.
My conscience, but the fat would be in the fire with a vengeance then!
So I set off for Eastbourne again, resolved, however, I would return again after dark. From complete indifference as to what would happen to the wallet, I was now cudgelling my brains as to how I could capitalise my knowledge of where, if no one had taken it away, it could be found. I thought I ought to get the reward, if only because the red-faced man would probably have to pay it.
Yes, I would come back that night and, all being well, carry the wallet away to another hiding-place, one to which I could direct the bank without any difficulty when I thought fit to let them regain their property. Some hazy idea was forming in my mind of writing to them anonymously, offering to return the wallet intact if the reward were paid and no questions asked. I just mention that to show that up to then I had no thought of interfering with the contents of the wallet.
I had intended to start off for Belle Toute about eight o'clock that evening, but soon after six it started to rain heavily and I had to put the expedition off. I did not fancy a ten-mile trip over the Downs upon a stormy night. Besides, I must have the moonlight to enable me to find the wallet.
So, instead of going out after tea, I sat on in the coffee tavern and studied a sporting paper. I knew something about racing and looked to see what horses were running at the Brighton fixture upon the following Saturday. My interest quickened at once when I saw that Ashanti Gold was down to run in the six-furlong sprint.
The horse was an old favourite of mine, but only after the silly way so many little bettors have. I had never had any particular information about him, but had often backed him because a grandfather of mine had fought in the Ashanti War. Ashanti Gold, an aged gelding now, had won only a few times in his rather undistinguished career, with very long intervals in between. Still, when he had won it had been invariably at good odds, twenty to one and over.
I wished sadly I were going to Brighton on Saturday, for with his many failures he owed me quite a bit of money in a small way, and I thought it about time the old boy popped up again.
The next day was bright and fine, and with the wallet more than ever in my mind, I was eagerly awaiting the coming of evening. I bought a small electric torch to equip myself for the adventure.
Then that morning I did a very silly thing which might easily have got me into trouble. I knew where the police-station was, and walked round to it to see if by any chance there was a bill posted up outside about the wallet.
Sure enough there was, and like a big gaby, I was not content to read it once but must have done so quite half a dozen times. It was worded almost exactly the same as the advertisement in the paper, except that on this notice people were now asked to come to the police if they had any information.
The bill was more conspicuous than the other notices upon the board, because it stood at one end all by itself. It quite fascinated me, and I stood grinning to myself at the thought of what a surprise I could cause if I went inside and told them what I knew.
Then, out of the tail of my eye, I saw a man come through the open door of the police-station, about a dozen paces away, and proceed to walk leisurely in my direction. I cursed under my breath at the reckless folly which had allowed me to be seen anywhere near the station, for I recognised him instantly as one of the detectives who had spoken to the driver of the char-a-banc that eventful afternoon upon Beachy Head. He was the 'tec whom the driver had said was Joe Whitburn, 'a smart chap.'
But if I am prone to silly mistakes, I am always like lightning in my attempts to avoid their consequences, and now I composed my features instantly to a wooden expression and continued to stare on at the poster. Then, as if I had felt rather than seen the detective walking up to me, I turned myself half round to regard him casually and with no special interest. It happened I had got an unlighted cigarette in my hand.
"Could you oblige me with a match, sir?" I asked, after a moment, as he, too, stood looking at the poster.
He regarded me pleasantly. "Certainly!" he smiled, and he made to feel in his pockets for a box. Then he smiled as if rather amused. "But I'm afraid I can't. I don't appear to have got any. Oh, come inside, will you? I'll give you one," and he jerked his head towards the doorway from where he'd just come.
I frowned. "What, into the police-station?" I asked. I looked down at his big boots. "Then you're a detective are you?" I forced a grin to my face. "Do you want to take me up?"
He laughed. "No, no, why should I?" He seemed to think it a good joke. "You've not done anything wrong, have you?"
"Plenty of things," I laughed back. I pretended to look very knowing. "But I haven't been found out yet."
With great good humour he led the way into the station and I dared not back out. My heart was thumping like a sledge-hammer, but I kept my wits about me, and to give colour to my being without matches, while following behind him made a lightning transference of a box of matches from my trouser pocket to the top of my jacket. People never carried matches there.
The detective led me into a big room, untenanted except for a stout policeman seated behind a tall desk. "Got a match, Bob?" he asked and, the policeman handing him a box, he passed it over to me to help myself.
Then when I had struck a match and was in the act of lighting my cigarette, with quick movements and before I realised what he was going to do, he had passed his hands in turn, over both my trouser pockets and the side ones of my jacket.
"Hullo!" I called out angrily, and stepping back a pace or two. "What are you up to? Are you giving me the once over?"
"Not at all," he laughed, "but I thought it funny that, as a smoker, you'd got no matches on you."
"I'd forgotten them," I replied surlily. "I left them at home."
Then, suddenly, I saw the whole expression of his face alter, with the pleasant, easy-going smile all in a few seconds changing into a hard frown. "Here, I say," he asked sharply, "where have I seen you before?"
I shook my head sullenly. I intended him to think I was annoyed at his touching my clothes. "I'm sure I don't know," I replied. I spoke sarcastically. "You might have seen me anywhere in the town. I have not been going about in disguise."
"You're a visitor to Eastbourne, of course?" he glared. "Well, how long have you been here? Since Monday! Then where have you been staying?"
I glared back at him. "Mind your own business," I snapped. "What's that to do with you?"
He spoke sternly. "You don't care to say? That's it, is it?"
"Don't be a fool," I swore rudely. "If you must know, I'm stopping at Benger's Coffee Hall and my name's plain Brown." My anger rose. "But what the hell do you want to know for?"
He took out his handkerchief and blew his nose violently.
"Steady, steady," he reproved, "no offence is intended and, of course, no one has anything against you." He walked over to the window overlooking the road. "But you just come over here and I'll explain." He was smiling again as he pointed outside and went on. "You see, when any of us here happen to notice anyone staring hard at that noticeboard, and staring for a long time, one of us generally goes out to give him a glance over and see what he's looking at so particularly." He shook one fat forefinger playfully. "Now you might be one of those missing husbands who's posted up for deserting his wife, mightn't you," and he laughed heartily at his own joke.
"And what did you paw me over for," I asked as if still angered, "to see if I'd got a gun on me?"
He made a wry face. "When you asked me for a match I thought it might just have been a bit of a bluff on your part to make out you were quite unconcerned, just an excuse to appear quite cool."
I was now really amused myself, not because of the trick he had played on me, but because of the trick I had played on him. All the same, I was still feeling a bit uncomfortable, for I saw the stout policeman had left the room, and was wondering if his going had had anything to do with me.
The detective, however, continued to be most amiable and, forcing upon me one of his cigarettes, related quite a good story of how an absconding bank cashier had once been caught in that way, having shown too much interest in his description, as posted up on the noticeboard. The policeman returned during the recital of the story, and I would have sworn the detective instantly took his eyes off me to flash a quick glance at his subordinate. We parted a minute or two later on very friendly terms, Whitburn insisting upon my keeping the entire box of matches.
When I got back to the Coffee Hall for the midday meal, one of the waitresses told me someone had rung up for me during the morning, and upon learning I was out, had stated it didn't matter and that he would ring up again. He hadn't given his name and had left no message.
My heart went down into my boots. Of course, it was the police station ringing up! Directly I had told that Whitburn, the detective, where I was living, he had somehow 'given the office' to the stout policeman to get on the 'phone and find out if there was a Brown staying at the Coffee Hall.
Then why had Whitburn been suspicious about me? Ah, I had it! The bank manager had probably described me as young and sun-scorched, and so anyone young and looking at all sunburnt was liable to fall under suspicion. Then should I be shadowed now I asked myself? Should I be watched and followed so that it would be dangerous for me to make that journey to Belle Toute I was intending?
A moment's thought and I realised how foolish my fears were. There must be thousands of sunburnt young men in Eastbourne at that moment, in fact everybody one met showed evidences of the hot sun. Besides, and I felt very pleased with myself there, the very fact that I had given my correct name and address would have cleared me at once. No, I had nothing to be afraid of and they would never give me another thought.
I left the Coffee Hall that night about an hour before dark, knowing that it would be quite all right, whatever time I returned. It was an easy-going place and the side-door always was kept open, with a dim light always burning in the passage until dawn.
I did not take the direct road, but went up on to the Downs through the Old Town and made for the chalk-pit where I had rested two days previously. It was a good hour and a half's quick walking by the way I had come, and night had well fallen when I arrived there. Still, the moon was up and, in its second quarter, gave plenty of light. I looked round everywhere with an intent gaze, but as far as I could make out I was the only person anywhere about, and so, taking my courage in my hands, but with my heart beating rather quickly, I proceeded to make my way to where I had left the wallet.
Now I will pass over, as quickly as possible, the happenings of the next few minutes, as there are special reasons which make it most uncomfortable for me to dwell upon them. I found the wallet, but with more difficulty than I had expected, and, in my search for the particular slab of chalk, had to flash my torch a great deal longer than I liked. Apparently the wallet had not been touched and carrying it away under my arm, it was too bulky to tuck up my jacket, I started to make my way back in the direction of the chalk-pit. It was in my mind then to hide the wallet under the stones of a ruined shepherd's hut that I should pass, about two miles farther on my way home.
I reached the chalk-pit and was just skirting round the top when something, I shall never know what it was, made me suddenly turn round and look behind me. I never think, to this day, that I had heard anything and always believe it was sheer instinct which made me look round, the instinct of the hunted animal, which, although it had not come home to me as yet, I had really become.
Anyhow, I looked round and saw, not twenty paces away, a man tearing after me. The sound of his running had been deadened by the soft turf. Panic-stricken and with my heart in my mouth, I dashed off like a hare, but instantly there came the report of a pistol, and I heard the hiss of a bullet close near. I knew I had not been hit, but the firing had unnerved me and, tripping over in my frantic haste, I found myself floundering on the ground.
I struggled to regain my feet, but my pursuer was upon me the fraction of a second too soon, and grabbing the wallet from me with one hand, with the other struck a fierce blow at me with a heavy stick. The blow caught me on the arm and the pain of it infuriated me. I hurled myself at his knees and threw him over backwards. Then, snatching up the stick by it's end, I swung a fearful blow at his face and felt it crash home upon his forehead with a sickening thud. He gave one deep groan, his head lolled sideways, and then he lay quite still.
The whole happening from start to finish could not have taken a minute.
With glaring eyes and heaving chest, I stood over the prostrate man, intending to strike again if he made the slightest movement. But I realised all at once that the stick I was still holding, a big nobbed walking one, had a loaded end and it came to me with a feeling of dreadful horror that I had done more than stun him. I had crushed his forehead in.
The ghastly wound I had made stood out clear in the moonlight, and although so few seconds had passed, it was now ceasing to well with blood.
Almost choking in the quickly succeeding terror, I let the stick fall from my shaking hand and knelt down to bend over him. I moved his head ever so slightly with my fingers, but it sagged back directly I took the fingers away. His mouth had now dropped open and saliva dripped out of one corner.
I realised he was dead.
Then, strangely enough, my nerve all suddenly came back. The horror of what I had done was submerged all in an instant by the terror of the consequences which might follow upon me for what I had done.
I was a murderer and should hang for it if I were found out! I must save myself! I must keep my wits about me! But who was this man—a terrible thought came to me—and was he alone?
Snatching up the loaded stick again, I crouched down and peered furtively around. There was not a moving object in sight, and not a sound to be heard anywhere, except for the moaning of the distant sea.
I looked down at the dead man again. He was middle-aged and burly. I noted the greying hair over the temple on the unbloodied side of his head. His clothes were good and he was wearing big, stout boots. His jacket was buttoned up tightly to the chin. One of the side-pockets bulged with a small bulky object. I passed my hand over it. It was a pair of binoculars. A-ah, then he had been watching for me to come!
My breath came jerkily again. Of course, he was a detective! The police had guessed the wallet had been hidden somewhere not far from the Birling Gap road, and, failing to find it themselves but certain it would be picked up later by the hider, had posted a detective to wait for him to come.
For quite a long minute I considered breathlessly what I must do. Of course, the dead man would soon be missed and a search-party at once sent out to find him but—a thrill of hope surged through me—the search upon the Downs would always be half-hearted because the idea would be always uppermost in the minds of the searchers that he had fallen over the cliffs. Those cliffs with their sheer drop of three hundred feet were always very dangerous, and if any accident had happened, then the body might so easily have been washed out to sea.
I quickly made up my mind what I would do. The longer it was before the body was discovered, the safer I should feel, and so I must hide it as effectively as I could. The chalk-pit was only a few feet away and, overcoming my repugnance to handle the body, I seized it by the heels and, dragging it to the pit-side, toppled it over. But that was not enough, I told myself, as any passer-by, peering over the top, would see it at once. I must cover it over with loose pieces of chalk.
But, running round to the entrance to the chalk-pit, I saw some thick bramble bushes in a corner and dragged the body well behind them. It would be quite out of sight there.
Then, for the first time since I had turned to see the man running after me, I thought of the wallet, but now feeling so sick at heart because my folly in first hiding it had brought upon me such dreadful consequences, I would have liked to have left it where it was. I realised, however, that that would be about the worst thing I could do, for the finding of the wallet at the top of the chalk-pit would lead, naturally, to an intensive search of the chalk-pit itself for the missing man, if, as I thought, he were a detective concerned in its recovery.
So I ran back to where the wallet was, and picking it up, with one long last look round to make sure that I was still unobserved, started off at an ambling run in a direction away from the cliffs and towards the ruined shepherd's hut.
My run, however, soon subsided to a brisk walk. I wanted to think, and think hard. The shock of having taken the man's life, whoever he was, was not oppressing me so much now, as I argued to myself that after all I had been acting only in self-defence. I had not realised then that he represented the Law—I was not even certain of that now—but he had shot at me and then struck with that heavy stick. I had had to defend myself and it had been by chance only that my one blow had killed him.
So my conscience was all at once much easier about his death. My terror, too, was not nearly so great, as I felt I should be reasonably safe if I got back to the Coffee Hall without having attracted the notice of anyone. But, of course, I must leave Eastbourne the first thing in the morning. The body might be found very quickly, a policeman might notice me going to the Coffee Hall at nearly one o'clock in the morning, for that would be about the time I should get home, and that detective, Whitburn, might have his suspicions aroused again about that sunburnt fellow, Brown.
Still, if all these things happened there would be nothing to connect me with this man's death. I could not have left any finger-marks upon his clothes. A-ah, and a horrible thought came to me! But what about his boots when I had dragged him along and, worse still, what about that loaded walking-stick which I had hidden behind the bramble bushes, too?
For a few moments I again felt sick with apprehension, but then I reassured myself. The loose chalk would have scraped against the heels as I had let go and any finger-marks upon the stick would hardly have survived the dirt behind the bramble bushes. Still, I would leave as little to chance as I could, and the Brown of the Coffee Hall would have vanished to-morrow.
I reached the shepherd's hut and saw at once I couldn't have chosen a better place. I could push the wallet between the stones of the wall, and no one would find it, unless they had been told where to look for it. I was just going to get rid of it when I saw by the light of my torch that the small attached brass plate had gone, and the thought flashed instantly into my mind that it might not be the same wallet I had picked up on the road.
I whistled. Then had the real wallet been found after all and this dummy one been put there to catch the returning thief red-handed when, thinking all was safe, he would come to get it?
I snapped my teeth viciously together at the thought of the trick which might have been played upon me. Well, I would soon see if I were right or not, and my pocket knife was out in a trice. I did not attempt to tamper with the lock, but cut round the leather and in a few seconds the wallet was open.
Whew, it was chock full of bank-notes and treasury ones, all done up in neat little bundles, held together with elastic bands!
My heart beat painfully. What a fortune! Why, a man might exist in comfort for his whole life upon what the wallet contained!
My breath came hard and quick. Yes, it was a real fortune and the miserly bank was offering only £100 for its recovery. Their meanness was disgraceful!
I found myself swallowing hard. What should I do—my heart raced like a piston—what dare I do? At any rate one hundred pounds belonged to me, the amount of the reward! Well, I would take that and later on let the bank know in an anonymous letter where the wallet with the rest of the money was to be found. It would not be theft, just the taking for myself the reward which I could not claim in an open way.
Of course, I know this was all rotten reasoning, but my mind was not then in a state to reason correctly. I was just bluffing myself that I was not acting dishonourably.
I took a bundle of one-pound treasury notes, which I judged rightly would be a hundred, not new notes but ones which from their appearance had been well in circulation. Then hiding the wallet between the stones, I set off for Eastbourne.
My journey back was quite uneventful until I actually reached the Coffee Hall and then, to my intense mortification, a man arrived, exactly at the same time as I did, at the side door. He was one of several others who were staying at the Hall. He was small and foxy-looking, and of dark and foreign appearance. He had always looked so oily and greasy at meal-times that I had made the mental comment that he might well be working at a fried-fish shop. He had tried to become friendly with me, as indeed he had tried with everyone who was there.
"We are naughty boys," he now leered familiarly, smelling horribly of beer. "Our mums would spank us if they learnt we had been out so late," but I just muttered a curt good night and went up to my room.
I was surprised to find myself falling asleep almost at once. I slept heavily and dreamlessly, not waking up until the half-past seven bell was sounding. My first thoughts were very worried ones, but I was relieved to see through the window that a drizzling rain was falling. It would be good-bye to any of my finger-marks being found in the chalk-pit.
I went into the bathroom to wash, taking good care to carry all my clothes with me. Then, back in the bedroom and just before going down to breakfast, I took the bundle of notes from my breast-pocket and started to count them.
I was in the middle of the counting when I heard footsteps in the passage outside and, before I could hide the notes away, the door was flung open and the foxy-looking man had burst unceremoniously in. "Oh, I'm sorry, old man," he apologised quickly. "I've made a mistake in the room. I mistook this for mine," and he went out, but not nearly as quickly as he had come in.
I had made no remark, but was furious in my dismay, for I had seen his eyes boggle in amazement at the notes I had been holding in my hand.
It was with an intense feeling of relief that about an hour later I found myself in the Brighton train, intending to try my fortune at the races there that afternoon. I had taken a return ticket to throw any enquirers after me off the scent. I had no idea whatsoever of returning to Eastbourne.
I was smoking a sixpenny cigar and travelling first-class. I told myself I was going to start a new life.
AS I stepped out of the train at Brighton I felt like a man who had been reprieved from death. The doors of the condemned cell had been opened for me and the shadow of the scaffold was no longer near. Looking back now, I realise how extraordinary it was that I should have imagined the few short miles between Eastbourne and Brighton constituted an effective barrier between me and all the threatened dangers.
Anyhow, I did imagine it, and for the time being, the events of the previous night had been put well into the background of my mind. I had a week or more holiday before me, I had plenty of money to spend, and I was going to make a fortune by backing Ashanti Gold. To-day was going to be the start of a new life.
Intending to frequent coffee taverns no longer, but to put up at quite a decent hotel, I realised I must provide myself with some luggage. So I bought a good quality second-hand suit-case at a pawnbroker's, and proceeded to stock it with a pair of pyjamas, some new shoes, collars, a couple of smart ties, and some odds and ends. I also treated myself to a fashionably-shaped felt hat. I put the suit-case in the cloakroom of the railway-station, intending to select my hotel after I had been to the races. I had a good lunch at a first-class restaurant, and then took a taxi up to the race-course upon the Downs.
Now I always regard that afternoon as the most thrilling one I ever spent upon a race-course. It looms out as a scarlet patch upon all the racing days I have had later in my life. In recent years, I have been the guest of owners of world-wide known great thoroughbreds, I have hob-nobbed with racing peers of the realm and I have even won a modest hurdle race myself, but never have I experienced the thrills I did that day.
It was all exactly like a scene out of an exciting melodrama. There was I, a young fellow in a very ordinary ready-made suit operating with stolen money and with my hands, metaphorically speaking, still red with blood, conducting myself as if I had not a care in the world and were as trouble-free as the lightest-hearted race-goer there.
Of course, moralists will say I ought to have been borne down with the load of a guilty conscience, I ought to have been keeping furtively in the background all the afternoon, and regarding every policeman as a possible and even probable enemy. But no, my conscience was not troubling me in the very least, I was not worrying at all about the future and was supremely confident all would go well.
Patronising the one-pound enclosure, I at once fixed upon the bookmaker with whom I would make a big bet. He was Lew Hanner and standing, as I had read he did at all race-meetings, by the rails adjoining the Members' Enclosure. He was well-known and very popular in the racing world, and it was said you could have a fifty thousand pounds win with him and be quite sure of getting your money. He betted, however, in a small way as well as a big one.
Ashanti Gold was running in the second race, and I was delighted to see he had drawn number three, close to the rails. I felt very hopeful about his chances, as the last time he had won it had been at Epsom, and Brighton, like Epsom, has a good down-hill finishing run.
I lost a pound on the first race and, really, was glad I had not won, for I told myself I could hardly expect to start off right away with two winners in succession.
The numbers for the next race having gone up in the frame, feeling decidedly shaky in my excitement, I took my stand near Lew Hanner to note how the betting was going. The runners, there were twenty-two of them, went down to the starting-post, but I delayed making any bet until the market had well settled down. I soon realised that Ashanti Gold was not fancied as old Lew was not calling his name at all. Lew was doing a good business and pencilling tickets as quickly as his clerk could put down the bets. Fivers, tenners and even fifties were being invested, as well as the humble one-pound note. Sun God, ridden by the crack jockey, Dicky Jenkins, was the favourite.
"What price Ashanti Gold?" I asked at last, getting in my question quickly.
"A hundred to three," he snapped and he jerked out a big fat hand in anticipation of taking my bet.
I had got twenty one-pound notes ready, and stripping away five of them, handed him the rest. "Five hundred to fifteen," I said boldly.
He grabbed the notes without comment and after counting them with the expertness and rapidity of a bank cashier, called the bet out to his clerk and handed me a ticket. I felt already a millionaire. I remained on standing by Lew, noting with interest the bets he called out. Sun God was being heavily supported, and his price soon shortened from twos to six to four; Venom was five to one, and Sweetheart of Mine next to him, at sevens. There seemed to be little demand for any of the others. An aristocratic-looking man approached the rails from the Members' Enclosure side and I heard Lew book him a bet of six hundred to four hundred the favourite. Big fish and little fish were all the same to the jovial-looking bookmaker.
Presently, a pretty dark-eyed girl with long sweeping eyelashes came up to the little crowd round Lew, and waving the others aside, Lew immediately proceeded to give all his attention to her. "And what can I do for you, Missy?" he asked, his face all smiles.
"I want a bet on Royal Realm, please, Mr. Hanner," she said in a sweet girlish voice. "What are the odds against him?"
"Eight to one, Missy, but ten to one to you," replied Lew. "How much do you want on?"
"Five shillings, please," said the girl, and Lew made out a ticket with extra care, and handed it to her with a gallant bow.
"Thank you, Mr. Hanner," nodded the girl, and Lew raised his hat with a flourish as she turned away.
"Business after pleasure, gentlemen," announced Lew to his other clients. "Who wants fifteen hundred to a thousand the favourite," and one man immediately took six pounds to four.
Business slackened in a minute or two and then Lew looked round for more clients. "Seven to one Sweetheart of Mine," he called out stentoriously, "fives Venom, tens Lovely Day, twelves Jehu and fifteens——" His eyes fell upon me and he held out his hand in my direction. "Want another bet, sir. Twenty-fives Ashanti Gold!"
It was a challenge and I immediately took it up. "A hundred to four," I said, and as I was peeling off the notes from a little wad, he called out briskly, "Take it twice, sir?"
I nodded and, giving him the eight pounds, he handed me another ticket.
I drew in a deep breath. I should win seven hundred pounds if only Ashanti Gold got his head in front at the right moment. In my opinion it seemed quite a simple thing for him to do.
But it did not seem quite so simple when, worming my way up on to the top of the grandstand, I saw the twenty-two horses lining up at the barrier on the other side of the racecourse.
"Whew," I whispered, "what a mug I've been! Among all that crowd any horse, however good he is, can easily get squeezed in." I sighed. "There goes twenty-three pounds all in one go."
As a rule I was not much good at picking out colours, but now I could easily pick out those of Ashanti Gold, as they were most appropriately green and gold. The old horse was standing as quiet as a sheep in his allotted place.
"They're off," roared the crowd and the horses seemed to avalanche forward in an unbroken line. "It'll soon be all over," I thought. "The six furlongs won't take them long and I shall be out of my misery, one way or the other." A few tense moments of comparative silence followed and then voices were raised everywhere and the names of particular horses began to be called. Royal Realm was leading, Belinda and Venom were in close attendance and—oh joy!—Ashanti Gold was running fourth. The whole field was, however, bunched and running very close together.
The horses swept round to face us and I could see the green and gold prominent as they commenced the descent down the hill. A blanket would have covered the first five or six.
Then, as I had so fondly hoped he would do when approaching the end of his journey, Ashanti Gold shot forward like an arrow out of a bow. To my dismay, however, Sun God came with him too. It was a horrible moment! They ran neck and neck together, and stride by stride, the coming of them both was like the coming of one single horse. The crowd roared with excitement and then when within fifty yards of the winning-post—the anguish of the damned for me—something happened to Ashanti Gold! He faltered and almost came down on to his knees, allowing Sun God to draw right away from him and win easily by three or four lengths. Ashanti Gold just managed to take second place by the very shortest of heads from Royal Realm.
I stood stunned, and almost choked in my disappointment as I saw the numbers ten, three and eighteen hoisted into the frame above the judge's box. I had been so near to winning all that money and the cup had been dashed from me when almost at my very lips. It was a dreadful blow.
I went down into the bar and had a double brandy. The place was crowded and I had to fight my way in. Everyone seemed to be talking at once, but for two or three minutes as far as I was concerned, their shouts and laughter fell upon deaf ears. I was in a deep reverie, with my thoughts now harking back unpleasantly to that chalk-pit near Beachy Head.
"What!" I heard an incredulous voice exclaim, "you say the all right's not gone up! Jenkins can't draw the weight!"
"That's what I heard," replied a man who was making his way towards the counter. "At any rate there's a big crowd by the weighing-room door and they say Jenkins has weighed out short by three pounds."
With my heart in my mouth, I elbowed myself outside as quickly as I could. So there was a chance even yet! I had still a hope of getting the money!
I came in sight of the judge's box and saw the hoist with the numbers on it had been taken down. Then, even as I stood stock-still with gaping mouth, up went the frame again and number three was at the top!
Ashanti Gold had been given the race!
A buzz of excitement ran round and there were glum faces everywhere. Sun God had been backed so heavily that his starting-price turned out to be even money. The big bettors had plunged on him.
What had happened was that a three-pound weight had dropped out of the favourite's saddlebags, but no one could explain how it had come about. Certainly, he had weighed out correctly but, returning to scale, he was nearly three pounds short. The stewards were investigating the matter.
I allowed myself a couple of minutes or so to calm down and then, assuming a phlegmatic air, approached Lew Hanner to collect my winnings. I expected him to look glum at having to part with so large a sum but, instead, he greeted me with a smile.
"I'm glad you won, sir," he said heartily, "I was deep in on the favourite, with very heavy money," and he proceeded to hand over to me fourteen crisp new fifty-pound notes, all in a sequence, and two tenners and a fiver.
I folded the notes carefully and put them in the breast-pocket of my jacket, stuffing my handkerchief well down on top. Then, I did one of the wisest things I could have done. I went to the top of the grandstand and let the next three races go by without a bet. I had no particular fancy running in any of them, and had I betted at all, should only have been guided by popular opinion and backed the favourite.
And as it turned out it was a good thing I had kept my money. Everyone of the three favourites went down like ninepins, with none of them being even placed. Then, on the sixth and last race I thought it about time, according to the law of averages, that a favourite should win.
So I came off the grand-stand and started backing Man of War at two to one. I had intended having only five pounds on him, but, the idea coming to me all at once that it would be a good thing to rid myself of the incriminating one-pound notes I had taken from the wallet, I invested ten of them with each of six different bookmakers, in each case getting the same odds, two to one. So I stood to win another one hundred and twenty pounds if Man of War won.
And win all right, he did, easily and never giving his backers a moment's anxiety. In every instance except one, the bookmaker gave me the fifteen due in the form of three five-pound notes. So I reckoned that by the time I returned to London, I should have all clean money upon me.
Recovering my suit-case from the railway-station cloakroom, I put up at the Regent Hotel, a good-class old-fashioned hotel upon the front.
There I passed three peaceful, uneventful days, in the main considering what use I should make of my newly acquired wealth. As much as possible I tried to put altogether out of my mind all that had taken place in Eastbourne, but of course, in spite of all my efforts it was often recurring to me. I was not, however, particularly worried about it, being more curious than worried. I wondered if the body had been discovered. Somehow I hardly thought it had, although, of course, I scanned the newspapers both morning and evening, for any news. Monday and Tuesday having passed, I thought everything was quite safe, confidently imagining it might be months or even years before it was found out what had happened to the man I had killed.
On the Wednesday morning, however, I got a rude shock and could hardly choke down a morsel of breakfast. Not only had the body been found, but the London Daily Messenger had made a scoup and got hold of the whole story, actually linking up the murder, not only with the missing bank-wallet, but also, in a most positive manner, with the cyclist the bank officers had passed upon the road.
It was woeful reading for me, and the farther I read down the newspaper story the more uncomfortable I felt.
It appeared that at first the police had by no means been as sure as the bank officials that the solitary cyclist had been responsible for the missing wallet. They argued that an object leaving a rapidly travelling car might easily have been flung much farther away than the road itself, and therefore, that the wallet would probably be found somewhere in the turf by the roadside or in one of the many little channels and depressions lying on either side of the road.
So a party of them, in a police car and attended by the two bank officials in their own car, had gone, as they thought most carefully over the whole stretch of road as far as Birling Gap. Their mistake had been that they had ridden in a car instead of walking, because they had remained seated when passing the exposed parts of the Down, only getting out to investigate more closely when they came to places where the wallet might have found a resting-place in one of these channels or depressions. They had never thought of looking under the lumps of chalk scattered everywhere about in full view for anyone to see.
Not finding the wallet, however, and no cyclist having been caught with it in his possession, they had yielded to the insistence of the red-faced bank manager from Brighton that the cyclist had hidden it somewhere and would return later to retrieve it from its hiding-place.
So on that Monday evening a number of plain-clothes men, provided with powerful binoculars, had been placed in hiding, well away from the Beachy Head-Birling Gap Road, on the look-out for anyone on foot, on bicycle or in car, who appeared to be acting suspiciously. The watch had been kept up night and day. Nothing, however, having happened by the Thursday morning, the bank people had been notified that the watching men had been withdrawn, it now being the police opinion that it was waste of time to continue any longer.
Declining to take that view, the Bank Association in London had then, themselves, moved in the matter and engaged two private detectives to continue the watch. These men, who had many times carried out private investigations in Bank circles in London, had taken lodgings in the little village of East Dean about two miles inland from the place to be watched. One had taken the day duty and the other, Matthew Brendon, the night one.
Nothing had happened on the Thursday and the Friday but, upon the second man, Henderson, going to relieve his colleague on the Saturday morning at the rendezvous agreed upon, a small coppice of trees about a mile from Belle Toute lighthouse, had been rather disturbed when Brendon did not turn up.
An hour passed, two, and there being still no appearance of Brendon, Henderson became extremely uneasy and rang up the Eastbourne police from the Beachy Head coastguard station.
The Superintendent of the Eastbourne Police was not inclined to be much interested and advised a longer wait, but Brendon not having turned up by the evening, Henderson motored down into the town and insisted he should be helped in his search for the missing man.
The Eastbourne Superintendent was now more willing to listen, as he had just received a telephone message from the Beachy Head coastguard station stating that two boys had reported seeing a smashed-up bicycle upon the rocks at the foot of the cliffs, midway between the Head and Birling Gap. The Superintendent was wondering if it had anything to do with the disappearing cyclist of the previous week.
So once again a police search-party was sent up on the Downs, but it being got together so late and the inevitable rain beginning to fall heavily again, very little ground had been covered before the darkness and the storm made further search most difficult.
Henderson had been very angry at the procrastination, as he called it, of the local police and that night telephoned to his employers in London that he was not being given the assistance that he should. He also added the information about the smashed-up bicycle which had been found and gave it as his opinion that the whole business had an ugly look. It seemed more than probable, he said, that Matthew Brendon had met with foul play.
The Bank people at once put pressure upon Scotland Yard and the following morning, the Sunday morning, two men of the Criminal Investigation Department had been motored down, accompanied by two highly trained police dogs. The Downs had then been systematically gone over, yard by yard, and the dogs sent into every place where it was possible a body could have been hidden.
No success had rewarded the police efforts until the afternoon, and then they had made a horrible discovery. In a disused chalk-pit about half a mile from Belle Toute lighthouse, they had found the dead body of Matthew Brendon, with his head terribly battered in. Close near him was his own walking-stick and, from its bloodied state, there was no doubt he had been bashed to death with its heavily loaded end.
But that had not been all the police had found. Scouting about upon the Downs round the chalk-pit they had come across, first, the dead man's automatic pistol, with one cartridge discharged, and then the small brass plate inscribed 'Southern and Sussex Bank, Brighton Branch' which had been affixed to the missing wallet.
Such was the story the Daily Messenger dished up for its readers, and then it proceeded to elaborate the story and speculate as to all that had happened to lead up to the finding of Matthew Brendon's body.
My blood ran cold at the accuracy of its deductions.
"A young man," it began, "was bicycling along the Beachy Head road upon that fateful Monday morning. He was undoubtedly a holiday-maker, because, at the particular hour of that day when things began to happen about two o'clock, anyone in business would not have been free. Besides, his face was sun-scorched, which suggests he was not as a general rule accustomed to much sunshine and fresh air. So we can take it for granted he was upon holiday, and be almost certain again—because he was carrying no luggage upon his machine—that he was staying in the neighbourhood. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to presume he was making his headquarters in Eastbourne.
"So we now have a young man cycling along, but unhappily, because he was wearing big sun-glasses and had his cap pulled low down over his forehead, we can give no description of him except to say that he was of medium height, was not of stout build, and had this very sun-scorched face.
"Well, this young man is passed by a motor-car going at a good speed and, when it has gone by, he suddenly sees a biggish object flung out from it at the back, without the occupants of the car noticing it has gone. Picking it up, he sees it has a bank's name on it, on a small brass plate, and he guesses at once it contains money. He decides, and he decides quickly, for Mr. Stormer, the Brighton Manager, is sure not more than five minutes elapsed between his being first overtaken and later his being asked if he'd seen anything of the wallet. He hides it and, most probably, if we only knew, in some very simple place, a place so simple that no one thought of looking for it there. Most likely under a stone—a big chalk stone—for there are plenty lying about all over the Downs very close to the road. He tells himself he will return and get it another day.
"He cycles on and presently the car comes rushing back. He is questioned and replies surlily in a monosyllable. The car goes on. Then he probably realises that things are not going to be as easy for him as he expected. The men in the car will not find the wallet and they will be back in a minute to question him again. They may become suspicious of him as he is the only person they have encountered upon the road. They may want his name and address, and put the police on him to find out all they can about him. Perhaps he already has a bad record, perhaps where he lives he is a known bad egg.
"At any rate, he gets uneasy and anticipates their quick return, darts off the roadway and hides himself behind a big clump of blackberry bushes near the cliff. We are not guessing wildly there, as will be seen in a moment. The car comes tearing by, and he gets more than uneasy. He gets frightened. He is playing for big stakes and is afraid now he will lose them. Everyone will be looking for a man with a bicycle. Then what does he do? He cuts himself away from the bicycle by toppling it over the cliff, over the cliff, mind you, exactly behind that big clump of blackberry bushes we have just mentioned. That's how we came to state so definitely he had been hiding there.
"What happens next? He gets back to Eastbourne unchallenged, and he sits tight and waits. Oh, he has patience, this young fellow! We are getting to know something of his character by now. Well, he waits all Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and then he thinks it will be quite safe for him to go and get the wallet. He knows it had not been found, at all events up to the Wednesday morning, because there is a reward advertised in the local Eastbourne paper that morning. Yes, he will go and get it, but whether he is intending to keep its contents or just claim the £100 reward, we do not know. From his subsequent actions we should say he was going to adopt the former course.
"To continue. That night after darkness had well set in, he makes his way to where he had hidden the wallet and retrieves it, but he is seen by Matthew Brendon and pursued. He attempts to escape by running away. We know that because Matthew Brendon fired one shot at him, which the detective would certainly not have done had he been at close quarters, as he was armed with that heavy loaded stick.
"What took place then we may, perhaps, never learn, but there was undoubtedly a fierce struggle, ending in Brendon being battered to death with his own weapon. It is certain the struggle took place at the top of the chalk-pit, because the detective's pocket knife and a shilling and two pennies were found lying upon the turf there. Also, from the marks upon the body when found, and the condition, too, of the clothes, there is no doubt the dead man was pushed over the pit side before being dragged behind those bushes in the corner. Another thing, the brass plate from the wallet was picked up close to where the coins lay."
The Daily Messenger went on:
"That is where our story ends, and what has happened since only one person, the thief-murderer of Beachy Head, knows. What has he done now? Has he secreted his bloodily-acquired plunder in another hiding-place, prepared to bide his time once again until he can return to it in seeming safety? Where is he himself? His holiday over, has he faded back into his usual routine work, perhaps even in this great city of ours? Is he an unassuming clerk in some office, or an obsequious assistant in some shop? Who knows? Shall we ever know? Indeed, this tragedy of Beachy Head may turn out to be yet another mystery never to be solved. To conclude, there are still, however, certain points worth remembering which, with the intelligent co-operation of the community may help the authorities to yet bring this thief and assassin within the meshes of the Law.
"The police are looking for a young man who, as we have said, was most probably upon his annual holiday last Monday week, who was in possession of a bicycle then, but who has not one now, or has one different from that he formerly had. Also, they want people to keep a look out for a young fellow who, returning from his holiday, is noticed to be flush with money. Unhappily, and the fact seems to be no secret, the numbers of none of the missing notes are known, as they were none of them of a greater value than £10 and all had been in circulation before. So no help can be expected there. As for the disposition of the wanted man, he must be shrewd and with plenty of courage and determination. We can be quite sure of that. Therefore, knowing even this little that we do about the wanted man, let us all think hard and see what we can do to assist the authorities. It is not a pleasant thought that such a dreadful crime as murder can be committed and the miscreant escape scot-free."
I put down the paper with a sickening feeling in my stomach. This wretched newspaper had put, literally, millions of private investigators upon my track and I realised to the full how wary I must be not to excite suspicion in anyone.
To begin with, I must leave Brighton at once. With that bicycle now in the possession of the police, there were decidedly dangerous possibilities as to where it might lead them. They would notice it had been recently repainted and had new tyres and new rubbers to the pedals, and they would see it could have covered only a very small mileage since it had been done up. So, they might start enquiring at bicycle shops in all directions, and at the one where I had bought it, obtain a good description of me. To my horror I suddenly recollected I had bought my cheap sun-glasses there, at the same time.
I left Brighton that morning by the eleven-o'clock train and went straight back to West Kensington, having resolved to spend the last remaining days of my holiday at home. My boarding-house was kept by two hard-working middle-aged sisters who were of a most incurious disposition and who, as long as their boarders paid up punctually never seemed to take the slightest interest in what they did. So they showed no surprise at my unexpected return.
I was glad to be home again, and in the peace and quietness of my own room considered over and over again what I should do with the money, which to me seemed a huge sum, now in my possession. I had come back with more than nine hundred pounds and was keeping it always on me, in a money belt I had bought at Brighton. Eight hundred pounds was all my own, but the remaining one hundred pounds I was intending to return to the bank. I still argued to myself that I was entitled to it, but believed now its retention would bring me bad luck. Amusing as it may be to anyone reading this I wanted, too, my conscience to be clear.
With the eight hundred pounds I intended to speculate and, working in a broker's office, I considered I stood the best of chances of increasing my capital. I must, however, be very wary in what I did. Tips, which it was confidently assumed would bring great and speedy wealth, were continually being passed round. Some, of course, were quite worthless, but several times I had heard of others which if they had been followed up would have turned out to be splendid investments, and we in the office never forgot the small fortune one of our number had made, only a couple of years back, by a lucky plunge in some cheap, and at the time, very despised gold shares.
With a capital of less than one hundred pounds, he had plunged and plunged confidently, in the six weeks of a small boom, making more than twelve thousand pounds. We always sighed with envy when we thought of him.
Thursday, the day following upon my return, was very wet, and I stayed at home all day, finishing my book. The Martyrdom of Man, with the intention of changing it that evening at the Fulham Public Library.
The newspapers had still a lot to say about 'The Beachy Head Murder,' but there was really no fresh news and, apparently, the police had picked up no clues. I fervently hoped they hadn't, and was in quite a happy frame of mind when I went out about seven o'clock to change my book.
Then, my complacency received a nasty jar when, upon entering the Library, I passed a man whom I recognised at once as the dark oily-looking fellow who had been staying at the Coffee Hall in Eastbourne when I had been there. It was he who had burst so unceremoniously into my room and had seen me counting those notes.
He gave no sign of recognition, which made me most uneasy, for I knew he must have seen me and was, of all kinds of people, the last one who would not want to renew the acquaintanceship unless he had some very particular reason for keeping away.
I felt my mouth grow dry in apprehension. It was a most calamitous encounter and my imagination instantly went soaring in conjecture as to how it happened he was there and, worse still, why he had pretended not to see me.
I took a long time selecting the book I wanted, to let myself calm down and, also, in the hope that I should not run up against him again when I went out. In this last respect I was a little bit relieved, for I saw no signs of him. Still, I walked home by a roundabout way and many times stopped to look in shop windows, giving a furtive look back to see if I was being followed. But I never saw anyone like him in sight, and arrived at the boarding-house much easier in my mind.
It was just a coincidence, I told myself. Of course, the man had to live somewhere and no doubt his home was in Fulham. Happily Fulham was a big place and the chances were I should never see him again. No, I had nothing to fear.
My confident state of mind lasted until I got into bed and picked up the new book I had just got from the library, intending to have a comfortable read until I felt ready to go to sleep. Then the big staring label on the cover suddenly caught my eye. 'Fulham Public Library' in large blue lettering on a white background! Good God, and I had sat opposite to him at meals reading The Martyrdom of Man in an exactly similar cover!
I could feel the cold shiver run down my back and my teeth almost chattered in my dismay. To my guilty conscience everything was now as plain as day, and my mind leapt from stepping-stone to stepping-stone over a dark stream, the farther shore of which held arrest and the scaffold for me.
The man had seen me come home late upon the very night of the murder and the next morning he had seen me counting a fat wad of notes! He had gone to the police and told them, and he had added the information that I had been reading a book taken out from the Fulham Public Library!
Oh, how plain it was! He had been posted at the Library to watch for my coming! Detectives had been there with him and he had pointed me out to them and it was they, not he, who had followed me home to see where I lived! The house was being watched now and in the morning I should be arrested!
I was panic-stricken in my terror and if the police had only arrived then, I am sure I should not have had the strength of mind to deny anything, but should have broken down and weakly confessed to all that had taken place.
But the police did not arrive, the house was as quiet as a church, and gradually everything fell into its proper perspective. What had I to fear if the police did come? They had nothing against me, no proof of anything, and if I stuck to my story, they could not get behind it.
So I became thankful for my good fortune in having time to prepare what I would say, and point by point, I went over what my story would be. It was a good story, because so much of it I could prove, both with chapter and verse. As far as I could see my one and only danger was that they might trace the bicycle back to the shop where I had bought it and the man who had sold it be able to give an accurate description of me. Certainly the bicycle itself was a nondescript sort of machine for anyone to recognise and remember, but those new rubbers to the pedals plus the two new tyres would be most damning aids to both recognition and remembrance of everything relating to its sale.
As events proved I was quite right it was a danger, and months afterwards I was to learn how narrowly I had escaped. Some years later, too, a well-known detective wrote his memoirs and a copy of the published book happened to fall into my hands. Speaking of 'The Beachy Head Murder' he wrote that the police had been most unlucky in everything relating to the bicycle the murderer had ridden.
As I had thought they would, they had seen at once that the bicycle could only have been ridden a few miles since the new pedal rubbers had been put on, and accordingly, an S.O.S. call had been sent out to every police-station in the Southern Counties to find out from the bicycle shops in their particular districts if anything were known about a machine which had been fitted with them.
Then, the little bicycle shop in Brighton had been located within twenty-four hours, with the wife of the proprietor certain the bicycle had been recently sold from them for four pounds. She could not, however, give the exact day as she had been upon a visit to London when it was sold, only returning on the previous Thursday to help nurse her husband who had been taken ill with pneumonia, and who had passed away the very morning of the day the police called to make enquiries.
Of course, at the time I knew nothing of all this but it continued to worry me, more or less, for a long time.
As can be well imagined, I got very little sleep that night after seeing the oily-looking man in the Public Library, but the next morning I felt quite fresh and perfectly resolute in my determination to play my cards well, if what I was so confidently expecting really happened. If it were going to happen I hoped it could come soon, while I was buoyed up to concert pitch.
I had not long to wait. I had had my breakfast and was back in my bed-sitting-room, when writing a letter to a married sister in Scotland, the only relation I have, when I heard footsteps on the stairs, and the slatternly little maid rapped on the door and opened it.
"Two gentlemen to see you, Mr. Brown," she called out, and without ceremony she ushered them in, and shuffling back into the passage, closed the door behind them.
I regarded my visitors with a frown. One, apparently, in the late thirties, was big and inclined to be stout, while the other, about the same age, was tall and lean. They both returned my frown with interest. They looked men of authority, as indeed they were, and destined to become in a very few years time two of the most important men at Scotland Yard.
The stout man spoke first, quite quietly, but with a stern, hard note in his voice. "We are from the Criminal Investigation Department," he said, producing a card. "I am Inspector Stone and this gentleman is Inspector Carter. We want a word with you."
I affected to gasp in astonishment. "You're from the police!" I exclaimed. My voice shook without any need of pretence. "But haven't you made a mistake? My name is Brown."
"Quite so," he commented grimly, "and you're the man we want." His eyes bored at me like gimlets. "You've recently been staying at Eastbourne, haven't you?"
"Yes, certainly," I faltered, "up to last Saturday!"
He nodded. "Exactly, and we believe you can tell us something about that bank-wallet which was lost on Beachy Head."
"I—tell you about the bank-wallet?" I stuttered. My very astonishment steadied my voice. "But I don't know anything about it!"
He nodded again. "No, of course not! But for all that you're coming with us to headquarters to answer a lot of questions we're going to put." He produced a paper from his pocket. "Now I've got a search-warrant here and we're going through this room. I understand it's the only room you occupy in this house." He spoke sharply. "Got any fire-arms?"
My confidence was beginning to come back and I laughed derisively. "No, not even a sub-machine gun. Then, do you think I'm a gangster?"
He ignored my question. "Any poison on you?" he asked.
I held my hands above my head. "Search me if you want to. No, of course, I've got no poison."
He pointed to a chair. "Well, you sit there and don't you move whilst we look round." He eyed me intently. "Is there any money here?"
I grinned. "Yes, plenty."
He spoke sarcastically. "A few shillings and some coppers I suppose you'll tell us!"
I grinned again. "No, hundreds of pounds. As a matter of fact I've got more money in my belt than either of you'll earn, perhaps, in three or four years."
His eyebrows straightened in a heavy frown. He didn't know whether to believe me or not. So frank an admission was evidently not what he'd been expecting. "Then where did you get it from?" he asked.
"Betting," I replied laconically.
He grunted contemptuously. "Of course! It's always got in that way." He lifted one hand warningly. "Well, you sit on exactly where you are and don't move an inch. Keep your hands out of your pockets."
Then for perhaps twenty minutes and longer, I sat watching those two clumsy-looking men search the room and go through everything in it. But there was nothing clumsy about their movements and they did everything quickly and with method. First, they went through the contents of the wardrobe, holding every garment up to the light and scrutinising it most carefully.
"Looking for blood-stains?" I asked mockingly.
For a long moment, with one of my jackets upraised in his arms, the stout inspector stood motionless as a graven image, with his eyes, as hard as flint, searching mine. "So, so," he exclaimed at last, "then you know what it is possible we may find?"
I laughed lightly. "I know what it is certain you would like to find," I retorted. "Blood-hounds want blood, don't they? And that's what, as detectives, you are after." I spoke brusquely. "Goodness gracious, do you think I don't read the newspapers and haven't seen that the thief who stole the wallet is supposed to have killed that man in the chalk-pit too? Why, that's been the only thing of interest in the papers lately and imagine how interesting it's been to me, considering I was in Eastbourne when it all happened."
The inspector withdrew his eyes very slowly from my face and went on with his search. He stopped to ask me only one more question and, that one, when he was examining the soles of a pair of my shoes. "Where do you keep your bicycle?" he asked casually and, as if with some certain evidence under his eyes, I should not dare to deny I had recently been cycling.
But I did deny it, with contemptuous amusement. "I haven't got one," I replied. "So I don't keep it anywhere. I haven't cycled for years."
He made no comment and went on with the search. Chest of drawers, cupboard, writing-desk and the mattress of the bed all came in for his attention. Then the mats and linoleum were lifted and the floor-boards most carefully examined.
"You're wasting all your time," I warned them, "and after I've been questioned you'll realise what ninnies you've been," but they took not the slightest notice of me and went on poking about everywhere.
At last, however, they had finished and then Inspector Stone—he had taken command of everything, with the other inspector not saying a word—motioned me to get up. "You're not going to give us trouble?" he asked. "You'll come quietly?"
"Of course I will," I replied. I smiled. "I'm looking forward to going with you. It will be an adventure. How are we going?"
"We've a car outside," he said, "just round the corner."
"And how'll I get home again?" I asked. "You'll surely not make me bus it or train it back?"
He smiled for the first time. "We'll see about that, later on, my son. Now I'm going to lock your door and take away the key."
I really quite enjoyed that ride. I had always lived a very humdrum life and I was now dipping deep into high adventure. I was still not a bit afraid I should be found out. I had only to keep a bold front, I told myself, and they had absolutely no proof of anything against me. The Daily Messenger had stated most distinctly that the two bank men in the car could give no proper description of me, and as for the man in the shop where I had bought the bicycle, well, even if they did succeed in getting in touch with him it was hardly likely he would remember what I had looked like. It was getting on for a fortnight ago now, and he had only seen me for about five minutes.
Arriving at Scotland Yard, Inspector Stone disappeared, leaving me in charge of his brother inspector, but he was only gone a few minutes, and then, returning, we all three went into a spacious and well-furnished room where a soldierly, good-looking man of just beyond middle age was seated behind a large desk. I wondered, instantly, where I had seen him before.
"Good morning," he said politely, "I am Sir Hubert Brabazon, the Commissioner of Police." He motioned me towards a chair standing in front of the desk. "I have sent for you because I want to ask you some questions." He smiled pleasantly. "I understand you have said you are prepared to answer them, and have come here quite willingly."
I smiled back. "Well, sir, I was told I had to come and so I made the best of a bad job and said I should be very pleased to. Yes, I am quite willing to answer anything you want me to."
He nodded his approval. "That's the proper way to take it and you're not being under arrest and no charge having been made against you, there is no need for me to give you the usual cautionary warning about what you say." He shrugged his shoulders. "Of course, if you decline to answer any of the questions I am going to put to you, then I shall have to——"
"But I tell you, sir, I do want to answer," I broke in quickly. "There is a great mistake somewhere and I want to clear everything up. I have done nothing to be ashamed of."
"Good!" he commented. "Then if you have nothing to hide you can answer freely and without any reserve. Now first, you are Mr. Jason Brown and you work in an office in the city! Which office and what's your work?"
"Messrs. Flavell and Hunt, Ariel Street, Lothbury," I replied. "They are stockbrokers and I am one of their junior clerks. I have worked there for four years."
He bent forward slightly towards me. "Now Inspector Stone has told you we have reason to believe you are mixed up with the disappearance of that bank-wallet. Certain information which has reached us leads us to suspect you. Inspector Stone informs me, however, that you declare your complete innocence."
"Yes, sir," I replied, "I know nothing about it."
He frowned. "But, of course, you have read all about it being lost in the newspapers?"
"Oh, yes," I exclaimed, "every line about it that I could get hold of. I mean that I know nothing more about it than everyone knows. I have no inside information." I smiled. "I have not got it myself."
He looked very grave. "When did you go to Eastbourne?"
"On the Sunday, the day before it was lost," I replied.
"And you put up straightaway at this Coffee Hall." He looked down at a paper upon his desk. "Benger's Coffee Hall I see it is called."
I plunged resolutely into deep water. "No, I didn't put up there until the next day. It was hot and sultry and I slept out on the beach that night," I explained quickly. "You see I caught the seven-thirty train from Victoria for Eastbourne that Sunday evening, and it didn't get in until a quarter to eleven. I went straightaway for a walk along the sea-front to get some fresh air. At midnight I found myself right at the far end of the promenade, towards Beachy Head, and seeing several lots of people sleeping about under the cliffs, I thought I'd do the same." I nodded. "I'm an old Territorial and a night under the stars is nothing to me."
"And you went to the Coffee Hall the next morning?" asked the Assistant Commissioner.
"No, the next evening, after tea."
He eyed me intently. "You had no luggage with you when you arrived. What had you done with it?"
"All I had was in the pockets of my mackintosh; a comb and small brush, a safety razor and tooth-brush, another collar, a pair of bathing trunks and a spare pair of socks. I was travelling very light because I had intended to go upon a walking tour over the South Downs, finishing up at Brighton on the Saturday."
"And what made you alter your decision and stay the whole week in Eastbourne."
"The weather became very uncertain, and the Coffee Hall was cheap and clean and the food good. I made up my mind to stay on there until the weather became more settled."
The Assistant Commissioner spoke carelessly. "And how much money had you on you when you put up at the Coffee Hall?"
"Twenty-seven pounds ten," I replied promptly, "besides some loose change."
"And you left Eastbourne on the following Saturday morning?"
"Yes, I took the train to Brighton and put up there at the Regent Hotel. I left there the day before yesterday and came straight home."
The next question was asked very slowly, and deliberately, and the Commissioner's eyes were steely cold as he put it, "And with how much money did you return home?"
I looked at him smilingly and replied equally as slowly, "Nine hundred and thirty-two pounds and some odd shillings." I tapped my body-belt. "I have it all upon me here."
A dead silence followed, a long deep silence, with the Commissioner's face the picture of an amazement he made no attempt to hide. His lips were parted, his eyes were staring and he was frowning hard. I looked round at the two inspectors, and, although I had told them when in my room at the boarding-house that I had a large sum of money upon me, they looked equally as astonished. I made my amusement quite plain. I went on conversationally. "Yes, it's quite an interesting story. I had been saving up months to have a plunge one day upon a great favourite of mine, an aged gelding called Ashanti Gold. He is not a very good horse, and all I know about him is what I have read in the newspapers. But my grandfather, General Sir Jason Brown, won his V.C. in the Ashanti War and that is what has made me back him whenever he has run. I have lost quite a lot of money on him, but when I saw he was entered in a sprint race at Brighton, last Saturday, I thought my chance had come to get it all back. He has only won twice before in the past two years, but both times upon a downhill course, once at Epsom and the second time at Brighton last Spring. So I had fifteen pounds on him on Saturday and won seven hundred pounds in one hit, on him alone. My luck held good, and in the next races I made another two hundred and twenty pounds."
I stopped speaking on purpose to make the Chief Commissioner say something and after a few moments he said very quietly, "Show me this money, please."
Briskly pulling up my waistcoat and shirt, I dragged out the money-belt and passed it over the desk. The belt was of stout canvas with three long pockets. Without a word, he beckoned to the two inspectors to approach close and proceeded to unbutton the pockets.
"Fourteen fifty-pound notes, all in a sequence," I said in business-like tones. "Seventeen ten-pound notes, eight fivers, eighteen ones and eight halves. Nine hundred and twenty pounds represents my winnings and the other twelve pounds what I brought back of the twenty-seven pounds ten I arrived at Eastbourne with." I spoke with enthusiasm. "Quite a nice little fortune for a clerk who earns only four guineas a week!"
Another silence followed and then the Commissioner, looking up from the heap of notes upon his desk asked sharply, "And, of course, you can give us the name of the bookmaker from whom you won this money."
"The bet on Ashanti Gold I had with Lew Hanner," I replied, "and he'll remember it quite well, as when I went to collect he told me it was the only good bet he had made on the horse. Lew Hanner is well-known everywhere and he's on the 'phone in the Strand as well as at his private house in Earl's Court. About the other bets, I had them with several other bookmakers, Hunkin, Billy White, Anderson, and a couple more whose names I don't remember."
The Commissioner spoke dryly. "But your explanation of how you come to be holding all this money here is no help to us in finding out how you came to be in possession of your original capital, the money you started betting with."
"Oh, I know that," I exclaimed instantly, "but if you come to learn I am spending money freely, it does not mean that you need necessarily think I have stolen it." I spoke warmly. "You will have no cause to imagine it is money I took from that lost wallet."
The Commissioner went on another tack. "Did you go up to Beachy Head any time during your stay in Eastbourne?"
"Every day except the Thursday," I nodded, "and I didn't go then because it was raining."
"Did you go as far as the old Belle Toute lighthouse upon any of these occasions?"
"Only on the Wednesday and then because I had seen a notice in the Eastbourne Chronicle offering a hundred pounds reward for the recovery of the bank-wallet which had been lost on the Beachy Head-Birling Gap road. I thought I would try out my luck."
"And find what a score of experienced searchers had already failed to do?" suggested the Commissioner sarcastically.
"Why not?" I asked sharply. "Everyone of that score would not have gone over every place. Only one man would have gone over the one particular part which had been given him to search and I was reckoning one single pair of eyes might easily have missed something. As for the searchers having been, as you put it, 'experienced,' would they have been any more experienced than I?" I pressed home my point. "Surely only once in a man's lifetime does he go tramping over the Downs to look for something which has been lost, no one seemed to quite know where."
Again the Commissioner altered his line of questioning. "When you were at that Coffee Hall," he asked, "did you keep early hours?"
"As a rule," I nodded. "I was generally in bed by eleven or thereabouts."
"And that last night you were in Eastbourne, did you go to bed early?" he asked.
I shook my head. "No, it was the only night I was really very late. I went to the fishing part of the town and sat on the beach watching the boats leave for the fishing grounds. It was nearly one in the morning when I got home."
"Were you by yourself?" was the next question.
"Yes, as I was always by myself when in Eastbourne," I replied. "That night I didn't speak to a soul."
For a few moments the Commissioner regarded me very thoughtfully. Then, all suddenly, his whole expression changed, the lines of his face hardened and he snapped his teeth together as if, at last, he had come to some decision. He glared at me with the utmost sternness.
"I am not satisfied with your story," he snapped. "It is plausible and no doubt has been carefully thought out. But it is not convincing and has not cleared the suspicions from my mind. On the contrary it has strengthened them." He raised his forefinger menacingly. "You tell us you left upon a holiday with nearly twenty-eight pounds in your pocket, and yet you went to lodge at a poor-class Coffee Hall where the charge is only two shillings a night. With all that money at your disposal, you yet started so ill-equipped for a walking tour that you had not even provided yourself with a knapsack. Then you give a most unsatisfactory account of how and where you passed that Sunday night. You know we can't check up on it, and——"
"I can't help your not being able to check up on it," I broke in hotly. "If you can't show I was anywhere else, then you must accept what I state—as truth. As for——"
"Wait!" ordered the Commissioner. "I'll return to that in a minute." He went on, even more sternly than before. "Then that last night you spent in Eastbourne——" He paused a long moment and almost hissed out his words. "Has it not struck you that you are most unfortunate in being unable to produce any corroboration as to where you were at a most vital moment of that week?"
I kept a bold face. "Of course, it has! But it didn't strike me until Inspector Stone here told me I was suspected of stealing that wallet. Then I knew he thought I was a murderer as well. I haven't been reading the newspapers for nothing." I spoke with some irritation. "It isn't for me to prove I was not somewhere on some particular night. It's for you to prove that I was." I shook my head. "You have absolutely nothing against me."
The Commissioner glanced significantly at the watch upon his wrist in the manner of a man who has another appointment, or at any rate was waiting for something or somebody. Then he looked back at me and spoke very quietly. "And so you think, Mr. Brown," he said slowly and emphasising every word distinctly, "that the man in that bicycle shop in Tower Street, Brighton, will not recognise you as, the purchaser of that second-hand bicycle for four pounds." His voice was silky in its softness. "Remember," he smiled grimly, "it was only the morning of last Monday week."
I am sure I have never been so astounded in my life as I was then. I was so astounded that my first reaction was only one of intense curiosity. How had they managed to trace the bicycle so soon? How, indeed, had they really managed to trace it at all? Surely it could have only been that the address of the bicycle shop had been stamped upon the tyre-repair outfit I had bought as an extra and put in the tool-bag?
For the moment, I say, I was only astonished and I have been sure ever since that it was that expression of astonishment upon my face, unmingled with any trace of fear, which was my salvation. I had not been knocked out by the stunning blow.
I stared back at the Commissioner and then, suddenly, a clap of thunder seemed to burst upon my ears as I realised what his statement meant. If the man in the bicycle shop could identify me, then I should surely hang. His testimony would be damning, and would show me to be a liar as to where I stated I had spent that first Sunday night, then all my carefully built up story of what had subsequently taken place would be contemptuously rejected. Then was it worth while my continuing to keep up any longer the pretence of perfect innocence? I set my face hard as a flint to think.
Then I heard the sound of a door opening somewhere and turned my head sharply to see if anyone else had entered the room. But no, the door was still shut. Then, bringing my head back, my eyes happened to fall upon Inspector Stone and I saw that he was regarding me, not as I expected with the triumphant look of one who had just scored a great success, but with the very anxious one of a man who was in grave doubt about something. His face was the picture of uncertainty, and worried uncertainty, too. Very puzzled, I looked at Inspector Carter. He was undoubtedly uneasy, too.
What was happening? I looked frowningly at the Commissioner and saw that there was no confidence there, either.
"Come, come, Mr. Brown," said the latter, "it will make it easier for yourself if you tell us the truth," and I sensed there was cajolement and entreaty in his voice rather than command.
Instantly it flashed into my mind that an attempt was being made to trick me somehow. They wanted to bluff me into admitting what they could not prove. Certainly, they had found out where the bicycle had been bought but—had the man then said he was prepared to identify me? At the time, he had not struck me as possessing much intelligence, and, besides, he had been so obviously short-sighted. He had been wearing very strongly magnified glasses, and they had made his eyes look like those of an owl.
I took heart again all at once.
"Come, come, Brown," went on the Commissioner speaking now quite sharply, "let's have no more nonsense. It can't benefit you in any way. Tell us the honest truth now."
"Sir," I replied coldly, "it does not seem honest truth which you want. You are trying to fasten that robbery and murder upon me and don't like what I have told you because it doesn't fit in." I scoffed contemptuously. "All the men in all the shops in Brighton will not be able to identify me as having bought a bicycle from them, however much you may hope they will."
I saw his face had fallen, but he said grimly, "Well, we shall have to see about that."
"Yes, and see about it at once," I retorted hotly. "If you are dissatisfied as you say with my answers, I tell you straight I am dissatisfied with your questions." My voice rose in anger. "Do something straightaway. Either arrest me here and now, or else confess honestly that you realise you have absolutely nothing to justify your suspicions of me." I assumed a very puzzled air. "How you came to suspect me at all and follow me all the way to West Kensington, for the life of me, I can't understand."
He appeared now to want to justify himself. "But can we think them only coincidences, Mr. Brown," he asked very solemnly, "that upon the particular nights we want so specifically to know where you were—you cannot tell us?"
"But I have told you," I retorted instantly.
He nodded grimly. "Yes, you've told us, but what we want is proof that what you have said is true. And that is what you won't or can't give us. Think! Upon the only two occasions when it is vital for you to produce proof—you cannot do it." He spoke sarcastically. "Does not the same thing happening twice seem more than a coincidence?"
"No, it doesn't," I replied sharply. "The most extraordinary coincidences are often cropping up in the lives of every one of us." I nodded triumphantly. "And I'll give you an example of a coincidence which will startle you and prove what I say." I spoke with the utmost emphasis I could. "When I came into this room half an hour ago, I had no idea I'd ever seen you before. But after a few minutes I began to think your face familiar, although I couldn't understand how it could be. Now, however, I remember everything. On Wednesday afternoon when I'd just come off the Brighton Express at twelve-thirty and was outside looking for a taxi, you drove up in one with a young lady who had grey eyes and was wearing a grey dress and a small grey hat. A porter took her suit-case and hat box, and I heard you tell him you wanted the twelve forty-five Portsmouth train. I got in that same taxi where the seat was still warm from where you had been sitting." I grinned. "Now what do you say to that for a coincidence?"
He made no reply and I rubbed it in. "Think of it! Of all the millions of inhabitants of London, I ran up against you, you, who were to put all these gruelling questions to me in less than thirty-six hours! Why, it's almost incredible."
A long silence followed. The Commissioner was in a quandary and he looked it. "Well," he announced curtly at last, "we shall detain you for the present."
"But if it's going to be for long," I said boldly, "I know I have the right to get legal help, so I'll want to telephone to my employers to send me a lawyer."
He nodded. "That'll be all right."
"But what about my money?" I asked. "You're not going to keep that!"
"For the present we are," he said, and Inspector Stone, beckoning me to come with him, I was led from the room.
Somehow, I wasn't feeling at all depressed. That there was some hitch somewhere I was quite certain, for they wouldn't all three of them have looked so depressed when I had called their bluff.
One day I was to learn exactly what had happened that morning when I was being so sharply questioned. They had believed they had a good case against me—in parts, but only in parts. However, they had been quite confident they would be able to make me fill in the missing portions myself. They had thought that when I saw how much they had against me I should give in and admit the rest. But they were quite aware that if I refused to confess there were some very nasty snags for them to get over.
To begin with, the red-faced manager of the bank was more hopeless than ever as to what my appearance was like, and it was the same with his companion. They now admitted frankly that they would not be able to identify me, even if brought face to face. All they were really certain of were my scorched face, my dark glasses and my low-down pulled cap.
The second snag was, of course, as I have already mentioned, that the man who had sold me the bicycle had died suddenly, and they couldn't have been more at a dead end there. Added to those difficulties, they had only the statement of the oily-looking man that when he had burst into my room at the Coffee Hall that morning I had been handling so thick a wad of notes that there must have been at least a hundred of them there.
Well, I was detained at Scotland Yard, alone in a small waiting-room, until about four o'clock that afternoon, expecting every moment to be called out and lined up among a row of other men, with the bank manager or the shop keeper or both of them, trying to see if they could pick me out.
But nothing happened, and I was left monotonously by myself. I was not, however, treated badly. I was given some magazines to read, I was allowed to smoke and a good dinner brought in.
At last Inspector Stone appeared, bringing my money with him, and to my great surprise, handing it to me with a smile. He told me I was free to go away now, as they were quite satisfied and did not want me any longer. He sat down and chatted pleasantly while I put the belt on. He said, of course, it was all a mistake but then Scotland Yard had always to act on information received. When I asked him how it was they had come to know anything about my having been in Eastbourne, he patted my shoulder and replied, still with his pleasant smile, that that was one of the things he was not allowed to tell. He said the Yard never gave away anyone who had tried to help them.
Then he went on to say that he was afraid they would never now get the man they wanted. He had had too much start and would probably never be caught. Instead, he would be enjoying his ill-gotten gains in peace and security and, perhaps, never do another day's work in his life.
Yes, the inspector was very nice to me, indeed, so nice, that when he had put me in a car to be driven back to West Kensington and was waving me a smiling good-bye, I suddenly became suspicious.
Was all this friendliness put on, were they still suspecting me, and only just trying to lull me into an over-confidence so that they could trip me up and catch me later on?
I felt amused and, at the same time, uneasy. They were shrewd, clever men at Scotland Yard and knew what they were about. I must be very careful.
DURING the course of the next three months many things happened to me. I went in for high adventure, and taking dreadful risks with the eight hundred pounds I had won at the races, came out of everything well on the way to fortune.
There were hectic days upon the Stock Exchange then. One of the periodical booms in rubber had set in, and those who threw caution aside and plunged boldly made big money. I got in early and was well into my stride before the public generally, realised what was happening.
When I had finally made up my mind in what shares I would invest I thought I would deal with our own firm, and shall never forget the amazement upon the face of our senior partner, old Flavell, when one morning I walked into his office, put down my fourteen fifty-pound bank-notes and asked him to buy me seven hundred pounds worth of Kuala Lumpur Consolidated on a two-shilling cover. I told him I had had money left me.
"But you're mad," he exclaimed angrily. "You, getting only four guineas a week, risking all that money. Why, it's criminal."
"I've more to fall back upon if I lose that," I laughed, "and I'm determined to have a good gamble."
"Then I won't help you," he said firmly. "We'll have nothing to do with one of our employees losing so much money."
"But I shan't lose it, sir," I protested. "There is every indication that the market is going up and up. Please do what I ask you, sir. If not, it will only mean my going to another firm and I shan't feel so confident, whoever they are."
He called in the other partner, Mr. Hunt, and for a few moments his colleague stared at me open-mouthed. But Mr. Hunt was more business-like than old Flavell and at once took a sensible view of the matter. "Then we'll treat you as an ordinary client, Mr. Brown," he said—I was greatly amused at the 'Mr.,' as hitherto I had always been plain 'Brown,' and that, often not too politely, either—"and not lose our commission because we are naturally disinclined to see a young fellow in our employ playing ducks and drakes with his money."
"But it isn't playing ducks and drakes, sir," I remonstrated. "The financial editor of The Times says this morning that shares in all sound rubber companies should be a good investment."
"Well, we shall see," nodded Mr. Hunt. "Now, at the present prices of Kuala Lumpur Consolidated, round about fifteen shillings, your seven hundred pounds should buy somewhere near nine thousand shares, operating upon a two-shilling cover. I'll see what I can do at once," and he smiled as if he were very amused at the whole transaction.
Upon the ensuing settling day he smiled again, but no longer in amusement when he had to hand me a cheque for more than two thousand three hundred pounds. Kuala Lumpur had made a spectacular jump to eighteen shillings and sixpence.
Then in the course of the next two months, I plunged again, replunged and plunged for the fourth time, with each settling day adding to my capital. In the end I possessed no less than thirty-seven thousand pounds. I was minded to go on still longer, and should probably have doubled the thirty-seven thousand pounds if I had done, as I left off well before the boom was at the crest of the wave.
There were days of frenzied speculation and huger fortunes than mine were made by many, with a start of much less capital even than I had had. Still, I never regretted giving up when I did. The excitement and anxiety had been getting too much for me.
Funnily enough, while I had been speculating so heavily I had been remaining on where I was as the clerk at four guineas a week. When, however, I received my last cheque running into more than ten thousand pounds, I told the partners that, of course, I should now be leaving them. Whereupon they suggested that if I cared to buy in with them and become a junior partner, they were quite agreeable. It appeared Mr. Flavell was intending to take less active part in the business very shortly, and not only had my enterprise in playing up my gains so boldly, taken their fancy, but also they had been greatly impressed by my strength of character (as they called it) in ceasing from further speculating when I thought I had made enough.
I considered their offer for a few days and then accepted it. So, three months almost to the day, from when I made my first venture, the firm became 'Flavell, Hunt and Brown.' And all the time I had heard nothing more from Scotland Yard, but although that was so and the so-called 'Beachy Head Murder' was now never mentioned in the newspapers, I was not, somehow, satisfied that a watch was not being kept upon my movements. I had never forgotten that sudden friendliness on the part of Inspector Stone and how he had seemed to want to impress upon me that the police had now very little hope of discovering the thief-murderer, and that consequently the latter would be able to enjoy all the money he had obtained by his crime.
I was arguing they were still holding a trap ready for me. They thought that, in the first instance, I had only taken one packet of notes to go on with and then hidden the wallet in some secure place to where I should return when I wanted more money. They reckoned they would catch me in the end, if only they had patience and bided their time.
So I believed that no doubt I was being watched, particularly on Saturdays and Sundays, because they would be sure I had not dared to bring the wallet back with me to London, but had hidden it somewhere near Eastbourne. Then it would be only at week-ends that I should be free to go back for it. That they were still upon my track was such an obsession with me, that for the time being I resolved to do absolutely nothing in relation to the wallet. I would not write to tell the bank where it was to be found and I would not even return the one hundred pounds until some months had passed by.
It came to me many times that I was acting very stupidly in worrying myself so much, but one day I was to learn I had not been very wide of the mark in my imaginings.
Directly I had become a partner in the firm, I began altering my whole mode of life, and started to get some real enjoyment out of my money.
I left the West Kensington boarding-house, and put up at a private residential hotel in Fitzroy Square. Also, I bought a motor-car and took to going away every fine week-end either into the country or to some sea-side place. I knew I could not now be followed so easily, and so one Saturday morning went down to Brighton.
I felt quite sure that no one would be likely to recognise me after all these months and, accordingly, made a detour in entering the town and went up the street where I had bought that four pounds bicycle. Then, to my astonishment, I saw there was no longer any bicycle shop there. I knew I could not be mistaken, for it had been right at the corner and now a grocery and provision shop occupied the place where it had been. The outside of the grocery shop, painted a bright scarlet colour, was so fresh and clean-looking too, that it had obviously been only recently established.
Very curious as to what had happened, during the afternoon I strolled round the neighbourhood and went into a small public-house in the same street. Presently the one bar-man and I were alone in the bar, and I enquired casually if he happened to know what had become of the bicycle shop that used to be at the corner.
"Oh, old Bloxon died," he replied, "and no one took it on. Died rather suddenly, inflammation of the lungs, I heard. Working in his shop one week and dead as a door-nail the next."
I steadied my voice with an effort. "I knew the old chap slightly," I said. "When did he die?"
He considered. "Let me see, last August, I think. Yes, not long after the Bank Holiday, a couple of weeks at most." He lowered his voice significantly. "They say he'd done something he shouldn't, although no one knew what it was. At any rate the police were pretty busy at his shop the day after he died and bothered his missus a lot."
I felt quite shaky as I walked back to my hotel. Whew, what a narrow escape I'd had, and what a mighty part Chance plays in all our lives! Strangely enough, I was to realise that more than ever the following day.
The next morning, emboldened by the knowledge that now, whatever happened, I could never be identified as the missing cyclist, I thought I would just go and make sure the wallet was still where I had left it. It was now getting on for four months since I had hidden it and there was no possibility, I knew, that I had been shadowed to Brighton by the police. There had not been a taxi or another motor-car to be seen anywhere in Fitzroy Square when I had driven away the previous day and so I could not have been followed.
I proceeded along the so-well remembered road, but having passed Seaford, did not turn off this time at East Dean, towards Birling Gap. Instead, I drove straight on, intending, when I had gone a mile or so farther, to park my car by the roadside and saunter across to the shepherd's hut, less than half a mile across the Down, as if I were bent only upon enjoying the view.
I was not very far from the point where I intended to pull up when I saw a man come out of a small farm-house on the same side of the road as the shepherd's hut, holding two dogs in leash. They were not above a hundred and fifty yards away and close enough for me to see that the dogs were Alsatians and big ones at that. They were straining hard at the leash and I made a mental note that they were not particularly nice animals to be about upon the Downs among so many flocks of sheep. Also, I was disgusted that the man with the dogs had appeared, as I had certainly no intention of approaching the hut when there was anyone about to see me go in.
So, waiting until the man was hidden by a fold in the Downs, I turned my car and went back to East Dean, determining to leave my car there and walk to the hut on foot.
I parked my car in the yard of the village inn and in order to give the man with the dogs time to get well out of the way, went into the bar to have a drink. I was served by a stout woman, who had been busy knitting when I came in.
She was inclined to be chatty, and for a minute or two we discussed the weather and what little rain we had been having lately. Then, just for something to talk about, I brought up the two fine-looking Alsatians I had just passed upon the road.
"They may be fine animals," she commented sharply, "but they are not the kind we want up here, and the farmers are very angry about it."
"But doesn't the man who owns them live at that farm?" I asked. "Isn't he a farmer?"
"A farmer!" she scoffed. "Not he or the man who lives with him, either." She nodded significantly. "They look like policemen to me."
My heart beat unpleasantly. "But what are they doing there?" I asked.
She nodded again. "That's what a lot of us would like to know," she said. "It's all a mystery. One week old Jevons was farming there with a couple of hundred or so of sheep, and the next he had gone—lock, stock and barrel—and no one knew to where. He never said good-bye to a single soul."
"Do you think he'd been arrested?" I asked, and in spite of myself I could hear my voice falter.
"Certainly not. The day before he went he came in here to buy a bottle of whisky, and he was looking very pleased with himself. No, everyone is sure he was handed a good sum to give up his lease."
"But what did these men want the farm for?" I asked. "Are they running sheep?"
"Not a single one. They don't want the land for anything. All they're using is the house, and the first thing they did was to put a telephone up there. A nice expense, that. Yes, everything is very mysterious, for it was done so suddenly. Only a few days before he left, Jevons started to rebuild that stone hut on the hill. He took his cart and a lot of cement and stuff there and was going to repair the walls. Then, as I tell you, he dropped everything as if he'd been taken with a fit."
My heart was beating like a sledge-hammer. I wanted to close my eyes and think. Surely I could guess what had happened. This old sheep-man, Jevons, had found the wallet and given it up to the police. Then they, certain that the thief was also the murderer, had made all plans to catch him. They were sure he would one day return for the rest of the money, even if it were a matter of months. So, taking a long view of the matter, they had bundled the sheep-man off with the greatest possible secrecy and installed two watchers in his house. They had brought the police dogs with them, in case they should be needed to run their man down.
"And when did this all happen?" I asked huskily. "When did the farmer go away?"
"Oh, months ago," the woman replied; "three or four, I should say. Yes, I remember it was only a few days after that detective was murdered in the chalk-pit." She nodded disgustedly. "And a nice mess the police made of that business. My niece married a policeman in Hammersmith and I've heard he's said they know who the murderer is. They've actually had him in their hands but he was too clever for them, and they couldn't get the evidence against him they wanted. So he's walking about free, with all that money he stole to spend."
I could not get away from East Dean too quickly. Oh, what an escape I'd had! But for that man happening to come out with dogs, just when I was passing, I might by now have had the handcuffs on. I had no doubt my description was well known to these men upon the farm.
Back in town again I breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Once I had returned the hundred pounds to the bank I could put the whole matter out of my mind and never allow myself to think about it. Indeed, I was so anxious to finish with it and have no more planning to do, that the following week I mailed the needed number of notes to the Brighton Bank.
With gloved hands, so that by no mistake should I leave any finger-marks, I did them up in a little brown-paper packet, addressing it with single letters cut from a newspaper and gummed on. It amused me to gum on at the back of the packet 'From a Friend.'
When I had dropped it into a pillar-box I was sure that at last all my worries were over and I had made what restitution I could. Almost at once, however, I found I was very much mistaken, for I suddenly began to think of the man I had killed.
I had not given him very much thought before, but now it came to me uneasily that I owed some restitution there. Certainly, it had been partly his own fault that he had come to such a dreadful end, but there was no hiding the fact from myself that, but for my stupidity, in first meddling with that wallet he would almost certainly have been still alive.
Had he left any wife or children, I asked myself, and if so, were they in need? If they were—I thought of my own prosperity—how easily I could help them without any deprivation at all.
I remembered his name, Matthew Brendon—should I ever forget it?—and looking it up in the previous year's Telephone Directory saw he had been living at number thirteen, Trevor Road, Finsbury Park. So, that evening I went to look at the house, wondering if anyone to do with him were still living there.
I found the house was one of about twenty in a row, not of poor class but of the apartment kind, and I was not at all surprised to see a card in one of the ground-floor windows, announcing there were rooms to let. I went into a newspaper and tobacconist shop round the corner, and buying some cigarettes, enquired of the man who sold them to me if he could recommend any apartments close near. I mentioned I had seen a card up in number thirteen Trevor Road, and asked him if it happened he knew anything of the people there.
He was quite enthusiastic at once. Yes, he could certainly recommend a Mrs. Brendon, at number thirteen. She was a widow with one daughter, and a very nice lady. Poor creature, she had recently met with a great misfortune, her husband having been killed in an accident. Being left badly off, she had been trying to let part of her house. Hitherto, however, she had not been very fortunate with her tenants, as the few who had come to her had only remained a few days. Still, he was sure that anybody who went there would be made most comfortable. Both she and her daughter were very superior people.
With no definite plan in my mind, I pressed upon the bell of number thirteen, and my heart began to bump as I heard footsteps approaching inside. I was about to stand face to face with the woman whose husband's death lay at my door. I had killed the bread-winner of the family and here was I approaching them now as one, whom no doubt, they would be glad to shelter in their home.
A pleasant-faced woman, approaching middle-age, opened the door. She seemed quite flustered when she learnt what I had called about. Yes, she had some very nice furnished rooms to let, in fact the first floor was almost a self-contained flat.
Proceeding to show me over, her voice shook as she explained things to me. It seemed to me at once that she was desperately anxious to obtain a let, indeed, I was to learn later that they had been then almost at the end of their resources, not knowing which way to turn for ready money.
"I am asking three guineas a week," she said nervously, she hesitated, "but, of course, if you think that too much, perhaps I might reduce it a little."
"Oh, no," I commented, "if I take them, they are well worth that money and I shan't mind paying it."
"I am a good cook," she went on, "and I am sure you would be comfortable here. There would only be my daughter and myself and you would find it very quiet."
I really did not know what to do. I had come there without the slightest intention of taking any rooms, being quite satisfied where I was at the residential hotel, and now found myself in a most uncomfortable position. I hated disappointing the woman. She looked so intensely eager and was watching me with such anxious eyes. How could I possibly say the rooms were not quite what I wanted? How could I put her off without disappointing her?
Then it came to me suddenly that the rooms were certainly very nice and comfortable-looking. It might not be altogether a bad thing for me to live here. I was alone in London and I might like it to have someone taking an interest in me. Besides, by coming to the rooms I should be helping the woman and her daughter in a practical way, and getting to know them would enable me to see how I could extend that help further, if necessary. Poor women, what distress I had unwittingly brought upon them. I made up my mind instantly.
I nodded smilingly to her. "All right, I'll take them," I said. "I'll come for three months and see how we get on. Three guineas a week and I'll move in on Saturday."
Oh, the thankfulness upon her face. It was so apparent that I couldn't help seeing it. She got hot and flushed, and stammered once again that she was sure I should be comfortable.
I took out my pocket-book. "Now, my name is Brown, Jason Brown," I said, "and I'm connected with the Stock Exchange—Flavell, Hunt and Brown, of Lothbury is our firm—and, of course, I try to be business-like." I smiled. "So to settle the matter, here's ten pounds on account," and I handed her two five-pound notes.
She got redder than ever, and her thanks, which she tried to make formal, were quite embarrassing. We chatted for a few minutes and I came away with the impression that she was quite an educated woman, and moreover, one of great refinement. I did not see her daughter, but from the sound of movements in the direction where I guessed the kitchen would be, the slight rattle of crockery, I thought she must be in the house.
I arrived with my belongings on the Saturday afternoon, but still saw nothing of the daughter. From what I remembered, moreover, of the photograph of her father, which had appeared in the newspaper after the discovery of his body, and from the appearance of her mother, I was thinking she would probably be rather a pretty girl.
In the evening I saw her, and I got something of a shock.
She came to tell me that my dinner was served, and on the instant I got hot with annoyance and shame that I had, perhaps, showed a little of my astonishment.
Imagine a girl, slightly on the small side, with a perfect little figure, an oval face with a good profile and long-lashed deep grey eyes. Add to these a beautifully shaped mouth with a provoking dimple at the corner and you would say she must have been pretty. So she was, a lovely girl in all the pride of her young womanhood, except that covering almost the entire forehead and extending a little way down the nose was a large disfiguring port-wine stain of a horribly deep colour.
"Good evening, Mr. Brown," she said in a calm, melodious voice, "your dinner is ready;" and I gulped down my astonishment and thanked her with a smile.
She made way for me to precede her into my dining-room, and then waited until I had sat down before she removed the cover of a soup-tureen. "When you want me," she said, pointing to a small bell upon the table, "will you please ring that?" and she left the room.
"Good God!" I exclaimed when the door was shut, "what an awful infliction for her. It makes her look almost repulsive."
I shall never forget those first feelings of repugnance, and, as I sipped my soup, I should have been literally aghast if anyone had told me I had just seen the woman destined to be the mother of my children. It must be understood the blemish was not an ordinary one, but of such a hideous colour and stood out so pronouncedly upon an otherwise attractive face, that the first effect of seeing it was most unpleasant. No wonder, I thought, if Mrs. Brendon's other tenants had been at all of a sensitive nature, they had not wanted to stay long.
The dinner was excellent and beautifully served, and, recovering a little from the shock of the girl's appearance, I enjoyed it.
Late in the evening Mrs. Brendon came in to ask if she could do anything more for me, and then went on to mention, as I had been rather expecting she would do, her daughter's affliction. She told me what a terrible trial it was to the girl and how it had ruined all her life. She, Margaret, never went out except at night and then heavily veiled. She had become the more and more sensitive about her appearance as she had grown older, and would not be brought to understand that people who saw her often soon became accustomed to how she looked and thought no more about it.
Of course, I knew that last remark was intended for me, and, although I did not believe her, I agreed at once with what she had said. However, soon settling down comfortably in my new home, I came to realise that what she had said turned out to be perfectly true. I did get accustomed to Margaret's appearance and could soon greet her with a pleasure which was not in any way put on.
Undoubtedly a very nice girl, she was very shy with me at first, and did not want to have any conversation at all, but I made myself chatty and very gradually drew her out. Her great passion, she told me, was music—I thought it would have been better if she had called it consolation. She said that the piano was her favourite instrument. I told her that it was mine, too, and I could play a little. When I asked her why it was I had not heard her playing, she at once turned away her eyes and said their piano was away, being repaired; but I guessed she was fibbing and that they had had to sell it.
By then I had got a good idea as to how they were circumstanced, mainly from little chats with the friendly newsagent around the corner. He told me how pushed for money they had been and how grateful Mrs. Brendon was for his having, as they all imagined, sent me to them. He said my coming had been their financial salvation.
I learnt a lot of their family history, too, from him. Mrs. Brendon had known much better days, her husband at one time having been quite well off. He had been a mining engineer by profession and had had large interests in a mining company in Russia, which had been left to him by his father.
Everything, however, had been lost in the revolution which had broken out there in the World War.
He had fought in the war himself and attained the rank of Major. The war over, and with only his gratuity to fall back upon, he had been most unfortunate in everything he undertook. He had been unable to get work in his own profession and had gone into partnership with another man in a small manufacturing business. The latter had absconded with all the available assets and he had become penniless again.
Finally, he had taken up private inquiry work and had been doing reasonably well until he had met with sudden death—in an accident. Mrs. Brendon was the daughter of a country doctor and Margaret was the only child she had had.
I felt a great compassion for these two poor bereaved women, and, my conscience troubling me more than ever, in many ways tried to make things easier for them. I ordered much larger portions of meat and fish than I could eat myself, and made it a standing rule that nothing was ever to appear twice at the table. In the matter of chickens and game, too, I followed the same course, in that way ensuring there would always be plenty for them to eat. I was pretty well sure that the three guineas a week I paid was all they had to live upon.
I could well afford any extravagance, for the firm was doing remarkably well, and already, I was drawing a good steady income from my junior partnership. About three months too after I had come to Trevor Road I made a very lucky investment which, later, was destined to enable me to retire from the City and live the life of an independent gentleman in the country.
For a thousand pounds I bought a half share in a new form of carburettor which a small inventor had patented. He had hawked his invention round half London without receiving any encouragement, until a young automobile engineer in whom I had great faith had persuaded me that it possessed enormous possibilities. I took an option on it and then paid a good fee to have it reported upon. The report was most favourable, indeed, it was enthusiastic, and in consequence I invested my thousand pounds.
As the weeks passed on I became the more and more pleased with my new home and the more friendly with both Margaret and Mrs. Brendon. Ostensibly for my own convenience, I got in a refrigerator, and had an electric heater installed in the bathroom.
Then I announced I was buying a small grand piano, and it gave me a great thrill of pleasure to see the delight in Margaret's face when I told her that, of course, she was to use it whenever she liked. The piano was one of the best which money could buy, and I smiled to myself that anyone, who could play only as well as I was able to, should have bought such an expensive instrument. Still, although I was nothing of a player myself, I could appreciate others who played well, and I was most curious to find out what Margaret's playing was like. I was certain she would play well, for she had most beautiful hands. I had often regarded them covertly as she was waiting upon me at meals. They were certainly, I was sure, the hands of an artist or a musician.
Several times I asked her to let me hear her play, but she always declined smilingly and with heightened colour, saying that she did not dare, as an audience always made her nervous.
One morning, however, returning unexpectedly to pick up some papers I had forgotten, as I opened the front door with my latch-key I heard the piano being played upon, and walked very quietly up the stairs to listen. The door of the room was ajar and I stood outside.
She was playing a soft nocturne, but just as I had taken up my position she finished and started a new piece. I repressed a shudder, for of all things she had chosen Chopin's 'Funeral March.'
As I have said, I had thought she would be a good player, but I never expected what I had heard then. She played divinely. There was mastery and soul in every chord she struck, and the imperishable beauty of Chopin's masterpiece hallowed round that room like music from Heaven.
I peeped round the door. I knew her back would be turned towards me and that I should be quite safe. Then, realising she was so engrossed in her playing, I ventured to tiptoe into the room and sink down into an arm-chair. Then for half an hour I had a delightful treat. She was playing with no music before her, and went from piece to piece with the ease and abandon of long familiarity.
"Good heavens," I murmured, "how she must have suffered, being deprived of her music!" and I felt a great lump come into my throat.
She stopped playing suddenly and, rising to her feet, turned round in a quick movement to face me. Her eyes were bright with excitement and her cheeks were flushed. "I knew you were there," she said, and her lips quivered and her voice faltered. "I didn't hear you come in but I saw you reflected in the polish of the piano. Still, somehow I didn't want to stop playing. You had been wanting so often to hear me and I know I had been ungrateful in refusing." She smiled a nervous but pretty smile. "Now, you've only to thank yourself for what I've inflicted on you."
"Bless your heart!" I exclaimed. "You've given me the greatest treat I've had for a long time." I spoke with enthusiasm. "By Jove, you can play. You've the soul of a real artist."
That night I brought home for her the whole operatic score of 'Lohengrin,' and her gratitude was quite pathetic. It embarrassed me, and I was glad when she had left the room.
After that I often induced her to play for me. Sometimes her mother came up with her into my room, but more often she came up by herself. Mrs. Brendon, no doubt, was quite sure that no one would want to flirt with a girl with such an awful blemish upon her face. I, too, never gave the idea of flirtation a thought. I liked Margaret's company because her playing delighted me, and also because it pleased me to think that in showing my interest in her I was doing something to brighten her life.
She had never spoken to me about the condition of her face, and of course, I had never made reference to it. Moreover, when talking to her I took good care to never let my eyes wander to that dreadful stain. I always looked her straight in the face and held her eyes with my own.
We were now on the best of terms, and she did many little things for me that I would never have dreamed of allowing her to do when I had first arrived at the house. She kept the papers in my desk tidy for me, she pressed my clothes, and, when she knew beforehand that I was dining out, she always had everything laid out ready for me. She did the mending for me, too, and never in all my batching days since my poor mother died had it been so nicely done.
The repair of a badly torn driving-glove once was quite a work of art and could not have been done better if by a glove expert.
"A labour of love!" I remarked jokingly to myself, and then I sighed to think that the poor girl would never have a lover. How could anyone ever so forget that awful blemish upon her face as to make love to her? No, it was destined she would never know the greatest of all thrills in life. She would be maiden and childless to the end of her days.
One Saturday in late spring when she was bringing up a rather, for me, early lunch, I noticed she was looking pale, and I said sternly, "See here, Margaret, your cheeks have got no colour in them. It's sunlight you want. Those walks at night are not enough for you." I hesitated just a moment. "Now, what about coming out for a ride with me this afternoon? I have to go down to Haslemere on business and the fresh air will do you good. It's going to be a lovely afternoon and we'll have the hood down."
Her eyes opened very wide and her cheeks reddened like fire. "But I—I couldn't. I couldn't," she gasped.
"Why not?" I asked. "You're not afraid of me, are you? I won't bite you. You can leave your veil on if you want to, and pull it up when we get out into the country. My business in Haslemere will only take me a few minutes, and you needn't get out of the car. Yes, you've got to come. Go and ask your mother if she'll let me take you. Come back and tell me at once."
But it was a good ten minutes before she returned, and then her voice was quite steady. "Mother says I may come," she said demurely, "and she thinks it very kind of you."
"Not at all," I said quickly. "I hate driving by myself, and any kindness done will be done to me. Now, I'll bring the car round at two o'clock and you be ready as near then as you can."
So at the time arranged it was a very dainty-looking young woman who came tripping down the steps of number thirteen. I am bad at describing women's dresses and all I can say is that she looked smart, with everything in good taste. She had a scarf covering part of her forehead, making the stain not nearly so conspicuous.
As I had said it would be, it turned out to be a lovely afternoon, and when we had got out of town the smell of the countryside was delicious. The splendour of approaching summer was in the air and something of the glory of everything must have entered into our hearts. Margaret forgot her shyness and was chatty and animated, and I put out of my mind all recollection of the horrible port-wine stain and remembered only that I had a girl of most charming disposition by my side.
My business with our client in Haslemere took me much longer than I had expected, and it was past five o'clock before we started upon our return journey home. Then, getting near town, I suggested telephoning Mrs. Brendon that we should be dining out and that she need not prepare anything for me. Margaret was very much against the idea at first, but I told her I knew of a quiet little restaurant in Soho, where we could be almost by ourselves at the end of a long narrow room.
"And you must shake off this idea, young lady," I said emphatically, "that you never intend to go about anywhere because you are afraid people will look at you. What does it matter if they do? It won't hurt you." I warmed up in my enthusiasm. "Forget your little trouble, Margaret, and don't be so sensitive about it. I know you've got courage, because of that determined little chin of yours. Be brave, now."
And she was brave, the poor girl, as with a little choke in her voice she agreed to come with me. I did not learn until later, moreover, how much courage it needed on her part, for she had allowed herself to be seen openly in no place of public entertainment since she had been sixteen. She had not been to any theatre, picture palace, concert or restaurant during the last six years.
Now, I always flatter myself that that night I made the ordeal much less trying than she thought it was going to be. Arriving quite early at the restaurant, I was able to get the very table I wanted, right at the end of the room, and she sat with her back to all the other diners.
I ordered some champagne and insisted upon her having a glass. Unaccustomed as she was to wine, it brightened her up at once, and soon she was talking across the table to me as animatedly as if we two were alone together in the room, and the best and most intimate of friends. The food was good and there could be no doubt about her enjoying herself. Her eyes sparkled and her face was continually lightening up into smiles. I thought, with great sadness, she would be really beautiful but for that ugly disfiguring stain. We lingered over our meal so long that it was half-past nine before I drove up to Trevor Road. I was dropping her at the front door before taking my car round to its usual garage.
When she had alighted from the car, she held out her hand and I shook it for the first time.
"Thank you so very much for the beautiful time you've given me," she said sweetly. "It was the most wonderful treat I've had for years;" and I fancy she returned ever so slightly the gentle squeeze I gave her hand.
I thought quite a lot about her that night, but it was only compassion I was feeling for her. That ugly stain, I was sure, would prevent any man from ever making love to her.
It seemed rather funny, and to me at all events just a little bit awkward, when she brought in my breakfast the next morning, with the animated companion of yesterday falling back into her place again as the server-up of meals. Fortunately, we both had a sense of humour and we smiled things off.
"Feeling all right this morning?" I asked. "None the worse for the fresh air?"
"It did me a lot of good, and made me think I was quite young again," she replied, "and I can still smell the heather of the Hindhead Hills;" and I felt foolishly happy that I had given her such pleasure.
The following week I invited her to come to the Opera with me to hear 'Lohengrin.' I invited her mother as well, but the latter said she would rather not come.
"I am not musical, like Margaret," she said. "She gets that from her father," and then she added gratefully, "you are being so very kind to Margaret, Mr. Brown, and if you do bring her dreams which, of course, can always only remain dreams, with a girl of her disfigured appearance, you are still doing her a world of good. Before you came here it had begun to trouble me she was falling into a melancholy which would end up in her becoming a dreadful invalid."
Mrs. Brendon's remarks, for a moment or two, made me a little uneasy. Surely, I thought, Margaret had more sense than to think I should ever fall in love with her, and sense enough, too, not to let herself be ever anything more than grateful to me. No, I was not playing with fire and leading the girl on! She knew everything was only just kindness on my part, and was quite aware I took other girls out, as she had seen the flowers I had brought home to give them. Yes, everything was quite all right, I frowned. Trying to make her life happier and brighter was but a small part of repayment of the debt I owed both to her and her mother for the evil I had brought upon them. I had long since come to the determination that while I lived they should never want.
Upon the night of the Opera when Margaret came upstairs to announce she was all ready to go with me, I felt quite delighted with her appearance and frankly told her so.
Of course, by no possibility could she hide altogether the dreadful stain, but she had now made it decidedly less noticeable by fringing her hair quite low upon her forehead. People would still stare at her. That was to be expected, but they would probably not stare for so long.
"You look very nice," I said, "and just don't let it worry you if people stare a bit." I nodded significantly. "I'm sure if you had no birthmark at all they would stare much longer, particularly the men," and I could tell by her blush that she appreciated the compliment.
Arriving at the Opera House and walking down to our seats, she seemed quite at her ease, showing, at all events, no outward signs of any nervousness. Rather amused at my conceit, I was flattering myself it was in part due to the fact that she had so presentable an escort. I am by no means a bad-looking man, well set-up and very healthy looking in appearance. So it would be consoling her to think that the other women there must realise that, at any rate, some man thought her nice enough to become her escort.
Of course, she was thrilled with the rendering of the opera, and so was I. Once, in one very beautiful part, I let our hands touch on purpose, and whether she noticed it or not, she did not draw hers away. I was very angry with myself about it afterwards. It was exactly as if I were flirting with her.
Looking back in after days, I am sure that night marked an epoch, although at the time it did not enter into my mind. At any rate, from the very next morning I noticed some subtle change in Margaret's attitude towards me. She no longer looked at me when she spoke to me, and when I was speaking to her, she took to averting her eyes. Also, she seemed to have become nervous again, and always anxious to get out of my way. Certainly, she was not unmindful of my comfort in any way. Rather the opposite, for never had my clothes been better looked after or little services for me more thoroughly done. But she was different somehow. Her attitude towards me had changed, and I was quite sure about it.
About a week later, I suggested she should come up and give me some music after dinner, and, although she agreed, I noticed she had hesitated for quite a few moments before doing so. Then, later, she stopped playing much earlier than was her wont, and had slipped from the room almost before I had realised she was going. And it was the same, too, upon several subsequent occasions when she played for me. She did it, but she did it reluctantly, and seemed glad to get away.
This state of things went on for about a fortnight, and then one night, thinking things over as I lay awake in bed, it came to me in a blinding flash of realisation that I had been most foolishly encouraging the girl, until she had become really fond of me. Then, suddenly realising what her feelings were, she now wanted to pull herself up before things went any further. Her common sense, of course, told her it could only end in one way, as no man would want to marry a girl with such a terrible disfigurement as hers.
I took no pride at all that I was in the way of making a conquest of her. Instead, I felt terribly mortified and grieved. I ought to have had more sense than to make a fuss of her. I was the only man friend she had ever had, and with her lack of experience of the other sex, there was no triumph in that she was becoming attached to me.
Of course, now the only thing for me to do was to go out of her life as quickly as I decently could. I would leave their house, but before doing so would send them, anonymously, a sum of money which would place both her and her mother beyond the reach of want for many years.
Still, I would do things gradually, I told myself. I must not alter my whole mode of life all at once, and must give reasons for any change in it that would seem quite natural to them.
Accordingly, the following two nights I dined out and did not come home until very late, with the explanation that we were very busy at the office. On the third night, however, I was home as usual for dinner at seven and, to give no inkling of what was in my mind, when Margaret was clearing away asked her if she would come up later and give me a little music. She hesitated, exactly as she had been so continually doing of late, but upon my pleading that I had got a headache and that music would help it pass off, she said at once she would be up at nine o'clock.
So just before nine I got everything ready as usual, lighting the two candles upon the piano and turning out the other lights. We always did that, Margaret preferring to play with no glare behind her and I loving the peace and rest of a partly darkened room.
Margaret appeared to time and then, after she had been about half an hour at the piano, when she began playing a soft little piece from a book of miscellaneous music which I had recently bought for her. I got up from the arm-chair in which I had been lying back, and walked over to see what piece it was. It was new to me, but of a most appealing melody. I saw it was a Hungarian love-song.
I stood behind her while she played it through. It died away so softly, that for a moment I hardly realised the last note had been struck. Margaret dropped her hands into her lap and let her head bow ever so slightly forward. Her attitude seemed unusual to me, and without thinking what I did, I put my hand under her chin and lifted it up until I could see her face. Her eyes were filled with tears.
"What's the matter, Margaret?" I asked. "What's upset you?" but she made no reply and just shut her eyes. A tear fell on to her cheek.
"You poor baby!" I said compassionately and then upon the impulse of the moment, with my hand still under her chin, I tilted it up still further and bending over her, kissed her gently upon the lips.
Although I wasn't the least bit in love with her, the kiss was very pleasant to me. Her lips were soft and warm and moist. I kissed her again, this time not quite so softly and the kiss was a longer one. "Now kiss me back," I whispered and, on the instant, not only were her lips responsive but, flinging up her arms around my neck she pulled me tightly to her. I lifted her up fiercely and carried her over to the arm-chair in which I had been sitting.
Then for a long minute our oblivion lasted, until, with a little startled cry, she unloosed her arms in a quick movement and made to push me from her.
"Oh, what have you done?" she whispered hoarsely. "You don't mean anything by it."
"Oh, don't I?" I cried, stung to a dreadful feeling of remorse by her distress. "I mean a great deal."
"But you'll never want to be my lover!" she exclaimed. "You only kissed me out of pity." Her voice was broken in her misery. "Who'd be the sweetheart of a girl with a face like mine?"
As in a flash of lightning I realised what the position was. By her so passionate a return of my kisses I had drawn from her an avowal of what her real feelings were, an avowal so unmistakable that it would be degrading to my manhood for me to pretend to ignore it and pass it by. I had made her fond of me, and then, just in a careless moment of pity, had so acted that she had been taken off her guard and had confessed that fondness without shame.
I saw it all so plainly. I had been quite aware of my danger and yet had deliberately walked into it with my eyes open. Now I must prove myself to her to be either of a decidedly despicable nature or else one of the best of men, which no doubt she had been imagining me to be. I caught my breath. Ah, I was to bring a wonderful happiness into her life or I was to add to the sorrow I had already brought upon her and her mother!
I had only the fraction of a second to decide. Her kisses were still warm upon my lips; I was still holding her supple body in my arms and I could feel the wetness of her tears still upon her cheek, so close to mine.
I crossed the Rubicon and, crossing it, crossed it manfully and with the determination never to turn back.
There and then I asked her to marry me. I fibbed it was no question of pity, but that I loved her sincerely with the love that every man should have who asks a woman to join her life with his.
At first, she would not believe me but I convinced her in the end and when we parted for the night, it was in the small hours of the morning. I felt a great happiness that at last I was really doing something which was a sacrifice for me to do, in atonement for the great wrong I had committed.
And I take it to my credit that from that time to this I have never let her or her mother learn that in those early days I thought I was making any sacrifice at all.
By the next morning, after only a few hours of very troubled sleep, I had all my plans cut and dried, and subsequently induced Margaret and her mother to agree with them.
We would be married almost at once, within a month, and whilst we were away upon our honeymoon, Mrs. Brendon was to arrange everything so that when we returned home we were all to continue to live on in Trevor Road until I had chosen another house, probably a little way out of London. Mrs. Brendon, however, was to engage a maid to make the work much lighter.
So less than four weeks later I entered into my married life, with the greatest respect for Margaret, but fully anticipating I should always have to be playing a part. I never believed I should have the slightest passion for her.
We were married early one morning in the first days of a glorious September and, straight away from the very church door, started upon our motoring honeymoon. We were intending to tour round the beauty spots of Scotland. We reached York that evening and hesitatingly suggesting to Margaret that we should put up at the popular and generally crowded Minister Hotel, greatly to my surprise she agreed at once.
"But there'll probably be a lot of people there, dear," I said. "The tourist season is still not far off its height."
She smiled brightly. "I don't mind how many are there, my husband," she replied. "Anyone can stare at me as hard as they like," she nodded happily, "as long as I have you with me. No, I'm never going to worry about people any more." She laid her hand affectionately upon my arm. "When they look at my poor face and then look at you they're sure to think that I must be a very charming girl to have landed such a handsome and distinguished-looking husband." She seemed amused. "So don't you ever worry about my feelings. I promise you they are not going to trouble me."
And sure enough she didn't seem to mind anything. When, that night, we walked down the crowded dining-room to our seats, she held her head high and was as bright as if she were the best-looking woman there. In the days which followed too, it filled me with a great tenderness when I saw how proud she was of being a married woman. She flashed her wedding-ring upon every occasion as if it were in truth the symbol of her deliverance from the pre-nuptial slavery of her dreadful affliction.
Looking back, I think it was this courage I saw I had inspired in her which, even in the course of our first wedded days, began to arouse in me feelings of real love and passion for her. Every action of hers showed how fond she was of me, but there was always a restraint in her expressions of affection and she never pushed them unduly. She always waited for some manifestation upon my part, first.
In the beginning, my advances were a little forced, hard as I tried to hide it, but very soon I found myself groping for her in the night to make sure she was by me.
I had intended to be away only a fortnight, but I was finding such happiness had come to me that I prolonged the honeymoon for another week and, returning home, could hardly credit the change in my feelings.
I had started away from the church upon my wedding morning with really no love and, certainly, no passion for my wife and I had returned—a devoted and passionate lover. The appearance of that dreadful birth-mark no longer troubled me. I didn't notice it when I looked at her.
We had been home a little over a month, when one afternoon it was brought home to me most unpleasantly that I should never be able to bury the past as deeply as I had fondly thought.
We were at a chrysanthemum show at the Botanical Gardens, Margaret, her mother and I, when Mrs. Brendon exclaimed suddenly, "Oh, I see an old friend of my husband over there! I must introduce you to him. I met him last week and told him all about Margaret's marriage." She laughed. "I told him so many nice things too, about you, that he said he would like to meet you." She whispered so that Margaret should not hear, "He thought you must be a very fine man to be making my dear Margaret so happy, in spite of that poor face of hers. Wait here. Don't go away. I'll go and fetch him."
She disappeared among the crowd and I turned my thoughts again to the flowers. In a minute or two, however, she came back with a man, whom, to my consternation, I recognised as Inspector Stone. "This is Mr. Brown," she said, and she added proudly, "Margaret's husband." She turned to me. "This is Inspector Stone, who was a great friend of Margaret's father."
The inspector glared at me with an annoyed frown. I do not know who was the more astonished, he or I, but certainly it was I who recovered first.
"How do you do, very pleased to meet you," I said, and I held out my hand. He half hesitated and then took it reluctantly. He turned to Mrs. Brendon and seemed about to say something to her, but I gave him no chance.
"Let's go and have some tea," I went on, and taking hold of Mrs. Brendon's arm I led her towards the Pavilion, leaving Margaret to follow with Inspector Stone. I knew the inspector would never dare to speak to Margaret about our former meeting, but I was not nearly so sure he might not do so to her mother. So I determined I would not leave them alone together for one minute, if I could possibly help it.
The little tea-party was a great success. Certainly, the amazement upon the inspector's face took quite a little time to die down, and at first his attitude towards me was inclined to be cold and distant. Then, perhaps because he saw how proud and happy Margaret was, he seemed to begin to think better of it, for his manner thawed and his big heavy face broke into a pleasant smile.
"So you've been married two months, have you, Margaret?" he asked. "Well, and how is your husband treating you?" and he looked at me with a frown that was intended to be pretence, but which I knew was very stern reality.
Margaret laid her hand upon my arm. "He's the best of husbands, Mr. Stone," she replied, "and I'm the happiest woman alive." She nodded smilingly. "With this poor face of mine I never thought any man would ever fall in love with me"—her eyes sparkled—"but one did."
The inspector's deep voice boomed. "Well let's hope he keeps it up. Some of us married men soon begin to think we want a change," but the twinkle in his eyes robbed his last statement of all sting.
After that everything went brightly and, when the inspector took out his watch and said he must be going no one was more sorry than I, for he had shown himself to be a most entertaining companion.
He said good-bye to Margaret and her mother and then, last, to me. Then, when he had gone a few paces he stopped and, turning round, beckoned to me. "One moment, Mr. Brown," he called out, "I've got a little secret to tell you."
I went over to him and, linking his arm friendlily in mine, he led me well out of ear-shot of the others and turned his back to them, evidently so that they should not see the expression upon his face. "Look here, my friend," he almost snarled, "I don't know what your little game is, and how you've come to marry that girl, but I tell you this"—his eyes were menacing and hard as steel—"if ever I learn she's unhappy, then I'll come and murder you on the quiet. I'll shoot you one night with a pistol with a silencer on it. You make no mistake. I'm quite capable of it."
My heart went out to him for his consideration of Margaret and I said quickly and warmly, "And I shall deserve it, sir, and will gladly take my punishment." I shook my head. "No, don't be anxious about her. It's a real love-match and I'll see she's happy." I added as an afterthought, "It must seem extraordinary to you that she's married me, but believe it or not, it was quite a coincidence that I met her."
"I don't believe it," he said instantly. His face lost its hard look. "Still you may be a better man than I took you for once and have a bit of a conscience after all. You may never have meant to kill her father, and I don't forget that you sent back the hundred pounds to the bank."
"Steady, steady," I said sharply, "you're a good-intentioned but a very obstinate man. You've been quite mistaken all along, and you never had a shred of proof against me."
"No," he grunted, "that was the trouble. You were too clever for us." He scoffed. "I'll believe you only when Margaret loses that birth-mark she's got." He patted my arm smilingly. "Well, good-bye, and be a good boy."
"What did Mr. Stone want to tell you?" asked Margaret when I returned to them.
I pretended to look very mysterious. "Well, if you must know," I said dropping my voice, "he said he would like to be god-father to our first baby," and Margaret blushed prettily.
I have not seen Inspector Stone again since that day, but he sent me his kind regards when he happened to meet Margaret's mother again a few weeks later. No doubt she had given him a good report of me.
And now I come to another extraordinary happening in my life, showing once again how extraordinary Chance can be and what a great part it may play in our lives.
We had been married less than six months and one night were dining out at a fashionable restaurant.
Margaret, as usual, was supremely unconscious about her appearance and did not mind people staring at her, which of course they always did, some rudely and persistently, but others with only a fleeting and sympathetic glance.
We were half through our meal when I saw a distinguished-looking man get up from a table close near us and proceed to walk to the entrance door. I had noticed he had glanced several times at Margaret, but had taken great care only to do so when her eyes were not in his direction.
He had passed out of sight when a waiter came up to our table and presented a small folded piece of paper on a salver.
"What's this?" I asked. "It's not for me."
"But it is, sir," said the waiter, "from that tall gentleman who was sitting at the table by the pillar and who has just gone out. He told me to give it to you directly he had gone."
Very curious, I picked up the piece of paper and unfolded it. Upon it was written in pencil, "That birth-mark upon the young lady's face could be removed, but there is only one man in the world who can do it. He is Professor Lebrun of Geneva." There was no signature to the note.
I read it through twice and then, rather amused, handed it across the small table to Margaret. She read it with a slight smile and shook her head. "No good. Father took me to Sir Donald Stewart years ago and he said nothing could be done for it. It would always be there and always be the same."
She dismissed the matter with a pretty shrug of her shoulders, and we said no more about it that night, but it kept on recurring to me in the succeeding days and I could not get it altogether out of my mind.
Finally, I made enquiries from a medical friend about this Swiss professor and was told he was a well-known specialist in diseases of the skin and patients flocked to him from all parts of the world for treatment. There and then I made up my mind I would take Margaret to him, but before that would obtain an opinion from the best man in London.
Accordingly one day we visited a great specialist in Wimpole Street, but he shook his head at once and stated that he did not think any treatment would be beneficial. I asked him what he thought about Professor Lebrun and he was quite enthusiastic. "A great man," he said, "but I don't think he would give you any help either. Still you might consult him and, if you like, I'll give you an introduction. I know him very well."
A fortnight later found us in the beautiful city of Geneva, and interviewing the Swiss professor. He was of small size only a little over five feet in height, but he struck me at once as a man of dynamic energy. 'A pocket eagle' was how I described him to myself. He spoke in staccato and imperfect English.
"Oh, dear me, dear me," he exclaimed, "and ze pretty lady has gone all zese years like zat. Twenty-two years you say she is. Can I do anyzing? Let me see, let me see?" And for a solid hour he examined Margaret under powerful glasses and many different coloured lights. Then he sat silent for a long time, staring hard at her with a very thoughtful expression upon his face.
At last he spoke and his face broke into a reassuring smile with his first words. "Ye-es, I sink it can be cured. It vill take two months and she must come into my hospital. No callers, no visitors, just me, ze nurses, and ze ozer patients."
"Two months," I exclaimed, "but she will be very lonely," and then I told him she was expecting a baby in the autumn, and such a long time in hospital would be bad for her all by herself.
"Not at all, not at all," he protested animatedly. "She vill be gay as a vild bird." She smiled. "She is musical zis little one. I can see it by her eyes and zose beautiful hands. Vell, I have Schairn, ze greatest pianist in ze world at present in my hospital and he vill be zere ze whole time she is. He play to ze ozers every day and zey worship him. No, she vill not be lonely, and I sink——" he raised his eyes impressively—"I sink I vill restore to you a very beautiful voman in two months." He laughed merrily. "If all goes vell, it vill be a new vife I shall bring to you."
We made up our minds quickly and so two days later I left Switzerland by myself, a very lonely man with a great gap in my life. We were to write to each other every third day, not more often, so that our letters would be days of great expectancy to both of us.
Those two months in London proved to be very exciting for me. A great American corporation was negotiating for the patent of the carburettor in which I had a half share, and every day almost there were consultations with engineers and lawyers. My partner in the patent was for selling at any price, provided it was a good one, but by this time I knew we were on a good thing and was strong for holding out until they agreed to pay one hundred thousand pounds.
It seemed an enormous sum to ask, but they were very keen on the carburettor, and that money would be a flea-bite compared with their annual turn-over. Still, they hung fire and made out sixty thousand pounds was their utmost limit. I tried a big bluff and said the deal was off then, making as my last and final proposal eighty thousand pounds.
We heard nothing from them for a fortnight and I was feeling very despondent that my bluff had failed when over came a cable closing with the offer.
The cable arrived the day before I was to start for Geneva to fetch Margaret and following upon her letter, I was filled with a great happiness. Margaret had not written that she had got rid of the birth-mark but she had said it had been improving with every week of treatment. Still, I read between the lines. She was keeping back the best in order to surprise me.
How can I describe my meeting her? It was as if I were in a dream that day, and in a way it is a dream to me still. I have never quite got over it.
Arriving at the hospital, I saw the professor first. He was all smiles. Yes, his treatment had been successful and it had been quite a triumph for him, 'just a leetle one' he said modestly. Still, by far the greatest pleasure to him about it was that he was giving a very beautiful lady her proper position in society. Oh, yes, it was possible I should hardly recognise her, she was so changed.
Then, for a moment, when she came in and stood demurely before me, I really was not certain it was she. She had purposely had her hair done differently and was wearing, too, a dress I had never seen.
Gone was the disfiguring stain and she stood before me, at a few yards distant, a beautiful woman with a perfect, flawless face.
She threw herself into my arms and burst into a flood of tears. I heard the click of the closing door behind me. The professor had left us alone.
Yes, the birth-mark had entirely vanished, leaving the skin from where it had gone very little different from that of the rest of her face. It was a little more ivory-looking and that was all.
Grateful beyond any adequate expression, I asked the professor what his fee was. "Two hundred guineas of your English money," he replied. He smiled. "Viz any von else it vould be five hundred"—he bowed gallantly—"but I have had ze ozer money in ze pleasure I have had in vaiting upon your beautiful lady," and, in parting, he gave Margaret a diamond brooch, the buying of which must have made a big hole in the two hundred guineas.
And now I am at the end of my story. I gave up my occupation in the City and, buying a property here in Essex, settled down as a gentleman farmer. That was more than eight years ago. Margaret has presented me with three children and there are not a more happily married couple, than are we, to be found anywhere.
Why have I troubled to write all this down? I do not know. Perhaps I have done it because Margaret and the children are away and I was lonely and wanted something to occupy my mind. I realise it is foolish to raise up the ghosts of the dead past, but for a long time I have wanted to recall everything and get the proper perspective of these extraordinary days. Having taken that first step in wrong-doing was it by chance only that I was saved from continuing upon my downward course? Shall I ever know?
To-morrow I shall read right through this manuscript and make up my mind what to do with it. I must be careful, for it would be as deadly as a bomb if it fell into unfriendly hands.
WELL, I have read it, and in ten minutes I shall consign it to the flames. Everything I have written is true and I have bared my soul to myself. One thing, moreover, amuses me.
I wrote in the beginning that primeval forces are strong in every one of us and that I should like to murder a certain man. Strangely enough, that very man has just rung me up asking me if I will dine at his house the day after to-morrow. For political reasons I have thought it expedient to accept and so, in a few hours from now, I shall be sitting at his table, eating his food and drinking his wine. That is the way of the world, deception and hypocrisy running like a scarlet thread through all our lives. How seldom do we dare to be our own true selves?
SIR ROGER HAKE, Member of Parliament for the Saffron Walden Division of Essex was a self-made man and very proud of it. Of humble origin, his father had been a coal-miner and his mother a domestic servant; he had worked his way up from an errand-boy at eight shillings a week when fourteen years of age to be, at forty-five, the sole proprietor of a hundred and more shops known from Glasgow to Penzance as Hake's Chain Stores.
A man of considerable wealth, it was his favourite saying that he should be a happy one, too, because money would buy everything. And certainly it seemed to be so in his case. He had a town house in Berkeley Square, a large and historic estate, which he had renamed Hake Court, near Saffron Walden, he owned Wonder Boy, by far the best two-year-old in training, and, to many people, above all he had married the lovely Mary Hellister, more than twenty-five years his junior.
He was a fine, well-set-up man and undeniably handsome, in a bold, coarse way. He had a big head, big fearless bull-like eyes and big bushy eyebrows. In his strength and courage he was just typical of that predatory Britisher of centuries ago, who had wakened up half an hour before anybody else, and grabbed most of those parts of the world which were worth having.
Of an over-bearing and masterful disposition and subject occasionally to most violent outbursts of temper, he had bullied his way to success, trampling over all who barred his way without the slightest pity, conscience or remorse. He had known what he wanted and he had generally managed to get it.
He had engaged the butler who was now with him, and whose third year of service had nearly run to its end, in a way which was all his own and betrayed the true Hake touch.
"'Ow much have you been gettin'?" he snarled at their first interview. "Two pounds! Well, I'll give you seventy bob, but mind"—and his fierce eyes glared—"I'm buying you for that. Understand? What I tell you to do comes before everything, and you're to see nothing and hear nothing that I don't want you to. You're to keep your mouth shut like a trap. All right, then, you can start straightaway." He nodded menacingly. "Now, don't you forget what I've told you. I never tell anybody twice. You keep your mouth shut. That's the main thing."
And certainly Huntley, the butler, a refined-looking man of polished manners, had seen much during his stay with Sir Roger about which it was so obviously expedient to know and say nothing.
His master had a great fondness for a pretty face, no matter in what walk it was to be found, and if its owner could be tempted sufficiently then the face was bought. No woman, however, reigned long in Sir Roger's life, one succeeding another in quick succession. Apparently it was the acquisition which so appealed to the knight, for once the victory was won or purchased he soon tired. From time to time he had trouble, too, with boy-friends, fathers, and even husbands, but the all-conquering cheque-book generally seemed to have put things right, quickly.
An unpleasant man, Sir Roger, with the weaknesses that so often accompany great strength of character!
With a man of such temperament and inclination, as can be easily imagined, Lady Hake did not have a very happy life. From the very beginning it would never have been imagined by anyone who knew her that her marriage to the knight had been the outcome of any affection for him. Certainly, he himself, at the moment, had been consumed with a most devouring passion for his young bride, but there had been no love or passion on her side, and he had just bought her as he had bought everything else he wanted.
Her father, a hard-up captain on retired pay, had sold her for the three hundred pounds annuity Sir Roger had settled on him. It had been a callous and shameful transaction, on both the parents' part, and Mary, a gentle, clinging girl, had not then developed enough strength of character to refuse to be a party to the transaction.
Of course she had, no doubt, been dazzled in a way by the prospect of being Lady Hake, and very fond of her parents, had been thankful that her father's debts would be paid and he and her mother comfortably settled for life. So, after some persuasion, she had allowed Sir Roger to slip the heavily bediamonded ring upon her finger, and had resigned herself to his ardent caresses.
The wedding had been celebrated with great pomp at St. George's, Hanover Square, and she had had an expensive but unhappy honeymoon in the South of France, to return home very glad that the holiday was over, as the nervous chatelaine of Hake Court and the ornate mansion in Berkeley Square.
As she had expected, her life was not a happy one. Apart from having no love for her husband, she soon ceased to have even any gratitude or respect for him. He had tired of her quickly, and before a year had passed had lost most of his interest in her. Her coldness infuriated him, and he started sneering at her people, referring to her parents as paupers living upon his charity. More than that, she knew—he hardly made any secret of it—she was by no means the only woman in his life now, and that most people were quite aware of it, too. So she had begun to hate him and was always terrified she might one day bear him a child, the heir, as he had put it in his occasional jocular moments, to his 'spot of cash.'
So things were when, one evening towards the end of June, Sir Roger was giving a small dinner-party, to be followed later by some bridge. The knight was a great gambler and, lucky as well as shrewd, he would sometimes boast that his winnings at cards formed no small part of his income.
As a Member of Parliament, for political reasons he was obliged to entertain lavishly, but this particular party was one a little out of the ordinary, and where he knew he would be able to play for high points. Apart from Lady Hake, there would be only men present at the dinner and again, only those, too, who, as Sir Roger grinned, could afford 'to drop a bit.'
All the invited guests, save one, had residences in his constituency, but, although they were his staunch political supporters, he did not care much for them. As a matter of fact, they none of them cared much for him, either. Still, another general election was shortly coming on and they were quite aware he was about the only man who could retain the seat for their party. Splashing a lot of money about upon charities and institutions, and subscribing to everything he was asked to, he was the ideal member for a proverbially shaky seat.
When, however, the guests took their seats at the dinner table that evening, they were not all the ones he had originally intended, for that very afternoon one of those he had invited had 'phoned up to say he was not feeling well enough to come. So, to fill the vacancy, to make up the required number for the two tables of bridge, Sir Roger had had to rope in his private secretary, Avon Harland, a young fellow of twenty-two and who had only been with him for about six months. Sir Roger was very annoyed at having to ask him to play because it was a rule of life with him never to be over-friendly with those he employed. Still, upon this occasion, he realised there was no help for it.
"And see here, Harland," he explained frowningly, "we shall be playing for much higher points than you can afford. So I'll be responsible for both your winnings and your losings. Understand, I'll hand over one hundred pounds to you and what you lose won't cost you anything, and what you win you will pay over to me."
From his expression, the secretary did not seem to like altogether the arrangement, but good jobs were hard to get and the salary of three hundred pounds a year would be difficult to pick up anywhere else. So he acquiesced with a frown.
The guests arrived at the time appointed, half-past seven, but the knight was by no means in the best of tempers during the meal which followed, and accordingly vented his ill-humour upon the weakest person present, his wife. He was cold and frowning to her, and once made her blush with shame by remarking generally upon the way everyone tried to sponge upon him because he'd made a bit of money. He added sneeringly that he was now expected to keep every one of 'his damned relations.' No one commented upon this remark and the subject dropped. Everyone, however, knew quite well that he was referring particularly to his wife's parents, as the story of the marriage was well known.
The meal over, Sir Roger conducted his guests to the library, and they all took their seats for the bridge. It would be well at this stage to enumerate who the six guests were.
Commander Vanraven was a typical naval man, bronzed and with deep blue eyes. He had a merry, happy-looking face, but his firm lips and square jaw would have warned anyone it would be dangerous to play any tricks upon him. He was just over thirty years of age.
Byles Chater was a well-known King's Counsel. In the early 'forties, his was the type of face so common to many great advocates. Lean, clean-shaven and with large brooding eyes, his mouth was wide and his lips were kept pressed tightly together. Of decisive speech, he was cynical in his outlook upon life.
Dr. King-Harley was an eminent specialist in diseases of the mind, and it was said laughingly that he regarded everyone as more or less insane. His expression was thoughtful and rather stern, but those who knew him best held him to be one of the kindest and most sympathetic of men.
Then there was Hector Norton whose property adjoined Hake Court, and whose herd of Jersey cows was one of the finest in the land. He was the envy of all other breeders, generally sweeping up, as he did, all the most valuable prizes, north, south, east and west in all the English shires. He was said to be making a fortune from the sales of his stud bulls.
The fifth of the players was Paxton-Smith, the newspaper proprietor who had hacked his way to fortune with the same force and energy as had done his host, but in a far nicer way and with consideration for all he had had dealings with.
Last of them all was Martin Leeder, one of the best known of the Newmarket trainers. He was a man of good reputation and respected by all who knew him. It was said he had been most fortunate a little while previously when one of his own horses had won the City and Suburban handicap. He had backed it heavily and at prices starting at fifty to one.
The play started, they were all keen players and the points being shilling ones, an intense silence filled the room. The night was hot and oppressive. All the curtains were drawn and the windows were wide open. Two electric fans seemed to do little to cool the air.
About eleven o'clock there was a sharp shower of rain, but it was too short to bring any cooling down with it. The play went on for about half an hour and then came a most vivid flash of lightning, followed almost instantaneously by a tremendous peal of thunder, which seemed to rock the very foundations of the house. All the lights went out and the room was plunged into pitch darkness. The rain now poured down heavily.
"Keep your seats," called out Sir Roger. "The lights will come on again in a few seconds. We often get this trick played upon us here."
But a couple of minutes or so passing and the lights not coming on, Sir Roger swore angrily. "Why the hell Huntley doesn't come in with candles I don't know," he called out. "Perhaps it's only one of our fuses which has gone. I've got an electric torch in my study and I'll get it and see."
His study was the room adjoining the library and there was a door in the library leading into it. He lit a match to enable him to pick his way across the room, and disappeared. The others sat on in the darkness with peal after peal of thunder following. Some minutes went by and then, suddenly, the lights went up again.
AT two minutes after midnight the Saffron Walden police station was rung up and the sergeant in charge galvanised into a fierce excitement by the message the constable who had answered the 'phone brought to him.
"God!" he exclaimed hoarsely. "What do you say? Sir Roger Hake's been shot and it looks like murder!"
The constable jerked his thumb behind him. "Man at the other end says so. He's still there."
Sergeant Houseman darted to the 'phone. "The sergeant here! Repeat what you said—Oh, oh!—Who is speaking? Doctor King-Harley!—Are you sure he's quite dead?—Where are you speaking from?—And there's no sign of the party who killed him?—Well, don't touch a single thing!—Leave everything exactly as it is and don't let anyone leave the house!—You understand?—All right, then!—We'll be up as quickly as possible!"
Hake Court was nearly three miles out of Saffron Walden but very soon two police cars had arrived at the lodge-gates, bringing with them the Superintendent of the Saffron Walden police, the police surgeon and police photographer and two plain-clothes detectives. The lodge-keeper, a morose and surly-looking man, was waiting just inside the drive, ready to unlock the gates.
"How long have these gates been locked?" asked the Superintendent sharply.
"Since about half-past nine," grunted the gate-keeper. "They're always locked as soon as it begins to get dark."
"What for?" jerked out the Superintendent. "This is a new idea, isn't it? I've not heard of it being done here before."
"We've done it ever since we've had the dogs," said the man. "The dogs are let loose at dusk and they go about the grounds all night. There they are!"
Three huge dogs had loomed out of the darkness on to the drive in front of the cars, and brought themselves to a standstill. They looked savage creatures, with their big massive jaws and big eyes.
"Great Scott!" exclaimed the police surgeon who was new to the district. "What has he kept them for? They're Livonian wolf-hounds, and as dangerous as hell."
"Only to those they don't know," said the lodge-keeper. "He kept them because he was assaulted by two strangers, one night in the grounds."
"It wasn't reported," commented the Superintendent sharply. "We heard nothing about it."
"No," said the man, "Master dealt with them himself." He nodded. "Master thought they had been punished enough. They had to be helped to get back to their car."
"Drive on," said the Superintendent to his driver, and he added in a frowning aside to the surgeon. "Sir Roger made a lot of enemies. He was too fond of the other sex and thought he could pick where he chose. He wasn't popular with everyone."
Arriving at the Court, the police-party were taken at once to the study where the dead man was lying outstretched upon the carpet. He was upon his side, with his head surrounded in a little pool of congealed blood. There was a bullet-hole in the right temple. The police surgeon said he would have died instantaneously and that in his opinion death had taken place just over an hour previously.
Dr. King-Harley, who alone of the card-players had accompanied the police into the study, quickly put the Superintendent in possession of all the salient facts as far as they, the card-party, were concerned.
He said they had been playing uninterruptedly until, it was computed, about half-past eleven. Then the lights had failed suddenly, following upon a loud burst of thunder. Waiting a couple of minutes or so to see if the lights would go up again and nothing happening, Sir Roger had left the room, as he had stated, to get his electric torch from his study and find out if the fuse had gone in the hall.
That was the last any of his guests had seen of him alive. The lights had gone up again in a few minutes and they had sat chatting together, awaiting his return to resume the play. A quarter of an hour or so had passed and then they had begun to get impatient, particularly so Commander Vanraven who said he had to be on the golf-course for some important match at nine the next morning. At last the Commander had rung the bell and the butler appearing, he had been asked if he knew where his master was.
Shaking his head, the man had appeared most surprised and had started at once to look for Sir Roger. Proceeding into the study, the first place he had thought of, he had switched on the lights and then shouted instantly for the others to come to him. Running in, they had seen Sir Roger lying exactly as he was now, prone upon the carpet and with his head in a pool of blood and the bullet-wound in his forehead.
Dr. King-Harley continued that no weapon had been seen lying about and no one had heard a cry or a report of any rifle or pistol, but that could be understood in view of the noise of the thunder-claps which had followed upon Sir Roger's departure. He, the doctor, had gone up to Lady Hake and broken the news to her. She had put on some clothes and was now waiting in the drawing-room. She had not been allowed in to see the body.
The Superintendent was a man of quick decisions and, after some whispered orders to his subordinates, a few words with Lady Hake and a couple of minutes' conversation over the telephone, he went into the library where the guests of the evening were still waiting anxiously for permission to leave for their homes.
"I'm sorry," he announced curtly, "but none of you can go away to-night. I have communicated with Scotland Yard and officers from there will arrive within a few hours to question you all. Until then Lady Hake says she can provide you with sleeping accommodation. But one thing first, please. Before you leave this room I shall want to search you all."
From dismay at learning they were not going to be allowed to return home, the expressions upon the faces of those present turned to annoyance.
"What!" exclaimed Commander Vanraven, voicing the opinions of the others, "then do you think any of us had a hand in his death?"
"I don't think anything," snapped the Superintendent. "It's my business to deal only with facts," and he eyed them very grimly, "and fact number one is that Sir Roger was shot by someone inside the house. There is no doubt about that."
"Good God! man, have you no imagination?" scoffed Byles Chater. "Isn't it almost certain he was shot by someone firing through the open window?"
"No, it isn't," snapped the Superintendent. "The certainty is in quite another direction. He was shot by someone standing well inside the room." He smiled coldly. "I smelt cordite directly I went in there. I happen to be a non-smoker and my sense of smell is very keen."
"But couldn't whoever he was have leant over the windowsill when he fired?" asked the gaunt K.C. sarcastically, almost as if he were prompting a little child.
"Well, he didn't," retorted the Superintendent, "or he'd have left his footmarks on the flower-bed under the window." He smiled his cold smile again. "We police think of things, just the same as you outside people do." He looked very stern. "No, this killing was done either by one of you seven gentlemen here, the butler, one of the eight maid-servants or by Lady Hake herself."
"Good God!" exclaimed Byles Chater again, and with his face in obvious distress now, "leave Lady Hake out of it, if you please."
"I leave out nobody," said the Superintendent. "It's my job to suspect everyone until the guilty party is found." He spoke in most business-like tones. "Now, I'll first take all your names and addresses, and then it will be pleasanter for everyone if you make no fuss and let one of my men and me just give you a quick once-over. Of course, I don't expect to find any of you with a pistol on you now."
Shortly after, they were told they could go to bed and young Harland showed them the rooms which had been assigned to them. Late as it was then, however, they did not part at once, but stayed talking until nearly another hour had passed.
It had been arranged they should be down for breakfast the next morning at half-past eight, and anxious to get things over and leave the Court as soon as possible, all were punctual to the meal. The butler waited upon them and gave them all the news. Certainly, some of it was very startling.
Directly it had become light Sir Roger's own pistol had been seen lying in full view upon the lawn in front of the study window and there was no doubt it was the weapon with which he had been shot! The police had been watching in the Court all night to make certain no one should leave! Two of the Big Four of Scotland Yard, Inspectors Stone and Gilbert Larose, had just arrived and were to take charge of the investigation! The failure of the electric light had been general over the district and had lasted exactly six minutes!
"And when do you think, Chater," asked Commander Vanraven when the butler had left the room, "we shall be allowed to go?"
The K.C. looked gloomy. "Certainly not before the afternoon, and perhaps, not until the evening," he replied. "These two men are very thorough. I've seen them in several cases."
There was a knock upon the door and a big, stout man, with a pleasant smiling face entered the room. He closed the door carefully behind him.
"Pardon my disturbing you, gentlemen," he said, "but I should like to make myself known to you now you are all together. I am Inspector Stone from Scotland Yard and, together with my colleague, Inspector Larose, shall be shortly having a little talk with all of you individually." He looked round, and his glance lingered on the King's Counsel. "Good morning, Mr. Chater," he smiled. "So the tables are going to be turned in a few minutes, sir, and instead of you asking me questions, I shall be questioning you."
"Quite all right, inspector?" smiled back Byles Chater. "I shall be ready to help you all I can."
"That's the spirit," nodded Stone. His eyes took in everyone there. "And I am sure all of you will be anxious to do the same." He spoke very sternly. "You must understand, gentlemen, that you are all under suspicion, very grave suspicion, for already we are certain that the dreadful crime was committed by someone inside the house. We have not the slightest doubt about it."
"But even if that is the case, Inspector," asked Dr. King-Harley, "how can you be so certain Sir Roger was killed by one of us or one of the servants?"
"Or by Lady Hake or Mr. Harland," supplemented the inspector solemnly. His tones were grave and heavy. "Because, sir, no one left the house after the murder had been committed. There are no strange footmarks anywhere on the sodden ground around the house. Besides, those fierce dogs would have seen to it if any stranger had been about in the grounds." He shook his head. "No, I regret to say, gentlemen, that the murderer will be found either among you six here, the secretary, the butler, Lady Hake or the six maid-servants. Unhappily, there is no getting away from it."
"Well, leave his widow out of it," scowled Commander Vanraven. "She's only a child."
"Of course," agreed the inspector instantly, as he rose up to go, "and so we're leaving her until the last, hoping it may not be necessary to question her at all. We'll be taking the butler first."
The enquiry was being held in the library, at the end away from where the card-tables had been set out the previous evening. Nothing in the room had been interfered with and it was exactly as it had been when the card-players had left it to go to bed. Superintendent Roberts and the inspectors sat behind a small table, with Inspector Stone presiding. Gilbert Larose, the international detective, was just then at the very height of his reputation, it being only a few months before, as the husband of Lady Ardane, he was to retire altogether from the Criminal Investigation Department.
The butler came in looking rather nervous, but Inspector Stone at once helped to put him at his ease.
"Look here, Huntley," he began, "if you didn't kill your master, you've no need to worry at all. We're not very formidable and all we want is to get at the truth. So all you've got to do is to answer truthfully all the questions I am going to put to you. Now, I understand you've been here nearly three years. Was Sir Roger a good master to you?"
The butler evaded the question. "He paid me well, sir. I've been getting seventy shillings a week."
Stone frowned. "Seventy shillings a week!" he exclaimed. "That's a lot. Then you were more than an ordinary butler to him!"
Huntley shook his head. "No, sir, I wasn't. My duties were just the ordinary ones, but I was paid so well so that I should be very careful to do nothing that would ever cause me to lose my situation."
"Which means?" demanded Stone sharply.
Huntley coughed. "That I was never to talk about Sir Roger's private affairs, sir. I was to keep my mouth shut, the master ordered me. He said he was buying me."
Stone looked round at his colleague and then back at the butler. "Hush-money!" he exclaimed. "Then what was going on?"
"Oh, nothing sir! Nothing very important! Only, for one thing, I was never to mention the visitors who called."
The stout inspector glared. "Visitors! Do you mean women ones?"
Huntley nodded. "Yes, sir." He coughed again. "The master was fond of the ladies and he knew quite a number of different ones. He used to bring them home, particularly in Berkeley Square, for champagne and sandwiches quite late at night."
"Did her ladyship know?" snapped Stone.
The butler spoke quickly. "I hope not, sir, but I can't say. Her ladyship is very quiet and retires early and both the Court here and number seven Berkeley Square are very large houses. What goes on in one part is not necessarily known in another."
"Who were these women?" asked Stone. "Tell us their names."
"I don't know them, sir. The ones who came at night I often didn't even see. I only heard them laughing, and smelt the perfume they had on them, after they had gone."
"But didn't Sir Roger send you off to bed when he had these visitors? He wouldn't have wanted you about."
"But he did, sir. I was never allowed to go to bed until after he had gone, however late it was. You see, sir, Master was very peculiar in some ways. For one thing he was very afraid of fire, because I've heard tell some fortune-teller once told him he'd one day be burnt to death. So he was terribly afraid that when he was lively——"
"When he was drunk, you mean?" asked Stone.
"No, sir, he was never drunk. But when he'd had plenty he became careless and would then throw matches about, or leave the fire dangerous or the geyser still alight in the bathroom. So, I had to be always about."
Stone considered. "But you haven't answered my first question yet. Was he a good master?"
The butler hesitated, as if he were unwilling but not unable to answer the question. Then he took the plunge boldly and emphatically, with obvious bitterness in his tones. "No, sir, he was not. His temper was very uncertain and he mostly spoke to me as if he were speaking to a dog. He was not a pleasant gentleman to work for."
Stone lifted his eyebrows. "And yet you've remained with him for three years."
The butler gave a wan smile. "With the seventy shillings a week, sir. That's what kept me here." He nodded. "Besides, sometimes the tips are good. The gentlemen at the parties are often generous."
Larose interjected a question here. "Then you are not sorry he's dead?" he asked sharply.
"Oh, but I am, sir! I mayn't get such a good place again. Except for the late hours, the work is light. I have two parlourmaids under me."
Stone looked down at the paper upon the table. "Well, now coming to last night. Give us your version of everything."
"I have not much to tell you, sir, beyond what you already know. It was Master's invariable rule that I should never come into any room where he was unless I was sent for, so I was sitting where I always sit at night when there is any company here, in that little room just off the hall and near the front door, when the library bell rang. I was reading a newspaper, and happening to glance at the clock as I got up, I saw it was about three minutes to twelve. I went into the library where all the gentlemen were and Mr. Chater asked me if——"
"One moment," interrupted Stone, "we're getting on too quickly. Where were you when the lights failed?"
"Oh, in the same place, in that little room, sir, and it was most unfortunate as I found I had got no matches on me. So, I had to feel my way into the kitchen and then I couldn't lay my hands upon a box, anywhere. I was in a great flurry, expecting to hear Master shouting for me any moment. I was upset, too, because I don't like thunderstorms as I am always so afraid the house may be struck. There are iron deposits in the earth not very far from here and with that and the big trees surrounding the Court I am always expecting——"
"Never mind about the trees," interrupted Stone testily. "We want to know where you were all that time when the house was in darkness."
The butler had a pained expression upon his face. "I was telling you, sir. I was looking for some matches and I couldn't find any anywhere. I tried the kitchen, the scullery and my pantry, feeling about all the time because the whole house was inky black and——"
"But hadn't you got a torch?" snapped Stone.
"Yes, sir, and I crawled up to my bedroom to get it, but things were most unfortunate there, too. Emma, one of the housemaids, had turned out my room that morning, and she had not put back the torch where I usually keep it. It took me a long while to grope for it and then, just as I found it, the lights went up again."
"How do you know they went up just then?" asked Stone.
"Because from the window of my room, sir, I suddenly saw two broad beams of light shine up over the lawn. They were from the library windows."
"And you mean to tell us," asked Stone, "that the whole of the time the house was in darkness, exactly six minutes we are told, you were looking for matches or your torch."
The butler's reply was very firm. "Yes, sir, I was. The time, too, seemed longer than six minutes to me. I should have said it was nearer ten."
"And you never went near the library when the lights did go up?" asked Stone incredulously. "Why was that?"
"Master was a hasty man, sir, and he might have been furious with me. I was glad he was having time to calm down."
"Go on," said Stone. "You had come to where Mr. Chater asked you where Sir Roger was."
"I told him I didn't know but would go and look and I crossed the library to go into Master's study, as the first place where I thought he might be."
"Was the door between the two rooms shut?"
"No, sir, but it was pushed close to. The room was in darkness, and I felt for the switch and——"
"But good heavens, man," broke in Stone impatiently, "if you found the room all dark why should you have imagined your master would be there?" He spoke very sternly. "Come, come, that wants some explanation."
The butler looked him unflinchingly in the face. "Sir," he said slowly, "Lord Leighton, my master before Sir Roger, and I was with him eight years, died suddenly in an apoplectic fit. He was just such a man as Sir Roger, ruddy-faced and in perfect health up to the very minute of his death. I found him dead in his armchair one evening, hot and sultry such as was last night." The man spoke very solemnly. "That is why, sir, I looked for my master in the unlighted room. I was always thinking he might die one day in a fit of temper."
Stone altered his line of questioning. "Now about this pistol he was shot with. You knew he'd got it?"
"Oh, yes, sir, everyone did. It was kept openly in one of the pigeon-holes of his desk."
"How long's he had it?"
"Since last April, sir, after two men had attacked him one night in the grounds. He beat them off but he bought the pistol the next day. No, sir, we none of us know who the men were. We all think it was a private quarrel and I, myself, believe it had to do with a lady, because when he came indoors after the fight I heard him mutter something about a little trollop. He often muttered to himself when he was very put out."
Stone frowned thoughtfully. "Now about these gentlemen at the card-party. You know them all? They have been here often before? They were real friends of his?"
The butler hesitated. "Well, sir, speaking frankly now he's dead, I don't think he had any real friends. He wasn't a man whom most people liked. Still, it suited many to keep in with him either for political or business reasons. For instance, Mr. Chater's brother was his solicitor and must have had hundreds of pounds out of him in the course of the year. Then Mr. Martin Leeder trained his horses for him, and Mr. Paxton-Smith and Commander Vanraven supported him politically, to keep the Saffron Walden seat for the Conservative Party. Mr. Norton kept in with him because he got a bit of help from him for the Saffron Walden Hospital where Mr. Norton is the chairman of the Board of Management. So you see it was like that; they had an axe to grind by keeping friendly with him."
"But whom of the lot would you say he knew best?"
"Well, perhaps Mr. Norton," replied the butler. "His estate adjoins ours and is less than a mile away." He smiled. "Mrs. Norton is a very beautiful lady, and Sir Roger has been greatly taken with her. They're both great rose-growers and the master has often been over lately to look at her flowers." His smile broadened. "Of course, people have been talking, but I should think Mrs. Norton could take care of herself."
"Now another thing, Huntley," said Stone. "With all this unfaithfulness on his part, upon what terms was Sir Roger with his wife?"
The butler hesitated. "Well," he said slowly, "I don't think he ever struck her, but short of that he wasn't a good husband."
"Great Scott!" exclaimed Stone. "Then did they quarrel?"
"No, no," said Huntley quickly, "her ladyship's not a quarrelling sort. I mean he wasn't kind to her. Like me, she got all his bad temper. Even if he wasn't in a bad temper, he often didn't take any notice of her for days on end together. Then, some nights after dinner he'd talk to her quite a lot, especially after he'd had champagne. It was a week of neglect and then, perhaps, a day or a couple of days of being kind to her."
"Did they occupy separate bedrooms?"
"Oh, yes, he started that a few months after they had been married. He'd soon taken to being away quite a lot. He said it was on business."
"But you don't think it always was?" queried Stone.
The butler shrugged his shoulders. "Well, it included a lot of week-ends, anyhow."
Stone frowned. "And her ladyship, did she have many visitors?"
"No, her own people were never invited to the house and she spent her time mostly with her painting. She's a very quiet and gentle lady."
A short silence followed and then Stone said sharply, "Well, Huntley, you're an intelligent man, and so in your own mind, you must have formed some opinion as to who killed your master. Whatever you say will be treated with confidence." He regarded him intently. "Now who do you think fired that shot?"
The butler shook his head. "I can think of no one, sir. I know I didn't do it, Mistress is incapable of it and certainly no one among the gentlemen could have done it without the others knowing." He nodded. "If it were possible I should have said he shot himself accidentally. He was very careless about the safety-catch of that pistol and several times I've found it raised. Once he even passed it over to me to clean, with the catch up and the magazine half loaded. When I pointed it out to him, he told me I was a fussing fool."
Inspector Larose now took his turn at the questioning. "I'd like to put something to you, Mr. Huntley," he said most politely. "Now I've just had a look round the rooms on the ground-floor here and I notice there is a mixture of the old and new. For instance, in the kitchen you have a modern electric cooker and yet a very ancient looking kitchen range with that big hook hanging down in front. Surely you don't ever use the old-fashioned turning-spit?"
"But we do," nodded the butler. "Master had all the joints cooked that way to keep in the flavour of the meat."
"Very wasteful in the way of coal, wasn't it?" asked Larose.
"In both coal and coke," agreed Huntley. "To roast with the spit required a big fire and it made the kitchen unpleasantly hot in warm weather."
"And you had a joint roasted last night, of course," queried Larose.
"Yes, saddle of mutton, sir. A large one!"
"And dinner started what time?"
"A quarter to eight. We always have it at that time."
"And that being so, Mr. Huntley," went on Larose, and he spoke much more sharply now, "with the large fire which you say was always necessary for roasting when the spit was used, wouldn't some of its embers have been still alight when, as you tell us, you groped your way into the kitchen to feel for matches? Wouldn't the kitchen have not been completely dark and couldn't you, at any rate, have lit a piece of paper at the fire?" His voice rose. "Answer me quickly, please."
But the butler did not answer quickly. His face went a dusky red and he took quite an appreciable time before he replied huskily. "It was quite dark, sir, as I have told you, and there wasn't even a glimmer of light." He spoke reproachfully. "Do you think I would lie to you, sir?"
Larose was all politeness again. "Not necessarily," he said. He smiled. "I was only curious. That's all."
Stone asked a few more questions and then the butler was dismissed, with the intimation that he was to ask Mr. Harland to come in when he heard the bell ring, which would be in a minute or two.
Then Stone turned to the others. "Well, what do you think of him?" he asked. "What's the verdict?"
"He was lieing about looking so long for those matches," replied Larose, "and you see when we come to question the cook we shall find out he's been prompting her what to say."
"Then should we have the cook in at once, before he's had the opportunity to speak to her?" asked Stone.
Larose shook his head. "It wouldn't help us. It wouldn't clear up what he'd really been doing. No, let him warn the cook. It will confirm our suspicions of him." He nodded. "It is quite possible he shot his master, but we shall have great difficulty in proving it. He is a clever man."
"One thing," commented Stone. "It's quite plain he hated his master and there may turn out to be a much deeper reason than for the way he says he was always treated by him."
Avon Harland, the youthful-looking secretary, came in looking very calm and collected. Well below medium height, he was on the small side and of slight physique, but he was decidedly good looking, with an aristocratic and refined appearance. He held himself erect.
He said he had been Sir Roger's secretary for nearly six months. He did not complain of him as an employer, although his manner was by nature a very discourteous one. They had not been in any way friends, their relations being strictly business ones. He had his own two rooms and an office at the Court, and was Sir Roger's agent as well as secretary. Sir Roger owned considerable property in the neighbourhood, and there were always a lot of things to look after. He had occasionally had lunch with Sir Roger, but then it had only been when the latter had been pressed for time and wanted to discuss business with him. The previous night was the first time upon which he had had dinner with him, and he had only been present then because one of the invited guests having defaulted at the last moment, he had been roped in to make up the eight players at bridge.
He then gave his version of the happenings in the card-room, which tallied exactly with that given by Dr. King-Harley to the Superintendent of the Saffron Walden police. Stone asked him to indicate which chair he had been occupying when the lights went out and he told him. It was the one nearest to the door leading out into the lounge hall and farthest away from that leading into the dead man's study.
"And are the card-tables and chairs exactly as they were last night when you were playing?" asked Stone.
Harland regarded them carefully and nodded. "Yes, and the packs of cards are exactly as they were then, too," he said. "I was just about to deal."
Stone spoke in brisk and business-like tones. "Well, Mr. Harland, as I have told the others, unhappily there cannot be the slightest doubt Sir Roger met his death at the hands of someone inside this house, and I am sure you must share that opinion, too." He raised his hand to emphasize the seriousness of his question. "Now can you swear none of you gentlemen left this room when it was in darkness last night?"
"We are all positive of it," replied Harland firmly. "We were all in our proper places at the card-tables when the lights came on again, all in the same places we had been occupying before they went out."
"But one of you might have been out and come back," suggested Stone.
"How could he have done it?" asked Harland sharply. "Even if he had managed to slip away unnoticed, in the darkness, which I doubt, how on earth could he have crawled back and found his own chair again without disturbing anyone? Remember it was black as ink here."
"And, of course, you all talked together as you sat in the darkness?" was Stone's next question.
"Certainly, we did, and, discussing things afterwards, we are sure that everyone of us joined in the conversation."
"And I take it," went on Stone, "that everything had been just ordinary and uneventful at the card-tables until the lights went out. I mean there had been no quarrel or dispute of any kind about the play."
Harland shook his head. "None whatever. Everything was just as ordinary and quiet as it could be."
"You all came into the room, you played those hands of bridge and none of you left the room?" Harland nodded and Stone went on, "And about the other players, had you met them all before?"
"No, only one of them, Mr. Norton, and I had become acquainted with him because of some business connected with the estate."
"Then you have formed no opinion of their characters?"
Harland smiled. "Not sufficiently to determine whether any among them would be a murderer."
Stone spoke sharply. "Now, I won't beat about the bush, Mr. Harland, but having been associated for six months with Sir Roger you must have formed some idea as to what his character was. Of course, you have! Well, whatever his business abilities, he wasn't a nice man in private, was he? To put it plainly, he didn't make a good husband for a young girl like Lady Hake, now did he?"
Harland's face hardened. "No, it is common property he did not."
"And you can no doubt supplement what the public know by what you have yourself observed in private since you came here."
Harland was silent, and Stone went on persuasively, "Come, come, Mr. Harland, you had better tell us. We are bound to learn all about it in the end, but we shall be better able to determine its value coming from you, an educated man, than from the tittle-tattle of the servants. Now Sir Roger was interested in many women, wasn't he?"
The secretary spoke bitterly. "He was a satyr, a beast, and the pursuit of women was a mania with him. He carried on with them here and in town, and I am certain that's what he kept a secret cottage on the coast in Essex for. I wonder someone hasn't shot him long ago."
Stone spoke very thoughtfully. "Then you think he was killed out of revenge, do you?" He shook his head. "But everything points to the crime having been committed by someone in the house!"
"And that most probably was so," snapped Harland, he nodded significantly, "by someone who was in hiding in the Court." He spoke quickly. "Looking back, in my opinion the mistake was that the house wasn't searched at once. We were all too ready to accept the idea that he was killed by someone who was actually living here."
Stone's eyes opened very wide. "That's a funny idea, isn't it?" he asked.
"Not so funny as it seems when you consider it," said Harland. "This house is old and rambling and covers a lot of ground, the front door is always kept open during the day, and there would be plenty of places to hide, once anyone got in. As for getting away again, the dogs were chained up before six this morning and there are several places where it would be quite easy to climb over the wall. I've heard the village boys do it often enough to come after the fruit."
A short silence followed and then Stone asked, "And what about this secret cottage, where is it, and what do you mean by calling it secret?"
"It's near the little village of Bradwell, and on the estuary of the River Blackwater, and I call it secret because he'd bought it, or was leasing it, under another name. He's known as William Hale down there, and I believe that's where he's been going for many of those week-ends when he's supposed to have been up North."
"And how did you come to know about it?"
"Quite by accident. A receipt for Council Rates, paid in cash the previous Saturday, got mixed among some other papers he brought me one Monday, and when I handed it back to him, he seemed confused enough to make me curious. So the following Sunday, having nothing better to do, I went down that way on my motor-bicycle, and nearly ran into him. He was staying there with a companion, a young woman. I saw them both in the distance."
Stone made a gesture of disgust. "And do you think he managed to keep all these adventures from coming to the knowledge of Lady Hake?"
Harland's face at once took on a wooden expression. "I should hardly think so, but I really can't tell you. I have been brought in contact very little with Lady Hake, but from what I have seen of her, I am sure she would prefer to hide her troubles from everyone. She is of a reserved and proud disposition."
After the secretary had left the room, several minutes elapsed before the bell was rung again. The three men considered what he had said.
"Think anything of that idea that some stranger was hiding in the house?" Stone asked the Superintendent.
The latter looked uneasy. "Don't know what to say," he frowned. "Of course, it is easy to see now it would have been just as well to search the house, but"—he shrugged his shoulders—"with so many possible suspects, as it were right under my very nose, I didn't dream of looking beyond them."
"A very honourable admission, sir," nodded Stone, "and your making it does you credit. Of course it is possible, although not in the slightest degree probable, that someone was hiding in the house. Myself, however, I think the idea quite fantastic." He turned to Larose. "Now, my son, what do you think of young Harland?"
"Only one comment at present," nodded Larose, "and that is why was he curious enough to track down Sir Roger to that lonely village on the Essex coast? That strikes me as peculiar, as he looks a gentlemanly man. I mean, in the ordinary way, I can't think of him troubling himself with any of Sir Roger's private affairs." He shook his head. "No, there's something there which would probably interest us if we found it out."
Dr. King-Harley was the next to be questioned, but all he added to what he had told the Superintendent the previous night was how he had broken the news to Lady Hake. Accompanied by the head-parlourmaid, he had gone up and knocked upon Lady Hake's bedroom door, and upon her opening it, had told her her husband had met with an accident.
"I had to start breaking it to her that way," he explained, "as it would have been too awful to tell her right out he had been murdered."
"Was she asleep when you knocked upon her door?" asked Stone.
"No, she was in the bathroom, fomenting her arm. She had been stung by a dragon-fly in the afternoon, and had worn a small bandage at dinner."
"How did she take it?"
"Very badly. She was terrified. I never saw anyone more frightened. She was prostrated at once, and I didn't feel it wise to allow her to be by herself for one moment afterwards. I made her have one of the maids with her all night."
Stone cleared his throat. "But was she—" he hesitated—"was she as devoted to her husband as all that?"
"It was not a question of devotion, at all," said the doctor sharply, "but the fact that a murder had been committed in the house. It was enough to terrify the strongest woman."
Stone spoke carelessly. "Still, would you say she was happy in her married life?" he asked.
The doctor elevated his eyebrows. "Well, would you say it after what the butler has just told you." He smiled a cold, grim smile. "Oh, yes, Huntley's been telling us he kept nothing back, and I think the man was glad to speak his mind. He must have detested his master."
Stone spoke very sternly. "But don't you realise Doctor King-Harley that in saying that you are suggesting that he is the murderer?"
"Not at all," scoffed the doctor. He looked amused. "Why, when he came into the library last night, in answer to our ring, I could smell he'd just had beer and cheese. And I ask you—would an ordinary man, whose trade was not murder go in for beer and cheese just after he'd made his first kill?"
Stone shook his head. "Human beings are strange creatures, Doctor, and you can never——"
"But good God, man!" exclaimed the doctor testily, "don't you know that minds are my speciality and I'm what they call 'a mad doctor'? Well, you've not a hope in the world of fixing that murder upon Huntley. I tell you that, I, who can sum up a man's mental equipment in half a split second. Bless my soul, until Huntley had switched up the study lights and seen his dead master lying there, he was the cool, unruffled gentleman's servant. Then—then he went all to pieces."
Stone seemed impressed by the doctor's earnestness. "Well, well, Doctor, we'll leave that for the moment. Now tell us, have you any suggestion to make, in strict confidence of course?"
The doctor shrugged his shoulders. "Only what we all think now, that someone who was hiding in the house shot him and got away this morning."
"Who first started that idea?" snapped Stone.
"I don't know. Oh, yes, I believe it was Mr. Norton. He brought it up at breakfast and"—the doctor laughed—"we all seized on to it like drowning men. We were relieved to have an explanation that would clear everybody in the house."
When the doctor had gone out, Larose remarked, "Certainly that butler may not have been the one to use that pistol, but I am still sure he was lieing to us about what he was doing during those six minutes the lights were out. If he'd been having his supper, as the doctor suggests, I'm certain he'd have mentioned it to us."
The King's Counsel came in next. He was sarcastic and cynical and added nothing to what the inspectors already knew. As for Sir Roger's private life, he said that, of course, there were lots of rumours about, but how many of them were true no one knew. Perhaps there were stories going round about himself. He had two pretty typists in his Chambers and had made them presents of flowers and chocolates and, occasionally, had taken them out to lunch. Who had committed the murder he couldn't hazard the faintest guess. If the butler had done it, then he was the most consummate actor he had ever seen.
"Now for this Mr. Norton," said Stone as he rang the bell again, "and we may get some meat there if we find Sir Roger had been carrying on with his wife."
The door opened and a pleasant-looking man in the middle 'thirties entered the room. Stone's eyebrows came together in a heavy frown. "But it was Mr. Norton we asked for and——"
"I am Mr. Norton," smiled the newcomer. "There is no mistake. You've got the right man."
Stone's face relaxed into a smile. "Well, your beard makes you look naval, sir, and I quite thought you were Commander Vanraven."
The inspector might easily have been forgiven for his mistake as Mr. Norton had all the appearance of a naval man. He was smart and alert in appearance, with his neatly trimmed beard, strongly suggestive of the bridge of a man-of-war. A puzzled expression came into Stone's face. "But haven't I seen you somewhere before?" he asked. "Your face seems vaguely familiar."
Mr. Norton laughed lightly. "Well, you saw me a little while back in the breakfast-room. I was with the others when you came in."
"Of course, of course," laughed back Stone, "I ought to have remembered that." His face sobered down. "Now, Mr. Norton, can you tell us anything to help us?"
But apparently Mr. Norton could not, and his testimony was exactly that of the others who had preceded him Then Stone asked, "You were a great friend of Sir Roger, were you not?"
"Not exactly a great friend," replied Mr. Norton, "but I knew him pretty well."
"And you liked him?" queried Stone.
The other smiled. "In parts." He explained. "You see, although, as we understand the butler has told you, one side of his nature was very detestable, still the other had many good points. He was most generous, for instance, in his charities, and helped the district a lot."
"So you put up with him," nodded Stone.
"Yes, we all did," nodded back Mr. Norton. He smiled. "We had to, if only for financial and political reasons. He was a good member for the division, in his way."
"But he wasn't liked among his own class?" suggested Stone.
"Not particularly. But then he was never a man's man. He was too masterful, too brusque and over-riding."
"But he was popular with the ladies?" went on Stone. "Did Mrs. Norton like him?"
"Y-es, in a way. She was proud that she thought she could always wheedle a bigger subscription out of him than anybody else could."
"Did he visit your home?"
"Good gracious, yes. It's barely a mile away from here. He was always popping over to compare his flowers with ours."
"Did he bring his wife with him?"
"Very seldom. Their marriage was a great mistake. She is gentle and refined and shrinking, and he was coarse and rough, and soon tired of anything he'd got."
Stone frowned. "You don't give him a good character, Mr. Norton, and yet you allowed him, as you say, to be 'always popping over.' Weren't you afraid of his annoying your wife?"
Mr. Norton seemed very amused. "So that's what you've been trying to get at, is it? Wondering if I were the jealous husband and had put that bullet in him!"
Stone got rather red and looked down his nose. "Not at all," he said. "I was only curious, that knowing him to be the man he was, why you allowed him to come to your house when you yourself were probably not always about."
Mr. Norton shook his head. "Oh, he always behaved quite properly when with my wife. He knew he had to there."
"And is your wife friendly with Lady Hake?" asked Stone.
"Not as friendly as she would like to be, but then they're both women of a reserved disposition and don't seem to want friends. Besides, Sir Roger purposely kept his wife in the background and we thought my wife trying to push herself in there would have made things harder for Lady Hake. I tell you, the man was of a peculiar temper."
Stone proceeded to question him about the happenings of the previous night but, as with all the others, was soon up against a stone wall. Next, Larose asked casually, "And what do you think, sir, about this idea of Mr. Chater's that someone who had been hiding in the Court killed Sir Roger?"
"It wasn't Mr. Chater's idea," protested Mr. Norton at once. "It was mine. I thought of it in the night." He nodded. "And I still think it the only possible explanation."
He left the room a few minutes later and Stone turned to the others. "Another shrewd one," he remarked with a deep sigh. "He came in all prepared with an answer to every question he thought we might put." He frowned. "Anything to say, Gilbert?"
"Only that perhaps you fell too easily for his explanation of where you'd seen him before," smiled Larose. "You golloped it down without an instant's thought and he seemed very pleased you did. He had one of his hands clenched when he first came in, but he unclenched it at once then and didn't clench it again."
"You're too subtle, Gilbert," frowned the inspector. "Your imagination's always running away with you." He turned to the Superintendent. "Know anything about this Norton, Mr. Houseman?"
The Superintendent smiled. "I should rather think I did. He's a Justice of the Peace here and I often see him on the Bench. He does a lot of public work, too, and is greatly respected. As for Mrs. Norton, as the butler said, she's a very beautiful woman, round about thirty, I should think."
Stone seemed disappointed and rang the bell for Martin Leeder to be brought in. The trainer told the same story as the others had done and the inspector was on the point of dismissing him when Superintendent Houseman exclaimed suddenly, "Oh, one moment if you please, Mr. Leeder! Now how long have you been training Sir Roger's horses? Oh, four years. Then tell us the true story of the shooting of Molly's Darling, the year before last."
The trainer frowned. "What's that to do with Sir Roger's death?" he asked.
The Superintendent could show himself just as important as the men from Scotland Yard, if need be, and perhaps, he was glad of the opportunity of doing so now. "That's what we want to find out," he said firmly. "I want to know the truth of that, and as Sir Roger's trainer, you can give it me. One moment, though." He turned to Inspector Stone. "In case you've not heard of it, the story is this, Inspector. Lord Barham had that wonderful little mare, Molly's Darling. Perhaps you remember her? A little bit of a thing, but she won lots of races and was a great favourite with the public. But Lord Barham died, and at the sale of his horses, Sir Roger bought the mare. Then one day he backed her to win a big packet at Sandown Park, but she was crushed with her heavy weight and just failed. She was taken back home to Mr. Leeder's stables and then, two days later, it was given out that she'd dropped dead at exercise. That was what the public was told, but I heard later"—the Superintendent spoke scowlingly—"that Sir Roger pistolled her in cold blood, out of spite." He turned to the trainer. "Now is that so, Mr. Leeder?"
The trainer looked him straight in the face. "I decline to say."
Inspector Stone spoke very sternly. "Come, come, Mr. Leeder, that's not helping us and you must realise we can find out in other ways if you won't tell us now. It was a dreadful thing if Sir Roger did shoot the mare, and we don't want to make a public scandal of it and bring discredit upon the racing world. We can subpoena you to attend the inquest and then have you asked there."
But the trainer still remained silent, and Larose added his plea to that of the others, but he did it with a smile upon his lips and no threat in his tones. "Don't you see what you are doing, Mr. Leeder?" he said. "You are depriving us of a motive for the murder! Here are you, one of the most respected men upon the turf, with a three-year-old grievance against Sir Roger for his dreadful cruelty to a beautiful animal! You wait your chance and then pistol him just as he killed the mare! See, by your silence you make us think you're guilty."
The trainer looked defiant. "I thought that was what you were trying to get at, but I didn't shoot the man." He nodded to the Superintendent. "Yes, sir, your story is quite true. Sir Roger killed her himself. I was down with pneumonia at the time and didn't hear until a week afterwards. Then when I saw him, my fury had cooled down, but I've had no love for him ever since."
"But you've still appeared friendly with him?" said Stone.
"Oh, yes. I've had my living to get," snapped Leeder. He sighed. "But I often work for men I don't like."
"Thank you, Mr. Leeder," said Larose, and, no more questions being asked, the trainer left the room.
"Another suspect," grunted Stone, "though he doesn't look the type!"
"Well, we're not looking for a type," commented Larose thoughtfully. "I'm thinking the party who killed this beast will be a very respectable sort of person to look at. Just a very ordinary individual, whipped up by sudden passion to commit the crime."
From Commander Vanraven and Paxton-Smith, they learnt nothing. Certainly, the Commander seemed most unaccountably more nervous than any of the others had been, so much so, that Stone commented afterwards that if looks counted for anything, then he was surely the guilty man. As for Paxton-Smith, his attitude was one of annoyance more than anything else, as if he were annoyed at having been inveigled into coming to the card-party and then been let in for all the subsequent scandal.
"Take the maid-servants before Lady Hake," suggested Larose. "We can go through them quickly. I don't suppose we shall get much."
And, certainly, they gleaned nothing of any importance from them as to the actual occurrences of the previous night, as it appeared they had, everyone of them, either been awake at the time of that first peal of thunder, or else had been awakened by it, and could all give one another alibis. They could none of them have been near the study during the time when the lights were out.
When the cook, however, came to be questioned, they learnt several interesting things. A woman about forty, she had been with Sir Roger since the death of his first wife, two years previously; she was shrewd and intelligent, if inclined to be a bit talkative. She made no secret of her dislike of her dead master.
"But I had nothing to do with him," she said, "or I probably wouldn't have stopped a week in the house." She smiled. "But then I was too old for him to be interested in me. I'm not young and pretty."
"Mr. Huntley doesn't seem to have been too fond of him, either," suggested Stone with the idea of leading her on.
"No, he wasn't," she agreed, "but he never discussed him with us. He knew it was as much as his place was worth if it had ever got back to the master." She nodded significantly. "But perhaps he thought he had a special reason for not liking him."
"What do you mean by that?" asked Stone at once. "Come, you must see it can do you no harm now, whatever you say," and he smiled in a most friendly manner.
"Well, sir, it's like this," she said. "We used to have a pretty girl here, one of the parlourmaids, called Elsie Bane, and Mr. Huntley was very taken with her. Master admired her too, and often used to speak to her. One day she was put on the staff in Berkeley Square, under Mrs. Rawson, the housekeeper there, whom Mr. Huntley hates. Then the girl left London suddenly, and we were told she had taken another place in the country on her own account. No one was supposed to know exactly where she had gone, but Mr. Huntley doesn't believe it. He thinks Master knew and had something to do with her going off." She nodded vehemently. "I think so, too. The housekeeper looked very funny when I asked her about it. But she has always been very thick with Sir Roger and wouldn't say anything."
Stone made no comment, but proceeded to ask her about the relations between Sir Roger and Lady Hake.
"Poor little mistress," sighed the cook, "she's had a bad time. From not wanting to have her out of his sight once. Master's been hardly taking any interest in her lately. He blamed her too, for every little thing which went wrong in the house. He was angry with her yesterday about something, and one of the girls heard him storming at her. Yes,"—she lowered her voice darkly—"she's supposed to have got a dragon-fly bite, on her arm yesterday, but Betty saw her without the bandage and says it looked more like a bruise."
A short silence followed as Stone looked round at the others. But their faces were quite impassive and he turned back to the woman and asked her, "Now, has Huntley told you what we asked him about the kitchen fire last night?" She nodded. "And he told you to say he hadn't, if we asked you?" She nodded again and Stone smiled. "Well, you say we didn't ask you. See?" and she smiled back. He went on. "Well, what do you think? Would there have been any embers burning at about half-past eleven?" and she replied, "I should say so but of course, I can't be sure. I certainly had had a good fire burning all the evening."
She was dismissed with the intimation to talk as little as possible about what had been asked her. Then Stone turned once more to his colleagues. "And what now?" was his question. "I suppose we must have that poor little widow in!"
"No," said Larose, "I'd like to have the butler in again first."
Stone pushed the bell, remarking at the same time, "Well, don't give him any more reason why we are suspecting him."
"On the contrary," said Larose, "I'm going to ease his mind there."
The butler came in as self-possessed as before, but his eyes roved quickly round upon all the three men there, in turn.
"Tell me, Mr. Huntley," said Larose, "did you know Sir Roger had a cottage or bungalow or some sort of house at Bradwell upon the Essex coast, and that he used to go there at week-ends?"
The man looked very surprised, his eyes opened very wide and his jaw dropped. "No," he replied slowly, "I've never heard anything about it." He was most respectful. "May I ask, sir, who told you?"
Larose shook his head. "You may ask, but I'm not going to tell you. Still we believe the information to be quite correct. Now for another matter. Was Sir Roger methodical in his habits?"
"Certainly he was," replied Huntley, "most methodical in everything."
"Well, what was the last thing he generally did at night, just before he went up to bed?"
"Locked up his desk in his study, and saw that the door of the safe was shut. He was always most particular about that."
Larose spoke very solemnly. "So that if anyone knew his ways and wanted to lie in hiding and be pretty sure of catching him alone, he would be waiting for him in his study the last thing at night?"
"Yes," agreed the butler, with his eyes fixed intently upon Larose's face.
"Thank you," said Larose. "That's all I wanted to ask you," and the butler left the room slowly and as if reluctant to do so because his curiosity had not been satisfied.
"So, Gilbert," frowned Stone when the door was shut again, "then you're falling for the idea now that some stranger was hidden in the house?"
"Not necessarily," said Larose, "but what the cook told us about that missing girl, the parlourmaid I mean, has made me realise we can't altogether leave it out. What about Sir Roger having wronged her and she waiting for him in the study to have her revenge. She could easily have hidden behind that thick curtain by the window."
Stone looked sceptical. "For the matter of that," he commented dryly, "what about her ladyship having been waiting there to avenge that bruise upon her arm?"
Larose nodded. "Exactly, anyone who knew Sir Roger's ways might have filled the bill there!" He frowned. "So now we'll ask Lady Hake to come here."
"One moment!" said Stone. "Let me think."
"What about?" asked Larose, rather impatiently.
"That fellow Norton," replied Stone. He held up one hand for silence. "Gosh, I've heard that voice somewhere and it's associated in my mind with something disappointing!" He shook his head. "But no, I can't recall him! I'll have to worry about it later. It's sure to come back." He heaved a big sigh as he put his finger on the bell. "Now for her pretty little ladyship. Let's hope she didn't fire that shot."
WHEN in answer to the inspector's ring the butler appeared in the library and Stone learnt that Lady Hake was in the drawing-room, he requested him to ask her if they could come and speak to her there.
"Less of an ordeal for her," he nodded to the others when Huntley had left upon his errand. He made a grimace. "She must realise we only want to question her because we believe it is possible she may have been the one to shoot her husband."
The Superintendent scoffed. "You won't think that when you see her. She's only just over nineteen. She was eighteen when he married her." He nodded. "She is a very pretty girl."
Stone shook his head. "Youth and good looks are no bar to crime, and particularly so in a woman. I knew a girl once, with the face of an angel, who poisoned the man who jilted her, and she wasn't even eighteen."
"Mad?" queried the Superintendent.
"Not a bit of it," laughed Stone. "As sane as you and me, and clever enough, too, to wheedle the jury into acquitting her. The old judge was furious. He was as certain as we were that she had done it. It was a sure thing, though the evidence was only circumstantial."
"What became of her?" asked the Superintendent.
"Became of her!" exclaimed Stone. "Why she married another man." He laughed. "I met her twenty years afterwards and she was a most respected woman. Four children and a husband who thought the world of her." He nodded. "I would have forgiven her if she hadn't used strychnine. The man she poisoned died a terrible death."
The butler returned to say that his mistress was waiting to see them and, accordingly, with no delay the three men were ushered into the drawing-room.
Now if the two inspectors had been imagining a girl of doll-faced beauty they were very much mistaken. The Mary, Lady Hake, was a very different being from the Mary Hellister of maiden days. The short year of married life had effected a great change in her, but its unhappiness, instead of crushing her, had developed a force of character which not even her parents had suspected lay latent in her. It had given strength and decision to her face and, acutely sensitive of the shame her husband had brought upon her, pride had come to her aid and taught her to hide her misery under a mask.
So, it was a proud and very self-possessed young woman who now greeted the inspectors and Superintendent Houseman and motioned them to be seated. Certainly, Stone thought, she was very lovely with her clear-cut profile, her beautiful colouring, her eyes of deepest blue and her exquisitely moulded lips and chin. With all his acquaintance with the worst side of life, he wondered how any man, becoming so recently possessed of such a treasure, could have allowed his tenderest emotions to stray elsewhere.
"I am sorry to have to trouble your ladyship," he began in most sympathetic tones, "but it is our duty to learn where everyone was last night. Of course, in your case it is only a matter of form." He went on briskly, "Now I understand you did not see your husband again from the moment he left the dining-room after dinner?"
Her voice shook ever so little. "No, I did not see him again."
"And you came here into the drawing-room and remained by yourself until you went off to bed? Did anyone see you were here?"
"Phoebe, my maid, who brought me a cup of tea at about ten o'clock," she replied, she hesitated just a moment, "and Mr. Harland who came in at my husband's request to fetch a box of cigarettes which had been left here."
Stone frowned. "What time did Mr. Harland come in?" he asked.
"I don't know, but it was some while after I had finished my cup of tea and before eleven, because I went up to my bedroom then."
"Was that early or late for you?"
"Neither; my usual time."
Stone was still frowning. "And Doctor King-Harley says that he did not come up and tell you what had happened until after he had rung up the police-station at Saffron Walden. That would make it after midnight and yet you were still not in bed. How was that?"
Her voice was quite steady. "I had sat at the window watching the storm and did not begin to undress until it was over."
Stone eyed her very intently. "Doctor King-Harley tells us you were fomenting your arm when he knocked upon your door."
She nodded carelessly. "Yes, a dragon-fly had stung me that afternoon."
Stone was all sympathy at once. "A nasty insect to be stung by!" he exclaimed. He rose to his feet. "May I look at the place?"
"But you won't be able to see much now," she said, "I've put grease and powder on it, so that it doesn't show. My skin discolours easily and it was disfiguring."
She held out a beautifully moulded arm for his inspection and for a few seconds he bent over it. "It must have swollen up a lot," was his comment, given thoughtfully and very slowly.
"It did," she said, "but it quickly went down."
He resumed his seat and his questioning. "And after you once went up to your room you did not leave it?" he asked.
"No, I did not come downstairs again until"—she hesitated—"until I was told the police were in the house."
"Now, another thing, your ladyship," went on Stone, "had your husband any enemies, do you think?"
She nodded. "I expect so. Successful business men always make enemies, don't they?"
"Yes, but any particular ones, I mean. Did Sir Roger ever mention to you that he was in danger from anyone?"
"But you knew he'd bought a pistol."
"Oh, yes, he used to practise in the garden with it." She shook her head wearily. "It's no use your asking me anything about my husband's business affairs or who his rivals were, because I knew nothing of them. He never talked to me about them."
A moment's silence followed and then Stone asked, "Well, you can make no guess as to who killed him? None whatever? You don't think your butler can have done it?"
Her eyes opened very wide. "Why? Huntley had nothing against him. My husband was sharp-tempered and irritable sometimes, but Huntley understood him, as we all did. We didn't take any notice of his moods." She smiled a reluctant smile. "No, Huntley is much too polite to have killed him. He's been a gentleman's servant all his life and it's his nature to put up with everything from those who employ him."
The three men returned to the library and resumed their seats in silence.
"Well," asked Stone at length, "what about it?" He answered his own question with a frown. "She's quite different from what I expected. She's got spirit and we can't leave her out."
"I'm a bit suspicious, too," nodded the Superintendent. "I expected to find her a gentle woe-begone creature, but instead—" he spread out his hands—"why she's quite capable of punishing any man's brutality to her."
"Ay, and he was brutal," scowled Stone. "He'd gripped that beautiful arm of hers and that was a bruise right enough." He drew in a deep breath. "Yes, I'm glad the man's dead! She'll be able to have some happiness in life now and—" he sighed deeply—"give some decent chap a taste of heaven too."
"One thing," went on the Superintendent slowly, "when she said young Harland had come in to get that box of cigarettes I noticed by your frown that you remembered Harland had told us none of them had left the room at all during the evening."
"Yes, I did," nodded Stone, "but I don't think I attach any importance to it." He turned to Larose. "What do you think, Gilbert?" A thought seemed to come suddenly to him. "Ah, what if she showed Harland her bruise then and it made him so furious that, in the white heat of passion and before he'd had time to calm down, he followed Sir Roger into the study and shot him dead." His eyes opened very wide. "Now that's an idea."
"Who's got the imagination now?" laughed Larose. "In one breath you think the girl shot him and in the next, young Harland." He shook his head vexatiously. "No, we've got a lot to think out before we can concentrate upon anyone in particular."
Stone winked at the Superintendent. "Our friend Gilbert Larose is incurably romantic and it would be torture to him to have to place the cuffs on Harland if the young fellow were in love with her pretty little ladyship."
"I wonder how she'll be left off?" queried the Superintendent. "She may be a great catch now."
"So she will be," nodded Stone. "I got out of Huntley directly we arrived here this morning that Arnold Chater was Sir Roger's lawyer and I rang him out of bed at once. He'll be down here any moment now to see Lady Hake, but he told me definitely that she inherits everything by a Will signed directly after the marriage."
He rose from the chair. "Well, I suppose we'll have to tell those card-players they can go now, and to-morrow have the inquest adjourned until we're more ready." He frowned. "We're going to take no scalps back with us to town to-day."
The two inspectors arrived back at Scotland Yard late that afternoon and Stone at once sought out his old friend and colleague Inspector Carter. "See here, Elias," he said, looking very troubled, "we've been all day on that Sir Roger Hake case and done no good. I see the evening newspapers have already nosed out a lot and I expect you've read all about it. Well, one of those seven card-players, who all swore they had never left their seats when the lights went out, is worrying me a lot. I'll stake my life I've seen him before, but I can't think where."
"Can't he help you?" asked Inspector Carter.
"Help me!" scoffed Stone. "Not he! He won't! That's it! There's something fishy about when and where we met before. Well, this chap is quite a big bug down there, a magistrate and all that, and I've got a photograph of him opening a Flower Show last year. It's been lent me by the local newspaper, the Saffron Walden Chronicle."
He produced a fair-sized photo from his bag. "Now here he is in this group. The fellow with a naval beard, next to the Mayor with his chain. Now, do you ever remember seeing him? He's associated with something unpleasant to me. He's a gentleman, good looking and very nicely spoken. He's very confident and bold in all he says, very sure of himself and always ready with an answer. He's got a nicely modulated voice."
Inspector Carter scrutinised the photo, long and carefully, through a big magnifying-glass which he took out of his desk. He breathed heavily, he stared hard and he thought. "I've seen him," he said at length, "and I've seen him when I was with you. What's his name, Norton! No, we didn't know him by that name. It was a much commoner one."
"Smith, Jones, Martin," prompted Stone anxiously, "Thompson, White, Black, Anders——"
"Wait!" interrupted Carter sharply. "I have it. It was Brown. Yes, and the Christian name was something very funny, a name that you see carved on stones in the British Museum. Ajax, Pluto, Jupiter—ah—Jason. That's it, Jason Brown. Now, who the dickens was he?"
Stone flopped down on to another chair and snatching out his handkerchief began to mop his forehead fiercely. "Oh, Elias, Elias!" he exclaimed weakly, "with all your poor intelligence and third-rate brain-power, you're a perfect treasure of a man to work with. Who was Jason Brown?" he asked with gathering strength. "Why, man alive, he was that man we couldn't get the evidence against in the Beachy Head murder case of ten or eleven years ago." He sprang up in his excitement. "Oh, what a revelation! Of course, it was he, older, more sure of himself and with more authority about him because of his public position. By Jove, how he must have chuckled at my not placing him."
Carter's eyes were still upon the photograph. "Yes, it's Jason Brown right enough—and so now he calls himself Norton."
"Hector Norton," laughed Stone in great glee, "another heathenish name in all conscience." He seemed delighted with himself. "And I just told you this had been a blank day!"
"Cool down a bit, Charlie," warned Carter frowningly, "now you know who he is, how is it going to help you? If he's been as slick now as he was on Beachy Head, you won't be able to land him."
Stone's face fell. "Oh, he's slick, right enough. He had every answer ready before I'd even asked the question." His face brightened. "But we'll have Gilbert in and see what he says."
Larose listened most intently to the story of the Beachy Head murder, and of Jason Brown's subsequent marriage to the daughter of the man he was supposed to have killed.
"But he's not got that wife now!" exclaimed Stone angrily, "the Saffron Walden Superintendent told me his present wife is a beautiful woman, whereas poor Margaret Brendon, his first wife, was disfigured with a dreadful red birthmark covering half her face. No, he's probably killed her and married again." He snapped his fingers together. "Once a murderer, always a murderer if only chance comes your way."
"Well, what are you going to do now?" asked Carter. "There seems to be plenty to find out about the man, though it may have no direct bearing upon the Hake Court murder."
"To-morrow," snapped Stone, "I'll send two of our men down to Saffron Walden and we'll find out on the quiet all about this precious Hector Norton, when he came to live there, where he moved from, when his first wife died, when she was buried and what the death certificate says she died from." He nodded viciously. "With that information in our hands we'll have something to go upon."
"And I'll go down to that bungalow in Essex," said Larose, "and find out what I can about the woman or women Hake's been meeting there." An idea struck him. "Did you by chance, happen to find out from the Superintendent what the present Mrs. Norton is like?"
"I didn't find out by chance," frowned Stone irritably. "I enquired particularly what sort of woman she is, and Houseman told me she is of medium height, good looking, with grey eyes and beautiful teeth which she makes the most of when she smiles. She's away from home just now or I should have gone and seen her."
"Good," laughed Larose, "then I'll look out for a grey-eyed beauty with a good mouthful of ivories."
The following morning he motored down across the dreary Essex marshes to the little village of Bradwell which lies almost at the extreme northern end of that lonely stretch of land between the rivers Blackwater and Crouch.
"It looks all right, now," he muttered, as the road ran in and out across the marshland, "but, Heavens—what a place to be in the winter. I'll bet the whole shore is blanketed then for days on end in fog."
He parked his car in the yard of the village inn and strolled into the bar to have a drink. He was served by a bright-faced young fellow who looked only just out of his teens. 'Couldn't be better,' ran his thoughts. 'He'll know everything and everybody in the district.'
"Where's Mr. Hale's place?" he asked over a glass of beer.
The young fellow pointed through the window. "Over there," he replied. "It's the last bungalow at the end, right on the shore. It's about a mile from here." Then he added, "He's not there to-day though his wife is, so I expect he'll be coming this week-end."
"Oh, his wife's there, is she?" asked Larose.
"Yes, she came into Mr. Powell's place, he's the grocer, this morning for the newspaper and some other things."
"Has she got a car?"
"No, a bicycle." The boy laughed. "You want a bicycle in these parts when it's been raining. The road is bad across the marsh."
"Then you get the newspapers here?" said Larose.
The boy laughed again. "Rather, the postman brings them out from Southminster before eight o'clock. We're quite up to date except for people who go and build bungalows a long way from the proper roads."
"I haven't seen Mr. Hale for years," said Larose meditatively. "He used to be a fine, healthy-looking man."
"So he is now," said the boy. "I saw him motoring through here last week. He has to come this way when it's wet because of the road, but if it's fine he takes a short cut and turns on to the marsh lower down."
"What's Mrs. Hale like?" asked Larose.
"Oh, a good-looking lady, very handsome."
"Do they keep a servant there?"
"No, there's no servant. You see they only come there every now and then. Still, when they do they sometimes bring down a woman with them to do up the house, but she only stays during the day and then Mr. Hale drives her back to Southminster to catch the last train at night."
Larose asked a few more questions, and then announced he was going to take a stroll to stretch his legs, but would be back later for another drink and some bread and cheese.
He did not cross directly over the marsh to the Hale bungalow but made his way round by the sea-shore, thus approaching it from the side. He judged it contained only four rooms. Stretching away from the front verandah was a little plot of grass which ran down almost to high-water mark.
Turning the corner of the house, he came with great suddenness upon a woman lying back in a big deck-chair upon the verandah. Upon her lap was a newspaper. Apparently, she had her eyes shut, for she took no notice of his approach. His footsteps were deadened by the sand, so she did not hear him, either.
Arriving to within a few yards of her, he stopped and then coughed to attract her attention. The effect was electrical. Obviously she had not been asleep, as she sprang like lightning to her feet and faced him with all the terror of a cornered animal.
She had evidently been crying recently, for her eyes were red and swollen, and her face was wan and tear-stained. Her hair, too, was all dishevelled. He drew a deep breath, as he saw that upon ordinary occasions she would have been a very handsome woman and that—the colour of her eyes was grey.
"I'm sorry to trouble you," he began, "but——"
"Who are you and what do you want?" she almost shrieked at him. "Don't you know you are upon private property?"
"My name is Larose," he said quietly, "and I want"—he had realised it would be wisest to come straight to the point—"to speak to you about the late Sir Roger Hake." He pointed to the newspaper she had flung to the ground. "I see you know what has happened to him."
The woman's bosom rose and fell in her emotion, her mouth was opened wide and her grey eyes seemed more grey than ever in her dreadful terror.
Larose put as much sympathy as he could into his voice and went on very quietly, "But I want to give you as little distress as possible. I only——" He broke off suddenly and asked, "You are Mrs. Norton aren't you, Mrs. Hector Norton?" He spoke a little sharply. "Now, no prevarication, please."
The woman spoke hoarsely. "What's it to you whoever I am?" Her voice rose in anger. "I refuse to discuss anything with you."
Larose shook his head. "But you can't do that. I'm an inspector from the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard and I'm enquiring into the murder of Sir Roger Hake."
Her face went pale as death and she tottered back and sank into the deck-chair. "But I can't have had anything to do with it," she wailed. "I've been staying here since Tuesday. They can tell you that in the village."
"I know that," nodded Larose assuringly. "We're not suspecting you. We are quite aware you've been here all the time and we have nothing against you. Still, we think you can help us to find out who the real murderer is." He spoke sternly. "Now, when you've been coming down here it's been as Sir Roger's wife, hasn't it? You two have been passing as Mr. and Mrs. Hale."
She was more composed now and a little defiant. "You say so," she said.
"Well, there's no getting away from it, is there?" he asked.
"Of course not."
He spoke sharply. "Now does your husband know you've been here?"
She flashed him a sarcastic smile, showing a row of perfect teeth. "What do you think?" Her face sobered down to fear. "He'd kill me if he knew."
"As he probably killed Sir Roger," snapped Larose. He went on, "Does he suspect you? You're sure he doesn't?"
"I don't think he does."
"Are you separated from him?"
She nodded and then her defiance rose again. "You can do what you like," she said angrily, "but I'll answer no questions. If my husband killed Sir Roger, then just you prove it. It's nothing to do with me and you can't compel a wife to provide evidence against her husband."
And that was all she would say. She picked up the newspaper again, and pretending to read, took not the slightest notice of him, even to ignoring his polite good-day when, realising it was hopeless, a few minutes later he took his leave.
"Poor creature," he meditated, "she was evidently fond of him." He sighed heavily. "Why is it the worst of men so often make such an appeal to really nice women? This one here is no wanton. She has quite a good face and would be as faithful as a dog to the husband who treated her properly." He scowled. "That fellow Norton, or Brown or whatever his name is, was probably a brute to her and yet"—he frowned—"he didn't look a bad sort of man to me. I rather liked his appearance."
After a few enquiries at the railway-station at Southminster Larose returned to town, his next visit being to the Hake mansion in Berkeley Square to interview the housekeeper there. He found her a hard-faced angular woman of middle age, with cold fish-like eyes, and thin lips, pressed very tightly together. She had very little to say for herself and everything had to be dragged out of her by close questioning. She volunteered nothing of her own accord. Asked if she knew Sir Roger had any enemies, she replied laconically, "Plenty—business ones."
Questioned as to if she knew the identity of any of the ladies Sir Roger, as the butler had said, sometimes brought home for champagne suppers late at night, she professed to know nothing about them. She had always believed the midnight visitors to be gentleman ones. As for the parlourmaid, Elsie Bane, she gave her a bad character. The girl was sly and could not be trusted, and to where she had gone and with whom she had gone—she nodded significantly here—no one could say. She had taken herself off one morning at an hour's notice, apparently being in possession of sufficient money—there was more nodding here—to be quite indifferent to the month's wages she was forfeiting.
Asked about the bungalow upon the Essex coast, she raised her eyebrows and appeared most surprised. She knew nothing about it, which last statement amused Larose quite a lot, seeing that the description he had got in Southminster of the woman who had been occasionally brought down to clean up the bungalow tallied exactly with that of the housekeeper now before him.
'An out-and-out liar,' he told himself as he left the house. 'Of course, she was hand in glove with Sir Roger in his love adventures and if any harm came to that poor little Elsie Bane, then she knew all about it.' He made a gesture of disgust. 'She looks a typical procuress to me. Cold, cruel and sexless, it's my opinion she would do anything for money.'
Arriving at Scotland Yard, he found Inspectors Stone and Carter in earnest consultation with the two plain-clothes men who had been sent down to Saffron Walden and had just returned with what information they had been able to gather about Mr. Hector Norton, of Crane Park, of Crane village, about three miles from Saffron Walden. It appeared he had bought the park about eight and a half years previously, having moved, it was believed, from Hampstead. He had been then married to his present wife and they had arrived with one child about a year old. They had now three. His wife's maiden name had been Andover. Her Christian name was Wendy, or at any rate he called her that. As for his previous wife, nothing could be learnt about her, no one, indeed, being aware that he had been married before. He was now a gentleman of independent means, making, however, a very profitable hobby of breeding prize Jersey cows. He had once been connected with the Stock Exchange and it was said he had made a fortune in the rubber boom of ten years back. His wife was a very good-looking woman, only two or three years younger than he was, and they appeared to be living on the best of terms. She occasionally went away by herself, it was said to visit her mother who lived near Edinburgh. She was away at the present moment and had been away for a fortnight. She was expected back any time now.
"And what were her relations with Sir Roger Hake?" frowned Stone.
"As far as we can gather," replied the plain-clothes man who was the spokesman of the two, "they were very friendly with each other. It was a joke among the servants that one day they would be running off together."
The plain-clothes men were dismissed and Stone turned to Carter and Larose. "Exactly," he snapped, "that wretch got rid of poor Margaret Brendon in some way and married this other bit!" He thumped his fist upon the desk. "Ay, and he must have got rid of her quickly too, to have turned up in Essex eight and a half years ago with a child, a year old by this new wife, when ten years ago he had only just married the girl whose father he had murdered on Beachy Head." He thumped again upon the desk, "We must get hold of this Wendy at once. Perhaps, if she was very gone on Hake, she'll round on her husband and put us in the way of getting evidence against him. That's what——"
"But doesn't it strike you, Charlie," broke in Carter quickly, "that if this man is what we take him to be he may, already, have made certain she will not speak. She may already be out of our reach. She may be dead too."
"No, she's not," said Larose. He nodded very solemnly. "I spoke to her only a few hours ago."
For the moment the two colleagues were too astounded to make any comment and he went on: "She is staying at that bungalow on the coast near Bradwell. She was waiting for Sir Roger to come down this week-end, but learnt of his death from the newspaper this morning. She was prostrate with grief," and then he proceeded to relate everything which had taken place that morning.
"And she told at once who she was?" asked Stone.
Larose laughed. "I sprang it upon her and she was so amazed I knew who she was that she couldn't deny it."
"Well, well!" exclaimed Stone. He frowned. "But how much nearer does this bring us to arresting Jason Brown?" He nodded. "Still, we've got the motive for his killing Sir Roger—Sir Roger ruining his wife."
"But can we prove he knows she was unfaithful?" asked Larose. "Don't forget that when I asked her if her husband knew, she said he'd kill her if he did." He nodded. "Yes, and she was not acting then. She meant it."
"But, of course he knew," protested Stone. "The thought was uppermost in his mind when we were questioning him, and knowing we should sooner or later find it out, he tried to forestall us and cut the ground away from under our feet by sarcastically bringing it up first." He turned to Carter. "That's just what the Jason Brown of ten years ago would have done, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is," agreed Carter. "He was always a little bit ahead of all our questions."
"One moment!" exclaimed Larose. "You've told me this Jason Brown wasn't altogether a bad lot. You say he returned the money to the bank and showed repentance for having killed the husband and father by helping the widow financially and marrying the daughter who was so hideously disfigured that no other man would have taken her."
"That's so," frowned Stone, "I couldn't understand him then." He stuck to his prejudice. "But he couldn't have cared tuppence for the girl by marrying the other woman so quickly." His voice rose. "Good God, man, she could hardly have been cold in her coffin before he took this second wife!"
"And Margaret Brendon may have died quite naturally," went on Larose. "There may have been nothing suspicious there."
"Well, that's what we've got to find out," said Stone, "and if it turns out there was anything wrong, then the evidence against him will have become cumulative." He thumped upon the desk for the third time. "Don't you see it is cumulative already, for it must be far more than a coincidence that he is mixed up in two murders, first that of Beachy Head and now that of Hake Court. No, when a man's suspected of one murder, a suspicion which in our country happens to less than one person in a million, it may be just chance or bad fortune but"—the stout inspector clenched his fist—"when a man's suspected of two murders, with years passing between them, then depend upon it it's neither chance nor bad fortune but only what he deserves."
He rose to his feet with a grim smile upon his face. "To-morrow, boys, we will all three go down to Crane Park and just try to bounce the fellow into a confession and he'll be so surprised to see us that it is just possible he'll throw up the sponge."
The following morning soon after nine o'clock the three inspectors left Scotland Yard in an unofficial-looking police car. Carter was pensive, because he never counted his chickens before they were hatched and Larose was doubtful, because he'd rather liked the look of Hector Norton, but Stone was most hopeful and very careful to see there had been a pair of handcuffs put in the pocket of the car.
Larose drove, and passing through Saffron Walden they soon reached Crane village, with Crane Park just on its outskirts. "Whwew," whistled Stone as they passed through the open park gates and saw the house nearly half a mile away in the distance, "but murder seems a paying business! This chap's got a lovely place. Go slowly up the drive. Don't let it appear as if we are in a hurry." He looked uneasy. "I hope to goodness we find him at home."
Just as they had reached the end of the drive and were slowing down to pull up at the big hall door, a man attired in breeches and leggings and carrying a short riding-whip stepped out. He stopped and looked enquiringly at the approaching car.
"Hurrah!" exclaimed Stone softly. "We're in luck. It's the assassin himself!"
The car was brought to a standstill and Stone jumped briskly out. "Good morning, sir," he said curtly, "we want a word with you."
Mr. Norton looked frowningly at the watch upon his wrist. "Well, it must be a short one," he said, "unless you don't mind waiting about an hour. I have some important business with my bailiff and am just riding over to meet him."
Stone came straight to the point. "We know who killed Sir Roger now and that's what we've come here about."
There was no doubt in the minds of the three inspectors that Mr. Norton was astonished and most disagreeably so, too. His face went a little pale and his jaw dropped.
"Yes, Mr. Jason Brown," went on Stone fiercely, "you're returning with us for another little talk at the Yard and it won't end in the way the last one did." He nodded vehemently. "My strong advice to you is to give no trouble. You shot Sir Roger because he's got your wife away from you and you'd found out."
If the inspector had been confident the man before him would be amazed and overwhelmed, presumably by the unmasking of his identity and their knowledge of him having committed the crime, he was certainly not going to be disappointed. For the moment Mr. Norton was too amazed to speak.
"There's no getting away from it this time," went on Stone truculently. "We've got the evidence we want and you'd better admit everything straight away. It's no good your attempting to deny it."
The man who called himself Mr. Norton found his tongue at last. "Don't you be a fool," he cried angrily. "You're talking arrant nonsense. I didn't shoot Sir Roger and you can't have the slightest evidence that I did. As for my wife"—he smiled scoffingly—"Sir Roger has no more got her away from me than you have." He lifted his head and laughed scornfully. "Oh, what another mare's-nest you've discovered." He spoke very sternly. "But see here, Inspector Stone, no tricks upon me now. I'm not a friendless boy, remember, but a public man and one of His Majesty's Justices of the Peace. You'll ruin your whole career if you lay a finger on me."
His words, so confidently spoken, fell upon Stone's ears like a cold douche, but for all that the stout inspector kept up a brave appearance of assurance. "Oh, and you'll tell us, too," he retorted, "that you are not masquerading under a false name and that Hector Norton is your real one."
"So it is," was the quiet reply. "Nine years ago, my aunt, Mrs. Edwin Norton of Chichester, bequeathed to me her whole estate upon the condition that I changed my name to Norton, which I accordingly did. As for the Christian name, Hector, I was baptised Jason Hector Brown, but when I changed the Brown to Norton by deed-poll I dropped the Jason. I'd never liked the name, and Hector Norton sounded better." He laughed lightly. "Very easily explained, isn't it?"
"But the explanation is a bit late, isn't it?" snarled Stone. "Why didn't you tell us all this the day before yesterday, when we were questioning you at Hake Court?"
"But why should I have explained everything to you then?" asked Mr. Norton sharply. "I am under no obligation to you for any kindness shown to me, and I want to forget the most undeserved nightmare you thrust upon me."
Stone turned the conversation brusquely. "Where's your wife?" he asked.
"I shan't tell you that," replied Mr. Norton firmly. He spoke bitterly. "I don't want her to know her husband has been suspected of murdering her father."
"Her father!" exclaimed Stone in scorn. "Why, you wretch, she's not the girl you were married to when I last saw you."
But Mr. Norton made no reply. The sound of a car had been heard in the distance and all, turning round, fixed their eyes upon one coming up the drive.
"God, here she is!" exclaimed Mr. Norton after a few moments in the most obvious dismay. He turned like the strike of a snake upon Stone. "You dare to mention her father to her," he cried fiercely, "and I'll——"
"You'll what?" derided Stone, because he'd stopped speaking. "More thoughts of murder in your heart, eh?"
Mr. Norton spoke very quietly. "I'll knock you down if you do, or at any rate I'll try to." He corrected himself quickly. "No, I won't. There'll be no need to. With all your harshness, I know you to be too much of a gentleman to bring it up to her."
The car arrived to where the four men were standing and a woman jumped out. "Hullo, Jim, how are you?" she called out brightly, and ignoring the presence of the others, she ran up to Mr. Norton and kissed him.
"Quite all right, Wendy," was the smiling reply. He pointed to Inspector Stone and added gaily. "But look here. There's an old friend of yours. Don't you remember him?"
Margaret, for of course it was she, turned in the direction he indicated and instantly uttered a little cry of pleasure. "Of course, I do," she exclaimed, stepping forward and holding out her hand. "How are you, Mr. Stone? I've often thought of you and wanted to see you again. Mother was speaking about you only last week."
"But—but——" began Stone.
"Don't you remember me?" she asked, as the inspector made no attempt to take her hand. "Why, I am Margaret Brendon that was, then Margaret Brown and now"—she laughed merrily—"Margaret Norton. The last time we met was at a Chrysanthemum Show at the Botanical Gardens. I introduced you to my husband then."
"You, Matthew Brendon's daughter?" exclaimed Stone, looking really astounded. "Why——"
"Oh, how stupid of me," she broke in. "Of course, I forgot you knew me when I had that dreadful birthmark. But it's all gone, as you see. A wonderful professor in Geneva took it away more than nine years ago, so long ago that I'm continually forgetting now I ever had it." She laughed gaily. "Now don't you remember me?"
Stone's frowning face at last relaxed and he shook her hand warmly. "Of course, I do," he said, he made a grimace, "and I see I've made a great mistake. I jumped to conclusions too quickly."
He turned sharply to Larose. "This is not the lady you saw yesterday?" and Larose, who had been looking most uncomfortable, shook his head and replied instantly, "No, and not a bit like her, either."
"But what are you here for, Mr. Stone?" asked Margaret curiously.
The inspector hesitated and her husband broke in quickly. "It's about Sir Roger," he began, "and——"
"Oh, wasn't it awful about him!" interrupted Margaret. "I didn't know anything about it until yesterday morning. I was up in Scotland near Loch Doon and I left the children with Mother and started to come back, within an hour." Her voice shook. "And fancy your being in the house at the time!"
"Yes, that's the trouble, dear," said Mr. Norton. "Because of your being away, a stupid tale got about that you had left me because of Sir Roger and that I had shot him in revenge."
"How abominable!" exclaimed Margaret. She smiled at Stone. "But I suppose you had come to investigate it?"
The inspector nodded uneasily. "Y-es, that's it, Mrs.——" he hesitated—"Mrs. Norton. In matters like this we have to investigate everything we hear."
Larose stepped forward and raised his hat. "I am very sorry, Mrs. Norton," he said, "but I am afraid it is all my fault that we are here. My name's Larose and I'm another inspector from Scotland Yard." He shook his head vexatiously. "I've been badly taken in. Yesterday I went down to a little village on the coast and met a lady there who admitted to me she had left her husband for Sir Roger Hake. She led me to believe she was a Mrs. Norton. Naturally, I thought she must be you. Then when she went on to say her husband would commit murder if he knew about Sir Roger,"—he made a grimace—"we began wondering if he had found out, and so had to come down here and enquire."
Margaret had listened with widely opened eyes. "But why did she say she was me?"
Larose hesitated. "We-ll, it was I who first suggested it and then she let me think I was right." He spoke quickly. "You see I'd had a description of you," he smiled, "as being grey-eyed and of very nice appearance. So when I saw the lady whom I had already learnt was a great friend of Sir Roger had grey eyes and was very pleasant to look at, I jumped to the conclusion she might be you. Then, of course, to prevent my knowing whom she really was she let me fall into my own trap."
"But it's all right now, sir!" exclaimed Mr. Norton laughingly. "You needn't look so apologetic, for I'm sure my wife will forgive you since you've referred to her as good-looking."
Everyone laughed and the tension at once relieved, Mr. Norton, unmindful now of his appointment with his bailiff, insisted they should come into the house and partake of some refreshment. When they took their leave a little later everyone was smiling and on the best of terms.
"Very sorry, you two," apologised Larose as they were driving away. "I came a bloomer, didn't I?"
"Never mind, son," said Stone. "Those two men I sent down were fools. Fancy them telling us Margaret Brendon's name was Andover, just because her mum is Mrs. Andover now! It never entered into their silly heads that the mother might have married again. Now, as quick as you can go to Bradwell and we'll be darned lucky if that other woman is still there."
But they were not lucky, as she had locked up the bungalow and left the previous afternoon. Stone was impatient to get back to town but, greatly to his annoyance, Larose alighted in the village, and according to Stone's watch, spent no less than seventeen and a half minutes gossiping in the little general store where the newspapers were sold.
"What did you find out in all that time?" he growled.
"Quite a little bit," nodded Larose. "Mr. Hale has had the bungalow for about six months but only three people, all females, have been noticed to come there, his wife, the woman who does the cleaning and, if you please, one of his daughters. This daughter was the first one to come there and the woman describes her as being small, with auburn hair and very pretty. She says the girl only came once and only stopped two days, going off on the bicycle one afternoon when her father was having an afternoon sleep. He came enquiring for her in the village when he woke up, and was very angry to find she wasn't there. He hadn't known she was going away and said she must have got tired of the loneliness."
Stone nodded significantly. "Some tragedy there, I should say." He made a gesture of disgust. "We're looking for the murderer to get him hanged and yet it really ought to be to give him a reward."
Inspector Carter made one of his rare contributions to the conversation. "Our morning's not been altogether wasted," he remarked thoughtfully. "Certainly, it's exploded the particular motive we thought we'd found for Norton's killing the man, but I wouldn't say he mayn't have had another, for of one thing I'm certain. If he didn't kill him, he knows who did. When you said you had found out who was the killer his face got pale and he looked downright ill. Then when you went on to accuse him, because Sir Roger had taken his wife, he was relieved at once. He saw you were right off the target there."
"Good for you, Elias!" exclaimed Stone heartily. "I noticed the change in him, but hadn't thought of it long enough to work out the reason as you have done. What do you say, Gilbert?"
Larose considered. "I think Elias is right. At any rate, this Norton's not off my list yet, although, as I confess, I rather like the man. Well, I'll drop you both at the Yard and then I'm going down to the Court again. I've got another idea, and besides I can give them back the key of the study door. It's no good keeping the room locked up any longer."
LATER, that same afternoon, when Larose arrived at Hake Court, as he had expected it was Huntley who opened the door to him. "Here, I want a word with you," he said smilingly. "No, you needn't look worried. It's not about yourself this time but about that young girl who used to be here, Elsie Bane, the parlourmaid."
For the moment the butler's face had changed from uneasiness at the reappearance of Larose to annoyance, seemingly, at the mention of the girl's name, but he quickly resumed his habitual air of respect and proceeded to lead the way into a small room opening out of the big lounge hall.
"What do you want to know about her, sir," he asked quietly. "Why do you come to me?"
"I want to find out where she is," replied Larose, "and I came to you because I've heard you and she were good friends."
Huntley nodded. "We were friends, sir," he sighed, "and I would give a lot to know where she is now. I'm afraid something has happened to her."
"Tell me all about it," said Larose, "and I'll see what I can do. Let me know exactly what happened."
"She left here, sir, on February eighth," said the butler. "Mrs. Rawson, the housekeeper in Berkeley Square, had sent away one of the maids there and she said she couldn't get another suitable one for the time being. Elsie didn't want to go, but——"
"Were you and she engaged?" asked Larose.
"Not exactly, sir, but we were soon going to be. Well, sir, Elsie went up to town and I never had a line from her afterwards, although she had promised to write often. Then, less than a fortnight later we heard she had suddenly dismissed herself and no one knew where she had gone. That is the last anyone has heard of her."
"And you don't believe this story of her going away herself is true?" asked Larose.
"No, sir, no one believes it," replied Huntley. "It wasn't like Elsie. She wasn't that kind of girl. She was sensitive and very gentle."
"And what do you think?" asked Larose.
The butler looked very stern. "I haven't the slightest evidence in proof of it, sir, and it would have gone badly with him long before this if I had," he spoke very slowly, "but, I believe, sir, my late master had something to do with it. Unfortunately, he had become attracted by her appearance."
"Did she tell you that herself?" asked Larose.
"Not exactly, sir, but she said he had lately taken notice of her and been very polite. You see, she was very clever in arranging flowers and Mistress used to give her all those which came in from the garden to arrange in the vases. That brought her in Master's way."
A short silence followed and then Larose asked. "Have you tried to find her?"
Huntley shook his head. "I didn't know where to start, sir. She came from the Wanstead Orphanage and had never heard of her parents. She hadn't a relation in the world that she knew of."
"But hadn't she any friends to whom she may have gone?"
"She had only one friend that I know of, and I don't know her name. It was a girl she'd met when she was at Wanstead and this girl had married and gone to live somewhere in Norfolk, I don't know where."
"Have you got a photograph of Elsie?"
"Yes, sir, would you like to see it? I'll go and fetch it."
The photo proved to be an enlarged snapshot, and showed a decidedly pretty girl of graceful figure, standing against the wall of a small back garden. "She gave it to me, sir," said Huntley, with a choke in his voice, "only about a month before she left. It was taken just before she came into service here, and when she was staying in Norfolk with this friend I have mentioned."
"She looks clever as well as pretty," commented Larose.
"Oh, she is clever, sir! She always said the Orphanage people never ought to have put her into private service. She was very artistic and was always drawing roses and lillies and other flowers. As for being pretty, sir, this photo doesn't do her justice. Her colouring was so good, with auburn hair and blue eyes."
Larose lowered his own eyes and frowned uncomfortably. Auburn hair and blue eyes! That was the description he had got in Bradwell village of the girl whom Sir Roger had given out was his daughter! Good God, what a tragedy for this man before him—if he only knew!
It was almost as if the butler had sensed what was in Larose's thoughts, for he went on with deep feeling: "If only I could get her back, sir, I wouldn't mind what had happened to her. I know she would never have gone wrong on her own account."
Larose eyed him very sternly. "And you want me to find her at any cost?" he asked.
"At any cost, sir?" queried the butler, looking very puzzled.
"Well," exclaimed Larose in great surprise, "haven't you realised that our only interest in finding her will be with the idea that it is she who shot Sir Roger? He had wronged her and she came into the house that night to avenge herself upon him."
The butler's face was a study and Larose thought that if ever there were a case of a man thinking before he spoke, he had one before him now. Huntley was searching hard and furiously for an answer. At last he said, and he spoke very quietly, "I am not in the least afraid, sir, for I know she would never have done it."
"But she may not be able to prove that?" snapped Larose.
"Oh, yes, she will, sir," said Huntley, "for, of course, there will be people who will be able to swear where she was that night." Just the faintest suspicion of amusement came into his face. "I haven't the slightest fear there, sir."
"All right," nodded Larose, "then you take the consequences. Now let me have the photograph for a few days. Oh, one more question! Of course, the story of why Elsie left Berkeley Square came from the housekeeper there? And you don't believe it?"
"No, sir, not a word of it. Mrs. Rawson is a bad woman and would do anything Sir Roger told her to—for money. If Master harmed poor Elsie then I'm certain she made it easy for him."
"Well, that finishes you, Mr. Huntley," smiled Larose; "at any rate for the time being. Now will you please go and ask her ladyship if I can speak to her. You may tell her I will only keep her a very few minutes."
Larose was left waiting for quite a quarter of an hour and then, instead of being taken to Lady Hake, she came to him herself.
She looked pale but very pretty, and he thought with a pang of the questions he was going to ask her. "I'm very sorry to come to you again so soon," he said, "but, unhappily, I can't help it."
"No, I suppose you can't," she said wearily. "I know I've got some dreadful times before me, but, of course, I shall have to put up with them."
"But they won't be so very dreadful," said Larose, "and if you are quite frank with us there will probably be no need for you to be called at the adjourned inquest."
"I have been quite frank with you," she said sharply.
"I'm sure you have," nodded Larose, "and I only want you to go on being so. First, it's about that Elsie Bane I want to ask you. Now do you give her a good character?"
"Elsie Bane!" exclaimed Lady Hake. "What do you want to know about her for?"
"Because we are wondering if she came into the house and fired that dreadful shot. You see, she would know where the pistol was, she would know Sir Roger's habit of going into his study the last thing at night, and she would know where to hide herself away afterwards."
Lady Hake's voice was cold and cutting. "What should she want to shoot my husband for?"
Larose turned away his eyes. Now for it, he thought. He would have to speak very plainly. He spoke as casually as if he were speaking about the weather. "Because he may have wronged her," he said. "Of course, we know there have been many of the other sex in Sir Roger's life and a man cannot go on for ever like that without making enemies." It seemed almost as if he were stifling a yawn. "So we are wondering if Elsie Bane was one."
A long silence followed, with Larose continuing to keep his eyes turned away. Then Lady Hake said calmly and with no trace of emotion. "Elsie was a good girl and I can't imagine her shooting anyone. She was of a superior class."
"Was it you who had her transferred to Berkeley Square," asked Larose.
The answer was slow in coming. "No, my husband and Mrs. Rawson arranged that."
"Then didn't you think there was something strange about her dismissing herself and going off in the way Mrs. Rawson has made out she did?" asked Larose.
"Yes, I did."
"You were suspicious?"
"I was; it wasn't like Elsie."
"But you asked no questions?"
"What was the good? No, I had learnt to shut my eyes. You can't alter a man's nature by letting him see you suspect him."
"Now another thing. Do you like Mrs. Rawson?"
"No, certainly not!" The answer was emphatic there. "I shall dismiss her at once when I get things into my own hands."
Larose was still looking out of the window. "About that bruise you have on your arm which you made out was a dragon-fly sting, of course Sir Roger gave it to you?"
A long silence followed and then came a faint 'yes.'
Larose turned his head sharply and his eyes were now fixed intently upon her as he asked his next question with great sternness. "And when Mr. Harland came in to fetch those cigarettes that night you showed him the bruise and told him your husband had done it?" He raised one forefinger warningly. "Now answer truthfully, understanding I am going to put the same question to Mr. Harland."
Her face went pale as death, her eyes stared and her mouth opened. Larose watched her without a muscle of his face moving and his eyes narrowed under his frowning brows. She looked terrified. He rose to his feet and walked over to the window.
"Poor little woman," he murmured, "but I had to ask her."
Quite a minute passed before he turned round. The face of the young widow was now quite composed, and its ashy-grey appearance had passed away.
"Well," he asked, "you haven't yet answered my question."
"Was there any need for me to answer it?" she asked coldly, and then she added with some spirit: "Surely you should have seen enough of me by now to realise I am not the sort of woman to expose my shame to a man who is almost a stranger." Her eyes flashed. "I have learnt to keep my troubles to myself."
"And that's the best way," nodded Larose.
"Now," she went on sharply, "you shall go and ask Mr. Harland himself—" she looked contemptuous—"as you said you intended to."
She pushed upon the bell and, after a short silence, which Larose made no attempt to break, the butler appeared.
"Mr. Harland is in the office?" she asked. "Is he alone?"
"I think so, your ladyship," replied Huntley.
"Then take this gentleman in to see him, at once," she ordered, and Larose was dismissed with a curt bow.
It was quite a long way to the secretary's office, and Larose realised for the first time what a lot of ground the house covered. They went down one long passage, up a few stairs, along a short passage, down some stairs, and then along another long passage right to the very end. Also Huntley took his time, and did not walk quickly. Once, too, he stopped and pointed out through a window. "That's the old chapel over there, sir," he said. "It's said to be four hundred years old." He smiled. "It's not been used much lately," but Larose was not interested, and motioned him to walk on.
The door of the office was ajar when they reached it, and young Harland was speaking upon the 'phone when Larose was ushered into the room. The secretary raised his eyebrows ever so little at seeing the detective and then, pointing out a chair to him, continued his conversation on the 'phone. The telephone was a desk one.
"Certainly . . . Yes!. . . Yes!. . . Of course, of course!. . . Naturally things will be very unsettled for a little while. . . Well, good morning."
He hung up the receiver and turned to Larose. "Well, sir," he said a little brusquely, "what is it you want to know now?"
Larose pointed to the 'phone he had just been using. "A house one?" he suggested smilingly, and a faint pink suffused the young man's face as he noddingly admitted that it was. "And may I ask who was speaking to you?" asked Larose very politely.
"One of the gardeners," replied Harland. He dismissed the matter quickly, and forced a smile upon his face. "Now, Mr. Larose," he asked, "what more questions are you going to ask me?"
"One very important one," said Larose, "and it is this." He paused a long moment, noticing that young Harland had stiffened himself in his chair, was assuming a wooden expression and was clenching his hands tightly together. He went on slowly. "Do you remember hearing Mr. Norton join in the conversation when the lights were out? Don't forget he was sitting next to you."
The secretary's hands unclenched, his whole body seemed to relax and the expression upon his face became a definite one. He spoke slowly and emphatically. "I do remember. I am certain I heard him speak. I am quite sure about it."
"Still, that doesn't prove," commented Larose, "that he didn't shoot Sir Roger. I am still unconvinced that it was impossible for anyone to have left that room. So he may have done it and come back." He regarded Harland intently. "You know, if Mr. Norton did not kill him, I'd almost stake my life he thinks he knows who did."
Harland shook his head slowly. "But I don't see how that's possible," his face brightened, "unless whoever did it has confessed to him."
"But why should he have confessed to him?" queried Larose. "Whoever was the murderer, why should he have confessed to anyone, unless he were proud of it and intending to give himself up?"
Harland shook his head again. "It's no good your propounding such puzzles to me, Mr. Larose, for I'm not equal to them." He spoke sharply. "But just take this in, sir, once and for all," his voice rose slightly, "you can't accuse me or Mr. Norton or anyone of the others in the card-room that night, unless you accuse the whole lot of us. Either we are all innocent or else we are all guilty. As I have told you, we talked the matter over, fully, and are all convinced that no one left the room after Sir Roger went out."
Larose nodded. "Then that leaves only her ladyship, the butler, and the suppositious person hiding in the house, with the strength of suspicion against them in that order, Lady Hake being most suspected, then Huntley, and last 'an unknown murderer.'"
Larose had expected a violent outburst of protest from the young fellow, but nothing of the kind happened. Instead, Harland just smiled contemptuously. "The evidence of Doctor King-Harley will definitely clear her ladyship," he said. "She absolutely collapsed when she was told of her husband's death, and the most consummate actress in the world cannot make herself pulseless, as the doctor says she was, at will."
"Then the butler?" suggested Larose, wanting to turn Harland inside out, now the latter seemed to be in the mood.
"Nothing doing there, either," frowned Harland. "We'll all swear that his surprise was a hundred per cent real."
There was a knock on the door and upon the secretary calling out 'come in,' to the amazement of them both, Lady Hake entered. She gave a quick, peculiar little look from one to the other of them, and then, after a slight nod to Harland addressed Larose. "I wanted to be sure and catch you before you left," she said. She spoke very coldly. "If you still doubt my word when I told you Elsie Bane was a girl of good character, the thought has just come to me that you couldn't do better than apply to the Superintendent of the Wanstead Orphanage. She was there for two years, first as one of the orphans and then, later, as a private maid to the Matron. They will speak for her and, perhaps," she looked sarcastic, "you are more likely to believe them than me."
"Thank you," said Larose politely. "I am sure I am very much obliged to you. I'll do as you say." Then, wanting to detain her and see how she and the secretary acted when they were together, he went on quickly, "But now you're here, Lady Hake, you may be able to help me in another way. We were discussing Mr. Norton when you came in, and tell me—would you say he was friendlily disposed towards Sir Roger?"
"Why shouldn't he have been?" she asked frowningly,
"We-ll!" hesitated Larose, "I was wondering if they were rivals in any way."
"You mean for Mrs. Norton's affections?" she asked. "You think Mr. Norton was jealous of my husband?" She spoke cuttingly. "That's your trouble, Mr. Larose, you think too much," and with a curt little bow she let herself out of the room.
Larose looked meaningly in the direction of the door. "She came in to see if we were quarrelling," he smiled. "Funny how the sharpest people sometimes give themselves away!" Then, as the secretary made no comment and had turned his eyes upon some papers on his desk as if he were anxious to get on with his work, he continued, "She's got plenty of spirit, that girl, and would be quite capable of anything." He sighed. "And if she did shoot him, I shouldn't altogether blame her."
Harland looked up instantly. "Who would?" he demanded. Then, seemingly annoyed with himself for his remark, he added quickly: "But she didn't. That is quite impossible!"
Larose drew a bow at a venture. "And do you know, Mr. Harland, you have just put an idea into my head. You said you card-players were either all innocent or all guilty." He bent forward significantly towards him. "Now why shouldn't you all be guilty?"
Harland regarded him, frowning heavily. "What do you mean?" he asked.
Larose smiled blandly. "Well, one of you shot the man and the others are perjuring themselves to save him." He looked amused. "You see, I am being quite frank with you."
"Frank's not a suitable word," said Harland quietly. "If it would not be rude I should suggest, 'mad' as being more appropriate." He raised his voice scoffingly. "And you think six level-headed, disinterested men would risk their skins to save a seventh whom they hardly knew? None of us there were really friendly with one another and we most of us were mere acquaintances." He shrugged his shoulders. "Speaking for myself, I had never even seen three of them before that night."
"But why particularise yourself?" asked Larose, eyeing him very intently.
Harland was quite candid. "Because you've got me in your mind, of course." He laughed. "You've not come down here to ask me about Mr. Norton. You've come to get a line on me myself." He warmed up. "No doubt you think here's a young man who knows a pretty girl is being very badly treated. He's on the spot and must guess a lot more even than he actually sees. So, what is more natural than that he should have been the one to shoot the beast of a husband?" He spoke bitterly. "I'm not a fool. Of course, I should be the one to be most suspected!"
"You think so?" asked Larose quite pleasantly.
"I do," replied Harland. He nodded. "But you're a bit puzzled all the same. You've got Lady Hake and Huntley in your mind, too." He looked Larose straight in the face. "But I didn't do it, and neither of them did it either."
Larose smiled. "Well, who are we to fasten it on to?" he asked. "It must have been someone."
The secretary bent forward earnestly. "Do you realise, sir, that you may have started off wrong from the very beginning?" He raised his hand impressively. "You have banked everything on that Superintendent's nose. He says he smelt cordite directly he was taken to see the body, and therefore that the pistol must have been fired in the room. But what if he was wrong? Look at the possibilities it opens up. He may have been shot by someone outside, who left no footmarks on the gravelled drive?"
Larose looked sceptical. "But how would anyone have managed to get into the study to get the pistol without leaving footmarks in the flower-bed under the window?"
"The pistol mayn't have been in the study at all. Sir Roger may have left it in the summer-house. I've known it left there before. The target he used to fire at is on a large oak tree about twenty yards away. Sometimes, if it was raining, he would sit in the summer-house and fire from the seat there. Everyone here can tell you that."
Larose frowned. "But what about those dogs? We are told they would allow no stranger in the grounds."
"But how can they be everywhere?" asked Harland. "The walled grounds cover nearly fifty acres and from what I've seen of the animals, directly they're loosed, they go and stand with their noses poked through the bars of the gates. A man across the road breeds cocker-spaniels, and these Livonians here are interested. Another thing, too, directly it rains the dogs take cover. They go into the summer-houses, there are four of them, or else into the sheds. They always seem to keep together."
"Hum!" remarked Larose very thoughtfully. "You're interesting, young fellow!"
"And do you still think I did it?" asked Harland, now smiling for the first time.
Larose considered. "Yes—and no," he replied. He smiled. "But now, more no than yes." He spoke quickly. "And one more question." He took in the good-looking face, the aristocratic profile, the eyes which spoke of courage, the firm strong chin and the sensitive, yet withal, humorously tender mouth. A nice boy, he thought, and one of whom any girl might be proud and by whom she would be made happy. He rapped out his question sharply. "Are you in love with her?"
Harland smiled sadly.
"What man who has seen her is not?"
Larose got briskly to his feet. "Well, I'll just go and have one last look round the study and then give up the key. We shan't be wanting it any more. Now the way back to the hall is right along the passage, up those few steps and——"
"No, no," interrupted Harland, "that's a long way round. Don't go up those steps at all. Take the first turning to the right. It's much shorter," and they shook hands in parting, in a most friendly way.
Larose met the butler in the hall. "Here," he said sternly, "what the devil did you take me all that way round for?"
"To show you that chapel, sir," replied Huntley most politely. "I thought——"
"Oh, yes, you thought all right," snapped Larose, "and that's why you did it." He spoke very sternly. "You were listening at that door, Huntley, when I was talking to your mistress."
Huntley looked very aggrieved. "I wouldn't think of doing such a thing, sir. I know my place better than to dream of doing that."
Larose did not labour the matter. He had no proof and knew he would never get any. Really, he told himself, he was suspecting everyone of everything. "I'm going into the study," he said, "and when I've finished I'll give you the key to take to your mistress."
Entering the room, it smelt close and musty, but he did not open the windows and neither did he draw up the blinds. Instead, he switched on the lights and, sinking back into an armchair, let his eyes rove round everywhere. Except for the body having been taken away and a rug thrown over the blood-stain upon the carpet where the body had lain, the room was exactly as it had been left when the investigating detectives had finished with it.
He began talking softly to himself. 'There, through that door came the murdered man, not murdered then but in the pride of his strength and lust of life. He came in cupping a lighted match in his hand, for without doubt a breeze had risen with the coming of the rain, and there was a draught blowing from the open window. For the same reason, no doubt, he would have pushed to the library door behind him. He picked up the torch upon his desk and lit one of those candles on the mantel-shelf, the one nearest to the library door. We know he did that because it is guttered by the draught from the window; the drops of wax have run down one side of the candle, the side away from the window. The parlourmaid, Janet, yes Janet is her name, is sure it was not guttered before that night or she would have noticed it and picked off the blobs of untidy-looking wax. Then—what did he do next?'
Larose half closed his eyes and let his thoughts have full rein. Then, suddenly, he frowned, a slightly puzzled frown at first, which soon, however, became a very puzzled one. He opened his eyes widely, and sat up straight in his chair. 'Gad,' he exploded suddenly, 'but why the devil did he light that candle at all? He had said he was coming in for his torch and there it was all ready to his hand upon the desk. He didn't even pick it up. We know that because there was not a single finger-mark upon it. The girl had rubbed her duster over it in the morning. Then why didn't he pick it up, if he had come in expressly for it?'
A thought striking him, he rose quickly to his feet and, striding over to the desk, picked up the torch. He pressed on the button, but nothing happened. The light did not come on. He stood staring at the torch, with his mouth open. Almost, it might have been thought, he was expecting it to speak.
Suddenly, he whistled. 'Gad,' he exclaimed again, 'he did pick it up, but he found the batteries were dead and so lit the candle. That accounts for the second match we found in the grate. He had to strike another one to light the candle.' He caught his breath. 'Oh, hell, and as there were no finger-marks upon this torch, it means that someone had wiped them off, wiped them off because he had perhaps picked it up himself and was making sure he should leave no clue behind! Now, let me think. Let me think.'
He threw himself down in the armchair again. 'So he lit that candle, but he did not take it in his hand to light him from the room because, again, there are no finger-marks upon the candlestick. Janet had dusted that, too, that morning.'
He thought hard. 'What happened? I have only three minutes to account for, as the darkness lasted six minutes and it is computed Sir Roger spent the first three of them in the library, waiting with the others for the lights to go up. He must have been shot during those second three minutes of darkness, because if he had been alive when the lights had gone up again—surely he would have returned to the card-players. Besides, it was no longer thundering when the light came on.'
He pressed his hands over his forehead, springing up suddenly, however, to stride over to the mantel-shelf and examine the candles, both of them this time. Then, with a low quick intent movement, he moved the two candlesticks together, so that they stood side by side. He noted with a frown that the guttered one must have been burning quite an appreciable time longer than the other. A moment's consideration and he lit the unguttered candle, taking out his watch to time how long it would take for it to burn down until it was exactly level with its fellow. To make the surroundings as near as possible to those of the fatal night, he opened the window.
'Quite a little breeze,' he nodded, 'and this other candle will gutter in the draught.' He sat down to wait.
The minutes passed slowly and the room was very quiet and still. Oh, if only the walls could speak and give up the secret which they held! What would their story be? A white-faced woman, with blazing eyes, killing in a white-hot passion for her revenge, or a man in cold fury carrying out a righteous judgment as if it were an act of God, or, yet again, a wronged husband avenging his wife's stolen honour? Who would ever know.
The time dragged on slowly until after twenty minutes he was at last satisfied that the candles were now of equal height, with the guttering almost identically the same.
'Now let me reconstruct everything,' he murmured, 'as far as it is possible from what we know. At eleven-thirty-two the lights failed and did not come on again, until eleven-thirty-eight. Of those six minutes of darkness it is estimated Sir Roger passed three in his chair by the card-table. In the course of the next three he went into the study, lit the candle and was shot during that last loud peal of thunder, just before the lights went up. He must have been shot during that peal of thunder as, otherwise, with all the inmates of the Court awakened with their windows wide open, the noise of the firing would certainly have been heard by someone. Yes, we can be quite sure that it was by the light of that candle the assassin took aim and shot him. Then what happened?'
He leant back in his chair and thought hard. 'Why,' he asked slowly, 'was that candle left burning for twenty minutes? Knowing as we do that Sir Roger lit it when he went into the study, say at eleven-thirty-five, those twenty minutes would bring us up to eleven-fifty-five, only seven minutes before the telephone rang in the police-station?' His eyes were all screwed up in his perplexity. 'Then that means that when Huntley opened the study door he would have instantly seen his murdered master lying right before him, without any switching on of the light. But, with the door open, the interior of the room was in part view of all the seven card-players, and they all confirm Huntley's testimony that the room was in pitch darkness when he went in. Then are they all lying, Huntley and these seven men?'
His thoughts ran on. 'But, in any case, that does not explain why the candle was still left burning after the lights went up. It leaves things just as unexplainable as——' But he suddenly snapped his fingers together in exultation. 'I have it! I have it! The candle was not put out because, in his hurry to escape from the room, the murderer did not switch off the electric light, and with that on, he would not have noticed that the candle was still burning!'
His exultation was, however, short-lived, and he was soon looking as puzzled as ever. 'But who was it,' he asked ruefully, 'who did put out both the candle and the electric light? Did the murderer, remembering his mistake, creep back in the very nick of time and plunge the room into darkness again, just before Huntley came in? Oh, what a mystery! What a puzzle!'
He thought for a long time and at last gave it up for the time being. 'And it's no good my waiting here any longer,' he sighed. 'I've found out something, but just what it means I don't know. I'll have to think it over.'
He let himself out of the room, and locking the door behind him, looked for a bell in the hall so that he could summon the butler and pass over the key to him to take to his mistress.
Then all at once Lady Hake herself appeared from the dining-room, so suddenly that the idea instantly flashed into his mind that she had been waiting for him. Greatly to his surprise, she smiled graciously when he gave her the key.
"You must be tired," she said. "Would you like some refreshment? Would you like a cup of tea?" and something in the way she spoke suggested to him that she wanted him to say yes.
So he smilingly accepted, and greatly to his surprise again, she had some with him and they sat on either side of a small table in the big lounge. They talked of the weather and of the flowers in the vases for a few minutes, and he thought many times, that with all her sad expression, how really lovely she was. He told himself he would like to go on looking at her for hours. Then suddenly she said apologetically, "I'm afraid I've been very curt with you, Mr. Larose, but you must overlook it in the great trouble I am going through."
"I've nothing to overlook," smiled Larose. "I expected you would be much more put out than you were at the questions I had to ask you."
"I realise now it's no good my pretending I'd been living happily with my husband," she went on. She spoke bitterly. "Everyone seems to have known I was a very miserable woman." She looked him straight in the face. "Tell me, are people saying I shot him?"
Larose shook his head and fibbed resolutely. "Certainly not," he said. "No one would think that. The shooting was no woman's work."
Her eyes were still intently upon him. "And do you suspect Mr. Harland?" she asked, and he could sense she was holding herself in with a great effort.
Then, on the instant, it came to him in a most uneasy realisation that there might be yet more tragedy in store for this unhappy girl. Harland had admitted he was in love with her and now, by the very way she was acting, an intuition told him the feelings were returned. God, if they were already lovers and the slightest inkling of it got abroad then Harland would be the focus of all suspicion!
He was so slow in answering her question that she repeated it and a little sharply now. "Do you suspect Mr. Harland?" she reiterated.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "I was thinking." He spoke with an assumption of frankness. "Not in particular, not more than any of those others who were in the library." He smiled. "You see we can't well suspect any of them without suspecting the whole lot, as they all back one another up in declaring none of them left the room."
She drew in a deep breath. "And are you," she asked hesitatingly, "are you the one who decides?"
He looked puzzled. "Decides what?" he asked. "Oh, decides in what direction we must continue to look!" He laughed. "Bless your heart, no! All of us at the Yard pool the ideas which come to us and then sometimes one of us gets a brain-wave and we all act upon it."
She hesitated again. "B-ut I've heard your opinion carries a lot of weight with them in London."
He shook his head smilingly. "Not overmuch! Just now my opinion is that this may turn out to be one of those cases where the mystery is never solved. We may never learn who fired that fatal shot."
He left her, he thought, much brighter. She herself saw him to the front door and gave him a wistful little smile as he drove away. 'Gilbert, Gilbert,' he murmured, as he turned his car towards London, 'you ought never to have come into the Police! Justice and not Law is your mistress! You don't want to find that boy guilty because of those eyes of hers!' He snapped his teeth together viciously. 'But how the devil can he be guilty with those six other men swearing he never left the room? Heavens, what a puzzle!' He nodded. 'But I'll track down that little Elsie Bane now, and see if she can tell us anything. Auburn or red hair in a girl always makes her a bit of a devil!'
Having mentioned nothing to his colleagues of his discovery of the guttered candle, the significance of which was still evading him, the following morning he set out upon his journey into Norfolk to pick up Elsie Bane.
With the little he had learnt about her, it might have been considered that his task was quite a hopeless one, but that was by no means the view he was taking of it. On the contrary, he was of opinion he had a good sporting chance of finding her, as he was practically certain she would have gone to that one girl friend of hers who lived in Norfolk.
Upon his return to the Yard the previous evening, sitting alone in his room, he had thought everything over most carefully and in the end had been by no means dissatisfied with his prospects. First, he had examined the photograph the butler had given him under a powerful magnifying glass and summed up what it told him.
He decided at once that Elsie's friend's house was situated in a city. The garden was narrow and therefore he argued it would be small, suggesting land that was valuable and which meant, of course, it was certainly not in a village or probably not even in a little town. No, the garden looked as if it belonged to a good-class working-man's house, perhaps one of many others all in a row in the suburbs of some city.
He had arrived at this opinion before he decided that the faint lines in one corner of the photograph in the distance above the garden wall, were the overhead lines of trams or trolley-buses. He was very pleased with himself there, for that would narrow down the search tremendously, as he knew that in Norfolk there were only trams or trolley-buses in Great Yarmouth and Norwich. Agriculture was the main industry of the county, and out of Norwich it contained no manufacturing centres.
So to Norwich he would go first, but arrived there, what was he to do? The girl had always been expressing her distaste for domestic service, and her experiences at Hake Court were not likely to have taken away any of that objection so, of course, she would most probably try to get a position in a shop. But she was unskilled in every trade! No, no, she wasn't! She had a natural gift for arranging flowers. Yes, she loved flowers, so what would be more probable than that she would try for some work among them? At any rate, that would be her first thought and with her nice appearance she might have had some luck and been successful.
He smiled grimly to himself. It was a long shot, but in pursuit of the criminal classes he had often brought such a one off. Arriving in Norwich, learning from a friendly policeman where the best flower-shops were, he paid a visit to each one of them. Either he bought a buttonhole or else made certain he could get a good view of the assistants through the window. But he saw no sign of a girl answering to the description of Elsie Bane among them, and he did not think it wise to ask after her by name. If and when he found her, he wanted to make himself and his errand known when she was by herself. Above all things he did not want to give her a shock when others were present.
His search so far fruitless, a new idea struck him and he enquired of another policeman which florist in the city had the largest trade in funeral wreaths. He was told Smith, in Castle Street, made more of them than all the other shops put together.
So six o'clock found him standing outside Smith's, waiting for the employees to leave. Then, almost the first girl who came out looked like what he expected Elsie Bane would look; a little older perhaps, but with a nice complexion and rich auburn hair.
'Here goes it,' he whispered exultingly. 'I'll chance it and follow this little miss.'
The girl walked quickly along in the direction of the river, and at a safe distance, he kept her in view. Then a great piece of luck happened for she turned into Mortimer Park and sat down upon a seat by the side of the ornamental pond. Then, from a brown-paper bag of odds and ends of cake and bread, she threw crumbs to attract the birds. He walked quietly up and sat down upon the same seat, but not close near her. He lifted his hat politely.
"Excuse me, Miss Bane," he said, "but I've come a long way to speak to you and this couldn't be a better place, for our talk will be a very private one."
Her face was the picture of amazed distress, but he appeared not to notice it and went on, "Really, I want particularly to speak to you about Mr. Huntley, first. He's been very worried about you and very hurt you've not written to him."
She drew in a deep breath, and rising abruptly to her feet, started shaking the crumbs from her dress with the undoubted intention of walking away.
He saw half measures would be of no good, and, accordingly, changed his tone instantly. "No, don't go away," he said sharply. "If you do, I shall only have to follow you and get help." He spoke very sternly. "I'm a detective and come from Scotland Yard."
She gave a little gasp and instantly resumed her seat. Her face had paled and she looked very frightened. He returned to his kinder tone and spoke quite friendlily. "No, you've no need to be afraid. You can finish with the detective business with one answer. Where were you last Monday, night?"
She answered him chokingly, but with no hesitation. "Here in Norwich. I am living with friends."
"And of course that can be proved?" he went on.
She nodded, and he could just hear what she said. "Yes, I went with them to the pictures that evening."
"Of course you know why I ask? You've read what happened in the newspapers?"
She nodded again. "You mean about Sir Roger Hake?"
He pursed up his lips. "Yes, it was a very dreadful business, and we haven't been able to find out who did it."
"But you didn't suspect me?" she asked looking very horrified.
"You have to be accounted for," he replied. He spoke with as much friendliness as he could. "But I'd better explain everything. You see we know he got you down to that bungalow of his at Bradwell and that you escaped from him. So, having suffered so much from him, we thought it quite possible you got into the Court that night and shot him for his punishment."
"But I tell you I didn't," she exclaimed wildly. She clenched her teeth. "I hate him, but I would never have dared to do that, however much I had wanted to."
"Then a word from your friend telling us where you were," nodded Larose, "will make that quite all right. But now about Mr. Huntley. Why haven't you let him know where you are?"
She looked at him with her eyes wet with tears. "Would you, after what has happened?"
Larose nodded again. "I would—with him. He guesses what has happened, but does not believe it was your fault. He is sure you are as good a girl as you always were, and were trapped somehow."
"So I was," she choked. "It was that vile Mrs. Rawson who helped him. She took me down to clean up the bungalow and then after I'd had some tea I don't know what happened." Her words came very slowly. "When I woke up in the night she had gone and only Sir Roger was——"
"That's enough," said Larose. "And Mrs. Rawson gave it out you had left of your own accord, in a great temper. Now about Mr. Huntley. He's going to leave the Court and he wants you to come back and marry him."
She shook her head. "Oh, I couldn't."
Larose spoke crossly. "Of course you can! What do you want to punish him for—because Sir Roger was a beast to you? It isn't fair. No, it isn't. Now, you take me to your friends and they'll just verify about last Monday. Then I'll go back and tell Mr. Huntley you're going to write to him. He'll be a delighted man."
'And that finishes with little Elsie,' said Larose to himself, when that night he was having dinner in a hotel in Norwich, 'and if friend Huntley doesn't get hanged, I suppose she'll marry him and they'll live happily ever afterwards. Huntley'll make quite a good husband, although he's quite capable of a thumping lie or two when it suits him.'
He sipped his wine meditatively. 'And what a lot of lies have been told over this business! I'm as certain as ever I was of anything that we've got the murderer in our hands and yet—we can't put a name to him—' he hesitated a long moment—'or her! Oh, if only I knew why that candle had been allowed to burn for those twenty minutes! But one thing about it stands out clearly—whoever blew it out was the murderer! I can be quite certain of that.' He sighed. 'And how everything in a way points to her little ladyship as being the guilty one. She hated her husband, he had laid violent hands upon her within a few hours of his death, and now she is terrified that young Harland should be suspected of what he has not done.' He nodded. 'Or she thinks—or knows he did it and her terror is because he may be found out. So, in another way everything points to Harland. He is in love with the wife, he knows how vilely she is being treated by the husband, and he has just seen her bruise! He returns to the library with the cigarettes, white-hot in fury, he creeps after Sir Roger in the darkness and he shoots him dead! He creeps back, unnoticed, to the card-table!'
He shook his head vexatiously. 'But all that does not fit in. The six other men swear Harland could not possibly have left the room, and even if he had, to creep in again he would have had to push open the study door and those in the darkness in the library would certainly have seen the light of the candle behind him. Besides, as I have convinced myself, over and over again, Sir Roger was shot during that last peal of thunder just before the lights went up. Yes, it's all most mysterious, but never say die, and as I'm up this way I'll go back through Newmarket and have a talk with that trainer man. He seemed quite intelligent and I may get a fresh idea out of him,' he grinned, 'although I don't suppose he'll be too pleased to see me. He didn't seem to like having anything to do with the police that day.'
And, certainly, when he was shown into Martin Leeder the next morning, the latter did not seem too happy about it, and frowned most uneasily. Larose explained he had not made a special journey but, being in the neighbourhood upon another matter, had thought he would look in and just ask another question or two.
"You see, Mr. Leeder," he went on, "if we could only prove one of you left the room after Sir Roger the whole mystery would be solved at once. Now are you sure none of you went out?"
"I've told you already that I don't think so," replied the trainer testily. "I heard no one move and certainly no one struck a match."
"But would that have been necessary?" asked Larose.
Leeder shrugged his shoulders. "If Sir Roger had to do it to cross a room in his own house, wouldn't a stranger have found it even more necessary?"
"Young Harland wasn't a stranger!" suggested Larose.
"He was much more so than Sir Roger," retorted Leeder.
Larose continued: "Well, if none of you seven did it, it leaves only the butler and Lady Hake to be accounted for. One of those two is guilty and——"
"Oh, keep Lady Hake out," broke in Leeder hotly. "I—I'd stake my life she had nothing to do with it. It's—it's a shame even to suspect her, the poor suffering woman which she is."
He seemed so upset that, to ascertain more of what was in his mind, Larose went on stressing the point. "But unhappily we can't leave her out," he insisted. "We know the life Sir Roger led her and she had good reason to wish him dead." He spoke gloomily. "We may even have to arrest her on suspicion and then her only hope of being proved innocent will be if the real murderer comes forward and confesses he did it."
Leeder's face was now covered in perspiration, but he made no comment. Larose looked very stern and added, "Then if we find anyone has been shielding him he will be punished, too, as having been an accessory to the crime after the act." He nodded. "That is a very serious offence."
The trainer burst out irritably. "Oh, do go away, please. I'm sick of the whole business. If you go on questioning me for a week I can't tell you any more than I have done already." He pulled out a big watch. "And I've got my work to do. So, good morning."
'And I wouldn't like to swear that man doesn't know something,' nodded Larose, as he drove off in the car. 'He'd got the wind up and seemed to be thinking about himself as well as her little ladyship.' He swore angrily. 'The devil of it, as with them all, is there seems to be no way of making them speak.'
He made his journey back by way of Saffron Walden and called in at Crane Court to give Huntley the news about Elsie Bane. The butler was overjoyed and his eyes filled with tears. "I'm so very grateful to you, sir," he said hoarsely. He hesitated. "Was she treated very badly, sir?"
"She was," nodded Larose gravely, "and that was the great reason why she didn't write to you. She felt ashamed to. Another reason, however, was she was afraid Sir Roger might get to learn where she was living."
"What do you think I'd better do, sir?" asked Huntley anxiously.
"Don't write," said Larose. "Go down and see her. It will make it much easier for her to tell her story than to put it on paper. She's been badly wronged, but if I know anything of women, she's still a thoroughly good girl. As you thought, it was that vile Mrs. Rawson who brought the trouble on her. She drugged her."
The butler's face went all sorts of colours and his lips moved although he did not speak.
Returning to the Yard, Larose told Stone about Elsie Bane and the stout inspector breathed hard. "That's another one out of it," he snorted. He made a gesture of disgust. "But they're all out of it! Ay, and all still in it! I've been to see Byles Chater and that Doctor King-Harley to-day. But what was the good? They just stuck to their stories and there we are." He clenched his fist. "And so, I suppose it will end. Another failure for us, with the murderer sitting tight, and all the while, grinning behind his wooden face." He heaved a tremendous sigh. "It's no good, Gilbert, we're beaten. We're at a dead end."
HUNTLEY obtained the Sunday off and went down to Norwich on his motor-bicycle. He saw Elsie Bane and what passed between them must have been satisfactory as he returned to Crane Court that night, from his appearance, in quite a happy frame of mind.
Finding his mistress had not yet gone up to her bedroom, he went into the dining-room to speak to her. He told her he had come to give notice and would be very sorry to leave her, but when everything was settled—which was his delicate way of referring to his late master and the forthcoming adjourned inquest—he would like to go. Of course, however, he would only leave when it was quite convenient for her ladyship.
"But why do you want to go, Huntley?" asked Lady Hake. "Is there any special reason?"
"Yes, your ladyship," replied Huntley, "I'm going to be married," and he added very solemnly, "to Elsie."
Lady Hake did not hide her astonishment. "Oh, then, you've heard from her?" she exclaimed. "You've been to see her to-day."
"Yes, your ladyship," replied Huntley. "She's staying with a friend of hers in Norwich. She's been there all the time. She's working at a florist's."
Lady Hake's face flushed. Fully awakened to the fact, from the questions Larose had put to her, that it was common rumour with the servants her dead husband had been the cause of the girl's disappearance and knowing the butler's feelings for Elsie, she did not want to pursue the matter. At the same time, however, she realised that if she made no comment it would be an admission that she knew everything. So, she asked very quietly, "Then she wrote to you?"
It was now the butler who got red. "N-o your ladyship," he stammered, "the police found her."
"The police!" she exclaimed in startled surprise.
"Yes, Inspector Larose did," replied Huntley uncomfortably. He went on quickly, "You see, your ladyship, they wanted to find out where she was that night when Master—when everything happened. So Inspector Larose gave his whole attention to it and he found out where she was at once."
"But how did he find out," asked his mistress, looking very puzzled, "when no one had any idea where she had gone?"
Huntley related how the girl had been traced, some part of which he had learnt from Larose and the rest from Elsie herself. He finished up by adding, "He is a very clever man, this Mr. Larose." It seemed that he heaved a big sigh. "They say he always finds out everything in the end."
A short silence followed. Lady Hake's eyes were turned away and it might almost have been she had not heard his closing remark. However, she said at last, "But he seems a very kind-hearted man, this inspector?"
"He is, your ladyship," agreed the butler heartily, "quite different to all the others."
"Well, I shall be very sorry to lose you," she said with a rather sad smile, "and if you want one, of course, I'll give you a very good reference." She went on in a business-like tone, "I'm glad you've come in to see me to-night, because I want some papers to go up to the lawyers the first thing to-morrow morning, and you can take them for me. I'd like you to leave as early as possible."
"Very good, your ladyship," bowed Huntley, "I'll go into Chelmsford on the motor-bicycle and catch the eight-thirty express there. Then I'll be in Chancery Lane before half-past nine."
Huntley always preferred to go up to Town that way; firstly because it was quicker, and secondly, because by leaving his machine in Chelmsford he avoided riding through the London traffic.
The next morning, having arrived at Liverpool Street a few minutes after nine, he was just emerging into the station yard when a taxi drew up quickly and he saw Mrs. Rawson, the Berkeley Square housekeeper, was inside it.
His face crimsoned up in fury at the sight of her. 'I'd murder her if I got the chance,' he snarled. Curiosity now tempered his rage. 'But where the devil is she going?'
Obviously she had not seen him and springing out of the taxi, in frantic haste, almost before it had come to a standstill, she beckoned to a porter to approach at once.
"Hi, you there!" called out the taxi-driver loudly, lugging a big, and apparently, heavy suit-case from his cab. "Look alive, please! This lady's only got about three minutes to catch the Southminster train."
'Southminster!' whistled Huntley. 'The station for that damned Bradwell bungalow! What's she doing there.'
He followed at a distance to see that she caught the train and then, speculating hard all the time as to what the housekeeper was—as he called it—'up to,' he made his way to the lawyers' and delivered his mistress's papers.
Then, although he had had no intention of doing it before he had known the housekeeper would not be there, he thought he would call in at Berkeley Square. He was received with great delight by the three maids in charge who, along with the housekeeper always constituted the skeleton staff when Sir Roger and Lady Hake were not staying there. They were most eager to hear all about the tragedy at Hake Court, but he gave them little satisfaction.
"I don't want to talk about it," he said. "It's a terrible business and it does not seem we shall ever get rid of the police. They're still poking about the place and questioning us. It's terrible for poor little Mistress." He turned the conversation. "Where's Mrs. Rawson to-day."
It was obvious at once from the expressions on the girls' faces that the housekeeper was not popular. "She's gone off for the day to her sister at Norwood, who's very ill," said one of them.
"Oh, she's gone to Norwood, has she?" asked Huntley. "And her sister's very ill?"
"So she says," said the girl, "and she went there yesterday as well, both times with her suit-case packed full." She nodded darkly. "But we're not so sure about this sick sister of hers. We'd never heard of her before and we believe Mother Rawson thinks she is going to get the sack and is getting things away, beforehand."
"What things?" asked Huntley sharply.
"We can't tell you," replied the girl. "You know she's got the keys of all the cupboards and the store, and keeps everything locked up. She's locked her room, too, so that we don't know if anything's been taken from there. At any rate she's sent several boxes away by carrier and she took good care, too, we shouldn't see the labels on them."
Huntley returned to Hake Court wondering a lot about Mrs. Rawson and, saying nothing to anyone about her, was secretly resolving to go down to Bradwell as soon as he could and have a look round. Elsie had told him exactly where the bungalow was situated, and he was sure he would have no difficulty in picking it out, without having to go into the village to make enquiries.
Later in the week came the interesting news, by way of a letter received by the cook from one of the Berkeley Square maids, that the lawyers had given Mrs. Rawson notice and that she would be leaving any day now.
'And so I shall have to be very careful,' nodded Huntley to himself, 'for it may be it'll be to that bungalow she'll be going. She'll be thinking no one knows anything about it, and it's just likely she'll be going off with a lot of things which don't belong to her and hiding them there.' He nodded. 'Well, if she's not in the bungalow I'll get inside and see.'
On the following Sunday he was free for the whole day, and setting off early upon his motor-bicycle, proceeded to cut across country in the direction of the Essex coast. He crossed the London-Ipswich road at Witham, and passing through Maldon and Latchingdon, soon found himself within a few miles of Bradwell. But he was not minded to go anywhere near the village, and turned off on to a marsh road, which he saw led to the coast, when he was about three miles from it. Then, deep in the Tillingham marshes, he got off his motor-bicycle and considered his position.
He had brought with him a small pair of Sir Roger's racing glasses and could pick out most clearly the last bungalow, which he knew to be the one he was wanting, about a mile and a half away. The blinds were down and there was no sign of life about the place.
Still, if he were going to effect an entrance, he did not want anyone to hear him ride up on a noisy motor-bicycle and, perhaps, become interested in what he was doing. So he decided to hide his machine in a nearby ditch, which was happily quite dry, and proceed the rest of the way on foot. It was almost any odds, he thought, against anyone coming near the lonely and desolate stretch of marshland where he now was.
Half an hour later he was outside the bungalow and prospecting cautiously around. There was no one about and the next bungalow was nearly a quarter of a mile away.
'God, what a place to have brought poor little Elsie to!' he choked. He ground his teeth viciously. 'But, by Cripes, I'll pay the old devil out, somehow!'
Keeping his driving gloves on, so that by no chance should he leave any finger-marks behind, he produced a stout pocket-knife and had soon forced the catch of one of the windows and was standing inside the bungalow. Pulling up the blind, because the light was dim to his eyes just fresh from the sunlight, he found he was in quite a good-sized room, very comfortably furnished, with heavy curtains and a thick carpet covering the floor. It contained a large double bed covered with a blue satin eiderdown. All the furnishings were new or almost new. He guessed it was Sir Roger's own room as there was a box of his particular cigars and a silver ash-tray upon the mantel-shelf. Also in one corner was a small .22 rifle and in another a twelve-bore double-barrelled gun. Picking them up, each in turn, he frowned in disgust at his late master's carelessness in leaving them both loaded.
He tiptoed round the other rooms, a smaller bedroom, a dining-room and a kitchen. Everything was nicely appointed and it was evident no money had been spared. He began opening the several cupboards and whistled at once. They were packed full of stuff which had, obviously, been brought from Berkeley Square and which had, certainly, never been intended to be used in that little bungalow. Finest linen sheets, blankets, pillow-cases, and quite a number of tablecloths. In a box he found cutlery, a quantity of silver forks and spoons and pairs of silver candlesticks and two valuable old silver snuff-boxes.
'Gee, she's stolen every damned thing!' he exclaimed. 'She is reckoning, and quite rightly too, that poor little mistress won't know half of the things that should be up in Berkeley Square! Gee, what a thief!'
But his discoveries in that cupboard were not all, for every cupboard in the place contained what looked like more stolen things, even including tinned provisions and two ten-pound packets of tea.
Seating himself down in the dining-room, which faced to sea, he was considering what he should do next, when, to his horror, he heard voices outside. There was the sound of wheels rattling over stones and then a man called out, "Whoa!"
Paralysed in his fright, for quite half a minute, he sat on where he was, but then, awaking to his danger, he darted to the window and peered round the corner of the blind.
Hell, there was the housekeeper herself, coming up the short garden path, with her arms full of bundles, while behind her barely a dozen yards away, was a man lugging a big box off a cart! A large black dog was smelling about just under the dining-room window.
Huntley thought like lightning. He must get back into the bedroom, but he dared not get out of the window as the dog would have him for certain, and come after him at once. No, he must hide in the bedroom and wait until the man and the dog had gone! Oh, what a fool he'd been not to keep a better look-out. Of course, the housekeeper had come down by the early morning train, and been driven from the station in that cart.
He turned into the bedroom just as he heard the key grate in the front door, and jumped behind the thick curtain. Then, as he was pulling the curtain straight, his hand knocked against the small rifle which was standing in the corner and he had to clutch sharply at it to prevent it from falling on to the floor. Still gripping it, with no time to put it back in the corner, he drew his arm in behind the curtain. Then he cursed deeply, as he remembered that although he had pulled down the window after he had climbed in, the blind was still up. He heard the man with the cart talking to Mrs. Rawson.
"Well, that's that, marm," said the man, panting hard, and there came a sound as of some heavy object being plumped down on to the floor. "I'll bring up the other two boxes on Toosday and you pay me then. But don't expect me much before five because I've a big round that day."
"That'll be all right, then," said the housekeeper, "but oh! keep that dog out! Don't let him come into the house. Get out, you brute!" and there were stampings of feet, as if she were trying to frighten the animal away.
"It's all right marm," cried the man huffily, "and don't you try to strike him, or he'll fly at you. He smelt something. That was all. He smelt a rat, perhaps."
"A rat!" exclaimed the housekeeper in horrified tones. "Do you think one can have got in here?"
"Shouldn't wonder, marm," said the man. "There are some big 'uns about here." Perhaps he spoke maliciously because she had threatened his dog. "And they're very savage sometimes."
"Oh, what shall I do, if there is one?" asked the housekeeper in most concerned tones. "I'm terrified of rats."
"Do with him, marm?" laughed the man. "Why shoot him, of course. I see there's cartridges on the mantel-shelf over there and so you've got a gun. You can kill him easy with that. Good morning, marm. See you the day after to-morrow," and he banged the door behind him as he went out.
Huntley cursed under his breath. 'My God, if she takes hold of that gun and comes looking round!' he murmured, 'I'll be as good as dead, or with a big hole in my stomach.'
A long silence followed and then Huntley felt rather than heard the woman moving about the bungalow. He thought afterwards she must have taken off her boots because, being new ones, they were hurting her. At any rate, he sensed a sort of stirring in the passage. Then he heard a rustle and the rustle seemed to be coming nearer and nearer. A silence followed and then something moved by the wall of the room in which he was and he heard, or imagined he heard, a click.
Another silence followed, and not being able to tell what was happening, the suspense began to unnerve him and his knees trembled so much that it was only with an effort he was able to keep himself upright. Things became so unbearable at last, that he made to pull gently upon the curtain so that he could look round it into the room. With all his care, however, he must have pulled too hard for, to his unutterable horror, down came the curtain-rod, curtain and all, and he stood in full view of the housekeeper, who was standing on the other side of the room with the double-barrelled shot-gun in her hands.
Her face was as white as a ghost and her eyes were filled with terror.
For perhaps five seconds they stood staring at each other and then it was the woman who recovered first.
With a startled cry, she lifted up the gun and pointing it straight at him, pulled hard upon the trigger. But nothing happened, for she had only pulled up the trigger to half cock.
"Don't shoot, you idiot," shouted Huntley, but seeing she was deliberately pulling up the trigger again, he flung up the little rifle which he had all the time been holding in his hands, and pulling up the trigger, fired straight at her body.
She clutched at one side of her breast, gave a short moan and fell crashing on to the floor. She had been hit just over the heart.
Huntley panted as if he had been running a long distance and swallowed hard. He stared wonderingly at the body as if he did not know what he had done. But the realisation of everything came to him in a flash and dropping the rifle like a red-hot coal, he darted over to the woman and tried to lift her up. But her body sagged in his arms and, with a dreadful shudder, he let it sink back on to the floor. He saw blood was soaking down all over her cotton dress.
He looked round like a hunted animal. The sun was shining through the window and a long vista of the marshland stretched before his eyes. There was not a soul in sight. He craned his head to listen but all he heard was the faint lapping of the waves outside.
He tiptoed like lightning, in turn, to all the other windows of the bungalow and peered round the corners of the blinds. There was no one near, but in the distance he saw a party of two men and two girls coming along the sands.
He must be quick; he must get away at once; he must leave no traces of anything behind. Thank goodness he had not taken off his gloves and so there would be no finger-marks to worry about! He would lock the front door, and leave by the way he had come, by the window. 'Then,' he smiled a sickly smile, 'let the police puzzle out for themselves, who the killer was, and how he had got in.'
Keeping his eyes averted from the dead body, he went back into the bedroom and, mounting upon a chair, put back the curtain-rod and adjusted the curtain. Then, having locked the front door, he was just about to leave the bungalow when he heard voices again, very close this time.
He peeped round the blind in the front room and saw it was the little party of four he had noticed in the distance, a few minutes ago. They had a large picnic basket and some rugs with them, and also two deck-chairs. They had brought themselves to a standstill in front of the house. He could hear plainly what they were saying.
"Oh, this is far enough," called out one of the men. "I vote we stop here. No one will come as far as this." He looked at his watch. "It'll be high tide about eleven and it is ten minutes to, now."
"Yes, this'll do for us," said one of the girls. She pointed to the little stretch of grass belonging to the bungalow. "And we'll camp on that bit of grass. Then we won't get so much sand in the food. There's no one in the bungalow, as the blinds are all drawn."
Huntley was horror-struck. He was caught like a rat in a trap. He could not leave the bungalow by the back, as directly he got a few yards from it he would be seen. It was open and flat country all round.
With a dry mouth and a fearfully beating heart, he watched the little party settle down, and it was quickly apparent to him they were going to be there for the day. They spread out the rugs, placed out their picnicking things and even lit a fire with chips of wood they had gathered, right in the middle of the garden-path.
"And we needn't even have bothered to bring water all this way," said one of the girls producing a small ready-filled kettle from the basket. "There'll be plenty of good water in that tank there," and she pointed to the one at the side of the bungalow.
Huntley smiled a wan and ghastly smile. Here was this light-hearted picnic party within a few yards of the bloody corpse of a woman who had just been killed. And they would be eating and drinking and making merry within a few feet of the killer, who by the Tuesday night, if not sooner, would be looked for, high and low, by every policeman round the countryside. He shuddered at the prospect—his thoughts were conjuring up. Oh, if he could only get away. He would be caught red-handed, if by any chance anyone came to the bungalow.
In a few minutes, however, he began to calm down. No one would be coming to the bungalow. There was no reason for them to come and the housekeeper was the only one who possessed a key. He settled himself down to wait with what patience he could.
Then, closing his eyes, he tried to work out everything which might happen when it became known the woman had been murdered, and he did not try to hide from himself that things would look very black for him. Of course, he would be suspected at once. Inspector Larose knew what hatred he must have for the housekeeper and naturally, would have told his brother inspector the part the woman had taken in Elsie's pitiable story. Then, looking for a motive for the killing of the housekeeper, their thoughts would turn instantly to him.
God, and they would learn he had been away all the Sunday on his motor-bicycle, and wherever he made out he had gone to for the day, he would not be able to furnish a single witness to prove it.
His breathing almost choked him. He must baffle them in some way, and the great point in his favour was that he had plenty of time to think out how he could do it. Ah, and to begin with, he must supply another motive for the crime. He must make out the woman had been shot by someone who had broken in to steal. His thoughts ran on. But how would the police know there had been anything in the place worth stealing? If he took away the silver spoons and forks and the candlesticks and the snuff-box, they might never learn they had ever been there. What, in the ordinary way, would there have been in a little bungalow like this to tempt anyone to break in and rob? Why, nothing! He shook his head vehemently. No, to deceive the police properly, he must be as crafty as a fox.
Then he smiled cunningly as an idea came to him. He would gather together everything which was worth taking in the bungalow and so give the police the impression that he had been packing them up to carry away, and been interrupted.
So he set about carrying this out most methodically. Opening a suit-case he found in the smaller bedroom, he tipped all its contents on to the floor there and bringing it into the kitchen, laid it upon the table. Then wantonly tearing up a good sheet from one of the cupboards, he carefully wrapped up every piece of silver and packed it into the suit-case. In the housekeeper's handbag, he found twenty-seven pounds in treasury-notes, and these he dropped all close together upon one place on the kitchen floor, to suggest that he had been so agitated in his flight that he had not noticed them fall.
All these preparations took him until about half-past one and by then, being much easier in his mind, he began to feel hungry. The housekeeper had brought with her a fair-sized string bag, and examining its contents, he found in it, among other things, a small brown-paper bag with 'Liverpool Street Station' on it. Opening it, he saw a whole meat-pie and one partly consumed. After a long consideration, he ate the whole pie over the kitchen sink, being most careful that any crumbs he made should fall back into the brown-paper bag. Then, after a drink of water, which he took by putting his mouth close to the tap, he resigned himself to continue his long wait, his only escape from its monotony being his watch upon the picnic party outside.
They had had a bathe, their meal, more cups of tea and now were resting and dozing upon the little stretch of grass. He could hear everything they said and had soon even got to know their Christian names. He gathered they had come down by char-a-banc from Forest Gate and would be leaving for the return journey at six.
So, the long afternoon wore on and at last, with great relief, he saw them pack up and leave. By then, however, he had come to the conclusion that, having waited so long, it would be wiser now to wait until it got dark. He was devoutly hoping no one had come across his motor-bicycle.
Darkness having at last fallen, he left by means of the kitchen window, leaving it open to support the idea how quickly he had had to get away. To his great relief, he found his motor-bicycle exactly as he had left it, and very soon he was upon his way home.
He rode his motor-bicycle very carefully, but as quickly as he could, as far as possible avoiding all main roads. Luckily, he knew the country well and so managed his journey that he never went through a lighted town. He was confident that, up to the very gates of Hake Court, he had slunk unobtrusively and almost unseen across the whole country of Essex.
Arriving at the gates of the Court grounds, they were opened for him by one of the other gardeners who lived in the village.
"Hepburn's in hospital," announced the man. "He wasn't feeling well this morning and Mistress came down to see him. Then she insisted upon his going straight off at once. She drove him in her car to make certain he went."
Huntley was not interested over much. Hepburn was an ageing, taciturn old bachelor, and not liked by the other servants, of whom he took no notice. Indeed, he took no notice of anyone except Lady Hake for whom he had of late developed a most dog-like devotion.
Letting himself into the house through the back door, Huntley changed out of his cycling overalls and went down into the kitchen to get himself some supper, hoping as it was so late that all the girls would have gone off to bed and he would escape being asked where he had been. Anticipating the questioning of the police, which he was certain would come later, he was prepared, however, to give out at once that he had been down to Southampton. That would have been a journey long enough to have made it practically impossible for him to have been anywhere near Bradwell as well, upon the same day.
No one was in the kitchen and he did not meet any of the other servants until the next morning at breakfast. Then, going in for the meal, he was surprised to see mackerel upon the table.
"Yes," smiled the cook, noticing his surprise, "Mr. Chater called in last night with a string of them for the mistress. He and Doctor King-Harley motored down to Hastings yesterday and got some, fresh off the fishing-boats, just as they had come in."
"Oh!" exclaimed Huntley, an idea suddenly flashing into his mind. "I saw them there. I went for a ride yesterday along the South Coast as far as Worthing," and he smiled to himself at the boldness of the idea which had come to him.
That afternoon he asked Lady Hake if she would spare him the day off on the morrow, as he wanted to go up to town to buy an engagement ring for Elsie Bane, and he was told he could be spared.
Accordingly, soon after ten the next morning, he presented himself at the chambers of Byles Chater in Temple Court and asked to see the King's Counsel.
"But you haven't an appointment," frowned the clerk to whom he had addressed himself, "and Mr. Chater is very busy. What's your business?"
"Private," said Huntley, "but you give him my name and tell him I come from Hake Court and it's most important I should see him."
The clerk took himself off, as if rather reluctantly, but returned immediately and beckoned to the butler to follow him.
Byles Chater looked curiously at Huntley when he was shown in. "Well, what is it you want?" he asked. "Do you come from Lady Hake?"
"No, sir, I'm here about myself," replied Huntley. Then making sure the door was shut behind him, he blurted out quickly and very nervously, "The truth is, sir, I've got myself into very grave trouble and I expect I may even be arrested to-night." He could hardly get his words out. "I want you to help me, sir."
"But what on earth have you done?" frowned Byles Chater.
"I've—I've killed a woman, sir," stammered Huntley ruefully. "The body hasn't been found yet, but I expect it will be this afternoon, and then it won't be long before the police come to me."
"Good God," exclaimed the K.C. with his eyes as wide as saucers, "what the devil did you do it for?"
"I had to do it to save myself, sir, and——"
"But who was the woman?" snapped the other sharply.
Huntley almost choked. "Mrs. Rawson, sir, my late master's housekeeper in Berkeley Square. She was a very evil woman."
"Good God!" exclaimed the K.C. again. He lowered his voice. "Tell me all the story."
So Huntley began by relating his surprise at learning from Inspector Stone that Sir Roger had a bungalow at Bradwell. Then he said how he had seen the housekeeper going off on the Southminster train, when she had given out she was going to Norwich. He had heard of the boxes she was sending away and so was suspecting that now Sir Roger was dead, she was stealing things from the house in Berkeley Square. So he had gone down to the bungalow on the Sunday which had just passed. Then he told everything which had happened there, how he had found the stolen things, how she had arrived unexpectedly, how he had hidden behind the curtains and how she must have seen his feet sticking out from underneath when she had come into the bedroom. Then he told of the curtain falling down and how she had tried to shoot him and he had had to fire at her to save himself.
Then he related how he had had to remain in the bungalow until night and what he had done to cover his tracks.
Byles Chater listened to him with close attention, never taking his eyes from his face. Then when Huntley had finished, he asked frowningly, "And you say you've left no clues behind you? Then why will the police suspect you?"
"Because they know, sir," said Huntley very solemnly, "that I had every reason to want to harm Mrs. Rawson. She had taken my young lady down to that bungalow and drugged her so that Sir Roger could carry out his vile purpose. I only learnt of it after he was dead," and then he related the whole story of the disappearance of Elsie Bane: how no one had known for months and months to where she had gone, but how through Larose her whereabouts had been discovered, and he, Huntley, and the girl had met again.
"And the dreadful part is, sir," he finished up with, "it cannot be hidden from the police that I was away all Sunday on my motor-cycle and so, unless I can prove I was miles and miles away from Bradwell, they will be sure it was me."
Byles Chater nodded. "Of course they will!" He spoke decisively. "Well, my advice to you, my friend, is to go and give yourself up. Give yourself up at once, to-day, this morning, before they find the body. Make a clean breast of everything and I'll do the best I can for you. At any rate, I can promise you you won't hang."
Huntley spoke hesitatingly. "But, sir, thinking that I've taken my revenge upon the woman because of what she did to my sweetheart, wouldn't the police make out that I had had revenge upon Sir Roger too, because of what he'd have done to her?"
The K.C. nodded. "No doubt!" He shrugged his shoulders. "But you're lucky there. They can't prove anything. You'll be quite safe."
Huntley hesitated. "But if I could prove, sir, that I was somewhere else on Sunday, I should be all right." He gave a little cough. "I told them in the kitchen this morning that I was in Hastings then, and had seen you and Doctor King-Harley." He nodded. "Of course, I'd heard you had brought those mackerel from there."
Byles Chater glared at him in amazement. "You're a big liar, aren't you?"
Huntley sighed. "But not a bad one, sir. I don't tell lies which hurt anyone, and I thought——" he hesitated again—"I thought that perhaps you would very kindly say you had seen me at Hastings when you were there on the Sunday morning and then that would save me."
It hardly seemed that Byles Chater could believe his ears. He bent forward with his face all puckered in an amazed frown. He was evidently too astounded to be angry. "And what do you suggest offering me in return," he asked with biting sarcasm, "for this little accommodation of perjury upon my part."
"Well, sir," replied Huntley very solemnly, "I've helped you by holding my tongue, and I thought you might perhaps now help me in return." He spoke quite firmly. "I have kept silent when a word from me would have been most unpleasant for all you gentlemen, more unpleasant than I dare to think."
It was now the great King's Counsel who could hardly get out his words. "W-hat, what do you mean?" he asked.
Huntley lowered his voice to an intense whisper. "I was in the study that night, sir, when Sir Roger was shot. I was hiding behind the curtain and saw everything." He spoke fiercely and quickly. "I watched the struggle between Master and Mr. Harland. He had called Master a foul brute and Master had shaken him and spat in his face and called her ladyship a female dog. Then Mr. Harland snatched up the pistol and killed him. Then he threw open the library door and called out that he shot him and was going to ring up the police. You all came running in and you said it served Master right and they were all glad Mr. Harland had done it. Then you said—yes, sir, it was you—'let's give him an alibi, let's all swear he never left the room.' And the doctor and Mr. Norton agreed at once, but the others were not willing at first and you all went back into the library to talk things over."
Huntley seemed to have echausted himself by his long speech and finished hardly audibly, "Then I ran out of the study, sir, and didn't come near it again until you rang for me."
Byles Chafer's face had gone an ashen grey, but it was drawn in cold proud lines and there was no sign of fear or weakness in the lips pressed so tightly together. His eyes glared menacingly at Huntley, "And you think," he asked contemptuously, "that anyone will believe this story if you tell them?"
Huntley nodded gravely. "Inspector Larose has the proof of it, sir," he said, "but he does not realise it yet. He does not understand what it means." He spoke most respectfully. "You gentlemen made one great mistake, sir. You left that candle burning all the time you were deciding what to do, and Inspector Larose has noticed it. He lighted the other candle to see how long it would take to make them both level. The other afternoon he shut himself up in the study for longer than an hour and I don't know what he isn't up to. I am afraid of him, sir. He is a very great detective and we must all be afraid of him, for he is most dangerous."
In spite of his self-control, the K.C. frowned heavily and uneasily. "And what do you intend to do," he asked sharply, "if I refuse to perjure myself in the face of your threat?"
"Oh, it is no threat, sir," replied Huntley hastily. "If you don't see your way to help me, I shall still say nothing." He shook his head vehemently. "But I shan't give myself up. I shall take a fighting chance and make out I was on the South Coast."
For a long minute, Byles Chater considered, stroking his chin thoughtfully and with his eyes staring into vacancy. Then, with a deep sigh of resignation, he jerked up the receiver and asked for a number. "Is Doctor King-Harley in? Then put me on to him please. Mr. Byles Chater speaking.—Is that you, Doctor? It's Chater here. I must speak to you at once. It's about Hake Court and the matter is very urgent. Right. I'll come round at once."
He hung up the receiver and rose quickly to his feet. "Come on," he said to Huntley, "we'll go and speak to Doctor King-Harley."
A taxi was summoned and Huntley was bundled in. Not a word was spoken during the journey or until they had been shown into the doctor's waiting-room. Then the K.C. said, "I shall speak to him, first. You'll wait in here."
Only about two minutes elapsed before Byles Chater was taken in to the doctor and the consulting-room door closed behind him. He spoke casually. "Things not too good, brother," he said. "We had an audience that we were not aware of that night in Hake's study. His butler was behind the curtain there and saw and heard everything. Now he's in trouble himself—" he laughed mirthlessly—"with another killing, and he wants help from you and me."
The doctor's face was very grave and he made no attempt to hide his consternation. It became graver still as Byles Chater proceeded with the butler's story. When it was finished, he looked very white and drawn.
"What a mess!" he exclaimed. "What a damnable mess we're in." He drew in a deep breath. "It was mad of us to start the business in the very beginning."
"It was," nodded the K.C. solemnly, "and we're in it up to the neck now." He regarded the doctor intently. "The point is, are we two to involve ourselves still more in the hope of playing for safety?"
"If we're found out," said the doctor thoughtfully, "if it becomes known how we perjured ourselves to save young Harland, it means ruin to all our careers. It means penal servitude for all of us."
"Quite so," agreed Chater at once, "we shall probably get three years, although under all the circumstances the jury will certainly recommend us to mercy."
The doctor frowned. "But you say this man is not unfriendly; he's not going to round on us in any case."
"N-o," the K.C. admitted slowly, "but he's shrewd enough to realise he may be charged with a double murder and then—to clear himself from the charge of having killed that beast, Sir Roger—it is just possible he may not be able to resist telling about us." He spoke judicially. "Really, it would be foolish of him not to do so, as he is under no obligation to any of us."
"And you think," asked the doctor quickly, "that if we put him under such an obligation, he will say nothing, out of gratitude?"
"There will be no need for him to say anything then," nodded Byles Chater emphatically. "If we give him this alibi he asks for he will be out of the danger zone at once. Cleared of the suspicion of having taken his revenge on the woman at Bradwell, there will be no suspicion of his having taken revenge on Hake." He raised his hand to stress his point. "You see, as I look at it as far as Huntley is concerned, the two killings are indissolubly linked together. Both of those who have come to these dreadful ends had jointly inflicted a terrible wrong upon him through that Elsie Bane, so what will be more natural, if it can be proved he killed one, than to suspect him of having killed the other? The probability then becomes cumulative. But if the idea that he killed one of them is scotched on the head at once—then the idea that he killed the other will never enter into anyone's mind?"
"But didn't he tell us," queried the doctor, "that the detectives were not inclined to believe him when he said he had not come near us because he had been hunting for matches all the time the lights had been out. Isn't he suspected already?"
"No, he's not," snapped Byles Chater, "Old Charlie Stone sort of hinted to me that they believe he'd been upstairs courting one of the maids." He spoke testily. "But what do you agree to do about him now? I'm for halving our risks and swearing we saw him at Hastings on Sunday."
"I'll have him," snapped back the doctor, and he put his finger upon the bell. "If he seems reliable I suppose we'll have to do it, but if he's a weakling I'll not go any further."
Huntley came in and bowed most respectfully to Dr. King-Harley, who took him in hand at once, coming straight to the point.
"Now then," he said savagely, "this is blackmail!"
"Oh, no sir!" exclaimed Huntley in horrified tones. "I wouldn't think of such a thing."
"But if we don't do as you want us to," scowled the doctor, "you'll give us away to the police."
"No, I shan't, sir," said Huntley firmly. "I will never do that. I'm too fond of my poor mistress. I want her to marry Mr. Harland and get some happiness for the awful life she's been having."
"She mayn't want to marry him," snapped the doctor.
"Oh, but she does, sir. They've been sweethearts for quite a little while."
"What!" cried the doctor. "How do you know that?"
"They've been meeting in the summer-house, sir, very late at night. They don't know it, but I've sort of been keeping watch for them so that Master shouldn't find out."
"Gad!" exclaimed Byles Chater using his favourite expression. "You're not lying to us now?"
Huntley shook his head. "No, sir, and I only tell you because at a time like this I think it is best we should all know everything. It will help us to beat those inspectors." He nodded. "Mr. Harland and Mistress had a narrow escape only a few nights before the card-party. They thought Sir Roger had gone to bed and Mr. Harland was petting her in the hall. I heard Master coming and pretended to come out of the passage and fall over a chair. I made a lot of noise and Mistress escaped up the back-stairs. Mr. Harland made out he was half asleep in an armchair, but I think Master was a little bit suspicious, because he smelt the scent Mistress uses." He nodded again. "That's why I believe he called her a dreadful word in the study, which made Mr. Harland shoot him at once."
"Well, I'm damned!" exclaimed the doctor. "What'll we hear next?"
"But we can't blame her, sir," said Huntley. "Master led her an awful life. He used to come home and boast to her about the women he'd been making love to."
"How do you know?" asked Byles Chater.
Huntley hesitated. "Well, sir, sometimes Master talked very loudly and—I listened."
"Does she know Mr. Harland shot her husband?" asked the doctor.
"No, sir, he's told her he didn't," replied Huntley. He looked a little embarrassed. "I happened to have been listening then, too." He smiled, "She thinks Mr. Reeder killed him because he'd shot that beautiful racehorse, Molly's Darling. She's sure of it."
The K.C. looked at the doctor and the latter nodded. Byles Chater turned to the butler. "Well, if we're going to help you, tell us exactly what you want us to say."
"That you saw me in Hastings, sir," replied Huntley, "somewhere about middle of the day." He coughed. "Mrs. Rawson passed away about twenty minutes to eleven, so that would be the best time to say."
"Can you be sure that was the exact time?" asked Byles Chater sternly. "Remember we must make no mistake now."
"Oh, there's no mistake, sir. I've looked up the train and it arrived at Southminster at a few minutes to ten, and the carrier man had to bring her on for between four and five miles. So what time did you gentlemen get to Hastings?"
"Soon after twelve. We parked our car in West Street and went into the Victoria Hotel for lunch at half-past."
"That will suit me, sir," smiled Huntley. "Now, I know Hastings well. I spent a holiday there last year and I was there for the day last August Bank Holiday. So when you walked along the sea-front, coming from West Street, you saw me standing with my machine against the rails, right in front of the hotel watching the people bathing. It should have been about high water, sir."
"It was," grunted the K.C. "Near enough, at any rate."
"And it was bright sunshine," went on Huntley, "and as you passed me you nodded and said, 'Good-day to you, Huntley, out on the spree, are you?' and I laughed and said, 'Oh, no, sir. I am too old for that.'"
"And that's all I said," frowned Byles Chater, half amused and half annoyed at the confident way the man was arranging things. "Don't make out I said too much or I shall forget it."
"Not for a moment, sir," said Huntley. He thought for a few seconds. "Then you went straight across the road into the hotel. Oh, and my motor-bicycle looked very bright and all nickel-plated. You just noticed it had a large tank."
"And what did I do?" asked Dr. King-Harley, sarcastically. "Didn't I say anything?"
"No, sir," smiled Huntley, "you just nodded to me. You were carrying a newspaper in your hand. You both were wearing light suits? Yes, and soft hats? Oh, I had got the usual motor-cycle suit and an air-man's cap, and I hadn't any goggles on when you saw me."
"But what is there to have prevented you being in Hastings in the morning?" asked Byles Chater, "and killing that woman in the afternoon or evening?"
"I've thought of that, sir," said Huntley, "and was going to ask you what time you left Hastings in the afternoon."
"About half-past four and we came back by way of Eastbourne. I suppose we left there at six."
"And you passed me then in Terminus Road. I was going very slowly and coming in the opposite direction, just before you turn off to go to Devonshire Park. Apparently I didn't see you. I came back by the same way I went. You said to Doctor King-Harley, 'Here's that gay knut again. Where's he off to now?'"
The doctor's grim face broke into a smile. "I think we can rely on him all right, Chater. He seems to have all his wits about him." He turned to Huntley and his face clouded a little.
"Now, you're not likely to give yourself away in fright when the police first come to you?"
"Oh no, sir, you can trust me," replied Huntley. He smiled. "I appeared quite all right, sir, didn't I, when I came in that night when one of you gentlemen rang the bell. You wouldn't have guessed I knew the master was lying dead?"
"No, by Jove, no!" exclaimed the doctor fervently. "I'd have staked my life you weren't acting then." A thought struck him. "But here, how did you come to be behind the curtain that night?"
"Master had some headache tablets in his desk and I'd gone to get one, sir. Then I'd unfortunately spilled them all out of the bottle just before the lights went out and I was waiting to see to be able to pick them up again. I daren't let Master know I'd been to his desk, so I went behind that curtain the instant I saw him coming in with the lighted match."
"One thing more," asked the doctor uneasily. "Now are you positive you left no finger-marks behind in that bungalow."
"Quite positive, sir. I never took my gloves off once during the whole day, from the moment I left the Court until I got back there at night. It was a great trial to me, as the day was very hot."
"And another thing," frowned Byles Chater. "If they arrest you, insist that you have a lawyer at once. But don't go to my brother's firm. Ask for Mr. Cole Nathan of Fleet Court. You couldn't have a better man, but don't tell a soul, least of all, him, that I recommended you."
"Very good, sir," bowed Huntley, and he was dismissed with the stern injunction to be on the look out continually and to hold himself ready at any moment for the shock of the arrival of the detectives.
When he had gone, the two friends looked intently at each other. "Are we gentlemen, do you think, King-Harley," asked Byles Chater, "to be deliberately perjuring ourselves to save two murderers?"
The doctor made a wry face. "If we are," he replied, "we are now certainly madmen as well." He shook his head vexatiously. "Just imagine two men high up in honourable professions like ours, acting like this! It is incredible! It is fantastic beyond belief!"
"It was all my fault for suggesting it," commented Byles Chater gloomily, "but I was maddened, as we all were, with the way that devil had treated poor little Mary Hellister—thank God I don't think of her as Lady Hake now—at dinner. We did it in the heat of the moment," he nodded, "and I'm damned sure we've all been regretting it ever since."
"Never mind!" nodded the doctor. He smiled his dry smile. "Remember all's well that ends well."
"But, by God, it's not ended yet," snapped Byles Chater. He drew in a deep breath. "Shan't I be glad when that adjourned inquest's over! That's the snag we've got to get over."
IN the meantime, upon the morning when the butler of Hake Court went up to see Mr. Byles Chater, a letter arrived at Scotland Yard for Larose. It was marked 'Private,' postmarked Newmarket and dated the previous day. It was signed Emma Reeder and read:
I am Mrs. Martin Reeder and write to you in the strictest confidence. Please on no account let my husband learn I have written to you, but I feel I must do so for he is so very worried, and the worry is making him really ill. He cannot sleep, and he eats hardly anything. The night after you came here, the other day, he had no sleep at all and twice, the next morning, he sat down to write to you. But he tore the letters up each time. I know it was to you he was writing because I happened to see one of the envelopes which he had addressed, first. Of course, it is that dreadful murder which is worrying him. He has something on his mind and I am sure he will not be well again until he has told it. He did not shoot Sir Roger Hake, but he knows who did. I have implored him to tell you, but he is obstinate and says he will not. Still, I believe if you come down again—find some pretence for seeing him—he will tell you everything. He has said to me he has done nothing very wrong, except that he has been very foolish. He is always too good-natured and so, of course, has now been led away by others.
P.S.—Please come soon.
Larose laid the letter upon the table and for a long while stared thoughtfully out of the window He did not seem particularly elated. 'So, as I thought,' he muttered, 'this man knows something and, to save that poor girl, I may perhaps be able to make him speak. Yes, that is the card to play. I must make out suspicion against her as stronger than ever. I could see he was anxious about her last week. I'll go down at once.'
Arriving in Newmarket and turning into the avenue where the trainer lived, he got something of a shock when he saw that the blinds of the Reeder home were drawn down. However, he walked up the front path and gently pushed the bell. A very solemn-faced maid answered his ring.
"Can I see Mr. Reeder, please?" he asked.
She shook her head. "He's dead, sir," she replied in a whisper. "He met with a dreadful accident yesterday evening." She pointed out through the open door to a man near a garage about fifty yards away and added chokingly, "He'll tell you all about it, sir. He's his chauffeur," and she closed the door quickly to escape further questioning.
Larose was aghast. Notwithstanding the drawn blinds, the shock was unexpected and he felt an unpleasant feeling in the pit of his stomach. For the moment he was inclined to return to his car straightaway, but thinking better of it he walked across to the man the girl had indicated.
"Good morning," he said. "This is very dreadful news I've just heard. Will you very kindly tell me what happened?"
"Yes, sir," replied the chauffeur. "Mr. Reeder was kicked on the head by the brood-mare, Molly Bawn. It happened yesterday evening."
The name struck some chord of memory in Larose's mind. "Molly Bawn!" he ejaculated.
"Yes, sir, the dam of Molly's Darling," nodded the man. "She belonged to Sir Roger Hake who was murdered by someone last week." He smiled a wan smile. "It's strange that both the owner and the trainer should have met with dreadful deaths within a few days of each other."
"Shocking!" exclaimed Larose. "How did it happen?"
"She was stung by a wasp, sir, and she kicked out and caught Mr. Reeder right on the temple. His forehead was crushed in and he was killed instantly."
"It's terribly sad," said Larose.
"Yes, sir, and sadder still because the mare was a great favourite of his. She's as docile and gentle as a lamb, too."
Larose heard footsteps behind him, upon the gravelled drive, and turned to see the maid who had opened the door coming towards him. "Are you Mr. Larose?" she asked. "Then Mrs. Reeder says she will speak to you."
Larose hesitated. "Oh, but I don't like to worry her!" he exclaimed. "Are you sure she wants to see me."
"Yes, sir, quite certain. She's bearing up wonderfully."
Larose found Mrs. Reeder a kind-faced-looking woman of middle-age. Her expression now was one of great grief, although she had herself well under control. "It was not fair for me to have asked you to come down all this way and not at least speak to you," she said. She shook her head. "But I'm afraid I can't tell you anything." She spoke very solemnly. "The secret died with him."
"You think he knew?" asked Larose.
"I'm sure he did," she nodded, "and why he was hesitating to speak was simply that he wanted to shield whoever it was who killed Sir Roger Hake."
"He didn't like Sir Roger?" suggested Larose, to draw her out.
She shook her head. "No one liked him, Mr. Larose," she shrugged her shoulders, "except a few silly women. He was a bad man."
"And why do you think Mr. Reeder would have liked me to know who killed Sir Roger?" asked Larose.
She spoke decisively. "It was a matter of justice, Mr. Larose. He said you detectives are accusing someone who did not do it, and he wanted to see that person cleared. At the same time he didn't want the real person found out."
"And he told you that?"
"Not in so many words, but he let me know what was in his mind. My poor husband was like that. He would often give you a half-confidence when no confidence at all would have been better. It only made me worried, too."
"And what did he mean when he told you, as you wrote me, that he had only been foolish?"
Mrs. Reeder hesitated. "I think it was he'd been induced, against his better judgment, to help hush up who had shot Sir Roger. At any rate, he told me it had taken them nearly half an hour to persuade him to make a fool of himself."
"Taken them?" queried Larose.
"Yes I am certain there was more than one in it."
"And you can tell me nothing more?" asked Larose.
"Nothing," replied Mrs. Reeder, and then she added quickly: "Oh, except that he said in his sleep the other night, 'Of course he's in love with her.' I just caught the words."
'A sure thing!' nodded Larose, as he drove away. 'Young Harland killed Sir Roger and the others entered into a conspiracy to shield him. But there was some argument about it as they didn't all agree at first. That was when the candle was left burning, and they didn't notice it was burning until they went to turn out the electric light. They were intending that the study should be in darkness when the butler went into it after they had rung for him to ask him about his master.' He frowned heavily. 'Now what the devil am I to do about it? However certain I may be, I can't prove anything.'
He broke his journey at Cambridge to make some enquiries about Harland, whom he knew had taken his degree there two years previously. He, Larose, had a friend upon the professorial staff and he soon learnt all there was to know about the secretary of the dead man.
Harland had had a good reputation as a quiet and very well-balanced young fellow. Everybody had liked him. He had been a prominent member of the Amateur Dramatic Society and upon several occasions had taken leading parts with distinction.
'Exactly,' smiled Larose, when once again he was back in his car, 'an actor, and a darned good one, too. He lied to me with all appearance of perfect truth.' He frowned. 'But I don't put his lying against him. He had to lie, not only for his own sake, but also to save the dainty little widow from a terrible scandal. Of course, if it were to come out that he had killed Hake, then everyone would say he had done it because they had been lovers.' He nodded. 'Most probably they have been. Her anxiety about him, the other day, certainly suggests it. And what would have been more natural? Neglected and brutally treated, she would at once have aroused his pity and then—his love, of course, would have followed.' He sighed. 'I know I could easily have fallen in love with her without there being any need for that pity to start me on.'
His thoughts ran on. 'But how the devil could he get all those level-headed men to perjure themselves for him? Oh, but they are gentlemen, they are men of the world, they are gamblers! Shilling points, indeed! Why, they could easily have dropped fifty pounds during the evening! Yes, they were the very type of men to take risks—and revel in them!'
He shook his head. 'But I don't suppose for a moment Harland asked them to shield him. His nature is much too proud for that. No, they volunteered it. They were just all ripe to be delighted someone had put paid to the Hake brute. They knew how he was treating his girl wife and most likely he had been insulting to her that night at dinner. The maids said he was in a bad temper at the meal. Then who was it suggested the perjury? Perhaps it was that Norton who first suggested it. Or perhaps it was the K.C. fellow, or perhaps the Harley Street quack. Yes, always beware of doctors. They have a morality of their own, and are the finest fellows in the world, most of them.'
He went on. 'Then there was that Navy chap, the nice-looking Commander. Ah, he would sympathise with her little ladyship. Beauty in distress and all that. But what about Paxton-Smith? A hard-bitten shrewd chap. Still, very kind-hearted if his sympathies were roused and with the courage of a lion when fighting for the under-dog. He's built that way and always sponsoring lost causes. No, there's no doubt Reeder was the last one to come into line and now—well, we can't get him for a witness.'
Arriving at the Yard, he found Inspector Stone in some excitement over an anonymous letter which had just arrived. It was addressed to New Scotland Yard, obviously in a woman's handwriting, and was written upon a half-sheet of good-class note-paper. It read:
The writer of this informs the authorities that the late Sir Roger Hake had recently come to suspect his wife and his secretary of guilty relations. So, it was probably one or the other of them who shot him.
"Now," exclaimed Stone, triumphantly, "what do you think of that? Most likely this was written by the woman you met at the bungalow. She was fond of Hake and now wants his murderer avenged."
Larose nodded. "I shouldn't be surprised. This is the kind of letter she would write. She was educated and a lady, and probably Hake's latest catch."
"Well, we must find out the truth about these two," said Stone. "If they've been making up to one another it's hardly probable the servants won't know something about it." He screwed up his eyes. "The devil of it is they won't want to tell. That butler there is all eyes and ears and should know everything, but he won't give them away." He nodded. "Still, we may be able to find out something in the village. They're always chock full of scandal, those little places. I'll send Henderson down to-morrow. He's at his best when he's trailing anything to do with a skirt."
"The young widow's very well liked by everyone," remarked Larose meditatively, "and they'll certainly shield her if they can."
"And she'll need a lot of shielding all round," nodded Stone significantly, "because if she and young Harland were on anything more than mildly friendly terms, then it's any odds upon her having shot her husband. At any rate, we've got the motive then for either her or Harland doing it, and with six men swearing Harland never left the room then it can only be she."
"But that doctor's testimony," frowned Larose. "It will be hard to get over. Don't forget he said she went into a dead faint directly she heard of Sir Roger's death."
"I don't forget it," scowled Stone, "but I don't believe a word the doctor says. Of course, he's on the girl's side, too. They all are," he shrugged his shoulders, "just because of her dainty face and lovely eyes." He shook his finger in Larose's face. "Why, I wouldn't trust you ten minutes, my boy, if she started making up to you. I've always told you you're too sentimental to be a policeman."
"But if we do find they've been sweet on one another," said Larose, "it will be no actual proof that Lady Hake shot her husband. It gives no evidence of guilt that we can produce in a Court of Law."
"No, it may not," snapped Stone, "but it will show us where she's got a chink in her armour." He raised his hands emphatically. "Then we'll break her down next week in the witness-box in the Coroner's Court." He heaved a big sigh. "Yes, we'll have to turn that dainty little woman inside out and show her up as soiled a little drab as any erring sister in the lowest walk of life. It'll be very sad but it'll have to be done."
"All right," said Larose, "but you wait first and see what you find out to-morrow." He pointed to the letter upon the desk. "That may be just a bit of spite."
Stone nodded. "Of course it may. At any rate we'll talk things over again when Henderson gets back this afternoon."
But as it happened, by the following afternoon all their thoughts for the time being had been switched off into quite a different direction. The body of the dead woman had been discovered in the bungalow and it had been identified as that of Mrs. Rawson, the housekeeper of the late Sir Roger Hake.
Events there had followed very quickly, and, thanks to the enterprise of a reporter attached to the Chelmsford local paper, the whole tragedy had been avalanched into the limelight hours and hours before it would otherwise have happened.
The carrier had arrived at the bungalow with two heavy boxes about four o'clock on the Tuesday afternoon, a little earlier than he had expected, and had been very surprised to find the blinds in the front of the house were drawn and that he could get no answer to his knocking. He scouted round the house and found the open window, with the blind flapping noisily. He poked his head inside the window and called out loudly, "Anyone at home? Are you there Mrs. Smith?"
But he got no answer and he said afterwards that he didn't like the look of things. The place seemed so dark and gloomy and he would have sworn there was a nasty smell. He didn't fancy going in himself, so instead, he dropped his dog into the room and the animal disappeared out into the passage beyond. A couple of minutes or so having passed, he called to the dog but the animal would not come. So he got into the bungalow to see why.
He went into the passage and looked into the room opposite. The light was very dim, with the curtains drawn, but he could just make out his dog sniffing hard at something on the floor. He could smell something, too. He struck a match to see what it was and then nearly fainted when he saw a woman's body lying there. He struck another match and recognised the body as that of Mrs. Smith, and he felt he wanted to be sick when he saw the stains upon her dress and the horrible looking black patch upon the carpet.
He grabbed at his dog and got out of the bungalow as quickly as he could. Then he drove like fury into Bradwell and tried to get the Southminster policeman. But the latter was not in and he rang up the sergeant at Maldon. The sergeant got a quick grasp of things.
"You go back at once," he ordered, "and wait by the bungalow. See that no one goes inside. Now, tell me exactly where the place is. Oh, the last one towards the Crouch and I can't miss it! All right, I'll be there in a little over half an hour."
But he was not there in half an hour or anything like it. Indeed it was more than an hour before he arrived and then it was a procession of three cars, one of them an ambulance, which passed through Bradwell village to the bungalow. Believing, from the carrier's gruesome account that a murder had been committed, the sergeant had rung the Superintendent at Chelmsford to acquaint him with what had happened. Whereupon the Superintendent had stated he would come himself and bring everybody and everything necessary.
So the party included the police surgeon, the official photographer and finger-print expert, and two plain-clothes detectives. But they were not all who were arriving at the bungalow that afternoon, and it had come about in this way.
The woman at the Bradwell post office had a brother who was on the staff of the Chelmsford Chronicle, and in great glee she tipped off to him what was going on. The reporter scented a good story, and, as a country agent for the Daily Messenger of London, sensed a nice little addition to his banking account. So, unlike the Chelmsford superintendent, having no helpers to gather together, he started off on his motor-bicycle at once, and had obtained several good photographs of the bungalow, the open window and the waiting carrier, 'who had discovered the body,' long before the police arrived. He had also got a photograph of the dog who had 'smelt the remains.'
He had got even more than that, for he had obtained from the carrier the whole story of Mrs. Smith's arrival upon the previous Sunday morning, what she was like in appearance and how she had been dressed. Then, suddenly remembering how his dog had wanted to sniff about the bungalow directly the woman had unlocked the door, the carrier had become greatly excited and stated that most probably the murderer had been actually hiding in the house when they arrived.
So, the young reporter, besides the photographs, had got page after page of good and—what he called—'meaty' notes before the police arrived upon the scene, and in consequence, was not caring very much whether they snubbed him or not. But, to his great delight, he saw the Chelmsford Superintendent, whom he knew well, was with the party, and the former, coming out of the bungalow in a few minutes, gave him several pieces of information to add to those he already had. He was told the woman had been shot with a small rook rifle, had evidently been killed on that Sunday morning, and that the motive for the crime looked like being robbery.
The next morning the Daily Messenger had a great scoop, coming out with a large photograph upon it's front page, under big leaded type of 'DREADFUL MURDER IN BUNGALOW AT BRADWELL UPON THE LONELY ESSEX COAST.'
Then it went on to give details of the arrival of the woman at the bungalow upon the Sunday morning, with the murderer probably being already in hiding in the house, how she had been shot through the heart and how for two and a half days her body had lain just where it had fallen upon the floor. It hinted darkly here how the body had started to decompose under the burning summer heat in the small shut-up bungalow.
Then it went on to suggest there was certainly something very mysterious about the whole affair. The bungalow did not belong to the woman, as she had made out to the man who had brought her boxes, but to a well-to-do-looking London gentleman who came down at occasional week-ends with a lady, said to be his wife. The gentleman's name was supposed to be William Hale and he had given out in the village that he came from London, but there was no such name in the London Directory or in the telephone book either.
Another reason why it was believed Mr. Hale was a Londoner was because when he brought down a cleaner to go through the bungalow, which he occasionally did on Saturdays, he drove her into Southminster to catch the evening train and then it was for London she always took her ticket. The mysterious thing about this cleaner was that the description the Southminster porters gave of her tallied exactly with that of the murdered woman who had given her name to the carrier as Mrs. Smith and stated she was the owner of the bungalow.
Then, there was another thing which was very mystifying, the Daily Messenger went on. The murderer was intending to rob as well as kill, for he had packed up considerable plunder to take away. Something, however, had frightened him at the last moment and he had, apparently, left in a great hurry, empty-handed. But that was not all which needed explanation. How could the presence of the so many valuable things found in that lonely little sea-side bungalow be accounted for? There was a quantity of valuable silver ware, out of all proportion to the amount which would ever have been needed there, and also, valuable silver candlesticks and antique silver snuff-boxes, which were probably of great value, too. What did it all mean?
Then it went on to give descriptions of the dead woman and Mr. William Hale, the latter description having been obtained from the Bradwell villagers.
Finally, it enjoined its readers that if any of them thought they recognised Mrs. Smith or Mr. Hale from these descriptions, would they please come forward at once and give the authorities all the help they could.
Larose saw the article first and, arriving at the Yard, rushed in to Inspector Stone at once.
"Here we are!" he exclaimed, thrusting the newspaper under Stone's eyes. "This is Hake's bungalow photographed here and the murdered woman is Hake's Berkeley Square housekeeper, Mrs. Rawson. The description is hers, exactly."
Stone read the article very carefully through and then looked up significantly at Larose. "And are you sure it is the housekeeper?" he asked.
"It's her description," nodded Larose, "tall, angular, sharp-featured, dark and with greying hair." He pointed to the telephone upon the desk. "Ring up 13 Berkeley Square and ask if Mrs. Rawson's there. That'll settle it."
Stone got through at once. "That the late Sir Roger Hake's house?. . . Who's speaking?. . . Oh, the parlourmaid, but I want to speak to Mrs. Rawson. . . . She's not there. She's left, has she. Then when did she leave? . . . Very early last Sunday morning. . . . Did she take any boxes with her?. . . Oh, three more large ones. . . . You don't know to where she went? . . . You don't think it might have been to Bradwell? .. . Yes, Bradwell. BRADWELL, in Essex. . . . Oh, you've never heard of it! Thank you. Good morning."
He turned to Larose. "It looks a clinch," he nodded. "The girl says she had been sending boxes away all last week. Then depend upon it she had been robbing the Hake Estate and someone got to know the value of the stuff she'd got down there and killed her for it."
"Unless—unless," commented Larose slowly and he regarded his colleague intently, "the Hake Court butler got to know she was there and did her in."
"Gad, I never thought of that," exclaimed Stone, his eyes sticking out like marbles. "He may have gone there and had a violent row and shot her because of her having drugged his little sweetheart." He thumped his fist upon the desk. "And by Jupiter, if he shot her, what about his having shot Sir Roger as well? Wouldn't he have had the same motive of revenge there?" He snapped his fingers together triumphantly. "Oh, how this may simplify everything for us!"
Larose shook his head. "Don't be too sure, Charlie. Huntley may never have been away from Hake Court. He may have a cast-iron alibi."
"Well, we'll soon find out about that," said Stone. "I'll ring up Lady Hake and ask her if he's been away from there since Sunday," and he made to reach for the telephone upon the desk.
But Larose pulled back his hand. "No, no, don't do that," he said. "We mustn't give him any warning. We must take him on the hop. That'll be the best way. He's a clever man, this Huntley."
"Sharp as a weasel," growled Stone. "Very likely he staged all that packing up of valuables to make everyone believe it was them the murderer had come after." He nodded. "You're right, Gilbert. We'll go down to Chelmsford, and then to this bungalow first. I'll ring Chelmsford and tell them we're coming."
But his own telephone rang at that moment and, as he listened into the receiver, his face puckered up in great surprise. "All right, send them up at once," he said. He turned to Larose. "Now, that's devilish funny. Two young men want to speak to somebody here about the Bradwell murder. They say they can tell something about it."
"By Jove, what an extraordinary coincidence!" exclaimed Larose.
The door opened and two young fellows about twenty years of age were ushered in. "Sit down," smiled Stone. "We are Inspectors Larose and Stone, and we shall be very glad to hear anything you have to say."
The elder of the two produced a copy of the Daily Messenger from his pocket and pointed to the photograph of the Bradwell bungalow. "We were down there last Sunday," he said rather nervously, "and picnicked on that bit of lawn. You can see some of the pieces of paper I'm sorry we left behind. What we want to tell you is that we arrived there exactly at ten minutes to eleven and as we were sauntering along, about a hundred and fifty yards before we got there, we heard a sound like a rifle-shot."
Stone frowned. "Let me be quite certain of what you say. You and your friend here were——"
"And two young ladies, as well," broke in the young fellow. "We all heard the shot and you can ask them too. We'll give you their addresses."
"All right," smiled Stone. "Then, you arrived there exactly at ten minutes to eleven. How do you come to remember the time? Oh, you looked at your watch and remarked it should be just high-water?" He pointed to the newspaper. "Have you read there that the carrier said he brought the woman to the bungalow soon after half-past ten?"
"Yes," nodded the young fellow, "and that's what made us come here. We're certain now we heard the firing of the shot which killed her."
"What did you do when you heard the shot fired?" asked Larose,
"We all of us looked round," was the reply, "and wondered where on earth it had come from. Then we thought it had come from a boat we saw out at sea. We knew sound travels a long way over water."
They were asked several more questions, their names and addresses were taken and then they were dismissed with many thanks for having come forward.
"And that gives us proof positive," remarked Stone, "that the murderer was in the place when the woman and carrier arrived." He grinned. "Won't we just astound the Chelmsford lot when we tell them what we know."
And certainly the Chelmsford Superintendent was astounded when Larose identified the body in the mortuary. He recognised it as Mrs. Rawson at once.
The police photographs were brought out and scrutinised carefully by the two inspectors while Superintendent Wilson unfolded the whole story.
"And we found no fresh finger-marks," he said, "except those of the deceased woman. Whoever packed that silver so carefully was undoubtedly wearing gloves. Upon the rifle with which the woman was shot there were no finger-marks at all, but upon the double-barrelled shot-gun there were plenty of hers. Evidently she had got the gun in her hands when she was hit with the bullet which killed her."
"And your surgeon says she had been dead longer than two days when she was found?" asked Stone. "He reckons she was killed on Sunday morning?"
"Yes, he is sure of it," nodded the Superintendent, "and apart from what you now tell me those young picknickers told you, we should have been pretty certain of it too. You see the woman had not even taken off her hat to put away any of the perishable provisions she had brought with her before she was killed. No, we had already come to the conclusion she had been killed by someone who was hiding in the house when she arrived."
The Superintendent then accompanied them to the bungalow at Bradwell, where two plain-clothes men had been left in charge.
"We've only removed the body as yet," he explained, "and so you will see everything practically exactly as we found it and as when the murderer left it when he fled away."
Inspector Stone, after looking round for a few minutes, at once gave his opinion. "See here, Superintendent," he said. "I think this appearance of the killer having suddenly been frightened away is all a put-up job to mislead us. Look at it in this light. The fellow had all day to pack up that silver, because he was imprisoned here from before eleven until after six. You agree, that as long as those picnickers were parked upon that bit of grass, he couldn't have cut off without being seen?"
"Hardly," nodded the Superintendent, "with no windows at the back and the kitchen door opening at the side. It would have been too risky. He'd have been certain to have been noticed."
"Then why the devil," went on Stone, "didn't he have all the stuff ready for the first moment when he would be able to get away? Why did he sit here all day long doing nothing?"
The Superintendent made no reply and Larose took up the tale. "But what makes me rather think he never intended to go off with anything," he said, "is his leaving this twenty-seven pounds in notes behind upon the floor. When he'd killed the woman it's any odds he'd have looked into her bag at once. That'd have been the first thing he'd have done and, finding the notes, he'd have pocketed them carefully. If he'd have done it carefully they wouldn't have dropped out of his pocket, but if he had done it carelessly they would have shown signs of having been crumpled up." He pointed to the notes lying upon the table. "And they don't show any signs of crumpling, do they?"
"And now for that darned butler," nodded Stone, grimly, as they drove away. "I shall be very disappointed if he wasn't away on Sunday on that motor-bicycle of his, and didn't get back until well after dark."
"It's a long shot, Charlie," commented Larose warningly, "and if we do find he was away, depend upon it he'll have some good tale ready of where he was. We shan't catch him out easily."
Arriving at Hake Court, to their dismay it was the parlourmaid who answered the door. "Damnation, he's bolted," muttered Stone under his breath. He forced a smile upon his lips. "I wanted to see Mr. Huntley for a couple of minutes," he said. "Isn't he in?"
"Oh, yes, sir," smiled back the parlourmaid, "he's having his dinner. He went into Saffron Walden for her ladyship and that made him late. But he's just finishing, sir, and I'll go and send him to you at once."
"Tell him there's no hurry," said Stone, pleasantly. "We can wait five or ten minutes. Let him finish his dinner."
The parlourmaid looked rather shocked. "Oh, sir, he wouldn't do that. He won't keep you waiting. I'm sure he'll come at once."
She showed them into a little room at the end of the hall, and turning to go, almost collided with Huntley himself. He was all smiles as he inclined himself respectfully towards the inspectors. "I heard your voice, sir," he said, addressing Inspector Stone, "and thought I'd better come myself."
Stone's heart sank a little at the perfect composure of the man and there was no answering smile upon his face. He unmasked his guns instantly. "Where were you on Sunday, Huntley?" he asked very sternly.
The smile faded from the butler's face. There was no mistaking the sharpness of the tone in which he was being addressed and he looked curiously at the inspector. "Upon my motor-bicycle, sir," he replied without the slightest hesitation. "It was my Sunday off duty."
"Where did you go?" snapped Stone.
"Along the South Coast, sir," he said, "from Hastings to Brighton."
"Oh!" exclaimed Stone and he stared hard and long at the butler so long that it was soon obvious the latter had become uncomfortable. He got rather red.
"What do you mean, sir?" he asked respectfully. "I expect you you mean something."
"I do," replied Stone and his stare was a long one again, as the butler moistened his lips and swallowed. Then Stone asked with his face as black as thunder, "Seen the newspaper, this morning?"
"The Daily Messenger?"
"No, sir, The Times and Daily Telegraph. We don't take the Messenger."
"Then you don't know what's happened?" asked Stone.
The butler's tone was quite calm and even. "No, sir, that is if it's anything particular."
The inspector pretended to laugh. "You lie well, Huntley," he sneered, "but not well enough to deceive us." His tone hardened viciously. "You were at Bradwell on Sunday."
The butler made no pretence at not remembering the name.
"Where my late master had that bungalow, sir!" he exclaimed. He shook his head. "No, sir, I have never been there. I don't know that part of the coast at all. The roads are not good."
"A-ah," snorted Stone, "then you know where it is?"
Huntley looked very grim. "I have reason to know, sir." He inclined his head in the direction of Larose. "I expect that gentleman has told you about my girl friend, Elsie Bane."
Watching him like a cat bent upon the torture of a mouse, Stone almost hissed out his next words. "Then you pretend not to know Mrs. Rawson was murdered at Bradwell on Sunday morning?"
Huntley's eye-brows lifted, his mouth opened and it seemed he was not breathing in his surprise. Then he clenched his hands and his face took on a look of hate. "I did not know it, sir, but I'm glad of it." He took out his handkerchief and spat into it. "I would have murdered her myself if I could have been sure of not being found out."
"You did murder her," thundered Stone. "We can prove it."
"You can prove it!" exclaimed Huntley bewilderedly. His face all suddenly crimsoned up in fury. "And who's the liar now?" he shouted. Then, on the instant his whole expression changed, his face fell into respectful lines again and he went quickly, "Oh, I beg your pardon, sir. I ought not to have spoken like that. I quite forgot myself." He spoke decisively. "No, sir, I did not murder the woman. I was many miles away out of Essex on Sunday."
Stone was most disturbed by the man's confident air, but he scoffed sarcastically, "And you will be able to prove that, of course?"
The butler nodded, "I can prove I was in Hastings, sir, on Sunday, as I met Mr. Chater and Doctor King-Harley there. They spoke to me on the sea-front."
A cold shiver ran down Stone's spine. If what the man was saying could be corroborated, then everything was knocked instantly upon the head. It was a terrible disappointment. He clutched at a straw, having, however, to pull himself together to steady his voice. "What time was that?" he snapped.
Huntley considered. "The hotels had not been open long, so I should say it was very soon after half-past twelve, sir. They were just going into the Victoria Hotel, I expect, for lunch."
"But that doesn't say you didn't go down to Bradwell afterwards?" scowled Stone, hoping now against hope that the woman might after all have been killed later in the day than they all had been thinking.
"Oh, no, sir, I quite see that," agreed Huntley. He shook his head emphatically. "But I didn't. I went on to Eastbourne and Brighton and didn't get home here until half-past ten." Stone's hopes seemed to revive. "And we shall want witnesses to testify to where you were late in the day," he said very sternly. "Who can you bring?"
For the first time Huntley looked crestfallen and uneasy.
"I—I don't suppose I can bring anyone, sir," he faltered. "I met no other people I know and who among that holiday crowd would remember any particular motor-bicycle? There were thousands of us about."
"What did you do at Eastbourne and Brighton?" asked Stone.
"Nothing much, sir, I just sat on the front and watched the people."
"Where did you go for your meals?"
"I didn't go anywhere. I bought some sandwiches at a shop in Seaside Road in Eastbourne and some lemonade and more sandwiches in King Street in Brighton."
A short silence followed and Stone said very sternly. "Well, you're under very grave suspicion about the woman and now, about your late master, too. You had a spite against both of them on account of that girl, and," he nodded, "it looks to me as if you've taken your revenge." He spoke briskly. "So, you'll have to come back to town with us while we make some enquiries. I tell you the matter's very serious."
Huntley's face paled. "Oh, but you can't do that, sir," he said. "Look at the disgrace for me. People will think you've taken me up because I killed the master. They will never forget it. My good name will be gone for life."
"We can't help that," said Stone. "We can't let you remain free until you're cleared."
"But I shan't run away," pleaded Huntley. "I've nothing to run away for." His voice firmed. "And you've no right to arrest me, Inspector Stone. You said Mrs. Rawson was killed on Sunday morning and I couldn't have done that and been in Hastings at the same time. If you only want to know about the morning, ring up either of those gentlemen I mention—or both of them. It's so very simple, for they'll be able to tell you at once." He spoke defiantly. "If you do take me up and shame me before everybody I claim the right to ring up a lawyer first. I shall want to speak to Mr. Cole Nathan."
Stone frowned. The butler was playing a stronger card than he knew. The police hated Nathan. He had got them a nasty rap over the knuckles quite recently for being, so a learned judge had said, too precipitate.
"Why do you mention Mr. Nathan?" asked the inspector suspiciously. "Have you already had him in your mind to defend you?"
"I've never thought of him before, sir," said Huntley, returning to his meek and respectful manner. "I shall only choose him, sir, because I have often seen his name in the paper. He seems a very good man."
Stone looked meaningly at Larose and, the latter nodding, he turned back to the butler. "All right," he said, "I'll ring up. But you remain here. I know where the telephone is," and left the room, leaving the two together.
"What did you go into Saffron Walden for?" asked Larose curiously.
"For her ladyship, sir," replied Huntley. "She sent me to get some special fruit for Hepburn, the gardener at the lodge. He's in the village hospital, very ill. They say he's got pneumonia in one lung and a cancer in the other."
Stone could not get Byles Chater on the 'phone, the latter being busy in the Courts, but, after some delay he got speech with Dr. King-Harley. The quiet specialist was very annoyed at being interrupted and in a tremendous hurry.
"Yes, we saw the man there on Sunday," he said, "I only nodded but Mr. Chater spoke to him. Of course, it was the Court butler, Mr. Chater chaffed him about having his eye upon the other sex. I should say it was about half-past twelve, perhaps a few minutes later. We were just going to have our lunch."
"And he wasn't there when you came out?" asked Stone. "That was the last you saw of him?"
"No, he wasn't there, but that wasn't the last we saw of him. He passed us in Eastbourne in the evening."
"Oh, but he didn't tell me that!" exclaimed Stone.
"Probably he didn't see us," returned the doctor. "It was in the main street and there was a lot of traffic at the moment. It wasn't a time for looking round. Well, good morning, I can't tell you anything more," and he rang off hurriedly, as if afraid of being further questioned.
"That's that," sighed Stone as he hung up the receiver. "What a ghastly sell!"
Returning to the little room, he spoke very sternly to Huntley. "We'll give you the benefit of the doubt," he said, "and let you remain here for the present." He raised his hand warningly. "But mind, no leaving the Court. You're not to use your motor-bicycle until we give you permission."
The butler received his reprieve with no outward sign of jubilation. "Thank you, sir," he said meekly. "You'll always find me here."
He accompanied them to the front door and with a curt nod they got into their car and drove away, Larose being at the wheel. Then the moment they had turned the bend in the short drive and were out of sight of the house, Larose stopped the car and alighted quickly.
"Wait a moment," he said to his surprised companion. "I've got an idea. I won't be long," and back he ran towards the Court, making his way, however, along the strip of grass at the side of the gravelled drive. His footsteps made no sound.
Arriving at the front of the house, he found, as was always the case during the daytime, the outer hall door wide open and the inner, a glass-panelled one, closed but unlocked. Tiptoeing softly into the hall, he looked round for the butler, but the latter was nowhere to be seen. He heard rustling, however, from the direction of the little room where they had just had their interview with him, and walking to the doorway, saw the man himself with a newspaper held wide open between his two outspread arms and with his head bent close to the pages. He looked up, startled, as the shadow of Larose fell across the room, and then for a good ten seconds, without a word, the two stared at each other very solemnly. Then Larose smiled, and—after a moment—Huntley smiled, too. The detective's smile had evidently been infectious. "I've come back for my paper," he said.
"Certainly, sir," said the butler, and folding it up, he handed it to him.
Larose was still smiling. "You're a clever chap, Huntley," he remarked pleasantly, "and it would be a pity to stretch your neck."
"Yes, sir," agreed the butler, smiling back, "and I don't think you'll be allowed to do it."
"No, I don't think we shall, either," said Larose, quite serious now. "You've been too clever for us," and he nodded his thanks as Huntley let him out of the hall.
He rejoined the impatient Stone and was soon bustling the car towards London. "Well," exclaimed the inspector, "what do you think?"
"Think?" laughed Larose. "Oh, that he did it, of course! But we shan't trip him and another killer will have got off with his kill!" He seemed amused. "When I went back just now he'd got his nose buried in our Messenger."
"Quite natural," commented Stone, "he wanted to read the report of his own murder."
"But he wasn't reading about the murder," exclaimed Larose. "That's the damning part of it. He was reading the sporting page, inside." He pressed home his point. "Just think of it, Charlie. If we'd given him the first news of that woman's death and he'd not seen it in the Messenger when he went into Saffron Walden this morning—wouldn't his first urge directly we had gone been to read all about it? Wouldn't he have glued his eyes to the photograph of that bungalow which had meant so much to him and Elsie Bane? Why, of course he would!"
"Of course!" agreed Stone violently. "Damn him!"
"It's all a puzzle," sighed Larose, "and I can't make head or tail of it. Men like Chater and King-Harley are not going to perjure themselves for Huntley and yet——"
"Well, I'll see Chater this evening," growled Stone, "and I'll talk to that quack again, too. If there's any hanky-panky I'll nose it out."
But the inspector did not nose out anything. Chater and the doctor corroborated each other's stories in minute details, and corroborated them with such accuracy that, while they swept away one suspicion, they seemed to raise another.
Still nothing could be done and the angry inspector relieved his feelings by ferocious threats as to what was going to happen to everyone involved at the forthcoming resumption of the inquest upon Sir Roger Hake.
"Wickham Adders will give 'em hell," he said. "It seems to me that every man jack of them—and, of course, the woman too—is a liar."
And while the Law was striving its utmost to give one victim to Death, Death himself was preparing to snatch another one in the little village adjoining the Court.
Andy Hepburn, the dour custodian of the lodge gates was dying and the only person who seemed really sorry about it was his young mistress. His dog-like devotion to her, unspoken but so artlessly apparent whenever she was near him, had touched her deeply and every day she came to the little hospital to see him. She brought him little gifts, and stroked his hand and said she hoped he would soon be better, and his old eyes never left her face the whole time she was in the room.
A few days before the Coroner's Court was to sit again, when she arrived to see him she found him very weak, and the sister in charge told her the doctor thought it was now only a matter of hours before he would pass away.
She stopped a little while talking to him, and he was quite coherent and able to speak to her, too. When she left him, however, he closed his eyes as if he were very tired and wanted to sleep.
The sister and the nurse stood at the window watching her drive away in her car. "Isn't she lovely!" exclaimed the nurse, "but just fancy everyone thinking she killed her husband."
"You shouldn't say that," reproached the sister sharply. "Everyone doesn't think she killed him, only some do."
"Well, they say all the detectives believe she did," nodded the nurse, "and that it'll go badly with her at the inquest. Mr. Pike at the 'Rose and Crown' told Mother that she even might be arrested. Things look very black for her. You see they can't find anybody else to fix the murder upon."
Still talking, they went out of the room. Old Andy had got his eyes wide open now, and his expression was a startled one. An hour passed and he had made no attempt to go to sleep, rather he seemed intent upon keeping himself wide awake.
The doctor, a kind-faced elderly man, came in presently, and asked him how he felt.
"Weak, weak," nodded Andy. He looked intently at the doctor. "Don't ye gammon me. I'm goin' to die, ain't I?"
The doctor nodded back solemnly, "But you won't feel any pain, Andy. You'll just sleep away."
The old man looked anxious. "But I want to tell something afore I die." His eyes held the doctor. "I want to tell it was me what killed the master."
"What, you shot Sir Roger?" exclaimed the doctor, looking horrified. "Are you sure you did?"
Andy nodded again. "Bring Policeman Blake here. He can write it all down." He spoke in a whisper. "Do it quick, Mister. I feel I'm pegging out."
The doctor went straight to the telephone and in less than five minutes the village constable was sitting by the bedside, with a writing-pad upon his knee, all ready to take down the sick man's dying depositions. The doctor and the sister was standing on either side of the bed.
The constable was round-faced and, at first sight, would have seemed to anyone rather simple looking. His actions, now, however, showed that he was very much all there. "Andy's mind's quite all right, sir?" he asked the doctor. "He'll understand what he's saying?"
"Perfectly well," nodded the doctor. "He's as conscious as you or I, and in a perfect mental state."
"Well, you tell us, Andy, what you want to say," went on the constable, "just in your own words now and I'll write it down."
Andy spoke slowly and as if concentrating his thoughts with some effort. "I shot Master with that pistol," he said very slowly. "Names don't matter and I ain't going to mention any, but he'd behaved badly with a girl I knew. I've hated him for years and I am glad I did it."
"Go on," said the constable, because Andy had stopped speaking. "Tell us how you came to do it."
Andy went on. "It was chance-like that I shot him. I'd forgotten to loose the dogs that night and went to do it very late. The rain was heavy as I was going and I went into the summer-house to shelter. I saw Master had left his pistol there, as he sometimes did. When the rain got better I walked towards the house. I saw Master's study window was open and was going to leave the pistol on the sill. When I got near the light went up and I saw Master in the room. I hadn't meant to do it, but something made me think of the girl and I pointed the pistol at him and fired it off. Then I got frightened and threw it away, but I knew I could not be found out."
The old man sighed heavily and closed his eyes. The doctor nodded to the constable. "That'll do," he said, "He's had enough," and he added whisperingly, "Let him sign it, quick. His heart's very dicky, and we can't be certain of even a few minutes."
So Andy scrawled his name at the foot of the paper and the policeman, the doctor and the sister all witnessed his signature.
Then it was a very breathless and important constable who rushed to the 'phone to ring up the Superintendent in Saffron Walden. But the latter was out and did not hear about the confession until the evening. Whereupon he drove post-haste into the village to see Andy, but the doctor definitely refused to allow his patient to be worried any more that day, and the Superintendent went grumblingly away. He rang up Scotland Yard, but could only get speech with Larose who was absolutely astounded at his news.
"But I am disgusted with myself!" exclaimed the Superintendent. "I ought to have thought of that man in the first instance. He had every opportunity for, of course, those dogs wouldn't have interfered with him. It was my darned nose which misled me. I was so positive I smelt that cordite when I went into the room."
Larose was very annoyed with himself, too. He had built up so many elaborate theories about the murder and—all in one moment—they had been knocked on the head by one of the most simple explanations possible. As with the Superintendent, he told himself he ought to have thought of the lodge-keeper at once as a possible suspect. It was most careless and remiss on his part.
Then suddenly he frowned heavily. He was puzzled, very puzzled. This confession did not explain the mystery of that guttered candle and it did not account for Reeder's worried condition of mind. If the trainer's hints to his wife had meant anything, they had meant a conspiracy somewhere, and how did that fit in with the lodge-keeper's confession? It didn't fit in at all.
Filled with doubts, Larose made up his mind to go down and see Andy Hepburn the first thing the next morning. Accordingly, on the morrow, it was barely half-past eight when he pulled up outside the cottage hospital.
Then, announcing who he was to the sister, he received a terrible disappointment when he was told that the sick man had passed away during the night.
"Bad luck!" said Larose. "Still, it can't be helped." A thought struck him and he asked, "Did anyone see him after he had made that confession which I understand you witnessed? I mean, of course, anyone to do with the police."
The sister shook her head. "No, the Saffron Walden Superintendent came last night and was very annoyed because upon the doctor's instructions, I wouldn't let him come in." She smiled. "He seemed to look upon it as a personal affront."
Larose smiled back. "Well, we policemen get upset very easily. We're built that way." He sighed. "But about this poor chap who died, he went off very suddenly, didn't he?"
"Yes, he'd just written a little letter," replied the sister. "One minute he was talking and the next he was dead."
"He'd written a letter?" exclaimed Larose. "Was he as well as that?"
"Oh, it was only a few words, just for Lady Hake," said the sister. "He asked me for a piece of paper and wrote a few words and I gave him an envelope and licked it up for him." She turned to the desk. "Here it is. It's quite pathetic, addressed to 'Mistress.' He was so devoted to her."
Larose looked at the envelope with the one word scrawled across it. "Yes, it's very sad," he said. He nodded. "I'm going up to the Court now. Should I give it her?"
"Yes, if you'll be so kind. And tell her ladyship those carnations she brought him yesterday were in his hand when he died."
They talked on for a few minutes and then Larose took his leave. "By-the-by," he said in parting, "I don't think you'd better mention about the letter you've given me to take to Lady Hake." He laughed. "The Superintendent may think you ought to have given it to him."
"I won't mention it," she laughed back. "No one but me knows he wrote it."
Larose next visited the village constable and the local doctor, at once realising that their testimonies would be conclusive as to Andy having been in his right mind and knowing perfectly well what he was saying when he had dictated his confession.
Next, he went up to the Court, intending to ask Lady Hake bluntly if she could account for Hepburn's hatred of her husband. He was going to tell her, too, that with the confession in the hands of the police it might not now be necessary to call her at the inquest.
To his disappointment, Huntley informed him that Lady Hake was away for the day, visiting her mother who was ill. He gave him the address at Maida Vale.
Larose eyed the butler curiously. "And what do you think about this confession the lodge-keeper made. I suppose you've heard about it."
"Oh yes, sir, the doctor for the village here came up at once and told her ladyship. I can't understand it, sir. It seems incredible to me. I knew Andy didn't like the master, but then he never liked anyone much. He was a very bad-tempered man."
"Did you know he was a crack-shot with a pistol?"
Huntley looked flabbergasted at the question. "I shouldn't think he'd ever had one in his hands before, sir. It was a marvellous fluke he hit the master."
"Well, good morning, Huntley," said Larose. He smiled pleasantly. "About your own little affair, I sympathise with you, but we'll get you yet. I don't believe for a moment you're the simple innocent you make out. You did that woman in right enough."
Huntley was most respectful. "Very good, sir, if you say so." The corners of his mouth twitched. "But I'm afraid, sir, you'll have a trouble in proving it."
"Yes, that's the difficulty," said Larose. "You've well beaten us up till now."
Larose had a short talk with the Superintendent in Saffron Walden and then returned to town, taking the lodge-keeper's confession with him to give to Stone. But going, first, to his own room in Scotland Yard, he took out of his pocket the letter Andy had written, intending to put it in another envelope and post it to Lady Hake.
Noticing, however, that the flap of the rather stiff envelope had become unstuck, after a moment's hesitation, he took out the piece of paper inside and glanced over the shaky characters scrawled right across the page.
For the moment his look was only a mildly curious one, but suddenly his expression altered to one of amazement in which consternation was mingled.
His mouth was dry and he breathed a little quicker as he read aloud to himself. 'Dear Mistress, I told them that to help you. I heard the nurse say the police were after you, but now you will be safe. I'm glad you did it. Your humble servant, Andy Hepburn.'
For a long minute he could not withdraw his eyes from the paper, but then he refolded it carefully and put it back into the envelope. 'And if this becomes public property,' he murmured, 'it will look almost certainly,' he could hardly get out his words, 'as if she were guilty, and somehow, Andy had come to learn it. No, he was not a man of imaginative nature, and perhaps, he did go out to unloose those dogs that night and was actually an eye-witness of the murder.' He sighed heavily. 'Then good Lord, what a tragic ending for that girl!'
He put the letter into his pocket and went in to see Inspector Stone. The latter had, of course, already heard about Hepburn's confession, but now he read it through intently.
"And what a tame conclusion to everything," he exclaimed. He shook his head disappointedly. "There will be no chance now of us showing everyone what clever chaps we are." He shrugged his shoulders. "Still, to have done it we should have had to break that poor little woman on the wheel."
"And you think," asked Larose slowly, "that but for this confession we had a strong case against her?"
"The very strongest," replied Stone. He nodded significantly. "And didn't everyone else think so, too? All those seven card-players, and that darned butler as well, were doing their utmost to shield her." He laughed ironically. "Gosh, what a sell! They all had their trouble for nothing." He tapped the confession upon the desk. "Well, with this confession here everything will die down. There's no getting behind it. It's a complete clearance for everyone else."
Larose made no further comment and said nothing about the letter in his pocket. The next morning, however, he went down to Hake Court once again, having taken upon himself the serving of the subpoenas upon those there who were to be called at the adjourned inquest. He gave the butler his, and then was shown in to Harland in the office.
"Here is your subpoena," he said sharply, "and I have one here for Lady Hake, but whether I serve it upon her or not depends upon what you tell me in the next few minutes."
Young Harland looked very troubled. "Can't you spare her, Mr. Larose?" he asked. "She's suffered such a lot already and to appear in the witness-box will be a dreadful trial for her."
"Of course, it will," nodded Larose, and he added significantly, "It will be a dreadful trial for you, too, as you will be terrified every moment as to what may be coming out."
"And what exactly do you mean by that?" asked Harland frowningly and with some spirit.
"I mean," said Larose slowly, "that you two will be perjuring yourselves the whole time, and one little slip, and one or other of you will be arrested and charged with the murder." He raised his voice slightly. "Oh, I won't beat about the bush! Either you or she shot Sir Roger and one of you will have to confess it to save the other."
Harland laughed scoffingly. "And what about that confession of Andy Hepburn?" he asked sarcastically. "Does that count for nothing?"
"Yes, for nothing," nodded Larose solemnly, "for nothing, as you'll admit when you've read this," and, taking the lodge-keeper's letter from his pocket, he handed it to him. "The man wrote it just before he died."
A few moments of dreadful silence followed and Harland's face went a dreadful colour. His hands shook, so that he could hardly hold the paper.
"But—but, what does it mean?" he stammered.
"Pretty obvious, isn't it?" asked Larose. "It confesses that what he dictated to that policeman was a lie. As he says, he did it to save his mistress. Of course, he overheard the nurses saying we are suspecting her. Everybody seems to have been aware of that. Oh, you needn't dispute the handwriting. The sister at the hospital said he wrote it and she'll testify that it's his."
"I know it is," said Harland hoarsely, with his eyes glued upon the piece of paper. "I know his handwriting quite well." He spoke as if to himself. "What a dreadful thing for him to have written." He looked up suddenly and asked sharply. "But how did you get hold of it?"
"I happened to be the first one of us who came to the hospital after he had died," said Larose, "and the sister gave it to me to pass on to Lady Hake. Then, when I came up here yesterday to see Lady Hake I found she was away. Back at the Yard, I noticed that the flap of the envelope had come unstuck—you can see for yourself it has never been properly pressed down—and I took out the letter and read it. I should have been justified anyhow in doing that, as I was strongly suspecting one of you two."
"And what's going to happen now?" asked Harland.
"That depends entirely upon you," said Larose. "So far I am the only one who has read the letter."
"And if I tear it up," asked Harland, thrusting the hand holding the letter behind his back, "what then?"
"You wouldn't have time to," laughed Larose. "I'd be upon you in half a minute." He spoke quite kindly, "I'm stronger than you. You're not very big and muscular, are you?"
Harland sighed heavily. "No, that's the worst of it. I've suffered all my life because I've not been a big fellow." He brought his hand back. "Here's the letter. Now what do you want of me?"
"Just the truth," said Larose. "I want to——" He broke off suddenly. "But tell me, first, does Lady Hake herself believe that confession the lodge-keeper dictated is true?"
He spoke so quickly that Harland was thrown off his guard and answered equally quickly, "Most implicitly, she's never doubted it for a moment."
"Exactly!" snapped Larose triumphantly. "Then it is you who are the murderer. As I have told you, it is positive to me that either she or you shot Sir Roger and if you declare with such certainty she believes in the guilt of that lodge-keeper, then she is innocent herself." He spoke quietly now. "And, she being innocent, the guilty one of the two must be you."
"Can you prove that?" asked Harland, equally as quietly.
Larose nodded. "To my own satisfaction," he said. He took out Mrs. Reeder's letter and handed it to him. "Just read that."
"But you didn't see Mr. Reeder," said Harland, when he had read it through. He pointed to the date upon that letter. "I saw in the newspaper he was killed instantaneously that very evening."
"But I saw his wife," rejoined Larose, "and although her husband hadn't told her everything she knew a good bit." He spoke sternly. "I want to know about that conspiracy which was hatched between you all, the conspiracy in which Reeder was the most unwilling to join, and took all the time that candle was burning to be persuaded to do so."
Harland was visibly discomforted. "But what's your game, Mr. Larose?" he asked sharply. "You want to get me hanged, don't you?"
Larose shook his head. "Not necessarily, for I have a lot of sympathy for the person who killed Sir Roger. He was—at any rate to men—a loathsome type, and the world is well rid of him. No, I am not keen that anyone should be punished for his murder, as he most probably deserved it and I expect it was done under great provocation."
"Then leave it alone," pleaded Harland. He pointed to Hepburn's letter which still lay upon the desk. "Tear that up and forget it, and untold misery will be saved for some of us."
Larose smiled. "But you forget my position, young fellow. I am an emissary of the Law and must have some justification for what I do. What makes me hesitate now is that, although I have moral proof that you are guilty, I see that the proof that would satisfy a court of law may be impossible to obtain." He nodded. "And in trying to get it I may have to bring harm to a number of kind well-meaning people whose only fault has been their good-nature."
"Well, what's your price for silence," asked Harland, looking very worried, "and what's your promise," he shrugged his shoulders, "if I tell you what little I know?"
"Little?" queried Larose. He laughed. "I guess it will be a lot." He became serious. "I don't sell myself and I promise nothing except that if you can convince me that Lady Hake had nothing to do with the matter, I will not serve this subpoena upon her."
"And what about myself?" queried Harland.
"I'll not use anything you say against you, and if I can't prove you're guilty by my own discoveries, I'll leave you alone. Oh, and you needn't incriminate the others in anything you tell me."
"I'm not going to," said Harland sharply. He drew in a deep breath. "Well, here goes." He spoke quickly. "I shot the brute and I've never blamed myself for it since. It all came about like this. When the lights had failed and he was going out he ordered me to follow him. He knew I knew something about electricity as I'd put the lights right before. He found his torch was dead and lit that candle. Then, turning round, I suppose he didn't like my expression, for he blazed up madly and asked me why the hell I'd been so long getting those cigarettes. I just looked at him and he asked sneeringly if I'd stopped to molest his wife."
Harland's eyes were blazing as he recalled the scene. He went on. "His sneer infuriated me and I sprang at him to strike his evil face. But I ought to have known better. He just side-stepped and escaped the blow. I over-reached myself and he gripped me like a bear from behind, and holding me tight tipped up my head and," he shuddered, "spat in my face."
"And neither of you shouted?" asked Larose, because Harland had stopped speaking, the memory of the spitting crimsoning him in shame.
Harland shook his head. "I never said a word the whole time and he spoke through his clenched teeth. No, I just struggled, but I had no chance and he shook me like a dog with a rat. Then he called Lady Hake a terrible word and flung me from him on to the floor. I sprang up and," he shrugged his shoulders, "the pistol was on the desk and I shot him."
"And then?" asked Larose after the long silence which followed.
"Then?" smiled Harland. "Well, you must guess what followed."
Larose considered. "And is the butler in this deal?"
"Good Lord, no!" exclaimed Harland. He smiled again. "But I believe he thinks I did it because he is being so darned anxious to do everything for me lately." He laughed nervously. "Very decent fellow, Huntley, quite a superior sort. I roped him for some private theatricals I was getting up some months ago in Saffron Walden. A man failed me at the very last moment, and Huntley took the part of a doctor. By Jove, he wanted no coaching. He's an actor, born."
"Yes, he is," nodded Larose feelingly, and he added with perfect sincerity, "and so are you."
Harland shrugged his shoulders. "I've had to be. These last dreadful days I've had to act and lie at every twist and turn." He shook his head gloomily. "Once this dangerous game was started there was no help for it. As you've guessed I was not standing alone."
"No, and it doesn't require much imagination now," said Larose thoughtfully, "to fill in everything that happened." He frowned. "If it becomes public, the mystery to everyone will be why six hard-headed men were willing to perjure themselves when they stood to get absolutely nothing by doing so."
Harland shook his head. "There would be no mystery, Mr. Larose, if everyone were aware of what had been happening, only that very evening. They had heard that devil insult his wife at dinner, then they had seen that bandage upon her arm and all guessed from his sneering jokes it was a bruise and no sting, and, as we sat down at the card-tables, he had boasted of a coarse infidelity, that very afternoon, with some new woman whose surname he did not even know. Bah—there was not one of them who was not glad to see him stretched out dead!"
Larose got up to go. "You can burn that letter," he nodded. "Yes, do it straightaway and crumple all the ashes well, too. That's right. Oh, and, of course, Lady Hake won't have that subpoena now. Good-bye." He smiled. "And if it weren't for what I am, I'd wish you good luck. As it is, I suppose I'll have to go on looking for stronger evidence against you."
"And do you think you'll find it?" asked Harland, with a smile which was not as easy-looking as he would have liked to make it.
Larose shook his head. "I hardly think so, for at any rate my colleagues won't help me." He nodded. "It may comfort you a little to know that Inspector Stone is quite satisfied with that confession of the lodge-keeper, and will not even be coming down to the inquest, now. Give my kind regards to Lady Hake and tell her she won't be seeing us any more."
"Good-bye, Mr. Larose," said young Harland with some feeling. He held out his hand. "And thank you very much for your consideration. Whatever happens I shall always be very grateful to you."
Huntley, who evidently had been waiting for him in the hall, gave Larose a beaming smile as the latter went out.
'Really,' grinned Larose to himself as he drove away, 'I seem to be very popular with the criminal classes just now.'
The adjourned enquiry into the death of Sir Roger Hake was concluded upon the following Friday, in the village institute. The Saffron Walden Superintendent appeared for the police and Larose was present as representative for Scotland Yard. The proceedings were very short. Byles Chater and young Harland gave evidence as to Sir Roger leaving the room when the lights had failed. Huntley told of the finding of the body, later, and Dr. King-Harley testified how he had found life to be extinct. Then the village constable appeared in the box and the lodge-keeper's confession was read. The local doctor gave evidence that Hepburn was of perfectly sound mind.
The Coroner's summing-up was very brief. There could not be the slightest doubt, he stated, as to who had committed the murder and only one possible verdict could be brought in. The confession of the lodge-keeper was conclusive proof as to where the guilt lay, and accordingly he directed that a verdict of wilful murder be recorded against Andrew Hepburn, and the jury obliged without any delay.
Upon one Monday morning in the autumn of the following year, Inspector Stone, looking stouter than ever, came into Larose's room in Scotland Yard and plumped himself down in a chair.
"By Jove, Gilbert!" he exclaimed, heaving a big sigh, "how time flies." His eyes twinkled. "I had quite a little adventure on Saturday afternoon and it finished up with three glasses of champagne."
"Very nice, Charlie," commented Larose, pretending to smack his lips, "but whose pockets did you pick to buy the fizz? I know darned well that with all those kids you've got you couldn't buy it out of your screw."
"I was out in my old car with the missus," went on Stone, ignoring his colleagues query, "and we were just passing through a sweet little village a few miles out of Haslemere, when, going by an old church, I heard the organ playing and stopped the car to listen. I thought there must be a wedding on because four posh cars were parked outside, but the missus thought the music wasn't quite proper for a wedding as they were playing, 'There's a friend for little children.'"
"But in these days," nodded Larose darkly, "you must expect everything."
"Well," said Stone, "we had a bit of an argument about it and so, as there was plenty of time, we waited to see who was right." His eyes bulged at the relating of the story. "Then, Gilbert, out came a little lot of people you and I both know. First, a man in a swell chauffeur's uniform with silver buttons, and I recognised that chap Huntley, the butler of Hake Court. Then came a trained nurse with a nipper, all lace and frills and a little puckered-up face, in her arms." He paused dramatically. "Now whose baby do you think it was?"
"Not yours, surely?" frowned Larose. "You couldn't have had anything to do with it." He shook his head. "Still I should not be surprised."
Stone looked contemptuous but then, confident that he could afford to be magnanimous in the importance of the news he was about to impart, his face became smiling again. "It was Lady Hake's baby," he exclaimed. "Lady Hake, now Mrs. Avon Harland, and by Jove, she looked as lovely as ever. Much lovelier, indeed, for now she looked so happy." He asked sharply. "Did you know they had been married?"
Larose nodded. He knew it well enough, for he had had a piece of the wedding-cake sent him, addressed in what he guessed was the one-time dainty Mary Hellister's handwriting.
Stone went on. "But that wasn't all the surprise, by Gosh, no, for after Mr. and Mrs. Harland came"—he rolled his eyes as if in mingled amusement and disgust—"Byles Chater, Doctor King-Harley, and Mr. Beachy Head Norton. I learnt afterwards that Huntley had married that little Bane girl and was now Norton's chauffeur. Oh, and, of course, Mrs. Norton was there, too."
"Oh, what a mix-up!" exclaimed Larose, now much too interested to want to try and be humorous.
"Yes," nodded Stone, "three men whom at one time we would have arrested upon the capital charge all coming together out of church, as respectable as you and me and as if butter wouldn't melt in their mouths."
"And they saw you?" asked Larose.
"Saw me?" ejaculated Stone. "Why they buzzed around my old car like a swarm of bees and I had even to kiss the baby! Then they would make us come up to their place about a mile away—I learnt she had sold Hake Court before she had married—and drink to the baby's health."
"Very nice, too!" commented Larose. "I wish I had been there."
"Perhaps you ought to have been," nodded Stone darkly. He went on sharply: "I say, my boy, have you seen her little ladyship since those Hake Court days?"
"No, I've not set eyes on her since, but why do you want to know? What do you mean by that funny look?"
"Nothing, nothing, lad," said Stone. He burst into a loud guffaw. "Only, they told me one of the baby's names is Gilbert. Ha, ha, ha!"
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