Title: His Prey Was Man Author: Arthur Gask * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1203781h.html Language: English Date first posted: October 2012 Date most recently updated: October 2012 Produced by: Maurie Mulcahy and Colin Choat Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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A lovely young wife with a shameful secret was being heartlessly blackmailed. In desperation she appealed to Gilbert Larose, an audacious, resolute man who, many times before, had not hesitated to take the law in his own hands.
Larose approached the blackmailer with grim and fearful threats, and the next night the man was found shot in the lonely glade of a dark wood. The blackmailer, however, had shared his knowledge. Again the young wife was in danger, and, to make matters worse, Larose was suspected of murder. But what happened to him and how Justice, if not the Law, was satisfied forms another long, thrilling and highly dramatic episode in the career of Gilbert Larose, "the most famous crime investigator in fiction".
Rarely has even Arthur Gask written to better purpose, or better deserved the great reputation which his outstanding thrillers have secured for him.
|CHAPTER I.—AT BAY.
CHAPTER II.—IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT.
CHAPTER III.—FROM THE ASHES OF THE DEAD.
CHAPTER IV.—THE WOLVES ON THE TRAIL.
CHAPTER V.—THE AVENGING ANGEL.
CHAPTER VII.—THE HOUNDS OF THE LAW.
CHAPTER VIII.—THE SILENCE OF THE DEAD.
CHAPTER IX.—THE REINCARNATION OF BERT.
CHAPTER X.—THE JEST OF LIFE.
THE lovely young Mrs. Hilary—she was well worthy of her beautiful Christian names, Jean Madeline—was not exactly an old man's darling, as her husband, Colonel Basil Hilary, was well on the right side of fifty. He was, however, five and twenty years older than she, and when, in her twenty-second year and within twelve months of their marriage, she presented him with a son and heir, he declared himself to be one of the happiest men alive. Certainly he ought to have been a contented one, for, apart from his beautiful young wife and baby, he was in perfect health, of ample means, and the proud possessor of many hundreds of acres of good and fertile land in the county of Norfolk.
One glorious morning in early spring, Jean had gone to look for primroses in one of the woods belonging to the estate, when suddenly a man came out from behind a tree and placed himself in front of her on the narrow path. He touched his cap and remarked briskly, "Good morning, Mistress. It's a nice day for a bit of a walk."
Of big frame and fine physique, the man was about forty years of age and, with his neatly trimmed beard, was good-looking in a rough sort of way. His eyes, however, were set too close together and his lips were over-full and sensual. He had large hairy hands, the backs of which were tatooed heavily after the fashion of a man who had once followed the sea. He wore a shabby leather jacket and breeches and leggings, and carried a double-barrelled gun upon his shoulder.
Astonished at his sudden appearance, Jean recognised him instantly as her husband's new game-keeper. He had arrived about three weeks previously, but, as it happened, although she had seen him several times at a distance, she had not as yet spoken to him. Now, she returned his good-morning with a slightly heightened colour, not altogether liking his manner, thinking it both bold and familiar.
"I've been on the look-out to catch you for some days," he went on jauntily, "but I've had no luck." He screwed his face up into a sly smile. "We've met before, haven't we?"
Jean's breath came a little quicker. "What do you mean?" she asked sharply. "I don't understand you. What do you want?"
"What I mean is," he replied, and she thought his smile a horrible one, "that we are old acquaintances, and what I want I'll come to later on." He nodded slowly and impressively. "I remember you, young lady, two years ago at Sutton Coldfield, two years ago this June."
The effect of his words was startling. Jean's face went white as death, her lips parted, and she stared at him with terrified eyes. Her knees trembled under her.
He laughed lightly at her discomfiture. "Yes, I was the gardener and handy-man at Sister Rowe's private hospital when you came there to have your baby. You've often seen me about in the garden when you were lying out on the verandah as you were getting better."
Jean was motionless as a graven image. It seemed she hardly breathed. Her lips were still parted and she was staring as if she saw a ghost.
The gamekeeper shrugged his shoulders. "Of course, I looked a bit different then, as I hadn't got this beard." His horrible smile returned. "But it's me, right enough. Then, Sister Rose's gardener and now"—he bowed ironically—"now your good hubby's gamekeeper."
She found her voice at last, and though she could not prevent it trembling, spoke sharply and as if in annoyance only. "You are quite mistaken," she said. "I've never been in Sutton Coldfield in my life. You are mixing me up with someone else." She made a movement with her arm for him to get off the path. "Let me pass, please."
But the man made no attempt to move. His face darkened and his voice rose harshly. "Now don't you be a fool, Missy," he snarled. "Make yourself safe when you've got the chance and no one need know anything about it. I'm not the one to talk if it pays me not to." He spoke scoffingly. "You were that young Mrs. James there, right enough, and it can easily be proved if anyone wants to. Everyone in the hospital was specially interested in you because we all thought there must be something fishy, as you never had a visitor or received a single letter the whole time you were there." He seemed very amused. "Not that Mrs. James, eh? Why you made sketches of all the nurses in the hospital and gave them to them to keep, and here"—he laughed derisively—"your hobby is sketching and painting. The servants say you're always making portraits of someone."
Jean was obviously now in great distress, but for all that her courage was not broken. "I shall speak to Colonel Hilary about you," she panted, "and you'll be sent away at once."
Still smiling, the gamekeeper shook his head knowingly. "I guess, my dear, you won't be telling the master anything about me. You won't dare to, for I'm thinking he knows nothing about that pretty Mrs. James whose husband was abroad when her baby died." He lowered his voice impressively. "Look here, I'm not quite a fool and I've made a few enquiries about the Colonel and you. He'd never met you until about eighteen months ago when he came home from India, and he'd been there ten years. Then you were Miss Castle, no Mrs. about you, and your father was a parson in Devonshire. But you weren't living in Devonshire. No, you were in London, learning painting"—he laughed—"and, it seems, other things as well."
She spoke hoarsely. "But what are you telling me all this for?" she asked. "What do you want?"
He dropped his mocking tone at once. "Ah, that's the way to look at it, just as a little matter of business between you and me, and nothing said to anybody." He smiled with an appearance of great geniality. "I'm not a mischief-maker. Not I, I'm a good sport and don't see any harm in a girl having had a bit of fun before she's married, if she doesn't tell anyone about it afterwards." He eyed her leeringly. "Gee, you're pretty enough to make any man want to fall for you."
She winced under his glance and, keeping herself from tears with an effort, stamped her foot angrily. "But what do you want?" she demanded again. "Tell me straight out."
"Five pounds down and a couple of pounds every now and then," replied the gamekeeper promptly. "Push them under the boards of the swan's house by the lake. Push them down in the corner, and the fiver there this afternoon. It'll come in handy for I want to get some things in North Walsham to-night."
Her eyes were hard as flint. "Very well, then," she said curtly, "I'll think it over," and, with him at last moving off the path, she made to get away as quickly as she could.
"Good-bye, Missy," he called out grinningly, and then, as if stung to anger by her taking not the slightest notice, he added truculently, "Yes, my lady, and you come here for a walk about this time once or twice a week, so that I can tell you if I want anything more. Now don't you stop away or I shall have to hang round the Hall to get a word with you. See?"
She made no sign, however, that she had heard him and he watched her frowningly until a turn in the path took her out of sight.
"Damn her," he swore. "She's got a temper and if I push her too much she may do anything. Yes, I must be careful." He moistened his lips with his tongue and smiled. "Yes, she's pretty enough for anybody, and I wouldn't mind myself, if I——" but his voice trailed away to silence with more moistening of his lips.
As long as she knew he would be able to see her, Jean walked with determined stride and with her head held high, and there was nothing in her poise to betray the dreadful anguish which was possessing her. The moment, however, she knew the trees would be hiding her from him, after one quick glance behind to make sure she had not been followed, she sank down on to the ground and, covering her face with her hands, burst into a flood of passionate tears.
God, what a terrible position she was in! Her secret, which she has so confidently believed had been buried for ever, was known to a common and unscrupulous man, and she was completely in his power! He could wreck her life if he told it, and if he kept silent it would only be at the price of continual, and probably never-ending, blackmail. Either alternative meant the end of all happiness for her. Oh! what had she done to deserve such punishment?
Her mind travelled back like lightning along the years. She thought of her happy girlhood in the old Rectory in Devonshire, her studying Art in London and her going to France for a brief holiday, her meeting there with Paul, the handsome mysterious Paul, and their whirlwind courtship and hasty marriage after only a few days. Then had come the suddenly interrupted honeymoon, and the dreadful disclosures about her husband which had been avalanched upon her. His awful death had followed and, after that, so soon the chilling fear had begun to loom up through her grief that she was going to become a mother.
At first the appalling horror of this realisation had almost made her take her own life, but she had fought against it and in the end pulled herself resolutely together to face the future bravely, whatever happened. After all, she had told herself, Paul had loved her and, whatever he had been, she had loved him in return. So the child would be the token of their mutual passion.
And how cleverly she had managed to keep everything from her relatives and friends! Happily, she had not written of her engagement or marriage to any of them and they had not even been aware of Paul's existence. So, keeping her secret from them all, after his death she had gone up to Sutton Coldfield and lived in lodgings as a married woman whose husband was abroad.
Later, only the matron of the private hospital where she had gone to have her baby and to the doctor who had attended her had she told who she really was, and they both had been kindness itself to her, even to standing as godparents when the child had been christened. Then, the very day when she was to have left the hospital, the child had died suddenly of convulsions, and her grief had been in no wise lessened by the knowledge that now her secret marriage to Paul and its consequences might never become known.
Returning to London and picking up the threads of her work again, less than a year later Colonel Hilary, a childless widower, had come into her life and started to pay great attention to her.
At first she had taken little interest in him and certainly not encouraged him in any way but, warm and affectionate by nature, she had gradually begun to realise it was unnatural for a girl of her age to be condemning herself henceforth to live a loveless life. Besides, and she did not hypocritically hide from herself the fact, a marriage to him would be a splendid thing for her both socially and from a monetary point of view too. He came of an aristocratic family, and was very well-to-do, with an historic old home in Norfolk.
In the end she had let him pay his court to her and, becoming genuinely fond of him, the marriage had duly taken place. Then with the arrival of their child, her happiness had seemed almost complete, her only sorrow being that she had come to her husband in deceit, and in deceit she had continued on in her married life.
So many times she had been on the point of telling him everything, feeling sure he would forgive her. The realisation, however, of what a terrible shock it would have been to him had kept her silent. He was so proud of the reputation of his family and how for generation upon generation the breath of scandal had never been associated with the Hilary name.
All these thoughts surged through her as she sat crying in the wood, and her misery was the more bitter in the knowledge that, confessing everything to him now, he would know she was only doing it because she had been found out and was being threatened by one of his servants.
Her thoughts ran on. And, all apart from the shame of any confession, the aftermath of her telling him would be so terrible. Of course the gamekeeper would be dismissed instantly, for her husband was not the kind of man to make any terms with a blackmailer. Then the wretch would spread the dreadful scandal all round the countryside that she had once been an unmarried mother. It would be a wicked lie, but nothing would stop his talking and the gossip would spread from servant to servant, until at last it reached the ears of her friends. She shuddered to think how wounded her husband's great pride would be when he knew the tale was going round that his wife had had a child before she married him.
Then the thought came to her that perhaps things might not turn out to be as bad as she was anticipating. Perhaps, she need not have to say anything, after all. The gamekeeper might prove quite reasonable and be content with a few pounds every now and then! Contrary to what he had ordered her—she shuddered here again at the thought of being 'ordered' by one of her husband's servants—she would take care never to meet him. She would keep right away from the woods and never give him the chance of speaking to her alone. All the time, however, she would never let more than a week or so pass without putting a pound note or two under the boards of the swans' house. In acting in that way she would be making it quite clear to him that, while she was willing to give him a little money now and then, she was not afraid of him and did not intend to be bullied in any way.
She sighed heavily. Well, that was all she could do for the moment. At any fate she must not make the man her enemy and then, of course, he would realise it would pay him best to leave her alone.
So she returned to the house determined to make the best of things, and that afternoon, having hidden a five-pound note in the place arranged, tried to delude herself into the belief that as long as she was willing to pay small sums of money to her blackmailer she had the whip-hand over him.
That evening at dinner it came to her with a dreadful pang that she had never really been grateful enough for the peace and happiness which had been hers up to a few short hours ago. Her surroundings had been all of the fulfilment of life's promise in its most generous form.
Surely she had had everything which a woman could wish for, a husband who worshipped her, the loveliest baby in all the world, and a most beautiful home! Now—and with the greatest difficulty she kept the misery from her face—all her happiness depended upon the will of a coarse, rough man. He would ruin her whole life, just by the uttering of a few words. Henceforth she would be living as a haunted woman.
The next day, however, everything seemed to go on just as usual, and she tried to put out of her mind that she had ever met the gamekeeper in the wood. Thank Heaven his cottage was a mile and more away from the Hall, and there were parts of the estate where she could take her daily walks and be certain of not meeting him!
A week passed and she saw nothing of the man. She put two more pound notes in the swans' house, slipping out at night so that she would be certain not to meet him. Then, on the tenth day she saw him passing the dining-room windows on his way towards the servants' part of the house. He stared in hard as he went by, then, two days later she saw him again. She was out in the grounds with her husband this time but, when he came up to speak to the Colonel, she walked on, leaving the two to have their conversation together. She did not so much as glance at the gamekeeper. She learnt afterwards that his excuse for being there was that he had run out of cartridges, and had come up for some more.
Her husband overtook her in a few minutes and, with a quickly beating heart, she noticed he was frowning. "I like that new man, Vance," he said, "and yet, at the same time, I don't. He seems capable and to know his work, but he's inclined to be familiar, and I thought he stared rather impudently at you."
Jean pretended to yawn as if she were not in the least bit interested. "I didn't notice it," she said. "I suppose it's only his manner."
The next night she took two more notes to the hiding place and, as she flashed her little electric torch to put them under the board, her eyes fell upon a large piece of paper upon which was scrawled in rough handwriting, "I want to speak to you, to-morrow at eleven."
She caught her breath in her dismay and her heart beat like a sledge-hammer. So, he wasn't going to leave her alone! He was going to worry her! He would make her desperate! She clenched her teeth together. But she wouldn't go. She would defy him, and she ran quickly back to the house in case by any chance he should, even then, be on the look-out for her.
Firm in her resolve, she did not go near the wood the next day, wondering and very frightened, however, what the gamekeeper would do. Two days went by, and upon the third she saw her husband off in his car to attend the usual weekly Justices' Meeting at North Walsham. Then, not ten minutes later, she realised the gamekeeper must have been watching, for the butler came to find her and announced that Vance was outside and would like to speak to her.
She choked back her consternation. "The game-keeper!" she exclaimed. "What does he want to speak to me for?"
"About a young squirrel he's caught, mum," replied the butler. "I thinks he wants to know if you'd like to have it as a pet."
For the moment she was minded to send out a message, but then, thinking it was best the man should see she was not afraid of him, she thought better of it. She would face him and face him down.
"Very well," she said, "tell him to wait. Say I'll be out in a minute."
But it was much longer than a minute before she appeared upon the gravelled drive where the game-keeper was waiting; indeed it was nearly ten, and then she regarded him coldly and without the slightest trace of fear. He touched his cap with a grin, the expression upon his face being anything but a respectful one.
"Why didn't you come as I told you to?" he asked in a hoarse, intense whisper.
She ignored his question. "What do you want now?" she asked.
"Two pounds is not enough," he snarled. "I want ten."
"Then you won't get them," she snapped. "I'll leave you three next week, but not a penny more before Monday."
"Then you know what'll happen," he retorted angrily. "I shall tell the master."
"You fool!" she exclaimed contemptuously. "You'll lose every penny and your place as well if you drive me into a corner. If you worry me any more I shall tell the Colonel everything," and without another word she turned on her heel and went back into the house.
Then followed a dreadful time for Jean Hilary. The gamekeeper was continually demanding extra money and, notwithstanding all her attempts at remaining firm, she began to yield the more and more to him. There was no help for it as, if she did not give him the amounts he asked, he took to hanging round the house upon one excuse and another, and she was terrified her husband would fall out with him.
There was added danger in his not being always perfectly sober, and she knew that if the Colonel happened to meet him when in that condition he would dismiss him at once, for the one thing he would not tolerate in his employees was drunkenness.
Her terrible anxiety began to affect her health, and her husband became really anxious about her, his care and solicitude, however, only making her worry worse.
Then one late afternoon things came to a climax. Returning alone in her car along the main road from North Walsham where she had been doing some shopping, the gamekeeper suddenly darted out from behind some trees and, planting himself right in front of her, forced her to stop barely a hundred yards away from the lodge gates.
"No, it's no good you trying to avoid me," he cried angrily, "for I'll get at you in one way or another, whatever I have to do. Now, look here, I'm going to talk to you and I'll tell you straight what I want. Give me £500 and I'll clear off and you won't see me again. I want to join in with a man who's training some horses. No nonsense, I want that £500 and I mean to have it."
She was about to lash out at him in fury for stopping her in the open road, but realised in time that he had been drinking and was in a condition when he might do anything. So she said sharply, "I'll think it over. I can't decide all at once. It's a big sum you're asking."
"A big sum," he exclaimed. "Why, it'd be nothing to the boss and you just cook up some lie to get it from him." He spoke jeeringly. "Women can always tell lies and——"
"But we can't talk here," she interrupted, fearful that his loud voice might be heard at the lodge and the keeper there come out to see what was happening. "I'll meet you one day by the lake."
"No, not by the lake," he ordered loudly, "you come to my cottage to-morrow and then no one will see us talking." He looked at her slyly. "I won't bite you. You needn't be afraid. Come round at five o'clock."
"All right," she panted, "but let me go now," and, reluctantly, he moved away from the car and allowed her to pass.
"God!" she murmured brokenly as she drove into the grounds. "I'll have to tell Basil now." Then she remembered they were going to some friends that evening and added with a choke, "No, I won't tell him to-night. He shall be happy for a few more hours. I'll tell him to-morrow." She could hardly keep back her tears. "It'll be the end of all our happiness then, and our lives will never be the same again."
That evening she dressed herself most carefully to look her very best, and there was no trace of her inward misery as she presented herself to her husband for inspection just before their car was brought round. Her eyes sparkled, her cheeks were flushed and she carried herself, not with the poise of a condemned woman, but with that of a queen moving among her subjects.
"How lovely you are, darling," said the Colonel as he kissed her fondly. "I've never seen you more beautiful than you are to-night." He sighed happily. "I am a fortunate man."
It was a dinner party they were going to, to be followed by a small informal dance. Arriving at their friend's house, the hostess drew Jean to one side.
"I'm going to introduce you to such an interesting man, to-night, dear," she said. "Mr. Gilbert Larose. You know he used to be one of the star detectives of Scotland Yard until he married that rich widow, Lady Ardane, and gave up all his work. I've arranged that he shall take you into dinner and you will be amazed what a charming man an ex-detective can be." She laughed slyly. "I expect he'll be your slave after about ten minutes, as he is very susceptible where pretty girls are concerned."
Jean laughed back. "I've heard of him," she said. "My husband was talking about him the other day. He said he was a very unusual sort of detective and often a worry to the Chiefs of Police he served under, as he wanted to do things in his own way."
Her friend nodded. "Yes, that's Larose all over. He has a perfect passion for justice and they do say"—she lowered her voice darkly—"that if criminals couldn't be punished lawfully, he used to take vengeance upon them in other ways." She nodded again. "At any rate I'm sure you'll like him."
And certainly Jean did like the kind-looking man with the smiling eyes who took her into dinner. With all his gentleness, however, he gave her the impression of being of strong character and, mindful of her own misery, she sighed at the thought of what a tower of strength he would be to a friend in any time of trouble.
He, on his side, seemed to be greatly taken with her, and when they adjourned to the ball-room he had put himself down for two dances. But when he came to claim her for them, she suddenly felt a wave of faintness coming over her, and asked him to take her outside.
So they seated themselves on a broad bench in the shadow of a thick privet hedge on the other side of the lawn in front of the house. The star-lit night was calm and warm, and the air was heavy with the scent of early summer. The peace and beauty of everything, in contrast to the dreadful misery and turmoil in her heart, affected Jean strongly and, before she knew what she was doing, her eyes welled over with tears and she gave a big sob.
Larose was all sympathy at once. "Would you like to go inside and lie down?" he asked, "or shall I get you some brandy?"
"No, no, I shall be all right in a minute," she protested. Her voice shook. "It's only that I'm very worried about something to-night."
"What is it?" asked Larose gently. "If you tell me, I may be able to help you." He laughed lightly. "You see I've helped quite a lot of people in my time. I was a policeman once."
"I know that," she whispered, "but—but my trouble is a private one."
"Then make it public to me," laughed Larose. "I'm quite a wise old bird in my way, and I keep every secret I'm told."
For a few moments she hesitated and then she panted. "Oh, Mr. Larose, I'm in such trouble. I'm being blackmailed by a man in my husband's employ. I've been paying him money for weeks and weeks, but now he wants more than I can get and if I don't give it to him he says he's going to tell my husband a secret about me."
Larose spoke in ordinary, most matter-of-fact tones as if what she had just told him were nothing at all out of the way. "Ah," he exclaimed, "I thought during dinner to-night that you were worried about something. You were trying to forget it, but every now and then it came back to you and you looked very unhappy. Blackmail is it?" He nodded reassuringly. "Well, that'll be easily dealt with now you've confided in a third party. It's when two people only, the blackmailer and the blackmailed, are aware what's going on that it is so dreadful. Tell me all about it. You trust me and I'll put it right for you." He laughed lightly again. "I'm very good at handling blackmailers."
Again for a few moments she hesitated and then, with a rush, out came all the pent-up emotions of the lonely and miserable weeks.
"Oh, Mr. Larose," she wailed, "the dreadful thing is that when I married Colonel Hilary last year I did not tell him I was a widow and had had a baby. It was wicked of me to keep it from him and now I am being punished for it."
Larose opened his eyes very wide. "But why did you hide it?" he asked. "Why didn't you tell him?"
Jean swallowed hard. "Because——" she began. She stopped for a few moments and then burst out chokingly, "—because the man I married before had been hanged!" Her voice was almost inaudible. "He was Paul Wensworthy, the bank robber!"
"Good God!" exclaimed Larose, and he was so horrified at the revelation that he felt half choking himself.
Who had not heard of Wensworthy, the wretch who murdered as well as robbed? The life-story of that good-looking but execrated malefactor was written deep in the annals of crime. For a long time, up to two years before, the police had been baffled by an unknown miscreant who had made a speciality of attacking small branch offices of country banks. Operating in places as wide apart as Cumberland and Devonshire, he had struck terror into the hearts of bank officers whose work lay in lonely districts. Never hesitating to fire murderously if he met with the slightest opposition, seven times in succession, at the cost of two lives, he had got away with his plunder. No one had ever seen his face or had any idea what he was like for, working single-handed, he had always slipped on a mask as he had entered the banks.
Then upon his eighth attempt his good fortune had deserted him, for, having mortally wounded the bank officer in charge, the alarm had been given, he had been laid hold of and his mask torn off. Only after a desperate struggle, had he managed to escape by the very skin of his teeth.
His face, however, had been seen by a number of people and a few weeks later, being recognised when in a town in quite another part of the country, he had been seized before he could put up any resistance, and handed over to the police.
The case against him had been quite clear and his trial, his condemnation and the carrying out of the sentence had constituted almost a record for speed, as in eight weeks exactly from the day the authorities had laid hands upon him, he was hanged.
"And we had only been married a week when he was arrested," went on Jean tearfully, "the very day we had come back from our honeymoon in Paris. I never saw him again, for he wouldn't see me. He sent a message, through his lawyer, imploring me not to come near him, so that it might never come out I had been married to him."
"You were actually married?" asked Larose sharply.
"Oh, yes, in an English church in Paris," replied Jean. She sighed deeply. "I had known him only such a little time."
"And who has found out all this and is now blackmailing you?" asked Larose.
"Our gamekeeper," said Jean, "but he's got it all wrong. He only knows that two years ago, as a Mrs. Best, I was in a private hospital in Sutton Coldfield to have my baby. He thinks I was an unmarried girl," and then she told him the whole story of the gamekeeper's persecution up to his stopping her in the road that afternoon and ordering her to come to his cottage the next day at five o'clock. "Oh, how I'm being punished!" she exclaimed. "I ought to have told my husband everything before I said I would be his wife. It was very wicked of me not to do so."
"I wouldn't say it was wicked," said Larose, "but it was foolish and wrong. If you had been an unmarried girl and had had a baby it would have been your own secret to tell or keep, but as you had been legally married it was quite a different thing. Once you had brought the law into your affairs, the law took charge of you and it now means that you have been married to Colonel Hilary under a false name. That doesn't affect the validity of the marriage in any way, but if it becomes known you will probably be prosecuted, and public disgrace will fall upon your husband."
"I've thought of that," said Jean tremblingly, "and I'm sure the shame of it will kill him." She caught her breath. "And he's so happy now."
"Of course he is," agreed Larose. He nodded kindly. "I take you to be not only a charming woman, but a very good one as well." He spoke briskly. "Well, now we must think what we can do to silence this blackmailer."
"I shall tell my husband," said Jean with a sob. "I shall have to. I won't do it to-night, but I will the first thing to-morrow morning when he wakes up. Then——"
"No, no, don't do anything precipitate," broke in Larose. "You've kept it from him for so long that a few days more won't make any difference. Wait and see what I can do, first. Now you tell me about this blackmailer. Describe to me exactly what he's like."
Jean steadied her voice. "He's about forty and of the big, blustering type, with a mocking face. His eyes are small and cunning and close together. He's——"
"Ah, his eyes are close together!" exclaimed Larose gleefully. "Now that's very hopeful, for it nearly always means the party has not too much courage. Go on. Tell me more about him and where that cottage of his is. I'll take that five o'clock appointment instead of you."
A few minutes later they went back into the house, with Jean now a very different woman. There was no need for her to pretend to be bright and happy. She was so thankful for the promised help of Larose, being now quite sure he would not only frighten the gamekeeper away at once, but would also make him hold his tongue when he had gone.
Shortly before five the following evening, the gamekeeper was standing outside his cottage, waiting for his master's wife to appear. He was quite confident she would come as he had given her such a fright the previous day by approaching her so openly, where anyone might have passed by and been a spectator of their meeting. He had his eyes fixed upon the path leading from the Hall when, suddenly he heard someone whistling a merry tune and, turning his eyes sharply round in the opposite direction, saw a man coming towards him. The man was swinging a stick and keeping time to the tune he was whistling.
"What the hell's he doing here?" exclaimed the gamekeeper, very annoyed at the new-comer's inopportune appearance. He scowled. "I'll warn him he's trespassing and that'll send him off, quick."
As the man approached closer, however, the gamekeeper somehow received the impression that he was by no means the type to be frightened easily. He carried himself jauntily and there was a bold and reckless air about him, as if he did not care much what happened.
"Hullo! You Vance, Colonel Hilary's gamekeeper?" he called out in slightly nasal tones, giving the gamekeeper a hard stare.
Vance nodded surlily. "What do you want?" he frowned. He affected an air of authority. "This is private property."
"So much the better," nodded back the man. "Then we are less likely to be interrupted." He inclined his head towards the opened cottage door. "Let's go inside. I've come to talk to you."
"What about?" asked the gamekeeper, beginning to feel a little bit uneasy, he didn't quite know why.
"Your master's wife," snapped the other. "I've come to do some business for her, with you."
The gamekeeper's jaw dropped and his face went an unpleasant colour. His breath came with an effort. Hell, then she'd told someone! She had set the police on him! This fellow was a plainclothes man! But no, he didn't look like a 'tec. He was much too well-dressed for that and was wearing suede gloves. Besides, he'd mentioned 'business', and that meant some sort of bargain. The gamekeeper breathed more freely. Already he heard the rustle of crisp bank-notes.
"All right," he nodded curtly, "come inside," and the stranger, proceeding into the living room of the cottage, seated himself in the one chair which was there. He pointed to an upturned packing case by the window. "You sit there," he ordered. "We can talk better sitting down."
Frowning heavily, the gamekeeper did as he was requested. Then he asked sharply, "But you tell me who you are and where you come from."
The stranger shook his head. "Never mind who I am," he replied, "but if you like you can think of me as Joe. Flash Joe they used to call me in Chicago where I've come from, but I've left there a couple of years, and over here I've got a respectable name." He smiled a grim smile. "You wonder what my trade is? Well, I'll tell you." He almost shouted out his next words as if he didn't mind who heard him. "I'm a gun-man, Brother, a professional killer, and Mrs. Hilary is paying me to fix you up if you give her any more trouble. Understand?"
Then before the gaping and astonished gamekeeper could realise what was happening, he saw himself covered with a wicked-looking little automatic which the man had whipped out of one of his pockets. The latter chuckled unpleasantly. "Yes, and I'll kill you without turning a hair if I find you're not going to listen to reason. Understand, I say? It's nothing to me to hole a man if I'm certain I won't be found out, and I'm quite certain of that now. Notice my gloves? That means I've come all prepared. No fingermarks to be found anywhere! 'Colonel Hilary's gamekeeper found shot in lonely cottage, miles away from anywhere'." His eyes bored like gimlets into those of Vance. "Are you taking in what I'm telling you?"
The gamekeeper leaned heavily against the wall and his voice was husky. "You'd not dare to murder me," he said with an effort at a confidence he did not feel. "Strangers are few round here, and you'd be remembered afterwards. Anyone might hear the shot, too."
His visitor scoffed. "You think so? Then you listen to this," and in a few seconds he had produced a silencer and affixed it on to his pistol. His eyes roved round the room. "Ah, watch the handle of that saucepan," and, following instantly upon his words came a slight spitting sound and the saucepan crashed on to the floor with its handle shattered into pieces. "And there goes that box of matches on the shelf there! Oh, that's nothing! I could pip you in your eye, every time at twenty paces. I'm pretty handy with my gun, I am, and the guy at the other end's not got a dog's chance, whoever he is."
His lips curved to a sneer. "Now, you big, blackmailing bully, you heard what little noise my gun makes, and you're a fool if you think you'll be safe from it anywhere. No, I'll follow you wherever you go, in a disguise you won't see through, and the first second I get you alone, I'll plug you in your stomach or your liver." His eyes glared. "Those are nasty painful deaths for they can't stop the bleeding inside you." He gritted his teeth together. "Yes, if Colonel Hilary gets any anonymous letter about his wife I shall know it has come from you, and, with your tatooed hands and big lumpy body, you'll be pretty easy to pick out wherever you try to hide."
The gamekeeper's face was livid under its tan and his forehead was all pricked out in little beads of sweat. With all his bold appearance, he had a thick streak of cowardice in him and he had no doubt the man before him was what he was making himself out to be—an assassin to be hired.
His visitor nodded viciously. "I'm not particular what I do. I've been brought up in a rough school. You just look here," and in a trice he had bared a muscular arm up to the elbow. "See those scars, one, two, three; two bullets from guns and a dig with a knife! And I've got three scars on my body, one in my side where my heart was missed by the eighth of an inch, another where I got a bullet through my lung and the last from a stab in my side." He nodded again. "So I've sometimes had to take a dose of trouble myself."
He dropped his voice and spoke very quietly now. "You've been a fool, Vance, a darned silly fool. You might have gone on touching that pretty lady for a few pounds at a time for years and years to come if you hadn't made her desperate by asking too much all of a sudden and made her think of me. I'd sat once as a model for her and some other young ladies who painted, and she knew what I'd been and where to find me." He spoke in crisp and businesslike tones. "Now, Vance, have you got any money in the house?"
The gamekeeper did not seem to take in what he said. "What money do you mean?" he asked with his face all puckered in a frown.
"Money to go away with," was the sharp reply, "for you've got to clear out to-night or to-morrow. You've got to go straightaway and you're to take yourself right out of this part of the country. You haven't any? Well, here's a fiver for you, and you're to go off without saying a word to anyone. Understand?" The speaker went on very sternly. "If it ever gets to Mrs. Hilary's ears that you've spoken a word to anyone, to anyone, mind, about Sutton Coldfield, then she's making it worth my while to plug you off." His jaws snapped together. "And I'll do it with pleasure."
The gamekeeper's face was the picture of black fury, and he neither spoke a word nor even glanced in the direction of the five-pound note lying on the table. His eyes were all for the man who threatened him.
The latter rose to his feet and spat on to the floor. "That's what I think of you, Vance," he said with the utmost scorn. "I've killed men in my time and killed for money, but I've never tortured a defenceless woman and so I'm a hell of a sight a better man than you. Damn you." He spat on the floor again and then was just going out of the door when he remarked casually, "Oh, by the bye, it wasn't Mrs. Hilary who had that baby up at Sutton Coldfield. It was her sister and she is shielding her. They are as alike as two peas." He spat for the third time. "Damn you, once again."
The door banged behind him and he was gone.
Larose, for of course it was he, walked quickly away in the direction from which he had come, for the first hundred yards or so, however, keeping a backward glance over his shoulder to make sure he was not being followed. He had noted the double-barrelled gun in the cottage and was thinking it best not to neglect a reasonable precaution.
"But no," he told himself when at length the cottage was well behind him, "I knew I was right in thinking that he wasn't that kind of man. When it came to a showdown he had no pluck at all." He chuckled. "Oh, yes, I frightened him! He's ignorant enough to believe gun-men can be picked up for the asking and I don't think he'll bother the little lady any more. He's a big, blustering coward and the threat to his own dirty skin will have frightened him more than the threat of any appeal to the police."
He picked up his car where he had hidden it in a by-lane about a mile away, and drove off in a roundabout way to Rondle Hall. Jean had told him that her husband would not be home until seven o'clock and that she would be keeping a look-out for him, Larose, in the grounds.
He found her waiting for him, and when he told her the gamekeeper was leaving the district and that she would never be seeing him again, her relief and thankfulness were so apparent that he felt recompensed at once for the trouble he had taken.
"At any rate," he said, "his going out of the district will prevent his spreading the scandal by word of mouth among the people here and I don't think he'll send your husband any anonymous letter. For one thing, for a little while he'll probably be too frightened that I shall come after him and, for another, I don't think he's the type to make any trouble where he's going to get nothing out of it."
"But I shall tell my husband now," said Jean.
Larose shook his head. "No, take my advice and don't, at any rate for the present." He frowned. "It's rather puzzling to know exactly what is wisest to do, but as our great object is to save Colonel Hilary any distress, I think we are justified in waiting a little while." He nodded. "If he has, eventually, to be told, I'll take the blame for preventing your speaking sooner."
Now Larose had been right in thinking he had frightened the man badly, but he was quite wrong in imagining the latter would now be reconciled to leaving his victim alone. On the contrary, his fury that she had escaped him was soon spurring the gamekeeper on to some hard thinking as to what way he could spite her. He had not altogether given up the idea, either, that he could not yet make money out of the secret he possessed, for if he were not going to use the information himself then he might, perhaps, be able to sell it to someone to whom it could be valuable.
His thoughts turned at once to a London solicitor in Theobald's Road who had once defended his brother when the latter had been charged with receiving a stolen motor car. His brother had been guilty, right enough, but, thanks to the promptings of this unscrupulous man of law, he had lied so plausibly that he had obtained an acquittal.
Vance remembered a lot of things he had heard afterwards about this solicitor. It was said he would do anything for money and that when, in the course of his defending them, he had come into the possession of the secrets of any well-to-do breakers of the law, he would make use of his knowledge to extort money, as a matter of sheer blackmail.
"The very man," nodded Vance. "I'll go and see to-morrow. I'll make out I've come because I am being threatened by that gunman and I'll pretend to ask his advice. Then I'll see if I can't touch him for a bit." He nodded again. "Yes, he might make thousands out of it."
The following morning, soon after three o'clock, he left his cottage and, locking the door behind him, proceeded to make his way through the Hilary woods in the direction opposite to that of North Walsham. He was minded to pick up the early morning train at a station some seven miles away, where he was not known. He had brushed his boots and tidied himself up a bit, but he was carrying his gun upon his shoulder. As he moved away from the cottage he gave a furtive glance round, but there was nothing suspicious to be seen and he was quite easy in his mind that no one was in hiding there to watch him.
As long as he was on the Hilary land he kept his gun with him, but just before stepping out of the woods on to the high road he secreted it under some bushes, intending to pick it up again when he was returning home that evening. Then, after another quick look round to make sure he was not being observed, he set off at a smart pace upon his journey.
BROOME MASON, solicitor of Theobald's Road, was undoubtedly of an unusual personality. Approaching middle-age, he was a tall, big man with something of the Viking look about him. Fair, with a fresh complexion, he had large and bold blue eyes, his eye-brows were bushy, and he had a wide mouth with lips rather full and on the coarse side. Quite handsome in its way, his face suggested strength. Its expression, however, was hard and ruthless, and he looked, all over, a man who would always place himself first, and have no consideration for anybody else. In speech he was curt and blunt.
One of the best-known among the so-called 'police-court solicitors' in London, year in year out, the greater number of his clients belonged to the criminal classes. That that was the case was evidenced by the fact of so many of them being found guilty of the charges brought against them and sentenced to terms of imprisonment. A few, however, got off, and then it was generally considered Mason had worked the miracle by ways that were not supposed, in general, to be favoured by the legal profession.
He was very great in alibis, and many a breaker of the law was delighted to find that under the solicitor's skilful manipulation, he, the law-breaker, could be proved to have been many miles away from the scene of the crime when it was committed.
But Mason did not confine his activities to the police-courts only. When one of his clients had been sent up for trial to the Old Bailey and there was not sufficient money to brief a King's Counsel, or if for some reason he did not think it wise to employ one, then he defended the accused himself, and defended him very well, too.
He had an excellent way with juries, appealing to them with a great assumption of breezy honesty. He would make known to them so plainly, too, that he stood in no awe of the presiding judge, and, in a crafty way, would invite them to stand in no awe of him, either. Indeed, he would suggest that he, the jury and the prisoner were all together on one side, and the judge and the Crown Prosecutor, as representing the hungry Law, upon the other. According to him, the two parties should always be regarded as the natural enemies of each other.
Then, if the judge's summing up were going against the prisoner, even if Mason did not interrupt, which he never hesitated to do if he thought he could thereby score a point, the expression upon his face was invariably one of such shocked amazement that the jury could not help noticing it and be, to a certain extent, impressed.
One morning he was closeted in his office with a florid-looking woman about five and thirty who was wanting him to get a divorce for her from an, apparently, quite innocent husband.
"It was a mistake I married him," said the woman petulantly. "I've never really liked him, and now my aunt has died and left me her money I want to get away from him." She simpered. "There is another gentleman who will marry me at once, directly I am free."
"Then why not, Madam," suggested Mason coarsely and with no beating about the bush, "give your husband the occasion to divorce you?"
"Because he'd never do it," replied the woman emphatically. "He doesn't believe in divorce and, besides, I want to take a proper position in Society afterwards." She shook her head, "I couldn't do that if I were a guilty party."
Mason appeared to consider. "But I gather from what you tell me you have nothing against your husband and that his married life is quite an exemplary one!"
"Oh, I don't say that! I expect he's like all men, only I can't find him out."
"Then you want me to have him watched?" asked Mason.
"No, that might take years. I want him caught at once. I want to get my divorce this year."
The solicitor spoke very sternly. "Then you mean, Madam, that you want me to frame a case against him? You want me to manufacture evidence?"
The woman looked embarrassed. "I thought, I thought——" she began. "Mrs. Arrowsmith told me——" She hesitated. "She is a great friend of mine and she said how you had managed everything so wonderfully when she came to you for advice."
A long silence followed with Mason eyeing her very intently. At last he said slowly. "Are you aware that what you want would be a very expensive matter, running into, perhaps, £500?"
"Oh, I know that," she exclaimed quickly, "and I'm quite prepared to pay it."
Another silence followed and she fidgeted under the solicitor's hard stare. Then he asked sharply, "Have you your cheque book with you? Well, give me £300 on account. Don't cross the cheque, and make it payable to bearer. Here's a pen."
In some excitement, she made out the cheque as he requested and, after scrutinising it carefully, he left the room. Returning in a minute or so, at his request she rang up her bank manager to notify that the cheque for £300 was being presented and that it was quite in order.
Then a long conversation ensued between solicitor and client, with the former making many notes. He asked her several questions about her husband, twice over, and she thought him most thorough. In reality, however, he was only detaining her until he had received a prearranged signal from one of his clerks that the cheque had been duly honoured.
Presently, after a clerk had come in to announce that a Mr. Spooner was waiting to see him, the signal agreed upon, he rose to his feet and intimated to the woman that the interview was now over and that he would be communicating with her when he wanted to see her again.
He moved towards the door to open it for her to pass out, but perceiving she was not following after him, paused interrogatively.
"My receipt, Mr. Mason!" she said timidly. "You have not given me one."
His face showed some faint amusement. "In matters of this nature, Madam," he smiled coldly, "it would not be wise for me to give a receipt, and if you think for a few moments, you will yourself see why."
She got rather red. "Oh, oh, I see what you mean!" she exclaimed. "I understand," and she hurried away, as if at last she was feeling ashamed of herself.
Mr. Mason's next clients were two men, looking rather like motor mechanics. The following week he was defending the brother of one of them, who was being tried for burglary, and they had come to provide this brother, with the solicitor's assistance, with a suitable alibi.
Mason, however, was truculent and over-bearing, and gave them short shrift. "You're no good," he said sharply to the man who was accompanying the brother. "In the witness-box your tale wouldn't hang together for two minutes. You look, too, like a man whom no one would trust. Been in the jug yourself? Ah, I thought so! No, it's no matter whether it was in Manchester or Timbuctoo, the police would nose it out and I'm not going to risk the whole case by relying upon you."
"But 'e's not at 'is best this morning, Mister Mason," spoke up the other in defence of his friend. "'E's just 'ad a spot or two to buck up 'is nerves a'fore coming 'ere."
The solicitor glared. "Do you think I've got no nose?" he asked scornfully. "Why he reeks of beer!" He shook his head emphatically. "No, no, you bring someone who looks less like a burglar himself, or we won't risk it at all." He thumped his fist upon the desk. "Bring someone who's got some intelligence and I'll tell him what to say." He waved his hand. "Now off you go, for I'm busy this morning."
For some minutes Mason occupied himself with his papers, and then a clerk came in to announce that a man who gave his name as Vance wanted to see him. "He won't give his business, sir, but says it is very important."
"Show him in," said Mason, and the gamekeeper was quickly ushered into the room.
"Morning, Mr. Mason," said the latter. "You don't know me, but you got my brother off last year. He was Ted Vance and they said he'd bought a stolen motor-car and——"
"So he had," nodded Mason quickly. "There'd have been a certain and well-merited conviction if I hadn't been defending him!" He motioned him to a chair. "Sit down and tell me what you are and what you want."
Vance sat down heavily. "I'm Colonel Hilary's gamekeeper from Rondle Hall, Rondle village, near North Walsham in Norfolk," he began, "and I'm being threatened. A man says he'll shoot me."
"What for?" asked Mason sharply. "What have you done?"
Vance swallowed a lump in his throat. "Well, it's like this, sir. I happen to know a bit of a secret about the master's missis. She's about half his age and very young, and they were only married last year." He coughed. "But I saw her up North a little over a couple of years ago and she was having a baby on the quiet there."
"As a married woman?" queried Mason frowning.
The gamekeeper sneered. "Yes—but there was no marriage about it. She was a single girl right enough, for never a letter or a visitor came to the nursing home, Sister Rowe's it was, in Sutton Coldfield, where I was the gardener there."
"But what's that to do with anyone going to shoot you?" asked Mason, very puzzled.
The gamekeeper coughed again. "Well, sir, it was like this. The young lady was giving me a little present of a couple or so of notes, every now and then, just because we had known each other at that private hospital, and——"
"You mean you were blackmailing her," interrupted Mason sharply.
"Oh, no, sir," exclaimed Vance warmly. "Nothing like that. She was quite willing to do it and——"
"You pressed her for more," scowled Mason. "You wanted fivers instead of pounds, and then hundreds instead of fivers." He laughed scoffingly. "Why, man, I've listened to that tale scores and scores of times in this very room, except that it's generally been the other party who has been telling it." His face puckered suddenly into a cold, hard frown. "But what have you now come to me for, with the admission that you've been blackmailing this woman?"
Vance was not too pleased with the reception he was getting. The solicitor did not seem very friendly.
"I've come to you for advice," he grunted. "She sent a man to me, yesterday, who threatened to shoot me."
"And quite right, too," nodded the solicitor. "You deserved it." He was amused. "Who was the man she sent, her husband?"
"My oath, no!" replied Vance hotly. "He was twenty years younger than her husband and may have been another lover. He was a dandy fop with grey gloves, and a malacca cane with a silver knob on it. He said he was a gun-man and that shooting people was his trade."
"A gun-man!" exclaimed Mason. He burst out laughing. "And you believed it?"
"So would anyone have done," snarled the gamekeeper. "Why, he whipped out a pistol and began shooting all round my kitchen to show me what he could hit! He broke the saucepan handle, and then scattered a box of matches on the mantelshelf! He showed me his scars, too, on the back of his hand and upon his arms. He said he had got others all over his body, from fights he had been in, in Chicago. He gave me until to-night to leave my situation and clear off, or he'd come back and shoot me."
Mason elevated his eyebrows, as if in great surprise. "And you come to me for advice," he declaimed loudly, "when you've been given the very best, already. Leave the neighbourhood. That's the only thing for you to do now. You've shot your bolt and, myself, I think you're lucky to be able to escape without a prosecution or, at least, a horse-whipping."
Vance's face was the picture of dejection. "But I thought, I thought——" he began, and then he hesitated and stopped speaking.
"You thought what?" snapped the solicitor. "Be quick, and then I won't charge you for this interview because of what your brother paid me. Come on, what did you think? Out with it!"
"I thought," said the gamekeeper boldly, "that the information might be worth a bit of money to you and that you'd be prepared to give me my share."
Mason drew in a deep breath. He seemed aghast at the man's words. "Good God!" he exclaimed fiercely, "and you think because I'm willing to help poor devils like your brother, who've thoughtlessly got themselves into a mess, that I'll take on a filthy piece of blackmailing like you suggest." He rose to his feet and his voice was almost hissing in his anger. "Get out, you scoundrel, before I lay my hands upon you," and his appearance was so menacing that the gamekeeper was glad to get quickly out of the room and the building.
Mason re-seated himself at the desk with a cunning smile upon his face. "The fool," he exclaimed, "first blurting out all his information and then expecting me to pay for it!" He stretched for a slip of paper from one of the pigeon-holes in his desk. "Now let me see," he went on. "Knowledge is always useful, and what did he say?" He wrote carefully, "Wife of a Colonel Hilary, Rondle Hall, near North Walsham—Sister Rowe's Hospital in Sutton Coldfield—baby, between two and three years ago." He dated the memorandum and locked it in a drawer in his desk.
In the meanwhile, the gamekeeper, in fury and black despondency, was walking up the street. Turning into the first public house he came to, he sat drinking whisky until it was time for him to catch the afternoon train back home. His head was strong and the many drinks in the public house seemed to have had no effect upon him, but the further drinks he treated himself to when in the train, from a bottle he had brought with him, left him in a slightly fuddled condition when he got to his station and started to walk back to the cottage.
Reaching the Hilary woods, he found his gun where he had left it but, feeling tired, sat down to have a short rest. He dropped off at once to sleep, however, and it was pitch dark when he awoke.
He cursed angrily at finding he had slept so long and, with no further delay, started off at a quick pace to get home. Presently he came to a narrow footpath which for half a mile or so led through the deepest part of the Hilary woods to a little clearing in which his cottage stood. Just before it reached the clearing, however, it turned almost at right angles.
Suddenly, when he was almost at this turning, the thought leapt into his mind that perhaps the place was being watched. That gunman might have gone to the cottage to see if he was still there, and if so, to carry out his threat of shooting him with his dreadful silent pistol.
The man would, of course, have found the cottage locked up, but, flashing a torch through the windows, he would have seen clothes and things lying about and so have guessed he, Vance, had not gone for good! Then he would be waiting for his coming, hiding somewhere near!
Sweat came out in little beads upon the gamekeeper's forehead as he arrived at this conclusion and, like lightning, he darted behind the trunk of a big oak tree and flattened himself against it. Knowing exactly in which direction to look, by the light of the hazy moon he could pick out the front of his cottage, through the foliage of the trees.
He stood watching, but after a short while reached down and laid his gun gently upon the ground, his hands shaking so violently that he was afraid he would drop it.
Minute after minute went by, and then it came to him gradually that what he was taking for part of a tree, about five yards in front of him, had been moving ever so slightly every now and then. He caught his breath in terror as, with hard straining of his eyes, he could at last pick out the head and shoulders of a man.
But the terror passed quickly and a feeling of exultation took its place. It was the gun-man! He was looking the other way and had got his back to him! In a few strides he, Vance, could get his hands upon him and—by God—he would break his neck!
Creeping forward with the stealthiness of a beast of prey, he hurled himself upon the unsuspecting man. Then——
But now—to realise what strange tricks Fate can play, and to understand all that followed, we must go back to nearly a fortnight before, when a Mr. Jones, for so he called himself, arrived at the little fishing village of Porton upon the Norfolk coast, to grow a beard.
Mr. Jones felt very sorry for himself, taking the view that he was a very unfortunate man. For years and years he had suffered from recurring sore throats. They came on, apparently for no reason, without any warning, and, often, at most inconvenient times. They caused him considerable pain and, worse still, the inflammation as often as not extended down the larynx and he completely lost his voice. Nothing seemed to be able to ward them off, and at last a great London specialist advised the only thing for him to do was to grow a beard to protect his throat against the cold. But Mr. Jones had been clean-shaven for his forty-seven years and was very much against the idea, only consenting at last after the fierce insistence of his family and friends.
So, to get over those first dreadful weeks of coarse and disfiguring stubble, Mr. Jones took himself down to Porton, letting no one but his family know where he was going and devoutly hoping he would come across no one with whom he was acquainted.
And certainly Porton was well-placed for anyone to hide himself away. It consisted of only half-a-dozen small cottages, a score and more of fishing huts, and one little tiny shop. It had no public house and was eight miles distant from the nearest railway station, and out of the way of all good motoring roads.
After some persuasion Mr. Jones had induced the owner of one of the cottages to let him rent it and for his wife to come in daily and cook for him. Then, for a few days the quietness and solitude of the hamlet appealed to him but by the end of the first week he was thoroughly bored, so much so that, although he hated all kinds of dirty work, he lent a hand to his landlord, Andy Tuckham, to tar over the bottom of the latter's boat.
It was an awkward business for Mr. Jones and he got his hands well messed up and spoilt his shirt and a pair of old flannel trousers. He was glad when dinner-time gave him the excuse to leave off.
His midday meal over, he went for a walk, sauntering slowly along the sands, looking, with his soiled clothes and unshaven face, as he well knew, as disreputable-looking an individual as anyone could wish.
But the sands were lonely, although it was a hot mid-June, and he did not meet a soul until he had left the little fishing hamlet a good two miles behind. Then, turning a corner of some cliffs, he came upon a young fellow in ragged trousers and a torn shirt, who was collecting whelks among the rocks. The latter looked up as he drew level and hailed him with a friendly grin, calling out in broadest Cockney, "'Ullo, ole cock, bloomin' fine day, ain't it? 'Ow are yer poppin' this mornin'?"
For the moment Mr. Jones was astounded at being accosted so familiarly by so disreputable-looking a young man, and was opening his mouth to administer a well-merited reproof, when he remembered in time his own appearance and his face broke, too, with a merry smile. Then a wave of humour surged through him, and remembering his varsity days when he was a shining light of an amateur dramatic society, he replied in the purest Whitechapel, "'Ot and strong, Matey, and could do with a gargle o' beer."
The young fellow laughed happily. "So could us 'ere, ole cock, but we're two hundred miles from a pub." He plumped himself on to the sand. "Sit darn and 'ave a bit of a yarn, will yer?"
So the two seated themselves side by side and were soon exchanging confidences. The young fellow's name was 'Erbert Brent, known to his friends as Bert; he lived in Milk Street, off the Mile End Road, and worked at the London Docks. He was down in Norfolk upon his fortnight's annual holiday, and was staying at a village about five miles away. He was lonely and had been looking for a pal.
By this time Mr. Jones was enjoying himself immensely, and giving his imagination full rein, said his name was Sam Catesby, he came from 'Ackney, and he was a porter in a pitch, tar and grease warehouse. He, too, was on a holiday and, like Bert, was staying in a village about five miles away from the coast, but it happened to be in the opposite direction to that of his new-found acquaintance.
Bert, as he asked Sam to call him, was twenty-one and full of the joy of life. Singing comic songs was his hobby, and one day he intended to get on the music halls. His friends thought he was 'a corker singer'. He himself made up the words and tunes of all his songs, and he found he could always compose best when on the sea-shore. That was why he came every day to these lonely sands. He had just started a new song and it was going fine.
"Now, you juss listen, Sam," he said earnestly, "and I reckern you'll think me no dud," and springing to his feet, he began to sing with fearful grimaces and much action of his arms and legs.
"Orl 'ot, orl 'ot, I'm Pertater Joe.
I sells the bloomin' spuds so quick,
Yer can't see 'ow they go.
Orl 'ot, orl 'ot, I'm Pertater Joe.
I'm the bloke wot's got the spuds,
Fer those 'oove got ther dough."
To Mr. Jones's astonishment, the voice was melodious and pleasant, the tune catchy and the accompanying acting dramatic, and fascinating to watch.
Bert sang the verse three times and then called upon Mr. Jones to join in.
"That's only the chorus, Sam," he said, "and the words is quite easy to pick up. No, stand up and move yer feet and arms like me. I want to see as well as 'ear 'ow the bloomin' song goes."
So in two minutes Mr. Jones found himself dancing up and down, looking, he was sure, like a lunatic, and proclaiming to the world, generally, and to the sands, the sea and the sky in particular that he was known to all men by the ridiculous appellation of Potato Joe, and that he was prepared to dispose promptly of his roasted wares to every good citizen who was possessed of the ready money to purchase them.
Then, realising what he was doing, for a moment he went hot in shame and disgust to think that a refined and educated man of his mature age should be carrying on as he was. These feelings, however, were only very momentary, for the whole business struck him as so excruciatingly funny that it was as much as he could do to keep himself from rolling over in his laughter.
They sang the verse quite a dozen times until Mr. Jones was as familiar with the words and tune as if they were both his own composition.
"That'll do, old cock," panted Bert at last. "It went with a bally swing and my mates'll think me ole Caruso when I sings it to 'em."
Towards tea-time, the two friends, for they were now on the most confidential terms, parted with reluctance, arranging, however, to meet the next afternoon at the same spot.
Mr. Jones returned to his cottage very pleased with himself and in a healthy glow of excitement. His boredom had all vanished and, already, he was planning more flights of imagination with the unsuspecting Herbert Brent of the great Mile End Road, London, East.
The meeting next day duly took place, followed by further meetings on the next three succeeding days. Indeed, it had now become a regular thing for Mr. Jones to tar over his hands a bit and assume his oldest and most soiled garments every afternoon to proceed to the lonely rendezvous round the corner of the jutting cliffs.
He learnt a lot more about the young fellow's life, and that fifth afternoon, a Saturday, with Bert's holiday now quickly drawing to a close, the latter was inclined to be rather downcast.
"An' the day arter to-morrow, Sam," he said to his sympathetic listener, "orf I goes back to the ole 'ole, and the only excitement I'll get will be dodging a bit of bacca through the Dock gates under the dirty nose of the perleeceman on the look-out. Oh, but it's a bit of a thrill, I can tell yer, while it lasts! The bloke gives yer the 'ard look, yer heart goes all jumpy like, and then it's all over and safe yer are with a bit of baccy wot's never paid dooty."
"But 'ain't it very dangerous, Mate?" asked Mr. Jones.
"O' course it is," replied Bert with his eyes dilated very wide, "and that's where the fun comes in. I loves danger." He laughed softly. "I got a nice bit o' roast bird when I gets back for tea this evening, and I got that through running a bit of danger, which was good sport." He looked very mysterious. "Las' night, I copped a fat cock pheasant in some woods I know of about seven miles from 'ere and I'm no judge o' gime if he don't eat well."
"'Ow did you get 'im?" asked Mr. Jones, somewhat awed, and at the same time somewhat thrilled to be in the company of so bold a breaker of the law.
"Easy as pat, Sam," replied Bert gleefully. "A pennorth o' sulphur from the chemist and a bit of brown paper is all you wants. I rolls 'em up together to make a nice fat torch and I peeps up into the branches of the trees until I finds a Johnny-Longtail all asleep. Then I sets my torch well alight and blows it out when it's a-smouldering. Then I gives the birdy-birdy up aloft the works. I waves the torch just under where 'e's got 'is perch. 'E whiffs the smoke, whiffs 'ard and whiffs till 'e's all dizzy like and comes down wallop on to the ground."
"Then you're a poacher, Bert," said Mr. Jones reprovingly.
"Been one for years," nodded Bert, "whenever I've got the chance." He went on. "But las' night I didn't go only for that birdy. I 'ad another job on and you just listen to this. I ain't perfect yet and I'm goin' again to-night for another lesson." He shut his eyes and, pursing up his lips, proceeded to whistle a few soft and trilling notes. They were sad and melancholy, they rose and fell and rose again, and then very softly died away. He repeated them several times.
"Know wot that is, Sam?" he asked.
"No, but it sounds orl right," replied Mr. Jones. "Wot is it?"
Bert grinned merrily. "The nightingale a-crooning to 'is missis while she's a-'atching the bloomin' heggs."
"Oh, I've never 'eard a nightingale!" exclaimed Mr. Jones. "I'd like to 'ear one."
"Then you shall, ole cock," nodded Bert confidently. "I know in which direction some of 'em 'ave got their nests and we'll foller the tootling until we get right underneath where the row's going on. You come along with me, to-night. No, I won't do no poachin'. I won't get you inter trouble. Now, can you borrer a bike, as it's about seven or eight miles from here?"
Mr. Jones thought of the rusty-looking machine upon which his landlord did his shopping in the nearest town, and which he himself had occasionally borrowed, and nodded in affirmation.
"Orl right then," went on Bert, "you meet me to-night at ten o'clock at Ferrers Cross on the North Walsham Road and we'll toddle along directly it gets well dark. It's no good our going before."
So it happened that towards eleven o'clock Mr. Jones and his companion, having hidden their bicycles in a gravel-pit before they entered the wood, had taken up their positions upon Colonel Hilary's property, unknowingly, very close to his gamekeeper's cottage. Mr. Jones was leaning against a tree, with Bert squatting on the ground a few paces from him. They were to remain in intense stillness, because the little Cockney had located a nightingale's nest in the branches of the tree just above them.
Five minutes sped by, ten minutes, and then Mr. Jones changed his position ever so little to make himself more comfortable against the tree trunk. He had just settled back again, when he heard a slight sound behind him and, as he turned his head to make out what the sound had been, he was gripped fiercely by the neck and a hoarse voice exclaimed, "Got you, you devil! There'll be no using that gun of yours now!"
It had happened in the flash of a second, and, next, Mr. Jones found himself thrown violently to the ground, a heavy man was kneeling on his chest and big rough hands were groping to get a good grip of his throat.
"Help, help!" he called out fearfully, and help was immediately forthcoming.
The little Cockney was as game as a bantam cock and Vance, for of course it was he who was Mr. Jones's assailant, received a blow behind the ear and two hard ones on the face which made him instantly relax his hold on the man he had been hoping to throttle. Then the gamekeeper found himself being lugged fiercely backwards, at the same time receiving another vicious blow, which knocked him prone to the ground.
"Quick, quick, Sam," panted Bert, helping Mr. Jones to his feet, "run for yer life," and, gripping his companion by the arm to steady him, he started feverishly to lug him away.
But they had not gone half a dozen paces before Bert tripped over some object on the ground and Mr. Jones fell over on the top of him. Instantly there came a loud and terrifying explosion almost exactly underneath where they had fallen, and for the moment Mr. Jones thought his ear-drums must have been broken. Also he received a hard blow upon his shin.
Then, what exactly followed in the succeeding few minutes Mr. Jones never knew, but in after days it was with not a little shame he remembered he owed all his safety to his undersized and insignificant-looking Cockney friend who never for one moment lost his head.
Mr. Jones was quite aware he himself would almost certainly have capitulated weakly. He would have never dared to attempt any escape, but in all probability would have started upon a policy of appeasement with the gamekeeper, for of course that was only what his angry assaulter could possibly be. Then he might have offered a bribe of a couple of half-crowns, and he would have been quite prepared to give his name and address.
Most fortunately, however, as it was to turn out later, he was allowed to do none of these things. He was hustled, and pushed, and dragged with great violence away from the scene of the struggle, all the time being urged to run quickly.
"'Urry, 'urry," panted Bert, "that blasted gun will 'ave waked everybody up and the bloke himself may be up and after us any moment. 'Is face was 'ard as a board, and I didn't 'urt 'im much. O' course 'e was the bloomin' gamekeeper!"
They separated hurriedly when they had picked up their bicycles, as Bert insisted that after what had just happened it would not be wise for two cyclists to be seen together upon the road at that time of night. Bert announced, also, that he should be returning to London the first thing in the morning, as he would feel safer there.
So it was a rather frightened and rather sad Mr. Jones who crept into his cottage three-quarters of an hour later, thankful that no one in the hamlet had seen him enter. He was sad that he would be seeing Bert no more, and a little bit frightened lest it should come out what had happened that night and his participation in it made public. He was the more uneasy there because he found he had come home without his handkerchief and a gold pencil, both of which articles had his initials upon them. He had also lost the bicycle pump, although he had been at some trouble to wedge it tightly in its clip before he had set out.
Of course the actual trespassing was not a serious matter and could be easily explained satisfactorily, for listening to a nightingale was a very harmless proceeding. The ensuing fight, however, was a most unpleasant complication, and it would be a shocking scandal if it came out that a man in his position and of his age had been engaged in a rough and tumble brawl in a wood in the dead of night, with a young fellow of disreputable habits as his companion.
He slept badly, and the next morning, it was a Sunday, was not at all surprised that he felt chilly and out of sorts. The weather had turned cold, with rain and a bitter wind from the East. So he remained indoors all that day and the two succeeding days as well, waited upon by his taciturn landlady whose disposition was to never speak a word unless first spoken to.
As it happened, the woman's husband was not feeling well either, and kept indoors for three days, too, so that Mr. Jones saw no daily newspaper until the Wednesday. Then, as he received an interesting novel from his wife by the same post, the paper did not much interest him and he read only the more important news upon the leader page.
He remained in the fishing hamlet for another month, and had been back home for a further week when his wife remarked casually to him one night at dinner, when they happened to be dining alone: "Oh, when you were down at Porton did you hear anything particular about that murder? I've always been meaning to ask you, but have kept on forgetting. The man must have been killed only a few miles from where you were staying."
"What murder, dear?" asked Mr. Jones innocently. "I don't remember hearing anything about one."
"Good gracious," exclaimed his wife, "I should have thought everyone down there would have been full of it. I mean the murder of that gamekeeper."
At the word gamekeeper a frown came into Mr. Jones's face. He had told no one of that midnight adventure in the wood, being too ashamed of everything. "Whose gamekeeper?" he asked.
"Colonel Hilary's of Rondle Hall," was the reply. "He was killed by some poacher in the Hilary woods near North Walsham, on a Saturday night, about a month ago. There had been a fight and then he had been shot with his own gun."
Mr. Jones went cold in fright and horror and his heart almost stopped beating. His wife would certainly have noticed his condition had not the butler come in at that moment to announce she was wanted at once upon the telephone.
For a few moments Mr. Jones felt as if he were going to faint, but he pulled himself together with a supreme effort and gulped hurriedly at a full glass of burgundy which was providentially standing by his plate.
What an awful calamity! Of course the man had been killed by the discharge of that gun which had gone off when they had stepped upon it! And it had never entered into their minds that the gamekeeper would have been injured! They had never given it a thought! He, Mr. Jones, certainly hadn't, and he was sure his companion hadn't either or he would have spoken about it as they were running away! Why, hadn't Bert all the time been urging him on to hurry or the gamekeeper would be coming after them?
Outwardly, at least, Mr. Jones was quite composed when his wife returned to the room. "And about the shooting of that gamekeeper, dear," he asked slowly, "did they catch the man who did it?"
His wife shook her head. "No, and they never even got the very slightest clue." She smiled. "One of those dreadful unsolved mysteries, dear," and her conscience-stricken husband hoped devoutly that it would continue to remain so.
BUT if so many weeks had passed before Mr. Jones had heard of the gamekeeper's death, it was very different with Mason, the solicitor.
He read about it on Monday, at breakfast, in his morning newspaper, and was at once intensely interested. The Daily Messenger had got hold of a good story and made the most of it.
Colonel Hilary himself had been the first one to find the dead man. He had gone for his usual half hour's ride on horseback before breakfast and, quite by chance making his way in the direction of the gamekeeper's cottage, his attention had been attracted by the howling of the gamekeeper's dog. Before, however, he had reached the cottage, he had come upon the dead body of his employee and, from the look of things at once suspecting foul play, he had touched nothing, but ridden back as quickly as he could to telephone to the police.
The police from North Walsham arrived upon the scene within three-quarters of an hour of their being summoned and, immediately, as with the Colonel, were of opinion they were faced with more than a case of accidental death.
The gamekeeper had received at least three violent blows, as from a clenched fist, one behind his ear, one upon his forehead, and a third upon his mouth which had gashed his lips badly, before he had been shot. That he had been in a desperate struggle, too, was evidenced by his jacket being almost torn off his back. Also, the shot which killed him, undoubtedly fired from the gun lying upon the ground about fifteen feet away, had not been fired at close range, as there was no burning or singeing of his clothes.
His wound was of a terrible nature, a great gaping hole having been ploughed in his chest, and death must have been practically instantaneous.
All round the body, upon the ground, were plentiful traces of trampling feet, but, unhappily, the earth had been too hard to take any impressions clear and definite enough to give any indication of the type of footwear of the gamekeeper's assailant or assailants.
The dead man was of a most respectable character. He had been in Colonel Hilary's employment only a short time, but his work and conduct had given entire satisfaction.
Such was the story of the shooting as outlined by the Daily Messenger, but a striking commentary followed.
"We have no wish," it ran, "to pose as sensation-mongers, but there are certain features about this poor fellow's death which may cause thoughtful persons to incline to the idea that he did not meet it in the ordinary way when carrying out his duties as a gamekeeper.
"Of course, the instant conclusion to which everyone came upon arriving at the scene of the tragedy was that he had met his death upon leaving his cottage to apprehend some poacher or poachers. Against this contention, however, are the facts: number one, that it is not in the least likely any poachers would have dared to approach so close to where the gamekeeper lived; and number two, had the latter been suspecting poachers were about, the very first thing he would have done would have been to take his dog off the chain to go with him to locate them.
"Of course, it may be urged that the poachers were strangers to the locality and had blundered, unknowingly, into the one extremely dangerous part of the whole wood. That, however, is all nonsense, for poachers, no more than burglars, do not barge into unknown country to carry on their unlawful acts. They would make sure of every inch of the ground, first, to be quite certain that, if interrupted, they would have a safe way of retreat.
"Now another thing: when he left his cottage, the gamekeeper had locked both doors and carried the key with him, which certainly suggests that when he left the cottage he was expecting to be away much longer than for a few minutes.
"Once more, the shot which killed him was fired at ten minutes to twelve, and how does it come about that he was out of doors, fully clothed, even to both his leggings being laced up carefully, at that late hour of the night. It happens we can be certain he was killed at that time, because Colonel Hilary's head gardener and his chauffeur were playing draughts at 11.50 when they heard the sound of gun-fire. They were in the room above the garage and ran to the window to listen for any repetition of the sound, so that they could get some idea of from which direction it was coming. Hearing nothing further, however, they returned to their game, excusing themselves afterwards for not having at once taken steps to find out what the firing meant, by explaining they were not at all certain that it had taken place upon the Hilary estate."
The Daily Messenger went on:
"If things happened in anything like the way we are suggesting, then we must point out most emphatically that we are dealing with an assassin possessed of great nerve and presence of mind. In the heat of furious passion he has just taken a fellow creature's life, he has heard the sound of the gun reverberate like thunder through the midnight stillness of those peaceful woods, he knows other employees of the estate may come rushing to the vicinity of the gamekeeper's cottage to learn what has happened, and that every second's delay imperils his safety, and yet—before taking to his headlong flight, HE CAREFULLY WIPES AWAY ALL FINGERMARKS UPON THE GUN.
"Yes, although the early part of the night was hot and sultry and with everything favourable for fingermarks upon the gun, both upon the stock and the barrel, there was not a single one to be found. Instead, there was all evidence that the gun had been rubbed over very thoroughly with some soft cloth or rag, most probably a pocket handkerchief.
"So to what conclusion may we not unreasonably come from a consideration of all these facts? Surely we can say with some degree of certainty that the gamekeeper was returning home when he was attacked and that, on his side at least, the encounter with his murderer was accidental?
"Then how do we account for the murderer being there? If he were not a poacher, and we think our contention is quite sound when we state positively he was not, then what was he and what was his business in that place at that time of night? Did he know the gamekeeper was away from home and from which direction he would be returning, and was he waiting to encounter him?
"Then did this terrible tragedy have its origin in a private feud and did a fight with fisticuffs take place before the committing of the crime? Was the gamekeeper's opponent getting the worst of it and, in a fit of ungovernable fury, did he snatch up the gun which the gamekeeper had put down, and commit deliberate murder?
"Well, that is how our surmises remain at present, but we can assure our readers that no money or effort on our part will be spared to collaborate with the authorities and help plumb to the very bottom the mystery surrounding the dreadful crime."
"Exactly," nodded the solicitor, putting down the newspaper, "and a lot they'll find out! Vance's dandy visitor was not the kind to leave tracks about, for all his grey gloves and silver-knobbed cane." He pursed up his lips thoughtfully. "So I was very mistaken about the warning the blackmailing gamekeeper got, and the man who called upon him must have been something of a gun-man, after all, and quite serious and meaning business. Of course, on Saturday night he was watching to see if Vance were coming back and, when he did, he carried out his threat. Yes, and managed to carry it out very well, too, by shooting the devil with his own gun."
He whistled sharply. "But I say, I say, that Hilary woman's running a great risk in putting herself in that killer's power. She'll be absolutely under his thumb now." He nodded again. "Still, perhaps he's another lover of hers." He snapped his fingers together suddenly. "Gad, I'd like to see her! I wonder what sort of woman she is!"
He was very pre-occupied upon his journey up to his chambers that morning, and, upon arriving there, at once summoned one of his clerks. "Don't you come from Norfolk, Higgins," he asked, "somewhere up Norwich way?"
"Yes, sir," replied the clerk, "I come from Aylsham, half way between Norwich and Cromer. All my people live there."
"Then have you ever heard of a Colonel Hilary?"
"Oh, yes, sir! He's one of the biggest landowners in the county. He has an extensive property near North Walsham, Rondle Hall his place is called. He's a very wealthy man."
The solicitor grunted. "He's somebody of importance, then?"
"Of great importance, sir, and he's most generous and gives a lot to charity. He gave £10,000 towards the restoration of Norwich Cathedral last year and they expect he'll be knighted in the next birthday honours."
"And he's got a young wife, hasn't he?" asked Mason.
The clerk's face lighted up. "Yes, sir, and she's a most beautiful girl. She's recently had a baby and her photograph was in last week's Sphere." He laughed. "She's only twenty-two and Colonel Hilary is nearly fifty."
Mason took a coin out of his pocket. "Go and get me a Sphere, then. I'm interested in the family." He frowned in a lordly fashion. "I may shortly be having some of their affairs to attend to."
A few minutes later, he was looking at Jean Hilary's photograph, occupying the whole of the front page of the Sphere and, to his amazement, he sensed his heart was beating more quickly than usual.
"Good God," he muttered softly, "but what a glorious face!" He looked up from the photograph and his eyes glinted. "And, by James, I've got her secret! She's never heard of me, but she's completely in my power." He was stirred almost to breathlessness in his excitement, and then sank back into his chair muttering slowly, "And if she has deliberately had murder done to cover up her traces, then, to go on doing so, she will——" his voice trailed into silence, and a moment later there was a smile upon his face Jean Hilary would not have liked to have seen if she had been aware that it had anything to do with her.
Presently, he put through a call to the North Walsham Police and, learning that the inquest was to take place the following morning at half past eleven, proceeded to at once arrange his affairs so that he could go down and be present.
During the course of that day he found it difficult to concentrate upon his work, and many times he caught himself thinking of the girl whose photograph had so intrigued him. It was not only her loveliness that was attracting him, he argued to himself, but the bold determined manner in which she had so swiftly had her persecutor swept from her path. He was looking forward to seeing her, and, certainly, was intending to make her acquaintance in some way or other.
In the meantime the object of his thoughts was very troubled. On the Sunday morning her husband had broken the news to her about the mysterious death of the gamekeeper and at first her feelings had been only those of most thankful relief. She was rid of her persecutor for good, and regarded it almost as a special act of Providence upon her behalf.
Then she suddenly remembered what her friend had told her of Larose before introducing him to her, and how he had such a passion for justice that many times when attached to the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard, at any rate so it was rumoured, if the Law had proved ineffective he had taken matters into his own hands and punished the wrong-doer himself. So, she began wondering fearfully and with growing uneasiness if, upon second thoughts, he had taken that course now and in consequence was in danger of being found out. The idea made her literally feel sick.
Then, it might almost have been as if her husband had read what was passing through her mind, for he said suddenly, just before lunch, "You know, dear, I'm half inclined to ring up that nice chap, Gilbert Larose. We had a very interesting conversation the other night and I took a great fancy to him. He might be interested in the case and come over. We can't be much more than forty miles from Carmel Abbey and he'd do it in an hour. Now what do you think?"
For the moment Jean did not know what to think, and then she exclaimed delightedly, "Oh, yes, do ring him, Basil! What a brain wave! Of course, he'll be terribly interested."
So Larose was rung up, and a short but animated conversation proceeded between him and the Colonel. Then the latter returned to his wife, looking very pleased. "He's coming, dear," he told her. "He said he'd be here by two o'clock."
She was with her husband on the gravelled drive in front of the house when Larose arrived, and he gave her a warm and friendly smile as he shook hands with her. No anxiety there, she thought in great relief, and so he had had nothing to do with the gamekeeper's death.
Somewhat to her surprise, it was her husband who seemed nervous while he was expressing his thanks to Larose for coming. The latter, however, insisted that it was a pleasure to him to come, and asked to be put in possession of all the facts.
Having been told everything, Larose thought that, first, he had better go and inspect the body. So, accompanied by the Colonel he drove into North Walsham, where the body lay awaiting the post-mortem. Making himself known to the sergeant in charge, he was allowed into the mortuary. He examined the injuries the dead man had received and scrutinised the clothes he had been wearing, asking the sergeant several questions. He was fortunate there, as the sergeant had been in charge of those who had gone to recover the body.
Proceeding next to the dead man's cottage, Larose and the Colonel found a young constable stationed outside. He explained he had been put there to keep reporters and sightseers away. "The reporters, particularly, are giving a lot of trouble," he said. "They want me to unlock the cottage and let them go in to take photographs, but my orders are to keep everyone out."
Judging him to be a young fellow of some intelligence, Larose asked him what was his opinion of the tragedy.
"Well, I think, sir," he replied, "that it was a poacher who shot him, for who else but a poacher would be coming round here at that time of night. But I wouldn't say he was a regular professional poacher, and I'm pretty certain he didn't come from anywhere near here."
"How do you make that out?" asked Larose.
The constable smiled. "This part of the wood, sir, wouldn't be safe for poaching with Vance living so near, and all local poachers would have known where his cottage was. They'd have known, too, there would be little chance of getting a pheasant here, as the birds don't roost in trees near where there are dogs and human beings."
"Then you think the poacher came from a distance," said Larose.
"I'm sure he did, sir," nodded the constable, "and, with all these cheap time-payment motor bikes on the road, he may have come from hundreds of miles away, perhaps from right the other side of London." He shook his head. "One thing, too, makes me think we'll never get him. That wiping the gun clean from all fingermarks shows he's a cool, calculating fellow. No, I don't think he'll ever be caught."
Larose smiled. He hoped he wouldn't, for the gamekeeper's death had saved a very awkward situation and, most certainly, too, the wretch had richly deserved all he had got.
Still Larose was very curious to know how it had all happened and, leaving the car by the cottage, he went with Colonel Hilary to inspect the exact spot where the body had been found. The Colonel explained to him how it had been lying and pointed out, too, where the gun had lain.
"It must have been a poacher," said Larose when he had taken everything in, "and, of course, he came after the pheasants. Now what's the usual way in which they try to get the birds?"
"The most popular way," replied the Colonel, "is with an electric torch and a good air-rifle. It's not very difficult to get the pheasants, for you can spot them pretty easily because, as a rule, they don't roost high up. Still, we don't often get poachers round here; just occasionally we catch a man working on his own."
"Ah, but this man wasn't working on his own!" exclaimed Larose. He shook his head. "No, there were at least two of them here last night. One man alone was not responsible for all those knocks your gamekeeper got; particularly so, as it does not appear from the look of his knuckles that he got in even one blow himself." He nodded. "What I think happened was something like this. For a purpose that we do not know, Vance was out in this wood with his gun, very late last night. Perhaps he was drunk. His body simply reeked of spirits just now and he must, at any rate, have been pretty well soaked. Well, drunk or sober, he caught sight of some poachers before they saw him, or rather, I should be inclined to think he caught sight of one of them only, and, putting his gun on the ground, thought he had an easy job to grab him with his hands. Big and muscular men of Vance's type are always more at home with their hands than with any weapon. They like to prove their strength and, in a fight, feel the grip of flesh upon flesh. I've often noticed that."
Colonel Hilary was frowning and looking rather puzzled. Larose went on. "So, suppose Vance grabbed hold of one man and another came to the rescue and, coming up behind, slugged him that one he'd got on the back of his ear. Then this second chap seized hold of his jacket by the collar and pulled him backwards. When I was examining the clothes they'd taken off him I saw the jacket was badly torn there. Yes, it's quite plausible that Vance had got that first man down on the ground when the second one attacked him. Well, number two pulled Vance off number one and gave him those two hard hits in the face. Then, with Vance now on the ground, they both started to run away, but the gamekeeper, to whom those blows on his face would have been nothing and certainly have not knocked him out, jumped up to go after them. So one of them snatched up the gun and shot him."
Colonel Hilary smiled. "As you put it," he said, "everything seems most likely to have happened as you say."
"And why not?" asked Larose. "Vance came out of that little pathway there into the broad glade here and saw—by the by, where does that path lead to?"
"The Norwich road," replied the Colonel. "It's not quite a mile away."
For a few moments Larose stood looking up the pathway. It was narrow and torturous and overhung with the branches of the trees. Suddenly, he turned back to the Colonel. "Look here, sir," he said impressively, "Do you mind leaving me here alone for a few minutes." He made a grimace. "You know I always have a sort of hunch that if I'm left quite by myself on the spot where anyone has met a violent death I often get ideas. I may get one now. So, if you don't mind, go and wait for me at the cottage."
"Certainly!" smiled the Colonel, "and I'm the more pleased to go because I've left my cigars in my overcoat in your car," and he started to move away at once.
Larose waited until he had gone about fifty yards and then darted into the narrow pathway. He had caught sight of a bright object lying upon the ground among the undergrowth a few feet off the path and had not wanted the Colonel to know anything about it. He picked it up breathlessly. It was a silver cigarette-case and it had the letters "R.G." engraved upon it.
He thrilled with excitement. The case could not have been there very long as it was quite untarnished. Undoubtedly one of the poachers had dropped it and, if so, that he was not a labouring man was almost certain. Labourers did not have silver cigarette cases!
Opening the case, he saw the maker's name stamped inside. "Ogden, Silversmith, Norwich," he read. The case was nearly full of cigarettes, upon the paper of which was printed, "Special Virginians, Henderson and Co., Norwich." Then, with both the case and the cigarettes coming from Norwich, Larose guessed instantly that the owner must almost certainly live in that city.
What a sure thing it might turn out to be if he handed the case over to the police! He had no intention, however, of doing anything like that. He didn't want whoever had killed Vance apprehended. The gamekeeper's death did not look like a case of deliberate murder, but, rather, an act committed in the heat of a fierce struggle, with the gamekeeper almost certainly being the aggressor.
His thoughts ran on. If the owner of the cigarette case were a Norwich man, of course, he had come along this narrow path leading from the Norwich road, and might it not be possible then that he had left more clues in his hurried flight along it on his way back, or when he climbed over the fence to get back on to the road? At any rate he, Larose, would go to see.
He returned to the cottage where he found Colonel Hilary and the constable having a friendly smoke together. "Look here," he said to the constable, "I'd like to have a bit of a look down some of these paths. Whose bicycle is that by the gate? Can I borrow it for half an hour?"
The constable grinned. "As far as I'm concerned, sir, you can take it away for keeps. It doesn't belong to any of us. I think one of the reporters came out on it. He's probably gone for a hunt on his own somewhere where he couldn't take the machine?"
"All right," grinned back Larose, "then I'll take the chance he won't be back here before I am. I'll borrow it. If he should return before I do, tell him it's quite safe and I'll be giving him a tin of cigarettes for the loan."
Mounting the bicycle, he rode quickly away, taking the narrow pathway near which he had found the cigarette case. Above all, he wanted to find out where the midnight intruders had climbed the fence which surrounded all the Hilary estate. He was rather surprised, however, to learn that the path led straight to a big gate which was not even padlocked, and so there would have been no necessity to have climbed the fence anywhere.
Dismounting from his machine, he leaned over the gate and considered everything. This was where R.G. had entered the wood and, coming from Norwich, of course he had used either a car or a bicycle. Then where had he hidden his conveyance whilst he did his poaching? It must have been somewhere close near!
The Norwich road, as far as he could see, ran parallel with the fence in both directions, and on the other side of it stretched open country, with bushes and a few trees here and there.
Leaving his bicycle in the wood, he crossed over the road, on to the grassland, with the intention of proceeding half a mile or so in the direction of Norwich, on the lookout for the place where a car or bicycle could have been hidden out of view of passers-by. As it happened, however, he had not walked a hundred yards before he came to the opening into what turned out to be a small gravel pit.
"The very place!" he exclaimed, and in thirty paces at most he had dropped to the level of the pit bottom and was out of sight of the road. He looked round for any indications of a car having been there recently, and at once his eyes fell upon what he thought, at first, was only a piece of rag. Picking it up, however, he whistled when he saw it was a large handkerchief of quite good quality, marked boldly in ink in one corner "C.A.B."
But that was not his only find. A small bicycle pump was lying close near, and to it was lightly adhering a little wad of soiled and well-folded newspaper. The newspaper had evidently been used to wedge the pump more tightly in its clip. Looking round carefully, he saw there was nothing more to interest him and, disappointed that the initials on the handkerchief were not the same as those on the cigarette case, he pocketed his finds and returned to the pathway in the Hilary wood.
Turning into the glade, and with the cottage in sight, he saw the constable and Colonel Hilary had now been joined by another man and, as he approached nearer, he was at once of opinion that the newcomer was the owner of the bicycle he was riding. He was a fine athletic young fellow, and eyeing him furiously.
"You've got a damned cheek," he cried, snatching the machine away as Larose alighted, "and, if you were a bit younger, I'd give you the very father of a hiding."
Larose was meekness itself. "I'm very sorry, sir," he apologised. "I know I oughtn't to have taken it, but I was hoping I should be back before you were and then"—he smiled disarmingly—"I was going to leave you fifty good cigarettes for the loan of the machine."
"But you oughtn't to have done it," scowled the young fellow. He looked Larose up and down. "Who are you? Have you anything to do with any paper?"
"Not I," laughed Larose. His eyes twinkled. "I'm quite respectable. I'm only a friend of Colonel Hilary here." He spoke earnestly. "I say again, sir, I am very sorry."
The young fellow appeared mollified. "All right, then," he said, "but now hand over those cigarettes." He half smiled. "I shall hold you to that."
"Certainly," said Larose, and turning to one of the pockets of his car, he produced a tin of cigarettes and handed it over.
"Thanks," said the young man and, opening the tin as quickly as he could, he added fervently, "I'm dying for one. I've not had a smoke for two hours. Rotten luck, I've lost all my cigarettes and my case as well."
"Lost your cigarette case!" exclaimed Larose with a frown. "Where?"
"I don't know," replied the young man irritably, "or I should have gone and found it, of course." He waved his arm round. "I've lost it since I came up here. It's a silver one and I prize it a lot. It was a present from a young lady."
Larose made a grimace and then smiled. "And does your Christian name happened to be Richard?" he asked.
"No," was the sharp reply, "it's Ronald. I'm Ronald Gower Of the Norwich Herald."
Larose took the silver case out of his pocket. "Some small return, sir," he smiled, "for my impertinence in borrowing your machine," and he proceeded to explain how it had come into his possession.
The young fellow was delighted. "What a strange thing," he exclaimed, "that you should take one property of mine and find another! It's extraordinary!"
But not more extraordinary, thought Larose, than that he himself by picking up the cigarette case should have been started upon a false trail which was to lead him so quickly to the finding of a true one. He said nothing to anyone, however, about finding the handkerchief and the bicycle pump in the gravel pit, although, privately, he was intending to try and follow up the clue to see where it led him.
At half past eleven o'clock the following morning the inquest was opened in North Walsham. It was not expected that at that stage the police would offer more than formal evidence, but for all that quite a number of spectators arrived to watch the proceedings. Colonel Hilary was in the Court, accompanied by a local lawyer, with Larose sitting next to him.
Just before the proceedings were due to start, greatly to the Colonel's surprise, a sergeant of police brought a stranger up to speak to him. The stranger explained he was a solicitor from London and had come at the request of members of the dead man's family; his name was Broome Mason.
Larose was interested in him at once. There was something very purposeful about the man's looks, and it was evident his was no ordinary personality. But if Larose were interested in the solicitor, his interest was as nothing compared with the interest which was aroused in Mason, the instant his observant eyes fell upon the one-time detective. With all his habitual self-control, the solicitor felt himself literally trembling in excitement, noting as he did, a sprucely-dressed man, with grey gloves and—to clinch everything—a silver-topped malacca cane. "Hell," he murmured brokenly as he turned his eyes away, "the gun-man, the fellow who threatened Vance he'd shoot him! Gad, what a find!"
Then everything went Mason's way. Colonel Hilary invited him to come up to the Hall for lunch after the inquest was over and have a talk, and the offer was accepted at once.
Driving back to town that afternoon, Mason was of opinion that he had never had a more delightful or interesting meal. With an impassive face he had devoured the loveliness of Jean Hilary. He had thought her more beautiful even than her photograph, and every time he had looked at her a chord in him had vibrated with passionate fierceness.
And he had gloated to think he held her in the hollow of his hand, and that, in due time, if he played his cards correctly, everything he wanted would come to him.
And it must, he told himself, for like him she could have no scruples. She could not possibly have any! She had had a lover before her marriage, she had induced this Gilbert Larose to commit a cold-blooded murder, and without doubt the price had been paid before the murder had been committed.
Yes, the mask of her Madonna-like face hid passions, loves and hates which were as primeval as the brute instincts of the race itself.
Then, he thought of Larose and chuckled. He knew all the life story of this one-time detective, but was of opinion his romantic tracking down of crime was not one whit more sensational than the manner in which he himself had now fallen into the toils. The beautiful face of Jean Hilary, her glorious eyes, the soft curves of her young body—and the great detective with all his strength of character had slipped easily into the role of treacherous friend to the girl's husband and callous murderer of the discoverer of the girl's secret.
Yes, there was no doubt there was a secret bond of sympathy between the two, between Jean and Larose. He had seen looks pass between them, furtive looks of guilty understanding. The girl was not at all shocked that one of her husband's servants had met a dreadful death. On the contrary, she had smiled a lot, as if everything were going well and she was quite happy.
Well, she wouldn't, however, be so happy if she was aware he, Mason, knew what her beautiful Larose had done and that he, Mason again, would hand the dandified gentleman over to the authorities, without the slightest compunction, if it suited his book.
Ah, but he must be careful about that Larose! He must always be one jump in front of him for, apart from this secret murder of the gamekeeper, it was public knowledge the fellow was deuced ready with his gun. Yes, he was a man to be very, very careful with. He looked a Johnny who had got eyes all over his head! He missed nothing!
Strange about the old Colonel! On the face of things he seemed a pretty shrewd old bird, but about his wife and Larose he was blind as a bat. Anyone could see that the old man was mazed about the girl. He just worshipped her and would give her anything. Ay, and he could afford to give her everything she wanted, if anybody could! He was simply rolling in money! You hadn't to be in his house five minutes to be certain of that! Why, that brandy at lunch must have cost fifty shillings a bottle and goodness only knew what he paid for the port! Well, if he, Mason, got tired of the girl, he'd ring the changes and put the screw on the hubby. Ten thousand pounds should be an easy touch there.
When upon any important venture, Mason was a quick worker and never let the grass grow under his feet. So the next morning early saw him entraining for Sutton Coldfield, and before lunch time he was walking slowly by the private hospital run by Sister Rowe. But he did not make any enquiries there. Not he, he was much too wily a bird for that.
Instead, he asked a passing policeman to direct him to the nearest chemist, and was soon interviewing the proprietor of one a few hundred yards away. He was glad to learn it was the only chemist shop in the neighbourhood. First, however, he bought an expensive shaving brush and a box of cough lozenges to inspire confidence. Then he remarked casually, drawing a bow at a venture,
"Oh, by the by, do you happen to know where a young Mrs. Best lives now? She was at Sister Rowe's hospital for some weeks a little under three years ago, when she had her baby. I understand she was a customer of yours then and got all her things here."
The chemist nodded. "I remember the young lady quite well, sir, but I don't know where she is now. I expect Sister Rowe could tell you. They were very friendly and Sister Rowe stood godmother to her baby."
"Ah, yes, of course!" nodded Mason. "I'll go round and see the sister." He frowned heavily. "Gad, how time flies! Now I come to think of it, it must be more than three years since Mrs. Best went away."
"No, sir," corrected the chemist, "not three years until the tenth of July. At least that was the date her little baby died, and she went away almost immediately afterwards." He smiled sadly. "I happen to be certain of that because the tenth of July is my birthday and she was in here with the baby the day before. They were on their way back from the christening and had called in to choose a little hair-brush for the baby. Sister Rowe was giving it as a christening present and I was to get it engraved 'Madeline', the baby's name."
Mason nodded. "I remember it all now. The baby died very suddenly."
"Yes, sir, all in a few minutes from convulsions," said the chemist. "I always think she must have caught a chill in the church. St. Phillip's is a draughty old place." He pursed up his lips. "Still, Dr. Fenton was there as the godfather and he'd have seen she was well wrapped up."
Mason winked to himself when he was out in the street. "So very simple," he smiled, "and yet if I'd got a private enquiry agent he'd have probably made quite a job out of it. Now for St. Phillip's church and I'll get a copy of that certificate." He grinned. "What a good thing the beautiful young mother was religious enough to have the baby baptised, but I wonder how she managed about the father's name. With the doctor present in the church she wouldn't have been able to hoodwink him."
St. Phillip's church was close near. It was open and he walked in. A cleaner was at work and he asked her where the clergyman lived. "The vicarage is just at the back," she told him, "but if you want the Vicar, he's here in the vestry now."
Mason was delighted with his good-fortune and very quickly was interviewing the clergyman and explaining what had brought him there. He spoke most reverently as if he himself were a devout churchman.
"If you please," he said, "I want a copy of the certificate of baptism of Madeline Best who was christened here on the ninth of July, three years ago."
The church register was produced and the date soon found. Then both the clergyman and Mason looked puzzled for there was no record of the name of Best.
A short silence followed and then the clergyman asked sharply, "But have you got the right surname?" He pointed with his finger to one of the entries in the book. "That must be the child you want. The Christian name, Madeline, is a very unusual one. See, the parents were Paul Edward and Jean Madeline Wensworthy, with the Paul Wensworthy deceased."
For a few moments Mason was so non-plussed that he did not know what to say. Then he exclaimed with an effort, "Of course, of course, I was forgetting! The mother is an actress and Best is her stage name!" He nodded. "A copy of that one is what I want."
Back in the train again within an hour, during the journey London-wards, he many times took the certificate of baptism out of his pocket and stared wonderingly at it, as if he could not believe the evidence of his eyes. With a lively recollection of the more famous criminal trials, he had forgotten nothing of that of Paul Edward Wensworthy, and now there was no doubt in his mind that the bankrobber and the Wensworthy of the baptism certificate were one and the same man. The coincidence of there being two men, each possessing the same three names, was quite impossible.
No wonder then, when the proud and aristocratic Colonel Hilary had come courting Jean, she had kept from him all knowledge that she had been married already to a man who had been hanged.
Infatuated with her as her elderly suitor had undoubtedly been, for him to have learnt that in marrying her he would be only taking the place of a felon who had died upon the scaffold would assuredly have been too great a strain upon his family pride. If she were destined to give him an heir to carry on the family line, all his life long it would rankle in him that she had done the same for a man over whose neck had been flung the hangman's noose.
Then another thought came to Mason. It could be explained now how easily Jean had fallen into criminal ways. No doubt she had acquired an inclination for them from her first husband. Maybe, she had known all about his ways of life and been quite happy in spending the bank money he had stolen.
Mason wanted to rub his eyes as if he were still only half awakened from an extraordinary dream. The whole thing seemed too fantastic to be true. He smiled. But it was true and he would soon put it to the test.
Ah, but he must be absolutely sure of his ground first. He must have absolute proof that she had been married to Paul Wensworthy before he showed one single card of his hand. When he approached either her or her husband, either for sweethearting or for hard solid cash, the evidence in his possession must be so overwhelming that there would be no fight left in them. Yes, if possible he must find out where Jean had been married to Paul Wensworthy.
The next morning he began his enquiries. He found out from his clerk whose people lived in Norfolk, that Jean's maiden name had been Castle, and that her father was a clergyman in Devonshire. Looking up the name in the Clerical Directory, he saw the only Castle there was the Rector of Chudleigh and, caring nothing about expense now, he put the matter into the hands of an enquiry agent whom he was accustomed to employ. The man was to go down into Devonshire and find out all he could about Miss Jean Castle up to the time of her marriage with Colonel Basil Hilary about fifteen months ago.
A week later the agent, Ransom Todhunter, reported to him. In that short time he had learnt quite a lot about the young girl, in her maiden days. When in her nineteenth year she had come up to London to study Art. She had entered an academy of painting in Chelsea in the autumn term and was well remembered by all associated with the school, firstly because of her rare beauty and, secondly, because of her romantic marriage to the wealthy Colonel, a man of more than twice her age.
She had been very popular with both the teachers and the other students, nearly all of whom, it appeared, had been present at the wedding in St. Margaret's, Westminster. She had then been engaged in her studies for upwards of two years. She had not, however, spent all that time in Chelsea, having absented herself for several months to stay, so she had given out, with relations in Scotland. She had gone on this visit very soon after she had returned from a month's holiday in France, and when she had been at the school a little longer than six months.
"Let me get this clearly," frowned Mason. "How soon after her returning to Chelsea from this visit to Scotland did she marry the Colonel?"
The agent looked at his notes. "About a year, as far as I can make out," he replied. He nodded. "Of course, none of these times may be quite exact, but they are the general opinion of those I talked to."
"And except for this Colonel Hilary, you say she was never known to have had any followers?"
"Oh, no, I don't say that," smiled the agent. "From what I have heard, as I say, she was a very lovely girl and the men were always after her. What I mean is that she was never known to have formed a particular attachment with anyone, and if she had, it would certainly have come out as she lived in a boarding-house with three of the other girl students. In plain words, she never had a boy-friend. She appealed to the men but, apparently, the men did not appeal to her."
"Then, of course, she married this Hilary man for his money?" suggested Mason.
The agent shrugged his shoulders. "She was too well-liked by everyone for them to say, openly, that it was so, but I've no doubt that is what they think." He made a grimace. "Still, as you must know, sir, women are strange creatures and many young ones prefer a middle-aged man. Boys in their twenties are generally selfish and fickle."
"And you say," went on Mason thoughtfully, "that in the first instance she was only at the school for six months?"
"A little longer than that, I was told, before she went on that month's holiday to France. After that it was only a matter of weeks before she went upon that visit to Scotland."
"And starting upon her studies in the autumn, as you tell me, that would mean she went for this holiday to France the following spring, in April or May."
"That would be so," agreed the agent, "in the spring."
"Excellent, it couldn't be better!" exclaimed Mason. "And now I'll get you to——" but he pulled himself up sharply and for quite an appreciable length of time sat regarding the man before him, most intently. Then he frowned, and, turning his eyes away, directed his glance through the window. His face had reddened a little and he began to fidget with his fingers. Then he suddenly turned back to the agent and smiled. "But what was I saying? Ah, I remember! I said how excellent it was that you were able to speak French." He looked at his watch. "Well, that's all for the present, thank you, Todhunter. Now, have you got your bill with you?" and he whipped a cheque-book briskly out of a drawer.
The agent was not deceived. Mason had been upon the point of giving him further work to do in connection with this case and then had thought better of it! He smiled to himself to think that Mason was imagining he had taken him in so easily. He could read Mason like a book. He took a paper out of his pocket.
"Here are my expenses, sir," he said. "They come to £11 4s. 6d. and the account altogether is £25 18s. 6d. with my fee of two guineas a day."
Mason barely looked at it. "All right," he said, "I'll give you a cheque for £30 and I'm much obliged to you. You've done very nicely and I'm very pleased."
He made out the cheque and blotted it, talking quickly all the time. "There," he said, "I've made it an open bearer one and you can cash it across the counter, straightaway. Scribble a receipt at the bottom of your paper."
Todhunter just glanced at the figures and put the cheque in his pocket. Then, thanking the solicitor, he let himself out of the room.
With the door closed and Mason again alone in the room, he screwed up his face into a grimace. "The devil," he murmured, "I might have given away the whole show to that fellow and he's shrewd enough to have realised just what he'd got hold of!"
As he often did when considering a weighty matter, he talked softly to himself. "Now, this is the bone I've got to pick, and if my teeth are sharp enough there's a nice bit of meat upon it. Let me think. That girl started her studies at the art school in the autumn, say in September. She had been there a little over six months when she went for a spring holiday to France. That would bring the time up to May, and she was Paul Wensworthy's wife when he was arrested"—he looked down at one of the newspaper cuttings upon his desk—"on May the 29th at Folkestone, having come over that same morning from France. It was known he had had some woman with him in France, but the police had nothing on her and let her go. It never came out in the newspapers that Wensworthy was a married man."
He thought hard for a moment, and then went on. "Then, of course, the last part of the girl's holiday was their honeymoon. Of course it was, and now the question of importance is where were they married? Did they marry in London before they left for the holiday, or were they married abroad?"
A long minute of silence followed before he spoke again. "No, I don't think they were married in London and I am rather inclined to believe she had never met Wensworthy this side of the water. Todhunter is so positive she was never known to have had a sweetheart whilst attending the art school in Chelsea, and if she had had one I don't see how it could have been kept secret, living as she was in close communion with three other girls in a boarding house. Besides, a month would have been much too long for a honeymoon."
He shook his head. "No, I'll take it for granted she met Wensworthy for the first time in France and that the marriage was a hastily conceived one. Artistic people are always impulsive and the two may have met each other and fallen in love at once and with no restraint. Wensworthy was in smoke at the time. He had left England to grow a beard and moustache after his features had been seen when the mask was torn off his face"—he looked down at another newspaper cutting on his desk—"in Witham in Essex on April the 6th."
He continued briskly. "Well, I'll assume they met accidentally somewhere in France and were married almost straightaway. Then where did they meet and where were they married, because I must be able to produce a copy of the marriage certificate to clinch my case?" He nodded vehemently. "Now, where of all places in France would a painting girl like Jean go? Why, of course, to Paris, to gloat over the pictures of the Great Masters in the Louvre! No, I'll consider no other place, particularly so because Wensworthy was a portrait painter himself, and, added to that, it was certainly to some big city he'd go to hide himself effectively away."
He nodded again. "Then, of course, being the daughter of a Church of England clergyman the girl would have stood for no nonsense and would have insisted upon being married in a Church of England church. Good, then I'll send Ben Parrot over to Paris to search the registers of all the English churches there, they can't be many, and I shall be very surprised if within three days from now I haven't got a copy of the certificate of marriage here in my desk."
He put through a call to Benjamin Parrot, another enquiry agent whom he occasionally employed, and asked him to come round at once. After giving the man his instructions, he packed him off to Paris that same afternoon by air and, a day earlier than he had expected, in exactly forty-eight hours, was gloating over a copy of the marriage certificate of Paul Edward Wensworthy and Jean Madeline Castle. The agent had found what he had been sent for in the second church he visited, the church of St. Francis in the Rue de l'Etoile.
Dismissing Parrot with a cheque for the exact amount the agent had asked for, after having gone over most carefully all the information he now possessed about poor Jean Hilary, Mason sat back in his chair and rubbed his hands. "Yes," he told himself, "I nearly made a ghastly and unpardonable mistake, but now everything is quite O.K. These agents are never to be fully trusted and I did well to divide up the enquiries." He smiled cunningly. "Todhunter knows all about a Miss Jean Castle who married a Colonel Hilary, but his knowing that will be quite harmless because he has never heard of her in connection with Paul Wensworthy." He nodded. "Then Parrot knows all about a Miss Jean Castle marrying a Paul Wensworthy, but his knowledge will be quite harmless because he has never heard of her in connection with a Colonel Hilary. Oh, if they could only pool their knowledge, how happy they might be." The cunning smile returned. "Now it is I who am going to be the happy one, perhaps in love, perhaps in money—who knows?"
However, the equanimity of the crafty man of law would have suffered a most severe shock had he only been aware that at that very moment the two enquiry agents were exchanging confidences, or rather Ransom Todhunter was pumping Ben Parrot dry, and giving very little information himself, in return. Mason with all his cunning, had after all, made one terrible and very ghastly mistake. It had happened in this way.
When he had so suddenly altered his mind about entrusting any more of the enquiry to Todhunter, he had already thought of the other agent he would employ to go to France and, in pure absent-mindedness, he wrote this second man's name upon Todhunter's cheque for £30. So, when the latter, arriving at the bank, took out the cheque to endorse it before handing it to the cashier, he saw to his amazement that it was made out not to him, but to 'Benjamin Parrot or bearer'.
For the moment he thought the solicitor must have given him the wrong cheque. But no, it was for his sum, £30, it was not crossed, and was payable to 'or bearer'. He stared hard at it and then it suddenly dawned upon him what had happened. Ben Parrot had been uppermost in Mason's thoughts at the moment the latter had made out the cheque, and through inadvertence it was his name he had written down.
"The old devil," exclaimed Todhunter angrily, "what a dirty trick he's served me! I was sure there was something fishy in the way he shut up so suddenly and now he's given the show away. He pretended the case was finished but, instead, he's passed it over to old Ben to go on with." He gritted his teeth together. "But I'll get even with him. I'll find out what he's up to."
Todhunter knew quite well that Parrot was another enquiry agent. He knew him slightly and they always passed the time of day when they happened to meet in police or law courts, as sometimes happened. He had not been aware, however, that Mason ever employed him, and he guessed, rightly enough, that Parrot would not know that he, Todhunter, upon occasion worked for Mason, too.
"I'll ring him up to-morrow," he muttered, "and I'll bet any money he's out. Then I'll make an excuse to go and see him when he's come back. If I play my cards well I may be able to bounce him into telling me what sort of job he's been on."
As he had expected Parrot was away when he rang him up the next day, and it was not known exactly when he would be returning. However, two days later he was back, and Todhunter made an excuse to go and see him at once. His tale was that a job had been given him to stop some petty pilfering which invariably took place whenever a particular little tramp steamer got into Thames waters, and he wanted to lay his hands upon a reliable ex-seafaring man to put among the other hands on board. Could Parrot help him?
Ben Parrot could not just at the moment, but he'd see what he could do later and ring him up. Then they talked of business generally and, just about to go, Todhunter remarked casually, "Oh, I say, how did you like your little French trip? Meet any nice French girls?"
Parrot instantly masked his face to the woodenest of wooden expressions possible. "What French trip, Brother?" he asked in an equally casual a tone as Todhunter had used.
"Why the one old Mason sent you on on Tuesday," replied Todhunter. "I was with him just before he sent for you. I'd been working for a week on the same case, but he wouldn't let me go on with it because I'd never been in France and couldn't speak a word of the lingo. He said he was going to ring you."
Parrot frowned. He was still not quite certain of his ground, and, in consequence, unwilling to return any confidence. So, instead of replying to Todhunter's question about the French trip, he asked, "Do you do much work for Mason?"
Todhunter nodded. "Quite a bit! More than I like, for he's a mean old flint. He cuts down the expenses to the last sixpence." He grinned. "Did he give you a £10 bonus, over your job just now?"
Todhunter had played just the right card there, for Parrot was feeling a bit sore that afternoon. Until this particular case he'd not had any job from Mason for a long time, and he'd been thinking the solicitor would appreciate quick work and reward him accordingly. So he'd rattled back to London as speedily as possible, instead of having a couple of days' holiday in Paris, as he might easily have done and Mason been none the wiser, and paying on all the time. He now scowled. "No, he didn't, not a blooming ha'penny," he replied. He shook his head. "I was too honest. I could have made out I'd had to go to every church in Paris, but instead, like a blooming fool, I told him I hit that St. Francis church at my second shot." He thumped upon the desk in his indignation. "Even then, I'm sure he thought I'd never paid the twenty francs I'd put down on the exes for the certificate."
Todhunter pricked up his ears! Churches and a certificate! Whew, that meant something and, of course, the certificate had been a birth or marriage one. He played another card. He pretended to sigh heavily. "Oh, but she was a beautiful girl, that Madeline Castle! I saw a photograph of her taken two years ago. She was a real peach."
"And a silly little fool as well," grunted Parrot, "or she wouldn't have married that Wensworthy fellow."
Todhunter had no idea who Wensworthy was. At the moment the name vibrated no chord of memory in him. He, however, remarked judicially, "Still, Wensworthy was good-looking and, of course, she married him for that."
"Oh, he was good-looking all right!" sneered Parrot. He leaned back in his chair. "Do you remember, Brother, how the newspapers said all the women in Court wept when old Grimmett put on the black cap and sentenced the gentle Paul to death!" He made a gesture of spitting. "It sickened me!"
Todhunter's heart gave a big thump. Paul Wensworthy! The name roared in his ears! Paul Wensworthy the bank robber! Cripes, there was something to find out now!
He spoke of a few commonplace matters to Parrot and then left the office, very pleased with himself. Indeed, it was as much as he could do to hide his elation as he passed up the street.
"Then Jean Castle was Jean Wensworthy when she married Colonel Basil Hilary," he murmured brokenly, "and she married him under her old maiden name! Then"—he could hardly get his breath—"there'll be fine pickings for someone if he's got the guts to go for them. Just fancy, the wife of one of our rich landowners having married under a false name! I wonder if the husband knows!"
So that day another enemy prepared to close in upon poor Jean Hilary. She had been saved from one persecutor, but now two others had risen from his ashes, and they were both of them hot upon her trail. Yet, that night she slept by her husband's side, so safe, so happy and so free from care!
IN the meantime, while Mason had been having enquiries made about the past life of Jean Hilary, he had also been giving attention to the matter of the death of the gamekeeper. He had twice been down into Norfolk and upon both occasions had made an excuse to call in at the Hall and have a talk with Colonel Hilary. Upon one of them he had stayed to lunch and, upon the other, Jean had given him afternoon tea.
Larose heard of his activities from two sources. Calling in at North Walsham to enquire of the sergeant there if they had made any discoveries, he was informed that nothing very particular had been found out.
"Still, one or two things have come to light," added the sergeant, "although they don't appear to have any direct bearing on the murder. We've learnt that the man had been spending money pretty freely lately, much more than can be explained by the wage Colonel Hilary was paying him. He used to buy a couple of bottles of whisky almost every week, he got a good radio and paid for it outright, and he's been buying cigars at a pound a box. Then another thing, we found out that on the day of the night he was killed he went up to London."
"Oh, oh," exclaimed Larose at once most interested, "but his master knew nothing about that. He hadn't had permission to go off for the day."
"No," nodded the sergeant, "and there was something rather funny about his going. He didn't take the train from here, but walked all the way to Coltishall and picked up one there. That meant a good three extra miles to walk each way."
"Do you know what train he caught to come back?"
The sergeant nodded. "Yes, it got to Coltishall at 7.20 in the evening." He appeared suddenly to remember something and asked with a frown, "But what's the strength of that London solicitor, that Mr. Mason, sir? Do you happen to know?"
"What do you mean?" asked Larose.
The sergeant laughed. "Well, he seems a bit of a detective as well as a lawyer. He came up here a couple of days after the inquest and got me to take him over Vance's cottage. You know it has been kept locked ever since. We spent quite an hour there, poking about all over the place, because he noticed Vance or someone had been shooting with a pistol there. Two shots had been fired. One had broken the handle of a saucepan on the stove, and the other had hit a box of matches on the mantelshelf. Mr. Mason insisted I must find the bullets. One had ricochetted on to the kitchen floor and the other I had to dig out of the wall. He was very keen on my taking great care of them, as they had been fired from someone else's pistol. Vance had only got a double-barrelled gun."
Larose felt an unpleasant beating of his heart, but conjured up a rather sickly smile as he remarked, "Quite a detective, I see!"
"Oh, yes," nodded the sergeant, "and he pointed out the pistol must, almost certainly, have been fired very shortly before Vance was killed, as some of the matches from the broken box were still lying about upon the kitchen floor. He argued therefore that Vance had had a visitor, and as this visitor had not come forward to mention it, there was probably something fishy about the whole thing."
Larose felt a cold shiver running down his spine. If it were found out that his automatic had fired the bullets, and that could be easily proved if an expert got hold of the weapon—then an explanation which it would be very awkward to give would be required of him. He comforted himself, however, at once with the thought that he would hide the pistol away immediately, and then be quite safe. Before leaving the police-station, he warned the sergeant to on no account let anyone know he had mentioned the matter to him, Larose.
"They don't like me to interfere," he smiled, and the sergeant nodded understandingly.
But if his conversation with the North Walsham sergeant had made him feel rather uncomfortable, he was rendered much more so when a few minutes later he called in at Rondle Hall and saw Jean Hilary. The Colonel was out and they talked in Jean's little studio, where she was accustomed to do her painting.
"I'm worried, Mr. Larose," she said. "I've had a letter from a girl friend of mine in Chudleigh, that's my home and where my father is the Rector, and she tells me a strange man, who made out he was a tourist, was in the village last week, asking a lot of questions about me. She heard it from one of their maids, whose father keeps the village inn. The man stopped there for two days and he wanted to know when I went to London, where I was now, and a lot of other things."
"What was the man like?" asked Larose with a frown. "Does she say?"
"Only that he wasn't a gentleman and that he was small and dark and always had a cigarette in his mouth. My friend wonders if he was one of my painting acquaintances. She said his name was Harvey, but I don't remember meeting anyone called Harvey when I was in Chelsea."
"But he may remember you," smiled Larose. "That's quite possible." He shook his head. "Don't think anything more about it."
"But another thing rather troubles me," she went on. She spoke very seriously. "Do you know, somehow I don't like that Mr. Mason. He's been here twice lately and the first time we were obliged to invite him to lunch and, the second time, he had afternoon tea." She frowned. "He seems to look at me in an impudent sort of way, and, if my husband doesn't happen to be near, he lowers his voice as if he were speaking confidentially to me. Oh, and another thing, he's curious about you."
"Curious about me!" frowned Larose. "In what way?"
"Well, both times he's called here, when the Colonel has gone out of the room for something, he's immediately turned the conversation round to you. He said what a wonderful detective you'd been and asked me how long I'd known you. When I told him a very little while, he looked at me very hard as if he were amused, and had caught me telling a story. I am quite sure he didn't believe me. Then when he came last Monday he gave me that hard look again and asked if I'd seen you lately. I told him no, but he stared on at me without speaking and I could feel myself get hot in annoyance." She went on quickly. "Oh, and, unless we're positively rude to him, we shall have him a lot this summer. He told me he'd taken a bungalow on Merton Broad for the season. Now, what do you think of it all?"
Larose thought a lot, but he put on his brightest smile and exclaimed, "Nothing! The man's just interested in your charming personality. That's all!"
Jean shook her head. "But my husband's very curious about him, too. The gamekeeper was a working-class man and he can't understand how any of his family can be in a position to be able to pay for a London solicitor to come down here all these times. He tried to find out about Vance's relations from Mr. Mason, but Mason at first didn't seem ready with his reply and then told us that Vance's brother had a flourishing bicycle shop in Bermondsey. When he'd gone, my husband said he didn't believe it."
And neither did Larose. The one-time detective was really beginning to be quite disturbed about Mason's activities and cudgelled his brains to get them in their right perspective. The London solicitor certainly did not look a cheap lawyer. He dressed well and his car was an expensive one, also a bungalow by the Broads for the summer meant he was able to do himself well.
"Yes, I'll make some enquiries about you, my fine gentleman," Larose told himself, as he was driving away from the Hall. "You're not the only one who can go nosing about."
Larose then turned his thoughts back to what Jean had just told him of the small, dark man who had been making enquiries about her in Chudleigh, and he didn't like the look of that, either. What it meant, however, he could not form the faintest idea.
"It's funny!" he said. "A man doesn't go all that way down in Devonshire just to ask idle questions. It meant something, for sure."
Proceeding up to Town the next day, he approached a legal friend of his and asked him about Broome Mason. His friend shook his head. "His reputation's not too good, Gilbert. He's only come to the front lately, so you wouldn't have heard anything about him in your time. Oh, yes, he's got quite a good practice and he must make a fair income! He's a very capable man, but—he's got the name of taking on very shady cases and bolstering up the evidence in every way he can. Between ourselves, I think he's an unscrupulous blackguard."
Larose thanked him and then started to find 'a flourishing bicycle shop in Bermondsey' run by a man of the name of Vance. But there was no such shop in Bermondsey, and no person of the name of Vance in the London Directory who had any bicycle shop anywhere.
Next, Larose went into a public library and turned to the voting lists of the various London boroughs, being rewarded at once with two persons of the name of Vance, one lived in Hoxton, and the other in Fulham. He went to find the Hoxton one first, and found he kept a small motor garage and repair shop.
Entering the garage, a thrill of exultation ran through him as a man came forward looking very much of the same type as the gamekeeper, with the same heavy build and scowling eyes. He gave Larose an unpleasant look as the latter stated he had come from a newspaper.
"I just want to ask you a question or two about your brother who was Colonel Hilary's gamekeeper," began Larose "and I——"
"I know nothing about him," snapped the man. "I haven't seen him for more than a year. We weren't on good terms." He made a motion with his arm towards the door. "You're only wasting both our times."
Larose held out a ten-shilling note, "Well, I'll give you this for five minutes," he smiled. "No, of course, I know you don't know anything about his death, but I thought you might tell me if he were married and where he was born and all that."
The man hesitated a minute and then took the proffered note with an oily hand. "He was born in Canning Town," he growled. "He was forty-four, two years older than me, but whether he was married or not, I don't know. He was always living with some woman or other, but I never knew whether they were his wives or not."
"Do you think he had any enemies?"
"Plenty, I should think. He was always quarrelling and fighting. He's been jailed two or three times for it."
Larose appeared very surprised. "Oh, and what lawyer did he have to defend him?"
It was the garage man's turn to appear surprised. "Lawyer!" he snarled. "What would he want a lawyer for? It was a case of D. and D. with him, drunk and disorderly, every time."
An idea had been forming in Larose's mind, and quite on the chance he said innocently, "Oh, I thought he'd have gone to that solicitor, Mason, in Theobald's Road!"
The garage man's teeth came together with a click. "What had he to do with Mason?" He frowned heavily. "Why do you bring up Mason?"
Larose shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I've heard Mason's working with the police now to find out who killed him."
There was no mistaking the man's astonishment. "Well, that's news to me," he grunted. "I've heard nothing about it."
"But you knew he knew Mason, didn't you?" persisted Larose.
"I've never given it a thought," was the reply. He nodded. "Still, he might have known him. He knew of him, at any rate." He explained a bit lamely. "Mason did a little job for me some time ago, and of course, he heard about it. I had got into a bit of a dispute about a motor car. I won all right but, damn it all, Mason's charges were so heavy that I had to sell the ruddy car to pay him. The old devil wouldn't even start until he'd taken out a bill of sale on every stick I'd got."
Larose laughed. "I've heard he takes everybody down."
The man made a gesture of disgust. "My oath, he does! They say he's the biggest rogue out of jail, and I believe it. He's a clever scoundrel."
Larose had got all he wanted and left the garage in a very thoughtful frame of mind. The whole thing was now perfectly clear. The gamekeeper had gone up to London to see Mason the day he was killed and, as one scoundrel confiding to another, had almost certainly told him everything. So Mason knew Jean had had a baby before she married Colonel Hilary and——
But, suddenly, another thought avalanched itself into Larose's mind. Mason knew that he, Larose, was the supposed gunman who came to the cottage threatening sudden death to Vance, if the latter did not immediately leave the neighbourhood! Of course, the gamekeeper would have told Mason about the visit and, no doubt, given some sort of description of him. Then Mason had seen him, Larose, as a friend of the Hilary's at the inquest and had, he was sure, recognised him. That would account for his startled look—he remembered it now—and his hard staring when he had first set eyes upon him, sitting at the Colonel's side. Yes, and having been told by Vance of the pistol play in the cottage, Mason, of express purpose, had taken the North Walsham sergeant there and pretended to make a discovery about the firing and the bullets!
Then what was going to be Mason's game? An unscrupulous, calculating man, he was not going to all this time and trouble of motoring down into Norfolk so often—for nothing! What was he up to? Larose gritted his teeth together and his face set very hard. For one thing, that poor girl was in the toils again and going to be blackmailed in one way or another! Then, a second thing, and Larose smiled a grim smile here, with any interference on his, Larose's, part, with any attempt to help the girl, Mason was thinking he held a strong enough hand to fasten the guilt of the gamekeeper's murder upon him, Larose, again.
And that very afternoon, even as Larose was calling at the garage of Vance's brother in Hoxton, Mason had opened his campaign. He had opened it quite mildly, however, with all appearance of genuine sympathy for Jean Hilary.
He had come up to the Hall with the pretence of wanting to speak to Colonel Hilary and, learning from the butler that the Colonel was out, had asked if Mrs. Hilary were at home. Being told that she was somewhere in the grounds, he said he would go and look for her himself and very soon had come upon her in the rose garden.
She was busy cutting blooms and putting them in a basket, and looked up, he thought, with something of an annoyed expression when she recognised who was approaching her.
After a few commonplace remarks, with Jean all the time considering what excuse she could make for not asking him to stop for afternoon tea, Mason said solemnly, "Do you know, Mrs. Hilary, I've known all about you for some years." He looked round as if to make certain there were no one by, and spoke very softly. "I was a friend of your first husband, Paul Wensworthy."
Jean's heart stood still, her mouth gaped and she went white as a sheet. She dropped her basket on to the ground and the roses tumbled out. Mason instantly darted forward to pick them up, so giving Jean an opportunity to in part, at all events, pull herself together. When he handed her back the flowers she thanked him in an ordinary tone of voice.
He looked intently at her again and shook his head. "But of course, I shan't mention a word about it to anyone," he said. "It's a secret between ourselves."
He spoke musingly. "It's quite strange how your path has crossed mine. I happened to be in Paris in that May of three years ago and actually saw you and your husband coming out of the church—let me see, oh yes, it was St. Francis in the Rue de l'Etoile—directly after you had just been married. I was coming up to speak to Paul and then I thought I had better not"—he laughed what was meant to be a hearty and genial laugh—"for, of course, there was no mistaking you both for bride and bridegroom." He smiled a sly and crafty smile. "But knowing Paul as well as I did in those days, I was so interested in you that I went into the church afterwards and asked who you were, and they told me Miss Jean Madeline Castle." He shook his head. "I never forgot your names, they were so pretty."
And all this while Jean had never spoken a word. She had turned back to the rose trees and was picking more roses.
Mason grinned covertly to himself and went on imperturbably. "Then another wonderful coincidence. Some friends of mine heard all about you when you were up in Sutton Coldfield and were so grieved about your little baby. They told me that——"
But Jean was no longer listening. A dreadful roar was thundering in her ears, a black mist had risen before her eyes and every moment she was expecting to drop down in a faint. For moment upon moment, she could not think coherently. Her mind was half numbed by the shock. Gradually, however, she began to take a proper grip of her thoughts again, and it came home to her with a sickening feeling of horror that the old days of persecution were upon her once more.
This other man knew her secret and, her instinct told her right, he would be as heartless and pitiless as the one before. He would want his pound of flesh—she shuddered as she recalled his attempts at familiarity with her—in some way. She took in again what he was saying now.
"Still, it was not wise of you," he said earnestly, "to be married to Colonel Hilary in your old maiden name. I am sure it would be a great grief to him if he ever came to know it, for, of course, if it became public it would mean prosecution for you. As a lawyer myself, I tell you the law is very strict about such offences."
Jean made no comment. She had resumed the cutting of the roses as if nothing had happened. Outwardly she was now cool and possessed, but inwardly she was a burning furnace. She was cudgelling her brains to think what line of action she should take with him.
Mason was feeling rather irritated. She was taking it quite differently from the way he had expected. He had thought she would have started crying and then he would have taken her in his arms to comfort her and dry her tears. It would have been a good beginning, he thought, for him to ingratiate himself with her.
He went on briskly and in a most friendly tone. "Still, you can depend upon me to say nothing. I shall not breathe a word about it to anyone. It is only sympathy I feel for you. I am deeply sorry and I——"
Jean had found her cue at last. She would play for time until she had told Larose. She interrupted sharply, "Then please don't talk about it any more. It is a very sad chapter of my life and I don't want to think about it." She inclined her head stiffly. "Good afternoon, Mr. Mason. I'll tell my husband you called," and, before he could put up a hand to restrain her, she was walking quickly towards the house.
He swore unpleasantly to himself. "Damn you, you insolent little witch, with your 'good afternoon, Mr. Mason', when I've just shown you up as the moral-less little sinner you know you are! Gad, I've half a mind to go after you and play my full hand, straightaway!" He shook his head slowly. "No, I've done enough for to-day. What I've told her will sink in, and she'll be crawling to me pretty soon. Yes, it must have been a terrible shock to her and I don't wonder she didn't know what to do." He nodded. "I like a girl with spirit. You don't get tired of them so soon." He frowned. "I wonder if she'll tell Larose." His frown became a cunning smile. "Somehow I don't think she will, particularly so, if she comes to think she can keep me quiet"—he nodded—"by being very nice to me. She won't want Larose to know."
He drove on to the little bungalow he had taken on Merton Broad. It was not twenty yards from the water and had a trim little boat-house at the bottom of the lawn. There were five rooms to the bungalow and one by one he inspected them critically. "Yes, they'll do," he told himself. He smiled as if amused. "And I expect that little vixen will often be coming here. We'll be sitting together in that arm-chair, we'll be——" He broke off and took out a cigarette. "By Jove, she's pretty! She's pretty enough to eat and——" He shook his head vexatiously. "But why do two people who have both made up their minds so often take so long to declare themselves?" He laughed derisively. "I'll take care there's no long time here. Directly that pretty little sinner has realised where the butter is on the bread, everything'll go quick and lively." He sighed. "Now, I'll trot to the nearest pub and have a good long drink." He grinned. "Love-making in prospective is always thirsty work!"
In the meantime, contrary to what Mason had been expecting, Jean rang up Larose at once. To her great disappointment she learnt he was away from home and it was uncertain when he would be returning. An hour or so later, however, when she had worked herself up to a great state of distress, she was called to the telephone for a trunk call and, to her overwhelming relief, recognised the voice at the other end as that of Larose.
"Oh, I'm so glad you've rung!" she exclaimed. "I've been trying to get you at Carmel Abbey. I want to speak to you so particularly. It's urgent."
Larose laughed. "That man been up about the dogs?" he asked guardedly. "Well, I was just ringing you to tell you I thought he'd be coming. I've been enquiring about him this end. Don't have anything to do with him. No, don't worry in the least. I'll put it all right. I'll be coming home to-morrow and will look in on my way down, say, at eleven o'clock. Then good-bye."
Jean put down the receiver in great relief. She had the profoundest trust in Larose and was devoutly thankful she had had speech with him before her husband came home. She had been feeling so distracted in her fright that she had almost resolved to confess everything. Now, she was sure Larose would put things right somehow, and so, when her husband kissed her upon his return later, there were no signs of the dreadful storm through which she had so recently been passing. She seemed as happy and carefree as ever.
The next morning, with her husband away as he often was in the mornings upon matters connected with the estate, she was waiting for Larose in the grounds when he arrived punctually at eleven o'clock.
She told him all that had taken place the previous afternoon, and the latter at once gave it as his opinion that Mason had been lying all the time. Then he, in turn, told her what he had found out.
"Of course, that gamekeeper," he explained, "went up to London and saw Mason on the Saturday morning and told him everything, or at any rate gave him his garbled version about Sutton Coldfield. Then Mason set enquiry agents going and found out the rest." He frowned. "Do you believe he really knew your first husband?"
"No, thinking it over," replied Jean emphatically, "I don't believe he did. He said everything as if he'd learnt it all by heart and, for some reason, was wanting to overwhelm me all at once by making out he knew so much about me." She looked at him anxiously. "But what do you think he's going to do? Do you think he'll tell anybody?"
Larose spoke thoughtfully. "Not if he gets what he wants," he said. "Then he'll keep quiet for a while, but only as long as it suits him." He shook his head. "He seems to me the kind of man who'd never let anybody out of his clutches once he'd got them there."
"Oh, how dreadful!" exclaimed Jean. "And what do you think he'll try to get out of me."
Larose smiled confidently. "He won't get anything at all out of you, Mrs. Hilary," he said. "I'll see to that." He nodded. "But he'll try to get something and you must be prepared for it." He laughed. "To begin with he'll probably want to make love to you."
Jean crimsoned hotly, and her voice trembled. "Then I'll be so rude to him," she said angrily, "that he won't come near the house again. I'll——"
"No, no," broke in Larose quickly, "we must play our cards quite differently from that." He smiled. "I say 'we' because now I'm in it, too. It will make it very awkward for me if he gives information to the police that I threatened to shoot Vance only the day before he was killed. And it would be too dangerous for me to deny everything as some of it might be able to be proved. For instance, the lodgekeeper saw me drive in here that afternoon after I had been to Vance's cottage, and the butler might remember I'd had a whisky and soda here." He shook his head. "No, you can't afford to quarrel with this man straightaway, or out of spite he may start blackmailing your husband."
"Yes," agreed Jean tearfully, "and he said if it got known I had used a wrong name when I was married, they would be bound to prosecute me."
Larose nodded. "Yes, he's got the whip-hand of us there, but we must see it doesn't come to that. We'll be as cunning as he is and trap him, somehow. His sort of men have always got a chink in their armour somewhere.
"Well, what am I to do?" asked Jean.
"Play a part, just as if you were acting in a play. Keep him quiet until after the adjourned inquest, for, knowing what he does, it would look awfully fishy if he didn't speak then—and spoke afterwards. It would discredit all his testimony. Now, you take care to never be alone with him. Don't be rude to him. Don't be even cold and distant, but smile at him as if you believed he were going to act as a gentleman and keep your secret, as he said he would do."
"It will be hard," said Jean, "for I never liked the man from the first time I saw him." She smiled. "Still, I'll do as you say."
"And it'll be quite easy," laughed Larose. "All your sex are actresses from the first moment they become women. Convention demands that you hide your feelings where we men are allowed to show ours."
So it came about that when Mason turned up again a few days later with one of his innumerable excuses, Jean gave him quite a nice smile and his pulses began bounding accordingly. "As I thought," he told himself exultingly, "she sees what's best for her and she'll quickly be all I want her to be. However, I won't hurry matters. I'll give her a little time for I, certainly, don't want any scene or tears when it comes to a showdown." His eyes took on a hungry look. "I want it to be a happy time for both of us."
Quite by chance, Larose arrived when Mason was there and joined the little party on the terrace. He was friendly and pleasant to the solicitor and there was no restraint or embarrassment in his manner towards him.
"She's not told him," thought Mason. "Of course, in her love affairs she's as deceitful as I expected her to be. Damn them, any woman can hoodwink a man if he's sweet on her! We're the weak fools there." He suppressed a grin as his eyes wandered to Colonel Hilary. "What a devil of a joke! Who'd believe it, but in a little while all three of us men here may be her lovers!" He seemed highly amused. "But she and I will be the only ones to be aware of it."
Three weeks went by, with Mason a frequent visitor to the Hall. He was now at his bungalow on the Broads, little more than a mile away, every week-end, and, if there were no other excuse available, he came up with some fish he had caught for Jean. The latter was always agreeable to him, but with great finesse managed so that she was never for one moment alone with him. At first it amused him, but, her manoeuvres continuing, he became the more and more annoyed. He was not going to put up with it much longer, he told himself.
The adjourned inquest took place in the middle of the third week, and, with no further evidence forthcoming, the verdict of the coroner's jury was, "Murder by some person or persons unknown."
In the meantime, Todhunter, the enquiry agent, had been very worried. He was sure he had got hold of a good thing, and yet he could not see his way to make use of it. Although he had no scruples and no conscience whatsoever, he realised he could not himself take on the role of a blackmailer, at any rate when dealing with a Society woman.
To begin with, he didn't know how to get in touch with her, and he could not make up his mind what sum of money to demand from her if he did. A great physical coward, too, he was terribly afraid he might be subjected to actual violence by her husband. The Colonel possibly knew all about his wife's first marriage and, if he approached him, he might get blows instead of ha'pence.
Then his thoughts turned back to the solicitor of Theobald's Road, and the trick Mason had played him rankled in him, and he burned to get his own back there. But what was Mason's game with this Hilary woman? he asked himself. Mason wouldn't have spent all that money upon enquiries for nothing! No, not he! Todhunter had known him for several years, and he was a mean dog and grudged every penny that he did not spend upon his own pleasures. For sure he was up to something now and, probably, playing for big money!
He had no illusions about Mason, and had often been quite sure that the enquiries he had carried out for him had been for the ultimate purpose of blackmailing someone.
The agent thought of all these things for a long time, and then suddenly made up his mind what he would do. He would go direct to Mason himself, and let him know what he had found out and ask for some substantial reward. If Mason were on the blackmail, then he wouldn't dare to refuse, with another man in possession of the incriminating information. Added to that, and he grinned here, he would get a lot of pleasure in letting Mason see that his dirty trick in putting him, Todhunter, off had been quite useless.
Mason received him suspiciously and with a heavy frown, but Todhunter was bright and smiling. Certainly, the enquiry agent was no moral coward, and he faced the solicitor with amusement at the thought of the shock he was going to give him.
"Oh, Mr. Mason," he burst out excitedly, directly the door was closed behind him, "I've found out something most important about that Miss Jean Castle who's married to Colonel Hilary." He made his eyes as wide as saucers. "She wasn't Miss Castle when she married him. She was a widow and her proper name was Jean Wensworthy. Her husband had been Paul Wensworthy, the bank robber who was hanged." He had not expected the solicitor to show any surprise, and it happened as he had thought, for Mason's face instantly became an expressionless mask. However, Mason was surprised and most disagreeably so, and, under his breath he cursed the man before him.
"Yes," went on Todhunter with animation, "she was married in Paris when upon that holiday, at a church, St. Francis, in Etoile Street on May 27th. I got it all out of a man yesterday who had been a porter at the painting school where she was. He had had four or five beers and was a bit shot."
Mason appeared to show no interest, indeed, he looked almost bored. "It's no news to me," he said casually. "I've known it all along. I wasn't trying to prove that, at all. I only wanted to prove that the Castle girl who married Colonel Hilary was the Jean Castle of the Rectory in Chudleigh. It's just the question of succession to a small estate. There is a second claimant, another Castle girl, a cousin whose Christian name commences with J too. It was rather confusing."
Todhunter was not in the least bit deceived, and he gave a grudging admiration for the plausibility of the solicitor. What a first-class liar the man was and what a bluff he could put up! He pretended, however, to be disappointed at the cold reception of his news. "But, Mr. Mason," he exclaimed, "it's a very serious matter! Mrs. Hilary was married under a false name!"
Mason shook his head. "No, she wasn't! I understand she changed her name back to Castle again by deed-poll, within a few weeks of Wensworthy being hanged." He spoke carelessly. "But if she had been married as Jean Castle, the authorities wouldn't have moved in the matter. Under the circumstances, they would have shut their eyes." He gave a dry smile. "Colonel Hilary is an influential man in political circles and no one would want a scandal!"
Todhunter felt downcast at last. "But does Colonel Hilary know?" he asked incredulously.
"Of course, he does!" laughed Mason. "He first met the girl as an honorary officer of some charitable society that wanted to help her. I've heard the whole story from the Colonel himself. I've been a friend of his for years."
Todhunter looked glum. "Then the information is no good to you?" he exclaimed.
"Not a bit," said Mason. "You're just wasting my time," and the agent left the room as discomfited as he had ever felt in his life.
Mason leant back in his chair and chuckled delightedly. "Did ever anyone get a greater thud?" he grinned. "He came in here all ready for a good kill, and thinking he'd got something at least worth a thousand quid, and he went out feeling as cheap as if he hadn't got a brass farthing. Gad, but I bluffed him, right enough!" He shook his head. "But if I'd shown the slightest interest, if I'd given him even a couple of shillings for his information—then he'd have guessed there was something in it. As it is"—he shrugged his shoulders—"he won't think about it any more."
Then suddenly his face darkened and he took the cigarette out of his mouth and held it suspended in the air. "But—I wonder if the little devil found out all that in the way he said he did. It seems funny that he should have chanced to meet that porter again so soon after he had been on the enquiry." His face cleared. "Well, no matter where he learnt it, I've convinced him the knowledge was useless. I'm sure of that."
But he would not have been feeling so sure if, upon the following Friday afternoon, he had seen Todhunter alight from his motor bicycle at the Hilary Arms in the little village of Rondle around which the Hilary estate was grouped.
The enquiry agent had suddenly returned to the first impression he had got when interviewing Mason, namely, that the solicitor was putting up a big bluff. He began to feel sure that the solicitor had been lying the whole time. His manner had been too careless, too studiedly disinterested, and quite different from his usual quick way.
So Todhunter, of a spiteful disposition and determined Mason should not get the better of him, thought he'd do a bit more enquiring on his own and just go down into Norfolk and have a look round. He found Colonel Hilary's address in the Telephone Directory and saw, from a map, that the village of Rondle was close to the Broads. So he thought he'd make a long weekend of it and do a bit of fishing as well.
Putting up at the little village pub, after the evening meal he sat in the bar and listened to the conversation going on. It was mainly about the adjourned inquest upon the gamekeeper, which had taken place only two days previously. He remembered now having read something about the murder in the newspapers of a few weeks back, but he had not been much interested. Realising now, however, that the dead man had been in Colonel Hilary's employ, he was all ears at once to pick up anything he could.
Later, when the bar was closed, he hobnobbed with the landlord in the latter's private room, and the conversation about the murder was renewed. The landlord was pleased to have such an interested listener and expanded upon all the details. Then Todhunter got a tremendous surprise for the landlord went on, "But what we folks here don't understand is what that lawyer chap, Mason, from London, was after. We can't follow that, or who paid him to come. He must have charged a good fee, and yet Vance couldn't have left a penny to pay him and, from the look of Vance, he wouldn't have had any relations with money, either."
"Mason, Mason!" exclaimed Todhunter, opening his eyes very wide. "Was it Broome Mason who came?"
"Yes, that's him," said the landlord, "the chap from Theobald's Road. He was down here quite half a dozen times, but all he seemed to do was to go up to the Hall and take afternoon tea there. The butler from the Hall was telling me about it only yesterday." The man looked amused. "They say he's gone sweet on the pretty young missus, but I don't wonder about that. All the men are sweet on her at once."
"Still, he's an old friend of the family," remarked Todhunter, remembering what Mason had told him.
"Old friend!" grunted the landlord. "Not he! Why, they'd never met until the first day of the inquest about a month ago, because I saw Sergeant Shaw take this Mr. Mason up to Colonel Hilary then and introduce them. They'd never seen each other before."
The agent was elated. He had been quite right. Mason had lied to him and so there was something important to find out.
The landlord went on. "Yes, and Mr. Mason's taken a bungalow near here, just outside the Colonel's property, by Merton Broad." He grinned. "He catches fish and takes them up to the young missus of the Hall."
"But about this Mrs. Hilary," asked Todhunter, "is she really such a good-looking lass?"
"You bet your life she is," laughed the landlord. "She's the prettiest bit of stuff I've ever seen." He nodded. "Look here, you going to stay over to-morrow? Well, I'll take you where you can get a good eyeful of her and it'll be quite worth your while."
"Where'll we go, then?" smiled the agent.
"To the Flower Show in the parish institute. She's opening it at two o'clock and all the swells'll be there. I hear Colonel Hilary's going to give them lunch at the Hall and bringing them all on afterwards. She'll go on the platform and look so sweet that everyone'll be envying her old boy."
So the following afternoon, Todhunter found himself well-wedged in among a good gathering, right close up to the platform. He was most interested when the Hall party appeared and thought Jean every bit as pretty as he'd been told. However, he got something of a shock a minute or so after when, his eyes wandering round, they fell upon Broome Mason close near her. Mason was staring at him hard, with a nasty frown upon his face.
"That's the lawyer chap," whispered the landlord, "the big fellow, looking this way, and the man next to Mrs. Hilary is Mr. Gilbert Larose, him as used to be a great detective once. But he married a rich wife, that's her on the other side of him, and she was a lovely girl years ago they say. She's not bad-looking now. She's got four children, one by her first husband, a little chap who's the baronet, Sir Charles Ardane, and three by this Gilbert Larose. Fine chap, Larose! Everybody likes him! Don't he look pleased with himself? He always looks like that."
Todhunter was feeling pleased with himself, too. He was sure he was giving Mason a nasty jar, and that the solicitor would be very worried about seeing him there. He would guess he was up to something, and by cripes, so he, Todhunter, intended to be. There was some fishy business going on and, as far as Mason was concerned, he intended to find out what it was. It might turn out to be business as well as pleasure.
The opening ceremony was very short and, not wanting Mason to question him, Todhunter edged his way through the crowd and got outside as quickly as he could. Then an idea struck him, and he at once started to put it into operation. Mason was safe with the Hilary crowd for the afternoon, so to pass the time he would have a look at his bungalow on Merton Road. He was curious about everything to do with the solicitor now. The landlord had told him where the bungalow was and he'd soon be able to locate it.
He rode off on his motor bicycle and, following the direction given him, was quickly looking over the garden of the small bungalow almost on the edge of the lake. It was in a secluded and lonely position, with only one other habitation near, and that three or four hundred yards away. "A nice little place," he leered "for Mason to bring his flash women down to. I wonder there's not one here now."
He tried the doors and, as he had expected, they were both locked, but the catch of one of the windows was not down and, after a long look round to make sure no one was about, he climbed up and slipped inside the bungalow.
There were three bottles of whisky and two of champagne upon the sideboard, and a big box of expensive Egyptian cigarettes upon the mantelshelf of the living-room. Todhunter had a swig of neat whisky from one of the bottles and pocketed half a dozen of the cigarettes. There were two locked suitcases in one of the bedrooms, which he would have loved to try to open with a bent wire, but he dare not risk it. He had a quick peep in the chest of drawers, but the only thing there which interested him was a big ugly-looking revolver. He noted with a frown that it was fully loaded.
Next, he went through the pockets of a suit he found hanging up in the wardrobe and immediately considered himself well rewarded for his trouble. In the breast pocket of the jacket he came upon a long envelope addressed to the solicitor and postmarked North Walsham, of a date only two days before. Inside the envelope were half a dozen sheets of paper clipped together and his eyes bulged as he read at the top of the first one, "Report re—Gilbert Larose Esq., J.P., of Carmel Abbey, Burnham Norton, Norfolk." At the foot of the last page was the signature D. Turnbull, but no address was given. He started to go through the report.
"Inside information about G.L. difficult to obtain as he is well liked by servants. However, an under-gardener, name of Jake, was willing for a ten-shilling note to supply certain details. G.L. supposed to be on good terms with his wife, but has been away a lot lately and servants don't know where. It is believed he keeps an automatic in pocket of door near steering wheel. He always drives himself."
Then the scene of the enquiry appeared to have been shifted to North Walsham and Rondle village. It went on,
"G.L. been visiting Colonel Hilary's place, Rondle Hall, a lot lately. Generally manages to come when Colonel is out. Always stops, however, to see Mrs. H. Generally, sees her alone in a studio where she paints. Reason supposed to be, so servants believe, she has started painting his portrait as surprise for Mrs. G.L. Was there Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, the 22nd, 23rd and 25th last week. This week he was here Monday. Wednesdays are said to be a regular day with him. Colonel Hilary always presiding on Bench at North Walsham on that day. G.L. and his wife are said to be coming for a house party this week-end. In general, servants not suspicious about G.L. and Mrs. H. She has a lot of men after her. Very good-looking girl, not half husband's age."
The report went on, but Todhunter considered it too risky to tempt fortune any longer and, putting back the letter and contents where he had found them, after another swig at the whisky bottle, he slipped out of the bungalow and rode back to the Rondle inn by a very roundabout way, so that by no chance should he run up against Mason, coming back from the Hall.
He was very pleased with his afternoon's work, and more convinced than ever that Mason was playing a deep game somewhere. "Blackmail, of course," he nodded to himself, "but who he's out to touch I must find out. It rather looks like this Gilbert Larose for carrying on with old Hilary's wife, but he may be only a side-line. I still think his main idea is to touch the old man. From Colonel Hilary's reputation upon the Bench and his being such a stickler to do just what's right, it doesn't seem likely he'd have married anyone under a false name"—he grinned—"however scrumptious to look at she might have been." He shook his head emphatically. "No, he did not know she'd been married to that man who was hanged. I don't believe it for a moment, and Mason was lying heavily when he said the Colonel did."
About an hour after Todhunter had left the bungalow Mason returned there in a rather disgruntled frame of mind, because that afternoon Jean had so pointedly kept more than ever away from him. When the house party had returned from the Flower Show and, for a few moments as it happened, he had been by himself upon the terrace, she appeared from inside the house to cross over into the garden where the others were upon the lawn, but, seeing him, she bolted back, as he snarled to himself, like a rabbit running to its hole.
He would not stand it much longer, he told himself for the hundredth time. He was sick of waiting for her, and rapidly approaching that state of mind when his consuming passion for her, if ungratified, might easily change to persecution of the cruellest kind.
He had put his car in the garage and, opening the garden gate, noticed subconsciously a little patch of oil upon the ground. Entering the house and the dining-room, he suddenly lifted up his head and sniffed. He smelt whisky. He moved over to the sideboard and picked up the bottle with a frown. There were traces of the spirit upon the polished surface of the sideboard upon which the bottle had rested.
In the flash of a second he had put down the bottle again and was stalking quickly through the bungalow. There was no one there, but he would have sworn someone had been at the whisky. He had not allowed any of it to dribble down the side like that. He was always particular when he put a bottle of anything upon a polished surface. He couldn't understand.
He went to his tin of cigarettes and for a few minutes stood staring down at them. He had only opened the box that morning and, having had a touch of palpitation lately, had been sparing in his smoking. Yet—there were a number gone. He counted those left. Only thirty-eight out of a fifty tin. He swore angrily and, now remembering the patch of oil by the garden gate, went out to look at it. He could distinctly see the mark of motor bicycle wheels close by. There was not the slightest doubt that someone had been in the bungalow while he was away, and after a very brief examination of the windows he could guess where he had got in.
Frowning angrily, he went back into the bungalow and, finding nothing else missing, was inclined to think it was only some inquisitive stranger who had been the intruder. Suddenly, however, he thought of Todhunter, and the expression of his face was an ugly one. The enquiry agent then became an obsession in his thoughts all the evening, to the exclusion, even, of the lovely face of Jean Hilary, and he cursed to himself that he had not bolted all the windows before he had gone out. He slept badly that night.
The next morning being Sunday, and on being informed by the landlord that Colonel Hilary had not got a new gamekeeper as yet and that it would be quite safe to trespass in the woods, Todhunter went for a stroll to give himself, as he said, an appetite for the roast pork which he had heard was coming on for dinner.
He had had most careful directions given him as to how to find the cottage of the murdered man, but, privately, he had made up his mind to get as near to the Hall as possible and through a small pair of Zeiss glasses he had got slung in a case over his shoulder have a good quiz of everybody he could see. He grinned to himself that perhaps he might come across Larose and the young Mrs. Hilary making a bit of love in the woods. "You never know," he told himself darkly. "These rich people are just like us when it comes to a kiss or two, and the yum-yum is all the sweeter for being stolen."
Keeping away from the broader and, apparently, more frequented paths, he walked stealthily through the thick wood and was greatly interested in the number of pheasants he saw about. "Whew, and aren't they just tame!" he whistled. "Why I believe I could knock one over with a bit of stick," and, picking up a stick to be all ready should an opportunity occur, he walked very quietly on.
Presently, in a little clearing, he saw a lordly cock pheasant and two hens, scratching away among some leaves at the foot of a big oak tree. He got as near as he could without frightening them and then hurled his stick. His shot was a lucky one, and to his great delight, he knocked over one of the hens and it lay fluttering upon the ground. He darted forward and wrung its neck. It was a plump little bird and his eyes gleamed. "Now if I pluck it," he exclaimed gleefully, "I can stow it in my pocket and no one will see it if they meet me. I'm sure they'll cook it for me at the inn."
He squatted on the ground and began to pull out the feathers with great zest. He was so absorbed in his task that he did not notice a man with two big dogs in leash coming up the path. Colonel Hilary had just bought two Great Danes and Larose had volunteered to take them out and give them some exercise. It was not, however, thought advisable to let them run free until they had become more accustomed to their surroundings.
Larose caught sight of Todhunter long before the latter saw him and smiled delightedly. "Caught in the very act!" he murmured. "Of course, the locals know there's no new gamekeeper here as yet, and are taking advantage of it!"
Suddenly the agent looked up and, terror-struck, his first thought was to spring up and run. "No, you don't," called out Larose. "You move a step and I'll set the dogs on you. They're as savage as wolves."
Todhunter went white as a ghost. He was terrified of dogs and these two monsters were straining at the leash to get at him.
"Don't let them loose," he shouted frantically. "I won't run away."
"Better not," nodded Larose grimly, and he approached up close, tugging hard at the dogs who were most interested in the stranger. "Poaching!" went on Larose. He regarded the agent very sternly. "This'll mean three months for you, my friend."
"No, I'll pay a fine," exclaimed Todhunter hastily. "It was just by chance I got the bird. I'm not a poacher."
"Of course not!" agreed Larose dryly. Then noticing the agent did not look like a countryman, he asked, "Where do you come from? Do you live about here?"
"No, no," was the quick reply. "I come from London, I'm a tourist on a short holiday. I'm only here for a couple of days. You can ask them at the village inn."
The mention of 'tourist' and the 'village inn' stirred some distant chord of memory in Larose's mind. "Village Inn! Tourist! Only stopping a couple of days!" Where had he heard all that before? A-ah, about the man who'd been down to Chudleigh to find out all about Jean! Great Scott! and this man here was like the one Jean's friend had described! He was small and dark and—damnation! his fingers were nicotine-stained almost up to the very knuckles from innumerable cigarettes! Gad, it was the same man! Mason had been employing him then and, of course, he was employing him now!
Larose felt a warm glow of satisfaction course through him. Then this wretch should get his punishment if no one else did. He'd march him straight to the police-station and it would certainly get him imprisonment without the option of a fine. The game laws were very strictly administered in Norfolk.
"You march along in front of me," he said sternly. "We'll go straight to the police-station and I'll lay the charge for Colonel Hilary. No, pick up that bird. You're to carry it with you. By Jove, if you don't I'll set the dogs on you."
"But wait a moment," implored the man, more frightened than ever at the look of the fierce beasts. "Wait a minute, Mr. Larose. I've something to——"
Larose pulled the dogs back. "You know me then?" he asked in some surprise.
"Yes, I know you," replied Todhunter quickly, "and a great deal more about you than you dream." He spoke with the utmost earnestnesss. "Mr. Larose, you are being watched. An enquiry agent has been put to follow all your movements and it looks as if he is trying to get evidence against you and Colonel Hilary's wife."
To his great annoyance, Larose felt himself getting very red. "And I suppose you're that enquiry agent!" he scowled furiously.
"No, I'm not," was the instant rejoinder. "It happens I'm also an enquiry agent, but I'm acting quite on my own now and have nothing to do with the other man."
"And who's set him on to me?" asked Larose.
Todhunter hesitated. He was bargaining to save his own skin but, unhappily, he could not see where to stop. Then it came to him, suddenly, it might not be a bad thing for him to go completely over to the other side. He might find a friendly market for his information there. So, making up his mind in the instant, he blurted out confidingly, "It's that Mr. Mason, the solicitor who was on the platform with you at the Flower Show yesterday. He's an enemy of yours and"—he half hesitated again—"and of that young Mrs. Hilary too."
"And who are you?" asked Larose, with his eyes glinting angrily.
The agent spoke quickly. "I'm going to be quite frank with you, sir"—he looked at the dogs and made a grimace—"because I see it will pay me best to be so. As I say, I'm an enquiry agent. My name is Todhunter, Ransom Todhunter, of Milton Place, Shaftesbury Avenue, and a few weeks ago I was employed by Mr. Mason to find out all I could about Mrs. Hilary when she was Miss Castle and studying art in London. Then Mr. Mason treated me unfairly and so I'm against him now. I'm trying to find out what his enquiries meant, for I think he's out to blackmail someone, Mrs. Hilary, I believe, and, perhaps, Colonel Hilary and now, perhaps, you."
"And how do I know you're not lying?" asked Larose frowningly. "You don't look a truthful man to me!"
The agent was not at all offended by so correct an estimation of his character and only grinned. "I'm quite truthful when it pays me to be so, sir," he said, "and I won't deceive you now." He spoke quickly. "Yesterday I happened to read a report this other man had sent to Mr. Mason. He had been enquiring about your habits at home, and an under-gardener named Jake there had told him you kept an automatic pistol in one of the front pockets of your motor-car. Then the report went on that you had been calling a lot on Mrs. Hilary lately, but nearly always when her husband was out. Last week you were there on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday and were alone with her in her studio. Your habit was to come nearly every Wednesday." He coughed. "I couldn't read all the report because I was in a hurry."
"Where did you read it?" snapped Larose. "Have you got it here now?"
Todhunter shook his head. "No, sir"—he spoke in quite even tones—"as a matter of fact, when I read the report I was paying a visit to Mr. Mason's bungalow unbeknown to him, yesterday afternoon. I had no particular object in going there and was only curious."
"And what do you know about Mrs. Hilary?" asked Larose disdainfully, and as if reluctant to put the question.
Todhunter spoke impressively. "The one thing she would not wish to become public," he replied, "is the fact that when she married her present husband, Colonel Hilary, she was married under a false name, for she was then not Miss Jean Castle, but"—he paused dramatically—"Mrs. Paul Wensworthy, the widow of the bank robber who was hanged three years ago this July."
With his eyes fixed intently upon Larose, he had closed his words with a snap, fully expecting Larose to exhibit an astonished surprise, surprise either because Jean Hilary had been the wife of a hanged felon, or surprise because he, Ransome Todhunter, was aware of the fact. But Larose's face showed no surprise at all, its expression was only a very thoughtful one.
The agent waited for quite half a minute, but no comment from Larose being forthcoming, he went on in crisp and businesslike tones, "But I'll tell you everything sir. I'm not out for any blackmailing business." He gritted his teeth spitefully. "I'm just wanting to get even with that Mr. Mason who did me, professionally, what I consider to be a very dirty trick," and with them both now seated upon the ground, and with the dogs no longer menacing him, he proceeded to relate everything in full detail, from the moment when the solicitor had first engaged him to his going through the bungalow the previous afternoon.
Their conversation lasted quite a long time, and it was nearly an hour before the enquiry agent finally parted from Larose to return to the inn. Then, he was by no means in an unhappy frame of mind. He had vented his spite against Mason, he had a nice plump pheasant in his pocket and—he had found a fresh employer. Altogether he was feeling rather pleased with himself.
MASON returned to London on the Sunday evening in a decidedly unpleasant frame of mind, and was so irritable in the office the next day that even his long-suffering staff found it most difficult to put up with him. He continued in that mood upon the succeeding days.
Then on the Thursday he received a further report from the enquiry agent, Turnbull, and it made him more savage than ever, for it contained a snapshot, taken the previous day, of Larose and Todhunter apparently in earnest conversation together. The snap had been taken from behind a tree in a lane adjoining the Hilary property.
The report was not a long one and consisted mostly of gossip which the villagers had picked up from the servants at the Hall. Mr. and Mrs. Larose had prolonged their week-end stay until the Tuesday afternoon, and Mrs. H. and Larose had been for several walks together in the woods. Also, he had been closeted with her a lot in her studio for the painting of his portrait. Neither Mrs. Larose nor Colonel Hilary, however, seemed to think anything of it. Then he went on,
"But there is one matter which I do not understand. There is a stranger from London staying at the Hilary Arms in the village. He gives his name as Brown and makes out he is down here upon a fishing holiday. As far as I can gather, however, he doesn't seem to be doing any fishing at all, or, at any rate very little, although he is often to be seen carrying a basket and rod. I enclose a snap I got of him yesterday morning at 11.25 and forward it on at once in case you should be able to recognise him. I took it about twenty yards from the fence enclosing the Hilary home grounds. You will see he is talking to G.L. and from their attitude it looks as if they were by no means chance acquaintances. They were talking together for quite twenty minutes, but I couldn't get near enough to hear what they said. Why I write to you about this man is because I think he's unusually interested in me. In fact, sometimes I think he has been following me, as I have met him upon more times than can be accounted for just by chance."
Mason laid the report upon his desk and for a long time looked thoughtfully out of the window. "Now this is very awkward!" he nodded. "The little rat smells a piece of cheese somewhere, and is trying to do business on his own." He sighed. "There is no help for it. I'll have to buy him off. One thing, it's pretty certain he'll sell himself to the highest bidder, and if I pay him well enough he'll come over to me at once." He scowled angrily. "Damn him, I wonder how he got to know Larose, and I'd like to know what he's told him!" He shrugged his shoulders. "At any rate, I'll have to keep him quiet at all costs until I've got all I wanted from Jean and her booby husband. After that——" he laughed contemptuously—"he can get what pickings he can and I hope they'll land him in gaol for blackmail."
He rang up Todhunter's office. "Yes, yes, I expected he would be away," he said irritably "and it's no good your trying to be mysterious with me, for I know where he is. I met him last Saturday. But I don't know where he's staying. So will you get in touch with him, straightaway, and ask him to ring me at once. Say the matter is an urgent one."
Todhunter smiled exultingly when he got the message. "The old devil wants to make terms," he told himself. He nodded vehemently. "Well, by cripes, if he makes them, they'll be hard ones. I'll stand no nonsense from anyone. That Larose has got nothing on me now." He grinned. "The damned pheasant is eaten and there's no evidence that it ever existed." He spoke grandiloquently. "Well, I'll go into the open market and get the best money I can for my goods. I don't care who pays."
He was quite polite, however, when he rang up Mason. Yes, he would be down in Norfolk for another week or ten days and was staying at the Hilary Arms in Rondle village.
"Well, I've a good commission for you," said Mason pleasantly, "a better paying one than you've, perhaps, ever had. No, I don't want you to come back. The job I have for you is not far away from where you are. I'll be down in Norfolk on Saturday afternoon, and you'd better come to see me. I've taken a bungalow on Merton Broad. It's barely a mile from Rondle village. Anyone will tell you where it is. It belonged to a Mr. Hobbs. Come there at eight, and we'll have a little talk together. Will that suit you?"
It suited Todhunter all right. He wanted publicity no more than Mason did, for above all things he didn't want Larose to know he had resumed relations with Mason. Larose looked a nasty man to cross. He had eyes which bored through you like a gimlet.
So Todhunter arranged to be at the bungalow at eight o'clock on Saturday and, in the interim, many times rehearsed the attitude he intended to take with Mason. He was going to stand no nonsense from him, and be quite frank if he thought it would pay him best to put down all his cards with no delay. Still, he would wait until he had heard what Mason had got to say about the nature of this new commission he was going to propose to him. He was certain Mason was on the blackmail and if only he could trick him into giving a bit of written evidence, then he would be on a good thing. He must get Mason to put down his orders on paper, or he must wangle a letter out of him, somehow.
He felt very nervous, however, all that Saturday afternoon, and fortified himself with not a few whiskies, ending up with an extra stiff one at half past seven when he started off for the bungalow. He intended to walk there and keep well away from the main road on his way, so that by no chance should it get round to Larose that he had been seen in the neighbourhood of Mason's bungalow when the solicitor was staying there.
He reached the bungalow without having, he thought, been seen by a single soul, and found Mason waiting for him by the garden gate. Rather to his astonishment, the solicitor shook hands with him, a thing he had never done before. Also, Mason seemed in a smiling, friendly mood, which was quite unusual for him, but the agent put down both these happenings to Mason having had a generous allowance of wine with the meal he had, apparently, just finished, for, proceeding into the dining-room he saw an empty quart champagne bottle upon the table, as well as a bottle of whisky. The latter was three parts full.
"Make yourself at home," said Mason a bit thickly. "Take a chair and help yourself to a whisky. Get another glass off the sideboard and there are some cigarettes there, too." He yawned a tremendous yawn. "I'm tired to-night. It's a long journey from town and takes it out of you."
Todhunter was soon feeling very happy with everything. Mason's whisky was greatly superior to that at the inn, and very much stronger. He had helped himself to a good quarter of a tumblerful and, adding no water to it, the generous spirit coursed like fire through him.
Mason seemed in no hurry to come to business but, lying back in his chair, for a few minutes talked only of the fishing. Contrary to what the agent imagined, his brain was perfectly unclouded by alcohol—the champagne had been drunk the previous week-end and the empty bottle, purposely, put on the table. Having made all his plans, his intention was to ply Todhunter with drink so that he would be less wary in what he said. He judged that the agent was the very sort of man to be affected in that way.
He was quite right. Todhunter could stand a lot of liquor, but it always told its tale in the end, and then he became both loquacious and truculent at the same time.
After two stiff drinks had been absorbed by his visitor and the third poured out, Mason opened the campaign by asking Todhunter if he were sure no one was aware of his coming to the bungalow.
"On my oath, no!" exclaimed the agent, speaking with quite unnecessary loudness. "When I give my word about anything I stick to it, and I told you I would manage on the quiet, didn't I? Well, not even a sparrow saw me come."
"All right," nodded Mason. He bent forward confidentially. "Now this enquiry I am going to put you on is a very delicate one and there's no one else I would dare to entrust it to." He spoke very quietly. "Now, I told you Colonel Hilary was a great friend of mine and that I had known him many years!"
"Yes, you did," replied Todhunter with emphasis and, somehow, Mason did not quite like the tone of his voice. However, he went on with an affectation of great sadness.
"Well, he has confided to me the very dreadful secret that he can no longer trust his wife and that he suspects she is no longer faithful to him."
"But I'm not astonished at all," commented Todhunter, blinking hard. "I never did think much of these Society women, for their heavy meals, their wines and their rich living and having nothing to do makes them——"
"And he has asked me," broke in Mason sharply and not wanting the agent's thoughts to wander, "to find a reliable person to watch her movements. So, I have chosen you."
"Couldn't have done better!" exclaimed Todhunter thickly. "I've got the eye of a hawk when I'm trailing a skirt. I soon drop on all the likely places they do their love-making in, and find out exactly how they're carrying on. I've had a lot of experience."
"I shall pay you fifteen guineas a week," went on Mason, "and all expenses. Then there'll be a bonus of £100 to come if you manage to get a snap of them when they're together on affectionate terms."
"But where'll I get it?" asked Todhunter scowlingly. "Am I supposed to go into the house?"
"No, their meetings nearly always take place outside, mostly in the woods about here."
Todhunter took a deep swig at his whisky, almost emptying the glass. Then to Mason's amazement he began to giggle stupidly. "Ha! ha! ha!" he laughed, "and who's the naughty man?"
Mason smiled to himself. The gent was half tipsy now, and soon he'd be telling all he knew.
"Mr. Gilbert Larose," he said solemnly. "Do you know him?"
It seemed as if the name had a momentarily sobering effect upon the agent, as he pulled himself up sharply and spoke almost steadily. "No, I've never seen him," he replied. "Never heard of him, don't know who he is. What's he like?"
"You'll soon know that," nodded Mason, "as he goes up to the Hall upon two and three days a week at times when he thinks the Colonel will be away." He spoke sternly. "You'll have to stick close to your job and mind—no days off for fishing."
"Of course, I'll stick close to it," snarled Todhunter, "if I'm paid for it. I'll find out everything there is to be found." His anger seemed to rise as if he sensed some rebuke in Mason's word. "Don't I always find out what I've been sent to look for?" His voice rose and he added leeringly, "Hell, I guess sometimes I find out more than I was intended to!" His eyes blinked. "Let's have another spot of that whisky."
"But wait a minute," said Mason, moving the bottle out of his reach. "I want you to realise you have to handle this matter very delicately. As I've told you, Colonel Hilary is a dear old friend of mine and——"
"Dear old friend, be damned!" exclaimed Todhunter noisily, annoyed at the whisky being taken from him. "Why, man, you've only known him for a few weeks. You hadn't seen him until you met him at the inquest." He burst into a loud guffaw. "You think you've been a 'clevah fellar' plugging me up with all your lies, but I've known different all the time and"—his voice rose to a shout—"now I'm going to speak to you as man to man."
Mason kept his temper with difficulty. Most disconcerted as he was at the knowledge Todhunter was showing he possessed, the man's insolent demeanour was yet making him boil with rage and, quick-tempered and hasty, he would dearly have loved to reach forward and strike him in the face. But he remembered in time the situation was too critical for any quarrel, and he just said, quite mildly, "Well, speak away, but there's no need to shout."
"I'll shout if I like," cried Todhunter truculently. His very vehemence seemed to, in part, sober him up and he went on sneeringly, "I've got the upper hand of you Mr. Funny Mason, and the sooner you take it in the better for you. I know all about you and you're in the dark about me!"
"Oh, I am, am I?" commented Mason mildly. "Well, go on, Mr. Todhunter, and tell me what you know about me."
"Know about you!" exclaimed Todhunter fiercely. He leant forward across the narrow table which separated them. "I know you're up here on blackmail. You're going to blackmail that old Colonel about his wife being married to him under that false name." He laughed scoffingly. "You told me you had known that all along, but it was a damned lie and you had never heard a word about it until old Parrot dug up the information for you in Paris. I sucked Parrot dry and got it all out of him." His voice shook in anger. "Oh, you damned liar! I've half a mind"—he hesitated, hardly able to get his words out in his fury—"I've half a mind to put paid to your dirty tricks, once and for all. I could if I wanted to. You just see this," and to the solicitor's consternation he dragged a little .22 revolver out of his pocket and pointed it shakily at him.
Mason thought afterwards that the agent might have had no intention of firing at him but, with no such intention at all, in Todhunter's half fuddled condition the weapon was a deadly menace and, accordingly, he took instant action.
The champagne bottle was close to his hand and, seizing it by the neck, he made a fierce lunge straight at Todhunter's face. The bottom of the heavy bottle struck the agent squarely between the eyes, and his head was jerked backwards over the top of his chair. Instantly, with a fierce oath, Mason hurled himself across the table and got in a smashing blow under the agent's chin, lifting him clean out of his chair. Mason had been a boxer and knew how to put every ounce of his strength into his blow, and in two seconds Todhunter was lying a huddled heap upon the floor. He appeared to make fierce efforts to breathe, but quickly his face turned a dreadful colour, his mouth opened and he lay quite still. His neck had been dislocated and the muscles of respiration paralysed.
"God! I've killed him!" exclaimed Mason, and he looked like Death himself.
In the dreadful minutes which followed the solicitor, however, never for one moment lost his head. Satisfied that Todhunter was dead, he covered over the body with a hearth-rug and then leant back in an arm-chair and, wiping the sweat from his forehead, considered breathlessly what he must do.
It never occurred to him to give himself up to the police. That might turn out to be a suicidal policy, as there was no knowing what disclosures the dead man might have made to Larose, and it might come out that he, Mason, had every reason for wanting to close the agent's lips.
No, he would deal boldly with the awkward happening of the man having died in the bungalow, and hope to so cover his tracks that, even if he were suspected, nothing would be able to be brought home to him.
The only real danger was that Todhunter might have told someone, and in that case, of course, it would have only been Larose, that he had had an appointment at the bungalow that night.
Mason's heart beat even faster there, but he comforted himself at once with the thought that Todhunter had been of the very type of man to double-cross everyone. He would have told Larose only just what he had thought would pay him best, and would have waited to see what he was going to get out of him, Mason, before committing himself to either side.
With his mind fully made up to what he was going to do, he took steps at once to get rid of the body, first, however, making all subsequent identity as difficult as possible. He emptied the dead man's pockets, finding nothing of interest except £8 odd which he promptly appropriated. Then he made sure there was no marking on any of the clothes. He ripped off the name of the tailor under the collar of the jacket.
Next, he wrapped up the body in an old blanket and, darkness having well fallen now, carried it out to his car and laid it on the floor of the back seat. He started the car as quietly as possible and drove off.
He had a good knowledge of the surrounding country and remembered a big patch of tall reeds which he had once noticed at one end of Hickling Broad, about twelve miles away. The water there was too shallow for boats, and at the best of times the place was muddy and uninteresting. There was nothing to induce anyone to go there and, although the spot was well in sight of the main road in the daytime, he was thinking a body might be there from one year's end to another without being detected.
Everything seemed to turn out in his favour. The night was cold and chilly and there was not a soul in sight when he stopped his car. The body was a feather weight to him, and he ran with it quickly across the grass to the water's edge where the reeds began. He had got waders on and, disturbing the reeds as little as possible, he waded in for about a dozen yards, and then slipped the body out of the blanket into the shallow water. He pushed it down with his foot and, the bubbles quickly subsiding, in a couple of minutes or so there was nothing to be seen. He was quite aware the body would rise in a few days but that was not troubling him, for its features, he thought, would soon be eaten away beyond recognition.
Returning to his bungalow without encountering anyone, he passed quite a comfortable night, and the next morning was congratulating himself how easy everything had been. He was convinced his difficulties were now over in one direction, and that he had only to bide his time to overcome those in the other.
He did not go near the Hilarys' that day, making up his mind, however, that when next he did go, the very first moment he saw an opportunity he would show his intentions to Jean quite plainly and force her to a decision. In one way he was furious with himself that his passion for her continued to be such an obsession. Hardly ever was her image out of his mind, and driving back to Town that evening his thoughts were far more of her than about the man he had killed.
The landlord of the Hilary Arms was not very astonished that his visitor did not return home that Saturday night. Remembering the large number of drinks he had served him with that afternoon, he rather thought he had gone on to some other inn or hotel and got too drunk to be capable of making the return journey, until he had had time to sleep his condition off. He quite expected, however, to see him the next day.
But when the Sunday passed with no sign of the man's return, he began to get a little bit uneasy, and when Monday had gone by with no appearance of his visitor, he thought he had better consult the village constable. He was the more inclined to do that because on the Monday afternoon a man in the bar had remarked casually that he had seen Mr. Brown making his way in the direction of the Broads on that Saturday evening.
"And the way he was walking was damned funny, too," had added the man. "He was walking across the fields and kept on looking back, as if he believed he was being followed. He didn't see me. I was behind those trees near Pott's corner."
The village constable hummed and hawed and reported the matter to North Walsham. There the information was jotted down in the record book and left at that. There was nothing tangible to go upon.
Larose heard about it on the Tuesday, too, and at once was rather inclined to take a serious view of it. He had phoned up the Hilary Arms to speak to Todhunter and the landlord had related everything.
"I can't understand it, sir," he said. "All his luggage is here and his motor bicycle. I've just had a call from his office in London, too, and they're getting anxious about him. It seems he's a commission agent and an important order has come in and they don't know what to do about it. I've got the address and am to ring them up directly there is any news."
"I'll come and see you," said Larose. "I want him to do some business for me as well," and he hung up the receiver with a very solemn face.
"Now I wonder if Mason's had anything to do with it," he frowned thoughtfully. "I don't trust Todhunter a bit. The little fool was so venomous about Mason that if he'd got drunk he might easily have gone to him and boasted how he'd given him away to me. It's funny Mason never went near the Hall last week-end, though Jean said he was seen driving through the village. So, he must have been at his bungalow."
Talking things over with the landlord of the Hilary Arms, Larose learnt several things which he considered highly significant. The man said Todhunter had received a trunk call on the Friday and he, the landlord, had happened to overhear a little of the conversation. He said Mr. Brown had appeared to be rather elated and at the end of the talk had exclaimed, "And I'm to ring him up at once, am I? All right I'll see to it straightaway."
"But he didn't do it here, sir," said the landlord. "He got on his motor bicycle immediately and went off up the Norwich Road."
After some other questions, Larose asked, "What did he seem like on the Saturday? Was he quite well?"
"Oh, yes, quite well!" replied the landlord. He frowned. "But I think he was a bit quieter than he generally was. In the afternoon, too, he took a lot of drink, much more than he usually did, although he always took plenty."
"Did he say he was going out anywhere?" asked Larose.
"No, but I noticed that when he was sitting in the bar that evening, he kept on looking at the clock. He got up and went out exactly at half past seven, as if he'd been waiting for that time to come."
"Exactly," thought Larose, "he'd got an appointment with Mason. It was Mason he rang up, after Mason had rung up his office, leaving a message for him to do so. No, I won't ring up the office about it. It might get back to Mason that way."
After some consideration, he drove round to Mason's bungalow upon the Broad, and nodded when he took in the lonely surroundings. He expected to find the doors locked, but he frowned when he tried the windows. "Not just a case of stiff catches there," he told himself. "He screwed up every one of those windows before he left and yet no one ever has anything of value in these week-end bungalows. Evidently he's a very particular man."
Turning to the rubbish heap, he raked it over with a piece of stick, and immediately his face set hard, when he came across a number of cigarette butts. They had evidently only recently been thrown out as they were among some floor sweepings upon the top of some plum skins and other kitchen refuse which had not had time as yet to get very stale.
He counted twenty-eight butts and they were from the particular kind of Egyptian cigarettes which he knew Mason always smoked. He counted them so carefully, because twenty-one of them were clean, firm butts from cigarettes undoubtedly smoked through a holder, as Mason always did, and the other seven were the stained and shapeless butts as of a man who had used no holder and sucked them down to the last draw.
"And that's how Todhunter always smokes his horrible fags," he exclaimed breathlessly, "down to the last eighth of an inch and slobbering the nicotine all over his dirty fingers." He clenched his hands tightly. "I'm certain he was here that night, and if he smoked seven cigarettes his visit was not a short one." He shook his head and added slowly, "But how to prove it will be a difficult matter."
With sudden determination he walked briskly over to his car, proceeding in a couple of minutes or so to the back door with his tool kit and some pieces of stout wire. It was quite a long job to get the door open, but he managed to do it at last, and stepped so softly into the bungalow that it might almost have been thought he was expecting to find a corpse there.
The blinds were all drawn, and the air smelt heavy and close. He walked slowly from room to room, with his eyes roaming round everywhere. Everything was tidy and nothing seemed out of place. Coming to the living-room, he pulled up the blind to give himself more light, for his scrutiny was going to be most thorough there.
"If Mason had a visitor here on Saturday night," he nodded, "it is here they would have sat."
He noted a full bottle of whisky upon the sideboard and one with a very little left in it. In the cupboard of the sideboard, among the other glassware, were six tumblers all in a line, and very gingerly he lifted them by their rims and held them, each in turn, up to the light.
"And these two," he went on, "have been in use lately because they are brighter and have been more recently polished. Only upon one of these two, however, are there any finger-marks and, of course, those will be Mason's own." He shook his head. "I shall not look for any finger-marks anywhere, for if there was any foul work done here, then Mason is much too clever a scoundrel to have left finger-marks about. No, I'll rub that out at once. Looking for them will be waste of time."
He moved the floor-rugs aside and, laying his face almost level with the floor, took a good sweeping view of the linoleum. He whistled softly. "Whew, some of this linoleum has been washed recently, but only some of it, this large patch in front of the fireplace. What does that mean?" and he scrutinised every inch of it before he finally rose to his feet again.
A few minutes later, he pulled down the blinds again and gave himself up to his thoughts. For a long time he was very silent. Then he began speaking very softly. "Of course, I must guess a lot and imagine a lot, but basing my guesses and imaginings upon what I know for certain I can get more than a shadowy picture of what has taken place."
He spoke very solemnly. "That enquiry agent is dead. Mason killed him and killed him in this very room."
Then as if awed by his own words he lapsed into a long silence, and the room was very still. Presently, however, he began to speak again, and his voice soon warmed into crisp and business-like tones. "Now the whole position is like this. Mason is a bad man. For years it has been his life's work to defend criminals and, as so often happens in the minds of men of his type, he has come to look upon crime as a clever trick, clever in getting the better of the stupid law. So, he becomes a criminal himself, criminal perhaps, only in little ways, such as bolstering up false evidence and framing for them the lies his clients must tell to hood-wink the jury.
"Then a big chance comes along. He gets hold of that poor girl's secret and is evidently intending to trade upon it"—Larose's face hardened darkly here—"in one way or another to his own gain. But Todhunter comes in, that sneaking little rat of a man who was born with far more than his share of spite. Todhunter gets hold of the secret, too, and threatens to spoil Mason's game. Mason knows that quite well. He had tried to bluff him out of it, but has soon realised it is no good."
Larose paused here for a long while and then shook his head slowly. "Now if Mason has murdered Todhunter, I don't think the murder was premeditated. Mason was too open in ringing up the man's office. No, Mason meant to buy him off and he made an appointment with him to come here on Saturday night to talk things over. Todhunter came and then"—he shrugged his shoulders—"what happened?"
Another silence followed and he went on, "Todhunter had had a lot of drink before he arrived, and Mason gave him more. They quarrelled. Probably, full of booze, Todhunter taunted Mason about the lies he'd told and a quick-tempered man like Mason wouldn't stand much of that. Perhaps he struck Todhunter. I think he did. It wouldn't take much to kill the little brute and a furious blow from Mason's big fist and a heavy fall would probably finish him off."
He screwed up his face. "I may be quite wrong and I know it's only guesswork. Still, Mason's chair would have been that one there, handy to the table, and Todhunter would have been sitting opposite to him. Then Todhunter was knocked down. He bled a bit, and that's why the linoleum has been scrubbed there. It must have been washed for some special reason because something has been spilled there, for no one in the ordinary way washes a big patch on the floor and leaves the rest untouched. That's obvious."
He rose to his feet with a big sigh. "Well, that's all I can do now. If I am right, where Mason hid the body may never be found out. He may have taken it miles away and buried it under some sandhill. He may have——" but he broke off abruptly with another shrug of his shoulders and, letting himself out of the door, drove away.
A week went by. Nothing had been heard of the missing man and, a stranger to the district, no one appeared to be much interested. The police had nothing to go upon, and could start upon enquiries in no particular direction. They thought that in his semi-drunken condition—the landlord of the Hilary Arms was crying loudly for payment of nearly a pound's worth of whisky drunk that day—he had probably fallen into one of the Broads and got drowned. They said his body would turn up one day.
And sure enough his body did turn up, in a most dramatic way, upon the Sunday, exactly fifteen days after the man's disappearance.
Some young fellows were camping for the week-end close to the narrower end of Hickling Broad, and the attention of one of them was drawn to the number of crows flying about a patch of tall reeds some two hundred yards and more away.
Strolling idly over, he threw a stone in the direction where they were hovering the thickest and was astonished when so many unseen birds flew up. He tried to find out what had been so interesting them, but there was too much mud about for him to wade in. However, he told two men in a boat about it, and they pushed their way into the reeds to see what was there. Then, to their horror, they found the crows had been pecking at the head and neck of a human body, lying face downwards.
Great excitement followed, the police were telephoned for and within a few hours the body was in the North Walsham mortuary. From the very first there was little doubt about foul play, as apart from the body being found where no man, drunk or sober, would have gone of his own accord, the clothes showed signs of having been interfered with and the pockets had apparently been rifled of any contents of value.
The post mortem next day confirmed these views. The man had died a violent death. He had received a terrible blow under the chin, a blow of such violence that it had fractured his lower front teeth and probably been the cause of the dislocation of his neck. He had also received a blow upon his forehead. He had been dead about twelve to fourteen days.
The police got busy at once. The landlord of the Hilary Arms identified the body as that of the man who had been staying at his inn under the name of Brown, and gave the address of his office. Enquiries there elicited the fact that his clerk had last got in touch with him on the Thursday, two days before his disappearance, when he had rung him up to say that Mr. Mason, the solicitor, of Theobald's Road, was wanting to see him, urgently. Todhunter, then, must have rung up Mr. Mason, for the latter had three times rung up the office the following week to know why the agent hadn't called on the Monday as he had promised.
The solicitor, being approached, confirmed all this. On the Thursday afternoon a trunk call had come through from Norwich. It had been Todhunter speaking and he had stated he was just familiarising an important enquiry and should be back in Town at the week-end and would call in on Monday. He had not, however, called in and he, Mason, had been greatly inconvenienced. The solicitor could not understand it, as he had always found the agent a most reliable man. The clerks in the office confirmed the statement that a trunk call had come from Norwich on the Thursday afternoon, and they had at once put it through to their employer. Of course, they had not heard the conversation which had ensued.
Larose was put in possession of all these facts by the North Walsham sergeant of police and gnashed his teeth in fury that he could do nothing. Furnishing the authorities with the evidence he had against Mason would mean many explanations as to how it had come into his possession, and those he could not give. The moment he spoke he would have to account for his interest in the case. He would have to explain his relations with the dead man and make public the whole sad history of Jean Hilary. Straining his ingenuity to the utmost, he saw no way of casting suspicion upon Mason without telling everything.
And if he did tell everything, if he took the police completely in his confidence, he was quite certain no jury would convict Mason on the evidence.
It would be said that the evidence of the cigarettes was too far-fetched and the washed patch of the linoleum no evidence at all. And what other evidence had he got? None! He could not even show Mason's motive for wanting to get rid of the man for, as yet, the solicitor had not made the slightest attempt at blackmail.
No, all he could do was to wait and watch, to wait for Mason to make some false move, and to watch that Jean did not make one.
So, once more, as with the murder of the gamekeeper, the police were completely at a dead end. They could pick up no trail anywhere and could not produce the slightest evidence as suggesting who had killed the man. They had no suspicions against anyone.
In the meantime, Mason reappeared at the Hall upon the following Sunday afternoon and Larose met him there. It had become almost a regular habit with Larose, generally accompanied by his wife, to turn up on Sunday afternoons and give Jean half an hour's sitting for his portrait. This afternoon, however, his wife had gone upon a visit to her mother in Scotland and Larose had come alone.
Now in the days which followed, looking back upon that beautiful summer's afternoon when they all seemed so carefree and happy when at tea upon the lawn, Larose often thought that by his actions then he precipitated the various crises which followed so quickly afterwards.
According to his usual custom, he made no offer to shake hands with the solicitor, although he gave him a ready smile. There had always been an unspoken antagonism between the two, which Mason on his side put down to Larose's 'uppishness', because through the widow he had married he was a very rich man.
Now, covertly watching Larose, Mason was struck by his appearance of good spirits, and Larose, knowing Mason was watching him like a cat watching a mouse, whenever he came near Jean Hilary, out of pure devilry, purposely gave him something to think about.
He directed all his smiles at her, he followed her about with his eyes and when he took a cup of tea from her, he deliberately let his fingers rest for a moment upon hers. Jean noticed it, and half surprised and half amused, felt herself blush ever so little. Mason had noticed both the touching of the hands and the blush upon the girl's face and, masking his furious jealousy with a great effort, there and then made a sudden resolve.
Blast them both, this wife of loose morals and this treacherous one-time policeman. They were carrying on under the husband's very nose! They were making love over the tea-cups as brazenly as if there were no one else there!
Well, he would come to an understanding with her at once! He'd wait no longer! The girl should either have another lover, or else he would show her up for the little she-devil she was and touch her husband for a thumping big sum to keep quiet about everything.
He started for London early that evening, and the next morning made arrangements to return to Norfolk on the Tuesday night. He knew the Colonel would be presiding on the bench at North Walsham on the Wednesday morning, and he reckoned with any luck he would catch Jean alone.
And he did have luck, for when he pulled up at the front door, he found it open and a housemaid polishing the knocker. She was a new maid and he had never seen her about before. She looked very stupid.
"Where's Mrs. Hilary?" he asked. "Oh, in her studio! No, you needn't come with me. I know the room and I'll go to her myself." He made a pretence of looking at his wrist-watch. "She's expecting me and I'm a bit late."
So a very startled Jean saw her door open very quietly, Mason step into the room, and the door close again behind him. She was writing a letter at her desk, and the colour surged up into her face at the annoyance she felt at her visitor thus thrusting himself into her room unasked. In one way it couldn't have been worse for her, for, with her heightened colour, Mason thought he had never seen her look more beautiful. He literally shook at the thought of the tempting meal before him. At last he had got her all alone.
He spoke a little hoarsely. "I found the front door open and so made my way up here," he lied. "No one saw me, and no one knows I have come."
Jean caught her breath and the colour drained away from her face. She was now as pale as before she had been red. She sensed an animal before her, and rose to her feet to protect herself.
"And how are you this morning?" smiled Mason. "Feeling pretty well?"
"Quite well!" returned Jean sharply. "I'm always quite well."
"That's right!" exclaimed Mason. "I like healthy women. I've no time for the sickly ones." He dropped his voice to a whisper. "Don't you think I've been rather nice to you, not telling a soul about your little secret?"
"It wouldn't have benefited you if you had," said Jean calmly. She nodded, "And it would have been a very unkind thing for you to do."
Mason made his smile a beaming one and craned his head forward. "Well, and isn't there going to be a little reward?"
Jean felt the crisis looming. "I thank you for it," she said breathlessly. "I'm very grateful to you."
He regarded her meaningly. "But that's not enough. I want something more than that. You must treat me like you treat that Larose man. Ah, I know all about you both there!" He moved up close to her, and she shrank back. "No, don't be frightened," he went on. "I'm not going to touch you. I won't lay a finger on you unless"—he moistened his lips with his tongue—"you're willing." He grabbed her suddenly by the arm. "And I think you are. Come on, give me a kiss."
Thinking she had been safe because of his assertion that he was not going to touch her, she was caught unawares when his arms closed round her in a lightning movement and he forced her face against his. His kisses then were fast and furious. She struggled violently, but it was not the slightest use and for a long minute he took his fill of her tightly closed lips, with his body pressed hard against hers.
Then with a deep sigh of satisfaction he loosed her so suddenly that she half sank on to the floor. It was only for a moment, however, and then she sprang up to her full height, alive and vibrant like the coil of a released spring. Her face was distorted in fury, her eyes blazed and she was panting as if she had been running a race. She darted back to her desk and, picking up a good-sized brass antique ink-pot, flung it straight in his face. It struck him on his forehead and instantly he was blinded with the ink.
"You beast," she sobbed hotly, "I'd rather go to prison a thousand times than have you touch me again," and her fury taking renewed energy from her denunciation, she seized a heavy ruler on the desk and flung it at him, too. It struck him on the hand which was trying to squeeze the ink out of his eyes and he grunted at the hard knock it gave him. Then there came to his ears the sounds of hurried running across the floor, the opening of the door, and he knew that Jean had left the room.
His eyes cleared of the smarting ink, he felt for his handkerchief and proceeded to mop his face. He looked at himself in a mirror. There was a nasty cut over his eyes and the trickling blood was running down over his ink-stained cheek. Pressing upon the cut for a minute or two, unhurriedly and as if he had all the day before him, when the bleeding had stopped he buttoned up his jacket to hide his ink-stained linen and proceeded to walk slowly from the room.
And all the time he had sworn no oath, he had shown no signs of anger and the expression upon his face was so impassive, as if he had nothing on his mind. Inwardly, however, he was in a perfect tornado of fury, and he would have strangled Jean in a delirium of delight if only he could have got his hands round her neck. His devouring passion for her had passed all in a few seconds into a devastating hate. Not a day, not an hour would he wait now before bringing down her punishment, like a thunderbolt upon her.
He met no one on his way out to his car, and drove quickly back to the bungalow. With almost feverish haste, he washed all traces of blood and ink from his face and changed all his clothes.
He intended to get speech with Colonel Hilary at once, before Jean had had an opportunity of appealing to him, if indeed, she would dare to do so, and he told himself things could not be more propitious as he would be able to nail him when he came off the Bench at North Walsham. He knew Wednesday was his regular day there and he expected the Colonel would be free by lunch time. Then—and his eyes gleamed horribly—he would send him back to his home a broken man.
But as it happened Mason's luck did not hold. There was a poaching charge to be considered that morning and, as there were a number of witnesses on both sides to be examined, the case was not over at lunch time and so the Court adjourned for three-quarters of an hour. Mason could only get a hurried word with the Colonel as the latter came out of the cloak room, after having washed his hands.
He said he must see him privately on a matter of great urgency connected with the murder of the gamekeeper. The Colonel was obviously very startled and wanted to know what had happened.
"No, I can't tell you here,"'said Mason grimly. "When can I speak to you alone?"
Colonel Hilary shrugged his shoulders. "But I don't know when the case will be finished," he said. "It'll take us another two hours at least and I may not be free until four or five." An idea struck him. "But tell me, where are you going now?"
"Back to my bungalow," replied Mason, "as soon as I can."
"Well, I tell you what I'll do," said the Colonel. "I'll call in there on my way home. It won't be much out of my way. So you can expect me there any time after four."
Returning home straightaway, Mason garaged his car, and, after a couple of stiff whiskies and a few biscuits, prepared to wait with what patience he could the coming of his visitor. Suddenly, his face clouded, and he whistled. "Damnation, I'd forgotten him! I shall have to deal with that Larose now, and I must be very careful. The little devil is certain to tell him, perhaps she's rung him up now, and I shall have him on my tracks at once. Blast him, he'll murder me, too, if he can!"
He took out the big revolver which Todhunter had seen in the drawer to make sure it was in good working order. He was not much accustomed to fire-arms and, indeed, had only fired the revolver a few times, so he thought he'd have another shot with it now. He went out into the garden and fired it off, pointing up in the air. It made rather more noise than he liked, and he resolved to get a silencer for it the next week.
Taking out and throwing down the empty cartridge shell, he returned into the bungalow and, a methodical man at all times, proceeded to clean the pistol and put in another cartridge, in place of the one he had just used. He laid the revolver on the table-desk, handy to his right hand in case he should require it unexpectedly at any time. He resolved, henceforward, to always carry it about with him.
Looking at his wrist-watch, he saw it was just half past two, and he frowned in impatience at the thought of how long he might have to wait. He took some papers out of his suitcase and laid them upon the desk-table upon the top of the revolver.
An hour passed, an hour and a half, and he was almost thinking the Colonel would never come, when suddenly he heard the sounds of an approaching motor-car and, striding over to the window, saw him pull up at the garden gate.
He went out to meet him and, ushering him into the bungalow, pointed to a chair. "Sit down. Colonel," he said gravely. "What I have to tell you will take a little time."
Colonel Hilary was a handsome man and by no means looked his age. Not a few times in his life had it been said of him that he looked every inch a soldier and a gentleman, and he sat now, erect and straight as a dart, and with his pleasant, kindly face clouded over with a rather puzzled frown.
Mason began very solemnly. "I have some unpleasant news for you, Colonel Hilary," he said, "and I am sorry to have to be the one to tell it to you." He bent forward and went on very slowly. "Are you aware that when you married your present wife she was not a single girl, but a widow? She had been married before, barely eighteen months previously, to Paul Wensworthy, the bank robber and"—he made a long pause here—"he had been hanged exactly six weeks after their marriage."
The Colonel's face had whitened under its tan, his lips were parted, and he was staring hard at Mason. It almost seemed as if he hardly breathed. He made no comment, however.
Mason picked up a paper and handed it across to him. He took it mechanically. "It's a copy of the entry in the marriage register of the church of St. Francis in Paris," said Mason. "See—the name Paul Edward Wensworthy and Jean Madeline Castle, May the 27th, three years ago. No possibility of any mistake."
Still the Colonel made no comment. His eyes were riveted upon the certificate and he seemed too stunned to say anything.
Mason went on relentlessly. He intended to drive the dagger home to the very hilt. "But that is not all," he said, handing another paper across, "for not eight months after his death she bore this Wensworthy man a child. See, Jean Madeline Wensworthy this time, and father, Paul Edward Wensworthy, deceased. That birth certificate is copied from the baptism register of St. Phillip's church in Sutton Coldfield. The baby died the day after the christening."
A long silence followed and then at last Colonel Hilary found his voice. "But why do you tell me all this?" he asked huskily. "What has it to do with you?"
For the moment Mason was decidedly taken aback. The Colonel was not taking things as he had expected he would. There was no fierce denunciation, no furious expression of disbelief, just this calm bowing of the head to the dreadful blow which had fallen.
Mason spoke frowningly. "It has to do with me, because all this information has fallen into the hands of a man who is demanding £20,000 to keep his mouth shut. Knowing me to be a friend of yours, he has approached me, first, hoping the matter may be settled with no fuss or delay."
The Colonel seemed to consider. "But isn't £20,000 a very large sum to demand?" he asked slowly. "After all, no real wrong has been done."
"Oh, hasn't there!" exclaimed Mason instantly. "That marrying under a false name is a very serious matter and if the authorities are informed it will certainly mean a term of imprisonment."
"But as far as we are concerned," said the Colonel, more slowly than ever, and as if fumbling for his words, "as far as our happiness is threatened—I mean my poor wife's and mine—if I am sensible about it, it need make no difference. We shall still have each other."
Mason swore under his breath. The old fool was going to be a hard nut to crack. His infatuation for the girl had given him the hide of an elephant and made him contemptuous of what people thought. Mason threw down another card.
"But unhappily, Colonel Hilary," he said sternly, "marrying you under a false name is not the only crime your wife has committed. In fact"—he paused a long moment—"she was responsible for the death of that gamekeeper of yours, as she incited an assassin to murder him!"
The Colonel's face paled again, but this time he was quick of speech. "Nonsense," he retorted hotly. "What had the man to do with her?"
"A lot," nodded Mason solemnly, "for he knew her secret. He had been employed in the private hospital in Sutton Coldfield when she was up there having her baby, and he'd heard the whole story." He spoke with the utmost conviction. "Oh, yes, it's quite true she had him killed, and I knew all about it from the very beginning, but I held my tongue and said nothing because I didn't want to get a young woman like your wife into such trouble. I felt sorry for her as the man had been blackmailing her, and I had no sympathy for him."
Again the Colonel was silent. He was obviously now in great distress. He seemed overcome with a dreadful horror, and was breathing quickly. Mason went on calmly,
"Listen, and you won't have the shadow of a doubt that what I am telling you is all true. Vance had been blackmailing your wife for months and months, until she couldn't give him any more money. So she induced a man she knew to go and threaten Vance he would shoot him if he didn't clear straight out of the neighbourhood at once. That happened on the Friday evening and the next day Vance came into my office and told me everything. I gave him short shrift and wouldn't have anything to do with him. I didn't believe anyone was threatening him. He went back home to his cottage, the murderer was lying in wait for him and promptly killed him, as he promised. Then——"
"But it was a poacher who killed Vance!" exclaimed the Colonel vehemently. "It couldn't have been anybody else."
Mason thumped upon the desk. "It was not a poacher, sir, it was Larose," he called out loudly, "that Gilbert Larose who's always hanging about your place!" He leant back in his chair, he half closed his eyes and his voice dropped suddenly to low sneering tones. "Does nothing strike you there, Colonel Hilary?" he asked. "Have you never had any suspicions about anything or anyone?"
The Colonel's face darkened, its lines became hard and set, and his eyes took on a warning look. Mason was treading on dangerous ground now. "What do you mean?" he asked fiercely as if daring Mason to put into words what he was undoubtedly intending to imply.
"Oh, nothing!" laughed Mason lightly. "Nothing, except what generally happens when one person is under a great obligation to another." Then his voice changed and he rapped out his next words like bullets from a gun. "If your wife had induced Larose to take such extreme measures to stop that fellow's mouth, what price would she have to pay?" He sneered mockingly. "What price would any woman pay?"
Colonel Hilary's face reddened furiously, the veins upon his forehead stood out like knotted cords, and his eyes dropped and roved round the desk as if too ashamed to face the speaker. But he said nothing and Mason, mistaking his silence for overwhelming humiliation, thumped his fist upon the desk to drive home his accusation.
"Yes, my friend," he went on loudly. "Gilbert Larose is your wife's lover and you're the only person who apparently does not know it. The affair is the talk of the servants, the village and the whole countryside, and everyone is sorry for you." The cut on his face was smarting and he thrilled at so venting his venom against Jean. "And if you ask me, as a man of the world and knowing her type, I don't think Larose is the first, second, third, or even fourth lover your wife has had. Why, if you only knew it, that child you think is yours may be anybody's and"—but that was the last word he ever spoke, for Colonel Hilary's eyes falling suddenly upon the now uncovered revolver on the desk, he snatched it up in a lightning movement and, throwing his arm forward, fired point-blank in Mason's face.
Mason just closed his eyes, his head fell forward, and he slipped limply out of his chair on to the floor. His body shook and quivered for, perhaps, three seconds, and then lay quite still. It was a passing so instantaneous that he had not even groaned.
So, with such a little time between, had Death struck twice in that same room. They were both evil men who had died, and if there be any Justice in the dim and far-off after-world where the spirits go, then dire punishment should be meted out to them.
The revolver fell unheeded from Colonel Hilary's hand. "My God, my God," he exclaimed, "I've killed him!"
Then came the greatest shock of his life, as a pleasant voice from the passage commented gaily, "Excellent, for it saves me the trouble. I'd come here to do the same thing myself," and Larose stepped briskly into the room.
NOW in order to understand how it was Larose had appeared so dramatically at the bungalow so soon after Mason had inflicted his savage caresses upon poor Jean Hilary, we must go back to the moment when she had escaped from the room after blinding him with the contents of the ink-stand.
She rushed up to her bedroom, wanting to sob out her heart from very shame at the indignity which had been inflicted upon her, and was only restrained from doing so by the fear that one of the servants might meet her going up the stairs and be a witness of her distress.
She met no one, however, and was soon, between sobs, fiercely laving over her face. She felt her lips would never be clean again and held them in the hottest water she could bear. Then she suddenly heard the sounds of a car in the drive and, running to the window, saw Mason going away.
The knowledge that he had left the house helped considerably to calm her down and in a few minutes, with her hair tidied and her face quite composed, she was again outwardly, at least, the dignified young mistress of the Hall.
The great obsession of her mind now was to let Larose know what had happened, as quickly as possible, for she was terrified about Mason's next move, being sure that he would approach her husband in some way. She wanted to be the first to tell her husband and she wanted Larose to be close at hand, so that in the first dreadful shock of her confession, he would bring some comfort to them both.
Her husband had the greatest respect for Larose, and in the short time he had known him, in a way she could not quite understand, had come to regard him with the warmest feelings of friendship. It was most unusual for her husband to have taken to him so quickly, as in the ordinary way he was of so reserved a nature that it took him a long while to make a friend of anyone.
Returning to her studio to put in the trunk-call to Carmel Abbey from the desk telephone there, she was greatly relieved to see that, apparently, none of the servants had been in there since Mason had left, as both the inkstand and the heavy ruler were lying where they had fallen. She breathed another sigh of relief, too, that all the ink had been spilt upon the hearthrug and it would be easy to account for the mishap.
Getting through to Carmel Abbey, to her dismay she learned Larose was out attending the launching of a life-boat ceremony, and was not expected to be home until about three. She left a message for him to ring her up as soon as possible as the matter was urgent. Then to her delight she was called to the phone soon after two and found it was Larose speaking.
In guarded language, she told him that the dog had suddenly become savage, and she was frightened what he would do. She added there was a lengthy poaching case on at North Walsham and she was not expecting the Colonel until rather late in the afternoon. Larose understood at once what she meant. Mason had at last started upon some form of persecution, and she wanted to see him, Larose, before Mason had had an opportunity of speaking to her husband. Larose asked no questions, simply saying that he would be leaving at once for the Hall, and suggesting that she should walk to meet him.
"A little exercise will do you good," he said. "I'll come the Peter's Hill way, but don't walk farther than the lane at the foot of the hill. I'll turn in there and we can have our little talk," and, not wanting to lose a minute's time, he rang off.
Quick always in his decisions, Larose was choosing that particular way to come and had mentioned that particular lane because up the lane was a short cut to Merton Broad. He was thinking that, after he had heard what Jean had to say, he might find it necessary to go straightaway to interview Mason in his bungalow. What line of action, he, Larose, would take was depending upon what Jean told him, but at any rate he was determined upon some strong move at once.
He found Jean waiting for him in the lane and, sitting next to him in his car and restraining her tears with great difficulty, she told him what Mason had done to her and what he had said.
Larose regarded her smilingly and with a, purposely, untroubled face. "Don't you worry, my dear," he said reassuringly. "I'll shut his mouth. I know a great deal more about him than he thinks and in spite of his bold looks I may be able to frighten him." He nodded. "Yes, you shall tell your husband"—he hesitated a few moments—"or, perhaps, I'd better tell him, first. It'll break the shock, and then he won't be half so upset when he meets you."
"I'm dreading it," she shivered, "and yet I'm not exactly afraid. I shall be glad to get it over."
"Of course you will," he nodded. "Now you go back home through the woods, but don't be in the house when your husband comes home. You wait somewhere among the trees and wait until you've seen both his car and mine arrive."
They parted with no delay and then Larose drove up the lane. When, however, he was about a quarter of a mile from Mason's bungalow, he stopped the car and started to proceed the rest of the way on foot. He had not forgotten the revolver Todhunter had seen in the drawer in the bungalow, and he wanted to catch Mason quite unawares. He was not at all certain that what he was going to say to the latter might not end in a bout of fisticuffs.
Coming in sight of the bungalow, he was horrified to see a car, which he recognised at once as Colonel Hilary's, standing by the garden gate and he broke at once into a run. He heard the sound of roars of cheering coming from across the other side of the Broad, and guessed there were some athletic sports going on.
Reaching the bungalow, he heard through the open door Mason's loud shouting voice, followed to his dire consternation by the loud bang of a revolver shot.
Darting into the bungalow, he heard with unutterable thankfulness the Colonel's exclamation—and the rest we know.
At the sound of Larose's voice Colonel Hilary turned like the strike of a snake. "I've killed him!" he exclaimed hoarsely, pointing with a shaking hand to the body upon the floor. "He slandered my wife and in another second he would have called her by a foul name." His voice broke. "I wouldn't stand for that."
"Of course, you wouldn't!" agreed Larose soothingly. "You did the right thing! Any man of courage would have done it!" He walked over to the body. "But let's be sure he's really dead."
He bent down, but only for a few brief seconds, and then he straightened himself up again. "Quite dead!" he nodded. He looked puzzled. "But, by Jove, you fired close!"
"Right straight in his face!" stammered the Colonel. "It's his revolver! I snatched it up off the desk and let him have it."
Larose looked startled. "His own revolver, you say!" He drew in a deep breath. "Then, good God, it'll look as if he committed suicide!" He nodded triumphantly. "Yes, I'll make it look so."
Colonel Hilary shook his head. "I shall be hanged for it!" he said brokenly. "I shall deny nothing! I shall go and give myself up!"
"You'll do nothing of the sort," exclaimed Larose angrily. "You'll not be such a big coward!" He gripped the Colonel fiercely by the arm. "Think, man, think! Remember, you've got your wife and baby at home! You're not going to break up their lives are you? You are not going to make that poor girl suffer miseries untold, when by your keeping silent she can be spared everything? You are not going to show the white feather are you?"
"But I'm a murderer," said the Colonel pitifully. He shook his head. "I must hang!"
"You're not a murderer," said Larose sharply. "You're an executioner, that's all!" He pointed to the body upon the floor and went on. "That man there was a murderer. I have evidence of that. He murdered that enquiry agent whose body was found three weeks ago on Hickling Broad. He killed him in this very room. I know that for certain. And worse than that, he was a blackmailer. He was starting to blackmail your wife and——"
But he saw the Colonel's face had paled threateningly and he sprang over and forced him down into an arm-chair. "Now you just sit quietly there for a few minutes and don't talk. No, we will neither of us talk, and we'll decide what you're to do, later. You just let me get busy for a few minutes and don't say a word."
He saw the Colonel's eye wander to a bottle of whisky upon the sideboard, and shook his head at once. "No, we don't touch a single thing here, and it's just Providence that you've not taken off your gloves. I'm keeping mine on, too. We're playing for high stakes now"—he nodded—"the happiness of little Jean."
The Colonel sank back in his chair and closed his eyes, but he opened them almost immediately as the noise of loud cheering came to his ears. Larose heard it, too, and exclaimed quickly, "There's a school treat or something like it, just over the other side of the water, and they're probably cheering them on in some race. There was the same shouting just now as I was coming here, and it couldn't be better, as no one, probably, heard the shot you fired. Don't worry."
The Colonel nodded. "I remember now," he said wearily. "The Sunday School children from our village were coming here this afternoon, and I think I half promised the Rector to look in for a few minutes."
"Well, that's off now," said Larose, and he turned back to the body. The Colonel watched him with wondering eyes as he picked up the revolver and examined it gingerly. Then he knelt down and taking the dead man's right hand in his gloved ones, put the revolver in it and pressed the fingers firmly round the butt for a few seconds. Next, very carefully, he pressed the trigger-finger against the trigger, and then, disengaging all the fingers, placed the revolver about a foot away from the right hand. Finally, placing himself between the body and Colonel Hilary, so that the latter should not see what he was doing, he struck half a dozen matches, one after the other, and well singed the eyebrows of the dead man.
Satisfied then at last, he stood up and glanced down upon the papers on the desk. Immediately then, he frowned as he picked up the two certificates, wedding and baptism, which Mason had handed to the Colonel. He looked round and saw that the latter was watching him. "He showed you these?" he asked, holding them up.
Colonel Hilary nodded. "Yes, but I didn't shoot him because of that," he said. He nodded again. "I've known what's in those a long time"—a sad smile came into his face—"ever since that night of the dance when my poor wife first met you. I was behind that privet hedge and heard every word she told you. Our hostess had said Jean had been looking faint, and I had come out to see where she was. Her first words I couldn't help over-hearing and then—I stayed to listen to the rest."
Larose could hardly get out his words. "And you never said anything!"
The Colonel shrugged his shoulders. "Why should I have done?" He smiled again. "I knew you would help her better than I could, and so I waited to see what you would do." He raised his hand in salute. "I honour you, sir, for shooting that vile game-keeper of mine. I have loved you as a son ever since."
Larose made a grimace. "I'm sorry, Colonel," he said, "but I didn't do it. I had nothing to do with——" but he broke off quickly. "Still, we can't talk about that now. We must get away from here as quickly as possible." He eyed him very sternly. "But there's going to be no nonsense about giving yourself up, is there?"
Just for a moment the Colonel hesitated. Then he said firmly, "No, I'll take the fighting chance." He smiled once again. "I have great faith in you."
Larose smiled back. "Then you go and keep watch outside," he said. "Don't let yourself be seen, but come and tell me if anyone comes up the road."
Then his movements were like lightning. He pocketed the two certificates, and made a quick but very thorough examination of every other paper on the desk. He found nothing of interest there, however, and neither did the dead man's pockets yield anything. Then he went into the bedroom and looked through the suitcases, with the same barren results.
Finally, he stood quite still and for a few moments let his eyes roam round the room. Falling at length upon a good-sized bottle upon the mantelshelf, he sprang over to inspect it. The bottle was labelled "Poison." Sleeping tablets. "One to be taken as required." It appeared to be quite full and contained, so he judged, about a hundred small oblong capsules filled with white powder.
A smile came over his face and, taking the bottle with him, he returned quickly to the living-room. He took a tumbler from the sideboard, half filled it with water and then, opening the sleeping tablet bottle, spilled quite half of the capsules on to the desk alongside the tumbler. He fetched a teaspoon from the kitchen and laid it by the tumbler.
Then, with a final look round to make sure he had forgotten nothing, he left the bungalow, closing the door softly behind him. He heard more cheering across the water but could not see those taking part in the sports as they were hidden from him by a small plantation of trees. Walking quickly up the garden path to join the Colonel, his eyes fell upon the spent shell of the cartridge Mason had thrown out when he fired the revolver to make sure it was in working order.
He picked it up and frowned. He hesitated whether to throw it down again or take it away with him. Finally, he put it in his pocket. A small matter, so it seemed at the moment, but in a very few hours he came to be devoutly thankful he had done it.
The two drove off together in the Colonel's car, but when in the narrow lane where Larose had left his own car, it was pulled up, and Larose turned to his companion. The Colonel was looking very white and shaky.
"Come, come," said Larose smilingly. "This will never do." He tactfully included himself in the state of anxiety. "We must both pull ourselves together and take courage. If we keep our heads we have all the best cards in our hands."
"But what on earth are we to say?" asked the Colonel. "What are we to tell my wife?"
"I'll tell her," said Larose. "You'll not have to say anything." He made a grimace. "Of course, we'll have to tell a fib or two to save her from suffering. The terror of it will overshadow all her life if she ever comes to know you shot that man." He raised his forefinger emphatically. "Now this is the story we must tell. You got there first and found he'd shot himself, and saw he must have been dead quite some little time, but I arrived almost immediately afterwards and then we both agreed we'd come away and not be mixed up in it. We're not going to say anything, but just let the milkman find him to-morrow morning. You remember Mason said he had milk delivered there every morning."
The Colonel shook his head. "She won't believe us," he sighed. "She's much too clever for that."
"She'll believe it about you," laughed Larose, "but she mayn't quite believe it about me." He nodded. "Still, that won't worry her as much as if she thought it were you."
The Colonel reached out and grasped Larose's hand. "You're a good friend to me, my boy," he said brokenly, "and I don't know what my poor little wife would have done without you." He smiled sadly. "That devil said you and she were lovers, but I'd never give it a thought. I know you both too well."
Larose laughed. "I may be pretty bad, but that's not one of my failings. I'd never blackmail any woman for her favours." He became serious. "But I say, Mason believed it and he's had an agent on to catch us. I shouldn't wonder if the man's not still in the village." He went on. "You see, he thought, too, that it was I who shot your gamekeeper. He was sure of it," and then very briefly he outlined what, in his opinion, had happened to bring Mason in to carry on the blackmail. He also told him what had passed that morning between Jean and Mason in the studio.
The effect of this last recital upon the Colonel was electrical. He pulled himself up erect, his eyes flashed fury and his white moustache seemed to literally bristle with rage. "Damn him," he cried, "I'll not have a second's more remorse that I shot the brute. I'll glory in it, and by Jove"—his face broke into a grim smile—"it'll be a pleasure now to keep out of jail for what I've done."
"But we mustn't stop here a moment longer," said Larose, "and I've got an idea." He nodded ominously. "Now, I was seen by several people when coming along in my car before I turned into this lane to meet your wife. So, if anyone gets suspicious about me it will be awkward to explain where I was going."
"Very awkward!" agreed the Colonel, looking troubled. "But what can you do?"
Larose grinned. "I think we'd better take a bold course. You said that was the village school treat upon the other side of the Broad. So you'll look in there for a few minutes as you said you would, and as you can say you told your wife you might do, and I'll follow to find you. She's just told me you may be there." His grin broadened. "Who'll ever think that men who've just taken part in an execution would visit a Sunday School treat immediately afterwards, and in the very neighbourhood of their crime, too. Come on. You go first, and I'll give you two minutes start. Mind you introduce me to the clergyman."
Ten minutes later, both the Colonel and Larose had been roped in to pronounce judgment upon the best decorated bicycle in the field, and it heartened the latter a lot to see how splendidly his co-conspirator was standing up to the strain. But they made their stay as brief as possible, and soon were upon their way back to the Hall.
Jean's heart beat like a sledgehammer as she saw the two cars arriving together, but she walked resolutely, from the shelter of the trees where she had been hiding, to meet her fate. Her face was pale and she was breathing hard. Then, to her unutterable relief, as she approached nearer to where they were both waiting for her on the gravelled drive before the house, she saw that they were smiling.
"We've got something to tell you," said Larose. "Oh, it's quite all right in its way! Let's go indoors," and acting upon the suggestion, Colonel Hilary linked his arm affectionately into that of his wife, and led the way into his study.
"Now, Mrs. Hilary, prepare yourself for a bit of a shock," said Larose very solemnly. He went straight on. "Broome Mason is dead. He committed suicide this afternoon. He shot himself with his own revolver."
In the flash of a second Jean's face went white as death. "You shot him!" she exclaimed in horror-struck tones. "You shot him to save me!" and covering her face with her hands she burst into convulsive sobs.
"Stop it, and don't talk nonsense," ordered Larose almost savagely. "I had nothing to do with it. He was dead without my having the chance to say a word to him." He shook his head frowningly at her. "See here, Mrs. Hilary, if you say things like that you may get me into dreadful trouble, for I think now he knew I was his enemy and he may have told people that. No, I swear to you I didn't kill him."
"He's speaking the truth, darling," said the Colonel feeling most distressed. "He didn't get to the bungalow until after I had seen the man lying dead upon the floor."
"But who found him?" asked Jean bewilderedly.
"I did," nodded her husband, "and Mr. Larose——"
"Came in almost at the same time," interrupted Larose quickly, wanting to keep the explaining as much as possible to himself. "I came in when your husband was standing horrified over the dead body." He spoke warningly. "But that's what no one must know. We don't want to be mixed up in it and so came away at once without telling anyone. Someone else will find the body and we shan't be dragged into it." He turned the conversation and now smiled happily. "But I have good news for you." He pointed to the Colonel. "Your splendid husband there has known your secret all along, and we needn't have worried at all about it. He overheard you telling me everything that night of the dance——" but he stopped speaking for Jean would have fallen to the floor if the Colonel had not caught her.
"She'll be all right in a minute or two," said Larose confidently, as her husband laid her on the sofa, "and the relief about you will take her mind right off that wretch's death." He nodded smilingly. "I'll go out for a little while and leave you to talk to her."
He allowed his little while to run into half an hour and when he returned he found the two seated close together upon the sofa, and the relief and happiness he saw in Jean's face brought a lump to his throat.
Directly she saw him Jean sprang up and wrung both his hands in hers. Then, to his great embarrassment, she kissed him warmly upon the cheek. "You dear man," she exclaimed, "what I owe you I can never repay!" Her voice shook. "And as for my husband, I just worship him now!"
The Colonel seemed quite his happy, genial self again. "And one thing, Mr. Larose," he said smilingly. "It is quite possible no one in the Hall except my wife knows that wretch came here this morning. It appears that, when he burst in upon Jean like a madman, Johnson, the lodgekeeper, was in the back field killing one of our pigs, and I hear all the men about the place were, apparently, out there to help him. At any rate, for a few minutes the house was minus a butler, as Meadows had got a bet on with Johnson about the weight of the pig and had ran out to see fair play."
"But who let Mason into the house?" asked Larose, and he was greatly relieved when Jean told him the solicitor had come in unannounced and, so he had said, without meeting anyone.
They pressed Larose to stay to dinner and spend the night at the Hall, and he thought it best to do so, as he wanted to be near Colonel Hilary when the news came through that the body had been found.
And the news arrived much sooner than any of them had expected. About half-past nine they were all three sitting outside upon the terrace when they saw the Rector of the village, who had been the clergyman superintending the sports on the Broad that afternoon, coming round the corner of the drive. He was walking quickly and purposefully, and curious as to what had brought him there at that time of the evening, they rose from their chairs and strolled over to meet him. His face was very grave.
"I have bad news," he said quickly. "I know Mr. Mason is a friend of yours and I have to tell you that he was found dead in his bungalow a little more than two hours ago." He nodded very solemnly. "He had shot himself with a revolver!"
The Rector was a kind and well-meaning man, but he was a fussy little chap, and just loved to have a finger in every pie. So now he swelled with the importance of his news and could not help but be gratified at the sensation he was causing. Jean felt horror-struck and looked it; her husband, faced with the first critical moment, had paled and was breathing a little quickly, and Larose looked very grave. The last spoke first and asked, "Who found it out?"
"I did," nodded the Rector impressively, "at exactly twenty-two minutes past seven. The sports and tea were over and, just before starting to come home, some of us were strolling round the Broad, four of the lady members of our committee, Mr. Noggins, my curate, and I. We came to Mr. Mason's bungalow, and my little fox-terrier, Gipsy, ran into his garden after a rabbit and wouldn't come out. I called and called, but he wouldn't come away, and so I walked into the garden to fetch him. Then, passing the house, I happened to look in through an open window; the sun was shining straight in, and to my horror I saw the body lying on the floor. I knew, instantly, he had died a violent death, as I saw the blood and revolver close near."
"What did you do?" asked Larose sharply.
The Rector was most precise. "First, I made everyone look at their watches and all their times were within a minute of mine, seven-twenty-two. Then I told them what I had seen and made Mr. Noggins look through the window, too. Then I sent Mr. Noggins to telephone for the police from Mrs. Raven's bungalow, you know hers is only about three hundred yards away. It was North Walsham he rang up, and as we had important information to give—the ladies were very brave—we all thought it our duty to stand by until the police arrived. They arrived at eight-ten and the police doctor was with them." He shuddered. "I went inside with them to see the poor man."
"And they said it was suicide?" asked Larose.
"Undoubtedly! His face was singed and discoloured by the revolver having been fired so close. The police doctor said at once it was 'felo de se', that meaning, of course, felon of himself."
"Did they look for finger-marks?" asked the Colonel hoarsely.
"Oh, yes, all their appliances were quite up-to-date. They took photographs from every possible angle before the body was touched. They've locked the room up now and the police are in possession of the cottage."
"But what was the important information you say you had to give them?" asked Larose.
The Rector became very excited. "Oh, I was forgetting, of course." He took a big swallow as if he'd talked his throat dry and spoke more precisely than ever. "You see, it happens we can be quite certain that the exact moment he shot himself was two thirty-four. Our boys in the bicycle race were all lined up, ready for the start, and I got my watch in hand to time them. Then, just as I was going to fire my pistol there came a tremendous bang from Mr. Mason's bungalow."
He paused dramatically and two at least of his audience could feel their hearts beating fast. "Yes," he went on, "we all happened to hear it plainly because it came in that moment of tense silence, when everyone was holding their breath in waiting for the firing of my pistol. There was no mistaking from which direction this bang came, and several of the boys' fathers who are old army men, said at once it was a revolver. Everyone heard it and we all remember the time."
"And, of course, you told the police surgeon about it!" said Larose, with no expression upon his face.
"At once," nodded the Rector, "and he said that would be the shot which had killed him for everything about the body pointed to death having taken place between five and six hours previously."
The good Rector went away very pleased with himself and, directly he was out of earshot, Larose asked Jean smilingly, "And now do you believe me, Mrs. Hilary, for at half-past two it can be proved I was at Holkam Bay, forty miles from here, making a speech at the launching of the new life-boat there. The time of the launching was half-past two."
"And I," laughed the Colonel gaily, "was on the Bench at North Walsham until past half-past three, in full view of half a dozen policemen, three brother magistrates, two wicked poachers, and a score and more of spectators." He chuckled happily. "So, I've got a spanking good alibi, too."
The next day Larose called, in passing, upon the friendly North Walsham sergeant of police and learnt that the police surgeon had made the post-mortem. "It was suicide, sir, right enough," he said, "although it was a little puzzling deceased had not put the muzzle closer than he did. Dr. Clover said it must have been fired eight or ten inches away and, as of course you know, suicides generally put the muzzles bang up against their foreheads or in their mouths. Dr. Clover couldn't quite make it out. Still, self-destruction was undoubtedly in the man's mind and it seems he was hesitating between shooting and poisoning himself. He'd got forty-six sleeping capsules on the desk, all ready to pop in a tumbler of water and drink off."
"And the doctor says there is no doubt about the time he shot himself?" asked Larose.
"None whatever! That fussy little parson and all the Sunday School crowd heard the fatal shot, right enough."
Colonel Hilary did not attend the inquest the next day, but Larose did and, just prior to the opening of the proceedings, the sergeant of police pointed out to him a big stout man who had 'Law' written on every line of his fine intellectual-looking face. He was standing in the corridor. "He's Harvey Nankivell, the King's Counsel," he whispered, "of the firm of Holt, Nankivell and Piker. Hell-fire Harvey, they call him in London, he's such hot-stuff."
"What's he come for?" whispered back Larose.
"I don't know," replied the sergeant, "but they say his firm's one of very high standing, and so it must be for something important. He's just been in to view the body."
Larose learnt later that it was a recent legal decision given in the House of Lords which was responsible for the barrister's appearance. It happened that four years previously Mason had borrowed £5,000 upon some house property from the barrister's cousin, and the loan was to be for five years. At the time the loan had been negotiated the lender had not been too satisfied with the security proffered and so Mason had assigned to him an insurance policy on his life for £3,000. Then, only a few weeks previously the houses had been completely destroyed by fire and it was discovered that through inadvertence, so he affirmed, Mason had let the fire assurance lapse.
Now, with the assumption that Mason had committed suicide, as had been announced in all the Thursday newspapers, the K.C.'s cousin found himself, as he considered, in an unenviable position, for the decision of the House of Lords was that, notwithstanding any agreement to the contrary, the suicide of an assured would invalidate any policy. They had decreed that no person should benefit by the felony of another.
Thus, if the verdict of the coroner's jury was now suicide, the cousin would stand to lose heavily, and it was undoubtedly to his interest that an open verdict or one of murder against some person or persons unknown should be brought in. So the lender had got Harvey Nankivell to go down, for it to be determined, without any possible doubt whatever, if Mason had actually taken his own life.
Larose regarded the K.C. with rather uneasy feelings. He looked all over a man who would take nothing for granted, and whom it would be very difficult to deceive.
The coroner was a very shrewd-looking little man. He was elderly and had had long experience as a coroner. He was noted for the expeditious way in which he got his inquests over. By profession he was a solicitor, and he lived in the neighbouring town of Aylsham.
The first witness was Mason's head clerk who formally identified the body. He also stated that he recognised the revolver produced as that belonging to the dead man.
The K.C. jumped instantly to his feet. "How can you be sure of that?" he asked sharply.
The clerk hesitated. "Well, it is a Weimar revolver and there are not too many about." He nodded. "At any rate it's exactly like his, and I've often handled it. He kept it openly in one of the pigeon-holes of his desk."
"Did he always carry it about with him?"
"No, to the best of my belief he's never taken it away with him before."
"How long's he had it?"
The clerk considered. "Somewhere about two years. He bought it just after a dissatisfied client forced his way into his room and threatened to assault him. He bought it the next day to protect himself."
"Where did he buy it?"
"I don't know. Oh, I think I remember him saying he'd got it from a gunsmith in the Strand."
The K.C. now considered it his turn. "Then I take it," he said dryly, "that, except that the revolver is of the same make the deceased had, and that to your eyes it 'looks like' the same weapon, your evidence is quite worthless. I mean there are no distinguishing marks upon the revolver to identify it from all others."
The clerk reddened. "It's got a number on it somewhere," he said defiantly. "It should have, anyhow."
"And do you know that number?" the K.C. asked.
The clerk shook his head. "Then, as I say," commented the K.C., "your evidence will convince no one," and he resumed his seat at once.
Then the Rondle Rector stepped into the box and gave an exhaustive account of his finding of the body, and of the sound of the revolver shot they had all heard earlier in the afternoon. He was most precise in his statement of the times and caused some amusement by holding up his watch to the coroner, as if that of itself were sufficient to corroborate his statements. He was followed by his curate, the Reverend Henry Noggins, the latter gentleman being so nervous that it might almost have been thought he was expecting instant arrest.
Police Sergeant Shaw of North Walsham told his story quickly and well, and handed up photographs of the body and the room in which it had lain before anything had been touched.
The K.C. had not asked a single question of either of the two clergymen and he adopted the same course with the sergeant, contenting himself with scrutinizing with an impassive face the photographs of the police photographer. When the sergeant had left the box, the K.C. asked permission of the Coroner to retain one of them for a few moments.
The finger-mark expert from Norwich was next called and stated that the only finger-marks he had found in the cottage were those of deceased himself. He showed prints of the fingers and right hand of the dead man and pointed out how they coincided with those found upon the revolver. He was not asked any questions.
Dr. Clover, the police surgeon, was the next and last witness. He was a well-dressed young fellow in the early thirties, and gave his evidence briskly and in a business-like manner. He described the injuries the dead man had received and mentioned a cut over the left eye and bruises on the knuckles of the left hand. He added that neither the cut nor the bruises had anything to do with the death of the deceased, but he mentioned them because they had occurred only a few hours before the fatal wound in the forehead. Asked by the Coroner if he was of the opinion this latter wound had been self-inflicted, he replied emphatically that everything pointed to it.
The K.C. rose at once to ask some questions. He had got the photograph he had retained, in his hand.
"May I ask how old you are, Dr. Clover?" he smiled most pleasantly. "Ah, thirty-three! And how long is it since you took your degrees? Ah, eight years! And how long have you held the position of police surgeon? Nearly two! Thank you!"
He paused a few moments and then went on silkily. "And in the course of your professional career, Dr. Clover, have you performed autopsies upon many suicides who have shot themselves in the face? Ah, you shake your head!" He smiled. "Well, have you performed even one autopsy in such circumstances?"
The doctor got red in the same way that the fingerprint expert had done. "No, I have not," he admitted, and then he added quickly, "Such cases are very rare in private practice."
The K.C. nodded as if entirely in agreement there and went on, still smiling pleasantly, "But I suppose when you were undergoing your training at the hospital you saw one or two?"
"Oh, yes, several in the course of my six years," replied the doctor. "At any rate I recall three or four."
The K.C. nodded again. "And how had these suicides shot themselves?" he asked very quietly.
"Oh, they'd either pressed the barrel of the pistol or revolver against their forehead or else put it in their mouths, and then pulled the trigger."
The K.C. was smiling more than ever. "Quite different from the method adopted by the deceased in this present instance!" he suggested. "There was no pressing against the forehead or putting the barrel in the mouth was there?"
Dr. Clover looked uncomfortable. "No, but——" he began, and then he hesitated.
"But—what?" smiled the K.C. "Let's have it?"
"Well," said the doctor a little sharply, "that he had fired the revolver himself was practically self-evident. Certainly, he had not pressed the barrel against his forehead or put it in his mouth, but it had been fired within a few inches of his face, for the skin was scorched and the eye-brows were singed."
The K.C. was very patient. "And how far away from his face," he asked, "would you say the revolver had been fired?"
"Oh, not farther than six or eight inches! It couldn't have been farther, because of the burn."
At last the smile had left the great King's Counsel's face and he looked stern and uncompromising. "And do you really think, Dr. Clover, that any man who was going to shoot himself in the forehead would wobble the revolver about, as you say, six or eight inches away? Good heavens, sir, the man's hand was almost certain to have been shaking, and his first thought would have been to steady the revolver against something hard. He wouldn't have stretched out his arm and looked at the waving revolver barrel, inches and inches away."
Dr. Clover shrugged his shoulders. "Well, he did! That is my opinion! I am certain the wound was self-inflicted!"
The K.C. bowed. "Thank you, Dr. Clover. It is nice to meet someone who is so very sure of himself." And he sat down to let the doctor know he had finished with him.
Dr. Clover left the witness box and the Coroner looked interrogatingly at the sergeant of police to ascertain if any more witnesses were going to be called. The sergeant shook his head, whereupon the Coroner asked, "Do you ask for an adjournment?"
"No," replied the sergeant, "we are satisfied."
The King's Counsel was on his feet in a flash. "But I am not, sir," he said sharply. He looked very grim. "I have seen the body and I am not convinced deceased destroyed himself. It is quite possible a clever imposition has been staged. No motive for deceased's action has been put forward and several other matters must be looked into. Therefore, I demand an adjournment and an order that the interment of the body shall not take place for forty-eight hours. I am obtaining expert advice from London."
A rustle of sensation ran round the Court, but the Coroner granting the adjournment asked for, the room emptied quickly.
"A regular mare's nest," commented the sergeant of police to Larose when they were outside. He grinned. "But I suppose that K.C. has to give his people some sort of fun for their money. Yes, a regular mare's nest I say."
Larose was not, however, quite so sure. Still, in detailing everything over to Colonel Hilary he said emphatically they were perfectly safe. "Our alibis have been ready-made for us," he smiled. "They can't get behind that revolver shot at 2.34, when we were miles and miles away. Although, of course, we had no idea of it at the time, when I picked up that spent cartridge it put us in the strongest position possible. I think that K.C. gentleman will soon be shaken off."
He was mistaken there, however, as four days later Harvey Nankivell rang up his old friend, Major Battey, the Chief Constable of Norfolk, announcing that he wanted to run down and see him the following day.
"Something very particular," he explained, "to do with the Broome Mason affair. I'm acting for a relation of mine. I hope I shan't put you out, but that's the only day I can come."
So the next day, at lunch time, found the two friends seated together in the Chief Constable's private house upon the outskirts of Norwich.
"Now, John," said the K.C. briskly, "I've come to you first, because I don't want to do anything behind your back or over your head." He frowned. "But I'm not at all satisfied with what your men here are doing and I want you to call in Scotland Yard. I don't want to approach the Yard people myself."
Major Battey smiled. "Very considerate of you, old chap. I understand you want to let me down easy."
"That's it," smiled back the K.C. "I don't want it to turn out afterwards that your crowd had been going about with their eyes shut. You heard we sent Professor Mummery to examine the body, didn't you?" He took some papers out of a small brief bag and tossed one over to his friend. "Well, his report cost us a hundred guineas, but it was quite worth it, as you will gather when you go through it. You needn't do it now, but the gist of what he says is that while it is just possible Mason might have shot himself, from the nature of the wound the probabilities are largely against his having done it."
"Oh, he says that does he?" remarked Major Battey dryly. "Well, one expert, here in Norwich, Dr. Hetherington, a police surgeon of forty years' experience, thinks just the opposite. He is quite satisfied the man shot himself. Why does old Mummery jib at felo de se?"
"He isn't old," frowned the K.C. "He's younger than you. He's only just fifty. He jibs, as you call it, for this reason. The finger-marks upon the butt of the revolver show Mason shot himself with his right hand, but the bullet wound is nearer the right side of the forehead than it should be if that were the case, and the direction the bullet took is all wrong, too. With a right hand shot, both the site of the wound and the bullet direction should favour the left side of the forehead. But they don't." He shook his head. "But we won't go into that now. We'll leave the experts to fight over it." He spoke briskly. "Now, have you found out anything yourselves, down here?"
Major Battey shook his head. "No!" he replied. He raised his eyebrows. "Is there really anything to find out?"
"A lot!" nodded Nankivell. He spoke irritably. "Don't you realise, John, that on the face of it, it looks very peculiar there should have been three violent deaths within six weeks in that same part of Norfolk, two deliberate murders that we are sure of, and one supposed suicide, all within a mile and a half of that little village of Rondle?" He enumerated with his fingers, "First, Colonel Hilary's gamekeeper; then Todhunter, the enquiry agent, and now this Broome Mason."
"The enquiry agent wasn't killed near Rondle," said the Major sharply. "Hickling Broad where his body was found is a good twelve miles away."
"But who said he was killed there?" snapped the K.C. "I put him down as a Rondle victim because the last time he was seen alive was in Rondle. It seems almost certain he slept his last night alive there."
"Most likely all coincidences," nodded the Major. "Coincidences are always cropping up."
"Well, it's no coincidence that I'm here," commented Nankivell grimly. "It's just a logical sequence to the things I've found out. Now, you listen."
He picked up another paper and went on. "Of course, as I mentioned to you over the phone, I'm only interested in the matter because of that damned silly cousin of mine having advanced money and standing to lose most of it, if it's decided that Mason took his own life." He shook his head. "Or rather that's what, first, made me interested. I'm interested now, however, because I think we're up against a devilish clever assassin who's been striking right and left"—he shrugged his shoulders—"with what motive I want the C.I.D. men to find out."
"Fire away, Harvey," said the Major rather scornfully, "you're making a fine story out of it."
"Well, when I went back to town after that inquest on Tuesday," said Nankivell, "I found out from the clerks in Mason's office that his only living relation was an aunt, an old lady in West Kensington, and I got permission from her to go through his papers. In fact she's put everything in my hands, and I've spent two whole days in his office in Theobald's Road."
He made a grimace. "Now, Mason wasn't a very reputable character, and in fact he did such a lot of shady work that I should say, from one thing and another, he earned most of his money on the borderline of crime. Now he's gone, his clerks, there are three of them, opened up quite a lot. They told me several things which, although having nothing to do with the present matter, convinced me Mason was a thorough bad egg."
"We knew that all along," commented the Chief Constable dryly. "That's no news to us."
"But it may be news to you," snapped the K.C. frowningly, "that the two murdered men, Vance and Todhunter, were both in his office just prior to their deaths. Indeed, Vance was consulting him the very morning of the night upon which he was killed."
Major Battey frowned in his turn. "I didn't know that," he said. "He didn't say anything about it at the inquest."
"No," went on Nankivell impressively, "and he didn't say he'd had a row with him and almost driven him out of the place. He didn't say they had both been shouting at each other and that the clerks had heard the word blackmail used. He didn't go to the inquest upon Todhunter, either, and tell the Coroner then that he'd been employing the enquiry agent upon his dirty work for years and years, that he was his main stand-by whenever evidence had to be cooked to get divorces for people who were prepared to pay through the nose, and therefore that he was, probably, now himself in the clutches of the little rat. No, he kept dark about all those things, but I'm convinced that in one way or another they were to lead up to the revolver shot in the bungalow that Saturday afternoon."
A short silence followed and then Major Battey asked thoughtfully, "But what makes you think, what real evidence have you that Mason was murdered and did not commit suicide?"
"I'm coming to that," nodded the K.C. "I was only preparing you for it by making you realise that Mason worked and lived"—he spoke very solemnly—"in an atmosphere of blackmail."
He went on. "Now I came upon some very mysterious reports among the papers in his desk and, in the main, it is they which have brought me here to-day. Here is the first one," and he unfolded one of the sheets of paper he had all the while been holding in his hand. "This is one which was drawn up by that Todhunter man, when it appears he had been commissioned by Mason to find out all he could about a Miss Jean Madeline Castle before she became Mrs. Basil Hilary, the wife of——"
"Good Heavens!" exclaimed Major Battey incredulously, "before she became the wife of our Colonel Hilary, our Colonel Hilary of Rondle Hall here."
"The same," nodded Nankivell, "and he went down to Chudleigh in Devonshire where Mrs. Hilary had been born, and had lived until she was eighteen. Then he traced her to an Art School in Chelsea, and collected every scrap of tittle-tattle about her that he could up to the time of her marriage."
"Very extraordinary!" exclaimed the Major. "What did it mean?"
"I don't know," frowned the K.C., "but mark you, this Todhunter was sent upon this investigation immediately after three things had happened. The first, Colonel Hilary's gamekeeper had had that stormy interview with Mason; the second, the gamekeeper had been murdered, and the third, Mason had been present at the inquest and to account for his presence there had lied that he was acting on behalf of the dead man's relatives."
"And wasn't he?" queried the Major.
Nankivell shook his head emphatically. "No, he was not. He went down entirely for his own purpose and what that purpose was I'd very much like to know." He held up some other papers. "And here are reports from another enquiry agent which make things look more mysterious than ever. I've interviewed this man. He happened to come to the office when I was there. He's called Turnbull and he wanted to know who, now Mason was dead, was going to pay him for three weeks of enquiry into the relations existing between Mrs. Hilary and"—he paused dramatically—"Mr. Gilbert Larose of Carmel Abbey."
Another silence followed, for the Chief Constable was really too astounded to make any comment. "You know Larose, of course," asked the K.C. at length.
"Of course, I do," nodded the Major quickly. "He's a great friend of mine."
"Friend or no friend of yours," said the K.C. dryly, "Mason seemed to think he was his enemy, for this enquiry agent was told particularly to find out if Larose habitually carried fire-arms about with him. Incidentally, the man found that he did." He spoke testily. "You can't get away from it, John, that, in those last days before he died, Mason was thinking some danger threatened him and therefore had kept that revolver by him. Why else should he have departed from his usual habits and have had the revolver with him in the bungalow?"
But the Major did not answer his question. "You say the man had been sent up there to watch Larose and Mrs. Hilary?" he asked. He shook his head angrily. "But they're neither of them that type of person! I'd stake my life upon it."
The K.C. shrugged his shoulders. "Well, Mason didn't think so, or he wouldn't have set the man on to watch them."
"But what's that to do with Mason's death," asked the Major, "even if they have been guilty lovers?"
Nankivell spoke firmly and impressively. "I suggest that Mason was preparing to blackmail them and that Larose found it out and killed him." He spoke quickly. "Mind you, I'd never seen this Larose until he was pointed out to me at the inquest, but I've heard a lot about him and I gather he's the kind of man who would stand no nonsense from anyone. He'd take the law into his own hands as soon as look at you!"
"That may be," conceded the Major dryly, "but you haven't the slightest evidence that he did."
"I know that," admitted the K.C. readily, "but there are a lot of suspicious things about this whole business which must be cleared up." He unwrapped a small snapshot from an envelope and held it out. "Now you just explain this. It's one this second agent, Turnbull, took of Larose and the first agent, Todhunter, talking earnestly together in a by-lane adjoining the Hilary estate. I recognised Larose myself, and they told me in Mason's office who the other man was. It was taken on the Tuesday before the Saturday when Todhunter disappeared and was, we may certainly presume, murdered. Mason got it on the Thursday afternoon and within a few minutes was ringing up Todhunter's office to learn where he could get in touch with him."
"Well, what explanation is needed there?" grunted the Major testily.
"A very important one," retorted Nankivell sharply, "why, learning Larose and Todhunter had been hobnobbing together, Mason was spurred into instant action to get speech with Todhunter himself. Wasn't he afraid of what disclosures the man might be making to Larose about the recent enquiries Mason had commissioned him to make about Mrs. Hilary before she married the Colonel? If you read the accompanying report you will see that Turnbull thinks there that Todhunter is shadowing him. Oh, by the by, at the inquest upon Todhunter did Larose come forward with any information about him? Did he say he knew him?"
Major Battey frowned. "No, why should he have done?"
"He should have told the Coroner what Todhunter was doing in the village. It can't be supposed he didn't know. Are you quite sure he didn't come forward and say anything?"
"Quite! I was there at the inquest myself."
"Was Larose present?"
"Yes, I passed the time of day to him, but that was all."
"Had you attended the inquest upon Colonel Hilary's gamekeeper, too?"
"No, I was busy that day and couldn't go. Where possible, I attend all homicidal cases in my county. As you know, it is one of my duties."
Nankivell frowned. "Well, are you able to tell me if Larose was there that morning?"
The Major considered. "Yes, I think he was. I remember our Inspector Tomlinson mentioning it when he was reporting to me. Larose happened to be staying with the Hilarys. He's a great friend of theirs."
"Exactly," commented the K.C. dryly, "particularly so of Mrs. Hilary, as Mason thought." He raised his voice. "Good gracious, man, doesn't it strike you as funny that Larose should have attended all those three inquests? Why should they have interested him?"
A long silence followed and then the K.C. asked casually, "Well, John, what are you going to do?"
The Chief Constable rose from his chair and pushed a bell. "Stand you a drink, first," he smiled. He nodded. "Yes, Harvey, I'll have in the C.I.D. men, although I think it damned silly nonsense, myself. I'll ring up the Chief Commissioner to-night. Leave me all those reports and we'll see what we can do."
So it came about that the following day soon after noon, Inspectors Skewes and Mendel of Scotland Yard were refreshing themselves with a good lunch in the Norwich Castle Hotel, just prior to interviewing the Chief Constable of Norfolk. They had both admired the scenery coming down, but had thought motoring in the country hungry and thirsty work.
INSPECTOR THOMAS SKEWES of the C.I.D. was a tough, hard-bitten man of forty-seven who had worked his way up to his inspectorship by sheer bull-dog grit. Stern-faced, with cold and searching eyes, as a general rule he had very little to say for himself, but he was very thorough in his work and, when engaged upon any investigation, let little escape him.
Inspector Isaac Mendel, a son of Israel, as his names implied, and one of the youngest inspectors attached to the Criminal Investigation Department—he was only thirty-two—had, however, been cast in a very different mould.
Born in an East End London slum, he was nevertheless refined-looking, with the eyes and forehead of the dreamer. He owed his high position for one so young to his lively imagination and remarkable powers of deduction. Well-read, too, in the annals of Crime, he was continually drawing upon that knowledge for inspiration, and not a few of his successes had been achieved that way.
Such then were the two representatives of Scotland Yard who proceeded to interview the Chief Constable of Norfolk at the appointed hour of one o'clock that afternoon.
Major Battey gave them, briefly, but quite exhaustively enough, an account of all the happenings in connection with Broome Mason's death. Then he harked back to the murder of Colonel Hilary's gamekeeper and explained how, apparently, the solicitor had come to take an interest there; adding, however, that it was not known why Mason had stated falsely that he had been sent down to the inquest by certain relations of the dead man. Then the Chief Constable referred to the murder of Todhunter, the enquiry agent, because Mason had been well acquainted with the man and yet, upon the latter's mysterious disappearance, exactly a fortnight before the finding of his dead body, had not come forward to help the police in any way. This was the more remarkable because the two had had business relations together, extending over many years, and, upon the actual day when the murdered man had last been seen alive, had been staying within a mile of each other.
Inspector Skewes interrupted here to ask if the fact of their acquaintanceship became known before the solicitor's death, and Major Battey told him it had not, and that Mr. Harvey Nankivell the King's Counsel had learnt it later at the solicitor's office when he was going through the latter's papers. He outlined to them some of the other discoveries the K.C. had made, and some of the deductions the barrister had drawn from them. Then the reports of the second enquiry agent, Turnbull, were handed over and the two inspectors glanced covertly at one another when, with their heads close together, they came upon the name of Gilbert Larose.
"Either of you know Mr. Larose?" queried the Chief Constable sharply.
Inspector Skewes nodded. "I remember him well, sir, when he was at the Yard," he said. "He was quite a genius in his way." He smiled a cold, grim smile. "Inspector Mendel, here, thinks him the best officer the C.I.D. ever had."
"And here's the report of Professor Mummery," said Major Battey, "but you can go through that at your leisure. Now, I'll pass you over to our men who had charge of all these cases."
The two inspectors were conducted to the scenes of the three tragedies, with the Norwich detectives, although a little nettled at the Yard being called in, giving them all the information they could. That night they put up at a hotel in North Walsham, and the following morning, at their own request, were left to weigh up all the information they had received and pursue any further investigations they thought necessary, on their own.
The early afternoon found them in earnest conversation together in the bungalow. The key had been handed over to them and they had been told they would find everything exactly as it had been after the body had been removed.
They had gone through the place minutely and thought they had discovered one thing which the Norwich detectives had certainly overlooked. When Mason had discarded his ink-spotted clothes, his jacket, waistcoat, trousers and shirt, he had thrown them down in a little heap in a corner of the bedroom, along with a handkerchief which was stained with blood as well as ink. The handkerchief was the one he had used to staunch the bleeding from the cut over his eye-brow, when standing before the mirror in Jean's studio.
The Norwich detectives had examined the clothes and, noticing that the pockets had all been emptied of their contents, had left it at that. They had not thought to examine the linings of the pockets. Mendel, however, had turned the linings inside out and had at once seen that of one of the side pockets of the jacket showed smears of both blood and ink.
He had nodded significantly to his companion. "And that makes it quite certain, Tom," he said, "that this Mason did not get his cut and the mess-up with the ink in this bungalow. That he did not get the ink spilt over his clothes here was already pretty certain, as there were no spots of ink anywhere about in these rooms, and now we can be equally as sure about the cut."
"How do you make that out?" frowned Skewes.
Mendel held up the handkerchief. "The blood and the ink were both wet at the same time. See how they've run into each other in the same places, as well as there being undiluted ink-spots and blood spots in others." He nodded. "So it's quite clear what happened. He was in some other house when, in some unusual way, he cut himself on a broken ink-bottle. He wiped away the blood and the ink with the handkerchief and then put it in his pocket to bring home here." He stressed his point. "If he had soiled the handkerchief in the bungalow, would he have put the dirty rag in his pocket to mess up the lining too?"
"I suppose not," agreed Skewes. He nodded in his turn. "And now we must find out where he spilt that ink and got that cut. Then if he did shoot himself we may get some idea of why he did it. The surgeon said the cut was only a few hours old when he died, and that would mean he got it that same morning. It shouldn't be difficult to find out where he was."
"One thing stands out clearly," commented Mendel. "If it was a case of suicide, then his decision to destroy himself was a very hasty one, for certainly he had no thought of doing it when the man with the milk called that morning. Remember—he bought a fowl from that milkman then, and ordered another one for Sunday."
Skewes agreed again, and then went on thoughtfully, "And I suppose you think as that K.C. did and as I do, too, that these three cases are all mixed up with one another?"
"Of course, I do," smiled Mendel. "They are a sequence of crimes. Without the first, there wouldn't have been the second, and without the second there wouldn't have been the third." He shook his head. "But one difficulty, Tom, will be to find out if the sequence was ended with Mason's death. Did he shoot himself, or is it our job now to find the man who did? Of course, the whole business started with blackmail!"
"Whose?" queried Skewes dryly. "And don't forget we've got to be sure of it, first."
"We are sure," retorted Mendel instantly. "Doesn't that sergeant at North Walsham say that for weeks and weeks the gamekeeper had been spending money freely in the town, much more than the £2 Colonel Hilary paid him? Well, what can that mean but that the party he'd blackmailed had parted with the dough? Oh, make no mistake about that! Vance was a successful blackmailer until"—he shook his upraised finger at his colleague—"probably like all blackmailers he got greedy and wanted more than his victim could pay. Then—then the worm turned and the wretch got his deserts."
"Good for you, Isaac!" smiled Skewes. "Quite a brainy deduction! So now we must start off to find someone in the neighbourhood who could afford to pay out, say at least a pound or two a week. That'll mean it will be a man in a more or less good position, probably earning eight or ten pounds a week."
Mendel shook his head. "It mayn't be a man at all. It may be a woman for all we know, and I'd like to find out the reason why Mason had all those enquiries made about young Mrs. Hilary, in her maiden days. They, certainly, meant something, and almost as if he wanted to verify several facts he'd already learnt about her."
"Or been told," supplemented Skewes, he nodded significantly, "by that man, Vance, at whom he shouted the word blackmail."
Mendel snapped his fingers together. "Oh, how easily we can fit the pieces of the puzzle together, if only we let our imaginations go a bit. The party the gamekeeper was blackmailing and getting the money from was Mrs. Hilary. For some reason, Vance disclosed the secret to Mason, and Mason was waiting for him in the wood that night and shot him. He shot him because he wanted to be the only person in the possession of the secret. Then Mason started on the blackmail himself, and he got shot in his turn." He grinned. "Very simple, isn't it?"
"Very!" agreed Skewes dryly. "At any rate, we'll concentrate on that woman and see if we can get anything out of her. But, first, we'll go on with this supposed suicide. We'll find out who were Mason's friends about here, and so in whose house he is likely to have been that morning of his death. The constable in the village here will be the one to ask."
They soon learnt, however, that the constable could tell them very little. He had never seen or heard of Mason before the day of the inquest upon the gamekeeper, and the solicitor had been renting his bungalow for only a few weeks. "As far as I know," he said, "his only friends were Colonel and Mrs. Hilary up at the Hall. He used to be up there quite a lot and, I understand, always on the Sunday afternoons."
"Was he an old friend of theirs?" asked Skewes.
"Oh, no, I saw Sergeant Shaw take him up to the Colonel and introduce him, just before the inquest on Vance was opened. The Colonel was with Mr. Larose."
"Then you know Mr. Larose?" asked Skewes.
"Quite well! He was busy here, both about Vance's murder and that of Todhunter, too."
"But what had he to do with them?"
"As a friend of the family, I think Colonel Hilary rang him up when the gamekeeper was killed and asked him to come over and help."
"But with that other man, Todhunter," asked Skewes, "why was he interested there?"
The constable hesitated. "He's interested in all crime," he said slowly, "and—oh, I know. He knew him. I saw them smile at each other as Mr. Larose was passing through the village one day in his car." He nodded. "But if you want to know more about Mr. Mason's friends, ask Hallett, who's got the Hilary Arms there. He hears all the gossip from everywhere, over the bar."
The inspectors, however, could find out nothing more about Mason from the innkeeper, and all they could learn further about Todhunter and Larose was that the enquiry agent had once said the latter was a very nice fellow.
"Well, Isaac, we learnt something there," nodded Skewes significantly as they drove away, "and at all events it gives us an opening to question Larose. Don't forget that, from those reports of Turnbull, Mason was hard upon Larose's tracks."
"I don't forget it," nodded back Mendel. He smiled. "If Mason's death was homicide and not suicide, then Gilbert Larose, Esquire, comes definitely into the picture." He glanced round quickly at his colleague as they were driving along. "But what about these Hilary friends of Mason's. I vote we take the bull by the horns and go straightaway and question them," and Skewes signed to him that he was agreeable.
Turning into the Hall grounds, they saw a man weeding in the little garden of the lodge. They pulled up and hailed him. He stamped towards them with a wooden leg.
"You the lodgekeeper here?" asked Skewes. "Well, we're police officers from Scotland Yard enquiring into the death of that Mr. Mason. You knew him? Then when was he here last?"
"Sunday week," replied the man promptly, "the Sunday before he shot himself."
"How do you remember?" asked Skewes.
"Because I opened the gates for him and let him in and let him out again, later. The gates are always kept closed on Sundays, because holiday bicyclists and strangers come in and pick the flowers."
"Is that the only day they're kept shut?"
"No, on Thursdays as well, because that's North Walsham market day and passing cattle and sheep would get in."
"I think you've made a mistake about the last time Mr. Mason came," broke in Mendel very politely. "We understood he came on the Wednesday morning."
The man shook his head. "No, sir, he didn't. Seeing he shot himself that afternoon, if he had come here in the morning I should have been certain to remember it. I'm always here and I'm sure his car didn't pass. I couldn't possibly have missed it both ways."
"But he may have walked!" suggested Mendel.
The man nodded. "Ah, then I shouldn't have seen him! He might have walked through the woods. I thought you meant he came in his car." His face broke into a smile. "But I don't think he'd have walked, sir. I've heard he was inclined to be gouty and, besides, city gents won't walk a hundred yards. It's all trams, buses or cars for them. I've never heard of him walking before."
"Not too hopeful," grunted Skewes, as they drove towards the Hall. "Still, we'll try how a quick snappy question will answer with the good-looking young wife."
The butler answered the door, but, when they asked for Colonel or Mrs. Hilary, shook his head and said he was very sorry they were both out. "They've gone to Town," he explained "and I'm not quite certain when they will be back. It may, however, be to-morrow. Who shall I say called?"
Skewes told him, and then rapped out quickly, "When did Mr. Mason last come here?"
The butler was equally as prompt as the lodgekeeper. "On the Sunday afternoon, sir," was his reply, given without the slightest hesitation.
"Think again," snapped Skewes. "He was here on the Wednesday."
The butler was puzzled at the sharp way the question had been put. "On the day he died, sir?" he asked. "Oh, no, sir, he wasn't. He came on the Sunday afternoon and that was the last we saw of him."
"But he may have come when you didn't answer the door?" persisted Skewes.
"Not likely, sir, I'm on duty and always handy to answer the bell until three o'clock and then Edith, the head parlourmaid, takes over. The door is always kept shut and she and I are the only ones who attend to it."
Skewes nodded in the direction of a maid who was arranging the chairs at the other end of the hall. "Is she the head parlourmaid?" he asked.
The butler looked very amused. "Oh, no, sir! She's only one of the under-housemaids and has nothing to do with the door. She's only been with us a fortnight, too, or she wouldn't be banging things about as she's doing now." He shook his head. "New girls take a lot of training."
"Well, send the parlourmaid to us," said Skewes. "No, don't you go to fetch her. Send that girl for her." He smiled. "Then we shall know you've not been prompting her what to say."
The inspectors understood the butler's amusement when the head parlourmaid appeared. She was a smart and good-looking girl, very dignified and with all her wits about her. She corroborated what the butler had said, eyeing Inspector Skewes rather coldly, however, not altogether liking the fatherly manner he was trying to assume.
Then Skewes asked very sharply, "And where was Mr. Mason when he spilt that ink here on his clothes on Sunday?"
The parlourmaid looked puzzled and, not answering his question, he had to repeat it. "I don't know what you mean," she said. She shook her head. "I didn't hear anyone say anything about it."
"But a bottle of ink was broken here on that Sunday or Wednesday," persisted the inspector, in a tone even sharper than before.
The girl was still puzzled and looked at the butler for some explanation, but the latter, who was evidently as puzzled as she was, only shrugged his shoulders. She turned back to Skewes. "If it was," she said tartly, "I know nothing about it," and then and then only she remembered having seen her mistress wiping up some spots of ink upon the studio hearth-rug one morning. Her face broke into a half-smile as she realised she had unwittingly been fibbing to the rude man before her.
"Now back to the city," grunted Skewes as they drove away. "It was disappointing here, but we may learn a lot from those clerks in Mason's office. Depend upon it, with a crook master like they had, they'll all be tumbling over one another to tell us all they can now he's gone."
Larose heard about the visit of the inspectors to the Hall, over the phone from Colonel Hilary when the latter and Jean returned home from Town the following afternoon, and he was not surprised. He remembered Skewes as a smart officer when he himself was at the Yard, and he knew Mendel enjoyed the reputation of being a man of vision and imagination. He had been fearing they would find Todhunter's reports about Jean among the solicitor's papers, and realised their curiosity as to what they meant would be quite natural. He felt confident, however, that they would lead them nowhere. Still their questions to the parlourmaid about the spilling of the ink made him feel a little bit uneasy, as he could not understand how they had come to make their deductions there.
Motoring over to the Hall the next day, he stopped on the way at North Walsham and had another chat with the friendly sergeant of police. As with the Norwich detectives, the sergeant had been rather annoyed that the Yard had been called in, considering it a reflection upon the capacity of the Norfolk and local police. He was inclined to belittle the C.I.D. inspectors.
"After they had heard what we had to say," he growled, "they shunted us quick and lively and asked to be left to themselves. They took the key of the bungalow and shut themselves up there. Then they went to the Rondle constable, so he phoned me the day before yesterday, and wanted to find out who were Mr. Mason's friends about here." He grinned. "And they asked a lot about you, sir. They were curious why you attended all the inquests."
"Oh, they were, were they?" smiled Larose. "They're casting their net pretty wide, anyhow."
The sergeant frowned. "But there's one thing I forgot to tell them. I didn't say anything of those bullets Mr. Mason and I found in that gamekeeper's cottage." He shook his head. "But I shan't mention it now, as it had nothing to do with Mr. Mason destroying himself."
Larose passed the matter over with no comment, and the sergeant went on, "Oh, and didn't that Norwich expert, Dr. Hetherington, kick up about those sleeping capsules! He said Nembutal was a most deadly kidney poison if too much was taken, and that no doctor in his senses should give anyone a big bottleful like Mr. Mason had. A few at a time were all he should have prescribed, as they were depressing enough to make anyone commit suicide."
Larose pricked up his ears. "Oh, that's what he said, was it?"
The sergeant nodded. "Yes, and from having so many capsules of such strong medicine in his possession, I think it looks as if he knew he was subject to bouts of fits or excitement, and had to dope himself to keep them under."
"Have they found out who his doctor was?" asked Larose.
The sergeant shook his head. "I don't know, but I noticed the chemist's name on the bottle of capsules was Black, of Earl's Court Road, and the number of the prescription was 1313." He grinned again. "I thought the name and number were most appropriate. A good tip for what was going to happen."
Arriving at the Hall, Colonel Hilary told Larose with a wry face that a phone call from Inspector Skewes had just come through from London asking if he and Jean had returned home yet. "I went to speak to him myself," he said, "and he asked if he could come and have a talk with us this afternoon at four o'clock."
"And you said yes, of course," said Larose quickly. "That's right!" he went on. "I was afraid you'd have to face the music, sometime, and the sooner you get it over the better." He smiled. "I'll have to face it, too, because I hear they've been inquiring about me, and it couldn't be better that we face it all together." His face hardened. "I promise you they shan't play any tricks with your wife when I'm here. I'll take care of that."
The Colonel looked very relieved. "We shan't mind half so much if you're with us." He heaved a big sigh. "But we must arrange exactly what we're going to say."
"Of course, we must," agreed Larose emphatically. "We must have everything cut and dried."
So, seated in Jean's little room, Larose outlined to them something of what he thought would happen.
"It isn't you they want, Colonel," he said. "They won't probably ask you a single question. It's your wife they will be after." He smiled reassuringly at the pale-faced Jean. "But just remember, Mrs. Hilary, their questions won't be at all formidable if you face everything straightaway from the very beginning with a bold front. The first question, I expect, will be the worst, for if they want to drag you in it can only be to ask you about that gamekeeper."
"The gamekeeper!" exclaimed Jean, with horrified eyes. "What can they possibly have found out about him?"
"Nothing," replied Larose emphatically, "nothing definite at all, only"—he nodded—"they'll be guessing a good deal. You see, by now they've been up to Mason's office and it's almost certain they've found among his papers those reports about you. Oh, no, don't look so worried, for I don't suppose for a moment they've learnt anything of your first marriage. As I look at it, the inquiry agent Mason sent to Paris would not have made any report at all. He came back with the marriage certificate within a few hours and there would have been no need or time for him to have to put anything in writing."
"And we brought that certificate away from the bungalow," supplemented the Colonel, "as well as the birth one from Sutton Coldfield, so it's not likely they'll know anything about them."
"That's what I think," went on Larose, "so you can be happy that part of the story will not be brought up again. It's the information that Todhunter got about you in Devonshire which will have been found among Mason's papers and, of course, it'll have made the inspectors very curious at once. They would have known, already, Mason's interest in the Colonel's gamekeeper and now, learning of his interest in the Colonel's wife, they will, of course, be most anxious to find out if there is any connection between the two interests." He nodded. "We must realise their curiosity is quite understandable."
"It's very unpleasant for me," sighed Jean.
"Yes, but you're the only one they can ask," said Larose. "The other two persons mixed up in this mystery, Vance and Mason, are both dead."
"And what do you think they suspect?" sighed Jean again.
"Unhappily, the truth," replied Larose. "The police have known all along that Vance was getting extra money from somewhere and now, with Mason taking all that trouble to go into your private life, they'll be thinking there is some secret about you to be found out, some secret which Vance knew and was trading upon."
Jean shivered and held tight to her husband's hand. Larose, however, smiled reassuringly. "That's the bad side of the ledger," he went on. "The good side is that unless they can prove definitely that Mason did not take his own life, they really haven't the slightest justification for coming to question you. If you were paying blackmail, you were the injured party. You were doing nothing unlawful, and you can keep your mouth shut if you want to."
"Then should I refuse to answer any questions?" asked Jean plaintively.
"Oh, no," exclaimed Larose, "meet them boldly, as if you'd got nothing to hide." He nodded impressively. "You may have to tell them a bit of a fib at the beginning, but then the rest will be quite easy. Mind you, you're quite justified in telling a story. You are defending your own honour and every woman is entitled to go to any lengths to do that." He smiled. "I'm sure if the strictest moralist knew all the circumstances he would say that a downright thumping lie would be quite allowable."
"But what do you think they'll ask me," said Jean.
Larose considered. "Well, I expect the elder of the two, Inspector Skewes, will be the spokesman and he'll commence with some apology for troubling you. Then he may ask point-blank if you'd been the one who'd been giving your gamekeeper money." He smiled. "If he does, you will frown and say, 'What do you mean?' You understand—make him repeat any direct question he asks, and then give an indignant denial. Then I'll break in with some question and take him off you for a moment. That'll give you time to become confident, as you realise he's not going to be the one to do all the talking." He laughed. "Just look upon it as a game, and a bit of play-acting, and it will thrill you to see how well you can act."
Jean was certainly somewhat reassured by Larose's confidence, but for all that it was with a quickly beating heart she rose up to face the two inspectors, later that afternoon, as they entered Colonel Hilary's study where the talk was to take place. The Colonel was looking very grave and solemn, but Larose was bright and smiling.
Now how it had come about that the C.I.D. men had returned so quickly to Rondle Hall had happened in this way.
Harvey Nankivell, with the consent of Mason's aunt, had arranged that another solicitor should take over the dead man's practice and, at any rate for the time being, retain the latter's three clerks. So, except that his own private office had been locked up, the inspectors had found everything just as it had been in Mason's time, when they arrived in Theobald's Road.
Then, in one of the locked drawers of his desk, they had come upon the large photograph of Jean Hilary which Mason had cut from the Sphere and pasted upon a piece of thick cardboard. There was no name upon it to say whose photograph it was, and it had been wrapped carefully in a large sheet of white paper to keep it perfectly clean.
"One of his women, I suppose!" had grunted Skewes. "Certainly not bad-looking! Wonder where he got it from?"
Mendel looked over his shoulder and whistled. "Not bad-looking!" he ejaculated. "Why, it's a most lovely face!" and taking it from his colleague's hand, he stared at it so intently and for so long that Skewes at last remarked testily, "Put it down, man. It's only paper. It's not flesh and blood."
"I wish it were!" sighed Mendel. He smiled wistfully. "Then I should know what to do if you weren't here and she and I were alone."
But at that moment one of the clerks brought in some matches he'd been sent to fetch and, holding up the photograph, Mendel asked carelessly, "Do you know anything about this?"
The clerk grinned. He happened to be the one from Norfolk whom Mason had questioned about the Hilarys.
"Yes, I got it for him," he said. "It came out of the Sphere one day last month. It's young Mrs. Hilary from where you've just come from. Didn't you see her down there?"
"She didn't give it to him?" frowned Skewes, not replying to his question.
"No, he didn't know anything about her when that came out, but on the morning we saw in the newspapers about Colonel Hilary's gamekeeper having been murdered, he called me in to ask all about the family. He knew I came from Norfolk. I told him the young wife's photo had been in the Sphere and he sent me out to get it." The clerk grinned again. "He seemed fair mazed about it and kept it propped up in front of him all day long. Then later in the week he sent me up to Valerie's, the photographers in Bond Street, to buy one of the original photographs. I was to pay whatever they asked, but they wouldn't sell one without her permission. He was awfully riled about it."
When the clerk had left the room Mendel said very solemnly, "Tom, this photo's the biggest find we're likely to get here. Don't you see, Mason fell for that girl directly he saw her face, and it was because of her he interested himself in the gamekeeper's death and went down to attend the inquest, making out he'd been fee-ed to do so. Then——"
"You're wrong," broke in Skewes. "He showed he was interested in the murder directly he came into the office that morning, because he sent for that Norfolk clerk to question him."
"But my point is," retorted Mendel, "that he'd heard of the girl before he saw her photograph. He was interested in her directly he heard of the murder because of something Vance had told him about her and, perhaps, began wondering at once if the man's death had had anything to do with that particular knowledge he had got hold of."
"How do you know Vance told him anything about her?" asked Skewes irritably. "How do you know he ever mentioned her name?"
"But he must have done," insisted Mendel, "for, otherwise, why should Mason, directly he got back from the inquest, have started to find out everything he could about her early life before she married the Colonel? He must have had an object in setting that inquiry agent upon her and sending him all that way down into Devonshire. No, I believe that the moment he became so taken with the girl's photograph, then something Vance had told him about her made him think"—he hesitated—"made him think——"
"What?" asked Skewes sharply. "Go on, man. What did it make him think?"
Mendel frowned. "That he could put the screw on her," he replied reluctantly, "and, if he wanted to, make her take him for her lover." He went on quickly. "No, the idea isn't far-fetched. Mason was just reaching that time of life when, so I've read, a man's interest in women, instead of beginning to die down, as Nature intended it should, becomes a sort of disease, a sort of mania with him." He pointed to the photograph of Jean upon the desk. "Just take in the significance of it. A man getting on towards fifty, upon seeing a photograph of a strange girl in a magazine, so loses his mental balance that he props it up before him on his desk and keeps looking at it all day long. His clerk says he was 'mazed' about it." He shrugged his shoulders. "Anything might follow after that!"
"Then you want to make out," commented Skewes thoughtfully, "that Vance had told him some scandal about the girl when he came up here, two mornings before."
"That's it," said Mendel, "and Mason was believing it gave him a deadly hold upon her."
"But why should Vance have come up to tell him anything?" frowned Skewes. "How did Vance think he was going to benefit himself by admitting he was that vilest of all criminals—a blackmailer?"
Mendel shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. I haven't the remotest idea. I can't fill in all the blanks. I am only suggesting a good working theory."
Skewes considered. "Then if Vance knew some secret about the girl, perhaps he'd been capitalising it already, and making her give him money. That would explain how for many weeks it had been noticed he was able to spend so much more than the wages he was earning." His face brightened. "A-ah, and that would explain the taunt about blackmail the clerks heard Mason shouting here that morning!" He shook his head. "But even if you've hit the nail on the head there, how does it explain any of the violent deaths round about Rondle Hall?" He went on rather sarcastically: "Do you think this Hilary woman killed Vance because he was blackmailing her, that Mason killed Todhunter because the man had learnt too much and then that Mason met his death"—he hesitated—"why?"
"I can't answer," replied Mendel. "All I think is that, if we can get this Jean Hilary to speak, we shall know a great deal more than we do now."
"If!" nodded Skewes darkly. "And if, again, she's mixed up in it in any way, then Larose, being such a close friend of hers, of course he's mixed up in it, too. He's in it up to the very hilt."
A short silence followed and then Mendel said slowly, "It seems incredible, but I'm almost beginning to wonder if these three deaths were not all the work of Larose. No, no, it's not as far-fetched as it seems. We suspect one of the dead men, the gamekeeper, to have been blackmailing the girl and we have certain proof that the other two were in some way working against her, one in collecting evidence and the other paying for the evidence to be collected, so what is more natural than that, as her intimate friend, Larose should have been the one to come forward to defend her?"
"Good!" exclaimed Skewes, after a few moments' thought. "Then we'll get to work on that line, and, to start off with, we'll find out exactly where Larose was when Mason was shot with his own revolver. That'll be easy, because we know the exact time there."
"Oh, it'll be easy, will it?" laughed Mendel. He shook his head. "I don't think so, for if Larose himself chose the exact time for that shooting, then depend upon it he'll be all provided with a cast-iron alibi. Yes, if it was all planned beforehand, he will have taken care to make himself safe." He frowned. "Still, the first thing we'll go and see that parson who heard the shot fired. No one seems to have questioned that it was that shot which killed him and yet they may all have been quite wrong."
"Well, it's no good wasting any more time here," said Skewes, "so I'll ring up Rondle Hall and see if Mrs. Hilary can speak to us this afternoon."
The reply, as we have learnt, was satisfactory, and in a few minutes the two inspectors were speeding eastward in their car. Arriving at Rondle village, they were fortunate in catching the Rector at home. He was very pleased to see them and repeated everything he had said at the inquest, with a wealth of detail. He was positive as to the exact time they had all heard the shot, and that it had come from the direction of the bungalow. He was certain, too, that if a similar shot had been fired again from the bungalow, all in the field must have heard it. They couldn't have helped hearing it, it was so loud.
"Of course, when we found Mr. Mason had shot himself," he went on, "it was a terrible shock to us all. I hated having to go up and tell Colonel Hilary and Mr. Larose."
The two inspectors pricked up their ears at the mention of Larose, and Skewes asked instantly, "But when did you tell Mr. Larose? Was he in the neighbourhood at the time?"
"Oh, yes, he'd come to our sports that afternoon with Colonel Hilary. They judged the decorated bicycles."
Skewes and Mendel did not dare to look at each other. "And did Mr. Larose hear that revolver shot, too?" asked the former carelessly.
"No, he wasn't with us then. He didn't come until late in the afternoon, it must have been getting on for five o'clock."
"And he came with the Colonel, you say?" asked Skewes, with a little frown of disappointment.
"No, he didn't come with Colonel Hilary. They both came in their own cars, but arrived within a minute or so of each other."
"Are you sure it was as late as you say?"
"Certain! The decorated bicycle parade was one of the late items on the programme, and we didn't finish until nearly half past five."
"Gosh," exclaimed Skewes when they were back in their car again, "but it looks darned suspicious about Larose! Now if we can only get this girl on her own we may get anything out of her."
When, however, they were ushered into the Colonel's study in Rondle Hall and saw Jean Hilary standing between her husband and Larose their hopes fell to zero.
"Damn," swore the disgusted Skewes under his breath, "she'll be all primed up what to say and we shan't get a word of truth out of her!"
Larose came forward at once and smilingly introduced the senior inspector to the Colonel and Jean. Skewes made known whom Mendel was, and the latter thought with a pang that the girl had an even more lovely face than the photograph had shown. The idea of putting her upon the rack at once seemed little short of a crime to him.
"At your service, gentlemen," said Colonel Hilary pleasantly. "Sit down, will you. Now how can we help you?"
Skewes cleared his throat and spoke in a sharp and business-like way, making no preamble and coming straight to the point at once. "We've been through the late Mr. Mason's papers," he said, "and, from certain documents there are of opinion"—he nodded towards Jean—"this lady can give us some very important information if she will."
Jean looked as frightened as he had expected she would, and moistened her lips with her tongue. For all that, however, her voice was steady as she asked incredulously, "I—give you information? What about?"
"Several things, Madam," replied Skewes sternly, "and the first, had you been paying money to your gamekeeper Vance, up to the very time of his death? We have reason to believe you had."
Jean went pale as death. Notwithstanding she had been expecting the question and had prepared herself for it, the brutal frankness with which it had been hurled at her in part broke down her guard and she could feel her legs shaking weakly.
"Paying our gamekeeper money?" she gasped. "What for?"
"That's what we want to know," went on Skewes relentlessly, "for we find Mr. Mason had been receiving reports about you, from an enquiry agent whom he had been employing, which suggest to us your man Vance had been blackmailing you." His tone was almost menacing. "Now you had better——"
But Larose had got the opportunity he had been waiting for and broke in sharply, "Reports about Mrs. Hilary among Mason's papers!" he exclaimed. "Good God, I always thought the man was crazy, and now that explains a lot!" He laughed mockingly. "I shouldn't wonder if you didn't find reports there about me, too! I knew some man was watching me but, fortunately for him, he cleared out too soon for me to tackle. Now I understand! It was Mason who was paying him!"
Inspector Skewes turned on him angrily, but all the same with dignified restraint. "Will you kindly not interrupt, Mr. Larose," he said. "I'm questioning this lady and you can say what you like afterwards."
"That's quite all right," smiled Larose. His face hardened and he shook his head. "But see here, Inspector, you've not put your questions quite fairly to Mrs. Hilary. You're bringing what can only be a very unpleasant accusation against her and yet you're not giving her your reason for doing it." He made a motion in the direction of Jean. "Just tell her plainly what makes you think she was paying blackmail and I'm sure she'll help you all she can in anything you ask her."
The inspector was annoyed and showed it so plainly that Jean's courage revived and she felt the colour returning to her face. She would have liked to throw a grateful glance at Larose, but did not dare to, and, instead, moved up closer to her husband and put her arm through his, as if it were from him she knew her protection would come. Larose saw the action and thought it quite a little masterstroke in its way.
Skewes spoke sharply. "For many weeks the gamekeeper had been receiving money from some unknown source. Upon the morning of the night he was killed he came up and consulted Mr. Mason, whereupon Mason immediately started having inquiries made about Mrs. Hilary before she was married. We believe these inquiries were made because of something Vance had disclosed to him, and which, up to then, had been a regular source of income"—he looked significantly at Colonel Hilary—"to your gamekeeper."
The Colonel spoke hoarsely. "And what was it Vance disclosed to him?" he asked in great indignation.
"That we don't exactly know," replied Skewes, trying hard not to look discomfited at the question being put, "but we are sure he was blackmailing someone and, as I say, we believe it was Mrs. Hilary." He made a bold effort and rapped out before anyone could interrupt, "Now, Madam, with no trying to prevaricate, will you tell me straight—were you, from time to time, in the habit of meeting that man in secret, to pay him sums of money to keep quiet about some secret of yours he knew?"
"Don't answer, Jean," began the Colonel hotly. "Don't——"
But Jean had stepped forward with flashing eyes. "I will answer, Basil," she said firmly. She spoke quite calmly to the inspector. "I have never met that man to pay him money, and I have not spoken to him more than half a dozen times in my life. I swear it. If you think——"
"That'll do, Mrs. Hilary," broke in Larose sharply, not wanting her to make any false step. "Don't say anything more. You'll only work yourself up and make yourself ill if you do." He looked frowningly at the Colonel. "I should send her away, sir, if I were you."
"Yes, that's it," said the Colonel at once, "I will," and taking Jean by the arm, he led her toward the door and opened it for her to go out. He closed the door behind her, but himself returned back into the room. Skewes was looking as angry as he could possibly be but Mendel was smiling to himself. He was rather glad Jean had got off so easily.
"But look here, Inspector," said Larose shaking his head, "you've been placing too much reliance upon those papers Mason left behind him. He can't have been of normal mind and I don't wonder that, accustomed to that dangerous drug, he shot himself."
"He didn't shoot himself," snapped Skewes fiercely. "Someone else shot him and"—he nodded scornfully—"made a great bungle of it. His assassin put the revolver in his right hand, not knowing Mason was left-handed and would have shot himself with that hand. All the clerks in his office swear it was well-known to everyone he was left-handed."
A short silence followed and Colonel Hilary felt a feeling of horrible sickness coming over him. He glanced furtively at Larose, but to his surprise saw his friend was not looking the least bit discomfited. Instead, the latter exclaimed interestedly, "Ah—but I might have suggested that if anyone had brought up the matter to me, for I've often noticed him striking a match with his left hand when he lit a cigarette."
"And yet he shot himself with his right," commented Skewes sarcastically. "A strange thing for a left-handed man to do, wasn't it?"
"But wasn't his left hand injured?" asked Larose innocently. "I seem to remember that the doctor who did the post mortem testified to bruises on the knuckles of his left fingers." He nodded confidently. "That would explain it!"
The inspector's jaw dropped and his eyes opened very wide. The information was disconcerting and he looked round at his colleague in his surprise.
Mendel spoke for the first time. "I don't seem to remember anything of that, Mr. Larose," he said very quietly, "and yet we've both read the report of the inquest. Are you sure the left hand was bruised?"
"Quite!" nodded Larose. "I was there when the doctor gave his evidence."
Skewes found his speech again. "Yes, and what were you there for, Mr. Larose?" he asked very sharply. "And what were you at all the other inquests for? That's what we want to know."
"Well, I was interested," said Larose, "and wasn't it quite natural? Colonel Hilary rang me up when his gamekeeper was shot and I came over at once to see if I could find out anything. Then, I had met Mason several times here. I didn't like the man, but his death was a tragedy and, of course, I wanted to learn first-hand what had happened."
"And Todhunter," snapped the inspector, "why did you get so busy there?"
"I don't think I did get busy," said Larose slowly, "but naturally I was interested there, too. It was a dreadful crime and, apart from that, I knew the man slightly." He smiled. "As a matter of fact it was he who told me someone was following me about."
"Then why didn't you tell the Coroner what you knew?" went on Skewes. "Why didn't you come forward, as you should have done?"
Larose looked very blank. "What for?" he asked. "What had I to tell? I had only known the man a few days and had only spoken to him three times. Our acquaintance was quite a chance one."
"A chance one!" scowled the inspector. "And yet you say he told you you were being shadowed!"
Larose laughed. "Yes, he gave me that piece of information to save his own skin. I caught him poaching one morning in the Colonel's woods, red-handed plucking a pheasant he had been lucky enough to knock over with a stick. I ordered him to come with me at once to the village constable, and then he blurted out that he knew who I was and could do me a service if I let him go."
"And when did this happen?" asked Skewes fiercely.
"I can tell you exactly. It was on the Sunday before the Saturday he disappeared, the day after the local flower show here. It was there that he had me pointed out to him by the landlord of the village inn."
"And you believed him when he told you you were being shadowed?" asked Skewes.
"Yes, I did, for he described the man, and the description he gave was that of a fellow who'd been noticed trespassing on my own grounds at Carmel Abbey, a tall dark man with stooping shoulders."
"And what did you think you were being followed for?"
Larose shrugged his shoulders. "I hadn't the remotest idea, and this Todhunter hadn't either; but he said he had seen this man dodging about behind trees upon two occasions when I had been out walking with Mrs. Hilary."
"Did Todhunter tell you what he was down in this neighbourhood for?"
"Yes, he said he was on a holiday. He had come to do some fishing and he pleaded with me not to get him charged, as he wasn't a regular poacher and when he threw the stick at the bird he had no idea he would manage to hit her."
"And you let him go because he had told you about your being followed? Why?"
Larose hesitated. "Well, partly because he seemed a harmless little fellow, and partly because I wanted him to try to find out who this following man was. He promised me he would try to scrape up an acquaintance with him."
"And did you tell Colonel Hilary," asked Skewes grimly, "that you had let a man off whom you had caught stealing his birds?"
"Not at the time, but I told him later after the man had been murdered."
"Why didn't you tell him at the time?"
Larose reddened and looked uncomfortable. "Well, it isn't a very nice thing to tell any man," he said haltingly, "that someone is spying on you when you're out walking with his wife."
"But I shouldn't have given it a second thought if he had," commented the Colonel contemptuously. He eyed the inspectors sternly. "I have every confidence in Mr. Larose and my wife."
Still Skewes saw he had scored a hit at Larose, and smiled for the first time. A short silence followed and the Colonel went on. "Well, gentlemen, have you any more questions to ask? Are you satisfied with what we've told you?"
The two inspectors exchanged glances and Mendel said quietly, "No, sir, we are not. We are sure that, whatever has been taking place, Mrs. Hilary has been quite blameless of any wrong, but we think both she and Mr. Larose could help us much more if they would. That's my opinion, anyhow."
"And mine, too," nodded Skewes. He smiled his grim smile again. "We're both tough men and not easily taken in."
From his frowning face Colonel Hilary was evidently about to make some angry retort, but Larose stopped him just in time. He had no wish to make enemies of the two inspectors or rouse any spiteful feelings on their part because, so obviously, they realised they had got the worst of the encounter which had just taken place. So he said smilingly, "But you are quite wrong, gentlemen, and there is really nothing for you to find out."
Inspector Skewes, however, was obviously of a very different opinion. "There's nothing to find out, isn't there?" he asked. "Well, we'll see about that." He spoke very sternly. "Now, sir, you say you didn't like Mr. Mason! And why didn't you like him?"
Larose hesitated. "Oh, for no particular reason, but he struck me as a very self-opinionated man. He thought too much of himself to please me."
"Had you had any quarrel with him?" snapped Skewes.
Larose's eyes opened as wide as saucers. "Goodness, no! I'd had hardly anything to do with him. I didn't know him well enough to quarrel with."
Skewes now spoke very quietly. "And where were you, Mr. Larose, the afternoon that he died?"
Larose laughed. "I didn't kill him, if that's what you mean, although it happens I did come over here that afternoon." He appeared to consider. "Now let me see. I left my home, Carmel Abbey, about a quarter to three. I got there about four o'clock and, learning Colonel Hilary would probably be at some local sports by Merton Broad, went to look for him. I stopped there with him until about half-past five and then——"
"Can it be proved what time you left your home?" interrupted Inspector Skewes sharply.
"Pretty well," nodded Larose, "because I was at the launching of the new life-boat at Holkam Bay," he smiled, "that's more than forty miles from here, at two o'clock, and I went home after that."
Skewes frowned. "Can you bring anybody to prove you were at the launching of that life-boat?" he asked. "Did anybody see you there?"
Larose smiled again. "Well, they should have done, because I christened the boat and made the opening speech. You see, my wife and I had given the boat to the Society. You can read all about it in last week's Norwich Herald."
Skewes felt a dreadful feeling of disappointment surge through him and he was so depressed that he had no remark to make when Colonel Hilary remarked smilingly that, if they suspected him, then he, too, could produce an alibi equally as unassailable as that of his friend, Larose, seeing that he, the Colonel, was presiding over the North Walsham bench at the time the shot was fired at half-past two.
A short silence followed and the Colonel went on smilingly, "You have certainly asked both my wife and Mr. Larose some unpleasant questions but, of course, you have only been doing your duty and we mustn't fall out with you because of that, however mistaken your ideas may be." He reached towards the bell. "Now, if you please, I'll offer you some little refreshment. This talking's thirsty work."
For the moment Skewes protested, but did so a little weakly; Mendel, however, accepted at once. As a psychologist he was anxious to study the famous Larose as long as he could, and he was hoping, too, to catch another glimpse of the beautiful mistress of the house. In this latter hope he was not disappointed, for Jean, seeing the butler go into the study with a tray of glasses, after a few moments' hesitation, greatly daring, followed with some biscuits. She wanted to prove to both her husband and Larose that she was a credit to them in the security they were providing for her.
The Colonel was inclined to be worried about her reappearance but Larose only smiled. The confidence she was showing he thought would be the best proof to the inspectors that they would not be able to break through her armour, and, in consequence, they would be far less likely to trouble her again, than if she had kept timidly away.
She handed round the biscuits and gave Mendel such a sweet smile that he was quite thrilled. While they were in the study there was no further reference to the matters which had brought the two inspectors to the Hall. Instead, they discussed the fishing on the Broads, the good harvest everyone was having and the beauty of the flowers in the Hall garden.
It appeared Mendel was an enthusiastic rose grower himself and Jean, seeing he knew quite a lot about them, took him through the open French window to look at some particularly fine Gloires de Dijon in full bloom just outside. "But come and look at my Countesses of Lonsdale," she said, and she led him through another French window into her studio, the room in which such a little time back she had suffered such humiliation at Broome Mason's hands.
Inspector Mendel duly admired the roses and then his eyes, as keen as those of a hawk, roving round the room, fell upon some uncommon-looking brassware upon her desk. He remarked upon the unusual pattern of the articles—a cut orange—and Jean told him they had been given her as a wedding present from an old school friend in Burmah.
"But shouldn't there have been an inkstand to go with them to make up the set?" remarked Mendel casually, and when Jean, with a slightly heightened colour, shook her head hurriedly, the inspector made no comment. A minute or two after, it was with a sigh of relief that Jean led him from the room.
The inspectors took their leave very soon after and the Colonel and Larose saw them to the front door. Then Skewes suddenly asked if they could speak to the latter, alone, and Larose strolled over with them to their car.
"See here, Mr. Larose," said the elder inspector, rather bitterly, "you've crabbed our pitch here, right enough! Oh, yes you have, and you know it perfectly well." His voice took on a slightly sarcastic tone. "So can't you make up for it a little and give us a tip, so that we don't crawl back to the Yard like whipped dogs?"
Larose shook his head smilingly. "No, no, I don't plead guilty to having stood in your way," he laughed. His face sobered down suddenly. "But tell me—whose death in particular did you come down here to investigate, to-day?"
Skewes frowned. "We are supposed to be trying to find out about Mason's, but we believe the three violent deaths are, somehow, all connected together and that's why we were asking Mrs. Hilary about the gamekeeper, just now."
"Well, I can't suggest anything about him," said Larose, "but I'll give you this idea about Mason." He nodded solemnly. "If you can only get it out of your head that he didn't shoot himself and was cold-bloodedly murdered, then if I were you I would look up his medical man and find out something about him there."
"How is that likely to help us?" growled Skewes.
"Well, I think, somehow, the man had got everything handy to destroy himself if ever he felt like it or got in a tight corner. That bottle of Nembutal capsules he had, and which was produced at the inquest last week, was not what any normal man would have possessed."
"Why not?" asked Skewes. "They were ordinary sleeping tablets."
"Oh, no, they weren't!" exclaimed Larose. "They're terribly strong and never meant to be put in anybody's hands for habitual use. My doctor says they can be a most deadly poison in inexperienced hands, and that four capsules of the size of those in that bottle have been known to kill a man. Dr. Hetherington, too, the Norwich expert, was simply aghast when he saw the number Mason had been allowed to get hold of."
"But hadn't they been properly prescribed for him by a doctor?" asked Skewes with a frown.
"Supposed to be!" nodded Larose. "That's the peculiar part of it." He nodded again. "Still, I should see his doctor to find out what sort of man he thought Mason was. You'll easily find out who his doctor was from the chemist who supplied the capsules. The chemist was Black of Earl's Court Road. Sergeant Shaw read out the name at the inquest."
"But why should Mason have ever been thinking of taking his own life, Mr. Larose?" asked Mendel curiously. "Have you any idea?"
Larose hesitated. "I've got one now," he said slowly, "and it's been buzzing like a bee in my head ever since you told me Mason had had an enquiry agent on the job to find out things about Mrs. Hilary." He looked searchingly from one inspector to the other. "But first, wasn't it Todhunter whom Mason sent down to do the spying out in Devonshire?"
Skewes turned on him in a flash. "Who said anyone had been down into Devonshire?" he asked. "We didn't." He glanced accusingly at Larose. "You know too much, sir!"
"No, not half enough," laughed Larose. "The explanation there is very simple. Mrs. Hilary had a letter from a girl friend in Chudleigh saying a strange man had been staying at the inn there and asking a lot of questions about her when she was Miss Castle. I can put two and two together now, and the description of the man in Chudleigh being 'small and dark' as was Todhunter, of course it was Todhunter." He nodded solemnly. "Then, I think Mason murdered Todhunter."
"Reasons?" snapped Skewes.
"All guess-work," replied Larose, "but remembering those telephone calls, about which, of course, you've been told, then it may not be very wide of the mark. On Friday Mason telephones Todhunter's office he wants to see the man urgently. The office phones Todhunter, and Todhunter phones Mason. Then what is more natural when both were in the neighbourhood on the Saturday evening than that they should meet here? Yes, that's it, at Mason's bungalow."
"And Mason's motive for murdering him?" snapped Skewes.
"Don't know," snapped Larose. He considered. "Perhaps, he'd heard Todhunter had got to know me and thought the man was telling me too much. Perhaps, they both got drunk and quarrelled and had a fight. Todhunter was killed by just such a blow as a hefty man like Mason could have given him, and I've heard Mason boasting what a boxer he had been in his younger days." He looked at his watch. "Well, that's all I can suggest to you. Good-bye!"
"And what do you think of it all, Tom?" asked Mendel as they drove away.
"What I thought before," grunted Skewes, "that that young woman could tell us plenty about everything if she would. The devil of it is we shan't be able to make her."
"She's very beautiful!" sighed Mendel.
"Who said she wasn't?" demanded Skewes with a scowl. "That face of hers has probably been the cause of all this trouble, from first to last." He snapped his fingers together contemptuously. "Bah, if her cheeks hadn't happened to be that pink and white colour, her eyes that blue, her mouth that shape, and her hair what it is—then, I shouldn't wonder if all those three men wouldn't have been alive to-day." He frowned irritably. "Why, I'd almost swear Mason got that cut on his forehead because he'd started getting fresh with the girl and she threw an ink-pot at him."
Mendel, who was driving, kept his eyes straight on the road in front. "But how could that have been possible," he asked quietly, "with all the servants swearing Mason had not been near the house that day?"
"I don't know," frowned Skewes, "that's the snag."
They pulled up at the village inn, and walked unceremoniously into the kitchen where the landlord's wife was busy making a pie. She knew who they were, because they had been in before, and gave them a pleasant smile.
"Look here, Mother," said Skewes, "we want to know something from you and we won't hold it against you if you speak the truth." He looked at her very sternly. "Now while that man Todhunter was staying here did he ever bring home anything he'd poached? No, no, don't you worry. We're not going to tell anyone, but you just speak the truth. Did he ever bring anything home for you to cook?"
"Only once," faltered the woman. "It was a young pheasant and he said he'd taken it away from a dog which had caught it walking across the North Walsham Road."
"Did you think that was the truth?" frowned Skewes.
The woman shook her head, and then, seeing Mendel was grinning, she grinned too. "No, of course, not," she said. "There were no marks of a dog's teeth."
"Do you remember what day it was?" asked Skewes.
"It was on the Sunday, just after he had come here. I know it was the Sunday because he wanted me to cook it for his dinner straightaway, and I wouldn't because we had a nice leg of pork being roasted."
"Well, at all events Larose was speaking the truth there," said Mendel when they got outside.
"Yes, damn him," retorted Skewes, "but haven't you learnt yet, that the most dangerous of all liars are those who occasionally speak the truth"—he looked contemptuous—"when it suits them."
"And about that alibi of Larose," said Mendel after a short silence, "I think it will be sheer waste of time our calling in at the office of the Norwich Herald on our way back to verify it."
"Of course it will be waste of time," snarled Skewes, "but we'll do it all the same. There's one chance in a million that Larose was putting up a big bluff there. He's the very type of man to do it and get away with it nine times out of ten."
THE inquest upon the death of Broome Mason was resumed a week later and by then interest had risen to a high pitch. All sorts of rumours were flying about. It was an open secret that an assassin was at work in that little corner of Norfolk and the police were hot upon his track! The solicitor had not taken his own life, but had been foully murdered! An audacious attempt had been made to make out it was a case of self-destruction, but the renowned Professor Mummery had exposed the trick! The Cosmopolitan Assurance Company, however, were making out it was a case of deliberate suicide! Mason had a policy with them of £100,000 and they were refusing to pay! They were briefing Clive Grennock the great King's Counsel, to make certain the coroner's jury did not return a verdict of murder when it was a clear case of felo de se! And so on, and so on.
As was to have been expected in these circumstances, the hall where the inquest was being held was packed to suffocation. A great forensic battle might eventuate between Clive Grennock and Harvey Nankivell, the latter again representing the holder of the assurance policy. The Norfolk police were now represented by the senior Norwich Superintendent, Superintendent Brace.
The interest in the proceedings was heightened by the mystery about the attitude the police were intending to take. It was known two of the smartest men from Scotland Yard had been working on the case, but what they had found out had not been divulged. People, generally, were on tiptoe to learn whether the police would press for an outright verdict of wilful murder against someone, or agree to the usual 'suicide while of unsound mind.'
Larose, taking care to arrive early, obtained a good seat, and, noticing Inspector Mendel come in, was pleased the latter gave him quite a friendly smile. There was no sign of Inspector Skewes anywhere and, with a sigh of relief, Larose argued from that that the two C.I.D. men had not found out anything that would bring him or the Hall people into the limelight. He was mildly surprised at the presence of Sir Christopher Denny, the Member of Parliament for the Division, and wondered what could have brought him there.
The proceedings opened promptly at nine o'clock, and by special request the evidence of Professor Mummery, the London expert, was taken first, he having to return to Town at the earliest possible moment.
The Professor gave his evidence in the deliberate, confident manner which, with the prestige of his world-wide reputation behind him, made him always such a dangerous witness to the other side.
He stated he had carefully examined the injuries of the dead man, and had formed the opinion that there was very little probability deceased had taken his own life. Rather, nearly everything pointed to his having been shot by someone else. He had come to this conclusion before he had learnt that deceased was left-handed, but the disclosure of that fact greatly strengthened the probability of homicide.
He did not believe it was a case of self-destruction for these reasons. When the revolver had been discharged, its muzzle must have been at least ten inches from the face of the deceased. That was evident from the condition of the scorched skin. Then, taking into account the length of the revolver, the deceased's arm must have been stretched out to its extreme length when the trigger was pulled, a most awkward and unlikely pose for anyone to have assumed when he was intending to shoot himself in the forehead, as it would have tended to make the muscles of the arm and hand unsteady. Then, too, the direction the bullet took was by no means as it would have been if the revolver had been fired with the deceased himself holding it in his right hand. In that case the course of the bullet would have been, at any rate, slightly to the left. But it was not to the left. It was more to the right than to the left, a most unnatural happening at all times with a right-handed man.
Also, another thing had struck him as being both unusual and extraordinary. The eyebrows and eye-lashes had been burnt much more than they should have been in proportion to the scorching of the skin. What he meant by that was, it seemed to him their burning might have been brought about by other means than a revolver shot. In fact, their appearance was no different from what it would have been if they had been burnt with matches or a taper.
In conclusion, he did not think the bruises upon the knuckles of the left hand were in any way severe enough to have led deceased to use his right where, ordinarily, he would have used his left. They were trivial bruises and of small account.
The great man having finished, Clive Grennock sprang instantly to his feet, but the quiet and gentle way in which he spoke was in direct contrast to this, apparently, hurried action.
"You say, Professor," he asked most deferentially, "that, from your examination of the body, you consider it is highly improbable deceased took his own life?"
"Yes, I do," answered the Professor.
"You do not say it is impossible?" went on the K.C.
"No, I do not say that," was the reply given with no hesitation.
Clive Grennock bowed smilingly, "That is all I wanted to know, Professor. Thank you," and, instantly, he resumed his seat.
A ripple of amusement went round the Court and it was generally conceded that the K.C. had scored his point very neatly.
But his brother King's Counsel, Harvey Nankivell, rose briskly to wipe out any possible impression of uncertainty which the last admission of the Professor might perhaps have left in the minds of the jurymen.
"You have no reason to think, Professor Mummery," he asked ponderously, "that the deceased met his death as the result of some accident, either upon his part or on the part of some other person?" Then seeing the Professor was looking very puzzled, he explained. "I mean it is highly improbable that whoever pulled the trigger of that revolver, pulled it not knowing it was loaded. It is improbable, is it not?"
"Most improbable!" agreed the Professor.
"But it is not impossible," urged Nankivell smilingly, "is it?"
"Oh, no, it is not impossible!"
"Thank you, Professor, that is all I wanted to know," mimicked Nankivell, and another ripple of amusement ran round the Court.
Dr. Hetherington, the Norwich expert, was equally as confident as his predecessor at the witness stand and proceeded to give his evidence in a brisk and business-like manner, with an air of 'There's-no-nonsense-about-me', directly he started to speak.
As with Professor Mummery, he had made a most thorough examination of the body but, unlike that gentleman, had come to the conclusion that there was no reason to doubt that deceased had killed himself. It was quite true there were some slightly unusual features about the way he had handled the revolver, but that really amounted to nothing, for a man about to take his own life followed no set rules. His mind was in that condition when he might do anything.
Certainly, the revolver had been fired much farther away from the face than was usual, but it might easily have been that that was entirely unintentional. Deceased might have been intending to bring the muzzle much closer but, in his emotional condition it might, perhaps, have happened that his finger pressed upon the trigger before he intended it should. Then as to the direction taken by the bullet being peculiar, that could easily be accounted for by the presumed wobbling about of his hand.
Referring to the bruised condition of the knuckles of the left hand, all statements as to how painful the knuckles might have been were a matter of pure conjecture. The expert of fifty years' experience had no more certain knowledge there than had the graduate of only twenty-four hours.
As to arriving at any sinister conclusion from the appearance of the scorched skin and the singed eyebrows and eyelashes when considered together, well, he himself could see nothing in it. Some persons' hair singed much easier than did others. He had noticed deceased's hair was curling and therefore, perhaps, being of a finer nature it might have singed very easily.
Asked rather sarcastically by Harvey Nankivell if he did not think it rather extraordinary that a man who was intending to end his own life in a few seconds should mind the trivial and transient annoyance of bruised knuckles and not use the hand he was always accustomed to, he replied certainly not. He explained that persons about to destroy themselves were apt to be most particular about little things. Intending suicides not unoften changed into clean clothes and he remembered a man who even went out and bought a new tie just before shooting himself. As for deceased not having used his left hand, although in the ordinary course of things he might have been prepared to do so, probably his right hand could be almost as serviceable to him when he wished it.
Asked by Clive Grennock how many of the Nembutal capsules found in the bottle would have been enough to constitute a lethal dose, he replied the contents of twenty of them would almost certainly have proved fatal, although deaths had been known to occur with a much smaller number.
Not a little interest was occasioned when the name of the next witness was called as, apparently, no one but the police knew who he was.
The Norwich Superintendent of Police taking him in hand, he said he was Gordon Edward Black, a chemist of Earl's Court Road. Upon a piece of paper being handed to him, he said, yes, he had made up that prescription for the patient as indicated upon August 6th last. It had seemed quite in order to him and, although he was surprised at the large number of Nembutal capsules ordered, he had supplied them with no comment.
Quite a mild flutter of sensation ran round the Court when the next witness, a fussy and rather pompous little man, announced that he was Bullock Smith, a practitioner of medicine in Bartle Crescent, South Kensington. He stated the deceased had been a patient of his but had only consulted him twice, the second time being upon the 6th August last. Deceased had come to him, a fortnight before that, with bad sciatic pains. He had treated him for them, and then he had returned on August 6th, saying his sciatica was better but that now he was suffering from bouts of a most obstinate insomnia. He asked for Nembutal to be prescribed as that was the only thing that had done him good, once before.
The prescription which the chemist had admitted having supplied was then passed up to him and he was asked if it was the one he had given the deceased.
"It is," he replied, "except"—he paused a moment and then rapped out—"it has been altered to make the ten capsules I prescribed into a hundred. A nought has been added to the ten, and if you hold it up to the light you will plainly see the difference in the inks."
A thrill went round the Court, and the prescription was handed up to the Coroner and then to the jury, to examine.
"You would not have prescribed so many capsules to anyone?" asked the Superintendent of Police.
"Certainly not," replied the doctor indignantly, "and it was with some reluctance I let him have ten. I am very loth to order Nembutal at any time except when preparatory to a patient going under an anaesthetic, for with some people, with the slightest overdose, it is a deadly kidney poison."
The Coroner here asked, "Did you point out to deceased the dangerous nature of the drug?"
"Yes, and he said he was quite aware of it. He added that six months previously he had had an appendix out and received pre-operation treatment with Nembutal."
"Did he strike you as a man who was mentally depressed?"
"By no means! He seemed an energetic, masterful man and one well accustomed to get his own way."
Dr. Bullock Smith sat down and then, after some whispering with the Norwich Superintendent of Police, Dr. Hetherington got up and said that, in the light of the testimony Dr. Smith had just given, he would like to add something to his own evidence. Given permission to speak, he stated that when he had examined deceased he had seen no sign of any scar upon the abdomen. Certainly deceased had not had his appendix removed.
Thereupon the Coroner, looking round the Court, inquired if Dr. Clover, the police surgeon who had performed the post mortem, were present, and finding he was, asked him to step on to the witness stand. Dr. Clover then corroborated what the Norwich expert had said. Deceased had not had his appendix out. No abdominal operation had ever been performed upon him.
The Superintendent here stated the police had no more witnesses to call, but that Sir Christopher Denny, the Member of Parliament for the Division, had come forward to furnish some important information and was now present in Court.
Again the spectators were thrilled, but Larose stirred uneasily in his seat. He was wondering what this important information was going to be. He had no time to speculate, however, for the Coroner, smilingly waving Sir Christopher to the witness stand, the latter took the oath, and at once proceeded to make a statement.
"Although I know absolutely nothing of the deceased," he said, "except what I have read in the newspapers, I feel it my duty in the public interest to come forward and disclose a piece of information which has come to my knowledge."
He paused dramatically. "Yesterday, an old friend of mine, Sir Thomas Biles, the Mayor of Nottingham, phoned me up to say he had just happened to come across a copy of the Norwich Herald and had noticed that the adjourned inquest upon a solicitor of the name of Broome Mason was taking place to-day. He said it was a most extraordinary thing, and he was sending a cutting from the Nottingham Gazette of exactly twenty years ago, which he was sure would be interesting. He apologised he could only send me a very small part of the newspaper, as that particular copy of the Gazette was a sort of family heirloom, recording as it did the details of the wedding ceremony when he was married in that city. Still, he said, he had so cut out the paragraph that the date of publication of the Gazette was attached to it. Fortunately, the paragraph was at the top of the column."
Sir Christopher then proceeded to read. "At the Central Police Court on Wednesday, Broome Mason, aged twenty-two, a clerk in a lawyer's office was charged before Mr. Clarke with taking poison with intent to destroy himself. Making a false declaration to a chemist that it was for the purpose of killing rats, he had obtained four ounces of——"
But Harvey Nankivell had sprung angrily to his feet. "We can't accept that, Mr. Coroner," he cried. "A paragraph in a newspaper is no evidence unless it is supported in other ways! I protest," and he remained standing on his feet, evidently with the intention of combating any arguments which might be used.
But the Coroner agreed with him. "I am sure we are all grateful to you for coming here, Sir Christopher," he said, "but I cannot allow that newspaper cutting to go before the jury as evidence. As Mr. Nankivell has stated, what a newspaper says, whether it be yesterday or twenty years ago, is not evidence."
Appearing somewhat mortified, Sir Christopher resumed his seat, but a moment later he was intensely gratified in noting the interest the jury were undoubtedly taking in him. They were all staring hard in his direction, and some of them were whispering together.
"Good," he smiled to himself, "then they won't take any notice of what that red-faced barrister said. They'll go by what this newspaper cutting says, whether it is evidence or not."
No more witnesses being called, Harvey Nankivell rose up to address the Court. Speaking boldly and confidently, as if there were not the slightest doubt about the matter, he said the verdict of the jury must be that of murder against some person unknown.
Upon the face of the evidence there was no getting away from the fact that someone, not being aware of deceased's peculiarity of being left-handed, had staged a clumsy attempt to make the death appear self-inflicted. He had, however, bungled badly, and the over-scorching of the eyebrows was proof of it.
It was altogether foolish to try to determine by side issues whether deceased killed himself or not. Nembutal capsules or no Nembutal capsules, altered prescription or prescription as it originally was, the fact remained that a left-handed man would not have shot himself with his right hand.
At a moment of such extreme crisis, when deceased above all things would have been wanting to give himself a death which would be perfectly painless, was it not likely he would carry it out in the most skilful manner he could and with the hand which would give him best service? That was the cardinal fact to be remembered when the jury came to deliver their verdict.
In conclusion, he said, that not only did all the weight of the evidence point to murder, but not the slightest suggestion as to why he should have wanted to take his own life had been put forward by anyone. According to some, it was imagined that one moment he was full of the zest of life and ordering chickens and cream, and the next—he was dealing out for himself a most horrible form of death. It was absurd.
The Coroner summed up quickly and decisively. It was evident at once that he was not going to be awed by the presence of even so distinguished a member of his own profession as the great K.C., Harvey Nankivell, for he fell foul of him almost in his first opening sentences.
If no reason had been put forward, he said dryly, why deceased should have taken his own life, it was equally true that no suggestion had been made why anyone else should have wanted to murder him.
A ripple of amusement ran round the Court here. The spectators thought it great fun that their own little local man of law should be standing up so boldly to a great legal luminary like 'Hell-Fire' Nankivell.
The Coroner went on in crisp and business-like tones, "Now, gentlemen of the jury, two eminent specialists, both great experts in their way, have given us their views as to how deceased met his death, and, if you are able to reconcile these views, then you are much cleverer than am I. Indeed, so diametrically opposite are the opinions of these great experts, that I think it will be less confusing and in every way more helpful to us if we disregard them altogether, exactly as if we had never heard them."
Professor Mummery had, by now, left the Court, so the spectators had no opportunity of noting how he would have taken the advice the Coroner was now giving to the jury, but Dr. Hetherington seemed to think it a good joke. In private life the latter and the Coroner were close personal friends, and the doctor there and then determined to fine him a round of drinks for his impudence the next time they met at the County Club, of which they were both members.
The Coroner continued. "Now, in the ordinary way to an ordinary mind, when a man is found shot, fatally, with his own revolver and with his own finger-marks upon that revolver, it would be taken for granted that he had destroyed himself. That would be the common-sense view to take, and now it is for you to consider whether there is any reason for you to depart from that view in this particular case.
"As I have already said, it will be best to disregard the expert evidence, and that being so, we must now make up our minds in another way. Then, surely, one of the first things we shall want to know is whether there is anything to suggest to us that deceased had ever had any thought of taking his own life, before. We shall ask ourselves if we have heard anything that leads us to believe the idea of self-destruction had ever entered into his mind, prior to that tragic day when he actually died."
His eyes wandering from one to the other of the jury, the Coroner paused here for a long moment, as if insistent his idea should sink in. Then he went on impressively. "And, of course, those Nembutal capsules will, at once, come into our minds, remembering that he acquired them in a peculiar and dishonest manner. Yes, let us face the issue clearly. They were obtained by fraud and falsehood, when, on the face of it, he did not require them for the purpose he stated he did."
He looked down at some notes upon his desk. "On Monday August 6th he consulted Dr. Bullock Smith, and obtained that prescription for ten capsules. He added a nought to the ten and obtained the hundred capsules the same day. Then comes the extraordinary part, for although on that Monday he had told the doctor that he was in urgent need of the capsules because of his terrible insomnia, he had still the whole hundred capsules, intact, on the Wednesday week, nine days later. What are we to think of that and what are we to think, moreover, of the bottle having been opened with nearly fifty of those capsules lying out on the table? What were they doing there in such close proximity to that other key to the door of the next world—the revolver?"
He continued speaking for a few minutes, finally advising the jury that if when considering whether deceased did actually take his own life they found the pros and cons so equally balanced, then in his opinion the manner in which the large number of capsules had been obtained should swing them over and enable them to give a clear and definite verdict one way or the other.
With no hesitation and without leaving the jury box, the jury brought in a verdict of suicide while of unsound mind.
"And quite right, too," commented the Chief Constable to Larose, as they were leaving the Court together. "No other verdict was possible!" He smiled all over his face. "A nice smack in the eye that for old Nankivell and a complete vindication for my men. That altering of the prescription clinched everything. The man had undoubtedly got suicide in his mind when he went to his medical man." He turned laughingly to Sir Christopher Denny who had come up behind them and exclaimed, "Splendid chaps, our Norwich detectives, Sir Chris! They're as good as those from the Yard, every time!"
"Ah, but it was my reading out that little newspaper cutting of mine which decided the jury!" commented the M.P. He grinned. "I knew quite well that, technically, it could not be regarded as evidence, but I managed to get it in just in time before Nankivell stopped me."
"I expect it would be the same man!" nodded the Chief Constable.
"Of course, it would!" said the M.P. "Just about the age the dead man would have been at that time and a clerk in a lawyer's office, why, of course, it's the same."
Larose bade them good-bye and was just about to drive off in his car when Inspector Mendel came up and said smilingly, "Good morning, sir. Can I speak to you for a few minutes—It's very important. No, not here, if you don't mind. Just drive me a little way out of the town, so that we can talk without a crowd round us."
He stepped into the car and was driven, as he requested, for about half a mile. Then, turning into a by-road, Larose pulled up. "Now what is it you want?" he asked, very curious as to what was going to be told him.
"Well, first," said Mendel, "your idea about going to see the dead man's doctor turned out to be a very good one."
"I thought there was something fishy about his having so many of those capsules," said Larose, "directly my own quack told me how dangerous they were."
The inspector nodded. "Well, our finding out how he'd got them pleased everyone except that Mr. Nankivell. It certainly pleased the Chief Constable, because it helped to prove his own men were right in thinking it was a clear case of suicide and that we C.I.D. chaps need not have been brought down."
"But you got some praise, didn't you?" smiled Larose.
Inspector Mendel laughed. "Oh, yes, the Chief was very pleased we found out something the Norwich men had missed. We wiped their eyes a bit, anyhow, although, of course, we couldn't make out it was a case of sensational murder when it was, so undoubtedly, only one of not very interesting suicide." He lowered his voice intently. "But tell me, Mr. Larose, what do you think was the strength of those dangerous capsules? What had he got them for?"
Larose spoke very solemnly. "He got them, Inspector, so as to be all ready, if he saw he was likely to be found out for having murdered Todhunter. Remember Todhunter was last seen alive on Saturday, August the 4th, and on Monday, August 6th, although it was a Bank Holiday, Mason went round to his doctor to get those capsules. I am certain he only got them to bump himself off if he saw he was in danger."
"And did he think that that morning when he shot himself he was in danger?" smiled Mendel. He shook his head. "No, I don't think so! He shot himself for quite a different reason."
Larose frowned. "Oh! And what was that reason?" he asked.
The inspector spoke as solemnly as Larose had done. "He was desperately in love with Mrs. Hilary and he had realised his passion was hopeless." He nodded. "Yes, he was infatuated with her to the point of madness, and, upon the strength of something he had learnt about her before she was married to Colonel Hilary, he was thinking she would be an easy mark for his advances."
Larose's face crimsoned up in anger, but he restrained himself and made no comment.
Mendel went on. "He went up to the Hall that morning and, slipping in unseen by the servants, caught her alone in her little sitting-room. He tried to kiss her, perhaps, or——Well, at any rate she turned on him in a fury and threw her heavy brass inkstand at him, giving him that cut on his forehead and the ink stains upon his clothes."
Larose was still silent. His face was now quite expressionless, but he was wondering hard how the inspector had managed to piece everything together so accurately. The inspector's next words, however, in part enlightened him.
"You must understand, Mr. Larose," continued Mendel, "we had inside information about Mason's craze for Mrs. Hilary, for when we examined his papers we came upon a large photograph of her, most carefully wrapped up and——"
"She never gave it to him!" snapped Larose.
"Certainly not!" agreed Mendel. "It was one from the front page of a Sphere which had come out in the week the gamekeeper was killed. A Press photographer had taken it when he was making a tour of historic country houses. Mrs. Hilary was taken when sitting at her desk in her sitting-room."
"And from that photograph in the man's possession," scoffed Larose contemptuously, "you have imagined all the rest—from the cut on his forehead and his ink-stained clothes."
Mendel shook his head. "No, no, Mr. Larose, I have a lot more to go on than that." He smiled. "Don't forget I am a C.I.D. man, like you were once, and I haven't risen to my inspectorship for nothing. Listen. When we went up to the Hall that afternoon to question Mrs. Hilary, after the questioning was dropped and we had had something to drink she took me into the garden to show me her roses. Then she took me into her little sitting-room to show me some special roses in a vase there. I noticed some very unusual-looking brassware upon the desk, a brass-covered blotter, a paper-knife and a little stamp sponge bowl. The pattern of them all was a cut orange. The little bowl was of the shape of half an orange, the handle of the paper-knife was——"
"Yes, yes, I know all that," broke in Larose impatiently. "I've seen them scores of times. Go on."
But the inspector was not to be hurried. "Mrs. Hilary saw me looking at them," he went on, "and at once volunteered the information that they were a set which had been sent to her from Burma. 'But wasn't there an ink-stand to go with them?' I asked, and she flushed a little and said no."
"Well, what about it?" frowned Larose. "Of course, she was speaking the truth."
"She wasn't!" said Mendel shaking his head. "She was telling me a downright lie, because in that photograph of her at her desk, in the Sphere, taken only a few weeks ago, there is an inkstand just by her right hand, and its shape"—he spoke very solemnly—-"is that of a cut orange."
Larose made no comment. He looked at his wrist-watch as if he were in a hurry to drive on. Mendel laughed lightly. "I suppose the glass well of the inkstand got broken when she gave Mason that cut on his forehead and so it has been out of action ever since."
"But why are you telling me all this?" asked Larose. "What's your idea in confiding it to me now?"
"Because, sir," smiled Mendel, "I want you to understand that I, at least, wasn't taken in as easily as you thought. I could have made things much more unpleasant for that little lady if I had wanted to. But I didn't do it, because it probably wouldn't have led us anywhere and, besides, I guessed she had had a bad enough time already." He nodded confidently. "We could have broken her down, easily, in the witness-box."
Larose laughed rather sarcastically. "You are a clever fellow," he said, "but when I was in your job I often found I came dreadful croppers in letting my imagination wander too far."
"Well, it's not going to wander any more," laughed Mendel good naturedly, as he stepped out of the car, "and you might, please, give my respects to Mrs. Hilary and tell her I kept my ideas about the inkstand to myself. She won't be hearing any more from us."
"Then you're not only a clever fellow," smiled Larose, "but a considerate one, as well. Good-bye and good luck to you. Oh, if ever you're anywhere near my place, Carmel Abbey, just look in, will you, and I'll give you some cuttings from some of my best roses. Good-bye."
"Really a clever fellow, that chap!" ruminated Larose, as he drove off. "As he says, he might have made himself very unpleasant to little Jean if he had wanted to." He sighed. "Now as far as this Mason business is concerned, I hope to goodness there will be no more surprises, and that we've heard the last of it."
But Larose got another surprise the next day, but it was an amusing one and he laughed a lot about it to himself.
Lunching at the County Club, he met Sir Christopher Denny and, after the meal, the M.P. drew him mysteriously aside.
"You're about the best man I could have happened to meet," he said. "I want to ease my conscience by telling someone and get a bit of advice, too."
"Tut, tut," exclaimed Larose banteringly, "if you weren't so handsome, Sir Christopher, the ladies would have left you alone."
The M.P. beamed at the suggestion that he was a gay dog. Then his face sobered down. "But it's nothing to do with a lady," he said. He lowered his voice to a whisper. "It's about that darned newspaper cutting I read at the inquest yesterday. I've learned something terrible about it!"
"Good gracious," exclaimed Larose, "what is it?"
"It wasn't true," whispered the M.P. "It wasn't meant to be. It was fiction, part of a serial story!"
"What on earth do you mean?" asked Larose, very puzzled.
"I tell you it was fiction," reiterated Sir Christopher testily. "The Broome Mason I read about in the Coroner's Court was a character in a serial story running through the paper every week. I rang up my Nottingham friend last night to tell him that, evidence, or no evidence, I'd managed to read the main part of the paragraph at the inquest before I was stopped, and he started to roar with laughter. Then he explained it was only a few lines from the story The Jilted Lover, but he'd sent it to me because the coincidence of the names was so extraordinary." The M.P. began to laugh himself. "And so it was, wasn't it?"
Larose was thunderstruck. "Great Jupiter!" he exclaimed, and then he, too, began to laugh.
"But what am I to do?" asked Sir Christopher plaintively. "Think of the scandal among the electorate if it becomes known!"
"Then don't let it become known," said Larose instantly. "Let the whole story die down."
Sir Christopher, however, seemed doubtful. "But if it should come out later," he began, "if——"
"It's not likely to come out," snapped Larose, "and if it does—well, you will have been quite justified in keeping silent as the newspaper cutting was not admitted as evidence. Weren't the jury ordered by both that K.C. and the Coroner to wipe it out of their minds as if they had never heard of it?" He nodded. "Well, you do the same, forget all about it."
Sir Christopher seemed greatly relieved. "You're right, Mr. Larose!" he exclaimed warmly. "You've hit the nail on the head. The cutting is to be ignored! No one took any notice of it in the Coroner's Court, and I'll take no notice of it now."
But Larose was by no means so sure that no one had taken any notice of it at the inquest. Indeed, he was strongly of opinion that it was the newspaper cutting which had led the jury to return the verdict of suicide so promptly, without leaving their seats.
That same afternoon, calling in at Rondle Hall on his way home to Carmel Abbey, he saw Colonel Hilary who told him Jean was out.
"And where do you think she's gone?" asked the Colonel in a stage whisper, and his eyebrows went up comically as he answered his own question. "She's gone to the North Walsham cemetery to put flowers on that scoundrel's grave!"
"Good Heavens!" exclaimed Larose. "What for?"
The Colonel nodded. "She thinks now he shot himself in remorse because of what he'd done to her. She's sure of it."
"Bless her heart, and let her go on thinking so," smiled Larose. "The poor girl's suffered a lot, but, thank Heaven, she doesn't know what she's been spared."
"Thanks to you, my boy!" exclaimed the Colonel warmly. He smiled back at Larose. "Now what'll you have to drink?"
IN the meantime, while all these exciting events had been taking place around the peaceful little village of Rondle, Bert Brent, the little East End Cockney, had been passing through a bad time.
Of course he had read all about the death of the gamekeeper, and had never tried to deceive himself that it had not been either his or Sam Catesby's foot which had trodden on the trigger of that gun and sent it off. At first the days had been a nightmare for him, as every moment he had been expecting to feel the heavy hand of a detective upon his shoulder. He did not, however, for one moment think he would be hanged, because it had not been murder, but only an accident. Besides, it could never be known which of them was actually responsible, he or Sam.
Still, it would be a most unpleasant thing for both of them if the police learnt they had been in the wood that night, and he reckoned it would mean at least some months in prison.
He often thought of Sam, and wondered if he would ever see him again. Nice chap, Sam, but strange-looking with his rough, stubby beard and big, dark glasses! He'd been a very decent sort, but a bit frightened about the law, and he wondered how he was feeling now. Cripes, how he must be shivering in his shoes!
Bert was very worried for a week or so, but then, nothing happening, his spirits began to revive and, with his naturally buoyant disposition, he was soon thinking himself quite safe. Then a dreadful calamity overtook him and switched all his thoughts away from the tragedy of that night in the Norfolk woods.
He was caught when trying to smuggle a pound of tobacco out of the Docks.
It was a straight-out 'cop', with no extenuating circumstances, and the magistrate gave him a good basting with his tongue before sentencing him to three months' imprisonment.
Poor Bert, it was not the prison life he minded for, with his smiling, impudent face, he soon made himself a favourite there. It was the fact that he'd lost a good job and, with his besmirched character, he'd have difficulty in getting any work at all when he came out of prison.
He was quite right there, for, having served his time and returned home, he could find no one who would employ him. As a tally clerk at the Docks his work had been practically unskilled labour and, apart from that, everyone to whom he applied asked about references. It was a time of depression, too, and jobs were not plentiful.
After some weeks of living upon his widowed mother, who was a charwoman, and his sister who worked in a boot factory, he made up his mind to leave London and try his luck in the country.
So, with a few shillings in his pockets and an old saucepan and a few very primitive camping requisites, one morning he set off on his dilapidated bicycle for the West Country. Failure to secure employment, however, dogged him badly. The Somerset and Devon folks did not look kindly upon a shabbily-dressed young man who was undisguised Cockney, who had no references, and who knew no trade.
He certainly did get one job, as a sort of odd man with a travelling circus. It only lasted a few weeks, however, and, with the pay being only ten shillings a week and the food poor, and the work rough and hard in wet and bitter weather, he was not sorry when they told him they did not want him any more.
It was in Cornwall when he left them and, with less than a pound in his pocket, he resolved to make his way up North by easy stages and see what he could do there. To husband his slender resources, he intended to sleep in barns and under haystacks as much as he could and live, as he called it, on the land, which meant he would do a bit of poaching, whenever possible.
One evening found him not very far from a small town in North Devon, prepared to camp for the night in a disused quarry. Earlier, in the afternoon, he had marked down a likely spot to get a nice fat bird for his saucepan. He had seen a lordly cock pheasant stalk across the road into a thick wood and was reckoning there would be plenty of birds among the trees over the other side of the fence. He had heard in the village inn that all the land round there belonged to old Lord Danvers and that he was a perfect demon for preserving his game, which latter piece of information made Bert all the more keen to poach on his property. Bert was a great believer in the land belonging to the people, although as to exactly how it was to be apportioned he had never given a thought.
At half-past nine everything was going swimmingly. It was true he had penetrated much deeper into the wood than he had intended, and he was a little bit uneasy that he might not be able to retrace his way exactly as he had come, but, for all that, he had got a nice fat bird, which would provide him with three or four meals.
Then the avalanche descended. It was a dim star-lit night and he had to proceed very carefully along a pathway under high over-hanging trees, flashing his torch every now and then to keep in the right direction.
He had just flashed his torch and was in darkness again, when the faint whine of a dog within a few paces of him fell upon his horrified ears, and in the passing of a split second a pair of arms was thrown round him and a gruff voice exclaimed gleefully, "He's caught, but look out, Jim. There may be another near."
A big torch was flashed and Bert saw he was in the custody of two sturdy men, accompanied by a huge, savage-looking dog with big bloodshot eyes.
The excitement of catching him over, the elder of the two men—they were, of course, Lord Danvers' gamekeepers—asked him who he was and where he came from. He told them that he was a Londoner and that his name was William Smith.
"Then, all right, Willie," said one of them grimly, "you'll just come along with us, and don't you try to get up to any tricks or that dog of ours will tear you to pieces."
So Bert was marched up to the big house where the old lord lived and, gripped firmly by the arm, was taken inside through a back entrance.
"A little present for his lordship, Skivvers!" remarked the elder of the two gamekeepers to the butler, who appeared in the passage. "A sanguinary poacher caught with a long-tail in his hands!"
"Poacher, eh!" exclaimed the butler excitedly. He tut-tutted. "Then he's come at a bad time for him. Old Danvers has got a bridge party on to-night and he's down eleven and sixpence already." He jerked his head backwards. "But bring him into the kitchen and let the girls have a look at him afore I tell the master." He glared jocularly at the little weedy Cockney. "He looks a dangerous character. Mind he don't fly at any of us."
So Bert was taken into the kitchen and, pushed down into a chair, was regarded with awed yet thrilled interest by the female domestics of Lord Danvers' establishment. The head gamekeeper was as proud as if he were exhibiting a wild beast.
"We spotted him and he didn't see us," he related. "He walked right into our arms and didn't get any chance of putting up a fight." He made a gesture as if comparing the burly forms of himself and the other gamekeeper with the skinny one of poor Bert, and added grinningly, "Lucky for us, too! He looks a fair heavyweight champion, he do!"
The girls tittered, and Bert, sensing the atmosphere was not altogether an unfriendly one, took heart and prepared to make the best of the situation. He grinned impudently round and addressed himself to a stout middle-aged woman, the eldest of all there, whom he rightly took to be the cook.
"And wot abart a cup-er-tea, young lidy," he said, "afore I goes to this 'ere lord to have me 'ead chopped off?"
"Poor fellow," exclaimed the cook sympathetically, delighted to be addressed as 'young lady'. "He looks such a boy, too. No, no tea, my lad," she went on, "but I'll give you a glass of beer. That'll do you more good!"
But the head gamekeeper objected at once. "No, not a drop!" he exclaimed. "He's not to have any beer. I won't have it." He nodded fiercely. "Don't forget he's a poacher. We've caught him stealing the lord's pheasants." His tones dropped to more gentle ones and his face broke into a sly smile. "But me and Jim here could do with a pint."
The cook glared at him. "Either you all have some," she said emphatically, "or you'll none of you have any. I won't have this lad left out."
So it ended in Bert having one of the most refreshing glasses of beer he had ever drunk in his life and, coming as it did, upon an almost empty stomach, he lost most of his fears when in a few moments later he was led by the gamekeeper into the big lounge hall where Lord Danvers was entertaining a small party of guests.
Here, as in the kitchen, Bert was regarded with great curiosity. There were about a dozen people present and, Bert noticed with a sigh, two very pretty girls.
He was led up to his lordship and regarded with fierce, huge eyes, from under big, scraggy brows. "You say your name is William Smith!" he exclaimed. He paused a moment. "Well, I don't believe it."
Bert's only answer was to hiccough loudly. He had tried in vain to suppress it, but he had drunk the beer very quickly, and his stomach was having its revenge.
His lordship made a gesture of unutterable disgust and turned to the gamekeeper. "Did he fight or struggle?" he asked. "Because, if so, he can be charged with being drunk and disorderly, as well as poaching." He glared back at Bert. "I believe he is drunk. He simply reeks of beer."
The gamekeeper shifted his feet uneasily and replied with his lips parted as little as possible. He was terrified lest he should hiccough, too. "No, he didn't fight, my lord," he said. "We nabbed him too quick."
"Where do you come from?" demanded Lord Danvers of Bert. "Where do you live?"
"Nowhere," replied Bert. "I 'aven't got a 'ome."
"Where did you sleep last night?"
"Under a 'edge."
"And the night before?"
"Under a 'aystack."
"What's your trade or occupation?"
"'Aven't got any. Been out of work for a long time. Look at me clothes and boots."
"Had you any accomplices?" asked his lordship with a menacing frown.
"Wot's that?" asked Bert. He shook his head. "No, I 'adn't got any gun. I smoked 'im down. I made 'im dizzy with a bit of brown paper."
"Well, when you go before the magistrates to-morrow," commented his lordship grimly, "they'll probably order you a flogging." He nodded. "Ten strokes with the lash."
"But they can't flog yer fer poaching," countered Bert boldly. "Orl I'll get will be two months."
"A-ah, an old hand!" exclaimed his lordship furiously. "I thought as much. You've been imprisoned for poaching before!"
"No, I 'aven't," said Bert stoutly, "but I reads the papers and two months is wot yer gets fer a first offence," and the beer rising mutinously from his stomach, he hiccoughed loudly again.
"Take him away," ordered Lord Danvers disgustedly. "Lock him up in the wood-shed while I ring for the South Molton police to come and fetch him." He nodded to the gamekeeper. "You and Reynolds can go into the kitchen and have some supper. You've deserved it."
So Bert found himself locked in the darkness, a darkness so profound that, even when his eyes should have become accustomed to it, he could pick out no semblance of the shapes of any of the articles in the shed with him.
The effect of the beer now wearing off, he became very despondent. He had nothing to look forward to, no hope in life. Of course, he would have to go to prison again, but this time he would not give his right name or his home address in London. It didn't matter if he got another two months for it. It didn't matter if—but suddenly he heard a faint noise outside the shed, the sound of the key being turned in the lock, and then of the door opening.
"Hist! are you there, Bert?" came in a sibilant whisper from the darkness outside. "It's Sam speaking. You remember me last year, down on the Norfolk coast! Sam Catesby! Of course, you do! I knew you would."
"Oh, Sam!" exclaimed Bert breathlessly, "can I do a bunk?"
"O' course you can. That's wot I come for. I'm one of the gardeners 'ere. Come on out, quick!"
Bert crept out of the shed and could just dimly discern his friend in the blackness of the night. They clasped hands warmly, but the clasp was a very brief one, for Sam was in a desperate hurry. He grabbed Bert tightly by the arm.
"Come on now," he whispered hoarsely. "I'll show you where to get over the fence the nearest way to the road. Can you get away if you get outside?"
"Yes, I got my ole bike close near," replied Bert. "Put me on the road and I'm safe." A thought struck him as they were hurrying along. "But I say, Sam," he went on, "won't this get yer into trouble?"
"Not it!" chuckled Sam. "They'll never know it's me wot done it." He spoke anxiously. "But wot's 'appened to you, Bert? Why ain't you at the Docks?"
"Got caught with terbacca on me, as yer said I would," replied Bert, "and I went to quod for three months. Arter that, no one wants a cove who's done time, and I been all over the country looking for work."
By now they had reached the fence. "'Ere you are, Bert," said Sam. "Over you get, but, first, 'ere's a couple of notes. No, I can spare it. I got more at home. And look 'ere. On this bit of paper I written the name and address of a man who'll be certain to find you a job if you go to 'im. 'E's a clergyman bloke in Belton, but 'e's a good sort and a friend of mine. Go to 'im next week and tell 'im everything. 'E's-away a lot, but 'e's always 'ome by Toosedays. Now you promise you'll go, won't you?"
"Orlright, Sam, and bless yer fer sticking to a pal. Yes, I'll go. Goo'-bye."
An hour later perfect pandemonium broke loose in the big house. The police had arrived to find there was no prisoner for them to take back with them. The shed was empty when, escorted by the two gamekeepers, the butler and one of the footmen, they went to lay hands upon the abandoned wretch who had laid such sacrilegious hands upon his lordship's pheasants.
Lord Danvers was almost apoplectic in his rage. Of course the man had had a confederate, he stormed or, perhaps, several, or perhaps, a whole gang of them had been operating in his woods and the gamekeepers had not had the sense to think of it. They had taken only one man and let the rest escape. Then the others had followed to the house and rescued their brother criminal, directly they had seen where he had been locked up.
He bundled the gamekeepers off, instantly, to see if there was not yet time to pick up the trail again with the help of the dogs, and gave stringent orders the animals were not to be held in the leash but to be given entire freedom to run down their quarry.
Then he gave such a description of poor Bert to the constables as would have rendered him quite safe, even had they met him at that very moment face to face. To his lordship's inflamed imagination Bert was quite six inches taller than he really was, as much broader round the chest and a good couple of stone heavier in weight. Added to that his cast of countenance was such as would have warranted any police officer arresting him upon sight, in any place, at any time.
In the meanwhile, Bert had picked up his bicycle in the gravel pit and got well away. Riding most of the night, by morning he was forty miles and more away, and safe. He now looked for the first time at the writing upon the piece of paper his friend Sam had thrust into his hand and found, as he read, "Dean Brockenhurst, The Close, Belton".
He had had nothing to do with clergymen in his life and regarded them, generally, as men who were always jawing you, as he called it, not to do what you wanted to. So now, finding he would have to go back many miles again down West to get to Belton, he was half inclined not to go. Then, however, he thought of his promise to Sam and, with a sigh, made up his mind he would have to call on the man.
So one afternoon the following week found him clean-shaven and made decidedly more presentable-looking with the money Sam had given him, pressing the bell of a door in Belton upon which was inscribed on a small brass plate, "The Dean".
A solemn-looking butler opened the door to his ring and, learning he wanted to speak to the Dean, without a word motioned to him to come in. The butler was accustomed to all sorts of visitors and thought nothing of the seedy-looking young man before him. He showed him into a small room and asked curtly, "Who are you?"
'"Erbert Brent, of London," replied Bert airily. "But it's no good yer telling 'im, as 'e don't know me. Say Sam Catesby sent me. 'Ere, give 'im this and then he'll know," and he handed him the piece of paper upon which Sam had scribbled the Dean's address.
A minute later he was taken into the Dean's study and found himself in the presence of a distinguished-looking middle-aged man in immaculate clerical attire. He thought the clergyman's face, although grave, was kind. He was holding Sam's piece of paper in his hand.
"Good afternoon," he said pleasantly. He held out the paper. "What does this mean?"
"Sam Catesby told me to give it yer," said Bert, "and then you'd find me a job."
The Dean frowned. "But who is this Sam Catesby?" he asked. He shook his head. "I don't seem to remember him. Where does he live?"
"In London, I think," replied Bert, evasively. "I met 'im in the country and 'e said 'e was a friend of yers."
The Dean smiled. "And very likely he is," he said, "although for the moment I can't recall him. And he said I would find you a job, did he? What sort of job do you want? What can you do?"
Bert heaved a big sigh. "Nothing much, worse luck. I ain't got no trade. I was a tally-clerk in the London Docks for five years, but that don't 'elp me a bit."
"Five years!" exclaimed the Dean. "That's a good time! Why did you leave them?"
Bert looked uncomfortable. He wasn't good at telling lies. "'Ad to," he said after a moment's hesitation. "I got the sack."
"What for?" asked the Dean curiously.
Bert hesitated. "Oh, nothing much! I was caught coming out with a bit of terbaccer on me. That was all!"
The Dean frowned. "You'd stolen it?"
"No, no," exclaimed Bert indignantly, "nothing of that. I'd bought it off a bloke on a ship." He grinned. "It 'adn't paid dooty."
"And you got punished?" asked the Dean.
"Made a hexample of," nodded Bert. He spoke bitterly. "The old beak give me three months and that's wot makes it 'ard for me to get a job now. I ain't got no character 'aving been in the jug."
"Well, at all events it shows you're honest telling me now," nodded the Dean.
"Oh, but Sam told me to," exclaimed Bert instantly, "and I'd always do wot Sam says." He spoke warmly. "Fine chap, Sam, if he 'ad coddled hisself a bit."
For quite a long time the Dean was silent. He was regarding Bert very interestedly, though, with his back to the light, Bert was not able to weigh up, as he would have liked to, the expression upon his face. At length he asked thoughtfully, "I suppose it doesn't happen that you're musical?"
Bert grinned. "I sings tenor a bit, I plays the mouth organ and I whistles pretty good."
"Then whistle something now," smiled the Dean, "and I'll see what idea of tune you've got. Whistle softly."
Bert was greatly amused. "Orl right," he said, "then I'll whistle yer the song of a nightingale, wot I made up myself."
For the first few notes he seemed rather nervous, but quickly the spirit of the artist took possession of him, and, with a rapt expression upon his face, it soon seemed that he had forgotten everything but the melody he was master of. And it was melody and no ordinary whistling. The sweet sadness of the bird's song was brought out clearly, and one was carried in spirit to some lonely wood where in the darkness of midnight the lovesong of the nightingale was being heard at its best.
Quite a long silence followed when he had finished, and then the Dean, as if awakening out of a reverie, remarked a little huskily, "Thank you. It was a real treat. You whistle beautifully, and have a splendid ear for music. I, certainly, must see if I can do something for you. Now what church do you belong to?"
Bert looked dubious. "I don't 'old much with churches. I 'ardly ever go into 'em."
"Well, at any rate that gives us a clear field," smiled the Dean. "Now, it happens we want another assistant verger at the cathedral and I am wondering if you will do. With some instruction, you might perhaps become useful to us in musical ways, too. You could look after the sheets of music for us and perhaps help in the choir." He nodded. "At any rate, I'll give you a trial. I'll take you round to the cathedral now and the head verger shall see what he can make of you."
The little Cockney, though he had lived all his life within a couple of miles of St. Paul's, had never seen the inside of a cathedral before, and he was now filled with a sudden and almost overwhelming awe, as he followed the Dean up the nave. There was no service on at the time, but it happened the organist was practising and for a couple of minutes or so they stopped to listen. The organist was playing Chopin's Funeral March, and as the strains of glorious melody floated softly into the air Bert caught his breath in ecstasy. Never had he heard such sounds before! Never could he have imagined there could be anything so beautiful as the sounds that fell upon his ears! He was enthralled.
He came out of his trance to hear the Dean saying very quietly, "This building is very, very old, and for nearly nine hundred years and more, music such as this has been echoing round its walls. But follow me now. That is the head verger over there."
The next day saw Bert, fitted with a brand-new and well-fitting cassock, beginning his duties, and never was there a more zealous or more willing learner. He was quick and sharp and in a week or so had picked up what was wanted of him. He loved his surroundings, and grudged every moment spent away from the cathedral.
Clothed in his official garment, with his hair neatly trimmed, he was by no means bad-looking, and when he was showing people into seats or distributing hymn-books his demeanour was perfect and all that it should have been. He was respectful and obliging and yet, at the same time, held himself with dignity as if he were quite aware of his importance as an officer of the cathedral. The awe which had gripped him upon first entering the building showed no signs of wearing off, and imparted to his features a reverence which was pleasing to the more observant among the clergy and the elder members of the cathedral congregation.
Really, however, there was nothing of the religious devotee in the make-up of the little Cockney. It was only the artist in him which had been so profoundly stirred. He continued to be thrilled by the beauty of the music and the services, but, except for the Dean whom he was quite prepared to worship, he had not formed a very high opinion of the other clergy attached to the cathedral. He thought of the Bishop as an old codger who had always too much to say, the Archdeacon did not please him because his voice was harsh and unmelodious, and generally speaking, he did not much like the Canons, either major or minor. They were either too stout or too skinny, he thought, and he put down their appearance to either eating too much or not enough.
With the Dean himself he had very little to do. Of course, he often saw him, but, except to say good morning or good afternoon, he rarely had any opportunity of speaking to him. Indeed, he rather thought the Dean, upon occasions, purposely avoided him. At first he was inclined to be hurt, but later he put it down to his benefactor's naturally reserved and grave disposition.
But if the Dean did not trouble to speak to him, he soon learnt he had spoken of him, for one day the choir-master of the cathedral stopped him and said he wanted to try his voice.
"The Dean tells me you are musical," he said, "and I am wondering if you would be any good to us in the choir."
"But I couldn't sing in the choir," said Bert, "and do me verger's work as well."
"Oh, yes, you could," exclaimed the choir-master. "You could slip into the choir stalls when the service had begun." He nodded. "You come round to the school this afternoon at four o'clock. I'm the master there."
So Bert was duly put through his paces and the choir-master was really thrilled, being at once of opinion that in the little Cockney he'd got something of a find. Of course, Bert's voice was quite untrained, but it was of a remarkably fine quality and his sense of harmony was perfect.
"There are splendid possibilities about your voice, young man," said the choir-master impressively, "and with training I may be able to bring it up to solo work." He eyed him frowningly. "But, good Heavens, my lad, you'll have to learn to speak properly, first." He screwed up his face. "Don't you realise how horribly you talk?"
"I do sometimes," admitted Bert, "but it's wot I been brought up to." He sighed. "I know me grammar's bad."
"Bad!" exclaimed the choir-master. "It's awful! Well, I'll arrange for you to come here for half an hour or so some afternoons when you can be spared, and I'll do what I can to improve your speech." He shook his head warningly. "But mind you, unless I see you mean to try hard, I shall give you up pretty quickly." He smiled. "People say I'm not a very patient man."
As it happened, however, the choir-master's patience was not tried at all, for Bert threw himself heart and soul into becoming, as in his simplicity he put it, a perfect gentleman. He had now, however, a much greater incentive for improving his speech than singing in the cathedral choir, for he had fallen in love, and the object of his adoration was pretty Sarah Brockenhurst, the younger daughter of the Dean. Sarah was a little minx of seventeen and, with her eyes of darkest blue, her daintily tilted little nose, and her piquant little face, although only just out of school, she always had a bevy of boys running after her. But, whatever the number of her followers, it was never large enough to satisfy her and, noticing the new assistant verger was young and not bad-looking, she resolved at once to add him to the list.
Bert was in the choir now, and she imagined she had often caught him looking at her during the Sunday services, but, to make sure he should come definitely within her orbit, she dropped a glove in front of him, one week-day when she was in the cathedral helping her elder sister with the altar flowers. He darted forward to pick it up and return it to her, and she gave him such a sweet smile of thanks that his complete enthralment dated from that very moment.
He thought her the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. Her face was that of an angel, her eyes had the blueness of the sky and even the most glorious notes of the cathedral organ could not vie with the melody of her voice!
So now the cathedral, apart from doing so much to satisfy his artistic longings, had become a place of worship for him, too. Sarah was his goddess and every Sunday he bowed down to her and said his prayers to her impudent little face.
Thus it was no wonder he wrestled valiantly with his aitches and fought like an old-time Crusader with his bad grammar. A few weeks' tuition and the choir-master was astonished with the progress he had made. A quiet, well-spoken, young fellow was emerging from the chrysalis which had hitherto hidden the rather vulgar little Cockney.
Then came the day of Bert's great triumph. He was to be the soloist in the anthem on Sunday. It was to be kept a great secret from everyone, and not even the Dean was to be told. The choir-master wanted it to be a great surprise and a great feather in his cap that in so few months he had made Bert what he was. He implored Bert not to fail him and to pronounce all the words correctly. He was not afraid of his voice, or indeed of any false notes, for Bert was a natural singer, but he was fearing that in his nervousness the boy might relapse into something of his old style of speech again.
But he need have had no fear. There was not a trace of nervousness about Bert that morning. He was sure he would give of his best, for he knew he would be singing to Sarah. He would astonish her.
And certainly he did astonish Miss Sarah Brockenhurst, so much so that she almost swallowed the chocolate she had just surreptitiously put into her mouth, before she had risen from her knees after the prayers.
The great moment had come. The Archdeacon had announced that the words of the anthem would be taken from the 130th Psalm, the organ had played some preparatory bars and then, after those few seconds of intense hush, Bert's voice rose softly upon the air. "Out of the depths have I cried unto thee," he sang, and his notes came clear-toned, yearning, and like the sweet sad song of the nightingale.
He sang effortlessly, and, rising or falling to the melody, every word could be picked out distinctly. The choir took up their parts, but all eyes in the sacred building were kept fixed on Bert, waiting for him to come in again. When the anthem was over there was regret among the big congregation that it had been so short. Sarah Brockenhurst whispered to her sister that it was "corker", before abstracting another chocolate from her little bag. She thought she would like to hear this assistant verger sing "Rag-time Joseph and his jolly little band". She was sure he would put the proper spirit into it.
Several of the clergy congratulated Bert when he was disrobing in the vestry, but, best of all, he liked the grave smile the Dean gave him and the whispered words, "You've proved yourself a great credit to me."
Bert would have liked to have kissed the Dean's hand, just as he would have been prepared to kiss his daughter's little shoes, although, as it happened, Sarah's shoes were not little, as she took size six.
That night, in the fullness of his heart, Bert wrote a long letter to Sam Catesby, addressing it care of Lord Danvers, Danvers Hall. It was a very guarded letter, and he did not sign it or give any address. After detailing much of what had happened to him and saying he was very happy, he added, "A letter will always find me, care of you know who. He is a splendid gentleman."
Bert was disappointed he never received an answer.
THE months rolled on and, while with the lapse of time the happenings of that fateful night in the Hilary woods obtruded themselves less and less upon Bert Brent's mind, it was very different with the one who had been his companion there. Indeed, their recollection was sapping the whole peace and happiness of Mr. Jones' life.
By nature most sensitive and conscientious, the thought was intensely distressing to Mr. Jones that he had caused the death of a fellow man and he brooded over it continually, morbidly taking to himself all the blame. He told himself it was entirely his own fault, for if it had not been for him the little Cockney would not have gone near the wood that night and the gamekeeper's death would not have occurred. He greatly deplored, too, that he had first started to play the fool with the boy, by making out they were both of the same class. It had been a lowering of his dignity, he realised, and unworthy of a man in his position.
To add to his regrets, he grieved he had not heard of the accident at once and been able to go openly to the authorities and explain everything. Certainly it would have been horribly unpleasant and have brought a dreadful disgrace both upon his family and his work, but his coming forward openly and voluntarily would at all events, he thought, have done something to atone for his fault.
However, he always tried to excuse himself there, that when he did hear of the gamekeeper's death, as no particular person had been accused of the murder and the whole matter was by way of being forgotten, it would have benefited no one had the truth become known.
Still, the excuse brought little comfort to him, for he could not get away from the fact that through his folly an inoffensive and harmless man, to all accounts of an exemplary character, had been brought to a violent and bloody end. Poor fellow, he sighed, the gamekeeper had only been trying to carry out what he believed to be his duty, and for that he had been cut off in the very prime of his life!
Another worry to Mr. Jones, too, was that although the dead man had, apparently, been unmarried, he might, all the same, have had relations depending upon him and they might now be in want. That had troubled Mr. Jones quite a lot, but making enquiries as openly as he had dared, he had not been able to find out anything. The newspaper reports had not helped him in any way.
Summing up the attitudes of the two who had been responsible for the gamekeeper's death, Bert hardly ever thought about it at all, while Mr. Jones thought about it a great deal too much, making himself very unhappy and his family very unhappy, too. His wife and two daughters could not understand what had happened to him and all efforts on their part to find out proved unavailing. He just hugged his secret to himself and the very secrecy made things so much worse for him.
Thus, about that tragic night Mr. Jones and Bert Brent had only one idea in common. They were both sure they would never be found out.
As it happened, however, they were both wrong there.
Larose had by no means forgotten the initialled handkerchief he had picked up in the gravel pit, just beyond the boundary of the Hilary estate upon the morning after the gamekeeper had been killed, and he was remaining of opinion that it might possibly lead him to someone who could explain the mystery of Vance's death.
Thinking, however, it had been in the best interests of all concerned that the man had died, he had never had any intention of helping the police to find out how it had come about, and so had said nothing to anybody about what he had found, indeed, being minded to let the whole matter drop.
Still, he could not help feeling curious, and in the month which followed the ending of the enquiry into Mason's death, his thoughts had often harked back to that of the gamekeeper.
He would have liked so much to know how the man had come to such a timely end, so convenient for everybody. He was sure Mason had had nothing to do with it, and he was almost sure, too, that it had been some kind of accident. He was positive it had not been a case of deliberate murder.
A whole year had passed and then one day, his wife announcing her intention of taking the children upon a visit to their grandparents in Scotland, Larose resolved to return temporarily to his old calling while she was away and see if he could satisfy his curiosity as to how the gamekeeper had actually come to be killed.
He had kept the handkerchief and the little wad of rubbed and almost illegible newspaper in a drawer in his desk and, as he took them out, he smiled to himself that he should be imagining that by means of them he was going to pick out one person from among many millions in England.
Still, he assured himself it was by no means as hopeless as it appeared upon first sight, if the handkerchief had actually belonged to the man who had lost it, and if it were he who had wedged the piece of paper on the clip to prevent the bicycle pump falling out. In this latter event, however, he was depending upon the newspaper from which the piece of paper had been torn having been published in some town near where the man lived.
The only clues the handkerchief could give him were that it belonged to someone the first letters of whose names were C.A.B., and that its owner was a man in a fairly good position in life. It was a man-sized handkerchief of good quality, and being so carefully initialled in marking ink, he thought he could safely assume it had been done so because, wherever the owner lived, the washing was put out and not done at home. For the moment that was all he could learn there, but from the piece of newspaper he sensed several far-reaching possibilities.
When spread out and with all the creases carefully smoothed away, the paper was about two inches square, and the friction and rain soaking it had apparently gone through had made most of its lettering quite illegible. So, it was impossible to learn from what particular newspaper it had been torn, but, from the general appearance of the print, Larose was quite sure it had not been printed on a big Linotype machine.
Then, he argued, and upon that he was banking all his hopes, the newspaper had not been printed in London or any of the other big cities, but, instead, it had come from one of the minor provincial towns.
Upon the morning of the day before his wife was going away, Larose went into her room with the piece of newspaper in his hand. Mrs. Larose, a handsome and distinguished woman of thirty-six, had a great admiration for her husband and when, to help anyone who had come to him in trouble he was working upon any case, she never asked him any questions about it, unless he, first, brought up the matter to her. She had the most implicit confidence in him, being always quite certain that, however widely he might stray away from conventional ideas, he would never swerve one hair's-breadth from the paths of justice and kindness.
"Look here, Helen," said Larose. "I've got a little problem to solve and think that perhaps you can help me. I've got this piece of newspaper here, but it's been in the rain and rubbed about such a lot that I can only make out a few words. Now you listen, and see if you get any ideas."
He held the piece of newspaper under a large magnifying glass and read out, "number of the clergy and their"—"perfect"—"law"—"nations". He smiled. "That's all. See what you make of it," and he handed over the paper and the glass.
"It's a report of something, isn't it?" queried Mrs. Larose, with her face puckered up into a frown.
"Yes," nodded Larose, "but of what?" He smiled again. "I've got my ideas, but I am wondering if they are far-fetched," and then, as his wife was still silent, he went on, "Don't the first words give you some sort of clue? Well, it's some gathering which is being reported, isn't it?"
"Yes," nodded back his wife, "because it refers to a number of clergy and their—ah, I have it." Her eyes sparkled. "And their wives, of course! Why, it's quite plain! It was a garden party and Mr. and Mrs. Clergyman were there; it was the weather which was perfect, the word 'law' should be lawn, and 'nations' should read carnations." She laughed happily. "Why, Gilbert, didn't you see all that?"
Larose nodded. "All except the carnations. I didn't take in about the flowers." He went on. "Well, if you're so clever, now tell me who gave the party and what you learn from that."
Mrs. Larose pretended to sigh. "Oh, Gilbert, how innocent you are! Who but one person ever gives a party where the clergymen are mentioned first? Why, a bishop, of course! This was the annual garden party in some diocese and the rectors, the vicars and the young curates were all frolicking upon their good bishop's lawn."
"Splendid!" exclaimed Larose, "and we can go farther on still, and argue that as this newspaper gave a report of the bishop's garden party we can be quite certain it was published in a cathedral city. Readers of local papers in outlying towns would not be interested. Well, that being so, it narrows down my enquiry to the cathedral cities of England."
"A pretty big order," nodded his wife "as there are about twenty-five of them." She frowned. "But what is it you want in them?"
"I want," said Larose impressively, "a man in good circumstances, whose initials are C.A.B.!"
Mrs. Larose laughed merrily. "And how are you going to get him?" she asked. "Are you going to advertise in all the newspapers of every place which has a cathedral?"
"No, no," replied Larose quickly, "there will be no advertising, no publicity at all. I want to run my man down stealthily, and him not know he is wanted until the moment I speak to him." He laughed. "And I don't think I shall have to go to all those twenty-five cathedral cities, as I'm almost certain I have narrowed it down to one of them. Look on the other side of that paper. You can just pick out a few words of what are, of course, three different advertisements."
Mrs. Larose turned over the paper and, screwing up her eyes, read out slowly: "Handy guide to . . . . produce . . . . new clotted freshly boiled cockles every . . . . " She looked up at her husband. "What do you make of it all?"
"Fill in the gaps," he replied, "and you'll soon see. Handy guide to—well, it must be to some place or places of interest, so, of course, the city is old. Handy guide to the cathedral, for instance. Then the next advertisement is about dairy produce, new laid eggs and, of course, clotted cream. The only clotted things we talk about are blood and cream." He laughed. "But we'll leave blood out this time. The last advertisement is quite plain. Cockles freshly boiled every day can only mean they are easily accessible to the city in which the advertiser has his shop and therefore that he lives not far from the sea."
"He lives by the sea, you mean," commented his wife.
Larose shook his head. "No, I don't think that. In places where you can get cockles yourself it would hardly pay anyone to advertise he'd got them to sell. Also, I should say this man sells cockles more for eating purposes than for bait, otherwise he wouldn't mention about being freshly boiled. The fish don't mind if they're fresh or not."
"Well, what do all these things lead up to?" asked Mrs. Larose.
"Think yourself," smiled Larose. "What old cathedral city in England is situated not far from the sea, yet not on it, and which is in a county where clotted cream is on the table at every meal."
"Then of course you mean Belton!" exclaimed his wife. "Who hasn't heard about Devonshire cream? It's always clotted cream there, too."
"Exactly!" said Larose. "Of course, it's a long shot, but I shall try my luck there."
"But how are you going to find the man with those initials?"
"Telephone directory, first, for as I take it, from his handkerchief being a good one he is sure to be on the phone. If I can't nail him there, I'll try the list of voters in Belton and the surrounding districts."
"But he may be under age," smiled his wife.
"Then I'm snookered," laughed Larose, "I'm a pricked bladder and no more good. I'm finished with."
"But if you go to Belton," said Mrs. Larose, "be sure to call on that cousin of mine, the Canon. If I telephone his wife you're coming, they'll perhaps be able to put you up"—she laughed—"and keep their eye upon you at the same time."
Larose looked horrified. "Not for worlds!" he exclaimed. "I'll stop at a hotel." He nodded. "Still, I'll go and see your cousin. Perhaps he knows of my criminal friend."
The following day saw Larose installed in Belton, and the next morning he lost no time going methodically and carefully through the telephone directory. Running through the names commencing with B, he was rather surprised to find no less than nine people, whose initials were C.A.B., who lived either in or not very far from the city. Two of them, however, being women, he dismissed at once. The third was a saddler in Penton Street and, calling at the shop, he asked to speak to Mr. Bronson. He was intending to approach each C.A.B. openly, but vary his first words, according to the manner of man the particular C.A.B. appeared to be.
Mr. Bronson came forward from the back of the shop. "Forgive my troubling you," smiled Larose, "but perhaps you'll be glad to see me. Now were you in Norfolk a little time ago and happened to lose something? I found an article which belongs to someone living in Belton and initialled C.A.B. Have you been in Norfolk lately?"
"Never been there in my life," smiled back the saddler, "so I'm afraid I can't claim anything you've got." His smile became a grin. "I hope I'm not losing much."
The next C.A.B. was a solicitor who, when Larose stated his errand, eyed him frowningly. "No, sir, I have not been in Norfolk lately, and I have not lost anything." He went on sharply. "Whatever you found, however, it was your duty to hand it at once over to the police. By detaining it you are laying yourself open to a charge of stealing by finding."
"I know that," smiled Larose, "but it happens what I found is only of sentimental value. It's worth nothing to buy or sell. Sorry to have troubled you. Good day."
"An unpleasant fellow," nodded Larose to himself when he was out again in the street. "He didn't believe me and evidently thought I was out to touch him for something." He grinned. "I'd like to bring home the shooting to him, but he's too darned fat and heavy to have gone poaching. He doesn't look at all that sort."
Nor did any of the further three, whom with some delay he managed to interview that day in the city, look anything like the man he wanted. One, only, was evasive and would not give a straightforward answer. He kept a little newsagent's shop and Larose had to call there three times before he found him in. A small man, just beyond middle age, with big eyes under highly magnifying glasses and extraordinarily bushy eyebrows, it was obvious at once that he was of an aggressive and argumentative turn of mind. Before committing himself to any statement whether he had recently been in Norfolk or not, he demanded to see the article which had been found. Whereupon Larose, for a joke, held up his cigarette case, an expensive one of eighteen carat gold which had been given him as a present by his wife upon his last birthday.
Then followed a great struggle between cupidity and honesty on the man's part. "And it has my initials on, you say? Well, well, I've been a great cigarette smoker all my life and I've bought and lost many cases in my time. Now I know Norfolk and——"
"You're wasting my time, you old humbug!" laughed Larose. "A cardboard packet of gaspers is probably the only cigarette case you've ever had, and I'm not going to give up this gold one to you."
"But you've no right——" began the man.
"You take care what you're up to," said Larose sternly, "or you'll be finding yourself in prison one day. Good afternoon," and he made his way out of the shop.
It being now about half past four, he hunted up no more C.A.B.s that day and returned to his hotel. His evening meal over by half-past seven, he thought it a good idea to call on his wife's cousin and get it over. Then he would be free all the next day. He had the two remaining C.A.B.s to visit in outlying districts the next morning and, not looking for any success from them, he was expecting to have to tackle the voters' lists in the afternoon.
Calling at the Canon's house, in the Close adjoining the Cathedral, he found that reverend gentleman, a hearty, jovial man, upon the point of going out.
"I'm so sorry, Mr. Larose," he said, "but I must go. I can't get out of it. It's a meeting of the Belton Chess Club and, as I'm this year's president, I dare not absent myself." An idea struck him and he went on animatedly, "But, if I remember rightly, you're a chess player yourself, and, I've heard, a very good one, too. Then come with me and I'll get you a good game."
So in a few minutes Larose found himself within the precincts of the most select chess club he had ever been in. Certainly more than half of the members were in clerical attire, and the majority of the others seemed to be good class professional men.
He had two quick games with a doctor whom he had no difficulty in beating, and then was introduced to the Archdeacon of the cathedral, a rather doddering-looking old gentleman whom he reckoned must be well over eighty. He was rather annoyed with his wife's cousin for giving him such an opponent and anticipated a very easy victory.
Never, however, had he made a greater miscalculation, for he soon found he was up against something very tough. Underestimating the other's strength, he nearly lost the game in the first few moves. Then he had to play for his very life to retrieve the position and, indeed, was on the defensive for nearly the whole of the game. Towards the end, however, he certainly appeared to the onlookers to have made up a little ground, and at eleven o'clock, the usual closing time, the game was still unfinished.
Everyone stood round to watch the moves, but a quarter of an hour later the secretary of the club said play must cease and the game be adjudicated upon.
An aristocratic-looking clergyman of rather grave demeanour, who had arrived too late in the evening to take part in any of the games, was asked to make the decision and he sat down at once to his task.
"He is the Dean," whispered Mrs. Larose's cousin, "and, next to the old clergyman you've just been playing, about the best man in the club." He laughed slyly. "You thought I'd given you a soft job, didn't you? But I hadn't. Up to two years ago that old chap was the champion of Devonshire. He's almost too old now to remember to say his prayers but, by Jove, he seems to remember every move on the chess-board he's ever made. He's a marvel for eighty-four."
Larose was feeling very hot in the collar. He prided himself upon his chess and in consequence was most annoyed that his careless play in the first moves of the game had nearly ruined everything. Now, although a pawn down, he was confident that if the game were fought out he would be able to win. He was certain, however, that the adjudicator would not take in the possibilities of his intended line of play and, at best, declare the game a draw. Most likely he would give it as a win for the old clergyman, who was playing Black.
A minute or two of intense interest followed, and then the Dean announced quietly, "I give it to White. He is in a winning position, and his last two moves show that he is quite aware of it."
A dead silence followed, with some of the members seeming very surprised at the decision. They hardly liked it that a casual stranger should stroll in and beat their best man. Their surprise, however, was greater when the aged clergyman expressed his entire agreement with the justice of the decision. "In three moves he'd have got me," he croaked, "and I should have had to resign. It was either losing my queen or mate in two," and, with his old gnarled hands hovering shakily over the board, he demonstrated what he meant. He looked round at Larose. "You're a very fine player, sir, and it's been a pleasure to have a game with you."
The following day, according to arrangement, Larose was to lunch at the Canon's and he arrived at the house rather disspirited that he had had no success in his quest that morning. He had motored upwards of fifty miles over very muddy roads to find that one of the two last C.A.B.s was a chronic invalid who had lost the use of his legs, and the other a benevolent old gentleman in his seventy-eighth year. Neither of them, too, had ever visited Norfolk for many years.
The Canon took him into his study and gave him a glass of very good brown sherry. Noticing a large photograph hanging upon the wall, Larose walked over to look at it and the Canon, following him, explained what it was. "All the cathedral clergy," he said. "That's me, that's the Bishop, that's the Archdeacon and that's your friend who adjudicated in your favour last night."
"But which is the Dean?" asked Larose. "The Dean has a beard."
"Oh, yes, but he only acquired one last year. He had been clean-shaven all his life up to then, but his medical adviser insisted he must grow a beard because of the sore throats he kept on having."
Larose ran through the names underneath and a strange chord of memory was stirred in him as he read Claude Arthur Brockenhurst, Dean. He screwed up his face in a frown as the Canon went on talking. "Yes, funny thing about that beard. He was so sensitive that no one should see him when it was growing that he took himself off for nearly two months and wouldn't let a soul except his wife and daughters know where he had gone. We learnt afterwards that he had buried himself in a little fishing village somewhere in Norfolk."
Larose gasped. Claude Arthur Brockenhurst, the initials C.A.B., a little village in Norfolk, last year! Good God, it was the man he was after!
He steadied his voice with an effort. "When was he away?" he asked as casually as he could.
"In the late spring," replied the Canon, "middle of May to July." He went on. "Very charming man, our Dean. Everybody likes him." He frowned. "But somehow he seems to have aged a lot lately. He's quite a different man from what he used to be, not half so bright and merry-hearted. His family are very worried about it."
"But he's naturally very quiet, isn't he?" asked Larose.
"He is now, but he used not to be. He was a jovial sort of fellow, always liking a good joke. By the way, did you happen to notice what a nice voice he'd got? Well, he's taking the five o'clock evensong to-day. Go and hear him. It's a real treat to hear him read the prayers."
So that evening found Larose among the small congregation assembled in the cathedral. The majesty of the old building impressed him and, though a pronounced sceptic, he could not help being awed by its beauty and solemnity. It was only partially lighted up and the soft notes of the organ were echoed back from the shadows all around.
The Dean's voice was all he had been told it would be and his tones, tinged with a gentle melancholy, seemed most appropriate to their surroundings.
The service over, Larose having made up his mind what he would do, followed after the Dean the bare hundred yards to his house, overtaking him just as he was taking out his latchkey to open his front door.
"Good evening, sir," he said. "Do you remember me?"
"Certainly," nodded the Dean. He smiled gravely. "Have you come to fall out with me because I adjudicated that game in your favour last night?"
"Hardly," smiled back Larose, "because I quite agreed with you." His face sobered down. "But can I speak to you for a few moments?" he asked. "I think I might possibly be bringing you some good news."
The Dean looked surprised. "Well, that's cheerful, anyhow. Come into my study."
Larose had come all prepared and, with the study door closed behind them, he produced an envelope from his pocket and, with his eyes fixed intently upon the Dean, took out the incriminating handkerchief and held it out to him. "Is this yours?" he asked very quietly. "If so, I think you lost it one Saturday night in June last year, near Colonel Hilary's wood close by the little village of Rondle, in Norfolk."
The Dean took the handkerchief and his eyes dilated widely and his face paled to an ashen hue. Hesitating only a few seconds, he looked up at Larose and said hoarsely, "Yes, it's mine, and I'm not going to attempt to deny it. I lost it where you say, on Saturday the ninth of last June." He caught his breath. "And this is the good news you said you were bringing me?" He seemed upon the verge of breaking down and went on quickly, "Of course you come from Scotland Yard! You're a detective!"
"No, no, nothing of the sort," smiled Larose reassuringly. "I've nothing at all to do with the police. I'm just a private individual and not a word we two are saying now will ever pass to anybody else unless you yourself speak it. So make your mind easy about that at once."
The Dean made no comment, seemingly for the moment too stunned to take in what Larose had said. The latter went on, "But, first tell me, do you admit you shot that gamekeeper?"
The Dean pulled himself together. "Not as you put it," he said quickly, "but I admit, to my grievous sorrow I was, at any rate in part, responsible for it. I'll tell you what happened."
Then shakily, but with his voice gathering strength as he went on, he proceeded to relate not only all that had taken place in the wood that night, but also what had led up to it and how he had come, first, to make the acquaintance of young Brent. And all the time he was watching Larose anxiously, as if fearful of the condemnation he was expecting to see upon the latter's face.
But he saw no condemnation there, only amusement when he told how he had imposed upon the young East Ender, and a deep sympathy when he went on to relate about the struggle in the wood and the dreadful tragedy which had followed.
When he had finished Larose exclaimed smilingly, "I thought all along it was an accident! I knew it was!" and then he explained how it was he had become specially interested in the matter. He eyed the Dean curiously. "And I suppose you are still worrying about what happened?" he asked.
The Dean spoke very solemnly. "The recollection of it allows me no rest, Mr. Larose. It is embittering all my work here, and all the time I am carrying out my duties I feel I am a hypocrite. I have no right to ask people to lead good lives when I am an unrepentant sinner myself."
"But that's all nonsense," said Larose brusquely. "Of course you are sorry for what happened!"
"Oh, yes," nodded the Dean quickly, "but I mean I have not shown repentance enough to have admitted openly what I have done. I hold a very responsible position here, and I believe my brother clergy look up to me, but I am continuously asking myself what they would think of me if they were aware I am nothing but a fugitive from the law"—he shrugged his shoulders—"for that's all I really am. No, I ought to have gone to the police and told everything at once. But I was a coward, for I was afraid of the scandal I would bring upon my calling and my family if I did."
"I shouldn't say it was cowardice," commented Larose, bluntly. "I should say it was just common sense. You wouldn't have done the slightest good by telling, and the main result would have been to plunge your family into a galling and undeserved disgrace." He spoke sharply. "You had other people to think of besides yourself, sir, and you had no right to torture them just to give yourself a selfish peace of mind." His voice rose rather angrily. "Good God, man, don't pity yourself so much, and don't go on worrying your poor family, as I understand you are doing, by becoming a gloomy and morbid man." He smiled. "I am a sort of relation of one of your clergy and he tells me your wife and daughters are very troubled about you." He nodded. "That is really why, when I found out it was you, I came to see you."
The Dean looked very troubled. "I know they are worrying about me," he said quickly, "but if I tell my wife it won't do any good. It will be only adding another worry to the one she already has." He sighed heavily. "By my folly I have brought a great unhappiness upon my own family, and most probably upon the relations of that poor fellow, too."
For a few moments Larose looked hard at the Dean and then, suddenly, to the latter's amazement, he leant back in his chair and burst into a hearty laugh.
"I'm sorry," he apologised, "but it's altogether too funny for words. I had to laugh. Your perspective of things is so wrong!" His face sobered down and he bent forward towards the Dean. "Look here, sir," he said very quietly. "If it was your foot which made that gun go off, then console yourself it was an act of God that it killed that gamekeeper." He spoke very earnestly. "It was the best thing that could have happened for everybody."
"What—what do you mean?" asked the Dean incredulously. "I don't understand you."
"I mean," replied Larose solemnly, "that the man's death probably prevented both a young girl's suicide and my becoming a murderer. He had been blackmailing the girl for months, and at last she came to me in her trouble. Then I went to him, only the very day before he was killed, and threatened to shoot him if he didn't leave the neighbourhood at once." He nodded. "I meant it, too, and so you see that, besides saving the girl, you saved me, too."
"He was a bad man?" asked the Dean, almost eagerly.
"A vile one! A drunken, lustful blackguard, and his death was a loss to no one. The young girl he was blackmailing is married to a man who worships her, and if her secret had become known, which undoubtedly would have happened if the gamekeeper had lived, it would have ruined one of the happiest of homes. I tell you, if you were responsible for his death, it was the hand of God, which guided your foot to the trigger of that gun."
"Are you her husband?" asked the Dean sharply.
"No, no, she is only a friend of mine. Her husband is my friend, too, and he's one of the best of men. He occupies a high position where they live, and if what that gamekeeper knew had been blazoned to the world, it would have meant disgrace and driven him out of public life. It was to spare him, more than to save herself, that that poor girl had been submitting to the blackmail."
"But what had the girl done to put herself in the man's power?" asked the Dean, and then, without giving Larose time to reply, he went on quickly, "You see, Mr. Larose, if this wretched conscience of mine is ever to have real peace again, the more convinced I am of the wickedness of his persecutions, the more sure I shall be it was the will of Providence that I, or we, should have caused his death."
"Then you need have no uneasiness," said Larose grimly. "The girl is a faithful wife, and of a refined and charming disposition. She was a young widow when she married her present husband and her false step was in not disclosing that her first husband had been a criminal. She didn't know it when she married him, and barely two months after he died."
"What a tragedy for her!" exclaimed the Dean. He considered for a moment and then asked. "And is her secret safe now? Does no one know it?"
"No one except her husband, you and I," replied Larose. He shook his head. "But the harm that gamekeeper had done did not die with him. He had set others upon the way of dreadful crime, for in the hope of gain he had passed on the secret to someone else and two more had to meet violent and bloody deaths before the young wife's secret was safe."
"Then was murder done?" asked the Dean breathlessly.
Larose nodded. "Yes, although it was not proved who did it. Then a few days later the murderer was found dead, shot with his own revolver and with his finger marks upon the butt. It is thought remorse must have made him take his own life." He shook his head. "They were indeed dreadful tragedies and that vile gamekeeper had brought about both of them."
A long silence followed and then the Dean said haltingly, "Well, Mr. Larose, I am most grateful to you for coming to me, but really, my poor brain is so stunned by what you have told me that I am quite unable to take it in all at once. It may be"—he hesitated—"it may be that Providence sent you to me to give me back my peace of mind." His voice shook. "I must think, I must think."
"Yes, you must," agreed Larose emphatically. "Think everything well over and then you'll realise"—he smiled—"you are only a sinner if in your selfish weakness you allow yourself to continue to be such a worry to your poor family."
"But I'd like to have another talk to you," said the Dean eagerly. "It's because I haven't been able to speak to anyone about it that it's obsessed me so strongly. Now, when are you leaving Belton? Not for a day or two! Then will you dine with us to-morrow evening?"
Larose replied he would and then, just as he was upon the point of getting up to go, a thought came to him and he asked, "But have you by any chance heard anything more of that young fellow you were with? Have you ever seen him again?"
For the first time during the conversation the Dean smiled and, greatly to Larose's satisfaction, the smile was quite a merry one. "Yes, I have," he replied, "in fact I see him every day." He lowered his voice mysteriously. "He is one of our vergers here, one of the vergers of the cathedral."
"Good Heavens!" exclaimed Larose. "Did he blackmail you into giving him employment?"
"No, no," said the Dean quickly, "he's never recognised me. He doesn't know he'd ever seen me before he came here." He smiled again. "It's really an extraordinary story how it all happened, and once again"—he shrugged his shoulders and made a wry face—"I am wanted by the authorities." He nodded. "I helped him to escape when the police were coming for him."
Then he related everything which had happened at Lord Danvers'; how he had been among the guests there when the gamekeeper had brought Bert in, how he had released him from the shed and succeeded in getting him away.
"I felt I had to do something for him," he finished up, "and, if I had been found out and punished, then it would have been some small atonement for my other fault."
Larose was greatly entertained with the story and thought it a good joke. "But are you sure you're quite safe?" he asked. "Are you certain he hasn't recognised you?"
"Quite! You must understand I had a ten days' growth of beard upon me when we met and was wearing big dark glasses. I had only got old bathing things on, too, and must have looked very disreputable."
"But is he any good as a verger?" asked Larose.
"Oh, yes, he's splendid! And there's quite a romance about his coming here, because our choirmaster discovered he had a voice of rare quality and immediately started to train him. He's responded so quickly to the training, too, that lately he has actually been taking solo parts in the cathedral choir. Yes, and another thing! Our choirmaster, who also is our schoolmaster, was so proud of his pupil that he undertook to educate him and teach him to speak properly, and the progress the boy has made in the last six months is simply wonderful. He's most ambitious and is making almost superhuman efforts to improve himself."
"I should like to see him," smiled Larose. "Is he to be found in the cathedral every day?"
"Yes, and you'll recognise him at once. He's of small build and rather white-faced, but he's very alert and very intelligent-looking. His special duty is attending to the choir-stalls and so you'll find him there or about the organ. Go up and speak to him and notice how nicely he talks."
"But how did he talk before?" asked Larose.
"The most dreadful Cockney!" shuddered the Dean. "You listen to this," and crimsoning up slightly he proceeded to recite, just as Bert had sung upon the day of their first meeting on the Norfolk sands,
"Orl 'ot, orl 'ot, I'm Pertater Joe.
I sells the bloomin' spuds so quick,
Yer can't see 'ow they go.
Orl 'ot, orl 'ot, I'm Pertater Joe.
I'm the bloke wot's got the spuds,
Fer them 'oo've got ther dough."
Larose was delighted, and laughed so merrily that his laughter infected the Dean, who was soon also laughing heartily.
"Goodness gracious!" exclaimed the Dean, sobering up all at once. "I never thought I should laugh like that again."
"You don't know what you're going to do now," smiled Larose. "You'll grow a young man again yet," and, the Dean letting him out, they parted with a warm shake of the hand.
The next morning Larose walked round to the cathedral and, arriving at the big door, saw a large limousine parked by the kerb. Two men, in earnest conversation, were standing near it; one was middle-aged, stout and prosperous-looking, and the other thin and rather white-faced. The latter was wearing a long black cassock, reaching down to his ankles.
"The Cockney verger for a fiver!" nodded Larose, and, as he strolled slowly past the two to enter the sacred building, he heard the stout one say, "Then come to my hotel this evening and we'll settle upon what day you can come up."
"Very good, sir," said the young man in the cassock, "but it won't be until about half past nine, as there's a late Evensong here at eight o'clock."
"Blow your Evensong," scowled the stout man. "Well, don't be later than you say."
Larose walked into the cathedral, followed by the young verger. The latter, who was looking flushed and excited, at once proceeded to the big lectern and started energetically to polish up the brass. Larose strolled over and opened a whispered conversation.
"Now wasn't it you who sang that solo in the anthem the other Sunday?" he asked. "Ah, I thought so! And very nicely you sang it, too. It was a great treat."
Bert Brent looked very pleased at the compliment. "Thank you, sir," he said, speaking very slowly and with most distinct enunciation. "It is kind of you to say so."
Larose then asked several questions about the cathedral, and received what he considered very intelligent answers. It was obvious Bert had primed himself well with the history of the building. Suddenly, however, Larose realised he was no longer giving him his undivided attention, and was staring intently in the direction of a young girl who was coming up the aisle of the cathedral. Bert's face had crimsoned furiously, and Larose would have sworn his legs were shaking.
"Excuse me for a moment, sir," said Bert rather breathlessly, "but a young la——,—er,—er, but someone has just come in and she's probably brought a message for me. I must get it at once," and off he went quickly towards the girl.
Larose took in interestedly the meeting of the two. They were not too far away for him to note the expression upon their faces. The girl could not have been much more than seventeen. She was very pretty and, by the way she carried herself, evidently of some importance. She was well-dressed and carrying a large bunch of flowers.
When Bert stopped her in the aisle, although she certainly gave him a pleasant enough little smile, Larose was rather inclined to think she looked surprised. When, however, Bert had got out only a few words of what he had gone up to say to her, she looked, most obviously, very interested. Indeed, she looked really astonished. Then, when Bert had said something more to her, she smiled warmly, and as if she were very pleased with what he had just told her. Finally, with her face beaming all over, she gave him a little gracious bow and parted with him to walk towards the vestry.
Bert followed her with all his eyes and with his lips slightly parted. He watched her until she turned one of the pillars and was out of sight.
"Hum," muttered Larose, "and the Dean said the boy was making superhuman efforts to improve himself!" He nodded. "Perhaps it is not too difficult to guess why!"
The young verger rejoined Larose with an ecstatic look on his face, as if he had just gazed upon some very beautiful vision.
When Larose arrived at the Deanery that evening he was shown into the study and the Dean shook him warmly by the hand.
"I am most grateful to you, Mr. Larose," he said. "You brought me to my senses with a thud. I was a morbid fool. Now"—he laughed—"I may still be a fool, but I'm no longer morbid. I feel like a man from whom a great weight has been lifted. Thank you so very much. I shall never forget your kindness."
Taken into the drawing-room to be introduced to the Dean's family, Larose was rather amused to recognise in the younger of the two daughters, Sarah, the pretty girl who had been smiling so charmingly at Bert that morning in the cathedral. From her manner, however, she did not seem to remember Larose.
Apparently, greatly to the delight of his family, the Dean was very bright and merry at dinner, and Larose thought him a charming host. During the course of the meal he remarked with a twinkle in his eye, "I expect you've met with a lot of adventure in your life, Mr. Larose, but you public characters don't get it all. Occasionally, adventure comes to us here even in this sleepy old-world city of ours. Now here's a case in point." He beamed round at his wife and daughters who were evidently wondering what he was going to say, and went on,
"Now, we have a young verger here, who came to us not much more than six months ago, a vulgar, dreadfully-spoken little Cockney. Almost by chance, so it seemed, it was discovered by our choirmaster that he had a voice of rare quality. The choirmaster took him in hand, started training his voice and correcting his speech, and"—he paused dramatically—"made such a good job of it that a few Sundays ago his pupil sang the tenor solo in the anthem."
Larose picked up his cue. "That was wonderfully quick, wasn't it, all in six months?" he asked. "Had he sang in churches already?"
"Great Scot, no!" laughed the Dean. "I don't think he'd ever been in a church before." He went on: "But that's by no means the end of this adventure story. In fact, it may be only the beginning of it, for last night our young friend sang some humorous songs of his own composition at one of our Church concerts, and made a great hit. The audience was thrilled and would have encored him until midnight if we had let them. Not only were our own people delighted, but an important man in London Music Hall circles who happened to be among the audience was very appreciative, too. This morning that gentleman has been to the boy and told him that if he goes up to London one day next week and has his songs tried out, very likely he'll be given a contract to appear at the Halls. So, young Brent came to me after evensong this evening for permission to go, and, of course, I gave it to him."
Larose really was astonished. "And that," he smiled, "may mean anything. Why he may be earning more than the stipend of an archbishop before long!"
"Aren't all the others in the choir very excited, dear?" asked the Dean's wife of her husband.
The Dean shook his head. "He hadn't told any of them, Mary. I believe I was the first one to know."
Larose saw Sarah Brockenhurst smiling down her nose and thought she was a very astute young lady. Evidently, she kept even her most lowly conquests to herself, and did not blazon them about.
After dinner they sat talking for a long while, and it was eleven o'clock before Larose got up to go. In parting, the Dean's wife shook him warmly by the hand.
"I only wish you lived near here, Mr. Larose," she said. "You've been quite a tonic to my husband. I haven't seen him as bright as he's been to-night for many, many months."
When Larose had gone and the Dean had returned from showing him out, the latter asked smilingly, "Well, and what do you ladies think of him?"
"He's very nice," said his wife emphatically. She smiled back at her husband. "He's quite different from our usual run of visitors, isn't he?"
"And thank Heaven for that," commented the elder daughter flippantly. She was a good-looking vivacious girl of twenty-two and going to be married in a few weeks. She nodded. "If I weren't booked up already, and he a married man, I'd try to do a line with him myself. He's just the sort I like, sensible and human and with no nonsense about him. I wonder what sort of wife he's got."
"I know all about her," remarked the pretty Sarah demurely. "It happens I met Mrs. Poole this afternoon, and she told me a Mr. Larose, whose wife is the Canon's cousin, was lunching there yesterday. She said Mrs. Larose is a beautiful woman with red hair. She's very wealthy, too."
"Oh," exclaimed the elder daughter disappointedly, "then he can't be as nice as I thought. Of course, he married her for her money."
"No, he just didn't," snapped Sarah. "He was desperately in love with her, but wouldn't say anything and she had to do all the proposing. Everyone was certain she'd ruined herself socially, but she just hadn't. Mr. Larose is popular with everyone and he and his wife do splendid work among the poor. They say Mr. Larose is especially ready, too, to help anyone who comes out of prison, and give them another chance. As a joke, people call him the friend of the criminal classes."
The Dean winced.
Bert Brent got his contract for the Halls all right, and was an immediate success. Not only that, but he was a lasting success, too, and showing himself so versatile, people never got tired of him. He thrilled millions with his quaint impersonations of East End life. Who can ever forget him when as "Pertater Joe" he was,
"The bloke wot's got the spuds,
Fer them 'oo've got the dough"?
Who has not rocked with laughter, too, over the adventures of:
"Little Jammy Janet who brought her chick-chicks home to roost"
and who again will ever be able to get out of their heads the haunting lilt of
"The cod, the cat and the wallapotoon,
They crashed the gate a day too soon"?
But if he were a great success as a singer on the Halls, when he broke into the films his triumphs were simply colossal.
All the world over, the critics acclaimed his Percy Porcupine in the "Duchess of Dunn" as one of the finest pieces of acting which has ever been screened, and the hilarity it evoked can surely never have been exceeded by any other creation.
And all the time the success and riches which came to him so quickly never spoilt Bert in the very slightest. He never lost his head and, indeed, his triumphs seemed rather to sober him down. In private life he was quiet and gentlemanly, and he spared no efforts to educate himself and improve his mind.
He never forgot his friends in Belton and often went down to see them. His gratitude to the Dean for first setting his feet upon the path of success was always fresh in his mind, and showed itself in many ways. It was a recognised thing that upon the days of important Church festivals, he should take his place again in the choir and sing one of the solos. The cathedral was always packed on these occasions, and music lovers regarded his rendering of Ave Maria as an exquisite treat.
He helped the cathedral in other ways, too, and when money was being raised for a new organ he handed the amazed Dean a cheque for £1,000, with the one condition that the gift should remain anonymous.
Five years after he had left Belton, he was still unmarried, and his first love, Sarah Brockenhurst, remained his only love. He worshipped her, but worshipped from afar and never proposed to her because he was sure she would turn him down.
He was quite right there, for Sarah was proud and would certainly not have said yes. She liked the little one-time verger well enough, but his obvious partiality for her only amused her. She was never dazzled by his success, and pecuniary well-being, and never forgot how common and vulgar he once had seemed.
Between twenty-two and twenty-three, Sarah was as pretty and fascinating as when first she had won Bert's heart, but strangely enough she was still heart-whole herself and unaffianced. She could have married many times over had she wished, and had often encouraged her 'boys' up to a certain point, but there she had stopped them.
She had always been her father's favourite and was devoted to him in return. He was still her ideal man and would be, she thought, even if she ever did marry. She was clever and intellectual and often helped him in preparing his sermons.
Greatly to his family's relief, the Dean had never fallen back into that dreadful depression which had once held him and which no one had ever been able to account for. He was a happy natural man again, always looking on the bright side of life.
In excellent health and thinking he had got over his tendency to sore throats, he surprised everyone one day by cutting off his beard and appearing clean-shaven again. His relations and friends shook their heads gloomily and prophesied a return of his old trouble, but nothing happened and three years passed with his continuing to be perfectly well.
Then, one evening, returning alone in his car from visiting a distant parish, he got a puncture, and, in putting on the spare wheel, got soaking wet through. The following day he developed a feverish cold which quickly passed into pneumonia. He was very ill and, not being able to obtain any sleep, his medical advisers were soon very worried about him. On the sixth day they thought he would not live.
Bert heard of his dangerous condition, and at once motored down from London to see him. Mrs. Brockenhurst was quite broken up with the anxiety and, accordingly, it was Sarah who interviewed him when he arrived. At first she did not want him to see her father but eventually consented and took him into the sick room. The Dean was conscious, but lying with his eyes closed. He looked desperately ill, and there was a week's growth of stubby beard upon his chin.
Bert tiptoed over to the bed and, with an expression of deep concern, looked down upon his benefactor. Then, suddenly, with a startled exclamation he bent lower and stared closely into the sick man's face. What recollection did that stubby beard recall. Where had he seen that——. He fell on to his knees by the bedside. "Sam Catesby," he whispered hoarsely, "Sam, is that really you?"
The Dean, as if very startled too, opened his eyes and turned his head round to stare hard at Bert. Then his face broke into a weak but happy smile. "'Ullo, mate," he said, but quite distinctly, "'ow are yer poppin?" and he stretched for Bert's hand and clasped his fingers round it. "I can't sleep, Bert," he went on plaintively. "Whistle that nightingale song for me and I may drop off." He closed his eyes wearily. "Whistle, my boy, and perhaps it'll get me off to sleep."
Bert felt on the verge of tears, but with a mighty effort he pulled himself together and pursing up his lips, began to whistle. He whistled softly but with perfect clearness and, after a few bars, made his notes even softer still, imparting to them something of the dreamy lilt of a child's lullaby. When the short air was over, he whistled it again and then he went on whistling, making his whistling fainter and fainter as the minutes passed. And all the time he kept his right arm outstretched for the sick man to grasp his hand. He was afraid to draw it away, lest the eyes he was watching so intently should open again.
Presently, after a long time, a very long time it seemed to Bert, Sarah bent down and whispered, "He's asleep and you can stop whistling now, but for pity's sake don't move your hand. It may wake him again at once."
"All right," whispered back Bert, "but bring me a cushion to prop up my arm. It's getting cramped. Then, if you put a heavy chair behind me to support my back, I can keep this up for hours, and be quite comfortable."
But he speedily found he was not going to be as comfortable as he thought. The bed was high and, support his arm in every way as the nurse and Sarah did, the strain could not be altogether taken away and the cramp began to pass into a heavy ache and then a bad pain. But he stuck it out manfully and his hand never moved a hair's breadth.
The sick man slept on and the nurse whispered delightedly that his breathing had become much easier. "It's only sleep he wants," she repeated to Sarah for the hundredth time, "and he'll pull through."
Three hours, four hours passed and Bert was upon the point of exhaustion. Sarah brought him a glass of brandy and soda and a plate of sandwiches. He was refusing the sandwiches, when she said she had cut them for him herself, and she gave him a look that would have made him willing to eat earth if she had offered it.
The medical man came in presently and scowled angrily when he saw a stranger had been admitted into the room, but taking in what was happening and being told what had occurred, his expression was one of delighted relief.
"But keep your eye on that young fellow," he warned Sarah when she had followed him out of the room. "You must be ready, for if he's there much longer he'll probably go off in a faint. He looks nearly done in now. In any case when he takes away his hand he won't be able to walk by himself. He'll have to be carried away and put to bed. Who is he?" and he pursed up his lips when he heard it was the famous Bert Brent.
"Well, if your father lives, Miss Sarah," he said in parting, "which he probably will do now, it would be no exaggeration to say it is this sleep which has done it." He had known Sarah since she was a child in arms, and added smilingly, "I think as a reward, you might offer to marry that young man."
Sarah did not blush. "I may do," she smiled back. She choked down a sob of thankfulness. "At any rate I feel I could put my arms round him now," and strangely enough that was what she was doing less than an hour after the doctor had left.
It had been two o'clock when Bert had first knelt down by the bed and at twenty minutes past seven the sick man stirred, and unclasped his fingers for the first time. He did not, however, awaken.
Fortunately, both the nurse and Sarah were watching and instantaneously were by Bert's side. Bert could not move, and he was too exhausted to speak.
"You lift him under his arms, Miss Brockenhurst," said the nurse, "and I'll support his body and legs. Where shall we carry him?"
"Into my room," said Sarah sharply. "It's nearest."
So Bert was laid upon Sarah's bed and the nurse, after having partially undressed him, proceeded to massage him vigorously.
"No, Mr. Brent," she said emphatically when Bert was beginning to feel a little better, "you're not to get up and you're to remain where you are. Remember, physically, you're not of the prize-fighter build and you've been through a terrible strain." She smiled. "Miss Brockenhurst has given up her own bed to you and it ought to be comfortable enough for anyone."
Sarah did not go near Bert again that night. If she had, she was sure she would have been most embarrassed, for some strange emotion had been stirred in her as she had held him in her arms. It was not as if she had fallen in love with him, but rather as if her maternal instincts had been aroused and a fierce urge to protect him and give him happiness had all suddenly taken possession of her. The amusement in which she had formerly held him had now become a profound respect, and she was grateful beyond expression for the sleep he had brought to her father. The sleep had extended to seven hours and the invalid had awakened upon the way to recovery.
They met at breakfast, however, the next morning, and there was obvious embarrassment on both sides. She blushed when she shook hands with him; she did not quite know why, and he crimsoned hotly, remembering he had passed the night in her bed. He would never be able to forget that, he was sure. He was so unworthy.
They were alone at the meal, and she began questioning him at once about what had taken place with her father the previous afternoon. Where had they met before, and who was this Sam Catesby whose name was mentioned?
Whereupon Bert, losing his nervousness, related about those days on the Norfolk sands and how her father and he had been companions and passed the time together, with the Dean jokingly assuming his, Bert's, mode of speech. He said nothing, however, about the tragedy in the woods of Colonel Hilary.
Sarah laughed merrily at Bert being taken in, and then wanted to know how it happened he had come to Belton to get her father to give him work. Bert tried to be evasive but, pressing him hard, with her questions, she soon had the whole story out of him.
She was very amused. "And you never recognised him?" she asked. "You never saw any resemblance?"
"None whatever," he replied. "If I had I should have been suspicious at once, for I thought that, for some reason I could not understand, he was avoiding me as much as he could."
Their conversation now taking on a much more intimate tone, she asked him a lot of questions about his life and he told her how lonely he was. He took no pleasure in the notoriety he received and made no friends. His mother had died two years previously and his only relation, a sister, had emigrated with her husband to Australia.
Bert remained for several days an honoured guest at the Deanery. The Dean mended rapidly and they talked quite a lot together, but it was not until the last day that the tragedy of the gamekeeper's death was mentioned. It was the Dean who brought it up, and he was most relieved at once with the commonsense view Bert took of the accident.
"Depend upon it, sir," he said, "he was a thoroughly bad man. He was half drunk that night when he attacked you, and the words he shouted as I pulled him off were as filthily foul as anyone could imagine. I didn't think anything of foul language then, but his was stupidly filthy. I remembered afterwards, too, that I'd heard something about him in the village where I was stopping. They said he had once beaten a dog to death in a fit of temper."
The day before Bert left to return to London, the Dean received a letter offering him the Bishopric of Ormonde, the Bishop there having died only a week previously. It came as a great surprise and everyone was delighted. Poor Bert, however, felt a dreadful pang. Sarah, the daughter of a Bishop. It put her farther than ever away from him!
The morning he was going away he felt very miserable. His good-bye to Sarah was the last one of all. They were in the Deanery garden, an old-world garden ringed round with high walls. They had said the usual words of a conventional farewell, and then, after a short and awkward silence, with them both turning their heads away, Sarah looked round sharply at him.
"Well, this will be the last time we shall be seeing you here," she said smilingly, "for father says we shall be gone in a month. So, of course, we shall be seeing you next in Ormonde!" There was just the slightest tremor in her tones as she added softly, "Remember, I shall expect you to come."
"What for?" asked Bert, and there was more than a slight tremor in his voice.
She looked at him challengingly and, with a shrug of her pretty shoulders, replied, "Who knows?" Then, with her face flushing, she reached down and plucked a big pink carnation. "Here you are," she smiled. "Take this. It's something to go with, and remember to be a good boy. I shall be thinking of you."
Too overcome to speak, he took the carnation from her and, greatly daring, imprisoned the hand which had plucked it, as well. She did not try to draw it away, and lifting it to his lips, he kissed it reverently.
"Good-bye," she whispered softly, but he drew her gently to him and kissed her unresisting mouth.
Just for one brief moment their lips met, and then she pushed him gently away. "Good-bye," she said again. "That's enough now. Quick, here's Mother coming!"
The next day when Sarah happened to be alone with her father, she remarked casually, "Do you know, Dad, I think I shall be marrying Bert one day."
The Dean elevated his eyebrows. "Oh, has he asked you?" he exclaimed rather sharply.
Sarah shook her head. "No, but I know what his feelings are." She laughed. "He would have liked to ask me all these years, ever since he became such a success, but he's never dared to."
"Are you fond of him?" asked the Dean frowningly.
Sarah hesitated. "I'm not sure that I am not, Dad. At any rate, I'm awfully grateful to him about you, and he'd make a splendid husband. The only thing is——" she hesitated again.
"You remember what he was!" commented her father. "That's it, isn't it? You mean he's not good enough to come into our family." He smiled grimly. "Well, it may perhaps humble your pride a little when I tell you I've heard my grandfather say his father kept a little inn, in other words, what we should call nowadays, a pub."
Sarah made a grimace. "Oh, Dad!"
Three months later Bert and Sarah were married, and Bert entered into his Kingdom of Heaven. Such a kingdom there will always be for those who love, and though they find their wanderings there may be very short, much shorter than they had expected, yet from its enchanted garden it is ordained all may carry with them back to earth memories of such fragrance that they never die.
One night the Chief Constable of Norfolk was entertaining a select little party of his friends. Larose was among the guests and noted the Bishop of Ormonde had been allotted Mrs. Basil Hilary to take in to dinner.
"Total strangers to each other until to-night," he murmured, "and yet how the threads of their two lives have been interwoven! Oh, if they knew each other's secrets, what would they say!"
THE BEACHY HEAD MURDER
This Gilbert Larose novel 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.
7s. 6d. net
THE TRAGEDY OF THE SILVER MOON
Notts. Journal: "One of the best mystery stories he has given us. It is subtle, original, exciting and well-written."
7s. 6d. net
THE HOUSE ON THE FENS
Birmingham Gazette: "Full of thrills . . . you will follow with engrossed attention the adventures of Gilbert Larose. A well-written story, with an excellently worked-out plot."
7s. 6d. net
THE VENGEANCE OF LAROSE
Sunday Mercury: "Mr. Gask knows all there is to know of how to write a good mystery story, which also means how to keep the reader's nose buried in the book until the last page."
4s. 0d. net
THE FALL OF A DICTATOR
Manchester Evening News: "One of the best constructed dramas of the British Secret Service we have read for some time."
4s. 0d. net
THE GRAVE-DIGGER OF MONKS ARDEN
Scotsman: "Not to be recommended as a bedside book except for people with strong nerves. Larose's adventures are varied and exciting. It is a strange story, rich in thrills and 'creeps' and makes excellent reading."
3s. 0d. net
THE NIGHT OF THE STORM
The three young mistresses of a beautiful old Priory in Essex are faced suddenly with an accusation of murder. Harassed by the unceasing police investigations the girls appeal to Gilbert Larose. Another thrilling chapter in the life of the famous detective.
3s. 0d. net
THE MASTER SPY
This exciting international spy story will keep the reader breathless from cover to cover.
East Anglian Times: "Will be relished by those who revel in thrills."
3s. 0d. net.
THE JEST OF LIFE
A pleasantly humorous novel. Mr. Gask's touch is light and sure, and his characterization shows a deep and sympathetic insight into the frailties of human nature.
Truth: "A rich feast of riotous humour with a moral to it."
3s. 0d. net.
THE HANGMAN'S KNOT
Gilbert Larose has met crime in a hundred guises but never has he been called upon to elucidate a mystery so completely baffling as in this first-class thriller.
Manchester Evening Chronicle: "An amazing amount of cleverness and ingenuity. . ."
3s. 0d. net.
THE DARK HIGHWAY
The story of a double crime, perpetrated at midnight amongst the lonely sand-dunes of the Coorong.
Nottingham Journal: "A thrilling story."
3s. 0d. net.
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