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Title: Marauders by Night Author: Arthur Gask * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1304391h.html Language: English Date first posted: July 2013 Date most recently July 2013 Produced by: Maurie Mulcahy 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.
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It was a sweet little 'set-up', ruined by murder.
Washington Mainwaring was a guest with a purpose, his intentions in the house-party being strictly criminal. Somebody murdered the butler, and in a cold sweat Mainwaring imagined the hangman's noose tightening about his own neck.
Not that he was the only guest who interested Scotland Yard. How could he be when the party included such assorted characters as Morton Hudson, who had stood in the dock of the Old Bailey, and Mrs. Benton Rome, the embers of whose past still glowed inextinguishably? Even their hostess behaved oddly, though not to the extent that she did not know when to stop talking. And what part in the crime had Dr. Ramsden Hendrick who was twenty miles away when the murder was committed?
"Arthur Gask knows all there is to know of how to write a good mystery story," says the Sunday Mercury, and this story, featuring once again his famous investigator, Gilbert Larose, proves the truth of that comment.
CHAPTER I.—THE NIGHT
CHAPTER II.—THE MURDER AT ORWELL HALL
CHAPTER III.—THE GATHERING OF THE EAGLES
CHAPTER IV.—THE SECRET OF THE MARSH
CHAPTER V.—UNTIL THE SEA GIVES UP ITS DEAD
CHAPTER VI.—A DUEL OF WITS
CHAPTER VII.—CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE
CHAPTER VIII.—SOWING THE WIND
CHAPTER IX.—REAPING THE WHIRLWIND
CHAPTER X.—UNTIL THE RESURRECTION MORN
ONE summer morning in the year nineteen hundred and twenty-five, Sir Hartley Bevan, the Chief Commissioner of the Police, was in earnest consultation at Scotland Yard with Chief Detective Inspector Charles Stone, Detective Inspector Gilbert Larose and the heads of the Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk Police. He was looking very troubled.
"And please understand, gentlemen," he frowned, "that henceforward a raid upon any of the big houses in the three Eastern Counties is to be regarded automatically as a call to us here. That's the Home Secretary's express order, which he gave to me not half an hour ago. He says that this gang, now operating so successfully in the Eastern Counties, must be speedily run to earth."
"It's all very well for him to tell you that, sir," commented Inspector Stone dryly, "but did he happen to mention how? Did he point out to you anything we have not done that we should have in trying to get hold of them?"
The inspector was one of the Big Four at Scotland Yard. He was a stout man in the late forties, with a heavy face, large and shrewd-looking grey eyes and a strong, determined chin.
"No, he did not," said the Commissioner, "but the Right Honourable gentleman went on to suggest that, with five major robberies in the past six months, it seemed to the ordinary mind that the gang could not have been carrying on for so long without leaving some very definite clues behind, telling something of what sort of men they are."
"It's easy enough to guess what they're like," grunted the inspector, "but that doesn't get us anywhere. They certainly aren't the old-fashioned ignorant tip-and-run burglars, relying mainly on luck. On the contrary, everything points to their being of a good class, with either them or their friends moving among those whom they actually rob."
"And how are you so sure about that?" frowned the Commissioner.
The inspector tapped the sheaf of papers on the table before him. "Because of the undoubted information they have acted upon in all the raids," he said, "and the help from inside which they must have received. Upon each occasion everything has been made easy for them. They have known where the valuables were and the best time to come for them; and, if they haven't actually been admitted into the house by a confederate, where there have been alarms they have been tampered with and rendered inoperative."
"But do you think you are justified," asked the Commissioner, "in completely discarding the idea that this inside help came from servants?"
It was the Superintendent of Police from Ipswich who answered him. "My colleagues from Chelmsford and Norwich are quite certain there, sir," he said, "that is, as certain as anyone can reasonably be. Speaking for my own county, where the two raided houses were near Wickham Market and Halesworth respectively, the staffs of both places were so intensively screened that I am confident no help came from them. Not only did we go into their own lives, but into the lives of their families as well, and found nothing suspicious anywhere. And I understand it was the same with the staffs of the other three raided houses in Essex and Norfolk. Everything suggested that the success of each robbery was due to the help of a guest who was present in the house upon the actual night of the crime or who had been staying there some time previously."
The Commissioner frowned. "That's a pretty bad reflection," he said, "upon the friends of the owners of the raided houses."
The Superintendent shrugged his shoulders. "We know that, sir," he said, "but putting all our heads together, that is the only conclusion which we can reach. These burglars are a type of modern swell-mobsmen and, as Inspector Stone has pointed out, not of the ordinary common class. Probably in private life they follow respectable occupations, with these burglaries being only a sideline."
"And that's why I should say," commented Inspector Stone, "they are probably all youngish men, at any rate not over thirty, who fought in the Great War, and now it is adventure as well as monetary gain which is so appealing to them." He shook his head gloomily. "A most dangerous type of criminal!"
"But you talk as if there were a whole regiment of them," snapped the Commissioner. "Surely they can't be as numerous as all that?"
"Well, there must be a fair crowd of them," nodded Stone, "though most likely only a few of them take part in the actual burglaries. If our friends, the Superintendents here, are right, they must have had 'spotters' in each of the five houses which have been robbed, and a different one every time."
"Yes, that is so," agreed the Ipswich Superintendent at once. "Going through the lists of friends supplied by the owners of the five raided houses, we can light upon no party who has been staying at more than one house upon the actual night of the robbery or many weeks before it."
"But can we be quite certain," queried the Commissioner, "that all these five raids were carried out by one and the same gang?"
"Well, it looks like it, sir, doesn't it?" said Stone. "The choice of the booty they came after, the exactly appropriate time they came to get it, their coming unheard and their vanishing unseen, like shadows of the night. It looks to me like the planning of one master-mind."
"But in the last raid they were seen when going off," pointed out the Commissioner.
"Ah, but that was, so to speak, accidental," said the Superintendent from Ipswich. "Apparently, when they were all preparing to leave, one of them knocked over a small occasional table with a big glass vase on it, and the noise it made at once brought three menservants upon the scene. They thought it was the cat which had been shut up in the room and——"
"But three menservants about in the small hours of the morning?" queried the Commissioner. "Doesn't that seem suspicious to you?"
"Oh, no, sir," smiled the Superintendent, "that was quite explainable. They were playing nap in the butler's pantry, and just didn't notice how late it was getting." He looked grave. "It was bad luck for the butler, sir, as the poor man received a very nasty crack on the head, probably with something like a jemmy. At any rate the doctors say he had a narrow escape from being killed outright. He was in hospital for over a month."
"Ah, I remember," nodded the Commissioner, "and the footman just behind him saw four or five men running up the drive."
"Yes, sir, and he said they were running like athletes and he saw at once he had no chance of catching them, which adds weight to what Inspector Stone says about their being young men. Then this footman, finding the telephone dead, dashed off on his bicycle to the bailiff's house and got through to us at Ipswich from there." The Superintendent shook his head. "And that is what's so puzzling to us. The bailiff's house is not a quarter of a mile away, and the footman is positive he got in touch with us less than five minutes after the butler was struck down. Then, within another ten minutes at the most, calls had gone off in every direction, and we are confident that every road within twenty miles around was being watched and every person found upon it made to give an account of himself." He shrugged his shoulders. "But we got nothing out of it."
"And have any of you," asked the Commissioner, "got any idea of whereabouts the headquarters of this gang might be?" He turned to Gilbert Larose. "What do you say about that, Inspector Larose?"
Gilbert Larose, then in his twenty-ninth year and the youngest Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard, was a good-looking young fellow with a pleasant smiling face. Transferred from Australia to the Criminal Investigation Department in London, in four years he had earned an almost legendary reputation. So many difficult cases had he brought to a successful conclusion that it had come to be believed by the public generally that it was by instinct mainly that he had succeeded where others had failed. It was said that his mind would drop like a plummet on to essential facts and that he would pick up trails invisible to anybody else. He would insist laughingly that everyone was criminally inclined and, in certain circumstances, the most innocent-looking man or woman was often the one to be suspected most.
Replying now to the Commissioner, he said thoughtfully, "I really don't think that matters at all, sir, as they certainly will not operate from anywhere close to it."
"Then where do they go directly after a raid?" asked the Commissioner.
"We have come to the conclusion that this is anywhere but on to the roads," replied Larose, "and that's why all the cordons that have been drawn have proved useless. There'd be no fast cars or even bicycles for them. We believe that whenever they think they may have been seen, they run to earth perhaps only a few hundred yards from the house they have just raided. They hide in some wood or coppice, and most likely don't come out for a long time, perhaps not until late in the afternoon. Then they may dribble back home, or to some arranged place of meeting, one by one. And we think they'll appear then to be very ordinary and harmless people. One may look like a holiday fisherman with his rod over his shoulder and his basket on his back, another may be dressed as a Scoutmaster, a third may be picked up by a passing lorry belonging to the gang and hop into the driver's seat in overalls to look the part. With money behind them they can adopt any form of disguise."
The Commissioner turned to the three Superintendents. "And these are the considered ideas of you all?" he asked.
The one from Ipswich nodded. "Yes, sir, they are. They seem plausible and, looking back now, too durned plausible to be pleasant."
"And you will notice," said Larose, "that all these houses raided were not deep in the countryside, but quite near to the coast, where anyone could slip in unnoticed among the visitors to the holiday resorts." He looked grave. "Oh, yes, sir, we are up against something very hard here, with everything foreseen and everything prepared."
Now Inspector Charlie Stone had not been quite right in surmising that all this little coterie of criminals who were occasioning the authorities such anxiety were youngish men, as the guiding spirit of them all, Dr. Ramsden Hendrick, would never see sixty again. A bachelor and a one-time Professor of Neurology at Oxford University, with a long string of letters after his name, he had been a nerve specialist of almost world-wide reputation. Apart from his profession, too, he was a man of wide scholarship, and his researches into criminology had earned him additional fame.
Greatly respected by his medical colleagues, Hendrick was yet regarded as a very eccentric character, for he made no secret of the fact that his study of crime had, in the course of years, come to imbue him with not a little sympathy and even admiration for the less gross of the criminals themselves. He would say it was the courage of these men that so intrigued him, and he believed that not a little of it had come down to them from their far-off ancestors in the thieving and piratical days of the greatly honoured Sir Francis Drake, when England was well upon the way to becoming the greatest country in the world.
A year previously, and when just sixty-three, following upon a short period of gradually increasing ill-health, Hendrick had learnt that he was afflicted with leukaemia, that insidious and incurable disease of a persistent increase in the number of white cells of the blood. Told that at the most he had only three more years to live, he had at once given up his Chair at the University and retired to spend his last days in a lonely bungalow he had built for himself some time back upon the Essex marshes, about six miles distant from the little town of Burnham-on-Crouch. He had hoped that, cut off from all his one-time friends and acquaintances, his very solitariness, with only the sea and the wide and lonely marsh for his surroundings, would in time reconcile him to his fate and take from him all yearning for a longer lease of life.
His only companion in the bungalow was his servant, Ben Hunter, a man well on into middle age, who had been in his service for the greater part of thirty years and who was blindly devoted to him. Certainly not of an acute intelligence, Ben was thought by many to be half-daft. These clever people, however, were not taking into account that, handicapped all his life by a mild form of epilepsy and occasional severe headaches of a most distressing nature, Ben had always, more or less, been soaked with sedative drugs. He was naturally of a reserved nature, and their effect had been to make him more reserved than ever, so that with anyone but his master he was often taciturn almost to the point of appearing mentally deficient.
Still, Ben was most efficient in his services to the doctor, preparing dainty meals to tempt his appetite and waiting upon him hand and foot in the bad turns of his malady. In his eyes his master could do no wrong, and he obeyed his every order without questioning and even without thought.
However, to Ben there were certain compensations in the lonely life that he was living. Brought up in the Norfolk Fen country and not far from the sea, he was an ardent fisherman, and, there was little in the habits of the creatures of the wild that he did not know. So now he could go out fishing whenever he wanted and, to his great delight, also make use of his other knowledge in many midnight poaching excursions to the estates of certain landed proprietors which were not too far away.
In time these poaching activities of his had become known to those whose preserves he raided, and many attempts had been made to catch him. So far, however, he had always been too wily for them, and not only had they not succeeded but, also, he would seldom return home to the bungalow empty-handed. Many a nice plump pheasant and tender leveret had been served up at the doctor's table, and failing higher game, even the homely rabbit had been included in the menu.
With his queer views of life generally and of crime in particular, Dr. Hendrick never had any compunction about enjoying the proceeds of his servant's unlawful ventures, and sometimes when Ben was occupied in the cooking of a delicious-smelling bird for the evening meal he would chuckle to himself in some amusement. Thinking of those people who would have it that Ben had no intelligence, he would wonder how many of them could have done what he had done and got away with it, with the gamekeepers now always on the look-out for him. Later on, it was this amusement that he derived from his servant's warfare with the landed gentry which was to turn his thoughts into a much more unlawful direction.
The months passed on and, so far from his becoming reconciled to his fate by the peace and quietness of his surroundings, the knowledge that he was doomed to die in such a drawn-out and torturing manner began gradually to fill Hendrick with a bitter and unreasoning spite against the community generally.
Where was the justice, he would ask himself, in that he, with ample means to enjoy the best of everything in his last days, should through his sickness be debarred from all pleasure, while others all around him were well and happy in years beyond those he was ever going to see? At times, in his bad moments, he could hardly contain his anger. How he would love to make some of them suffer as he was suffering now! What happiness would be his if his malady would only sweep through the world like a prairie fire and afflict all mankind!
One day he read in the newspaper of how the Mayfair house of a well-known Society woman had been burgled and a valuable diamond necklace stolen, and it made his blood boil to learn of the sympathy she was receiving.
"The silly, foolish creature," he scowled angrily, "she little knows how fortunate she is! What has she to grieve about in her loss of a few paltry pieces of carbon compared with my ever-increasing loss, day upon day, of my precious health?" He gritted his teeth savagely. "If only diamond necklaces were like hares and rabbits and I could put Ben on to get them! What a laugh I'd have!"
Then, all on the instant, the thought came to him what an exciting thing it would be if he could loose upon Society a little band of competent and well-trained burglars, who had been coached up in what they had to do and were well equipped with everything to carry it out successfully. He would not have any blood-spilling, nothing as coarse as that, he told himself. He would just like a series of burglaries, mysterious robberies from the houses of the very rich and with the robbers getting away uncaught every time.
With the idea growing stronger and stronger the more he thought about it, in time it became a sort of pleasant daydream. The doctor would ask himself what better terrain he could have to work upon than the three counties of East Anglia, so to speak at his very door, and where he could watch everything that was going on. There would be so many houses to choose from there—big, old-world residences of selfish, grasping owners who were hugging to themselves articles of considerable value: jewellery, old china, paintings and many other things that would bring good money wherever they were sold.
What a sensation it would cause if these imaginary burglaries were brought off successfully, one after another! How the newspapers would squeal for the perpetrators to be caught! How the people in other big houses with valuables to lose would quake in their shoes, thinking every night it would be their turn for the burglars to pay them a visit! Certainly the doctor would get a great thrill out of it, and it would fill what he had left of life with an interest he would never be able to obtain in any other way.
But he would have to be very careful, he told himself, in choosing the men to make up this little band. He would have no common, so-called working men, or indeed anyone of known criminal reputation. Instead, he would gather to him young fellows who had never been in trouble before and, for preference, old school-tie men of good social standing. His knowledge of psychology and his long searching studies in the ways of crime had brought home to him most forcibly that the criminal instinct was inherent in everyone and needed only some favourable circumstance to bring it to the surface.
With these thoughts filling his mind for so long, almost to the exclusion of everything else, at last one day he resolved definitely to try to put his plan into execution. First of all he started to consider whom he could find to help him to gather the young fellows together. He was quite prepared to pay well for a suitable man.
After considering everyone with whom he had been brought into contact in recent years, he was very soon of opinion that he had hit upon the right one to approach. He was a man well-born and educated, but as unscrupulous and criminal-minded as anyone could be, named Washington Mainwaring. When a young man, he had come into a goodly sum of money upon the decease of an uncle, and while the money lasted he had lived the gay life of a fast young man about town. Gambling in any form had been his hobby, with the Turf appealing to him most strongly. For two dazzling seasons he could have been found at all the principal race meetings, plunging heavily upon his fancies and, with the luck which so often flatters a newcomer, doing quite well. However, becoming a racehorse owner, it seemed at once that fortune had forsaken him, for everything began to go wrong. Trying to recoup himself in any way he could, he got mixed up in a bad crowd, and ugly rumours began to get about that his horses, when well supported by the public, were being "pulled" in the interests of certain bookmakers. It followed quickly that he received an intimation from the Stewards informing him that the nominations of his horses would no longer be accepted. Indeed, it was said that but for the influence of another uncle, Lord Havildon, he would have been warned off the Turf altogether.
Later came the expected crash, and he was adjudged bankrupt. He now had a wife and child to keep, and was forced to follow several occupations. His last before the coming of the Great War was that of a clerk in a stockbroker's office.
On the outbreak of war he volunteered at once, and as a one-time sergeant in the Artists' Rifle Corps he received a commission. He proved a most capable officer, the war ending with him as Major Mainwaring and decorated with the Distinguished Service Order.
Looking about for some way of earning a living, with the experience of his Stock Exchange work before the war, he had risked his war gratuity and every other penny he possessed in setting up on his own account as an outside broker. Much shrewder now in his outlook upon life, and full of energy, he had achieved a very quick success and in even three years was well established.
Certainly the reputation he had earned was not by any means a good one, as it was well known that his long suit was buying up almost worthless shares and reselling them for the same number of pounds or even more. Advertising extensively, it was generally believed that quite a good proportion of his clients came from among the clergy. At any rate, he circularised everyone whose name was to be found in Crockford's Clerical Directory, and a lot of business undoubtedly came in from that source.
This, then, was the man who one morning received an invitation from Dr. Hendrick to spend a week-end at his bungalow upon the Tillingham marshes. He was curious to see what the doctor's place was like, and he sensed that the old man was now wanting to do some business with him; so he accepted the invitation at once, and late on the following Friday afternoon arrived at the bungalow.
"Good heavens. Doctor," he exclaimed as he got out of his car, "but you've got a lonely place here! Marshes all around you, except for that dreary sea!"
"It's not dreary," snapped the doctor. "Nothing's dreary here, as there are always living creatures about and I get a lot of pleasure in watching the wild life. Yesterday, for instance, a vixen with her two cubs came up close to my very windows, and I watched her playing with them like a cat with her kittens. It was very interesting."
They went into the bungalow, where, to the broker's great satisfaction, a good meal was provided. Knowing something about his host's ill-health, he had been half fearing that the food would be invalid diet.
The meal over, Dr. Hendrick, with no beating about the bush, broached the matter which was uppermost in his mind. When he had recovered from his amazement at the proposition put to him, Mainwaring indulged in a hearty laugh. "What an extraordinary way of acquiring wealth!" he exclaimed. "We might certainly get a lot of fun out of it, but"—he held up his hand protestingly—"just think of its anti-social side!"
"You're a fine one to talk about any anti-social side," scoffed the doctor derisively, "when everyone knows you ought to have been warned off the turf not many years ago. Even now, too, you are probably making a good part of your income by palming off worthless shares upon innocent old clergymen who are foolish enough to believe everything you tell them. To my way of thinking a clean honest burglary is no worse than this share-cheating."
Mainwaring took a long, contemplative puff at his cigar. "Perhaps not," he admitted good-humouredly, "but then burglary is such a crude way of falling foul of the law. If one were caught at it, there would be no possible hope of finding a legal loophole, and it would mean penal servitude every time. Why, man, the risks of burglary are tremendous!"
"Not if we set about it in the way I propose," retorted the doctor sharply. "Then, there would be hardly any risks at all. For instance, take the matter of Lord Raddlestone's collection of gold coins, which I should suggest would be our first venture. I know him and his place near Thetford quite well. He says these coins are worth more than £10,000, and all that would stand between our getting them would be a french window with as flimsy a catch as you could find anywhere. They are all in a handy little cabinet on the ground floor. He keeps no dogs, has only women servants, and the house is lonely in its own grounds, quite a quarter of a mile from its nearest neighbour."
"No burglar alarms?" queried Mainwaring with a frown.
"Not a single one, and all the locks and fastenings about the house are years and years old and very old-fashioned. His lordship's obsession is that, not having been robbed yet—he never will be."
"And apart from the value of the coins as coins," asked the broker, "the gold itself would be worth quite a lot?"
"Yes, quite a bit. There are more than five hundred of them. Still, if they were disposed of in America they would fetch from ten to twenty times the value of the gold."
"And your idea," said Mainwaring thoughtfully, "is for me to help you get hold of a bunch of young fellows who, so to speak, are down on their uppers and ready for anything to lay hold of a bit of money."
"Certainly not," replied the doctor with some indignation. "I want no stony-brokes in shabby clothes and cadging for a pound or two wherever they think they can get it. I want young fellows with good clothes, in regular occupations and who move in good society."
"And who are quite agreeable to becoming burglars," laughed Mainwaring, "if the opportunity is given to them?"
"But the urge will be in them," insisted the doctor, "the same as it is in all of us when we see other people enjoying the good things that we haven't got—the urge to break away from the ordinary conventions of the day and help ourselves to what we want. We are all criminals at heart, and I tell you I know, from my almost lifelong researches into the workings of the human mind, that this instinct, born in us, is never totally eradicated, no matter what our upbringing and education may have been. Look at yourself, for instance."
"What about me?" asked Mainwaring with some truculence.
"Well, you're a definite criminal, aren't you," said the doctor, "as I've pointed out, particularly in your habit of taking money off people for worthless shares?"
"But as I've told you," replied Mainwaring, "that's in the way of business. It all comes within the law."
"But the criminal intent is there," persisted the doctor, "and you push it as far as you dare. These boys I am looking for will dare a bit more. That'll be all the difference between them and you."
"Then you tell me," said Mainwaring, "how I am to pick them out. How am I to start?"
"By just using your common sense," snapped the doctor. "You must know plenty of young fellows who go racing, and that's where you'll most easily find the ones I want. The atmosphere of the racecourse is always an unhealthy one, as no one knows better than you, with swindles continually going on. Horses are pulled one day and allowed to win the next. I am told that the majority of regular racegoers are only too ready to chip in with any cheating that's going on, and that must blur their moral outlook quite a lot."
"But hardly, I should say," commented Mainwaring dryly, "to the extent of making them willing to adopt the calling of burglars all at once."
"I don't agree with you there," said the doctor sharply. "If it is put to them in a tactful way they will quickly see the reasonableness of such a proposal." He spoke with sudden animation. "I'll tell you what. You look out for any likely young fellow and, when you think you've found him, just you bring him down here for me to talk to. I'll see at once if he's any good. Of course, don't you tell him anything. Leave all that to me."
"Good," smiled Mainwaring, "and, as I take it, I've got to produce an aristocratic-looking young Adonis, with well-cut clothes, relations in the House of Lords and without a penny in his pockets." His face sobered down. "But seriously—when I come to think of it, I know quite a few young fellows who were in my regiment with me during the war, chaps who had no fear of anything or anyone, and who I noticed were very keen in the souvenir line. It was rotten bad luck for any surrendering German officer who had got a wrist watch or anything worth having on him. He had to part with it at the pistol point"—he nodded grimly—"and these young chaps meant business, too. The German officer would come off pretty badly if he didn't cough up at once, as ordered to."
The doctor looked pleased. "Probably the very type of young men I want." He laughed. "I knew you were the right party to approach first."
"But one moment," frowned Mainwaring, as if he had just thought of something. He eyed the doctor intently. "If we start on this business what part do you expect me to play? Don't forget I'm forty-four, and much too old for the strenuous job of breaking down doors and cracking open safes."
"You wouldn't be asked to," said the doctor. "All you would have to do would be to help me get the men together and then spot likely houses where they could get to work. And if all goes well there'll be plenty of money for everyone, and your share will be many times greater than all you can earn in that bucket-shop of yours in the City."
"And you yourself won't want anything?" queried Mainwaring.
"Not a penny," replied the doctor. "I've got far more money than I can spend in the short time I'm going to live." He spoke emphatically. "And if you serve me well there'll be a good legacy for you when I die."
The following Friday evening Mainwaring turned up again at the bungalow, this time being driven down in a motor side-car outfit. "Mr. Reginald Barton Belt," he said, introducing the driver. "He was a lieutenant in my regiment during the last year of the war."
Belt was a well-set-up and pleasant-looking young fellow in his twenty-eighth year. It did not seem as if he had a care in the world.
"Awful ride!" sighed Mainwaring, mopping the perspiration from his face. "If I had known what sort of a driver he was I'd have never gone a yard with him. I'm sure I've never been nearer death before in all my life. He took sharp corners at fifty miles an hour and the whole time drove like a demented man."
"Not at all," grinned Belt. "Why, I was just toddling along!"
The doctor liked the look of Belt at once. Just the very type of man he wanted—a reckless, daredevil fellow who would be afraid of nothing! Asked what his occupation was, he said he was in a bank and it was a damned monotonous life.
"And there are no perks," he went on laughingly, "as they balance the books every night."
After a good dinner with plenty of wine, the doctor brought round the conversation to the inequalities of life, how some people could buy everything they wanted, while others had only barely enough to scrape along upon.
"What I say," agreed Belt. "It makes me damned wild sometimes to see people come into our bank on a Saturday morning, draw out a couple of hundred pounds, or perhaps more, and tell the cashier they're going to give them a run that afternoon at the races. Then, perhaps on the Monday morning, if they've had a bit of luck, they'll turn up with a huge wad of notes that'll take the cashier a devil of a time to count, and pay them in with apparently no more interest than if they only amounted up to a few bob." He grinned wryly. "Yes, sometimes I feel like jumping over the counter and giving them a good dong on the head. They don't realise how fortunate they are."
"And I know an old gentleman," supplemented the doctor, "who's got over £10,000 in gold coins, earning no interest and lying in an old cabinet, with nothing to prevent a worthier person getting hold of them except the catch of one single ground-floor window."
"Whew, what a chance for someone!" exclaimed Belt laughingly. "Tell me where the place is, and I'll go round at once and chance my luck."
This was Dr. Hendrick's opportunity, and he was very soon unfolding his plan to a highly interested young man. They talked on for some hours, and this conversation marked the first stage in the bringing together of that little band of thieves which some months later was to cause the authorities so much anxiety.
Mainwaring could not have introduced the doctor to a more suitable man than young Belt, as through him one recruit after another was brought down to the bungalow. They had all been most carefully chosen. All were returned soldiers somewhere about the middle twenties, all were fairly well-educated, and all were seemingly imbued with something of that honour which is supposed to exist among a certain type of thieves. There were five of them in all. One was a fully qualified engineer, two came from banks, another was a medical student and the last—they all thought this was the best of jokes—was actually a clerical employee at Scotland Yard. All were bachelors except Mainwaring himself, who was a widower with a grown-up son; and had their aims not been unsocial they might have been described as a gallant little band of adventurers.
Of course Dr. Hendrick's bungalow was made their headquarters, and at first they spent most week-ends there as his guests. It was the doctor's intention that they should all get to know one another well and become loyal friends. Loyalty was the doctrine he preached to them, and from his conversation it might almost have seemed that he was not urging them to do anything very wrong, but instead was launching them upon a highly moral crusade to punish the selfishness and rapacity of the wealthy classes.
In the course of the years the doctor's mind had, without doubt, become warped by his continual brooding over crime, and his sickness had certainly had a considerable effect on his moral sense. Yet his special pleading was as clever as it could have been, and his reasoning made a profound impression upon his young and impressionable listeners. The one exception was Mainwaring. In his own mind he stigmatised the doctor's talk as all "poppycock," and he chuckled to himself that they were all going to be, as he tersely put it, "bloody thieves."
The many visits of these young fellows to the bungalow entailed a good deal of extra work by the doctor's servant Ben, but he took it all in his stride and without any questioning. Along all the years of his service Dr. Hendrick had never confided in him, and Ben seemed to think there was no reason why he should. On his side, he told his master everything with the frankness of a child, but he never expected to be told anything in return. Devoid of all imagination and with no curiosity either, Ben never wanted to know who these young fellows were or why they came. He was just not interested.
At first these lively visitors had been very reluctant to discuss anything in Ben's presence, but his master had assured them he could be trusted implicitly, as he never repeated anything he heard, and indeed most probably would not even take it in. Very soon, therefore, they became accustomed to speak in front of him exactly as if he were not present among them.
As can have been gathered from the consultation at Scotland Yard between the Chief Commissioner of Police, the heads of the Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk police and Inspectors Stone and Larose, in the ensuing six months Dr. Hendrick's most optimistic hopes were fulfilled. The spoils were of considerable value, and Mainwaring managed to dispose of them to a reliable fence he had found in the East End.
The various members of the band, however, each received only a portion of the proceeds. The doctor was wise and far-seeing there, making sure that no attention should be drawn to any of them by a sudden alteration in his standard of living. For the time being they were being only partly remunerated for their services, with the understanding that when they eventually disbanded the balance due to each would be handed over in a lump sum. The doctor made them understand that whatever attention anyone drew to himself then would be entirely his own concern and would not involve any of the others.
Although, to his surprise, Dr. Hendrick was not getting quite the amount of thrill he had been so confidently anticipating, he certainly could not complain that the burglaries were not catching the public eye. On the contrary, the Press continued to shriek for the perpetrators to be run to earth, and this gave Mainwaring more pleasure than the doctor derived. One thing, however, was annoying Mainwaring very much, and that was that the doctor was evidently determined to trust him no further than he was obliged to. Hendrick kept a close watch upon every penny received from the fence, and was always present when the money was paid over.
Still, the broker consoled himself in the realisation that he was picking up a lot of experience—indeed, so much that he was now going in for a little bit of larceny upon his own. His unsuspecting victim was his sole remaining relation, his aunt. She was a Mrs. Monteith Scrutton, who lived in a big house known as Orwell Hall, situated at the outskirts of Ingatestone, a small town about twenty-five miles from London.
In her sixty-sixth year, the wealthy, childless widow of the late Mr. Justice Scrutton, was a woman of imposing and rather masculine appearance, tall and angular and with a strong intellectual face. Very short-sighted, she wore glasses with very thick lenses, so thick indeed that they gave her an almost owl-like look. Very eccentric and of an unlovable disposition, she was masterful in her ways, liked to lay down the law to everyone about her, and was vindictive and spiteful to all who crossed her. She had no real friends, but as she lived in an old historic house with plenty of servants, and entertained lavishly, invitations to Orwell Hall were seldom refused.
Mainwaring detested her, and had good reason for doing so. Some years before she had been furious with him for the fast life he had been living, and when his financial affairs came to a crash, she had actually taken the trouble to write him a spiteful letter expressing the great pleasure she felt at learning of the mess he was in. Mainwaring replied with a communication of one word, "Bitch," written in large letters upon a single sheet of paper. For years nothing more passed between them. Then, seeing in the newspapers that he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order, she seemed to relent a little and invited him down for a week-end at Orwell Hall.
Very astonished, he had accepted the invitation out of curiosity. There had been nothing effusive in the way he greeted her. Instead, he was curt and stand-offish and, strange to say, she liked him for it. However, she told him flatly he would never get anything out of her alive or dead, as upon her decease all her money was going to charities. He answered scornfully that after the letters which had passed between them he never expected anything. He visited her again later, when he was running his bucket-shop in the city with such success, and he boasted of the money he was making and, to annoy her, even related the unscrupulous way in which he was making most of it.
To his disappointment she was not at all annoyed or shocked, and only remarked that she was always interested in criminals and when her husband was alive she had often obtained a seat at criminal trials. "And one day, perhaps," she added with a sardonic smile, "I may see you in the dock. Then, when you have served your sentence," she went on condescendingly, "it is even possible I may be inclined to help you a little."
"Thanks ever so much," he said dryly. "I'll be sure and drop you a post-card just before I am coming out."
"Oh, but I shan't need that," she said, "as I take an active interest in the Released Prisoners' Aid Society and make a point of being brought in contact with some of the worst of them when they leave the prison. I'm on the committee." She laughed. "It's as good as a play to hear their stories and see the hypocritical airs they put on. However, they don't take me in, as I see most of them have no real repentance at all. Still, they amuse me, and occasionally I invite a real bad one to come here and stay with me for a few days." She nodded grimly. "Oh, don't imagine it's from any sense of pity I have them down. It's just curiosity to see how they react after the prison fare and surroundings to the luxury prevailing here. I like to watch, too, how the thieves among them look gloatingly upon the many beautiful things I possess."
"You have funny ideas of amusement, haven't you?" commented Mainwaring. "Isn't it rather like pinning flies on to the wall and watch them wriggle?"
"It may be," his aunt admitted carelessly, "but as a student of criminal psychology it amuses me. It gives me a new interest in life."
"But with the many portable things they could take away with them," said Mainwaring, "aren't you afraid you'll lose some?"
"Not a bit," she replied instantly. "I keep too sharp an eye upon them for that, both when they're staying here and when they're leaving." She bridled up viciously. "And if I caught them at any tricks, I'd have them back in prison without showing the very slightest mercy, not the slightest." She laughed. "Really, I'd be rather interested if any of them tried to get the better of me."
Mainwaring was now often invited to Orwell Hall, and he always came when he could. The patched-up friendship between the eccentric and spiteful old woman and the selfish and untrustworthy broker would certainly have amused anyone looking on. Neither of them had any liking for the other, but, as she told him, he amused her, while he on his side wanted to keep in with her because, notwithstanding her continued taunting that he would never get anything out of her, he yet thought it quite possible that in her perverse and eccentric nature she might leave him something quite substantial in her will.
Looking round, too, upon her beautiful possessions, the silver, the china, the old paintings and the many priceless things her husband had collected with such care, and in which she seemed to take such little interest, when the little robber band was doing so well in its raids, he would have dearly loved to put them on to her.
However, he dared do nothing there, as at night two savage dogs were always running loose in the grounds, and every door and window upon the ground floor was well protected with modern and up-to-date burglar alarms. For any good chance of success it would mean first getting rid of the dogs somehow and then having help inside the house, and Mainwaring judged that neither of these two things was practical at the moment.
Still, it was always in his mind to help himself to something good one day and take it away with him. In particular, he had his eye upon a small case of King Charles salt-cellars, which were worth, as he knew, quite a lot of money. These were kept pushed away behind a lot of other silver articles in a glass-doored cabinet, the door of which was often carelessly left unlocked.
His chance came at last, a safe and very good one, so he thought. One Sunday when he was upon a brief visit to the Hall his aunt had a sudden heart attack. The local doctor, who was called in immediately, assured the old lady the attack was nothing to worry about; but, knowing Mainwaring to be a relative of hers, he told him privately that things were really much more serious than he had made out. Certainly, he said, Mrs. Scrutton might appear to get all right again, but on the other hand she would probably have another seizure sooner or later, and this might very easily prove fatal owing to the condition of her heart.
Returning to town that same day, Mainwaring chanced it and went off with the salt-cellars in his suit-case. He was quite confident that even if his aunt did get better, it might be many months before she would come to miss them. In any case, he told himself, there could never be any evidence against himself.
The next day he was informed by the housekeeper that his aunt was much better. On the third day, when he phoned up again, to his great disappointment she answered the call herself. She told him that all the trouble seemed to have quite passed away, and she was now feeling as well as she had ever been.
For the next few days Mainwaring was just a little bit nervous that the absence of the salt-cellars might after all have been noticed; but the following week, receiving the nice present of some lovely hot-house grapes from the Hall, his confidence was restored and he was sure everything was all right.
When he rang up to thank her she told him she had lost both her big dogs. They had got out of the grounds three nights previously and killed about twenty sheep upon nearby farms, and the local magistrates had made an order for her to have them destroyed at once.
"But of course you'll get some more," said Mainwaring. "Dogs are the best protectors you can have."
"No, I shan't," she replied sharply. "What would be the good? All the neighbouring farmers are incensed against me, and they'd only poison them if I did."
"Well, I've got a bit of news for you," he said, "and I don't know what you'll think of it." He waited a few moments to keep her in suspense, and then went on, "I'm going to marry again."
"A woman with money, of course," snapped the old lady. "Then I'm sorry for her, whoever she is."
"No, no one with money," said Mainwaring, "and you happen to be wrong for once. The young lady I am becoming engaged to has nothing but what she earns in a milliner's shop." He laughed merrily. "And now I'll shock you. She's only nineteen, and my son Archer is engaged to her twin sister. His fancy is a typist in an office in the city, and so you see we are being democratic in our choices and going for neither position nor money."
"Fools, fools, all of you!" exclaimed the old lady disgustedly. "The girls are much too young to marry, and your son himself can't be over twenty."
"He'll be twenty-one on the twenty-seventh of next month," said Mainwaring, "and we're going to announce the double engagement upon his coming of age. I'm throwing a small party then for a few of our friends. Up to now we've told no one of the engagements."
"I should think not," she exclaimed tartly. "You would be too ashamed. It's disgusting for a man of your age to be marrying a young girl under twenty. The idea of your son's wife as your own sister-in-law makes the whole thing positively indecent." Her anger rose. "And I'll have nothing more to do with you because of it. You're disgracing the family again."
Mainwaring kept his temper, grinning to himself. "But I wanted to get your advice about this little party," he said. "As you know, for many years now I've not been anything of a party-giving man and I've forgotten how to set about it."
"You'll get no advice from me," she exclaimed viciously, "and don't you ever come near me again. I tell you I'm disgusted with you," and she banged down the receiver and the line went dead.
"Old bitch," scowled Mainwaring. "I'd murder her if I only got the chance." He chuckled. "I'm devilish glad now that I did take those salt-cellars, and I hope she misses them and does suspect me. Let her suspect. She'll never get any proof, as I shan't sell them until she dies." He shrugged his shoulders. "Well, that's the last of the old cow for me. I'll get nothing out of her now, for sure."
However, it was not destined by any means to be the last of her, as to his amazement she rang him up the very next day and her voice was oily in its gentleness.
"I'm sorry, Washington," she said, "but I was very sharp with you yesterday and I ought not to have been. Your life is your own and what you do is no business of anyone but you yourself."
Her tone was so conciliatory that he checked the abuse he would have liked to heap upon her. "Oh, that's all right," he laughed. "I'm not thin-skinned, and I never mind what people say of me."
"Very sensible of you!" she exclaimed. "I'm like that, too," she went on. "Now an idea has come to me, and it will perhaps make up for my rudeness to you. A daughter of a very old friend of mine is coming out at a dance I am giving somewhere about the end of next month, and the dance is being preceded by a small house-party here. I thought it would be nice if your engagements were announced then, with you and your boy and, of course, the two girls you are engaged to present as my guests. It would save you considerable bother and create quite a lot of interest among the other guests." She laughed. "Doesn't the world always love a lover? Well, what do you think of my idea?"
For a few moments he was so flabbergasted that he didn't know what to say, and she had to repeat her question. Then, commenting what an unexpected kindness it was, he accepted gratefully.
"And you come down this week-end," she said, "and we'll talk it over. If you like, your fiancee can come, too."
So Mainwaring and his fiancee went down to the Hall on the Saturday and were very graciously received. The girl, Caroline Tracery, was certainly very lovely, with a child-like prettiness that made her look younger than even her nineteen years. With her small little pink-and-white face and large innocent-looking eyes, she reminded Mrs. Scrutton of a cheap and common doll, and it was a good thing Mainwaring was not aware of what was passing in his relation's mind. It was a good thing, too, that she did not know what was passing in his, as, with no dogs now roaming the grounds at night, he had put Orwell Hall down on the list to be the next place raided by the little band.
A week before the date of the festivities at the Hall the five members of Dr. Hendrick's little band were gathered at his bungalow upon the seashore, listening to Mainwaring while the latter unfolded to them what their next piece of work was going to be. The doctor and he had always thought it best not to give them too long notice about anything, to ensure that their morale should not suffer by the waiting. So now it was all news to them that the next victim of their raids was to be an old lady who was giving a house-party and opening the festivities with a sumptuous banquet, to be followed the next night by a grand ball to which about a hundred people had been invited.
"I shall be among the guests at this house-party," said Mainwaring, "so it should be an easy job. I'll see that the burglar-alarm on one of the windows on the ground floor is put out of action." He rubbed his hands together gleefully. "Now there's splendid stuff all over the place, but I almost think you'd better be content with the old silver which you'll find in the big glass-doored cabinet in the drawing-room. As silver things are selling to-day, there's hundreds and hundreds of pounds' worth. Of course if all's going all right you can look about you a bit. In the old woman's boudoir next to the drawing-room there are two Corot paintings which she says would fetch a big price."
"Good," exclaimed one of the men, "we'll get them."
"And if you've got the time," went on Mainwaring, "in this same boudoir there's a smallish safe. Here's a snap of it I managed to get." He spoke impressively. "Now there'll be twenty-four visitors at the house-party, and some of them I know are quite wealthy people. So there'll probably be a lot of expensive jewellery worn, and the old woman says she is going to suggest to them that when it is not in actual use it should all be kept for security in this safe." He laughed. "Oh, yes, you boys have put the wind up her quite a bit. So the safe should be well worth opening if it can be done."
He handed the snap over to the one who was an engineer and asked, "What do you think about it, Harcourt?"
The engineer scrutinised it interestedly. "I know how to set about opening it," he said, "and it wouldn't be very difficult. A professional safe-opener would do it in about five minutes."
"What, in five minutes!" exclaimed Mainwaring. "Why, it's a modern combination one, a Super-Samson!"
"I know that," laughed the other, "but nowadays these little safes are easy meat to a cracksman. He'd knock off the dial with a sledge-hammer, preferably with a lead or copper head so that it would make little noise. Then the spindle would be punched back with a centre punch and mallet. That breaks up the small sockets inside and allows the lock to be opened." He spoke thoughtfully. "How near is this boudoir to the bedrooms?"
"Just underneath some of them," said Mainwaring, "so you would sure to be heard. But couldn't the five of you carry the safe away in slings and open it some distance away?"
The engineer nodded. "Then get us the slings, and we'll see what we can do."
"Now it won't be upon the Thursday night, the night of the dinner-party, that you are to pay us a visit," went on Mainwaring. "It'll be upon the night of the ball, or rather about three o'clock on the Saturday morning. Everyone will be tired out by then and sleeping like logs."
"But how can you be sure they'll all be in bed by three?" asked the engineer. "The dancing may go on until daylight."
"No, no, not with this old party," smiled Mainwaring. "I know her well, and at all her dances the music stops at half-past one to the very minute. She's as hard as flint about that, and will take good care that all those not sleeping the night at the Hall leave well before two, when all the lights will be put out." He laughed. "I'm quite certain of that, as it's her invariable rule, and she's an old party whom no one disobeys."
"All right," laughed back one of the young fellows, "we'll attend to it. Now where is this house and who does it belong to?"
"Next Sunday morning," said Mainwaring, "I'll motor a couple of you over to it for the usual spy-out of the lie of the land. The place is Orwell Hall, near Ingatestone, and it belongs to a Mrs. Monteith Scrutton."
Young Belt looked very amused. "No need to motor any of us over," he chuckled, "as I know both the old woman and her place quite well. I've often been inside the Hall grounds when I was a boy, for Sunday School fetes." He laughed merrily. "You see, I was born in Ingatestone, and my Dad's been the Rector there for over thirty years."
MRS. SCRUTTON'S reputation for hospitality was so well deserved that in the late afternoon of the appointed Thursday the twenty-four guests who were to make up the house-party began to gather at the Hall with a pleasurable anticipation of the good time that lay before them. Rather to the surprise of those who were well known in the social world, they found among their fellow guests several of whom they had never heard, with some of them seeming very out of place in their surroundings.
In the lounge, during the cocktail hour before dinner, the Honourable Mrs. Crocker-James, a daughter of Lord Roverton, whispered to her great crony Lady Bower, "Amelia has certainly invited some funny people. Just look at that man by the window, Morton Hudson I think she said his name was. See how self-conscious he is in his clothes, just as if he'd never had a dinner jacket on before. He keeps watching the crease in his trousers and giving it a tug every time he thinks it's out of the straight line."
"And that woman, too, who's talking to old Major Rattery," whispered back Lady Bower. "Of course, she's good-looking and well-dressed, but there's something flashy about her I don't like. She suggests to me the adventuress type you read about in books, and she certainly looks a woman with a past, too."
"A good many pasts, I should say," nodded Mrs. Crocker-James darkly. "Amelia introduced her to me as a Mrs. Benton Rome, but most likely she's divorced. She looks that kind. Just watch now the way that silly old Major Rattery is ogling her. She's had plenty of experience in how to lead men on. I'm quite sure of that."
"And, talking about ogling," commented Lady Bower, "what's the strength of those two young girls Washington Mainwaring and his son have brought down? The boy's certainly sweet on one of them. Who are they? Have you heard?"
The other shook her head. "Nothing except that they're twin sisters and called Tracery. Amelia is very evasive about them. They're pretty, aren't they?"
"Yes, in a common way, but anyone can see they're no class. Talking about the Mainwarings—Washington must be making a pot of money in the city, as I saw they all came down in a big and most expensive-looking car."
"Oh, he's making money all right, but how? I heard last week that the Bishop of Wendover had lost quite a big sum over some worthless shares he had induced him to buy. Washington's clever, but he'll get caught one day. You see if he doesn't. I shouldn't like him to be handling any money of mine. Ah, there goes the first gong. We must go up and get ready. I'm going to wear my emeralds, but to be on the safe side I shall sleep with them under my pillow to-night."
The dinner that followed could not have been more ornate and luxurious. There was the long table with its beautiful crystal and silver-ware under the shaded candle-lights. There were the lovely exotic flowers, delivered, so it was understood, by a special car from town. There was the rich food, and the wines of rare vintage. Lastly there was the perfect service, with the guests under the supervision of Robson, the butler, being waited upon like royalty.
Towards the end of the meal, when everyone was contented after the good wine and the rich food, Mrs. Scrutton rose in a grand manner. It was noted that she was smiling as if amused. "And now, everybody," she said, "I have something very unusual and important to tell you, something the like of which you have probably never heard before." She paused a long moment, with all eyes fastened upon her, and then went on, "I have to announce to you two engagements of great interest. The first is that of my nephew, Mr. Washington Mainwaring, to Miss Caroline Tracery, and the second is that of his son, Mr. Archer Mainwaring, to her twin sister, Miss Adele Tracery."
For a few moments everyone was so amazed that a dead silence followed. Then Major Rattery started to clap. "Bravo! They're lucky fellows!"
A general clapping at once ensued, though an observer might have thought that on the whole it was only very half-hearted. Mrs. Scrutton cut it rather short by holding up her hand and continuing her remarks. "And the marriages in one way will be very remarkable, as through their solemnisation my nephew will be having his sister-in-law as his daughter-in-law and his son, Mr. Archer Mainwaring, his sister-in-law as his step-mother. Of course, you all know the happy young ladies are twin sisters, but it will no doubt interest you to know that my nephew's bride-to-be is the younger of the two by half an hour." She lifted her glass from the table. "Now I ask you to all join me in drinking to their happiness and good health."
The toast was received with acclamation, but from the private conversation ensuing later in the lounge it was quite evident that the engagement of Washington Mainwaring to such a young girl by no means met with general approval.
"Disgusting, I call it," whispered Lady Bower. "He can't be in his right mind to be marrying a girl as young as that. I feel sorry for her."
"And did you notice," whispered back Mrs. Crocker-James, "how catty Amelia was in making the announcement? I am sure she disapproves of it, and was half sneering all the time," and her friend at once agreed with her that there was something in what she said.
Though it was July the evening was chilly and there were bright fires everywhere. The time was passed with music and cards, with Mr. Hudson, common-place though he might look, showing himself to be by far the best poker player of them all. Mrs. Scrutton smiled her cold sardonic smile when she learnt that he was a winner of more than £70. Soon after eleven she informed her guests masterfully that it was time they all went to their rooms as they would be up very late on the morrow. By midnight it was supposed that they were all in bed.
For what remained of that short summer night most of the guests at the Hall slept heavily, and when morning at length came they were loath to leave their warm and comfortable beds. The servants, however, were up early as usual; and so it happened that shortly before seven when Susan Brown, one of the under-housemaids, went into her mistress's little boudoir to pull up the blinds and open the window, her amazed and startled eyes fell upon the body of the Hall butler, lying outstretched upon the carpet in a pool of dark blood.
For a long minute, as she told everyone afterwards, she stood as still as a block of stone, so overcome in horror that she could not scream as she wanted to. Then she rushed into the kitchen, where the cook and Anthony, the footman, were having a cup of tea.
"Mr. Robson's been murdered," she gasped. "He's lying on the floor in Mistress's room all covered over with blood."
"Murdered, you little fool?" almost shouted the footman. "What do you mean? How do you know?"
The girl began to cry. "There's a knife sticking up in his back."
The footman banged his tea-cup on to the table and, followed closely by the cook, dashed from the kitchen. The girl had left the door of the boudoir wide open, and they pulled themselves up sharply upon the threshold of the room, appalled at what they saw. The blinds were still drawn, but the strong sunlight filtering through at the sides made everything quite clear. The dead man was lying almost prone upon his stomach, but with one arm outstretched. His head, however, was turned sideways and the ghastly hue to its face told that he was dead.
"Don't you go in, Cook," breathed the footman hoarsely, "but I'll just touch him to make sure." He tiptoed over to the body and bent down. "Been dead a long time," he whispered. "He's stone cold."
The cook was a matter-of-fact woman of middle age, and she awoke to action at once. "Come out and shut the door," she ordered sharply. "You ring up the police and I'll go up and tell the mistress." She choked down a gulp. "Oh, what an awful thing to happen!"
The cook had intended to knock gently upon her mistress's door, but in her shocked state of mind she gave it a good thump before bursting unceremoniously into the room.
"Mistress," she called out brokenly, "a terrible thing has happened. Someone has killed Mr. Robson, and he is lying on the carpet in your boudoir with a knife sticking out of his back!"
Apparently asleep until the cook had burst into the room, Mrs. Scrutton had jerked herself up into a sitting position, with her face as white as death and her eyes almost starting from her head.
"Robson dead!" she exclaimed in horrified tones. "Murdered in my room? It's impossible!"
"It isn't, Mistress," cried the cook. "It's only too true! Susan found him when she went into the room just now to pull up the blinds. There's a big pool of black blood all round his body, and when Anthony touched his face he said it was cold as ice."
Mrs. Scrutton had in part recovered herself and she slipped out of bed. "Help me on with my dressing-gown," she ordered. "Quick! And then we must telephone the police."
"Anthony has already done it," said the cook. "I made him do it at once."
They found the footman standing outside the boudoir door. "I got Sergeant Trevor on the phone, Mistress," he whispered very frightenedly. "He said he would come up at once. He ordered that no one must go into the room and nothing must be touched." But Mrs. Scrutton took no notice of what the footman said and, flinging the door wide open, walked over to the body and stood looking down at it.
The Ingatestone Police Station was not a quarter of a mile away, and almost at once the dead silence was broken by the sound of a car being driven furiously up the drive.
Mrs. Scrutton turned to the footman. "Let him in," she said sharply, "and then go up and tell Mr. Mainwaring what has happened and say he's to come down at once."
The sergeant, accompanied by a constable, bustled briskly into the room. The former was a very competent-looking man with a grim, unsmiling face. From his expression he did not seem too pleased to find Mrs. Scrutton there. Giving her a curt nod, after a quick glance at the body he asked her sharply, "Nothing been touched, I hope? Then will you please come out of the room?"
Mrs. Scrutton did not like being ordered about so brusquely. Well acquainted with the sergeant, who had been stationed in Ingatestone for several years, she had expected the usual deference she was accustomed to from him. "But you are aware this is my house, Sergeant?" she said icily.
"Not now that murder's been done," retorted the sergeant instantly. "The law's taken possession of it. The Superintendent from Chelmsford will be here in a few minutes, and my orders are that everyone is to be kept away from the body. Another thing, no one who was sleeping here last night is to be allowed to leave the house. Will you please have everyone told at once?"
Holding her head very high, Mrs. Scrutton left the room, followed by the sergeant, who closed the door and stationed the constable outside to make sure that no one entered.
"Now, Mrs. Scrutton," he asked, "has anything been stolen?"
"Not that I know of," she snapped. "Don't you realise it is only a very few minutes since we learnt my butler was dead?"
"Well, will you please look round," said the sergeant, "and see if anything has gone? To save time, too, will you also kindly prepare a list of everyone who slept in the house last night? That is the first thing our people from Chelmsford will want."
Barely half an hour had passed before two police cars and an ambulance arrived from Chelmsford. The Superintendent himself was in charge. He was perhaps a little more polite than the Ingatestone sergeant had been, but he was equally firm.
"Of course you realise, Mrs. Scrutton," he said, "what a dreadful business this is. As far as we can make out at present, there is no certainty that it has anything to do with the gang which has been committing all these robberies, but the authorities take so serious a view that Scotland Yard is sending down some of their men to help us. They will be arriving very shortly. Of course you understand that none of your guests will be allowed to leave the Hall until all our enquiries are completed."
It was a miserable breakfast for the house-party, with those present at the meal speaking very little and then only in awed whispers. Still, for some of them there was one little silver lining in the dark cloud hovering over the Hall, as they had been informed that no robbery had taken place and the jewellery in their hostess's safe had not been interfered with.
Washington Mainwaring was in a great state of discomfiture. Not only was he dismayed that the carefully arranged plan for raiding the house could not be carried out now, but also he was terrified at the thought that the news of what had happened at the Hall might not reach the raiders before they had started for the arranged rendezvous, a disused gravel pit about half a mile away. Taking their usual precautions, they would each come from a different direction and begin gathering there just after nightfall. As the distance to be covered was barely twenty miles they would be making their several ways on foot, leaving the doctor's house upon the Tillingham marshes quite early in the day. So it was almost certain they would be setting off knowing nothing of what had happened at Orwell Hall during the night and unaware that the police were now in possession of the house. Then, with no warning that the contemplated raid must be postponed, what would follow might prove catastrophic for the little band.
He thought quickly, as he knew he must act at once. He dared not telephone to the doctor, as with the excitement which would be prevailing all round the countryside he knew every word of his conversation would be listened into and of course broadcast everywhere. He judged, however, that a telegram would be quite safe and reach the doctor quickly, as it would be phoned on to him from the post-office at Burnham-on-Crouch.
Approaching the telephone cabinet just off the lounge, to his annoyance he ran into the Chelmsford Superintendent, who eyed him frowningly.
"No objection, I suppose, to my sending a telegram?" asked Mainwaring.
"Not one to a newspaper?" asked the Superintendent sharply. "I can't allow that."
"No, a private one to a friend of mine," said Mainwaring, and he handed over a paper upon which his proposed telegram was written out:
"Dr. Hendrick, Tillingham, Burnham-on-Crouch. Terrible accident here. Will come as soon as I can but may now be detained several days. Listen in to wireless this afternoon or evening. Washington Mainwaring."
The Superintendent read it through carefully. "All right," he said. "There's no objection to that." And so the telegram was at once phoned through to the Ingatestone post-office.
Less than an hour later a police car drew up to the house, and Inspector Stone and Larose alighted.
At that moment the Superintendent happened to be in the lounge talking to Mrs. Scrutton, and he at once proceeded to introduce them to her. She eyed them coldly, but said nothing and, with a curt bow, immediately left the lounge.
"Funny old party!" whispered the Superintendent with a grin. "She's not a bit helpful, and it's just as if she thought someone had killed this poor fellow to annoy her." He went on: "I've had all the necessary photographs taken, but nothing in the room has been touched, and you'll see everything exactly as it was when the maid discovered the body at five minutes to seven this morning."
They talked for a few minutes, and then the Superintendent proceeded to lead the way to the boudoir. "Ah, one moment!" he exclaimed. "I've kept our surgeon waiting here for you. I'll go and fetch him. He's out on the terrace having a smoke."
The surgeon was interviewed, and the four men entered the room where the body lay. For a long minute the inspectors stood looking down and regarding it intently. Finally Inspector Stone asked, "And how long would you say he's been dead, Doctor?"
"Considering there was a fire burning in the room, about nine hours, and at a guess I should say that it would be shortly after midnight when he was killed. The warmth would delay the rigor coming on, and the muscles of the neck and jaw are only now just beginning to stiffen. The knife, or really it's only a skewer, apparently, went right through the heart, and death must have been practically instantaneous."
"I make out that what probably happened," said the Superintendent, "was something like this. He came in here last thing last night to bolt that french window and switch on the alarm. He was smoking a cigar, but apparently it was not drawing well and he stopped to put a match to it. He had just struck the match when someone who had followed him into the room crept up from behind and stabbed him. You can see both the match and the cigar lying there upon the carpet when he crashed down."
"You seem very sure, don't you," smiled Stone, "that the killer came from inside the house?"
The Superintendent smiled back. "Well, it looks like it, doesn't it?" He shook his head. "Anyhow, this business is certainly not the work of that burglar gang we are looking for. For one thing they wouldn't have started to operate so early in the night, and for another, as I've told you, nothing has been stolen, yet goodness knows there are any amount of portable values about. Why, only as far away as the next room there is a cabinet full of priceless old silver, with a lock you could open with a penknife."
Stone turned to the police surgeon. "Well, I think you can pull out that skewer now. I understand there are no fingermarks upon the handle."
The skewer was drawn out and laid upon a newspaper they found on the desk. "Last night's paper," remarked Stone. "I don't suppose it's wanted." He smiled. "Anyhow, it doesn't matter now if it is."
The blade of the skewer was about six inches long, flat and with a very sharp point. Upon its dagger-shaped handle were stamped the letters T. R.
"A fine piece of work and very old," commented Stone. "Used for skewering," he sighed deeply, "those generous joints of beef they used to cook in those happy days of long ago. Now those letters should help us a lot to find out where it came from." He turned sharply to the Superintendent. "But surely Mrs. Scrutton will know something about it. It may be one of the curios taken out of that cabinet of silver things you've been telling us about. Have you told her about it?"
"She's seen it," replied the Superintendent. "She came in to see the body directly after it was found. The Ingatestone sergeant found her here when he arrived, but he says she made no comment about the weapon, and so it can be assumed she knows nothing about it."
"But we'll ask her at once," said Stone. "We'll talk to her first. Now where's that list of everyone who was supposed to be sleeping under this roof last night?" The Superintendent handed it to him, and he made a grimace. "Plenty to question. How many are there?"
"Besides Mrs. Scrutton herself," said the Superintendent, "twenty-four guests and eleven servants. At the moment, to save time, our expert is busy getting all their finger-prints."
"And you found the french window shut?" asked Stone.
"Shut, but not bolted," said the Superintendent. "I tell you everything here is exactly as Sergeant Trevor found it when he first came into the room. Nothing whatever has been done, except that we've taken prints of every finger-mark we could find anywhere about."
"And the fingermarks upon the bolt of the window and the switch on the burglar alarm—what about them?"
The Superintendent frowned. "There were some, of course, but our man found them very blurred. He says it looks as if the last person who touched them had used a handkerchief or something to prevent his leaving any of his own."
"Which means?" queried Stone.
"That the bolt had been drawn back again after someone had driven it home and the switch turned up after someone had turned it down."
Stone looked very grave. "To make it appear, of course, that the killer could have come in from outside." A long silence followed, and then he went on, "Well, I think the body can be taken away now," and he turned interrogatively to his colleague, Larose.
The latter nodded. "Except that we'd better turn out his pockets," he said, and the four men exchanged smiles when in one of the breast pockets were found two cigars similar to the one which had been lit and was now lying upon the carpet.
"Then there was a robbery," commented Stone with a grim smile. "Poor devil, he little thought he was never going to smoke them!" He turned again to the Superintendent. "Now, will you please tell Mrs. Scrutton we shall want a room where we can have a little talk with everyone, and we should like to speak to her at once, first."
The Superintendent went out, and Stone remarked to the police surgeon, "A nasty business this, Doctor, and rather puzzling. In the course of our work in homicidal cases we seldom find use has been made of the knife, and then it's always been premeditated, with the motive practically always one of revenge. Now would you say it would have needed much strength to kill the man in this way?"
The police surgeon shook his head. "Not as it happens, as the skewer slipped in between the ribs without striking any bone at all."
"Was it a tall person or a short one who struck the blow? Have you any idea?"
"None at all. Either could have done it, as the arm would have been upraised in both cases."
"And would there have been any noise—a shout or a scream?"
"No, there might have been a groan. That would have been all."
The Superintendent returned. "She's waiting for you in a little room just off the lounge. I'll take you there." He shrugged his shoulders. "I don't envy you. She's in a nasty humour and furious because I've told her it's unlikely anyone will be able to leave the house to-day or perhaps even for two or three days. She's most indignant, too, that her finger-prints have been taken."
It was well, perhaps, that Inspector Stone had been warned, for when he and Larose entered the room where the lady of the Hall was awaiting them, she received them with a face as black as thunder.
"What's this I hear?" she demanded furiously. "The Superintendent says he cannot tell me when my guests here will be allowed to go home! Don't you realise how ill it will make some of them to be forcibly detained in a house when a murder has been committed? My old friend Lady Bower is already in hysterics."
"I can't help that, Madam," said Stone suavely. "As you say, a murder has been done in this house, and up to now our decided opinion is that it was done by one of you here and not by any stranger coming in from outside." He spoke very solemnly. "So you are all under the gravest suspicion as, if we are right, one among you has taken life." He nodded. "It may take us a considerable time to sift the evidence."
"But I've never any faith in you people from Scotland Yard," she said rudely. "The private detectives are better than you every time. If Padlock Jones, for instance, were here he'd find out everything very quickly."
"Then why not get him to come down, Madam?" said Stone instantly. "He's on the phone and always willing to work for anyone who pays him sufficiently." He smiled. "Then there's Bastille Snoreoh, another private detective, and I heard the other day that Raphael Croupin, the great Parisian thief, was opening a place of business as a private investigator. So you see you've plenty to choose from."
"Then I may think of it," she said, tossing her head haughtily. "I should like to see you professionals put in your proper places." She went on angrily, "But it's all nonsense to say one of us killed my butler. Who among my guests or servants would have wanted to do it?"
"That's what we have to find out," replied Stone. He spoke in a conciliatory tone. "Come, Mrs. Scrutton, I know this is going to be an unpleasant ordeal for you, but you've got to face it and I ask you to be as patient as possible with us. After all, we have to do our duty."
"But I tell you it was done by someone who came in from outside," she insisted. "The french window had not been bolted and the alarm had not been even set."
"But your butler was stabbed from behind," said Stone, "by someone who had followed him into the room. That hardly looks, now does it, as if the murderer had come in from outside?" He pulled out a chair. "Now, as our questions will take some time, if you'll allow us we'll sit down and it will be less fatiguing for you if you take a chair, too."
As if under protest she did as he directed. "Then what do you want to ask me?" she asked, apparently now a little mollified by the inspector's respectful tone.
Stone unwrapped the silver-plated skewer from a piece of newspaper. The blood had been wiped off it, and it was quite clean. "First," he asked, "was this taken from among your curios? Of course you know it was this that killed the poor man. You saw it was this skewer that had been thrust into his back?"
She gave it a quick glance. "Taken from among my curios?" she exclaimed scoffingly. "No, of course it wasn't. I'd never set eyes upon it before I saw the handle protruding from Robson's back just now."
"You are quite certain?" asked Stone. "Oh, quite! Then tell me about this Robson. How old was he? About forty, you think? Then how long has he been in your service?"
"Ever since he was demobilised after the war, and that was in 1918," she frowned. "He'd been in the regular army before that. He was a sergeant in the Old Contemptibles."
"Was he married? No? Then what sort of disposition did he have? I mean, was he one who would have made enemies?"
"Certainly not! He was a quiet, unobtrusive man, with very little to say for himself. I had trained him to be a good servant, and I never had to correct him about anything."
"Was he partial to the other sex?" said Stone. "I ask that because I am wondering if he were interested in one of the maids and caused someone jealousy on that account."
"No likelihood there," she said sharply. "I have never heard of his taking any notice of any of them." She spoke scornfully. "Besides, where would any of his fellow-servants have obtained such a weapon as this skewer? Of some value as a curiosity, it is never likely to have been in the possession of anyone of the servant class. No, I tell you it looks certain that both the murderer and this skewer came from outside."
"But what would have been the motive of any outsider for killing your butler?" asked Stone. "In the widest stretch of your imagination can you suggest anything there?"
"No, I can't," she snapped; and then she added, "But it might have been robbery, with the murderer perhaps getting frightened at what he had done and bolting away with empty hands."
Stone spoke very solemnly. "In the many, many crimes, Madam, which I have investigated in my thirty odd years at Scotland Yard, I have never heard of a burglar coming armed with a knife or skewer for his work." He shook his head. "No, everything points to this murder being an act of revenge"—he shrugged his shoulders—"unless of course a madman did it, and then we need not expect any motive or reason to be forthcoming."
A short silence followed, and then it was Larose who spoke. "Do you happen to have a photograph of Robson?" he asked most respectfully of Mrs. Scrutton. "It may help us to make out what sort of disposition he had got." He spoke very gently. "You see, the face of a dead man tells us so little."
Mrs. Scrutton regarded him with some amazement. "But I can't imagine how the appearance of any man will help tell you who killed him." She spoke grudgingly. "Yes, I believe there is one of him in the servants' hall taken last year. He's in a photograph among the players of the Ingatestone Cricket Club. If you touch that bell at your elbow I'll have it brought to you."
The footman answered the bell and a minute or so later brought in the photograph. His mistress pointed out to Larose the one-time butler. Not very tall, he was a well-set-up man, square in the shoulders and holding himself very erect. It was quite easy to believe that he had been in the army.
"If you don't mind we'll keep this for a little while," said Larose, and he passed the photo over to Stone. The latter regarded it intently for a few moments and then went on with the questioning.
"Now it is the police surgeon's opinion," he said, "that Robson was killed somewhere around midnight, perhaps a little after. So was it to be expected that he should have been in your room as late as that?"
Mrs. Scrutton hesitated. "In the special circumstances, yes," she said. "It was certainly later than usual, although I had wanted to get all my guests up early to their rooms on account of the very late night before them on the morrow, and they had not been too willing to stop talking and go. Then, as Robson was always a methodical man, he had probably stopped a few minutes in the lounge to make it rather tidier before he went round everywhere to lock up and set the burglar alarms. Besides, he was very interested in racing matters and may have stopped a little while in my room to go through the evening paper. When a boy brings it up from the newsagent it is always put there upon my desk."
"And, I suppose," said Stone, "you were one of the last to go up to your room? I mean, you waited until all your guests had gone up first?"
She nodded. "Yes, there were only Robson and Anthony—Anthony's the footman you've just seen—in the lounge when I left."
"And about what time would that have been?"
She hesitated again. "A few minutes before twelve, I should say."
"Well, another thing," went on Stone. "I noticed just now in passing through the lounge a box of cigars upon one of the tables. Are they Manillas with a blue-gold band?"
She eyed him curiously. "They are. A box of them is always kept there for my guests. But why do you ask?"
"Because your butler was smoking one of them when he was struck down," he said. "He had evidently just lit it as he was preparing to leave the lounge, but apparently it was not drawing well and so he put another match to it when he got into your room. It was at that very moment that he was killed, as we saw where both the match and the cigar had been flung on to the carpet as he crashed down. I may add here, as I see no reason why you should not know, we found two more of the same cigars in one of his breast pockets."
Mrs. Scrutton's face was a study, but she made no comment, although the inspector gave her plenty of time. He went on, "And now about the other servants. We'd like to know, please, how long each of them has been with you."
"They'll tell you that when you ask them," she said coldly. "Surely you can't expect me to remember off-hand all their different times of service?"
"Well, we'll question them first," said Stone briskly. "Then we may perhaps have to trouble you again to tell us a little about each of your guests. It will make things so much easier and quicker for us, and then we may be able to let some of them go almost at once." He looked down at her list. "Now I think you might kindly send in to us the maid who was the first to find the dead body."
"Then ring the bell and ask Anthony, who'll answer it, to send her to you," she said, and rising majestically from her chair she made ready to leave the room.
"But one moment, please, Mrs. Scrutton," said Larose quickly, as he got up to open the door for her. "You have told us the murderer would almost certainly have come from outside the house, as the french window was unbolted"—he paused a few minutes—"then how did you come to know that?"
She hesitated, looking as if rather annoyed at being asked. "Because I saw the alarm had not been switched on, which, of course, meant that the window had not been attended to."
"But you didn't actually see that the bolts of the window had not been drawn," asked Larose.
"I didn't look," she said icily and, Larose opening the door, she swept from the room.
The two detectives looked at each other and smiled. "Not a pleasant woman," remarked Stone. "She doesn't seem a bit shocked at her butler's death. All she is thinking of is the annoyance to which she is being put by having the police in her house and her visitors detained."
Larose nodded in agreement. "But did you take in the expression upon her face when you told her the butler was smoking one of her cigars and had two more of them in his pocket? For the moment I thought she looked absolutely venomous, of course not because of the loss of the cigars, but almost certainly because the man had dared to take them. It probably hit her hard that all the time he had been with her she had been a bit mistaken as to his character."
Stone laughed. "She's a spiteful and a very callous woman," he said.
Susan Brown, who had first seen the body, was the first of the maids to be called in, but she was quickly dismissed. Next came the cook, and Stone's questioning of her was mainly concerned in finding out the dead man's standing with his fellow servants. She said he was both respected and well liked, with no one having any grievance against him. As for his showing any special interest in any of the maids, she smiled and said he wasn't that kind of man, being a confirmed old bachelor.
Stone showed her the silver-handled skewer, but she said she had never seen it before except that morning when the handle was showing out of Robson's back. She said her mistress thought very highly of Robson and depended upon him for quite a lot of things, so much so, she went on, that in the servants' hall they often said laughingly that the two of them would probably end in making a match of it. She had been at the Hall for five years and got on all right with her mistress, though the latter was very eccentric in some ways and one had to be very careful not to offend her. Still, they always made allowances for her, as her health was not at all good. Last Easter, for instance, she had a sudden bad heart attack, and one of the maids overheard the doctor telling her nephew, Mr. Mainwaring—fortunately he was the only visitor staying at the Hall at the time—that he was rather anxious about her, as any such attack might take her off any time. Mr. Mainwaring was upset, too, and as the doctor said Mrs. Scrutton must have perfect quiet he cut his visit short and went back to town that same afternoon.
After the cook the other members of the staff were questioned, but nothing of any interest was elicited until the appearance of the footman. He was a fresh-faced, bright-looking young fellow of twenty-two, and, as it turned out, was inclined to be very talkative. Both the inspectors were at once of opinion that he could have had nothing to do with Robson's murder.
"And you were the last known person to have seen him alive?" asked Stone.
"Yes, sir," was the reply. "I was alone with him in the lounge when all the visitors had gone up to their rooms."
"But you went up to bed before him?"
"Yes, sir, he told me I need not wait any longer, as he would finish what little else there was to do."
"And what time was that?"
"Just before midnight, sir, I should say."
"And Robson was well liked by everyone, I understand?"
"Yes, sir, he was a good man to work under, always kind and considerate."
"He had no particular friends among the staff, among the maids, I mean?"
Anthony smiled. "No, sir, he wasn't a ladies' man."
"And how did he employ himself when he was off duty?" asked Stone.
"He read a lot, sir, books about history and the war, and went for a long walk every afternoon—that is, of course, when Mistress wasn't entertaining visitors."
"Did he lose much money on racing, do you know?"
Anthony seemed surprised at the question. "No, sir, none at all. He was not interested in racing and never had a bet."
Stone frowned. "Are you sure about that?"
"Quite sure, sir. He was dead against all forms of gambling and would never even take part in halfpenny nap."
A short silence followed, and then Stone asked, "Did he smoke much?"
"Never until the afternoon, sir, and then he always took his pipe out with him on his walks."
"No cigarettes or cigars?" queried Stone.
"I've never seen him with one indoors, sir, though I think that sometimes he used to buy a cigar when he was upon his walks as I've occasionally smelt a cigar smell about him when he returned home."
"Then you are not aware," went on Stone, "that he was smoking a cigar when he was stabbed, one he had taken from that box in the lounge?"
The young footman looked shocked. "One of Mistress's expensive cigars!" he exclaimed.
"Yes," nodded Stone, "and we found two more in one of his pockets."
"If Mistress knew that she would be very angry," said Anthony. "She's not at all mean, but she hates people to get the better of her, and if any of the local shops charge her a penny more than she thinks they should they always hear of it at once."
Stone showed him the silver-handled skewer. "And you had never seen this before?" he asked. He shook his head. "No, sir, never."
"Well, about these guests who are staying here," asked Stone. "I suppose you've seen some of them before?"
"Nearly all of them, sir," said the footman, "and there are one or two queer birds among them." He grinned. "But then Mistress sometimes does invite funny people down here, though not as a rule when there are the other visitors in the Hall at the same time."
Stone smiled his most friendly smile. "Now whatever you say to us, my boy," he said, "I promise you that not a word shall get back to your mistress. So tell us frankly what you mean when you talk about these one or two queer birds."
Anthony smiled back. "Well, you see, sir, Mistress has some rather eccentric ways, and she seems to like doing what other ladies would not. As a rule she's very careful to let nobody know anything about her private affairs, but one day one of the girls found a letter she'd forgotten to lock up in her desk, and she saw it was from some society which helps people who've just come out of prison, and it was thanking Mistress for inviting some man to stay here upon a short visit."
"And that man came?" queried Stone interestedly.
"Yes, sir, and he's come again now. He is one of the guests staying here at the present moment."
Stone looked down the list of visitors on the table before him. "And which one of them is he? We're going to have a talk with them all."
"He's called Hudson, sir, and looks a rough customer to me."
"Oh, he does, does he?" exclaimed Stone. "And what do you know about him?"
The young footman grinned. "For one thing, he won a nice bit at poker last night, and the other gentlemen were not too pleased about it. From what I overheard when I was serving drinks in the lounge afterwards they seemed to think that when he dealt the cards they were too extraordinarily good, every time."
Stone grinned back. "And what did your mistress think of his winning all this money from the other guests? Do you know?"
"Yes, sir, when everyone was talking about it she seemed very amused."
Stone glanced down the list of names again. "And who are these two Mr. Mainwarings? Have they stayed here before?"
"The elder one has quite often, sir," said Anthony. "They are father and son, and the father is Mistress's nephew. It seems she invited them down expressly so that their engagements to twin sisters could be announced at the dinner last night. They brought the young ladies down with them."
Stone looked surprised. "The father and son engaged to twin sisters!" he exclaimed. "That's rather extraordinary!"
Anthony smiled knowingly. "So the other gentlemen seem to think. They were laughing at him behind his back."
After a few more questions Anthony was dismissed, and for a few minutes the two detectives talked over what he had told them. "Now what did that woman mean," asked Stone frowningly, "by telling us that deliberate lie about this Robson being so interested in racing? As you heard just now, Anthony says he had no interest there at all, and of the two of them I'd rather believe it was he who was giving us the truth."
"So would I," agreed Larose instantly. "It's such a small matter that there's no sense in imagining he was lying to us."
"Then why was she lying?" demanded Stone.
Larose considered. "She certainly had some reason for it, and no doubt she thought she was quite safe in telling the lie. She never dreamed you would happen to bring up the matter to the footman."
"Then what was her reason?" asked Stone testily. "Why did she want to put up an untruthful explanation to account for Robson being so late in her room?"
"I don't know," said Larose sharply, "but it certainly makes one inclined to be suspicious of something about her. Still, what on earth it can be I can't guess." He shook his head. "She's a puzzling woman!"
"I should just say she was," frowned Stone. "Educated and well-born, she ought to be ashamed of herself for consorting so intimately with one-time criminals and being amused when one of her guests lifts a good wad off some of the others. It isn't what one would expect of a woman of her breeding and class." He raised a fat forefinger warningly. "Now if she had a good reason for doing so, she's just the kind of woman to have struck down that butler herself."
Larose nodded. "I've thought of that, but then I should say she'd be far too intelligent to under-estimate the risk. Anyone can see she's a clever woman."
"Clever she may be," nodded Stone, "but she's obviously so eccentric that she doesn't seem normal to me. And if she worked herself up into a temper, there's no knowing what she would do. Remember the Superintendent here told us she is old Judge Scrutton's widow, and it comes back to me now that I've read somewhere that she was a regular attendant at big criminal trials. For a woman of her age that doesn't sound too good to me." He threw out his hands. "Why, if she'd committed this murder she'd be the very one to sit back and gloat over the puzzle she is giving us Scotland Yard men. You heard her say what she thought of us."
Larose laughed. "Now who's letting his imagination run wild? Why, Charles, you are worse than me."
"Well, we're getting on a little bit quicker than I expected," said Stone. "So I think we'll pass straight on to the house-party. We'll have this Morton Hudson chap in first."
The man came into the room seeming anything but at ease. He glanced furtively from one to the other of the detectives, and Stone frowned heavily at him in return. "And what is your occupation, Mr. Hudson?"
"I'm a dealer in motor-cars," came the reply in a deep bass voice. "Hudson's Motor Agency of Islington Road."
Stone looked brighter at once. "A-ah, and that voice of yours helps me to remember," he smiled, "where I've seen you before—in the dock of the Old Bailey." He chuckled. "You see, it's my job never to forget a face. Now what's your real name?" As the other hesitated, he went on testily, "Come, out with it, man! You can't keep it dark from us, as I understand you've had your finger-prints taken, and they'll soon be picking out your prints at the Yard."
"I don't want to keep it dark," scowled the man. "I've served my time and that's finished with."
"Yes, you've served your time right enough," nodded Stone. "Five years for breaking and entering, wasn't it? Still, I can't call to mind your name. What is it?"
"Sylvester Myrtle," grunted the man.
"Ah, that's it, I remember now!" exclaimed Stone. "A nice high-sounding name for a gentleman of your activities!" He went on, "And of course, Mr. Myrtle, Mrs. Scrutton knows your record."
The man nodded sourly. "She knows I've been in trouble."
"And what's she invited you to this party for?" frowned Stone.
"Out of kindness," replied Myrtle, "to let me see a bit of life." He warmed up. "She's a good sort, Mrs. Scrutton, and has been a good friend to me. She helped me to start my motor business."
"Very kind of her, I am sure," continued Stone. He spoke sharply. "Now what time did you go to your room last night?"
"The minute she told us to," said Myrtle, "just after half-past eleven. And I didn't stir from it until I was up and dressed this morning."
Stone spoke in quite a friendly tone. "Now, Mr. Myrtle, you see what we are up against. Murder was done here last night, and we're thinking it was done by someone in the house. We've talked to the staff and see no one among them who seems capable of carrying out such a crime. So, if we are right there, the killer must have come from one of you guests. No, no, I have no suspicion about you, but as one who has some special knowledge of what we call the underworld, have you noticed among your fellow guests anyone who seems to you capable of taking that butler's life?"
The ex-housebreaker looked amused. "I haven't thought about it, sir," he said.
"Well, think about it now," smiled Stone.
Myrtle spoke slowly. "Well, there's a woman here I don't think I'd like to have for an enemy. I believe——" he broke off what he had evidently been intending to say and asked sharply, "But see here—if I tell you anything will it be in confidence? I mean, you won't repeat it as coming from me? I wouldn't, for instance, like Mrs. Scrutton to know."
"That's all right," said Stone. "I promise you we'll mention it to no one."
"Well, this woman, who calls herself Mrs. Rome," went on Myrtle, "is something very unusual out of the box. She's a flash adventuress-looking bit and"—he grinned—"I'm half inclined to think she's been in a spot of trouble like me."
"Done a stretch, you mean?" queried Stone.
"Yes, she seems that kind."
"What makes you think so?"
Myrtle grinned. "Oh, you can generally tell them when they haven't been out very long. After she had arrived here yesterday afternoon, no matter who she was talking to, she stopped speaking for a few moments to give any newcomer who came in a hard look, wondering, I thought, if he or she was going to recognise her."
"But why do you think," asked Larose, "that she might have wanted to get rid of Robson?"
Myrtle shrugged his shoulders. "Who knows? Perhaps she might have been thinking he had recognised her and could queer her pitch with that old fool Major Rattery. She knows the old boy must be rich, because I heard him telling her what valuable racehorses he had got." He nodded. "I saw her. She was making a dead set at him all the evening."
Stone looked down the list of names again. "And what about some of these men? For instance, who's this Washington Mainwaring?"
"Mrs. Scrutton's nephew, but a bit of a bad lot for all that."
"How do you know?" asked Stone.
Myrtle laughed. "He's a well-known city shark. He deals in shares, buys them for a couple of bob and sells them again for a fiver. He promises to make everybody's fortune. You can often see his advertisements in the newspaper."
"But I understand people on the Stock Exchange are not allowed to advertise," frowned Stone.
"He's on no Exchange," scoffed Myrtle. "He's an outside broker and to be trusted no more than a poor-class street bookmaker. I wouldn't trust him a yard." He nodded darkly. "I was playing poker with him last night and would swear that sometimes when he was dealing he was trying to stack the cards. I tell you I was keeping a sharp eye on him all the evening and, by gosh, he knew it, too."
"Perhaps he'd got an eye on you as well," smiled Stone. "I understand you were pretty lucky last night."
Myrtle grinned. "Perhaps I was," he said, "but then I've lived a rough life and had a lot of experience in many things. It takes a clever chap now to get the better of me. Oh, another thing about that woman we've just been talking about. I noticed that when we had all been taken into the breakfast room to have our finger-prints taken, and the Chelmsford Superintendent had got his back turned for a moment, she tried to slip out unnoticed through the french window." He laughed. "And she nearly got away with it, too, but the window banged and the Super looked up and called her back." He seemed amused. "Still, it was a good try and I'll bet she had some darned good reason for wanting to bring it off. She got as red as fire when she was caught."
After he had gone Stone remarked thoughtfully, "Of course he's got a spite against this woman. She probably turned up her nose at him because he wasn't classy enough for her. Anyhow, we'll have her in next."
Mrs. Benton Rome came into the room looking quite composed and apparently showing no trace at all of any nervousness. However, trained observers like the two detectives knew that this carefree attitude was something of a pose, as she was clenching her fingers tightly together. Stylishly dressed and carrying herself well, she was a good-looking woman of about thirty. She had nice features and an almost perfect complexion. Still, to a close observer her general attractiveness was somewhat marred by her eyes, which had a hard and glassy look.
Stone commenced suavely enough. "And at what time did you go to your room last night?" he asked.
"Soon after half-past eleven," she replied.
"And this is your first visit to the Hall?" he went on.
"Yes, I have not stayed here before."
"And had you met this butler before?"
She seemed surprised at being asked. "Certainly not. Where was it likely I should have done so?"
Stone's voice hardened a little as he came to the point. "Now is Rome your real name?" he asked and, with her face paling slightly and her glassy eyes taking on a frightened look, she hesitated in making her reply. He went on sharply, "I understand that, as with all the visitors staying here, you have just had your finger-prints taken. So, as a sensible woman, you will of course realise that if you have ever been in trouble with the authorities we shall know all about it directly the prints have been gone over in Scotland Yard. Still, it will save us a little bother if you tell us what the trouble was." He spoke quite nicely. "Come—we are not going to broadcast it about, so you can speak quite freely."
She spoke with evident reluctance. "Well, my real name is Winnie Hartoch, and I was charged," she said hoarsely, "with asking someone for money."
"Ah, blackmail!" exclaimed Stone.
"But everyone agreed that the judge who tried the case was most prejudiced against me," she said sharply, regaining something of her poise. "I was unjustly convicted."
"Of course!" agreed Stone. "And you got?"
"Three years," she said.
"Well, we are not interested in that," commented Stone. "It's the murderer of that poor man we are after. Now, can you give us any ideas? You see, we are almost certain the murderer came from inside the house, and so, as a woman of the world, can you suggest to us anyone among your fellow guests who seems to you capable of committing such a crime?" He unwrapped the paper covering the silver-handled skewer. "Look at the horrible weapon that was used to kill the poor man."
Her eyes bulged as she regarded the skewer. "It is horrible," she gasped. She shook her head. "No, I can't think of any man here bold enough to have done it"—she paused a moment—"except perhaps that man Hudson you've just been talking to."
"And why him in particular?" queried Stone.
She shook her head again. "For no reason at all except that he's a common, surly man. I don't think he spoke to a soul the whole evening, and he only brightened up when he was cheating at cards."
"How do you know he was cheating?" said Stone.
"Well, the others thought so when he had such good cards every time. Poor Major Rattery lost over £20. I heard Mr. Mainwaring say it was fishy the way he dealt."
"Ah, Mr. Mainwaring!" exclaimed Stone. "What do you think of him?" He smiled. "Isn't he bold enough for you?"
She smiled back. "Not exactly in that way, not bold enough to commit a murder, but he's bold enough in other ways." She shrugged her shoulders. "Here is he with as pretty a young girl as he could wish for as his future bride, and yet, if I gave him the slightest encouragement, I'm sure he'd start making passes at me."
"We men are a bad lot, aren't we?" smiled Stone.
"You certainly are," she said sharply, "and to my way of thinking you're all as bad as one another." She nodded. "You can guess I have had some experience of life."
"Quite a lot of experience, I should say," said Stone to his young colleague when she had at last left the room, "though I hardly think this killing is part of it." He spoke briskly. "Now we'll have that chap Mainwaring in. He seems a bit of a lad by all accounts."
Mainwaring came in jauntily, with an amused smile upon his face as if he thought the questioning was going to be a bit of a joke. He was smoking a cigar and asked politely if they had any objection to his going on with it. "It helps me to collect my thoughts," he said.
"And at what time did you go up to your room last night?" asked Stone.
"Oh, I was pretty late," replied Mainwaring, "as I went into my aunt's boudoir to have a look at the evening paper which is always on her desk. You see, I am a stockbroker and I wanted to run through the market reports." He smiled. "In case you haven't heard, Mrs. Scrutton is my aunt."
"We know that," said Stone, and he asked, "What time exactly was it when you left the boudoir?"
"I don't know," said Mainwaring. "About midnight, I should say."
"Was everything in darkness when you went upstairs?" said Stone.
"No, there was a light still on in the lounge. I thought it was Robson in there, doing a bit of tidying up."
A short silence followed before Larose asked, "Were you smoking when you went into the boudoir?"
Mainwaring nodded. "Yes, I was." He smiled. "You won't often catch me without a cigar between my lips."
"And when you left the boudoir, you left it in darkness?" asked Stone. "I mean, you switched off the lights."
"Of course!" He smiled again. "But it wasn't in darkness, as there was plenty of moonlight coming in by the long blind of the french window."
"And you didn't happen to notice if that window was bolted?"
"Or the alarm set?"
"No. You see, I never interfere with anything in the house. My aunt is very touchy about that, and always left everything to poor Robson. She had great trust in him."
"And does it surprise you," asked Larose, "to learn that he was smoking one of her cigars when he was killed and had two more of them in his pocket?"
"Whew, it does!" exclaimed Mainwaring. "With all his long service here, if my aunt had found that out she'd have packed him off at two minutes' notice. She can be very vindictive if anyone takes advantage of her."
"Did you know Robson well?" was Larose's next question.
"Quite well. He was a quiet, reserved man, and I can't imagine anyone wanting to injure him."
"And I take it that, as Mrs. Scrutton's nephew, you are very friendly with her?"
"Certainly I am. We argue and disagree a lot, but she takes it all in quite good part. Why, she practically gave this dinner-party last night to announce my son's and my intended marriages."
Stone showed him the skewer, and Mainwaring made a gesture of disgust. "So that is what they used, is it?"
"And you've never seen it before?" asked Stone.
Mainwaring frowned. "What a question to ask me! No, of course I haven't."
"No offence!" smiled Stone. "But it looks to us just the sort of thing to have been among Mrs. Scrutton's curios. We asked her, but she said no. Still, between ourselves, we thought she might perhaps have been unwilling to admit it. That's really why I'm asking you."
Mainwaring shook his head. "But I shouldn't know if it had belonged to her. She's got lots of curios and silver things in the house that I've never seen. I've never been sufficiently interested in them to want to."
"And in your own mind," asked Stone, "haven't you got some idea as to what sort of party may have committed this murder?"
"Only that he must have been completely out of his mind," replied Mainwaring, "and came from outside the house, too, as there is certainly no one here who would have wanted to kill Robson. It seems such a senseless and purposeless murder."
The two detectives asked him a lot more questions, and then, when he had at last left the room, Stone sighed heavily. "We're getting nowhere," he said. "We've found out absolutely nothing."
"Oh, haven't we?" said Larose, with no attempt to suppress the triumph in his voice. He pointed to the door and went on very solemnly, "It was for that man who has just gone out of the room that the skewer was intended. Robson was killed by mistake, and that damned Scrutton woman was the murderess!"
A LONG silence followed upon Larose's dramatic announcement, with Inspector Stone leaning back in his chair and regarding his young colleague very thoughtfully.
"Yes, and that would explain," went on Larose sharply, "her wanting to make out to us that, had she gone into her boudoir so late that night, it would have been Robson, and Robson only, whom she would have been expecting to find there." He snapped his fingers together. "You see, having got over her first shock at finding it was the butler whom she had killed, she is looking ahead and is now intending to scotch in advance any idea that he might have been killed in mistake for somebody else."
"But why on earth should she be thinking anyone would imagine that?" frowned Stone. "Why should she think it necessary to safeguard herself there?"
"Because she knows of the danger," insisted Larose, "which might threaten her if we found out she had a grievance against that nephew of hers, strong enough to make her go to some extreme length to get her revenge. I suggest that nephew because he is the only one in the house for whom the butler could have been mistaken."
Stone spoke very thoughtfully. "A long shot, Gilbert, a very long shot—but for all that it may be bang upon the target."
Larose spoke again. "Let us sum up the whole situation," he said. "Now to begin with, the great puzzle has been to find a reason for anyone wanting to kill Robson, a humble, inconspicuous man living out his life in humdrum surroundings where it is not likely he would have stirred up anyone's enmity to the point of his wanting to murder him." He handed over the photograph of the butler, taken when he had been with the other members of the Ingatestone Cricket Club. "Well, keeping in your mind's eye the figure of this Mainwaring man, consider carefully Robson's figure here. The two are almost identical—square body, broad shoulders, short neck and the head held very erect. In a dim half-light, such as there might have been in the boudoir last night, either man might easily have been mistaken for the other, particularly when we remember that Robson was smoking a cigar which he was never known to do, whereas Mainwaring, as he has just told us, is seldom to be seen without one between his lips."
"But there should have been no dim half-light, as you call it, in the boudoir," commented Stone frowningly, "for directly Robson went in there of course he would have switched on from near the door."
"But I don't think so," retorted Larose instantly, "for remember he was smoking a stolen cigar, and certainly wouldn't have wanted his mistress to see the light from the opened door shining up the corridor, if by any chance she happened to be about. She might have come in and caught him. No, there was plenty of moonlight already there to enable him to see what he had to, just bolt the window and switch on the alarm. Remember again, too, the old lady is very short-sighted, as evidenced by those very strong owl-like glasses she wears, and in her excited condition of mind she might easily have made that quick lightning stab without realising she was sticking the wrong man."
"But why on earth should she have wanted to kill her own nephew?" protested Stone.
Larose shrugged his shoulders. "Who knows? However, at any rate, his personality is far more provoking and colourful than that of the butler, and he is far more likely to have aroused her enmity than Robson." He nodded. "Perhaps he had swindled her with some of those worthless shares!"
"But you are taking it for granted she was the killer," frowned Stone, "and what direct evidence have you there?"
"None at all," agreed Larose readily enough, "but if the murder was carried out by someone inside the house, which certainly seems most probable, then of all the people here she, more than anyone else, suggests to me the killer. Everyone speaks of her eccentric character, and you know as well as I do that a marked eccentricity is often the early intimation of insanity." He held up his hand impressively. "Then again, does not the very weapon used suggest Mrs. Scrutton—an old-world curio, taken from among the hundreds of curios she is known to possess?" He clinched his argument. "Don't forget we have only her word for it that she had never seen this skewer before."
"But the cook has told us," frowned Stone, "how terribly white and upset the old lady looked when she went up and told her of the murder. Now, if she were making believe and only acting, she couldn't have put on that pale face, could she?"
"Of course she was upset," nodded Larose instantly, "but only because she was learning she had killed the wrong man! It must have been such a shock to her that no wonder she went pale."
Stone frowned and smiled at the same time. "You are certainly very persuasive, my boy," he nodded back. "It must be someone quite mental we are looking for and, as you say, she appears less sane than anyone else here. I agree with you, too, that this skewer is only likely to have been in the possession of a collector of curios."
"Well, at any rate let's have her in and talk to her again," said Larose. "If it's really this nephew of hers she had marked down—as she missed fire this first time she may want to have another go at him in some other way to gratify her spite. So it's quite likely that, now she's had time to think things out a bit, she may try to turn suspicions upon him as being the killer. I shouldn't be at all surprised."
Mrs. Scrutton came in looking a little less haughty than before and was even, as it turned out, inclined to be quite chatty.
"Well, have you found out anything?" she asked eagerly.
"Nothing definite," replied Stone, "but——"
"I thought you wouldn't have done," she smiled, "and so I've taken your advice and approached those great private detectives. Padlock Jones and Bastille Snoreoh. I should like to get in touch, too, with that great reformed French thief you mentioned, Raphael Croupin, but don't know how to get his address."
The two inspectors appeared greatly amused. "I don't think there's much of any reformation about Monsieur Croupin," said Stone, "and he probably always will be as great a thief as ever, but if you write to the Superintendent of the French Surety in Paris I am quite sure they will send the letter on." He became grim. "No, we've not found out much as yet, but there are a few people among your guests we'd like to know more about. Taking that Mrs. Rome first, before Mr. Hudson. We know she's been in prison and——"
"But how have you learnt that?" broke in Mrs. Scrutton sharply, with her eyes opened very wide.
"Oh, she told us," said Stone. "She has sense enough to realise that, with her finger-prints taken just now, we should soon find out, and so she anticipated matters and made a clean breast of her past record."
Mrs. Scrutton nodded. "Yes, she attempted to extort £5,000 with threats from a well-known public man and got three years' imprisonment. Poor woman, I was sorry for her, and so befriended her when she came out."
"So she told us," nodded Stone, "but now we are curious to know if you think Robson had found out some other secret in her life and that she killed him to prevent its coming out."
Mrs. Scrutton hesitated, and what Larose described afterwards as a crafty look came into her face. "I can't tell you anything about that," she said emphatically. "I really know so little about her that I won't hold myself up to be responsible for her in any way. And it's the same with Mr. Hudson, another ex-convict, as of course you've ferreted out. I'll take no responsibility for him either."
"Then why did you invite such people to be your guests?" asked Stone curiously.
She looked at him coldly. "For the sole reason," she replied, "that they interest me. They are unusual people. When their terms of imprisonment were over and I contacted them through the Prisoners' Aid Society—I am on the committee there—they both seemed so frankly unrepentant that I took to them at once." She laughed in some amusement. "Why, Hudson—his real name, by the by, is Sylvester Myrtle—started swearing at me for being an interfering old woman, and the party you know as Mrs. Rome actually had the insolence to tell me to my face that I was too ugly to have ever been suspected of blackmailing anyone who had been paying me indiscreet attentions."
"And yet you helped her?" queried Stone.
She nodded. "Yes, for they changed their minds at once when they realised I was willing to do so. We are quite good friends now, but, as I say, I don't know how they would act in any special circumstances. If they had wished to get rid of Robson"—she shrugged her shoulders—"either of them might have been quite capable of doing so."
"But this is different from what you told us only an hour or two ago," said Stone. "Then you were certain the murderer had come from outside the house."
"So I am now," she said sharply, "and so I shall continue to be until you unearth some reason why someone inside should have wanted to injure Robson. Then"—she shrugged again—"naturally I shall think first of my criminal friends. You see," she went on, "I am something more than an amateur in my knowledge of the criminal mind, as my late husband was a judge and I have been present at most of the big trials of the last five and twenty years."
Stone stole a covert glance at Larose to see how he was taking the old lady's remarks, and noted he was smiling. He turned to Mrs. Scrutton again. "And about Mr. Washington Mainwaring," he asked casually, "I suppose you will at least be responsible for him?"
"My nephew!" she exclaimed, as if in great surprise. "Then have you any reason to be suspicious of him?"
Stone spoke gravely. "We suspect everyone, Madam," he said. He half smiled. "Perhaps even you."
She darted a quick and curious glance from one to the other of the two inspectors. "Thank you," she bowed. "You are certainly casting your net wide enough, anyhow." She spoke casually in her turn. "No, I'd never trust even him. There are many things in his way of life of which I do not approve. But there—he is my nephew, and I have to overlook a lot. You see, he is my only living relation."
"Do you think he ever sold Robson any shares?" asked Stone.
She bridled up. "I should hope not, as Robson would certainly have lost his money if he had." She shook her head. "No, I don't think so. Robson was a shrewd man and must have summed up my nephew long ago."
With Mrs. Scrutton's dismissal the two inspectors looked hard and intently at each other. "Any reason to revise your idea about the old lady?" asked Stone.
"No, I haven't," said Larose. "She's mental enough to have taken Robson's killing in her stride. She's much calmer now than she was when we first questioned her and has got herself better in hand. The whole business is a sort of play to her where she is taking the principal part. Just now she's wanting to leave us with the impression that any of these three might have done it. She ranks her nephew no higher than the two ex-convicts."
"Notice the glance she gave us," grinned Stone, "when I said we even suspected her. I don't think she quite liked it."
"Well, now we'll have Mainwaring in again," said Larose, "and if you don't mind, Charlie, I'll lead off with the questioning. If my idea is correct we have to find out the reason, whether he himself knows it or not, why his aunt should have a spite against him."
"Well, if he doesn't know it he can't tell us," grunted Stone, "even if he were willing to."
"That's not the point," said Larose instantly. "He may have done something that would rouse the very devil in her if she came to find it out, but he may be thinking she has not heard anything about it and so is feeling confident he is quite safe."
"I don't understand," frowned Stone. "What do you mean?"
"Well, as she's just told us, he's her only relation, and as she is a rich woman he may quite reasonably be expecting a nice little whack of money upon her death. Now she's sixty-seven and, as the Superintendent tells us, has a very crooked heart. So what about this nephew of hers having taken out a post-obit on her life by borrowing some ready cash from a moneylender, engaging to pay it back when she dies? Knowing the disposition of the old woman—as even we do in the short time we have contacted her—that would nark her, wouldn't it, if she had found it out?"
"And how are we going to find it out?" asked Stone, looking very doubtful.
Larose nodded significantly. "You wait until I've had a word with Mainwaring now. I'll ask him one question, and you just watch the expression of his face."
"Good," smiled Stone, "then you're becoming a psychologist as well as a detective."
Mainwaring came in smiling as jauntily as before, with the inevitable cigar in his mouth. "Well, what is it now?" he asked. "Have you found out anything suspicious about me?"
"Not exactly," smiled back Larose, "but to begin with, I want you to take a glance at this photograph here," and he handed him the one of the Ingatestone Cricket Club.
Looking very puzzled, Mainwaring scrutinised the photo. "Ah, I see poor old Robson here, and it's a very good one of him, too."
"Note his broad square shoulders," said Larose, "and the erect way he carries himself, with his well-set-up-head."
"An old soldier!" nodded Mainwaring. "You can always tell us!" He smiled. "I pride myself that I have never slipped back into the lazy civilian stoop."
"In general build," said Larose, "he's exactly like you."
Mainwaring nodded again. "Yes, a little while ago I gave him an old lounge jacket of mine and it fitted him as if he had been tailored for it."
"And in a dim light," went on Larose casually, "he might easily be mistaken for you, particularly if his back was turned."
"I should say so," agreed Mainwaring. "Without a doubt we are the same type."
Larose spoke very solemnly. "Then has it ever struck you, Mr. Mainwaring," he said slowly, "that that skewer was intended for you—that it was plunged into his back in mistake for yours?"
Mainwaring started to smile. "No, it certainly hasn't," he began—and then on the instant his whole expression changed. His face paled, the ruddy colour left his cheeks, his jaw dropped and with widely opened eyes he stared at Larose as if seeing a ghost.
A dead silence followed, with Larose waiting for him to speak, but for the moment he was so dumbfounded that he was quite incapable of saying anything. For all that his thoughts were coursing like lightning through him. So Robson had been murdered in mistake for him—and had it actually been that his aunt was the murderess? For a long time he had been considering her as half mental, and he could realise now what it was that could have thrown her temporarily off her balance! She might have suddenly discovered that those silver salt-cellars of hers had gone—probably the very day after she had been so abusive to him on the phone. Then, guessing rightly that it was he who had taken them, in her spite she had determined to murder him to get her revenge! With the cunning of one in her condition of mind she had planned that the murder should be done in circumstances when she was least likely to be suspected. So that was why she had asked him to come down as one of the star guests of her house-party, for everyone to imagine they were upon very good and even affectionate terms!
He moistened his dry lips with his tongue and swallowed hard.
Larose spoke at last. "Well, what do you say?" he asked sharply. "Tell us who there is who can be having a spite against you."
Some of Mainwaring's colour had begun to come back, but the detective noted that the fingers of the hand that was not holding the cigar were clenched tightly together. "I know of no one," he replied hoarsely. "I am sure I have offended nobody." Then he asked tremulously, "But you haven't suggested this idea to my aunt, have you?"
"Not as yet," said Stone, "but we shall consider doing so."
"Then for Heaven's sake don't," he urged quickly. "She is eccentric enough already, and the very thought that someone had tried to kill me might drive her completely crazy." He took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead. "What you are now suggesting is most unnerving to me."
"Then you think our idea of Robson's murder is the probable one?" asked Stone grimly. "You seem quite ready to believe that the skewer was intended for you."
Mainwaring spoke hesitatingly. "You almost make me think so, though for the life of me I can think of no reason why it should have been." He shrugged his shoulders. "Though I admit I am far more likely to have a secret enemy than poor old Robson." He made a grimace. "You see, anyone who comes to me for financial advice and doesn't at once get a sixpence turned into half a crown regards me as an out-and-out rogue and deserving of the worst of punishments." His face brightened. "But as you can now have no thoughts about me as being the murderer, I can leave the Hall straight away, can't I? I shall feel much safer away from it."
Stone shook his head. "No, you can't go yet." He spoke very sternly. "I don't think you are being frank with me, and you could tell us a great deal more if you would."
"But I can't," said Mainwaring plaintively. "If I had any idea of anyone who might be wanting to kill me, don't you think that for my own safety I should tell you at once?"
"I'm not so sure about that," retorted Stone instantly. "It seems to us that there are wheels within wheels about the whole business here, and you surely can't have aroused a great enough enmity in anyone that he or she should be now wanting to kill you, without your being able to have some idea who the party is."
"But I have no idea," insisted Mainwaring, swallowing a lump in his throat. "I am completely in the dark, and what you now want to make out has come as a great shock to me."
"We can tell that," said Stone dryly. "You went as white as a sheet, and even now you don't appear to have got over it."
"I haven't," agreed Mainwaring instantly. "It's a dreadful thing to be told someone has been trying to murder me."
Stone spoke casually. "You told us just now that your aunt is eccentric. Then what do you mean by that?"
Mainwaring looked most uneasy, and his answer was certainly not a ready one. "We-ll, well," he said slowly, and as if very carefully weighing his words, "she's very masterful and easily upset. She wants everyone to do exactly as she says even in the smallest things."
"And you haven't, by any chance," asked Stone with his eyes boring like gimlets, "done anything lately to upset her?"
"No, no," replied Mainwaring instantly. His voice choked. "Why, you can't possibly be imagining that——" but he stopped speaking and stared at Stone in a frightened sort of way.
"We are not here to imagine anything," said Stone sharply. "It is facts we are after, and we mean to get them somehow." He nodded. "Yes, I shall have to put that same question to your aunt to be quite sure you are not in her bad books for something you have done. Still, I shan't suggest to her straight away that Robson was killed instead of you."
"Good Heavens, man!" exclaimed Mainwaring angrily, "I should just say that you wouldn't! Why, if you first ask her if she has any grievance against me, and then go on to suggest that the skewer was intended for my back instead of Robson's—it will be practically the same as asking her outright if she was the murderer!" He smiled a sickly smile. "She'll hardly like that, will she?"
Stone did not reply to this question, and went on grimly, "Well, she doesn't seem to give you much of a character as it is. So you may have incurred her enmity in a way you are not aware of."
"But from all I know of my aunt's disposition," he said sharply, "if she had anything against me she wouldn't keep it dark for a single minute. She'd just out with it as offensively as she could"—he nodded—"and she can be very offensive when she wants to." He frowned. "But what do you mean by saying that I'm not being frank with you?"
"I said that," snapped Stone, "because you fell for our idea that the butler was killed in mistake for you the very moment we suggested it, and you certainly wouldn't have done that so readily if you had not had some good reason for believing it." He spoke very sternly. "And you won't give us that reason."
"Simply because I haven't got it," replied Mainwaring. "You sort of bludgeoned me into believing it, though even now I haven't the faintest idea why."
That was all they could get out of him, so they had to let him go.
However, it was very obvious that he quitted the room a very different man from the one who had entered it but such a few minutes previously. All the bounce and jauntiness had gone out of him and even, it seemed, all the spring had gone out of his walk.
"A bad lot," frowned Stone, "and we can be quite certain he knows it is his aunt who is his enemy." He smiled at Larose. "You are pretty good, young fellow."
The Chelmsford Superintendent came in at that moment to ask how they were getting on.
"Excellently," Stone told him with something of a triumphant grin. "Mr. Larose here has made one of his wild guesses and it looks as if it were a very good one. It is his idea now that that charming Mrs. Scrutton killed Robson in mistake for her nephew," and he went on to relate how they had come to form that opinion.
The Superintendent was aghast, but when he had in part recovered from his amazement he agreed that, if the mistress of the Hall was really becoming mental, then she was quite equal to any deed of violence. "The sergeant here at Ingatestone," he said, "tells me it is well known she does the killing of all her own fowls and enjoys doing it."
"Well, it's that Mainwaring man we've got to watch now," said Stone, "for if he would I am positive he could tell us how he may have come to incur his aunt's spite. He's played some dirty trick on her, and until a few minutes ago he didn't know she had found it out. He's been aware since last Easter, when he was upon a visit here, that her heart's in a very bad condition. The Ingatestone doctor told him so then. So Mr. Larose suggests he's been borrowing money upon what, as her only relation, he will come into at her death, and somehow she's found it out. If that's what's happened anyone can understand it would rile her a lot."
"You say he was staying here at the time she had that heart attack?" asked the Superintendent.
"Yes, and her heart must have been pretty bad even then, as the medical man said that, while she might go on living for some years, she might pass out without any warning, any time. So Mainwaring might quite reasonably have thought that he was on a good thing."
"And he's the broker who advertises such a lot, isn't he?" queried the Superintendent.
Stone nodded. "And by all accounts his reputation is pretty rotten."
"But how could the old lady possibly have found out he was borrowing money upon her death?" asked the Superintendent doubtfully. "The lender would certainly not have told her, as it might spoil all his chances of getting repaid by Mainwaring if the latter was cut out of the will."
"That was only a suggestion of mine," smiled Larose. "I just mentioned it as a possible way in which he might have incurred her spite."
"Well, I'll give you a more likely one," smiled back the Superintendent. "When the doctor told Mainwaring of the possibility of her dying straight away—what about his having helped himself at once to something very valuable belonging to her? Goodness knows there are plenty of valuable things about handy, and she may not have found out her loss until a little while ago. Then, knowing his reputation, she guessed he was the thief and at once laid this elaborate little plot to get her revenge."
"A better suggestion than mine," nodded Larose. "Anyone can see the nephew is an impetuous sort of chap, and so he may have thought the bird in hand was better than the two in the bush."
"Then if we're right," said Stone, "which I am beginning to believe we are, she's been devilishly cunning about getting this revenge by arranging for two ex-convicts—that woman Rome and the man Hudson—to be among this house-party, so that suspicion of having done the murder might naturally point to them."
"Ah, old lags are they?" exclaimed the Superintendent. "I didn't know that, but I certainly thought there was something fishy about the woman, as she wanted to dodge having her finger-prints taken. When I had got all the house-party crowd shepherded together in one room she tried to slip out when she thought I wasn't looking." He laughed. "But I stopped her just in time and, by Jove, didn't she look silly at being caught!" He turned to Stone and asked, "But how did you come to learn what she'd been?"
Stone told him and, looking rather troubled, went on, "But what are we to do now about this Scrutton woman? Certainly we've got plenty of suspicion but, unfortunately, no hard facts. I don't see how we can make either her or this precious nephew of hers speak up."
"Well, I can tell you something about Mainwaring which may be useful," said the Superintendent. "This morning, soon after I got here, he persuaded me to let him send off what he called an urgent telegram. Certainly, from the anxious look upon his face, it may have been an urgent one for him," and he proceeded to tell them to whom the telegram was sent and what it contained.
"But why didn't he phone," frowned Stone, "with Burnham-on-Crouch not twenty miles from here? As a doctor his friend is sure to be on the phone."
"There would be less publicity in a wire," said the Superintendent, "less talk about it than a phone conversation." He nodded. "You know what little country towns are, and the phone talks from here must have been red-hot in interest to the local post-office staff this morning."
"We'll have some enquiries made about this Dr. Hendrick, Charlie," commented Larose to his superior. "Anything about Mainwaring is interesting now, and his sending that telegram instead of phoning up is certainly worth going into. Another thing, we'll have photographs of this skewer taken and one sent to every newspaper in the kingdom. The letters T. R. are sure to be remembered by someone, and we'll learn where the skewer came from."
The door opened unceremoniously, and Mrs. Scrutton stalked majestically into the room. "There is no hurry now, Inspector Stone," she said, "about your giving permission for any of my guests to leave the Hall, as I've persuaded them all to stay on for several more days."
Stone bowed. "That's very helpful, Madam," he said respectfully, "and relieves me of the unpleasantness of telling them they must remain here at any rate until after the inquest, which will take place at two o'clock on Monday." He bowed again. "I am very much obliged to you."
"It will be interesting for you to learn, too," she went on grandly, "that both Mr. Padlock Jones and Monsieur Snoreoh will arrive here at nine o'clock sharp on Monday."
"It certainly is most interesting," agreed Stone amiably and masking all trace of sarcasm with his genial smile. "The foreign Monsieur I have not met, but I have been privileged to have three or four little talks with Mr. Jones."
"And of course you will help them all you can," said Mrs. Scrutton. "I am expecting you to do that."
"Help them?" exclaimed Stone, apparently in much surprise. "But I am expecting them to help us. Mr. Jones is a wise old bird, and it is said he can almost see through a brick wall."
"But he's very expensive," she frowned. "He demands fifty guineas to come down and a refresher of a further twenty-five for each day that he's engaged upon the case."
Stone sighed heavily. "Tut, tut," he exclaimed, "then he'll be earning more in a couple of days than I do in a whole month!"
"Monsieur Snoreoh is cheaper," she went on. "His fee is only twenty guineas a day, but he stipulates upon full board and lodging, with the wine of his country at his meals."
"Of course, of course," agreed Stone. "His grey cells cannot function properly without their accustomed nourishment." He smiled broadly. "But what about Monsieur Raphael Croupin, the great thief of France?"
She looked rather annoyed. "He was too busy to speak to me when I phoned him just now, but I am to ring up again in half an hour. His secretary was very off-hand with me."
"Ah, a great man, this Monsieur Croupin!" exclaimed Stone. "I understand that it is only as a favour that he takes on a new case. I have not met him, but my colleague here, Mr. Larose, has. He was privileged to arrest him personally in London when Lord Rampion's emeralds disappeared last year. Unhappily, however, the evidence against him was too weak for us to get a conviction, and I believe the fine gentleman is now wearing one of his lordship's emerald rings quite openly."
"Oh, one thing more!" exclaimed Mrs. Scrutton. "My nephew tells me you have been annoying him still more by asking questions which he says were highly impertinent ones."
"Not at all," smiled Stone. "They were only routine ones which I had to put."
"But you don't suspect him?" she queried quickly.
"Not as yet," replied Stone very gravely. "At any rate, not more than we suspect several of you. We are just waiting to gather in more facts."
"What impertinence!" chuckled the inspector when she had sailed majestically from the room. "So we are to help Padlock Jones, are we?" He frowned heavily. "But what does it mean, her calling in these men? Does it lessen our idea of her guilt?"
"Not a bit!" snapped Larose. "As I've said before, this is all a play to her, with her having the principal part. She's enjoying the whole business."
Intensely puzzled, as he had been, that anyone should have been wanting to kill so quiet and inoffensive a man as Robson, undoubtedly Mainwaring had been quite won over to Larose's idea that it had been himself for whom that skewer had been intended. Then, with his guilty conscience, the more he considered things, the more certain he was that his aunt had been the murderess. So, when in her company now, he had the greatest difficulty in behaving so that she should not notice any difference in his manner towards her. However, very much upon the alert now, he quickly became aware of a change in her. She kept sidling up to get him into conversation, and when she thought no one was looking at her she would regard him in a very peculiar and curious way.
That afternoon in the lounge she buttonholed him to ask if he really thought the Scotland Yard men would turn out to be any good, and he was delighted with the thought that perhaps he might be able to frighten her.
"The younger one will," he nodded significantly. "He's the star detective of the Yard, Gilbert Larose, and he says he's quite sure they'll get the murderer through that skewer he used. He's confident someone who remembers those letters on it will come forward and tell them where it comes from."
To his disappointment, however, she did not seem at all frightened. Indeed, he thought there was quite a triumphant expression upon her face as she snapped back, "Then my opinion of this Larose is that he's something of a fool, as it's not likely anyone would have used the skewer if there were a chance of its being traced back to him."
Mainwaring shrugged his shoulders. "Well, that's what I heard him say," he lied, "and you see if there's not a huge photograph of it in all to-morrow's newspapers. Larose says that all the newspapers are going to be asked to make a special feature of it," and he was the more pleased with himself this time, as he was sure she looked quite uneasy as she walked away.
That evening most of the London newspapers made a big splash about the murder, and the following morning reporters, particularly from the Sunday newspapers, came flocking down in droves to the Hall. Mrs. Scrutton appeared thrilled and received them with open arms, giving them a vivid description of everything that had happened. To Stone's intense annoyance she made known the names of "the two great detectives from Scotland Yard" who had been sent down expressly to investigate the murder. She broadcast, also, what she herself was doing and how Padlock Jones, Monsieur Snoreoh, and Monsieur Croupin, the great French investigator from Paris, would be arriving on the Monday morning to pick up the trail of the murderer.
She went on to provide drinks and sandwiches for all comers, and was quite agreeable to their roaming over the Hall and taking whatever photographs they wanted. Conducting them to the door of her boudoir—the police would not let them go right inside—she pointed out the exact spot where the body of the butler had been found, almost apologising that the blood-bespattered hearth-rug had been removed.
Finally, she introduced them to as many of the house-party as they happened to come across, giving them their names and telling them where they came from. Mainwaring would have liked to kill her on the spot when, coming in from the garden with his intended bride, Caroline Tracery, he was quite unexpectedly caught in a battery of cameras, before he had time even to duck his head.
When readers opened their Sunday Megaphone the next morning they realised instantly what a great treat was being provided for them. On the top of the front page was quite a large photograph of the silver-handled skewer with which Mrs. Scrutton's butler had been murdered, and above it, in huge letters, was the caption, "Weapon of Death."
The week-end at the Hall passed uneventfully, with Mainwaring greatly relieved that no raid had been started. Evidently his telegram to Dr. Hendrick had been received in time. The house-party was not at all disturbed about the coming of the unofficial detectives; in fact now that the first shock of the murder had passed they were quite thrilled at finding themselves so much in the limelight and to know they would now be making the acquaintance of the three private investigators. With the ladies, of course, it was particularly Raphael Croupin that they were wanting to meet. Even the dried-up old Lady Bower was most intrigued there. "A great lover, Susan," she whispered to Mrs. Crocker-James.
On the Monday morning at a few minutes before nine, Monsieur Bastille Snoreoh arrived at the Hall in a London taxi and, according to Mrs. Scrutton's order, was shown at once into a small room just off the lounge. He was faultlessly dressed, wearing striped trousers, a black morning coat and lavender kid gloves. He seated himself comfortably and proceeded to give himself up to meditation.
Some three to four minutes went by, and then came the sounds of a second car approaching the house. An expert would have given it as his opinion that it was of ancient vintage, for it puffed and snorted and wheezed almost as if it were missing upon three of its four cylinders. Arriving at the front door of the Hall, the car was pulled up with a spasmodic jerk, and a tall, gaunt man with a grim, frowning face jumped out. He was dressed carelessly in an old lounge jacket and baggy trousers which did not match. He was followed closely by another man who was carrying two fat suitcases and a big leather bag. This latter man was of square build and stoutish, with a heavy stolid face and large, innocent-looking blue eyes.
"I am Mr. Padlock Jones," announced the tall man haughtily to Anthony, who answered the door. "Mrs. Monteith Scrutton is expecting me."
"Very good, sir," said the footman respectfully. "Will you please come this way."
Motioning to his companion to leave the two suitcases in the hall but to bring the bag with him, Jones strode majestically after Anthony and was shown into the room where Monsieur Snoreoh was already seated. Snoreoh inclined his head and said good-morning to the new arrivals, but all he got from Jones in return was a curt nod and a hard stare.
Jones and his companion seated themselves, and a short silence followed before the great investigator glanced at his watch and remarked petulantly, "This lady is unpunctual. It is already four minutes past the hour. But then country people are always late. They seem to have no idea of time."
Monsieur Snoreoh spoke with an assumption of a great timidity which, however, he did not really feel. "Mr. Jones, is it not?" he asked.
"The same," nodded Jones, regarding him scowlingly.
"I have heard a lot about you, Mr. Jones," said M. Snoreoh with a nervous smile.
"Oh, you have, have you?" glared Jones rudely. "Well, I have heard nothing about you and have no idea who you are." He spoke carelessly. "Still, I have learnt a lot about you since we came into the room."
"Oh, you have?" exclaimed Snoreoh, with his eyes opened wide. "That is rather remarkable, is it not?"
"Not at all," commented Jones grandly. "It is just a matter of ordinary observation." He smiled condescendingly. "You are a photographer by trade; you are short-sighted, you are not a Britisher, and you did not fight for your country in the Franco-Prussian war."
"Wonderful!" exclaimed Jones's companion.
"Wonderful!" echoed Snoreoh, and he half-smiled. "However did you find it all out?"
"Quite easily," said Jones airily. "You are short-sighted, because I see you wear glasses. You are not English because you speak with a foreign accent; and you did not fight in that Franco-Prussian war because you were not born then. As for being a photographer—I note you are keeping your gloves on in the house, no doubt to hide the nitrate of silver stains which all photographers have upon their fingers."
Further conversation stopped as a swiftly driven taxi flashed by the front window, and another well-dressed man alighted at the front door. This one had, however, far more than good clothes to recommend him, as he was very handsome as well. He had the profile of a Greek god, beautiful long-lashed blue eyes, the complexion of a young girl and curling auburn hair which he wore rather long. Even at a quick and cursory glance everyone would think he was much too pretty to be a man. Still, for all that there could be no missing his virility.
Captivating Anthony at once with his handsome appearance, he said in a charmingly melodious voice, "My name ees Croupin, Raphael Croupin, and your mistress, she know I am coming."
Shown into the room where the others were sitting, he bowed most politely all round and then, suddenly, his face broke into a delighted smile.
"A-ah, Meester Hencoop Jones!" he exclaimed animatedly. "Eet ees ze great delight I meet you again! How vell you look! Vy, you look even younger zan ven I saw you ze last time."
There was no answering smile, however, upon Jones's face, and he looked very grim and stern as he said curtly, "If you must address me by name, Mr. Croupin, kindly remember I am known as Padlock Jones, and not the other name you have just given me."
"A-ah, a-ah, of course!" exclaimed Croupin brightly. "Eet ees stupid of me, but zere, I am always getting ze names of ze men so badly." He smiled slyly. "Now, a pretty woman's name I nevaire forget, nevaire!"
"And you will remember, no doubt, too," went on Jones, dryly, "that upon the occasion when I last saw you you were standing in the dock."
Croupin seemed most surprised. "Ah, yes," he exclaimed excitedly, "ven I vas in Southampton upon ze ship in ze dock zere, joost about to sail for my tour of ze lectures in ze United States." He looked puzzled and screwed up his eyes. "But I cannot call to ze mind seeing you, too, upon ze boat zere." He nodded. "Still, it perhaps vas because you vere in ze second class. Mine vas a cabin on ze promenade deck. I always go ze first class ven upon a journey, as I find I meet ze nicer people zere."
"It was in no Southampton dock I saw you, sir," snarled Jones, "but in the dock of the Old Bailey, and you were upon trial there of stealing Lord Rampion's jewels." He scoffed contemptuously. "As for any cabin upon a promenade deck, it is easy enough to have the best of everything when it is done with the money of other people."
Croupin looked pained. "La, la, Meester Jones," he said reproachfully, "zere are no suspeecions about me to-day—not zat zere should have been suspeecions about me at ze any time—for now, as you see, I have joined ze rank of ze private investigators of vich you are so great an ornament. I am in ze honour of vorking viz you now. Madame Scrutton do tell me zat——"
But his remarks were cut short by the appearance of the lady in question. They all rose up at once from their chairs, but she motioned them back and sat down herself. "Now we'll first introduce ourselves," she said. She smiled at Jones. "Of course you are Mr. Padlock Jones?"
"That is so, Madam," said Jones haughtily. He indicated his companion. "And this is my assistant, Dr. Potson, who comes with me in every investigation."
Dr. Potson threw out his chest and looked most important, as if well aware of the great honour of being associated in any way with the renowned Padlock Jones.
"And you, of course, are the investigator, Monsieur Snoreoh?" smiled Mrs. Scrutton to the dapper small man.
"At your service," smiled back Snoreoh. "I am sure I am——"
Jones broke in rudely. "But didn't you tell me just now that you were a photographer by trade?" he scowled. He turned sharply to his assistant. "Didn't he say so, Potson?"
Dr. Potson's eyes bulged. "Yes—I think he did, Mr. Jones," he replied. "He said he was wearing gloves to hide the nitrate of silver stains upon his hands."
"No, no," expostulated Snoreoh quickly, "it was you, Mr. Jones, who said all that, and I did not contradict you, because"—he tapped his forehead—"ze little grey cells here tell me you are not a man of a good temper."
Mrs. Scrutton addressed herself to Croupin. "And you are Monsieur Croupin, Raphael Croupin?"
Croupin gave her a grave bow. "So I vas baptised, my lady," he said, "and so"—he flashed a sly covert glance at Padlock Jones—"have I always vished to be vorthy of zat immortal Raphael Santi, ze Christian name of whom I bear."
Jones snorted so loudly that Dr. Potson almost jumped from his chair.
MRS. SCRUTTON spoke sharply. "But now, gentlemen," she began in crisp and matter-of-fact tones, "let us get down to business at once. I take it you have all read everything the newspapers have reported of this dreadful tragedy which has fallen upon my house, but, to supplement what they have told you, I have here for each of you a private report which I have drawn up myself. It tells of everything that has happened and, besides that, gives a list of all who were sleeping here in the Hall last Thursday night."
Croupin sprang instantly to his feet to take from her the typed sheets she was holding out, and, giving Snoreoh and Jones theirs, subsided back into his chair to glance over his own.
"There seem to be a good many names here," commented Jones with a frown.
Mrs. Scrutton nodded. "Yes, you will have eleven servants and twenty-four guests to question."
"And a good number of ze ladies, I see," remarked Croupin, and he smiled and looked quite pleased when she told him there were twelve.
She went on, "And you will find my little boudoir where the terrible crime was committed almost exactly as it was when the body was first discovered by the maid, Susan Brown, at five minutes to seven on Friday morning."
"But according to the newspapers," frowned Jones, "scores of reporters have been trampling through it."
"Not a single one," she corrected quickly. "Not a single one of them has crossed over the threshold. All they were allowed to do was to look into the room through the open doorway." She went on, "Now, when you have gone through my private report, you will know every bit as much as the two inspectors, Messrs. Stone and Gilbert Larose, sent down by Scotland Yard."
"Then didn't they find out anything?" snapped Jones.
She shook her head. "Nothing at all! They went away yesterday no wiser than when they came."
"Ah, but Meester Larose ees very quiet," exclaimed Croupin warmly. "He says nuzzing till ze last moment and zen—cleeck, cleeck, someone find ze handcuffs on 'im, before 'e can blink ze eye." He coughed slightly. "I have been on a case wiz 'im. I 'ave seen 'im vork and know all 'is vays."
"You have worked with him?" cried Mrs. Scrutton. "How very interesting!"
"Ha, ha!" came a raucous laugh from Jones. "Yes, Madam, he has seen his work sure enough, for it was upon his own wrists that Inspector Larose clapped the handcuffs."
"But zat vas a meestake," exclaimed Croupin excitedly. "Ze jury say so and ze great lord judge vas so pleased viz zem zat 'e say zey be excused from any furzer juries for twenty years."
"Exactly," snapped Jones, "and everyone in the court was surprised he did not excuse them for the remainder of their whole lives. He said he was amazed at their verdict and——"
"Thank you, Mr. Jones," said Mrs. Scrutton, "but there is no need to go into that now. If Monsieur Croupin says so I am quite sure he was innocent of everything."
"Ha! ha!" laughed Jones again, "but that was not what the old judge thought, for he said most pointedly that——"
But the mistress of the Hall cut him short. "Now please, all of you, do not think for one moment that I have asked you to come down here expecting you to find the murderer of my poor butler among my servants or my guests, for with all your talents that will not be possible, as the wretch undoubtedly came in from outside. What, however, I do want you to do is to clear the characters of all in this house and wipe away the stigma which these odious inspectors from Scotland Yard seem to want to impose upon us."
"Madam," said Jones very sternly, "I warn you straight away that wherever I may find the criminal I shall expose him or her at once. When I am called in for an investigation such as this"—he raised his voice pompously—"whatever may be the fee I am to receive, and no matter whether it be a peer of the realm or a shop assistant who is asking for my services—I never attempt to shield any wrongdoer, and invariably give my verdict without fear or reservation, whatever the consequences may be." He shook his head grimly. "I am not to be intimidated or bribed."
As if in some vexation at Jones's hectoring manner, Mrs. Scrutton bit her lip before making any comment. Then she said coldly, "Of course that is only what everyone would expect of you, Mr. Jones. I simply meant to make you understand that I am not asking for the impossible from you and shall be neither surprised nor disappointed if you find out no more than the Scotland Yard detectives have done." She inclined her head graciously. "So you can rest assured your reputation is safe in my hands, whatever happens."
Jones seemed staggered at her air of condescension and flushed angrily, but whatever retort he would have made was stifled at its very birth by Croupin starting to speak.
"And I too, my lady," said the latter with a merry twinkle in his eye, "do nevaire permit even ze most tender glance of ze most beseeching eye to turn me from ze path of duty. If I find ze loveliest maiden posseeble 'ave killed zis man I shall tell everyvone about 'er at vonce."
"And as for me," said Snoreoh, with an ingratiating bow to Mrs. Scrutton, "I am the man simple and give the result of my work to the client who is employing me and to no one else." He shook his head smilingly. "There will be no broadcasting from me."
Mrs. Scrutton rose to her feet. "Well, now, gentlemen, I shall leave you all for a few minutes so that you can study the report I have given you. Then I will take you into my boudoir, and after that we can arrange where you would prefer to question us all. While you are staying here I shall do my best to make you comfortable. You will, of course, take your meals with us, lunch at one and dinner at seven," and, with Croupin dashing forward to open the door for her, she swept from the room.
For some minutes a deep silence followed, with the eyes of the three investigators glued to the manuscripts she had given them. Only Dr. Potson had nothing to occupy himself with, and, with a sly glance in Jones's direction to make sure the latter was not looking, he popped a big acid-drop into his mouth and proceeded to suck very quietly.
Presently Jones looked up with a frown, and it was only by an almost superhuman effort that the succulent delicacy in Potson's mouth was not swallowed whole. "She has no idea of punctuation," commented Jones disgustedly, "and her spelling is atrocious. She actually spells assassin with only three s's."
"So I have noticed, Meester Jones," called out Croupin instantly. "I notice zat, too."
Jones glared witheringly in his direction. "And no doubt, Mr. Croupin," he said dryly, "you will, from time to time, notice other things as well, after I have called attention to them. Such gentlemen as you are parasites who feed upon the minds as well as upon the goods and chattels of others."
Croupin looked amused. "But I notice sings for myself zometimes," he said smilingly. "For ze instance, I see zat Doctaire Potson is sucking a beeg lollipop and 'e do take ze good care to keep it in ze cheek avay from you, so zat you do not see it," and Jones at once transferred his glare to Potson, who instantly proceeded to swallow the offending sugary morsel in its entirety.
Mrs. Scrutton returned into the room, and beckoned to the investigators to follow her.
"One moment, please," said Jones. "Have you a photograph of the deceased?"
"I had one," said Mrs. Scrutton, "but Inspector Larose took it away with him."
"And what did he want it for?" snapped Jones.
"That's what I should like to know," she replied. "At any rate, I shall see him at the inquest this afternoon and will ask for it back."
"I shall be glad if you will do so," said Jones, and he whispered hoarsely to the doctor, "That Larose is one step ahead of us. He has picked up a clue."
"Yes, he has picked up a clue," echoed Potson.
"But I shall pick it, too," said Jones.
Potson nodded and echoed again, "Yes, you will pick it, too."
They all trouped into the boudoir, and Mrs. Scrutton pointed out where the body had lain. Jones immediately threw himself prone upon the carpet. "Tobacco ashes!" he hissed. "Potson, my magnifying glass, quick!"
Potson's hand got busy at once and, producing a big magnifying glass from one of his pockets, handed it down to Jones.
"Ashes from a cigar," exclaimed Jones triumphantly. "And from a Manilla one, too! Quick, Potson, an envelope at once!" and Potson, by what looked to the others like a smart piece of sleight-of-hand, at once produced one from another of his pockets.
"You are quite right, Meester Jones," exclaimed Croupin helpfully, "for zere ees ze cigar itself upon ze mantelshelf above your head. See, eet 'as a gold-and-red band upon it."
After one quick glance in the direction Croupin indicated, the frowning Jones turned to Mrs. Scrutton. "And was your butler in the habit, Madam," he asked, "of smoking expensive cigars like this?" When, after a few moments of hesitation, she nodded, he went on judicially, "A most expensive habit for a man in his position, and one calculated to lead him into all kinds of other expensive ones, too." He looked very stern. "In consequence he may have been living much above his station and have had to resort to all sorts of ways to obtain money, borrowing, stealing and even blackmailing." He pointed back to the cigar. "That in itself may lead me to many lines of enquiry."
"But he wasn't that kind of man," expostulated Mrs. Scrutton sharply. "If he had been, with his long service with me, I should certainly have found it out."
"But you may not have," said Jones sternly. "Indeed, he may all along have been keeping an expensive mistress with your knowing nothing about her."
"He was forty-four, Mr. Jones," she said coldly, "and men of that age behave properly."
"Not at all," snapped Jones. "The years after forty can be the most dangerous ones for a man, as then, with the realisation that his youth is quickly passing, there comes the urge to make the fullest use of every day that is left." He turned to Dr. Potson. "As a medical man that is your considered opinion, is it not, Doctor?"
"Certainly, Mr. Jones," agreed the doctor.
"La, la," exclaimed Croupin delightedly, "and as I am nine years off ze forty as yet—zen I have ze many years of ze more delight before me." He bowed respectfully to Dr. Potson. "Eet please me greatly to 'ear so distinguished a gentleman say so."
Only Monsieur Snoreoh took any notice of Croupin's remarks, and he smiled sympathetically. Jones discussed with Mrs. Scrutton how the enquiry should proceed, and it was arranged that each of the investigators should have a separate room in which to question the servants and the members of the house-party.
So the investigation was begun in that way, starting off with the various members of the staff being taken in, one by one, to each of the three to be questioned. Padlock Jones's method of investigation was peculiarly his own.
After one long and penetrating stare, he told whoever came before him to tell his or her tale exactly as it had been drawn out from them by the questions of the inspectors of Scotland Yard. By adopting this procedure he reckoned that not only would he be getting the actual facts of everything they knew, but also, from the questions they told him the inspectors had asked, he would be able to determine pretty accurately what evidence the two Scotland Yard men had thought important. In effect, he told himself he would be picking the brains of both Stone and Larose, and obtaining the information in a much quicker way than they had been able to do.
Nothing much escaped him and, making one question the inspectors had asked glide casually into the next one, in this way he drew out from Anthony, the footman, the story of his mistress's association with released prisoners and the fact that the man known as Hudson was one of them.
Tactfully letting Hudson become aware of his knowledge, he then drew from the ex-convict his suspicions of Mrs. Rome, and then the lady herself, believing Jones had been told all about her, quickly discarded all reticence and unfolded her past career.
Jones's cunning tactics did not meet with full success with everyone, but on the whole he was able to cover the ground quickly and put to one side for more questioning those of whom he had any suspicions.
Bastille Snoreoh went about matters in a very different way. Though to a certain point shrewd and capable in estimating character, he had had nothing like the psychological experience of Jones, and so in the main he contented himself with taking copious notes of the actual facts, with the determination of summing them all up later in the privacy of his own room.
As for Raphael Croupin, by nature almost as good a judge of character as Jones, he at once swept out of his mind in a slapdash sort of manner nearly all of those who came before him. The remaining few ones he put into a mental pigeon-hole to be thought over later. He was not good at cross-examination, and to determine whether a person was lying or not depended practically upon intuition alone. One thing in his favour was that people were much less afraid of him than of Padlock Jones and much more interested in his personality than in that of Bastille Snoreoh. They all thought there was nothing formidable about him, and Mainwaring, for one, made the great mistake of forgetting that some rogues can quickly sense, even with no evidence forthcoming, the presence of roguery in others.
Such, then, were the three men who had—without any objection from Stone or Larose—been let loose upon Mrs. Scrutton's servants and guests and, indeed, upon the lady herself, too, as it was undoubtedly her personality which stood out above those of all of the others.
Just as she was about to leave for the little hall adjoining the Police Station in Ingatestone, where the inquest was to be held, Mrs. Scrutton was called to the phone to be informed by Inspector Stone, who was speaking from Scotland Yard, that he had found it necessary to withdraw until further notice his permission for anybody to leave Orwell Hall. As rude-mannered as anyone could be, she demanded angrily to know the reason, but the inspector refused to tell her and she left the telephone in a fuming temper.
The reason for the inspector's order was that a man had just arrived at the Yard with some important information. Larose had set off for the inquest more than an hour previously, before the man arrived, and Stone had interviewed him alone.
Middle-aged and stout, with a rather high-pitched voice, he was greatly impressed at being taken into so important a man as Chief Inspector Stone. His name was Monk, and he said he kept a second-hand shop in Farringdon Road. From the photograph in the newspapers he had recognised the silver-plated skewer as having been stolen from his shop a few weeks previously. The skewer being shown to him, he was certain it was the same one.
He explained that, being close to the Smithfield Meat Market, he had always on sale a good number of articles dealing with meat, knives, skewers, choppers, etc. He also went in for workmen's appliances and tools. He said his wares were exposed to view on counters running up and down the shop, and every day a goodly number of people came in to look over them, including women as well as men. Of course, he knew a number of his customers by name, but the great majority of them were unknown to him. They walked in and walked out, sometimes buying something, but quite as often making no purchase at all.
He could not say upon what day the skewer had been stolen. It might have been upon the very day he missed it, about three weeks ago, or it might have been a few days before then. He was certain he had not sold it. He had never heard of Mrs. Scrutton or Orwell Hall, and had no recollection of any particular elderly or old woman who had come into his shop. He admitted he had not a very good memory for faces, but if any woman who had come into the shop had been of an unusual appearance, looking different from the class of customers he usually served, he might be able to recall her to mind.
Stone reproved him for not having got in touch with Scotland Yard sooner, and told him to come back on the morrow at nine o'clock, when he would be taken down to Ingatestone to put to the proof whether or not he was able to recognise anyone.
The man was not without his sense of humour. "But is it not likely," he laughed, "that someone may recognise me? If the thief is there, after that photograph of the skewer having been in the newspapers, it will be expected you will be bringing me down, and he or she will be on the look-out and keep out of the way."
Stone agreed with him. "But we shall provide for that," he said. "You will go down as an assistant to our official photographer who will be taking a group picture of everyone at Orwell Hall. So we shall put you in uniform and you will wear dark glasses." He spoke emphatically. "Understand you are upon a most important mission, Mr. Monk."
He regarded him critically. "Now if you are agreeable to shaving off that beard of yours you will be properly compensated."
Monk considered. "I don't quite like it," he said, "but I suppose I'll have to do it. Yes, I'll turn up here to-morrow clean-shaven."
Larose was back at the Yard quite early in the afternoon and was very delighted at the news Stone was able to give him. "Mrs. Scrutton told me about your phone talk to her," he said, "and of course I was wondering what had happened to make you order the house-party to remain on at the Hall. She is furious about it, for it seems she had been imagining the whole business would be finished with to-day, with the coroner instructing his jury to bring in the usual verdict." He nodded significantly at his colleague. "Why, she hadn't even troubled to get a lawyer to look after her interests. She said she didn't think it was necessary."
He went on, "She and Robson's sister from Ilford identified the body, and the little maid, Susan Brown, testified to having found it. The surgeon gave his evidence how the butler had died, and then the Chelmsford Superintendent immediately obtained an adjournment to a date to be fixed later."
"Did anyone else from the Hall besides the maid," asked Stone, "come to the inquest with the old woman?"
"Yes, that fellow Mainwaring," replied Larose, "and he didn't look too pleased about it either, as, of course, the Press photographers had a good go at the two of them. In the conversation with him afterwards I gathered she had made him come, though he hadn't wanted to."
"And if we are right about her," nodded Stone, "it was a good move to impress upon everyone the friendly terms they are on."
"As I have said," went on Larose, "she is furious with you. She doesn't think you have the power to keep them all, as she puts it, imprisoned in the Hall for just as long as you may think fit. She said she would ring up her lawyer about it directly she got back home."
"And with, apparently, no definite charge pending against any of them," grinned Stone, "I'm not so certain about it, either. Still, I'll put that right straight away. I'll phone her up to say we're coming down to-morrow for a few minutes, and then after that everyone will be allowed to go."
"You're not saying anything about the contemplated photograph?" queried Larose rather anxiously.
"No, no," exclaimed Stone quickly. "We'll spring that upon her before she has time to cook up any objection."
The next morning shortly after ten o'clock the little party from Scotland Yard arrived at the Hall. The second-hand dealer, now clean-shaven, looked fairly passable as a member of the Force, except that Larose was a little bit worried the man did not hold himself erect enough for a policeman, and his uniform was not much of a fit either. He carried himself quite all right when he was thinking about it, but directly he was not he slipped back in a most unpoliceman-like slouch. Still, as he was to carry a good share of the photographer's paraphernalia Larose was hoping that if anyone were critical of his bearing the slouch would be put down to his burden.
Stone was all smiles and good nature when, ushered into Mrs. Scrutton, he announced casually that, before taking leave of everyone in the Hall, he would like to get a group photograph of all of them together. He had been quite confident she would make no objection, but felt it hard to suppress a frown when, after a marked hesitation upon the old lady's part, she said sharply, "But they mayn't all be willing, and I'm quite sure you can't compel them if they don't want to. Some of them may object strongly to the publicity."
"But there'll be no publicity," countered Stone instantly. "None at all, for it isn't a Press photograph, just a private one, as a matter of form, for us at Scotland Yard." As she continued to stand hesitatingly, he went on, still smiling, "Come, Madam, if there are no guilty consciences among you, surely none of you can object to having it taken? We shall want two separate photographs, one of you and your guests and the other of the Hall staff."
After still more hesitation she said at last, "All right, I'll arrange it. Where would you like it taken?"
"On the terrace," replied Stone. "Our photographer says the light will be excellent there." He heard Padlock Jones's sonorous voice in the corridor and remarked smilingly, "So you've got these private investigators here all right."
She nodded sourly. "Yes, and Padlock Jones is carrying on already as if the whole place belonged to him. He smokes his filthy pipe everywhere, and his assistant, a Dr. Potson, has to follow him about with ash-trays, as he'll knock his ashes out on to the carpet if one isn't within reach of his arm at the exact moment." She shook her head. "He may be very clever, but I don't like the man."
"And Monsieur Croupin," smiled Stone, "how do you get on with him?"
"Ah, he's all right and very gentlemanly," she said. "We get on very well together. Now, if he suspects anybody it must be one of the women, as he's always following one or the other of them about, and the better-looking they are the more it seems he is suspecting them. He spends the greater part of his time with them."
At first some members of the house-party were decidedly disinclined to take up their positions for the photograph, with Mainwaring and Mrs. Rome being the most vocal of the objectors. However, upon Stone giving his word of honour there would be no publicity given to it, everyone was prevailed upon to do as requested. Then at the last moment Mrs. Scrutton separated herself from the little group.
"No, I'm not one of the guests," she said determinedly, "and there's no occasion for me to be in the photograph."
Rather to her surprise, Stone accepted her refusal without argument for, half anticipating what she would do, he had instructed the photographer to get a lightning snap when she was among the group, with everyone then imagining he was only preparing to get ready.
Besides that, he had seen to it that Monk had had a good eyeful of her, close enough up for him to be able to take in everything about her.
With the photograph of the guests taken and while the members of the Hall staff were being posed, Stone and Larose sidled up to Monk and asked if the dealer had recognised Mrs. Scrutton as having been in his shop. To the intense disappointment of the two inspectors Monk shook his head.
"I can't say for certain that I do," he said, "though I seem to have a hazy recollection of her face." He nodded significantly. "At any rate I can tell you something funny about a gent who's in that photo that has just been taken, that one standing by the pillar."
Stone told him he was Mrs. Scrutton's nephew, but any further conversation was stayed for the moment by the appearance of Raphael Croupin upon the terrace. As usual he was dazzlingly attired, and sported among other distractions a tie of every known and unknown colour. It was at once apparent he was in high favour with the ladies, as a small bevy of them at once proceeded to cluster round him.
"And won't he be flabbergasted," nodded Stone grimly, "if he sees we are here! He'll bolt inside again like a rabbit."
The lively Frenchman, however, was evidently made of sterner stuff as, suddenly catching sight of the two inspectors, he waved his hand excitedly in their direction and, shaking off his admirers, tripped quickly towards them. To Stone he gave only a smiling bow, but to Larose he held out his hand. Looking rather amused, Larose took it with no hesitation.
"And eet ees ze great pleasure to see you again, Meester Larose," he exclaimed—he made a grimace—"viz your company much nicer for me zis time."
"Quite so, Monsieur Croupin," agreed Larose smilingly, "but I understand you are being a good boy now."
"And very 'appy zat I am a boy," grinned Croupin, "as ze girls 'ere are most pretty." He winked his eye. "I get on fine viz zem."
"And how are the investigations going, Mr. Croupin?" asked Stone.
Croupin's grin broadened and, though no one was standing anywhere near them, he dropped his voice to a sibilant whisper. "Eet ees a joke, Mr. Jones," he hissed, "a beeg joke for us investigators." He shrugged his shoulders. "We know ve find no murderer. 'Ow can ve find 'eem? If 'e come from outside, zen 'e ees miles avay by now. But if 'e vas inside all ze time—zen 'e sit quiet and say nuzzing. But eet suit me all right, I make good friends among ze ladies, and ze old voman pay me vell."
"But if you are making no headway," frowned Stone, "what about your colleagues Jones and Snoreoh? Haven't they discovered anything either?"
Croupin shook his head. "No, nuzzing, Meester Stone," he said, as if very sorry for them. "Zey 'ave not found out anysing and——" but his sad expression changed suddenly to an impish grin. "A-ah," he exclaimed, "zey do find out somesing." He nodded vehemently. "Yes, zey both find out zat ze vine of Burgundy 'ere is very good, and I sink zey vould like to stay 'ere for ever. Meester Jones, 'e drink a whole bottle every night."
Stone sauntered off, and Larose had a few quick words with Croupin. "See here, you old rogue," he said, "will you do me a little service?"
Croupin bowed deeply. "Viz pleasure, Meester Larose," he said. "You are my friend, and ven last year I vas in trouble about zose jewels of ze great Lord Rampion you treat me as if ve vere bruzzers together."
"Oh, I did, did I?" frowned Larose. "Well, at any rate I am glad you took it in that way. Now, this is what I want. You know that man Mr. Mainwaring?"
Croupin smiled. "Ze ugly man viz ze pretty girl 'oo begin to like me best? Oh, yes, I know 'im."
"Now while you are here," went on Larose, "I want you to keep an eye on him, and then, when you have left here, come to the Yard and tell me how he and Mrs. Scrutton have been getting on together. I want to know that, for a special reason."
Croupin nodded. "All right, I come." He screwed up his eyes. "Zey no like each ozzer. Zay vatch each uzzer a lot."
The photographic business over, the police wasted no time in going off in their car, and Monk was at once questioned minutely about Mrs. Scrutton. Monk reiterated that he was quite unable to say definitely that he remembered her having come into the shop, but, for all that, if he had been told that morning before coming to the Hall that he was going to meet a lady he had already met, he was sure he would have picked her out from among all the others.
"Those very strong glasses, sir, seem somehow familiar to me," he said, "but where I ran into the party who had got them on, for the life of me I can't say. She may have been in my shop, she may have been walking in the street, in fact she may have been anywhere. Still, if she came into my shop, I'm certain I did not sell her that skewer, or I should be remembering more about her. If she came in she stole it."
"And what is it you have to tell us," frowned Stone, "about that Mr. Mainwaring, the man you pointed out to me who had just been photographed in the first group?"
"Ah, that is funny, sir," exclaimed Monk, "and I'm quite certain about recognising him. Only a few days ago he came into my shop to ask if I had got a heavy hammer with a copper head upon it. I told him I hadn't, and then said laughingly, 'It's a hammer that burglars use you want, sir, a soft-headed hammer that makes the minimum of noise when a safe-breaker bangs it up against the lock of a safe he wants to open.'"
"What did he say?" asked Stone sharply.
"Of course," went on Monk, "I'd only said it as a joke, but, by hell, he didn't take it as one. He looked horribly startled, and I'll swear he went white in the gills. I stopped laughing and asked quite politely what he wanted such a one for. He gave me a nasty look and jerked out, 'Oh, to crack nuts with, of course!' And he left the shop without another word."
"And you are sure that was the same man?" frowned Stone.
"Quite sure, sir," said Monk. "I remember him particularly, because he is the living image of another man I used to know, a plumber who has a shop in Islington Road, though of course the plumber wasn't as well dressed as this gent."
Stone turned to Larose. "What do you think of it?" he asked.
"If Mr. Monk is right," replied Larose, "I'm inclined to think quite a lot."
"Oh, I am right," exclaimed Monk emphatically, "and what's more, I would swear that he recognised me those few minutes ago. He came up close to me and stared devilish hard."
"But he couldn't have recognised you now you are clean-shaven," frowned Stone. "I don't think that is possible."
"But it wasn't my face that he recognised at first," said Monk. "It was my horrid squeaky voice, sir. It always startles people when they first meet me and I start to speak."
"But he didn't hear your voice just now," snapped Stone.
"Oh, but he did, sir," said Monk. "He had walked up to inspect the camera that your man was using, and he heard me speak. I had no idea he was behind me, and it was most marked the way he stared at me when I turned round. He stared at me with his eyes like gimlets, and I'm almost certain he knew who I was. You see, sir, if anyone had reason to be suspicious of me and came up close to get a good look—they'd guess at once that I'm something like a fish out of water in this uniform. They could see I was not the chap it was made for, as it's a bad fit in the shoulders and these damned trousers are a good inch and a half too short." He nodded. "Oh, yes, I'm afraid he recognised me, as I caught him looking at me quite a lot afterwards, and he didn't seem too happy about something, either."
Back in Scotland Yard well before noon, without a minute's delay the film of the photograph was developed. From one of the prints the face and body of Washington Mainwaring was cut out and enlarged. It made quite a good picture, and anybody would be able to recognise him at once.
Next Larose summoned Ronald Harker, a young detective of some promise, to his room. Barely twenty-five, Harker was just a pleasant young fellow of no very distinctive appearance. This apparent lack of personality was really a good asset for him, as it followed he was not one who would be picked out from a crowd, and so could move about among people without being remembered afterwards. He was quite well educated, very painstaking and could be trusted implicitly.
Larose explained what he wanted. "As you know, we are investigating that killing at Orwell Hall," he said. "As a sideline we have become interested in one of the men of the house-party." He handed over the photo. "Now take a good look at him and study well both his face and figure."
Larose went on, "Now we don't for a moment suspect him of being the killer, but we are pretty certain he knows who was. With the position like that, we are very interested in an urgent telegram he sent a couple of hours or so after the murder was discovered. Here's a copy of the wire, and I want you to go down at once into Essex and find out all you can about this Dr. Hendrick. I've picked out Tillingham on this map, and you can see where it lies."
"But I know exactly where it is, sir," said Harker. "Tillingham village is on the edge of the marsh which begins about two miles from the sea. I've never actually been there, but I know Burnham-on-Crouch quite well."
"From the look of the map of the country all round I should say it would be pretty lonely," said Larose.
"It is, sir," nodded Harker. "It's a well-known place for wild duck, and they are only found in most lonely places."
"Well, take a train down to Burnham at once," said Larose, "and take a bike with you. There's a train at five to three this afternoon."
"And what in particular do you want me to find out about this doctor?" asked Harker.
"What sort of life he is living down there," said Larose, "who is living with him, and what visitors he has. Find out if this Mainwaring is a particular friend of his and if he goes down there a lot. If he does try to find out why. As for the doctor himself, looking him up in the Medical Directory I reckon he must be about somewhere in the middle sixties, as he began collecting degrees forty odd years ago. Of course he's retired now, but he's evidently a very distinguished member of his profession, as I see he's got any amount of degrees and honours after his name. He was a professor at Oxford University once, with his speciality being diseases of the nerves."
"Very good, sir," said Harker, looking at his watch. "I'll be off at once. When do you want me to report to you?"
"Oh, it's not any slapdash enquiry I'm putting you on," said Larose. "It may take you several days. If it's possible, I want you to watch the doctor's house to see if this Mainwaring comes there. I don't fancy the chap will be leaving Orwell Hall before Thursday, as Mrs. Scrutton has got those three private investigators on the job, and as they are well paid I don't suppose they'll be in too great a hurry to leave."
"And you want me to report to you day by day?" asked Harker.
"Yes, day by day," said Larose, "but don't please phone unless it's something very urgent. Write every night, but post the letter well away from Burnham. I think Chelmsford would be the best place, and you'd better put up there at night." He raised his hand warningly. "But one thing more. Whatever you do be careful, and for Heaven's sake don't let it get to this doctor's ears that you are enquiring about him. Get your information from a number of people—don't ask too many questions of any one person. Understand?"
Harker nodded and asked, "And who's this Washington Mainwaring?"
"Ah, I was forgetting to tell you about him," frowned Larose. "Aged forty-four, he is an outside stockbroker in the city, and, by all accounts, something of a bad egg. He's a gentleman of sorts, a one-time major, with plenty of money made in a doubtful way, and is shortly to be married to a girl of nineteen. He drives a big blue Jehu car. That's all I have to tell you."
Harker was a quick worker, and the following morning Larose received a letter from him. It was written from Blake's Coffee Palace in Chelmsford and postmarked 10.30 the previous night. It read:
"Re enquiry Dr. Hendrick. In Burnham he is only a name, as he is never seen there. His bungalow is upon the seashore, with the two-mile deep marsh right behind it. It is modern and contains six or seven rooms and is approached by a rough road skirting the marsh. He lives there with a manservant of about fifty known as Ben Hunter. The doctor is said to be in poor health and his man is a sort of nurse-attendant. He brought him with him when he came to live permanently at the bungalow about a year ago. It is believed Hunter has been with him nearly thirty years. The doctor is very seldom seen away from the bungalow. He has a good-sized rowing-boat and does a little fishing. Also, he shoots, and is said to be a wonderful shot with both the gun and the rifle. Hunter is known to be an inveterate poacher, but no one has been able to catch him. Up to a few months ago very few visitors came to the bungalow, but latterly quite a number have been coming, mostly at week-ends. They are nearly all young fellows and come on motor-bicycles. A big blue Jehu car, with a man driving it, is occasionally seen, mostly at weekends, too. The driver's name is not known, but his description answers to that of the man M. you spoke to me about. It is believed Dr. H. must be well off, as the telephone was specially carried out to his bungalow at considerable expense; also cases of wine and other things from town often arrive for him at the railway station in Southminster.
"Hunter comes into Tillingham village nearly every afternoon to get the London newspapers and occasionally goes into the public house there for a drink. However, he is not popular, as he seldom speaks to anyone and often takes no notice of questions asked him. They say he suffers from fits and some even consider him half-witted. I have not been near the bungalow as yet, but shall go up there to-morrow towards dark, and as Dr. H. keeps all his windows open day and night, I may perhaps hear something of what is being said."
Larose read through the letter three times and frowned. "Certainly a lot of information in a short time," he told himself, "but I hope to goodness he's not been too quick about it and attracted attention by his enquiries. If there's anything fishy about Mainwaring, above all things, we don't want him put on his guard."
Now Larose had made a bad guess when he had told Harker he did not think Mainwaring would be leaving the Hall until the Thursday. Anthony had given him that idea because he knew Mrs. Scrutton had expressly told all the house-party she did not wish any of them to leave until the private detectives had finished their enquiries, so that no one could say they had gone off to avoid further questioning.
However, on the Tuesday evening the stockbroker had suddenly made up his mind to leave straight away, and so, directly after dinner, at only a few minutes' notice, he had gone off with his little party. He had given it as his excuse that he was neglecting his business. He said that if anyone wanted to question him further they would know where to find him. His aunt had been very angry at his open defiance of her, but he did not seem to mind whether he offended her or not.
Still, his real reason for going off so quickly was that he had recognised the second-hand dealer. At all times a shrewd observer of what was going on around him, as preparations for the group photographs were being made by the two inspectors from Scotland Yard, he had noticed subconsciously how slovenly the photographer's assistant looked. Not only was the man's uniform a very bad fit, but, also, he carried himself in a stooping, humped-up way quite unlike the normal bearing of a London policeman. Strolling over to have a look at the kind of camera being used, Mainwaring got quite a shock as he heard Monk's squeaky voice. He gave the man a hard, intense look, and, in spite of his now being clean-shaven, remembered him at once. It seemed almost impossible, but there was not the slightest doubt about it. He was the same man who had joked about his wanting a burglar's hammer. By the sly and furtive way in which Monk looked at him out of the corner of his eyes the stockbroker was positive that the recognition was mutual.
Of course, he could not understand it at all, but when the little police party had gone he began working himself up into such a fine state of agitation that at length he became positively frightened. Certainly something was going on, and he must warn Dr. Hendrick at once. All communications with members of the little band must stop, and everybody keep quiet for a while. So that was why he had defied his aunt and left the Hall so precipitately.
Reaching town and getting rid of the two girls at about ten o'clock, he judged it too late to go down to the bungalow that night, but by nine o'clock the next morning he pulled up his car before it and hurried inside to have his talk with the doctor.
Now there could be no doubt that Dr. Hendrick's condition had worsened quite a lot during the last few months. That ever-present weariness, an invariable symptom of his malady, was oppressing him more and more, and all the zest and love of life were leaving him. He got very little sleep at night, and took no interest at all in his food.
With this marked deterioration in his physical condition had come a like falling away in his mental state. He was becoming bored with everything, and would often sit for long minutes at a time staring out of the window and yet seeing nothing. There was very little thrill for him in the burglaries now, and he was regretting that he had ever troubled to start upon them. Though he was reluctant to admit it, even to himself, he was by no means easy in his mind about "his boys," as he had come to think of them.
The realisation that he had started these young fellows upon a certain path was worrying him, as he wondered if they would be able to return to a normal mode of life when they came to want to. Of course sooner or later they would have to, as they could not expect to go on pitting themselves successfully against the law for ever, especially as they would not always have his guidance.
These thoughts had been running through his mind for some time, and he had been intending to suggest, when the raid upon Orwell Hall had been carried out, that the band should go into recess for an indefinite period to allow the search for them to die down.
However, to his great annoyance, the murder at Orwell Hall had upset all his plans there. Upon the receipt of Mainwaring's telegram that Friday morning, which had arrived only just in time to stop the little band from setting out, he had wondered quite a lot what the accident mentioned could possibly have been. Then, when the evening news had come over the air, and he had heard of the Hall butler being murdered, he had been roused to great anger, being quite certain that it had been Mainwaring's work.
"The fool," he had scowled, "he must have let that butler find out something and then killed him to shut his mouth."
He worried about it all the week-end, and then, on the Tuesday evening, had more to worry about still, as Ben had been into the village to fetch the London newspapers and come back with quite an alarming tale. As was generally his habit, Ben had gone into the little public house for a drink, and the publican there had told him about a stranger who had arrived that afternoon and asked quite a lot of questions about the bungalow and the visitors who came there. He had been particularly inquisitive about a Mr. Mainwaring who drove a big blue car. The publican had told Ben that the man must have been questioning other people before he came to him, as he knew all about the young fellows who came down to the bungalow and stayed there for week-ends. Also, the man had said it would be worth a half-note to anyone who would give him the numbers on their registration plates or tell him anything interesting about them.
"And you didn't tell him anything?" queried the doctor when he was satisfied that he had got everything out of his servant.
Ben shook his head. "No, Master, I didn't speak. I didn't say anything. When I had finished my beer I just came away."
As can be well imagined, the doctor had plenty to think about that night. However, he was not worrying about himself. He was quite confident that no matter how many detectives were sent down, they would find out nothing about him. No, he was not in danger; but trouble would come if they managed to contact any of the young fellows who had been carrying out those raids. That might turn out to be a calamity, as it was always possible that if the police had the very slightest suspicion of any of them, then the youngster might break down under the hard and searching questioning they would certainly be subjected to by the men of Scotland Yard.
With all these anxieties running through his mind the doctor passed a night of wakefulness, the whole time cursing the stupidity that had made Mainwaring despatch that foolish telegram to bring this hornet's nest about their ears. Really, he could not blame him sufficiently.
The morning found him very disinclined to leave his bed, but he forced himself to get up, wondering what unpleasantness he might have to face during the day and determined to be all ready for it. Strangely enough, the first unpleasantness was the arrival of the very man who was the cause of all the trouble. Just as the doctor had finished breakfast and was lying down upon the sofa in his study, Mainwaring burst unceremoniously into the room.
Throwing himself down in an armchair, looking white and very worried, the stockbroker started to talk at once, giving in some detail the inside story of nearly all that had happened at Orwell Hall, from the discovery of the body upon the Friday morning to his leaving the Hall so precipitately the previous night. All he kept back was the absolute conviction that was now filling his mind—that the butler had been killed in mistake for him and that his aunt had been the killer.
With Mainwaring at length finishing the story he had to tell, the doctor drew himself up into a sitting position and, breaking his silence at last, rapped out sharply, "You killed that butler, you were his murderer that night, you big fool!"
With his face flushing angrily, Mainwaring snapped his fingers together in exasperation. "I didn't! I wasn't!" he almost shouted. "Have some sense. What should I have wanted to kill him for—to bring down a horde of policemen and detectives upon the place and direct suspicion upon every single one of us who had been sleeping there that night?"
"I don't know," said the doctor stubbornly, "but I took it to be you directly I heard about it. It is not likely there would have been another person as criminal-minded as you on the premises."
Mainwaring had calmed down. "Don't talk nonsense," he said. He sneered, "As for me being criminal-minded—isn't it your pet theory that we all are like that? So, if your idea holds water, there isn't a pin to choose between any of us, and any one might have killed the man."
Dr. Hendrick made no comment, and after a few moments Mainwaring went on, "Now please talk sense. What is worrying me most is how that second-hand dealer man came to be masquerading down there as one of the police who had come to take those photographs. I can't for the life of me understand it."
The doctor spoke testily. "You've got the wrong perspective there," he snapped. "How do you come to imagine you were interesting enough to the police, just because you had made enquiries about a copper-headed hammer, that they should go to all that bother of making the man you asked about it shave off his beard and go down togged up in a policeman's uniform? It's ridiculous?"
"But it happened," said Mainwaring miserably, "and I've been puzzling about it ever since."
"It's all rubbish!" exclaimed the doctor. "I don't believe you recognised him, or he you. He wasn't the man you imagined. You are losing your mind, that's it." He raised his voice angrily. "But don't you realise you've brought yourself under the suspicions of the police in some other way? You've made some blunder, and the damnable part of it is that you've made them pass their suspicion of you on to me here."
"What do you mean?" scowled Mainwaring. "I've made no blunder in any way."
"I don't know what the first blunder you made was," snarled the doctor, "but the second was that fool telegram you sent me. It focused attention on me and this bungalow, and was the very last thing you should have done."
Mainwaring looked most astonished. "But I had to!" he exclaimed. "If I hadn't, our fellows would have come up to the Hall and run into the two policemen who were stationed there on guard. They had been given a sleep-down in the lounge and were keeping watch to make sure none of us left before that damned Stone had given his permission."
The doctor regarded him contemptuously. "Bah!" he exclaimed. "You could have warned them in some other way." He flared up. "Why didn't you use your imagination, man? You told us the bedroom which was always given to you when you stayed at the Hall looked down over the drive which the boys would have had to cross to come up to the house, and you could have kept the lights on and the blinds up all night. Then if you had sat at the window they would have seen you at once and smelt a rat. They are none of them the sort of fool you seem to be."
"But they mightn't have smelt that rat," scowled Mainwaring. He caught his breath anxiously and asked, "But has anything been happening down here?"
The doctor scowled back. "Yes, a lot," he said, "and just you listen to what the publican at the Duck and Goose told Ben last night. He said that yesterday afternoon a stranger had come in and asked a lot of questions about me and this bungalow—what visitors I had and who were they. He asked about you in particular." He spoke angrily. "Now what do you think of that?"
"Good Heavens!" exclaimed Mainwaring, looking most uneasy.
"Yes, it is good Heavens!" snapped the doctor. "And I don't know where it is going to end. Once these Scotland Yard men are on any trail they are the very devil to shake off."
"But you've no proof," said Mainwaring sharply, and now recovering a little of his poise, "that this man coming down here to make enquiries about you has anything at all to do with that murder at Orwell Hall. The party who sent him down may have became suspicious of you for some other reason. The Scotland Yard men will probably have forgotten all about my telegram, even if the Chelmsford Superintendent remembered to mention it to them." He became angry in his turn. "So it's nonsense your trying to make out that what's happened here has anything to do with me."
"Oh, is it?" retorted the doctor. "Then why did the spy yesterday ask questions about the stout man who came motoring here in a blue Jehu car, how often he came and if it was known what he came for?" He nodded viciously. "No, that damned telegram of yours may have stirred up a regular hornet's nest."
Mainwaring looked uneasy again. "Well, it's done now, and we'll have to make the best of it. One thing, someone will have to go down at once and retrieve that kit of tools they've hidden in the Hall grounds. I'd have brought it away myself in my car last night if I'd only known where the damned thing had been put."
The conversation that followed continued to be an angry one, and when they eventually parted they were both in a bad temper. The talk, however, had in one way brought light to Mainwaring, for it had now flashed into his mind that his meeting the dealer again had after all been only an unfortunate coincidence, for it was his aunt the man had been brought down to identify, and not him. It looked as if the skewer had come from his shop and, seeing the photograph of it in the newspapers, he had gone at once to the police about it.
"But I don't think," he told himself, "that the man was able to identify her, as those two Scotland Yard devils looked anything but pleased with themselves as they went off so quickly after the photos had been taken."
With Mainwaring gone, Dr. Hendrick called his servant to him. "Ben," he said, looking very worried, "that man who came into the village yesterday means trouble for me, and I shouldn't wonder if he doesn't soon come spying round the house."
Ben at once looked very worried too. "He'd better not," he said angrily. "If I catch him at it I'll knock his head off."
"We must do something to stop him," went on the doctor. "In my poor state of health worry is very bad for me." He gritted his teeth together. "And I'm not going to put up with it."
"Of course you're not, Master," said Ben. He regarded the doctor most sympathetically. "And I'm not going to have you upset, either. I've got a nice dish of eels for your dinner, and I want to see you eat them."
The doctor smiled faintly. Food had little pleasure for him now, and he knew well how his lack of appetite had been distressing his servant lately. "Well, we must keep a look-out for this fellow," he said, "and if he comes, just see what we can do."
So at short intervals during the day one or other of them kept sweeping a pair of powerful Zeiss glasses round upon the marsh, as it was only from that direction that any spying could be made. Nothing happened during the morning, and at the midday meal the doctor did his best to make out how much he was enjoying the eels. Afterwards he went to his room to lie down upon his bed and, following upon the bad night, to his servant's great delight he quickly dropped off to sleep.
Tip-toeing into his room many times to make sure he was all right, Ben did not disturb him until well towards evening, and then only because he was sure he ought to. He bent down over him and whispered hoarsely, "Master, I think he's come. I've not actually seen him, but there's a spot among the reeds where the gulls won't fly over. They pass it wide every time they come to it."
Without a word, but with his breathing coming quicker, Dr. Hendrick was off the bed on the instant and passing into the other room.
"There's the place," went on Ben, handing over the glasses, and pointing with his hand. "It's just in line with the church spire among the clump of big rushes. See, the gulls keep away from it all the time."
Kneeling down and with his elbows propped upon the table, for quite a long while Dr. Hendrick stared intently through the glasses. A dead silence filled the room, with Ben, however, with a scowling face continually glaring round at the rifles upon the wall.
Suddenly the doctor exclaimed breathlessly, "I see him! I see his face among the reeds! Quick! The repeater, quick!" and Ben darted across the room and took down a .302 rifle. Making sure it was fully loaded, in a few seconds he had given it into his master's hands. Ben picked up the glasses again, and focused them upon the spot he had been watching before. In his anger and absorption it was nothing to him that his master seemed now intent upon killing the man.
Another silence followed, but a much shorter one this time—and then the rifle cracked.
"You hit him, Master," exclaimed Ben stolidly and with no excitement in his tones. "You hit him all right. I can't see him now. He's fallen back among the reeds."
UPON his master's order, Ben brought a brandy and soda, and for a few minutes the doctor sipped it meditatively, while Ben proceeded to clean the rifle. There was nothing about the appearance of either of them to suggest that a wanton murder had been committed. The doctor had taken it in his stride, and as his master had done it Ben considered the dead man had received his right and natural punishment for spying round the bungalow.
"We'll wait for a few minutes," said Dr. Hendrick, "in case anyone who heard the shot is interested enough to walk this way to find out what I was shooting at. Take the glasses and go outside to see if there is anyone in sight. Be careful no one sees you looking."
With no sign of anyone about, a quarter of an hour later the two were bending over the body of the unfortunate detective. He had been shot less than two hundred yards away from the bungalow, and the body was easily found. He had been shot in the head, and death must have been instantaneous. "He had no pain," commented the doctor, "and probably has escaped a lot of suffering," He sighed heavily. "He hasn't lived to grow old and endure the pains that so many of us old people have to." He nodded. "Really, a merciful release from the cruelties of life!"
"Yes, master," agreed Ben, "and he must have known the risks he was running for this spying upon us. I expect he was well paid for it."
"Search his pockets," ordered the doctor, and almost the first thing Ben produced was a small automatic pistol. "A-ah, as I told you," exclaimed the doctor, "he meant harm to me. So it was quite fair I shot him."
"Of course it was, Master," said Ben. Proceeding with his search, he handed over what else he found to the doctor. Then he straightened himself and, through the little pair of glasses the dead man had been using, which they had found by his side, took a long, intent stare round the surrounding marshes. There was no sign of any human being. He turned to his master and asked, "Shall I go and get the spade, Master, and bury him here?"
"No, no," said Dr. Hendrick, "we mustn't bury him anywhere. When he doesn't return to those who sent him they'll certainly send others to try to find out what has become of him. So when it gets dark we'll take him and drop him in the Buxey Channel. He'll lie deep enough there, and it'll be a mystery what has become of him. They'll never find out. He'll just have vanished. That is all."
"Very well, Master," nodded Ben. "It'll be high water about ten, and the Buxey is very deep." He looked troubled. "But what shall we weigh him down with? Remember, Master, the scour of the tide is very strong there."
"We'll use one of these empty forty-gallon petrol drums we've got," said the doctor. "The body must be wired—not tied—to it, and we'll tow the drum well out to sea. Then we'll let the water into the drum, and it'll sink down like a plummet. Nothing will move it when it gets to the bottom."
Returning to the bungalow. Dr. Hendrick proceeded to go through the contents of the wallet and came at once upon the dead man's C.I.D. badge. "As I thought," he scowled uneasily, "that fool Mainwaring has brought trouble upon us. The Criminal Investigation Department won't easily be shaken off either. When this man of theirs doesn't turn up they won't delay a single hour in taking steps to try to find out what has happened to him. What good fortune it is that the sea is calm and there'll be no moon to-night! If we get through the next few hours everything will be quite safe."
Then another idea came to him, and he called Ben. "See here," he said, "we were forgetting something. They told you in the village yesterday that this chap came on a bicycle. Then depend upon it he was riding it this afternoon, and he's left it somewhere not far away. Well, you think where he would have hidden it before he took to the marsh on foot."
Now, while Ben might certainly have been considered heavy and stupid in some ways, in others no one could have had any cause for complaint. From his poaching excursions he had come to know every yard of the country for miles round, and he could find his way about in the dark quite as easily as in the daytime.
So he was prompt and ready in answering the doctor's question. "To get to where we found him, Master," he said, "he wouldn't have come through the village. He would have turned off at Southminster and come round the Dingie marshes. I think I'll be able to find whereabouts he left the coastguard-station road."
"And when you find the bicycle," said the doctor, "leave it where it is until after dark. Then you can fetch it and we'll drop it into the Buxey Channel at the same time."
Ben was gone such a long while that his master had begun to grow quite anxious when at last he appeared. "I've got it, Master," he said, "but it was quite a distance away. I found foot-prints where someone had recently gone into the marsh and followed them up. The bicycle was quite close, among the reeds."
"And no one saw you?" queried the doctor.
"No, Master. And as there was no one about I rode it a good bit nearer, so that it'll be easier to fetch to-night."
Towards dark, when the tide was nearly high, a dense sea-fog rolled up and the boat was pushed down into the sea with visibility only a few yards. They had more than two miles to row to reach the deep Buxey Channel, a good half of which was over shallow sands which would be exposed high and dry at low water, and the doctor realised only too well what a calamity it would be if they dropped their grisly freight anywhere where it might be seen when the tide went down.
However, Ben was quite confident and, steering by compass and keeping count of each stroke of the oars, in about twenty minutes he picked up the Swine Hole Buoy. It was an excellent piece of judgment, as they were then quite two miles out to sea, but he had fished many times over the Swine Hole and knew every sandbank and current perfectly well. The rest was easy. The bung was unscrewed from the big oil drum, which filled quickly and with a soft gurgle disappeared for ever from human sight.
With the tide now in their favour and the fog now beginning to lift a little, the return journey was much quicker. Still, it was with a sigh of intense relief from Dr. Hendrick that the boat at last reached the place where it had been first run down into the sea. Then, when Ben had just finished pulling it up on its rollers above high-water mark, to the doctor's great surprise and uneasiness, one of the coastguards from the station about a mile away loomed out of the fog and came up to them.
"Ah, I rather expected it would be you, Doctor," exclaimed the man. "Sound travels well upon a night like this, and I heard your oars." He laughed. "A good night this for a little bit of smuggling, and I thought I'd better make certain who it was." He gave a quick but intent look over the boat. "Had any luck at all?"
The doctor shook his head. "No, we didn't throw out a single line. I didn't like the fog and made Ben turn back."
Exchanging a few more words, the coastguard went off and the doctor remarked feelingly to Ben, "Whew, that was an escape, wasn't it? If he had heard us when we were setting out and come then there would have been the very devil to pay."
Ben grinned. "I'd have had to knock him on the head, Master," he said, "and take him for a row with that other chap," and the doctor had no doubt Ben would have been quite capable of doing it.
In the meantime things had been moving at Orwell Hall, and the following morning both Padlock Jones and Bastille Snoreoh informed Mrs. Scrutton they had done all that could be done and that further enquiries upon their part would be only a waste of time.
Jones was the first to interview her, and he was cold and stern. "It will be quite useless my staying on," he said, "and I shall leave straight away."
"And you've found out nothing?" commented Mrs. Scrutton with a rather sarcastic smile.
"You didn't expect me to," commented Jones testily. "You made that quite clear when I arrived." He eyed her grimly. "But I am not without my suspicions in several directions, and I tell you candidly I am unable to give all here a clean bill of health."
Mrs. Scrutton frowned as if very puzzled. "And what do you mean by that?" she asked-sharply.
"I mean," said Jones gravely, "I am unable to give it as my considered opinion that no one here would be incapable of committing the crime."
She bridled up. "But I shall not be content with that," she said warmly, "as it implies you suspect one or more of us."
"I suspect no definite person of the crime," Jones said instantly, "for I have not sufficient data at my command to determine that." He regarded her intently. "It's the motive I want, Madam, and until that is uncovered I'm at a dead end."
"But you aren't going to get out of it like that, Mr. Jones," she exclaimed angrily. "You are casting a slur upon all of us here by what you have just said, and I demand that you tell me frankly whom among us you believe to have been capable of committing this dreadful crime." She spoke with the utmost firmness. "I have a right to demand that, and have no intention of paying your exorbitant fee until I receive it."
"Very good, then," said Jones calmly, "this I'll tell you, though I'm sure you won't like it." He spoke impressively. "There are two of you, and the first one is that Mr. Washington Mainwaring who——"
"My nephew!" she exclaimed. "Why——"
"Yes, your nephew," said Jones. "And it must undoubtedly run in the blood, Madam, as you are the other one I picked out."
Mrs. Scrutton's face paled, her eyes opened very wide and her jaw dropped. She looked really frightened, and for the moment was too astounded to make any comment.
Jones went on grandly, "Yes, for many years now the study of character has been one of my greatest obsessions and not a few of my many outstanding successes have been due to the experience gained there." He regarded her very intently. "So it took me a very short time to form a decided opinion of you two. Your character is an unstable one, and you are emotional to a dangerous degree. You can be most vindictive and, if you were starting out for a revenge on account of some injury done you, would stop at no violence to obtain it." He bowed ironically. "At least, that is my estimation of you, given in good faith and at your own particular request."
Mrs. Scrutton's colour had come back, and she found her voice at last. "And Mr. Mainwaring?" she said icily. "He's a potential murderer, too."
"Oh, him!" replied Jones carelessly. "Yes, he, too, could be capable of anything. It may be that as yet he has no homicide to his discredit, but if one promised to be a payable proposition and with no discovery following, I am sure he would not hesitate at all. I judge him to be a gentleman of no moral character, one of the hail-fellow-well-met kind who would stand his bosom friend a drink and the next minute slip a knife into him from behind. Mind you, while I admit I have no evidence that either of you is a murderer, one thing I have found out about you both." He raised one long forefinger menacingly. "You share a secret between you, and one or other of you, and perhaps both, knows who killed that man." He dropped his voice to a whisper. "It is my belief that one of you has blood upon his or her hands and that the other knows it. You are afraid of each other, and——"
"Thank you, that will do, Mr. Jones," Mrs. Scrutton interrupted coldly. "I wish for no further conversation with you. If you wait in the lounge my footman will bring you your cheque." And with a haughty inclination of her head she swept from the room.
A few minutes later Bastille Snoreoh told Mrs. Scrutton that he too had finished his investigations. There was, however, none of the rudeness of Jones about him, and he was most polite.
"No, I have found out nothing," he smiled, "and it is only guessing in the dark to suggest that someone among you in this house may have done it. You see, my lady, I have found no motive to help me pick out anyone here, and so, like you, I am inclined to think that the assassin came from the outside."
"But who could he have been?" asked Mrs. Scrutton, in great relief that Snoreoh's opinion was so different from that of the hectoring Padlock Jones.
Snoreoh shrugged his shoulders. "A man of insane mind, of course," he said, "and that is why it will be so difficult to find him." He went on, tapping his forehead and looking very pleased with himself, "But the little grey cells have been by no means inactive, and upon one thing, at any rate, I have been able to throw some light." He coughed with assumed modesty. "A most important thing it is, too, and which should dispel all idea that it was from among your curios that the wretch obtained his weapon." He bowed smilingly. "Not indeed that that was really needed, but once and for all I have cleared you from all suspicion there." He went on, "Now you may have taken notice that on the afternoon of yesterday I was away for a few hours. I went up to Scotland Yard, and by the politeness of the renowned detectives there I was allowed to see and handle the skewer. The Inspector Stone said it was an old curio which was once used for skewering joints of beef. But I told him no, it was no curio at all and had never seen the use in beef, as the blade was too short for that. I said it was quite modern and that there were thousands of them in use in my country to-day, and that it was only the ordinary capon skewer, the one we use for our fattened fowls."
"And what did he say?" asked Mrs. Scrutton breathlessly.
"Oh, he frowned a lot," laughed Snoreoh, "for I do not think he liked the great Scotland Yard being told something they did not know. Then I went on that it had not belonged to the private person, either, because those letters 'T.R.' upon it had been stamped into the handle and not engraved. No, I said, they did not mean the owner had been a private person, but stood for some cafe or restaurant, such as 'Taverne Rouge' or 'Taverne Royale' or Taverne with the initial of the landlord's name." He chuckled. "They did not like that either, and I came away."
So Snoreoh and the lady of the Hall parted on most amiable terms, and there was only Raphael Croupin left on the investigation. This last-named sleuth seemed in no hurry to go, and his employer was in no hurry to get rid of him, either.
"I understand, Monsieur Croupin," she said sweetly, "that you are a great authority upon paintings and old silver?"
Croupin inclined his head. "Yes, my lady, I know mooch about ze valuable paintings and ze old silver. Eet ees an 'obby of mine."
"Then if you can make it convenient," she said, "you shall stay on here for a few days longer and make an inventory of all the things I have. Really, I do not know too much about my old silver as my poor husband was the collector and not I."
It was convenient for the lively Frenchman, and so he continued to enjoy the hospitality of the Hall and the company of what pretty girls were still staying there. In the spare time he went through Mrs. Scrutton's possessions, with his mouth watering as he noted the many beautiful articles she had.
In the meantime Larose was getting very anxious about Harker. For two mornings now he had received no report from him, and it was so contrary to the man's precise and methodical habits that he began to be almost certain that something had happened to him. He rang up the Coffee Tavern in Chelmsford, but was told they had not seen him since the Wednesday morning when he had gone off on his bicycle.
Becoming more and more disturbed, Larose at once dispatched two experienced men to go down into Essex in a private car and try to find out what had happened to him. Returning that same evening, their report was most unsatisfactory, as all they could learn was that he had undoubtedly visited the little public house in Tillingham upon the Tuesday afternoon and had a chat with the landlord there. After that, not a trace of him could be picked up anywhere.
Driving slowly round the marsh, they had passed close by Dr. Hendrick's bungalow and had actually seen someone, whom they at once took to be the doctor himself, sunning himself in a big deck-chair upon the little strip of lawn on the seaward side. They thought he had stared very intently at them.
They reported the isolated situation of the bungalow, with a nearly mile-deep stretch of muddy foreshore before it when the tide was low, and behind it always the lonely and forbidding marsh given over to the screeching gulls.
"As desolate a place to live in as you could possibly wish," one of the detectives told Larose. "If there's been foul play and poor Harker's body lies hidden in that marsh, there'll be little chance of finding it. They warned us in the village that after a good rain you can sink down in it up to the knees."
They went on to tell that after passing Dr. Hendrick's bungalow they had pulled up for a chat at the coastguard station about a mile away, and asked casually if the old man they had seen in the deck-chair was the famous doctor who had written so many important scientific books.
They had been told that he was, and the coastguard they were talking to had gone on to relate to them what a couple of queer birds he and his man, Ben, were, and how they had gone out fishing Wednesday night long after eleven when there had been a dense fog all round the coast. He had met them just as they had pulled their boat in. He had been amazed at their daring to go out in that fog, but the doctor had said he had complete confidence in his man, who could row blindfold and get to anywhere he wanted. The coastguard had gone on to say that a lot of people were more interested in this Ben than in the doctor himself, as he was a great puzzle to them. Some even thought he was almost half-witted because he hardly said a word when he came into the village. But the coastguard didn't agree with that. Indeed, he thought him rather a clever fellow, and that his refusing to gossip was done at his master's orders. At any rate he was the smartest poacher for many miles round, as quite a lot of the landed gentry who had pheasants upon their estates knew to their cost. They were always trying to catch him, but he was much too wary and they never could.
Larose listened intently to what they had to say and then, looking very grave and troubled, went in to Inspector Stone to talk things over with him.
"I don't like it at all, Charlie," he said. "It looks bad to me. Of course it may be only a coincidence, but it seems an ugly one that they went out for that risky midnight row in the fog on the night of the very day Harker disappeared!"
"Another long shot, Gilbert," smiled Stone, "for, of course, you are worrying that it was the body of poor Harker they were carrying to drop far out to sea." He became grave. "But no, I won't laugh at you, for as I often say, your long shots often go bang upon the target."
"It's like this, Charlie," said Larose. "You see, we don't know what we are up against. Now, last night, well into the small hours of the morning, I was reading Dr. Hendrick's latest book, Crime and the Criminal, and all through it he is insistent upon the inherent criminality of the human mind. He says——"
"But you say the same thing yourself, my boy," broke in Stone. "Isn't it your pet idea that we are all criminals at heart?"
"But I put it very mildly," said Larose, "and make full allowance for the softening influence of education and the conventional surroundings of our lives as we grow up." He spoke warningly. "The point is that I deplore this criminal tendency in us all, but this doctor chap almost glorifies in it. All through this book you can see his admiration for the party who commits a clever crime and gets away with it. He seems, too, to be continually making excuses for the criminal, as if he had been forced into crime by the injustice of Society. Indeed, as I went on reading, I realised he was often so insistent upon this point that I came to think he was laying bare the bent of his own inclinations."
Stone frowned. "Well, I expect the book would be too deep for me," he said, "but tell me what conclusion you draw from it."
Larose spoke very solemnly. "That his mind is warped and in certain circumstances," he replied, "he would commit any sort of crime without thinking much about it." He spoke briskly. "At any rate, to-morrow I'll go down and see him. I want to judge if he seems really capable of having killed Harker."
"But what excuse will you make for going to see him?" frowned Stone. "Don't forget what a clever man he is. He won't be taken in easily."
"I don't suppose he will," smiled Larose, "but I'll make out I'm a great admirer of his, and take one of his books with me to get him to autograph it. I'll go down in a motor-bike and side-car outfit, and if you can spare her, I will take your typist with me, to make things look quite innocent and respectable. Gladys is a clever girl"—he grinned—"and will just love playing the part of my fiancee. She'll——"
The phone upon Stone's desk rang. The chief inspector answered and then beckoned to Larose. "A trunk call for you from Chelmsford," he said, holding out the receiver to his young colleague.
For a long minute Larose listened in. "Yes, yes, of course!" he exclaimed. "Yes—yes—I'll be there! About a hundred yards beyond the entrance gates? Better make it two hundred. All right, at ten-thirty sharp! Good-bye."
He hung up and turned to the inspector. "Our wicked friend Croupin!" he explained. "He says he has something very important to tell me." He sighed. "And it had better be important, fetching me down all that way at that time of night."
At eight-thirty sharp the next morning Larose came into Stone's room.
Larose came to the point at once. "The night before last," he said, "Croupin says he found a complete burglar's outfit hidden in the grounds of the Hall. Last night, when he took me to the place where he had re-hidden it, we found it had gone."
"Gone!" exclaimed Stone disappointedly. "Do you think he was hoaxing you?"
"Certainly not!" exclaimed Larose warmly. "And you won't think so either when you've heard the story. Listen. It appears that Croupin had been up to his usual tricks and was courting one of the maids. The night before last he was out with her until well after eleven under the trees by the wall surrounding the grounds of the Hall and, among other things"—he smiled—"they cut their initials upon the trunk of one of the trees. Upon returning into the house, however, Croupin missed his pocket-knife and went back to find it. Approaching the spot where he thought he might have dropped it, he caught sight of a man kneeling down and scraping among a heap of leaves close to the high wall. The man saw him and, instantly darting away, scaled the wall and disappeared. Though there was a good moon showing, Croupin can give no accurate description of him, as he ran off much too quickly for him to get near him. Still, he was sure the man was young and slim."
"But he made no attempt to catch him?" frowned Stone.
Larose shook his head. "No, he said he had got too much start. However, he ran at once to where the man had been scraping among the leaves and very quickly found what the fellow had been after—a good-sized package about three feet in length, strapped round in waterproof sheeting. Undoing the package, he found among the big things which it contained three jemmies of varying lengths, some stout leather slings and"—he paused impressively for a few moments here—"a good-sized hammer with a big copper head."
"Good Heavens!" exclaimed Stone with some excitement. "Exactly what that chap Mainwaring had been trying to get hold of!"
Larose nodded and went on, "Of course Croupin at once understood the significance of what he had found—some burglar or burglars were intending to raid the house and the tools had been planted there in readiness. He associated them, too, with the gang we were after, but could not understand anyone coming to get them so early in the night, a good three hours or so before they would be wanted. However, he says he realised he had spoilt their game and that no burglary would now take place. Still, he had no intention of telling the local police what he had found, but would keep the information expressly for us. So he re-strapped the package and taking it, he says, a good two hundred yards away, hid it under some more leaves in a place he would be able to find again easily."
"And he told you all this," asked Stone, "directly you met him last night?"
Larose nodded. "Yes, and he led me straight away to the second hiding-place." He shook his head. "No, there isn't the slightest doubt about his making a mistake about the place, as not only was there evidence of the leaves having been disturbed there, but also we found this piece of paper wedged between stones." He laughed. "Just read what is written on it."
Stone took the scrap of paper he handed over. It was evidently a leaf torn from a small notebook, and on it was inscribed in printed letters: "You silly fool! Why didn't you look behind you? You are lucky not to have got a dong on the head."
Larose went on, "Of course, what had happened was that two men had come to retrieve the package, with the second one to keep watch that the coast was clear while the goods were being dug up. Then this last chap didn't run off as his companion had done when Croupin appeared, but, keeping himself hidden, watched what Croupin did with the package. With Croupin gone, he just pulled it out from under the leaves and went off with it."
"Most disappointing!" commented Stone. He spoke sharply. "Well, what do you make of it?"
"A lot," replied Larose, "as now we can understand that telegram of Mainwaring's." He spoke impressively. "Dr. Hendrick's bungalow is the headquarters, or at any rate meeting-place, of the gang. A raid upon the Hall had almost certainly been intended to take place upon the night of the ball, and the wire was sent to stop them setting out to gather in ones or twos after dark at some rendezvous close near." He snapped his fingers excitingly together. "And don't you see how it brings that devil Mainwaring in up to his very neck? He was the one who was going to switch off the alarms and get them into the house. Oh, it's all as clear as day now."
Stone nodded. "And the outfit had been cached in the grounds, probably two or three days before so that there should be no risk in carting it about upon the day of the raid." He went on thoughtfully, "Of course we could take out search-warrants and go through both the bungalow and Mainwaring's flat. It is just possible we might come upon the tools and perhaps even some of the loot taken from those raided houses." He shook his head. "But it'd be risky."
Larose was emphatic. "Of course it would be risky," he said instantly, "for we should be staking everything upon a single throw and, with that failing us, should be completely at a dead end." He shook his head, too. "No, after the shock the gang will have got that someone had dug up that package in the grounds and actually seen what it contained, you can bet your life that Mainwaring will take darned good care it is never to be found within miles of any of them. He'll be shrewd enough, too, to realise that we may be thinking we've got a line on him now because of that copper-headed hammer. Remember, he almost certainly recognised Mark."
"But with us not being able to produce the hammer," commented Stone grimly, "he'll feel quite safe about that."
"He may be feeling quite safe about that," agreed Larose, "but he'll be in a great state of fright at the new suspicions he'll know we must now be having of him. He'll be so extra frightened now that we can be certain we'll never find those tools or any of the stolen stuff if we raid both his flat and the doctor's bungalow. We can be quite certain of that."
"So we must be patient and not hasty. First of all there is poor Harker's trail to be picked up."
Stone looked gloomy. "Harker's dead," he said. "I'm sure of that. Three days of silence and——" but he did not finish what he was going to say.
"I'm afraid so, too," said Larose sadly, "and yet"—he shook his head—"I can't imagine a talented man such as the doctor undoubtedly is, a gentleman who for so many years has been steeped in all the honourable traditions of University life, deliberately murdering a fellow human being, as it were out-of-hand, just because he may have caught him watching his house."
"But surely they can't all be mad," exclaimed Larose, "the doctor and his man and that Mrs. Scrutton!" He looked troubled. "Are we imagining too much?"
Stone considered. "I don't think so," he said after a few moments. "We have summed up the lady as not far off a mental state, and as for the doctor—such a man of unusual brilliance—old age and ill-health may perhaps have led him very close to the borderline. About his man—I admit we have to depend upon the judgment of others that he is half-witted." He spoke briskly. "Well, is it still your intention to go down to see Hendrick?"
"Yes, I'll be off within half an hour," said Larose. "I have arranged everything with Gladys."
"Ah, but one question more!" exclaimed Stone. "Did Croupin tell you anything new about Mrs. Scrutton?"
"Yes and no again," replied Larose. "He thinks she is dotty, and he can't understand why she is so anxious to keep him at the Hall, as the inventory and valuations were finished upon the second day. However, he says he is quite sure she has a reason for it, as she keeps on pumping him to find out if he's missing the adventures he was supposed to be having when the French police were so interested in him. He thinks she's got some job that she wants him to do for her, but can't yet make up her mind to ask him to do it."
"More mystery," nodded Stone a little wearily, "but I hope he'll tell you if anything eventuates."
"I'm sure he will," said Larose. "We are very good friends," he added with a grin.
SOME two hours later Larose, accompanied by his colleague's typist, pulled up in a motor-cycle outfit before Dr. Hendrick's bungalow by the sea. As was his custom in the mornings when the weather was fine, the doctor was reading in a deck-chair upon the little piece of lawn fronting the bungalow. He had been absorbed in his reading until hearing the motor-cycle coming, and then he had looked up and regarded its occupants intently every yard of the way until the engine stopped. He frowned in irritation.
Larose was wearing the usual motor-cycle overalls and cap, while his companion, certainly a pretty girl, looked very attractive in a leather jacket and beret. Leaving her in the side-car and carrying a small brown paper parcel in his hand, Larose strode confidently up the little garden path. Reaching the doctor, who made no movement to get up, he took off his cap.
"Dr. Ramsden Hendrick?" he queried most respectfully, and the doctor made the faintest inclination with his head. "Then please pardon me, sir," he went on, "but I should be honoured if you would grant me a small favour." Producing a book from the brown paper parcel, he held it up. "Would you be so very kind as to autograph this for me? It is your Crime and the Criminal."
"Why should I?" scowled the doctor. "I don't know you."
"No, sir, you don't know me," said Larose, "but it would be doing me a great favour if you would, and it would cost you nothing." He went on deferentially, "You see, sir, I am a great admirer of yours and happen to be particularly interested in the subject of this book, as all my young life"—he smiled—"I lived, so to speak, in an atmosphere of crime. I was born in Australia, and my father was for several years a Superintendent in the New South Wales Police."
The doctor's scowl relaxed a little. "Who are you?" he asked sharply.
"My name is Cecil Harbridge," replied Larose, "and I am a clerk in a wool-broker's office in the city. At night I help in a public library, and that is how I come to know a lot about you and what you have written."
"And you agree with my views?" asked the doctor sharply.
"Not exactly, sir," said Larose, "but I think my father would have done. I remember he used to say crime was inherent in all of us and that every man had his price."
The doctor smiled a cold grim smile. "And what is yours?" he asked.
Larose smiled back. "I haven't been tempted yet, sir," he replied, "and I don't quite know what it would be. My life in town is a rather monotonous one, and so far I have conformed to most of the conventions."
"But you Australians are naturally a rather lawless lot, aren't you?" said the doctor brusquely. "From what I saw and heard of your boys when they came over to help us in the Great War, a good proportion of them were not at all too particular what they did."
Larose shook his head. "But there was a lot of exaggeration there, sir," he said. "Not half of the tales told about them were true."
"But from my own experience as a magistrate upon the Ely Bench," frowned the doctor, "I recall that a number of them, from a nearby camp where they were in training, gave us a lot of trouble. The farming community for many miles round suffered considerably from losses of stock. Not a bird in their fowl-house or even a pig in their sties was safe."
"Still, that was in war-time, sir," laughed Larose, "and you must take into account that they were all high-spirited young fellows at the most irresponsible time of their lives. It wasn't the actual fowls and pigs that they wanted, but the adventure of getting them."
The doctor was evidently interested in his visitor, and his expression was now a much more amiable one. He called for Ben to bring another chair, and the conversation went on for some time. Then, rising to his feet, he invited Larose to come into the bungalow for him to autograph the book. "And bring the young lady in, too," he said. "Perhaps you may both like some little refreshment."
So the girl was brought up and introduced. "Miss Gladys Holmes," said Larose.
"Your fiancee?" smiled the doctor, and Larose admitted she was.
"And how long have you been engaged?" asked the doctor, addressing himself to Gladys; but before she had time to speak Larose broke in quickly to answer for her.
"Nearly six months," he said. He smiled a smile as happy as he could make it. "And yet it seems only a few weeks. Doesn't it, Gladys?"
The girl nodded smilingly, and the doctor heaved a big sigh. "How glorious and how sad life can be," he mused. "There are you with all its brightest promise before you, and here am I—old and ailing and only kept alive by the devotion of my servant!" He smiled whimsically. "What a contrast!" He turned the conversation sharply. "And what, young lady, may be your occupation, if you don't mind my asking?"
"I'm only a typist," she smiled. "Nothing romantic about it."
"Been long at it?"
"About four years."
"Then you must be pretty good. Now how many words a minute can you do, a hundred?"
She shook her head. "Good gracious, no! Not half that number." She laughed. "You must understand that I am in Government employ and our work is never too hurried."
Ben brought in a tray with cake and all the apparatus for tea. "And I think, Miss Holmes, you shall do the honours, if you do not mind?" said the doctor.
So Gladys poured out and, coming to Larose's cup, was about to add milk when Larose stayed her hand. "No milk for me, please," he said. He added quickly, in reproach, "Really darling! won't you ever remember?" He explained to the doctor, "I worked on a sheep-station in Australia once, and there, as fresh milk is not too often available, we got into the habit of drinking milkless tea. In time we came to prefer it so, and thought it much nicer because we then got the full favour of the tea."
The doctor was frowning. "Oh, you were on a sheep-station once, were you?" he said. "Well, there's something about sheep I've always been wanting to know. Say I bought a flock of sheep to make money by selling their wool. Wouldn't there be only one expenditure, the price I paid for them, and then shouldn't I be able to go on getting a nice income year after year, as long as I liked, from what I obtained for their wool?"
Larose laughed. "No, sir, it wouldn't be quite as easy as that," he said. "Apart from the cost of feeding and looking after them, after four or five years the wool you would get would not be paying expenses."
"And the sheep would be no more good?" exclaimed the doctor.
"Well, you could keep them for a couple more years," said Larose, "and then sell them to the butcher."
They talked on for some time before Larose and the girl rose up to take their leave. "We've certainly had an interesting conversation," said the doctor to Larose, "and I should like to continue it some day. I want to hear more about Australia and your father's work in the New South Wales police. Perhaps you could get an opportunity to come down and see me again."
Larose was delighted. He was greatly wanting to look over the out-buildings in the yard, as well as that part of the marsh adjacent to the bungalow, for if Harker had indeed met with foul play he was sure it had happened not very far away and he might pick up a clue somewhere. In his experience of crime he had found that those who had a secret to hide often overlooked something that stood out starkly and gave them away.
However, he appeared to consider for a few moments before responding to the invitation. Then he said, "Well, I'm on holiday this week and next, so what about my coming down on Wednesday?"
The doctor said that would suit him nicely, and so it was arranged he should come to lunch. Gladys was included in the invitation, but Larose said she would be back at work.
"A clever fellow that," ran the doctor's thoughts as he watched them drive away. "Good facial angle and of much too enterprising a disposition to be content with the routine work of an office." He scoffed grimly. "Still, with all his cleverness, he made one very foolish mistake. Just imagine him having been engaged to that girl for six months and her not knowing he never took milk in his tea. He tried to cover up, and probably thinks he succeeded. Well, if he does belong to the police, when he comes down on Wednesday I may be able to get a clearer idea of exactly what they are after."
Upon his return to headquarters that evening Larose had a long talk with Stone. "He's definitely dangerous, Charlie," he said, "and would have no compunction in committing any crime. He's bitter and bored with life, a sick man in mind and body. He told us he hadn't long to live, and he looks like it, too."
"Heart—lungs?" queried Stone.
Larose shook his head. "No, that coastguard told our chaps it was supposed to be some disease of the blood, and I've just been talking to my quack about it. He said it might be what they call leukaemia."
"And you really think he is mad?" asked Stone.
Larose considered. "Well, I'm sure no mental expert would agree to it," he said, "for, except for that kink in his mind which makes him so sympathetic towards crime, he seems quite sane to talk to. Still, as I say, in his ill-health he is very bitter against everyone, probably simply because he is suffering and they are not. So it is quite understandable that just to gratify his spite against the community he may be setting on those young fellows to do what they have been doing. If I am right there, he is in the business for spite, Mainwaring is in it for money and those boys in it for adventure—a very dangerous combination of lawlessness."
"It seems impossible," sighed Stone, "but it may be exactly what is happening for all that. Remember that poisoner Neil Cream, a most gentlemanly and pleasant man to talk to, who went from bar to bar in the public houses, dropping strychnine tablets in people's beer—just to see them in the agonies of death."
"I remember reading about it," nodded Larose, "and yet, except for his madness there, none of the doctors could find anything wrong with him."
"Well, and what do you expect to get," asked Stone, "by going to have lunch with this Dr. Hendrick?"
Quite a long silence followed before Larose said slowly, "I really don't know. I may pick up some clue somewhere. Another thing is that I want to see more of that servant of his. I want to speak to him and form some idea whether he'd crack under pressure. If they did anything to poor Harker it was probably that Ben who did it under his master's order. The doctor is far too frail an old man to be able to use any violence."
"He might have shot him," suggested Stone. "It wouldn't require much strength to do that. Remember, Harker heard in the village that he was supposed to be a wonderful shot."
"Yes, he might have shot him," nodded Larose, "but he would have played a very minor part in getting rid of the body afterwards. If he were buried out to sea, as we think, it would have been all Ben's work."
"And you take care," said Stone impressively, "that something unpleasant doesn't happen to you. If this doctor is all you make him out to be it may be you who will disappear next."
"But I've no fears there," laughed Larose. "He can never have any cause for taking me for a midnight row in his boat."
However, Larose would have thought very differently had he been looking over the doctor's shoulder only two mornings later, when the old man was reading a letter he had just received. The letter was typed, unsigned and gave no address. Still, upon its perusal Dr. Hendrick knew it to be from that member of the little band who worked as a clerk in Scotland Yard. It read, "I think this should interest you. Yesterday a young lady by the name of Gladys White, who works as a typist in one of the offices of the C.I.D., was taken for a joy-ride by a certain gentleman in a Hudson motor-cycle outfit. The two left town early and did not return until about four o'clock. Then the girl was in possession of a bag of saffron buns. Upon the bag was printed Ralph Martin, baker and confectioner, Tillingham. She is about twenty-five, and of an attractive appearance with dark eyes. She was dressed smartly in a brown leather jacket with a beret to match. The man who took her out is about thirty, clean-shaven, of slight build and a little above the medium height. He is boyish-looking, with restless light-blue eyes. He is of a lively disposition and shows his teeth a lot when he smiles. He is Detective Inspector Gilbert Larose, and is reckoned as one of the best officers in the C.I.D."
The doctor's face was black as thunder. So the hunt was still going on, and the police had sent one of their best men to try to track him down! Well, he would stand no nonsense from anyone, and if this fellow seemed to be getting dangerous he would deal with him in the same way as he had dealt with the other one! Of course he had to thank that fool Mainwaring for all this annoyance, and he would punish him for it! He wasn't a bit afraid of what might be going to happen to himself, as life was getting almost unbearable; still, he would see things out as long as he could, and then, if these Scotland Yard men were pressing him too close, a stiff injection of morphia followed by a cyanide capsule would quickly place him beyond their reach. He would take Ben with him—good, faithful old Ben who would not know what was coming and would pass out with only a few seconds' pain. He would not leave Ben to suffer for what he had done. Indeed, he had always intended that Ben should pass out with him. In some ways Ben was still the little child and, getting old as he was now, he would never be happy facing the world alone.
Recovering from the first feeling of shock which the letter had given, the doctor considered how he would deal with Larose when he arrived as arranged upon the Wednesday for lunch. He would not meet him angrily or let him know he knew who he was. On the contrary, he would appear to be quite friendly with him and entertain him as if nothing had happened. He would lead him on to tell more of his interesting untruths, and wait for the best moment to play his ace card.
Even then he would not be angry with him, but appear rather to regard the whole matter as a good joke. Indeed, he would say that he had recognised him upon his first visit as the well-known Scotland Yard detective and twit him about the silly blunder of trying to make out he had been engaged to a girl for six months when she was not even aware he never took milk with his tea. Yes, he would appear to be only amused, and in that way was sure he would get more out of the detective about what the police were suspecting than if he showed any ill-temper.
However, it happened that upon the day itself he was by no means in a condition of mind or body to play the light-hearted part he had arranged for himself. He had had a wakeful night and was feeling irritable and spiteful, with a resurge of that anger which had first taken possession of him when he had become aware that Scotland Yard had sent one of their men down to spy upon him. So it was only with some effort that he greeted Larose smilingly. After a few casual remarks he led him into the dining-room for the meal.
Always quick to sum up the mood of anyone with whom he was in company, Larose sensed that for some reason he was not in good favour with his host. Things, however, improved somewhat after they had both had a glass of champagne. Larose believed it was in his honour that the champagne had been produced, but he was quite mistaken there as the doctor had opened the bottle more as a pick-me-up for himself than out of any consideration for his guest.
"Now this is, so to speak, a home-grown meal," remarked the doctor proudly when a whiting with tartare sauce had been served up for both of them by the silent and inscrutable Ben, "as both this fish and the bird to follow have cost me nothing. The whiting was caught by my man barely a couple of hours ago, within a hundred yards or so of this bungalow, and the bird was acquired by him in the same inexpensive manner a couple of weeks or so ago."
Larose was expecting a fowl to follow, and his eyebrows went up when a nice plump pheasant was placed upon the table. "But it is not October yet," he said.
"There is no closed season with me at any time," said the doctor casually. "As an undomesticated bird I regard the pheasant as the rightful property of him who obtains it. I have no sympathy with the selfishness of the big land proprietors."
"And did your man shoot it?" asked Larose.
"No, nothing so crude as that," said the doctor. "He never carries a gun, and I believe his only weapon, if indeed you can call it a weapon, was a roll of brown paper generously sprinkled over with powdered sulphur. Have you never heard of that way of getting roosting birds?"
"No, I haven't," said Larose. "You see, in Australia we really have no poaching. I don't call to mind any edible birds that are worth while what you call poaching, and hares and rabbits are regarded as vermin and free to all." He laughed. "I must remember this brown paper and sulphur business the next time I go out camping. How does it work?"
"Oh, it's very simple," said the doctor. "You just mark down a pheasant upon the branch of a tree and then hold your prepared brown-paper torch under it until it becomes giddy and falls down at your feet. No noise or fuss! My man is very good at it."
The meal over, they returned to the study, and with Larose comfortably seated in an armchair, with a good cigar between his lips, his host pulled open a drawer in his desk and, taking out a small automatic pistol, held it for the detective to see.
"Do you know this make?" he asked carelessly. "It's a German one, a Weimer. It's pre-war and I've had it by me for some years. No, I never let anyone handle it," he went on as Larose stretched out his hand to take and examine it more closely, "as it's loaded and very light in the trigger." He put it back in the drawer and asked, "Have you seen one before?"
For some reason he could not explain, an uneasy pang stirred through Larose. The doctor was certainly speaking carelessly enough, but for all that there was something purposeful in his exhibiting the pistol, and the reason he had given for not letting it into Larose's own hands was not good enough. There was undoubtedly something behind it.
"No, I haven't," he said. "It looks good workmanship to me. Have you ever used it?"
"Not as yet," nodded the doctor, "but I'm quite ready to if necessary. Living out here in a lonely place like this I have to be prepared for anything."
"Quite so," agreed Larose, and for a long minute there was silence in the room.
However, the silence was at length broken by the doctor rapping out sharply, "Now, Mr. Harbridge"—he screwed up his face—"I think that was the name you gave me—you have a good facial angle and are most interesting to talk to but"—he smiled a dry grim smile—"you are not quite as clever as you think you are. For one thing, just imagine your wanting to make out to me that you had been engaged for six months to that attractive young lady you brought down last time without her becoming aware you never took milk in your tea." He held up his hand reprovingly. "Now that was a bad blunder, wasn't it"—he spoke slowly and with his eyes sparkling with amusement—"Detective Inspector Gilbert Larose?"
Larose gasped. He had hoped his blunder over the milk would be overlooked, but had known that it might have been spotted in spite of his attempt to cover it up. But that the doctor should know his name and position was entirely unexpected, and for a moment he was too surprised to say anything.
The doctor went on in a casual tone, "Yes, my friend, the moment I saw you the other day I thought I recognised you from photographs I had often seen of you in the newspapers. Still, I wasn't certain until you made that foolish blunder about the milk in the tea. Then it came to me in a flash and——"
"That's an untruth," snapped Larose. "You never recognised me from any photograph you had seen in the newspapers, because when I appear in Court I am always made up so that my face will not be remembered outside."
The doctor was certainly a little taken aback. "Well, at any rate I did recognise you," he said, "and my only reason for not exposing you straight away was that I did not want to do so in front of that young lady. I preferred to have it out with you when we were alone."
"That's another untruth," said Larose sharply. He shrugged his shoulders. "Still, perhaps your knowing who I am is all for the best, as now you can explain certain matters to me without any waste of time or beating about the bush."
"Explain matters to you!" exclaimed the doctor, as if in great surprise. "It is you who have got to do the explaining." He spoke furiously. "What do you mean by sending that man down last week to ask a lot of questions about me, questions that caused no end of talk and scandal in the village? Then there were those two men who came a few days later in a car and pumped the coastguards about me. Finally, there was your coming yourself, with a mouthful of lies and trying to worm yourself into my confidence by pretending to be an admirer of my books!" His anger rose even more, and he tapped viciously upon the drawer into which he had replaced the pistol. "You take in, young fellow, I'm a dangerous man for anyone to annoy, and I tell you frankly it wouldn't take very much for me to put a bullet in you now."
"Poof!" exclaimed Larose, with an assurance, however, which he did not quite feel, as he did not like the half-mad look which had come upon the doctor's face. "You wouldn't get away with it."
The doctor lowered his voice and looked very cunning. "But this place is lonely," he whispered, "and the sea tells no tales."
Larose spoke scoffingly. "But the coastguard knows I am your guest to-day and, besides that—I may as well let you have it—this bungalow is under observation, and if I don't appear outside by three o'clock this afternoon some of our men will come to see what's happened."
"That's a lie," snarled the doctor. "You won't frighten me!" and though it might have been only as a pretended threat, his hand began to move towards the pistol drawer.
The reaction of Larose was instantaneous. As in a flash his hand reached back to his hip-pocket and the doctor found himself looking down the barrel of another automatic. "If you so much as touch that pistol of yours," almost hissed Larose, "I'll put a bullet in your right arm without a second's hesitation."
The doctor's face was a study of consternation. It had all happened so quickly. A moment back, and it seemed so certain that if any violence were about to be done he was the only one able to carry it out. But now the tables had been completely turned, and this fellow opposite him, with his grim and menacing expression, appeared to be more ready for violence than even he himself had been.
The doctor gasped. "But you would not dare," he exclaimed hoarsely. "My man is close near, and you'd never leave the house alive."
Larose looked scornful. "I'd see to that." He rose sharply to his feet and moved over to the desk. "Keep still," he ordered. "Don't move, or I'll shoot at once. I shall be quite justified as you were threatening me, and I am only protecting myself," and he proceeded to pull open the drawer and take possession of the doctor's automatic, as well as a box of cartridges he saw there.
Resuming his seat, he spoke quite quietly now. "See here, Doctor," he said, "if you've done nothing wrong you've no cause to be afraid of me or any of us at Scotland Yard. So let's put all our cards upon the table and both speak quite frankly."
The doctor in part controlled his anger. "I have no cards to put down," he snarled, "and I am quite at a loss to understand why you are pestering me."
Larose shook his head. "Oh, no, you aren't," he said sharply. "You must know perfectly well that you came into the picture when your friend, Washington Mainwaring, sent you that telegram within a few minutes of the discovery of that murder at Orwell Hall." He regarded the doctor intently. "Now tell me—what have you to do with him?"
"Nothing but a few business transactions in stocks and shares," said the doctor instantly. "You talk about Mainwaring being my friend, but the friendship is so slight that it is hardly deeper than an acquaintanceship."
"But we have heard that he visits you quite a lot," persisted Larose.
The doctor snapped his fingers. "A few times at weekends," he said, "and then it is nearly always only business we discuss."
"But why that urgent telegram?" asked Larose.
"Urgent!" exclaimed the doctor scoffingly. He fumbled among some papers upon his desk and produced one. "Here's the telegram," he said. "Now what's urgent in that?"
"The urgency was not in the wording," commented Larose instantly. "It lay in fact that in the trouble they were all in that morning at Orwell Hall he should have thought it necessary to send any telegram at all. With you a few miles away from the Hall why didn't he phone you?"
"I don't know," snapped the doctor. "Perhaps the police wouldn't let him."
Larose shook his head. "Not good enough," he said, "as he did not ask the Superintendent in charge if he might phone. He just wrote out the telegram and asked if he might send it."
"Well, phone call or telegram," asked the doctor testily, "what did it matter?" He eyed Larose scornfully. "Tell me what you suspect. Surely you don't think Mainwaring committed the murder!"
"Not exactly," said Larose, "but we are strongly of the opinion that he knows who did and believes with us that the butler was killed in mistake for him."
There seemed no doubt about the surprise of the doctor now. "Whew, what an extraordinary idea!" he exclaimed. He went on quickly, "But I'm sure he doesn't think as you say you do, as I have seen him since and he gave me no inkling of it."
"That may be," nodded Larose. "He may have had some reason for not wanting you to know. But now I've put you wise to it, does it suggest anything to you?"
"After the disgraceful way you have treated me," scowled the doctor, "I shouldn't tell you if it did." His surprise over, his anger was returning, and he went on blusteringly, "But how does anything to do with Mainwaring affect me? How has it started you to come spying about me?"
But Larose gave no reply to his query. Certainly he had no intention of letting him know they were sure that in some way he was mixed up with the gang which had been raiding those country houses with such success for so long. Instead, he turned the conversation. "And you tell me," he said, "that you first learnt we were interested in you by what your man told you of some enquiries that were being made by a stranger who had arrived in the village. Then may I question your man as to exactly what he heard?"
"Ah, that reminds me," said the doctor. "I'll have my man in at once," and he tapped upon the window to Ben, who was busy chopping wood in the yard. The man left his work and came quickly into the study.
The doctor pointed to Larose. "Ben, take another good look at this gentleman," he said sharply. "You'll remember him if you see him again?"
"Yes, Master, I shall," said Ben, eyeing Larose intently.
"Well, he's a policeman," went on the doctor impressively, "and if he or anyone else, but he in particular, asks you any questions, about me or my friends or what goes on here, you are not to answer. You're not to say anything. You're not to speak. You understand?"
"Yes, Master," said Ben woodenly. "I'm not to talk to anyone," and he turned on his heel and left the room.
The doctor rose to his feet. "And good afternoon to you, Mr. Larose," he said icily, "and don't you ever show your face here again." He opened the door for the detective to pass out and added sharply, "Another time you might not get off so lightly. I may act first and think afterwards."
He watched Larose disappear in the distance and mused thoughtfully, "Of course he suspects something about that other man, but they'll never be able to get any proof. I'm sure I could have done away with him, too. There'll be no moon to-night." He snapped his fingers together. "The man is a consummate liar, and I don't believe the place is being watched. I could send Ben to do a little scouting round the marsh, but I don't think it worth it."
A thought struck him and he turned back into the bungalow and rang up the coastguard. "Dr. Hendrick speaking," he said, and he asked, "Now have you had any callers this morning, a man on a motor-bicycle, who told you he was coming here to lunch with me?—No—you've had no visitors at all to the station to-day?—I thought not—No, it's nothing particular—I was only curious—good morning," and he rang off with a scowl on his face.
"Exactly! He fooled me!" he snarled. "I might have shot him, and it would have given a tremendous interest to what little time remains to me of life." His eyes gloated. "Another mystery for the wonderful Scotland Yard! Their star detective disappears leaving no trace! Oh, what a sensation it would have caused!"
LAROSE had been quite right when he had surmised that Mainwaring would be working himself up into a state of considerable anxiety regarding what Scotland Yard would do next. Though the stockbroker was quite sure that they were not suspecting him of having killed the Hall butler, he was equally sure that they believed he was aware his aunt had done it and could explain everything if he chose. But he wasn't going to choose, and they couldn't make him speak!
Of course, that matter of the copper-headed hammer was most unfortunate. It was a burglar's tool, and if that second-hand dealer had recognised him—which he was sure he had—and told those detectives that he had been wanting to obtain one, then, with those several burglaries having taken place recently, it would focus attention upon him instantly. Still, whatever might be the suspicions of the police, he knew they could prove nothing.
The enquiries that he had learnt from the doctor were being made in Tillingham worried him a lot. Of course they were being made by Scotland Yard, and the sinister thing about them was that they meant the police were now following up a new trail which had nothing to do with the murder at Orwell Hall, and against which they might possibly find out that Mainwaring was not so nearly well protected.
He had been brought into the new enquiry at once, for there was no doubt that it was his unfortunate telegram that had first made them aware of the existence of Dr. Hendrick. But for that they would have never heard about the doctor or his lonely bungalow by the sea, and it was there that a great and pressing danger lay. That danger was Ben.
Now he knew very little about Ben, as upon the many occasions he had been to the bungalow he had never exchanged more than a few words with him. Devoted to his master, as everyone could see Ben was, and obeying only his orders, the man was regarded as a sort of automaton in the bungalow, no one holding any conversation with him. The young fellows who came down on their motor-cycles just tossed him a smile and good-day and received the same in return. They had been told by the doctor that Ben was "quite safe," and accordingly they just ignored him and talked as freely in his presence as if he were not there.
However, Mainwaring was very worried now in considering that, with all his fidelity, Ben was a common, uneducated man, and it was impossible to predict how he would react to hard questioning by the smart detectives of Scotland Yard. Ben must know something of what had been going on, for it was against all reason that he would not have been curious why these boys had taken so suddenly to visiting his master nearly always at week-ends. Possibly, too, he might have gathered something of their occupations in private life, and would remember some of their names. Then there had been their motor-cycles which, when they were not using them, he had so often cleaned and oiled. Certainly he would have got to know the different makes and perhaps be able to recall to mind the numbers of the plates, or at least the letters denoting the districts where the machines had obtained their registrations.
Yes, a Ben who could be made to "talk" would bring quick disaster upon every member of the gang. Upon several occasions Mainwaring had cautioned the doctor about what risks they were all running there, but the latter had laughed derisively and declared there was no danger at all. If he gave an order to his servant, he had said, Ben would carry it out at all costs to himself, and would never be induced to talk in any circumstances.
However, with all these thoughts running through his mind during the journey back to town after his unpleasantly stormy interview with the doctor, Mainwaring resolved to chuck the whole thing altogether. He would never go down to see the doctor again.
Then he remembered one thing that must be done—the kit of tools must be recovered at once from the grounds of the Hall. If the thought so much as entered the detectives' minds that a raid had been contemplated upon the house, there was no trouble to which they would not go.
Going into a phone kiosk, to be quite safe a long way away from his flat, Mainwaring rang up Belt at the bank where he worked and told him guardedly what he must do.
"All right," replied Belt cheerfully, "and I'll hide them somewhere where they can't possibly be disturbed until we want them again. The weather looks too rotten to go to-night, but if it clears up I'll go with young Howard to-morrow. I'll ring you up afterwards to let you know that we got them all right."
"No, no, don't ring me up!" exclaimed Mainwaring in horrified tones. "Remember I was at the Hall when that butler was done in, and the 'tecs may be listening into my 'phone. I'll ring you up from another call-office the day after to-morrow at the same time."
So some forty-eight hours later he rang Belt up, with no idea of the shock that was to come to him. "Get them?" he asked.
"Yes, we've got them all right," came back over the phone, "but it was a near thing, and you'd better know what happened. It'll be best I don't tell you over the phone, so where can I meet you, the sooner the better?"
Belt's tone was so grave that a pang of uneasiness surged through Mainwaring at once and he considered quickly. "Well, as I told you," he said sharply, "I don't know how I stand with the chaps. They may not be interested in me at all, and yet they may be shadowing me all the time. So you can't come to my house or to my place of business either. This is what we'd better do. It's half-past eleven now. Can you meet me in an hour's time? All right! Then at exactly twelve-thirty you be sitting in a chair near the bandstand in Hyde Park. I'll come walking quickly by, and if you see I'm not being followed, wait a couple of minutes and then come after me. I'll stop and take a chair facing the Serpentine. Then we can talk as long as we want to. Got it all right? Good!"
Mainwaring was not followed, and so in a very few moments after the half-hour, Belt was pouring out his tale. "So you see what a good thing it was," he finished up, "that the two of us went into the grounds, as within three minutes of the chap re-hiding the tools I had got hold of them again and was bolting over the wall."
"And you are sure," asked Mainwaring hoarsely, "that he examined everything that was in the bag?"
"No, not everything," was the reply, "but he had a good look at the jemmies and the big hammer, particularly the hammer. Then he put them back, re-buckled the straps, and hopped off to where he buried the bag again."
"And you are certain you saw him examine the hammer so intently?" asked Mainwaring with a catch in his voice. "Were you close enough to him to see that?"
"Quite close enough. I was behind a tree not half a dozen yards away, and he was flashing his torch all the time. Besides, there was a good moon showing."
"And what was this man like? Did he strike you he was a detective patrolling the grounds?"
Belt nodded. "That's what I took for granted until I saw him hide the bag again and go off at a run towards the house. Then I was puzzled, wondering why the deuce he hadn't taken the bag with him. No, I didn't really see his face, as his cap was pulled down low upon his forehead, but he was of a rather slim build and held himself very erect." He nodded again. "Yes, I'm sure he must have been a 'tec on the watch, because he had got that torch with him, and besides, no ordinary person would have been likely to be walking about the grounds at that time of night, nearly twelve o'clock."
Mainwaring parted from Belt in a very agitated state of mind and went straight back to his flat. He had to expect a search any minute now, and with all the precautions that the doctor and he had taken that stolen goods should never be found in his possession, he was realising one most foolish omission on his part. Certainly none of the valuables from the raided houses would be found in his flat, but the four King Charles' salt-cellars he had stolen from his aunt were there in a drawer in the wardrobe. They must be got rid of at once.
Arriving back at his flat, he was all of a tremble that he would find the detectives already there. However, to his intense relief, there was no one about and to all appearances nothing had been disturbed.
In frantic haste he made up a brown-paper parcel of a pair of shoes and the case containing the salt cellars, well wrapped round in an old jacket. He thought it looked as innocent a parcel as could be and, tying it up carefully with a piece of stout string, in less than half an hour it was reposing in the cloak-room of the Charing Cross railway station, according to its label, the property of Lionel Menzies.
Returning to his office in Cannon Street, he proceeded to sum up the whole situation in a not very cheerful frame of mind. Of course he knew that he must be under the strongest suspicion of the police, for now, on the top of their learning from that second-hand dealer that he had been wanting to get hold of a copper-headed hammer, such a hammer had actually been found hidden in the grounds of Orwell Hall just after he had been staying there as a member of a house-party. It would not take much imagination on the part of the Scotland Yard men to guess that a raid upon the house had been intended and that Mainwaring was mixed up in it.
Still, there was one important link wanting in their chain of evidence—they could not produce the hammer or any of the other burglar's tools which had been hidden in the Hall grounds, and would have to rely upon the word of their detective that he had seen them. There was something very puzzling about that detective—for of course he must have been a detective. Why had he been kept on to watch round the Hall at night, and why, again, with the bag of tools in his possession, had he parted with them for even those few minutes while, presumably, he had gone inside to the house to phone up Scotland Yard what he had found? It was very puzzling to Mainwaring.
As Mainwaring had concluded, both he and Dr. Hendrick were now under very strong suspicion at Scotland Yard. A few mornings after young Belt had told his story to the stockbroker an important consultation was being held between the Chief Commissioner of Police and the two detective inspectors, Stone and Larose. It was the day after Larose's second visit to the bungalow, and Stone was of the opinion things were now looking so grave that the whole matter had better be laid before the Chief Commissioner.
"We have come to a time, sir," began Stone, "when, though the evidence we have is unhappily very incomplete and with many gaps yet to be filled in, we feel you will take the same view which we do, that a thorough search should be made at once of Dr. Hendrick's premises." Then he and Larose, speaking each in turn, went over the whole story in detail from their being called to the body of the butler at Orwell Hall to what had happened to Larose the previous day at the doctor's bungalow.
"And you see, sir," said Larose, winding up the story, "that though the killing of that butler had apparently nothing to do with the contemplated raid upon the house the following night, it has yet—as we hope—brought us nearer to uncovering that gang we have been looking for all these months."
Of course much of the story the Commissioner had already heard, but that part touching Dr. Hendrick was new, and he appeared very puzzled.
"But the doctor is such a distinguished man," he frowned, "that what you have now told me seems quite impossible to credit."
"It would be so, sir, in a man of normal mind," said Larose, "but this man is not normal. He is a very sick man, and everything about him suggested to me that he would not be responsible for his actions. Yesterday, as I have told you, it would have taken very little for him to have put a bullet in me."
"And as I take it," said the Commissioner, "if you do raid his place—after the ample warning you have given him—you are not expecting to find any of the stolen property. Instead, it is really that matter of Detective Harker which for the moment is uppermost in your minds?"
"That is so, sir," said Larose. "We are convinced he was the victim of foul play. If in our search we can pick up any clue and confront Dr. Hendrick with it—it is quite possible that in a burst of temper he may give himself away. Another thing—I am certain that if we could manage to get that man of his by himself for a few minutes, we could make him speak and tell us a lot."
"And about that fellow Mainwaring," asked the Commissioner, "you think it would be no good to search his flat?"
Larose shook his head. "No, no good at all, sir," he said. "He'll have made himself quite safe by now. Besides, it was undoubtedly at the bungalow that all the burglaries were planned, and surely, even considering his unstable mental state, there must be something there Dr. Hendrick does not want us to find out, or he would not have been so ready to murder that officer we had put on the watch."
"Well, take out the search-warrant," said the Commissioner, "though I don't feel very hopeful about the result."
A couple of hours later Ben was just serving up the doctor's lunch when through the window he and his master saw two big cars pull up and six men jump out.
The doctor scowled angrily. "Police!" he exclaimed. "Well, I quite expected them, and now there'll be more insolence and annoyance to put up with." He spoke sharply. "Now remember, Ben, you are to refuse to answer any questions. Better not say anything at all. If they say anything to you—take no notice, as if you had not heard them."
"Very good, Master," said Ben, "that's what I'll do."
"You can show them in," went on the doctor, "and then just carry on with what you're doing exactly as if they were not here." He nodded. "We'll ignore them."
Larose came into the room accompanied by Chief Inspector Stone. "This is Chief Inspector Stone," he said to the doctor, "a colleague of mine." He held out a paper. "And here is a search-warrant authorising us to go through your property."
"All right, search away," said the doctor, just glancing at the paper. "Go wherever you want to." He put his hand in his pocket. "Here are my keys," and picking up a knife and fork he proceeded to start upon his meal. In front of him was an opened book propped up against a carafe of water.
A short silence followed. "But—but wouldn't you like to be with us," asked Larose, "when we are going through things?"
The doctor's eyes were now upon his book and he was chewing slowly, but he looked up at once as if surprised at the question. "No, why should I?" he asked. "I've seen everything you're likely to see and it will be no novelty to me," and he looked down upon his book again.
Another short silence followed, and Larose asked, "Well, is that your boat drawn up on the gravel outside?"
The doctor did not look up this time. "I suppose it is," he said carelessly, "unless, of course, someone else has substituted his for mine, which is not likely."
Larose winked at his colleague and, proceeding to leave the room, remarked casually, "Well, I suppose your man will be able to tell us all we want—what these keys are for and a few other things."
The doctor looked up sharply now. "He certainly will not be able to tell you all you want," he said viciously, "as I have instructed him to exchange no words with you. Your coming here at all is insolence enough without your asking him questions about me." He nodded towards the half-open door. "Kindly leave me to eat my meal in peace. I don't want to be bothered with you."
Proceeding to go out of the house by way of the kitchen, the two detectives came upon Ben, who was seated at the table and proceeding to help himself to some stewed rabbit from a casserole. Larose stopped to speak to him.
"You know, Ben," he said with a smile, "if you've nothing to hide, this not speaking business is really very stupid. Of course it's your master's order, but it'll mean far more annoyance to him than if you answered the few simple questions we should put. We might go away then and you'd hear nothing more of us." He lowered his voice to a whisper and went on persuasively, "Come, Ben, tell us on the quiet who are those young fellows who used to come here such a lot on motor-bicycles? Of course, it isn't likely there is any wrong in them, but we just want to know who they are. That's all."
But, for all the notice he took of him, Ben might not have heard Larose speaking, as he did not lift his eyes from his plate. Larose tried again. "Look here, Ben," he said gently, "anyone can see that your master is a sick man, and of course you want to save him all the worry you possibly can. Then tell me who these boys are and we shan't have to go on bothering him."
Still no word from Ben, and Larose realised it was no good trying to get anything out of him. He prepared to leave the kitchen. "Good chap, Ben," he said smilingly, "but some day you may see you have been very foolish."
"I think he's daft," commented Stone when they were outside.
"Not a bit of it," said Larose instantly. "I think he's very much all there and, as that coastguard told our chaps, quite a clever fellow. That stupidity of his is all a pose."
Starting upon their search, the detectives first made a thorough examination of the boat. It was big and roomy and would carry half a dozen passengers quite comfortably. "A tough job even for a strongly built man like that chap Ben," commented Stone, "to pull up above high-water mark. He keeps it very tidy and clean."
"What's that mark there?" asked Larose, pointing to one of the floorboards. "It looks as if someone has been wiping up some oil."
"Yes," nodded Stone, "and a good spill, too—not just a few drops, but quite a little pool."
"And what would they have been using oil for here?" asked Larose meditatively. He frowned. "I don't know anything about boats."
"Neither do I," said Stone grimly. He held Larose's eyes with his own. "But mightn't that oil have dribbled out from the lamp of a bicycle if the bike had been laid on these floorboards here?"
After a moment's consideration Larose nodded. "Good for you, Charlie!" he exclaimed. "You've scored the first hit!" He turned to the other detectives. "As you've been told, we think now that Harker's body was dumped somewhere from this boat, and so what could be more natural than that his bike was dumped, too?"
"And here is what the oil was wiped up with," said one of the detectives, pulling out a lump of cotton waste from a locker in the bow of the boat. "It looks a sure thing!"
"So it does," agreed Larose at once. He sighed heavily, as he glanced round upon the wide expanse of sea. "If only we could drag all this water here I'm sure the bicycle would be one of the things we should bring up."
The search was continued all round the yard, and nothing in the several out-buildings was overlooked. In the garage was a small utility truck and some half-dozen four-gallon petrol tins, of which three were unopened.
"They seem to have been storing a lot of petrol here," remarked Stone. "Much more than would have been wanted for the truck, which I'm sure would go a good twenty to twenty-five miles to the gallon." He gave a kick to a big drum which was leaning against the wall outside the garage. "And there's been more petrol here, too, though it's empty now."
Larose strode over to the big drum and for a long minute stood looking down at it with a very thoughtful expression upon his face. Then he beckoned to Stone to come closer to him.
"See here, Charlie," he said. "I think I've made a discovery." He pointed to the ground, and went on with some excitement in his tones, "Only a few days back there was a fellow to this drum here, standing right up against it. Look at the mark in the ground the rim of that other drum made."
"But how do you make out it was there only a few days ago?" asked Stone.
"Because the mark is only partially obliterated," said Larose, "while a big rain like the one we had last Sunday week would have washed it away altogether." He considered a few moments. "Now it was a week yesterday when Harker disappeared, and since then we have had very little rain. If I remember rightly, we had one drizzly day on the Thursday and a few showers later on in the week. So that rain may probably just account for what has been washed away."
"Well, what about it?" asked Stone, because Larose had stopped speaking. "What do you mean?"
Larose looked very solemn. "I mean, Charlie," he said, "that Harker's body along with his bicycle was tied to that second drum upon the night of the day he disappeared. He was tied to it, and the drum was then towed out to sea in that thick fog. The bung was unscrewed from the drum and as the water rushed in the drum sank down, leaving no trace." He gritted his teeth together. "Could these wretches have thought of any better way of getting rid of the body?"
"Damn them, no!" exclaimed Stone explosively. "We may search the marsh for a hundred years and find nothing!"
Larose nodded, and went on, "It had been puzzling me all along, ever since I heard of that midnight journey in the boat, how—if they did take the body out to sea—they could have weighted it down. Harker must have weighed about eleven stone, and I couldn't think of anything that would have answered their purpose." He shrugged his shoulders. "But that big drum would have been ideal."
Stone was frowning hard. "But even if we can get actual proof," he said, "that Hendrick once had two drums—we can't bring anything home to him on that alone." He scowled at Larose. "Once again, my boy, it is all conjecture on your part, and we could never take out a warrant on the strength of that with nothing to back it up."
"Exactly!" agreed Larose gloomily. "Even if we can get him to admit he once had another drum, he can easily make out someone had come along and stolen it when no one was at home in the bungalow."
"But he won't admit it," scowled Stone. "He'll just go on sitting tight and saying nothing, and we shan't be able to make him speak."
"Well, before we go away," said Larose after a few moment's thought, "I'll try him out in a bit of bluff. With his nerves on edge, as they must be at our coming here, he may blurt out something in a fit of temper."
"And now for the marsh," said Stone, as they walked back to the other men. "We'll have a good look round this part near the house, though if you're right about this drum it will be all waste of time."
Larose shook his head. "Perhaps not, Charlie," he said, "as we may find the place where Harker was actually shot, and it is just possible they may have overlooked something as they were carrying the body away. It's pretty certain they wouldn't have moved it until it had got dark."
"But you seem very sure that he was killed quite near," commented Stone, frowningly.
"Yes, quite sure," said Larose, "as I don't see how they could have got him in any other way. I believe they saw him watching through his glasses among the reeds, and Hendrick, in a furious burst of rage, snatched down one of those rifles off the wall and put a bullet in him at once, perhaps without giving any thought at all to what he was doing." He looked out towards the marsh and made a grimace. "We'll have to put up with dirty shoes, though; thank goodness, there's been no rain to-day."
The land belonging to Dr. Hendrick was about an acre in extent and only a few feet higher than the marsh itself, which was distant some twenty yards or so from the out-buildings farthest from the bungalow. A line of low but stout rails marked the boundary of the doctor's holding.
The inspectors and the plain-clothes men stepped over the rail and advanced to the edge of the marsh. "Good!" exclaimed Stone in some relief, as he was always very particular about his clothes, "the ground's not very soft, just a bit sticky on top."
"And we shan't have to cover a wide area," said Larose, "as it was only from a narrow strip of the marsh that Harker would have been able to watch the bungalow. The garage and out-buildings would have obstructed most of the view." He turned to the plain-clothes men. "You quite understand what we are looking for—a place where Harker was shot and where we may find the reeds trampled down where the body was carried away. It is just possible, too, that as the body was almost certainly removed in the darkness, we may find something, some little thing which the killers left behind them in their hurry. Of course we are not banking much on that, but still, such a find cannot be ruled out altogether."
Spreading themselves out in a line, with each one a few yards distant from the next, the searchers were just about to enter the marsh when one of the plain-clothes men called out, "Hi, there are footmarks here, and they look pretty recent ones, too."
They all gathered round, and Stone announced with some excitement in his tones, "Small ones and big ones! The doctor and his man! They've been here yesterday or this morning."
"Yesterday!" nodded Larose. He looked significantly at Stone. "Yes, yesterday after I'd gone away the doctor must have got a bit scared, and they went back to make certain nothing had been left behind. Well, we'll walk to one side of these footmarks and see where they lead us."
The journey was not a long one, and soon the reeds were thicker and higher. Then, in the middle of a big clump of them, they came upon a small area where they had been broken and trampled upon. For a few moments no one spoke a word, and then Stone turned to the plain-clothes men and, with some emotion in his voice, said hoarsely, "And here, boys, your mate was shot by that madman in the bungalow over yonder! But it's going to be difficult to bring it home to his murderer!"
Though there was no doubt that it was from there that Harker had been keeping his watch, not unexpectedly they could pick out none of his footmarks.
"They didn't sink in like the rim of that heavy drum did," commented Larose, "and what little rain there has been was enough to wash them away." He looked across to the bungalow. "Yes, he had a good view of everything, but the poor fellow did not realise those reeds weren't thick enough to prevent his being seen."
A thorough search revealed nothing that had been left behind, and at length they returned disconsolately to the bungalow. "Well, we've exposed every card in our hand," summed up Stone, "and got nothing for it. Now we'll go through the bungalow thoroughly, although I don't expect we'll find anything."
The doctor did not seem to be in any way annoyed by the search. He just acted as if he were not interested. When it was over he was found reading in the deck-chair upon his little bit of lawn.
"All keep together," whispered Larose. "If anything happens now we want as many witnesses as possible." He spoke very sternly to the doctor. "Now there's one thing, Dr. Hendrick," he began, "that you'll have to explain, whether you like it or not."
"Don't be a fool," snapped the doctor angrily. "I'm a man of the world and know my rights as well as you do. I'm not going to be badgered into answering any of your insolent questions."
"There's going to be no attempt at any badgering, as you call it," said Larose quietly, "but suspicions are so very strong against you that you'll have to explain one simple fact and——"
"Suspicions strong against me!" echoed the doctor furiously. "Suspicions about what?"
"Murder," replied Larose laconically, and they all watched the doctor intently.
There was no doubt the latter was startled, and he stared at Larose with his eyes opened very wide.
"Yes, murder," repeated Larose after a long pause. His eyes bored like gimlets into the doctor, and he added slowly, "The murder of a man of ours who was shot among those reeds. We found the exact spot."
The doctor had recovered himself quickly. "You fool!" he burst out. "If by that man of yours you mean the fellow who had been asking questions about me in the village—I never set eyes on him, and he never came near me, that I know of."
"Good," ran Stone's thoughts, "he's making him talk, and any moment he may trip and say something."
"Dr. Hendrick," said Larose impressively, "we have the clearest evidence that you saw him hiding on the marsh and put a bullet in him from one of your rifles."
"And your clearest evidence," scoffed the doctor, "is some figment of your own imagination. You've lived so much among criminals that you can't look at anyone now without thinking he's a murderer."
Larose ignored his sneering. "And we have more against you than that," he went on, and then rapped out sharply, "What about that empty petrol drum of yours which the coastguard found washed up yesterday? For what purpose had you been using that?"
A long silence followed, and it might almost have been thought that the doctor had not heard what Larose had said. His face was quite expressionless and his eyes were looking out to sea. At length he heaved a big sigh and nodded towards Larose.
"You make me tired," he said quietly, "and I don't pretend to know what you mean. Good afternoon, and I don't wish to see you again." Rising to his feet, he proceeded to walk slowly back into the bungalow. He closed the door behind him, and they heard the key turn in the lock.
Stone looked disappointedly at his young colleague and sighed. "I was afraid it would end like that," he said, "but we are on the bull's eye right enough. When you mentioned the drum, though his face gave nothing away his hands did. He clenched them so tightly that I bet he dug his nails right into his palms. To give the old devil his due, he put up a good show. He's something of an actor."
Waiting only until he had seen the police car drive away, the doctor went at once to the phone and, as once before, rang up the coastguard station. He spoke quite casually.
"Tell me—was it a cask or a big oil drum," he asked, "that was washed up yesterday?—Oh, nothing washed up, you say?—Nothing that you are aware of?—No, I've not lost anything, but I was walking a little way down on the sands in the afternoon and thought I saw something like a cask drifting in—Ha, ha, yes, of course, you would have been—a drink of nice cold beer would have been very acceptable—Good afternoon! I'm sorry I troubled you—I was only curious—that was all."
The doctor wiped over his forehead with his handkerchief. "The liar, the plausible liar!" he scowled. "He thought he'd bounce me into saying something! And it was a good try, too!" He frowned heavily. "But, by James, he's dangerous, this Larose, very dangerous. He can have had precious little to help him, and yet—he's guessed a lot." His frown changed into a grim smile. "Well, let him go on guessing. He'll never be able to prove anything."
From the bungalow the detectives drove into Tillingham village, and Larose went into the garage there. "From Scotland Yard," he told the proprietor. "Now do you happen to supply Dr. Hendrick with petrol up at that bungalow of his?"
The man shook his head. "We never supply him with anything," he said. He spoke with some resentment. "If he can help it he never buys a thing from the village here. He gets everything from town or sends his chap, Ben, into Chelmsford for it."
"A bit of a queer bird, isn't he?" asked Larose.
"They're both queer birds," agreed the man. "The doctor we never see, but Ben often drops into the pub here, when he comes in for letters or newspapers."
"But the doctor has a good many visitors, hasn't he?" asked Larose.
"No, not many so far as we know," said the man. "Just a few at some week-ends, and then it seems they are always the same lot—one gent in a Jehu car, always by himself, and then some five or six young chaps on motor-cycles. When one of these boys comes all the others seem to come, too."
"All together in a bunch?" asked Larose.
"No, perhaps two or three together, and then the others singly by themselves. I should say they all turn up within half an hour."
"And you have no idea who they are?"
"Not the slightest. They all tear through the village like maniacs, all togged up much the same, airmen's caps, big goggles and the usual motor-cycle overalls. We have no idea even what they are like, and only guess them to be young because of their figures and the reckless way they drive."
"What are the makes of their machines?"
"All different. Speaking off-hand, they include a Red Indian, a Zephyr and a Silver Arrow."
Larose smiled. "And I suppose it's too much for you to remember any of their number-plates? It'll be worth a quid to you if you can."
The man shook his head. "Sorry, I can't earn it," he said, "and I don't think anyone else will be able to either, as I've several times noticed their number-plates were not too clean." He laughed. "It's a favourite trick with these young bloods on motor-cycles who are afraid they'll be caught speeding to smear an oily finger over a figure or two. Then it's devilish hard to make out with a quick glance what the whole number is. The dust the oil picks up sees to that."
"Oh, that's what they do, do they?" frowned Larose.
"Still, you see in the newspapers that they get caught sometimes," said the man, "but then what's a five bob fine to them? They do it again the next day, and on top of a beer or two they think they're fine fellows and seeing life."
Returning to the car, Larose seemed quite hopeful as he related what the garage proprietor had told him. "So you see, Charlie," he said, "things don't look altogether too black, as we've certainly found one weak spot in their armour. If we can only find out who even one of these young fellows is, through shadowing him and finding out the company he keeps, we may get hold of the lot. Then one of them is sure to break down under questioning."
"But the devil of it is," growled Stone, "how are we going to get hold of the first one? Both the doctor and Mainwaring will be guessing their phones are being tapped now, and all of the gang will be keeping well away from each other."
"Quite so," agreed Larose, "but I reckon we've got a chance of getting them in another way. Assuming that most of them would have been coming from town, they'll almost certainly have followed something of the same way we did this morning. Yes, they'll have left the main road just after Brentwood and come along these by-roads which pass through these little villages. Then, surely, it's not improbable that, with some of them riding together, they'll be remembered—particularly if any of the boys happened to pull up anywhere for a drink."
"But they mayn't have taken all the same by-roads that we did," frowned Stone. "They'd have had several others to choose from."
"Well, we'll have enquiries made among the lot," said Larose, "and it'll be hard lines if we don't find someone who remembered them."
"But what will they be able to tell us about them," asked Stone, who was in anything but an optimistic mood, "even if they do remember their passing through?"
"It's their reckless driving I'm banking upon," said Larose. "That certainly won't have endeared them to the villagers, and it's certain that as these boys whizzed by most of them would have followed the motor-bikes with their eyes until they disappeared from sight. So isn't it possible that someone may have taken in at any rate some of the figures on their number plates?"
"But what good will some of the figures do," frowned Stone, "if they can't remember all of them?"
"Oh, with any luck, quite a lot," smiled Larose. "For instance, suppose they remember that one of the numbers ended with two threes or two fives—then it wouldn't be a superhuman task to go through the motor-cycle registers and check up on all the registrations that ended like that. Remember, it would be only ten in each thousand." He shook his head at his colleague. "Don't be so gloomy, Charlie. We're not done by a long chalk yet."
NOW there could be no doubt that Monsieur Croupin, the one time so-called National Thief of France, was a man of great shrewdness of character. He had been quite right in thinking that Mrs. Scrutton had at one time had something on her mind which very much concerned him and made her so unwilling that his stay at the Hall should be brought to a close.
However, whatever might have been her reason for wanting to keep him so long, three days after the other two investigators had taken their leave she apparently thought better of it and so arranged for the lively Frenchman to follow them on the morrow. Then, upon the very morning itself when he was about to say good-bye, she altered her mind again and, taking him into her confidence at last, told him frankly that she was sure her nephew had been robbing her. It happened this way.
With them both seated upon the terrace after breakfast, they had been discussing art treasures in general when she asked suddenly if old silver salt-cellars were valuable.
"Eet all depends to vot period zey belong," said Croupin. "Some are vorth a lot of money."
"Well, say salt-cellars of Charles the Second," she replied, "with Carolus Rex stamped on them and the date sixteen hundred and sixty-seven."
Croupin at once appeared to be most interested. "Yes," he replied in great excitement, "zey vould be most valuable. I know of vun set only in existence, and zat belong to a great American, Meester Ezra Jasper of Chicago. Zey vas made ze year after ze Great Fire of London."
Mrs. Scrutton had got very red. "What do you think they would be worth?" she asked with a tremble in her voice.
"A t'ousand guineas in any art auction rooms in ze world," said Croupin, "and eet might be even more if ze great collectors vere present." He smiled brightly. "But vy do you ask?"
Her face was purple now. "Because I had some once," she said, "four beautiful ones in a little case." Her voice choked in her rage. "They were stolen from me."
"La! la!" exclaimed Croupin sympathetically. "Zat vas bad! And you could not catch ze t'ief?"
She gritted her teeth. "No, but I know who he was." She looked furious and, now casting all reticence to the winds, told him her suspicion—or rather her conviction—that her nephew, Washington Mainwaring, had been the thief.
"And I have done so much for him," she went on plaintively. "It is not the loss of the salt-cellars I mind, but his being so ungrateful to me. He was staying here some months ago when I had a bad heart attack, and the doctor really did not know what was going to happen to me. Then, thinking I was not going to get well, he took them. It was some weeks before I found out they were gone, and then I knew at once it could have been no one else but him."
"Eet is very sad, my lady," said Croupin, "but Meester Mainwaring ees a bad man. I could see zat directly I saw him."
"Well, Monsieur Croupin," she went on, "supposing you had stolen them, what would you have done? Would you have got rid of them immediately?"
He shook his head. "No, no, unless I vant ze money badly, and zen I vould 'ave to sell zem to anoder t'ief and get very little for zem. No, I vould vait t'ree months or six, or a whole year, and eef eet vas in my mind you vas going to die, I vould vait until you did and be quite safe."
"And that is what he is doing," she said bitterly. "He has got them hidden away in his flat."
"But vy if you knew he vas ze fief," asked Croupin curiously, "did you have him here for zees house-party you 'ave just given?"
She hesitated just a few moments. "Because, Monsieur," she said, "I am not a woman who likes anyone to get the better of me, and I intended to expose him before all the other guests. But I thought better of it because I realised what a scandal would fall upon my family." She shrugged her shoulders. "So I said nothing and let him go away."
"Zen I am sorry you cannot punish him," said Croupin.
She spoke quickly. "But I can do it," she said. She spoke emphatically. "And I intend to do it through you."
"Me!" exclaimed Croupin, with his eyes opened very wide. "In vot vay can I punish him?"
She held his eyes with her own. "By getting the salt-cellars back for me," she said, "by burgling his flat. It will be quite easy, and I will pay you £500 to do it."
To say that Croupin was greatly surprised would be putting it mildly. He was so astounded that for the moment he seemed bereft of speech.
"Yes, you will have no difficulty," she went on, "for I know his flat well and can tell you exactly how to get in unnoticed. So you will be able to earn the £500 in a very few minutes."
Croupin found his speech, and it was evident that the thought of £500 was interesting him. "And vere ees zees flat?" he asked.
"In Belsize Park," she said, "in a big apartment building of about twenty others. Its main entrance opens on to a well-frequented road, but it has a back tradesmen's one which leads into the yard where the residents' garages are. His flat is on the second floor, at the end of a long corridor, and you can go up the staircase to get to it and so avoid passing the porter's little office, which is, of course, at the main entrance. My nephew employs no whole-time servant, but a woman comes in, some time in the morning, for a couple of hours. There are five rooms in his flat, including two bedrooms, but he lives entirely by himself. There is no safe on the premises."
"But do you sink 'e vould keep zose salt-cellars zere?" asked Croupin very dubiously.
"I am certain he would," she replied, "probably tucked away at the bottom of some drawer. He is very off-hand and careless by nature. I've heard him say that he is sometimes so absent-minded that he has gone out leaving the key of his front door in the lock."
"But if 'e 'ave not a safe at ze flat," suggested Croupin, "zere vill certainly be vun at ze office, and vy vould not 'e be keeping ze salt-cellars zere?"
"Because his son is his manager," she said, "and is certain to have the keys to everything there."
"But 'ow shall I be quite sure," asked Croupin, "zat 'e vill not be zere ven I make my leetle visit?"
She smiled triumphantly. "Because I'll be having him here upon a week-end visit, and so you can be certain you will not be interrupted."
But Croupin still seemed dubious, and declared he must first pay a visit to the block of flats to get some idea if Mainwaring's one would be easy to get into.
"Then I'll take you to it," said Mrs. Scrutton, "as I drive you back to town this afternoon directly after lunch. We'll chance it that we shall find him at home, though I don't think for a moment we shall. We'll not take the lift, but go in by that back entrance so that the porter won't notice us. If we do see my nephew I'll make the excuse that I've come to give him an invitation for the week-end in person. I shall make out that I want to consult him about buying some shares for me."
She drove Croupin up to town herself, and they went into the building. Apparently no one was in the flat, as repeated ringing brought no one to the door. Croupin seemed quite enthusiastic now, and gave it confidently as his opinion that he would have no difficulty in effecting an entrance. Back in Mrs. Scrutton's car, however, and being driven by her to the modest little hotel in Soho Square in which he was going to put up until he had carried out the commission, he wanted to know what his reward would be if, after getting into the flat, he could not find the case of salt-cellars.
"In that case," said Mrs. Scrutton, "I'll give you £200 and you shall help yourself to a valuable silver snuff-box which you will find on the mantelshelf." She laughed craftily. "By bringing that to show me I shall be certain you have searched through the flat." She went on, "Now, directly I have arranged things with my nephew I'll ring you up, so please be near the telephone every evening between five and six. I'll get him down as soon as possible, but it may not be until next week-end, or the week-end after that. I'll ring him up to-night, and I'm sure everything will go off all right."
However, to her great annoyance she was very soon to find things were not going to happen in anything like the way she had been so confidently expecting. When she got her nephew on the phone he refused in no uncertain manner to accept the week-end invitation. In fact he was as brusque and rude as he could be.
"Yes, I am quite well, but no thanks to you," he said nastily, in reply to her enquiries about his health. "No, I certainly shan't come down for any week-end, and I tell you straight I have no intention of having anything more to do with you."
She was aghast. "What do you mean?" she asked, hardly able to get out her words. "I don't understand."
"Oh, yes you do," he retorted. "I couldn't have put it plainer. I'll never come down to the Hall again." He laughed jeeringly. "I don't consider the place too good for my health, and have no wish for a skewer in my back."
"You big fool!" she exclaimed, and in her fury she lost all control of her temper. "You blackguard! You thief!"
He laughed tauntingly. "A thief, am I? So you've found it out! Then you just tell those detectives what I've taken from you—and see what happens. They couldn't be more suspicious about you than they are now, and all they want to know is who Robson was killed for in mistake. Oh, yes, they know quite well you did it, and haven't finished with you by a long chalk yet." His laugh became a merry one. "Here, I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll sell you back those salt-cellars for a thousand guineas. I've had them valued and find they're worth every penny of that. Oh, I'm quite serious, and you just think it over. Ha, ha, it's very funny, isn't it? I'm quite safe, as I know you daren't squeal." Then, before she could get in another word, he hissed out, "You murdering old bitch!"—and the line went dead.
Shaking with mingled rage and fear, it was as much as Mrs. Scrutton could do to cover the few steps to her boudoir.
No fool, she could see so clearly where her danger lay. If, as her nephew had made out so certainly, the Scotland Yard detectives did believe Robson had been killed in mistake for someone else, and were already suspicious of her as being the only one likely to have done it—then if she breathed only one single word about Washington having robbed her, their suspicions about her would be confirmed at once.
Thinking everything over, however, her fears for her own safety began to calm down. If she dared not speak, neither could Washington; with them both keeping silent she knew no harm could come to her. She gritted her teeth together. Still, she must get her revenge somehow! With that taunting wretch unpunished she would never sleep in peace. Day and night he would be as a rankling sore to her. But then—what could she do? Surely there must be some way of making him smart? And three days later she thought that she had found one.
She motored into Ingatestone and went into the post-office where one of the girls remarked sympathetically that she must have been passing through a very worrying time. "As Mr. Mainwaring described it," she said, "it was just like a terrible accident."
Mrs. Scrutton looked hard at her. "And when did you see my nephew for him to say that?" she asked sharply.
"Oh, I haven't seen him at all lately," said the girl, "but I happened to handle that very early telegram on the morning when it all happened—the one he phoned up to us for Burnham-on-Crouch." She smiled. "I was particularly interested because I have a sister living at Burnham and have heard her speak of the great Dr. Hendrick."
Mrs. Scrutton had heard nothing of the telegram and was all interest at once. However, she remarked carelessly, "He told me about the telegram, but I don't remember now what he said."
"Only that there had been a terrible accident at the Hall," said the girl, "and his visit to Dr. Hendrick might be delayed for a few days. He told him, too, to listen in to the wireless that night."
"And is Dr. Hendrick still practising in Burnham?" asked Mrs. Scrutton.
"Oh, no, he's never practised there," replied the girl. "He retired long ago and lives with a manservant in a lonely bungalow about five miles from Burnham, by the Tillingham marshes. He's getting old now, but was a great London specialist once and has written no end of books."
Mrs. Scrutton asked no more questions but, interested in anything about her nephew now, took the trouble to motor on to Chelmsford and look up Dr. Hendrick in the Medical Directory in the public library there. She was impressed with the number of degrees he had got and wondered what Washington had to do with him. "Perhaps he's been selling him some of his swindling shares," she said to herself. "At any rate I'll go and see him and just tell him what sort of a man Washington is. It may open his eyes a lot."
Next morning she was up early, and by nine o'clock, driving herself, was just passing out of the Hall gates into the main road when she almost ran into the Rev. Henry Belt, the Rector of Ingatestone, who was accompanied by his son. She stopped to speak to them, and the Rector introduced his son.
"I've known you for many years by sight," she said to the young fellow. "I remember you quite well when you used to come to the Sunday School fetes."
The boy grinned in great amusement at the introduction, and his father remarked, "Driving yourself to-day? Are you going far?"
"Much farther than I want to," she said with a frown, "as I've got a touch of lumbago and my chauffeur is laid up with flu."
"But if you would like it, Mrs. Scrutton," said the Rector at once, "I am sure my son here will act as your chauffeur to-day. You'll be only too pleased to, won't you, Reggie?"
"Certainly," replied his son. He smiled at Mrs. Scrutton. "I'm on holiday for a few days and have nothing to do." He regarded the beautiful Bentley car admiringly. "And it will be a great treat to drive a good car like this."
"But I'm going to Burnham-on-Crouch," she said. "It's a long way."
"About twenty-six miles," said Belt, "and only a step for a car like this. I know the way quite well."
So Mrs. Scrutton accepted his offer with great relief, as her lumbago was really troubling her quite a lot, and young Belt hopped into the driver's seat and they drove away. Belt would have dearly loved to have a good laugh at the very thought that he was now driving a lady whose house he had been intending to break into only a few nights back.
The lady of the Hall found him a most agreeable companion, and they chatted amiably together. She made the mental note that she must certainly invite him to the next party she gave. She had never had much to do with his father, considering him with all his zeal as something of an old bore. Presently she said, "It isn't exactly to Burnham I am going, but to a place a few miles beyond, called Tillingham. Have you ever heard of it?" and he almost jumped out of his seat in his amazement when she added it was a Dr. Hendrick she was going to see.
For the first few moments his feelings were only of amusement, but they were quickly followed by uneasiness. Since the abortive raid upon Orwell Hall he, like all the others of the band, had been strictly ordered to keep away from the bungalow and in no circumstances try to communicate with the doctor. Then what on earth would the latter think to see him now driving up to the door? It would certainly be very awkward, as it did not seem likely he would get any opportunity to explain anything!
In the meantime he told Mrs. Scrutton that he had not heard of Tillingham or Dr. Hendrick, and she went on to relate what a wonderfully clever man the doctor was and the many books he had written. "He has taken so many degrees," she said, "that I'm sure he can't remember all of them."
Reaching Burnham-on-Crouch, with the excuse that he was wanting some cigarettes and, at the same time, would enquire where the doctor lived, Belt alighted from the car and went into a tobacconist's shop. Of course he asked no questions there, but returning to the car proceeded to take the rough coastguard road, so as not to pass through Tillingham village.
Driving along, he asked Mrs. Scrutton if the doctor knew she was coming, as the tobacconist had told him he was very eccentric and often refused to see any visitors.
"No, he's not expecting me," she said, "but he'll certainly see me, as my business is most important. I have no doubt about that, though we are perfect strangers."
Young Belt's heart beat uncomfortably when at last they pulled up before the bungalow, but to his relief neither the doctor nor Ben was visible. Mrs. Scrutton alighted from the car and, proceeding briskly up the little garden path, pushed hard upon the bell on the door. After some considerable delay, when in her impatience she had pushed again, she heard footsteps inside the bungalow, and Ben opened the door a few inches.
"What do you want?" he asked brusquely, while she was fumbling in her bag for a visiting card.
"To see Dr. Hendrick," she said sharply. "Is he at home?"
"He doesn't receive visitors," said Ben. "Go away," and he shut the door in her face.
Mrs. Scrutton's temper rose and, pressing once more upon the bell, this time kept her finger there. Receiving no answer, she knocked loudly with her knuckles upon the door. It opened suddenly; and Ben asked curtly, "Who are you?"
"I'm Mrs. Scrutton of Orwell Hall," she replied haughtily, "and I shan't go away until I have seen your master. Give him this card and tell him I've come to speak to him about my nephew, Mr. Washington Mainwaring."
Closing the door again, Ben went into his master and, giving him the card, at the same time delivered the message.
The doctor scrutinised the card and frowned. "She mentioned Mr. Mainwaring's name?" he asked. "What is she like?"
"Old and thin," replied Ben, "an unpleasant-looking woman."
After a few moments' hesitation the doctor now went to the door himself. "Are you Dr. Hendrick?" asked Mrs. Scrutton. But ignoring her query, he asked sharply, "Do you come from the police?"
"Certainly not," she replied. "I tell you——"
"Who's that man in the car?" interrupted the doctor brusquely. "Is he anything to do with the police?"
"Certainly not," she replied again. "He's a friend of mine, Mr. Reginald Belt, the son of our Rector at Ingatestone."
She turned and beckoned to young Belt to approach. He came at once and, taking off his cap, stood with it in his hand as he addressed the doctor.
"I'm very proud to meet you, sir," he said smilingly, "and it's quite by chance I'm being so honoured. My father is the Rector of Ingatestone, where this lady lives, and he and I, meeting her accidentally this morning, learnt her chauffeur was ill and that she was not too pleased at having to drive the car all the way here herself. So I offered to do it"—he threw out his hands—"and here I am, though when we started off I had no idea where we were going." He bowed. "I am sure I am greatly privileged to meet you, sir."
Dr. Hendrick repressed a smile and asked very sternly, "And you have nothing to do with the police?"
Young Belt looked very amused. "Off-hand, sir, I don't remember ever having spoken to a policeman."
Making room for her to pass, the doctor motioned to Mrs. Scrutton to come into the house and took her into his study. "Now, Madam," he said, when she had seated herself, "what do you wish to say to me?"
Mrs. Scrutton whetted her lips in pleasurable anticipation. Now indeed, she thought, she could vent some of her spite. "I believe you know my nephew, Mr. Washington Mainwaring," she began, "and are a great friend of——"
"An acquaintance, Madam," interrupted the doctor sharply. "I have had business dealings with him. Nothing else."
"But he sent you that hasty telegram," she went on, "within a very few minutes of the police arriving after that ghastly tragedy at my house, the murder of my butler, about which of course you have read."
"That is so," said the doctor, "but the telegram was quite understandable to me as Mr. Mainwaring is a very keen business man and allows nothing to interfere with his work."
"Well, I have come to you this morning," she began, "because, though he is my nephew, I feel it my duty to warn you that not only in his public life but in his private life as well he is a dishonest man and not to be trusted in any way. His reputation in the city is a very bad one."
For the moment the doctor looked altogether too surprised to make any comment. Then he smiled. "Thank you for your warning," he said, "but I assure you I am quite able to take care of myself." He regarded her intently. "But in what way, may I ask, is Mr. Mainwaring dishonest in his private life?"
"He stole some valuable pieces of old silver from me and has admitted it. He took them from my house when I had been seized with a sudden heart attack, and it was not thought I should recover."
"He has admitted taking them?" asked the doctor.
"He was the only person who could have done so," she replied, "and when I taxed him with it he just laughed that I could never prove it. Then he had the impudence to offer to sell them back to me for a thousand guineas. He said he had had them valued and they were worth every penny of that."
"But I understand," frowned the doctor, "that only a little while ago he was your guest at the house-party you were giving when that mysterious death of your butler occurred."
"That is so," she said, "but directly the police would allow him to go, and it was only after a lot of questioning, I ordered him away at once and never to come near me again. I had found out that he was the thief."
The doctor was puzzled. What she was telling him now was a very different story from the one Mainwaring had given him. Mainwaring had said she had been furious at his cutting short his stay at the Hall, and of the two versions Dr. Hendrick was inclined to believe that of the stockbroker as being the more likely one.
"But why, with the police actually in the house," he asked, "did you not expose him to them as a thief?"
"It would have been difficult to prove," she said. She spoke sharply. "And, besides, what do you think they would have thought of me for turning upon my own flesh and blood?"
"And what do you imagine," he asked grimly, "that I think of your doing so now to me? Does it seem to you to be a nice thing?"
She got very red. "But I am not doing it to bring punishment upon him," she said. "I am doing it as a matter of duty and as an act of kindness to you—to put you upon your guard. I intend to warn all whom I know who believe him to be their friend."
There was a short silence, and then the doctor asked curiously, "But why, as you tell me it happened, did the police subject him to a lot of questioning?" He opened his eyes widely. "Surely they could not have been suspecting him of killing your butler?"
She hesitated for a few moments before replying. "Well, they certainly suspected him of something," she said, "but if it wasn't of the murder, I don't know what else it could have been."
"But if they suspected him of anything," frowned the doctor, "surely it could have been only the murder." He spoke sharply. "Nothing else had happened, had it?"
She was now showing obvious embarrassment. "Not that I know of," she said slowly, "but it seems to me that the moment the police arrive anywhere they look for all sorts of things to suspect."
Then Dr. Hendrick began thinking hard. Had not Larose told him they were sure Mainwaring believed the butler had been killed in mistake for himself, and that he was quite aware of and yet would not tell them the identity of the killer? And now here had come this half-crazy woman spitting spite and venom against Mainwaring, obviously wanting to inflict upon him the utmost injury she could! Then she must be the killer the police were looking for; and in casting their net wide around Mainwaring to uncover his possible enemy, by misfortune they had drawn him, Dr. Hendrick, into the meshes of that net!
Oh, how clear it was! The police had gone down to Orwell Hall with no expectation at all of having to deal with anything but the murder of the butler. Then in some way or other Mainwaring had made himself stand out, not as the possible murderer, but as someone who was not straightforward enough in his replies to the questions they had put to him. So, at first, perhaps only as a matter of routine when dealing with a seemingly untruthful witness they had started to find out more about him. Then, of course, the Superintendent would have told them about that telegram. What happened after that was all too clear.
Of course it was always easy to be wise after the event, and Dr. Hendrick could realise now how foolish he had been in impetuously getting rid of that man they had sent down to spy upon him. Still, however great his mistake there, as he had told himself over and over again, if he sat tight and admitted nothing they really could not bring anything home to him.
Then an uneasy thought stirred in him. This vicious, mischief-making woman here had just said that she was intending to warn all the friends of Mainwaring's whom she knew. Then what if she had once been brought in contact with any of those young fellows who were now working under him—before he had roped them in to carry out these raids? Of course, with the murder of her butler still unsolved, whether she was aware of it or not, Scotland Yard would certainly be keeping some sort of eye upon her, and it would become calamitous if through her they became aware of the existence of those boys. Under hard questioning one of them might easily make some careless admission with disastrous consequences to all the others.
Speaking very casually, he asked her if she knew many of her nephew's friends. "No, and I don't think he's got many," she said nastily, "but I have met a few at his flat. In particular, I remember an old clergyman from Devonshire, whom he has probably ruined by now with some of his worthless shares, and some young officers who were in his regiment during the war. One was called Harcourt, and he works with an engineering company. I know where his office is, and shall go and see him directly my lumbago is well enough."
The doctor was aghast. As far as courage went, Harcourt was one of their best men, but he was not clever, and a man like Gilbert Larose would turn him inside out in a very few minutes.
"But I wouldn't bother," he said carelessly. "He'll probably not thank you, and only laugh behind your back."
"And I have another idea," she said. "I half think of making out a list of everybody I know who is at all friendly with him and sending it anonymously to Scotland Yard. They might find some well-known bad characters among them and keep a particular eye upon them."
The doctor appeared horrified. "Oh, I shouldn't do that," he said. "It might get you into a lot of trouble. Depend upon it, the detectives are still hard at work trying to find out who killed your butler, and they are certain to have found ways of knowing everything that is now going on at the Hall. So they may quite easily trace back the letter to you and demand you give them your reason for being so bitter towards your nephew, and then you'll have to tell them everything." He shook his head ominously. "Scotland Yard is always hard to shake off, and they have some uncommonly clever men among them. No, don't send such a letter, whatever you do."
Mrs. Scrutton looked frightened, and announced she was feeling faint and would like to lie down for a few minutes. At once all sympathy, Dr. Hendrick helped her on to the sofa and insisted she should have some brandy.
"Now you keep quite still," he said, "and you'll find the fainting feeling will soon pass. I'll go out and leave you by yourself for a few minutes." Assuring her again that the faintness was nothing, he left the room.
Going into the kitchen, he found young Belt being regaled with beer and bread and cheese. The boy seemed his usual self, very bright and cheerful. "And you say you are sure you weren't followed?" asked the doctor. "We've had the detectives from Scotland Yard down here, with their star performer Gilbert Larose among them."
"No, we weren't followed," said Belt. "I'm quite sure of that." He looked rather uneasy. "But what on earth did Scotland Yard want, sending down their best man, too?"
The doctor shrugged his shoulders. "Who knows?" he replied. "Anyhow, I learnt it was that telegram Mainwaring sent me that first made them suspicious about something. They came with a search-warrant and went all over the place."
Belt grinned. "Well, they wouldn't have found anything," he said, "though it's probable we've had a narrow escape." He went on to relate all that had happened in connection with the bag of tools which had been hidden in the grounds of the Hall. "And I had half thought of bringing the damned things here," he concluded. "What a mercy it was I didn't!"
Dr. Hendrick had listened with great intentness to young Belt's story, though the expression upon his face gave no indication of his consternation. This meant that it was no longer a matter of mere suspicion; Scotland Yard were now hot on the trail of the robber band!
While the doctor was experiencing no fear for himself, as in his now desperate state of health he did not care what might happen to him, yet for the young fellows involved he was very much concerned. Strangely enough, with all his warped views of life and contempt for any ill he might have been inflicting upon the community, as he considered the ruin which might be awaiting these boys he was determined to do all he could to save them. He knew it had been only for his own selfish gratification that he had urged them on to one lawless act after another, and they had responded so loyally and with such courage that he was now filled with a genuine affection for them. They had been so full of the joy of life, an infectious joy that had even gripped him and, for a short time, made him feel young again and forgetful of the disease that was slowly killing him.
Belt broke into the doctor's train of thought by making an inclination of his head in the direction of the room where Mrs. Scrutton was lying down. "Funny old girl, that!" he whispered. "She's supposed to have a screw loose."
"Well, don't you come down here with her again," warned the doctor. "Scotland Yard is particularly curious about you boys and your motor-bicycles," and he went on to tell him of the enquiries Ben had heard some strange man making about them in the village.
"Whew!" whistled Belt. "Then we'll have to keep away from here for a long time."
"And away from each other," nodded the doctor, "for to my way of thinking the only danger we need be afraid of is their uncovering you and the others. Remember, those men at Scotland Yard are very clever, and you would have difficulty in explaining away why you came here so often together."
Returning to Mrs. Scrutton, he found her much better and sitting up. He felt her pulse. "Splendid," he said cheerfully. "Quite strong again. Now you go home slowly, and you'll be perfectly all right and feel none the worse for the little emotional upset."
"Yes, it was an emotional upset," she sighed, "for I feel strongly that my nephew should be punished."
"And upon second thoughts, so do I," he said. He smiled. "But in not quite the crude way you were suggesting. No, we must think of something more subtle, where there will be no chance of our being found out. I'll think it over and ring you up in a few days."
"But do you believe," she asked, "that my phone is being tapped?"
"I shouldn't be at all surprised," he said, "as these Scotland Yard people are very thorough. Still, I'll guard against that and ring you from some call office in Brentwood or Chelmsford. My man will drive me in and I shan't mention my proper name. I'll call myself Mr. Barnes. You'll know who's speaking"—he hesitated a few moments—"and I may suggest that you come down and see me again. You can drive your own car, can't you?"
"Oh, yes, and I always prefer to do so," she said. "It was only on account of my lumbago that I let Mr. Belt drive me over to-day."
"Well, come alone next time," he said, "and, while I think of it, I would suggest you ask Mr. Belt not to tell anyone where you've been to-day. With the police nosing about everywhere we can't be too careful."
Watching them drive away, he remarked to Ben, "A very unpleasant woman that, and a very spiteful one, too."
"Yes, Master, she looks like one," agreed Ben.
The doctor was in a very thoughtful mood all that afternoon. Towards dusk he took down his microscope from off a shelf and, pricking his finger, put a smear of the blood upon a slide and examined it carefully. What he saw was not reassuring, and he sighed heavily.
"Not far off now!" he told himself sadly. "Perhaps only a matter of weeks and I shall have to take the final plunge!"
He looked meditatively through the window at the sea, whose waves at high water were lapping only a few yards away. Still, he took in nothing of what he saw, for his thoughts were very far away. Suddenly his eyes gleamed. "And why not?" he asked himself breathlessly. "We should be strange bedfellows, but our sleep would be sound and——"
But Ben came in with the lamp, and the doctor looked round sharply. He rubbed his eyes as if awaking from a dream.
WITH EVERY DAY that passed Mrs. Scrutton's rages against her nephew mounted until at length the idea of revenge became an obsession. It haunted her day and night, and she told herself she would not mind what money it would cost her. Uncertain how Raphael Croupin would take the news that she could not arrange for him any definite day when no one would be in the flat, she hesitated to phone him up. Finally she thought she would go and see him, resolving, if necessary, to raise the amount of the payment she would make him if success attended the breaking in of the flat.
Having heard nothing more of the Scotland Yard detectives, by now she had quite thrown off all fear of them and no longer believed that they had any suspicion of her having killed her butler. She could not understand how Washington himself had come to think of it, but there, she was sure, the matter ended. And even if the detectives had any suspicions of her, she decided, they could never obtain the slightest proof.
Not even thinking she was being watched, she took few precautions against being followed. She garaged her car some two miles away from the hotel in Soho Square where Croupin was staying and took a taxi for the rest of the way; and as she noticed nothing unusual she was sure no one was interested in her movements.
Croupin was pleased to see her, as he had been wondering why she had not phoned up. When she told him her nephew had refused her invitation to spend the week-end at the Hall he agreed with her that, though it was annoying, it need not necessarily mean that the breaking into the flat must be abandoned.
"It will mean that I shall 'ave to get to know 'is 'abits and ze vay 'e lives," he said. "Zat is all." He looked hard at her. "But vy did 'e say 'e vould not come?"
She gave him a garbled account of the conversation upon the phone, making out that at first her nephew had only expressed his intense annoyance at having been drawn into all the unpleasantness of being questioned so disrespectfully by the police, with the added indignity of having his fingerprints taken.
"Then, when he said so rudely," she continued, "that he intended to have nothing more to do with me, I admit I got angry and told him flatly that it was only those people who had done something wrong who were afraid of finger-prints and the police. Then he asked mockingly what I was accusing him of, and"—she sighed—"I was foolish enough to lose my temper altogether and call him a thief."
"La, la," exclaimed Croupin, "but zat vas not vise! Vas 'e very angry?"
"Not a bit," she said. "He only laughed and said I'd been a long time in finding it out and that even now it would be no good to me, as I should never be able to prove it. Then he had the impudence to say he'd sell the salt-cellars back to me for a thousand guineas, and when I told him he was a blackguard as well as a thief he just called me a vile word and rang off."
Suppressing a smile, Croupin appeared very shocked. "Zen ve vill punish 'eem," he said, "but eet may not be for a few days. Ve must be very careful."
Some days went by and then, arriving at his usual time at Scotland Yard, Larose was greeted with great excitement by Inspector Stone. "Come on, my boy!" he exclaimed. "I expected you five minutes ago. There is a meaty bone to be picked, as word has just come through from Hampstead that Washington Mainwaring has been murdered in his flat! I've got the surgeon here, and we're just going there."
"Mainwaring murdered!" exclaimed Larose.
"Yes, some time yesterday," said Stone. "The body is quite cold. That's all I know. Come on quick! It looks like a busy day for us."
The Hampstead sergeant of police was waiting for them at the hall door of the flat. "The cleaner of the flat found him," he said, "when she came just after eight. The hall door was shut, but the key had been left in the lock."
He led the way into the dining-room, where the body lay. It was lying on its side with its head in a pool of dark blood. It was obvious how he had died, as there was a small bullet-wound in the side of his forehead, midway between the brow and the scalp.
The police surgeon was the first to speak. "A .22 bullet probably fired from a small pistol," he said, "and the killer was evidently not much of a shot, as he pushed the weapon right up into his face and yet didn't hit anywhere in the middle. The muzzle of the pistol must have been very close, as you can see from the singed eyebrow and skin."
"How long has he been dead, Doctor?" asked Stone.
The surgeon half-knelt and made to lift up one of the dead man's legs. "A long time, probably fifteen to eighteen hours, as rigor is well established. Yes, I should say he was killed yesterday afternoon some time between three and five. He would have died almost instantaneously."
With the departure of the surgeon, the photographer and the finger-mark expert got busy, while the detectives proceeded to interview the cleaner. All she could tell them, however, was that, arriving at the flat just after eight, she found the hall door shut but the key in the lock. Proceeding into the dining-room, she had seen the dead body lying on the floor and had at once rung up the local police station.
"Have you ever found the key in the lock before?" asked Stone.
"Several times, sir," she replied. "Mr. Mainwaring was rather careless, and now and then forgot to take it out."
"And eight o'clock is the time you always come?" asked Stone. "Never in the afternoon?"
"Never in the afternoon, sir," she said, "but if it happens I have other morning work to do, I may come any time up to about one o'clock. Mr. Mainwaring never had any breakfast except some biscuits and a glass of milk, and he always got his other meals outside."
They learnt nothing from the porter at the main entrance to the building. He had not seen Mainwaring return home the previous day, but then he said that was quite understandable as, with his car now in the garage, he would have used the back stairway to go up to his flat. That was what those tenants with cars usually did, and often the porter did not catch sight of them from one week's end to another. He had heard no sound like a pistol-shot but that was quite understandable, too, as there was considerable traffic always going by on the road. If he had heard it he might have put it down to the back-firing of some car.
"Now, Gilbert," said Stone after the body had been taken away and the police officials gone, "we must put away the idea that we think we know who the murderer is and deal with this present matter—unless we come to learn differently—as something quite by itself. So after we've had a good look round we must try to reconstruct the murder."
"Well, to begin with," said Larose, "robbery could hardly have been the motive. Just look at this beautiful snuff-box here. It must be worth quite a lot of money."
"And there's more than £50 in his wallet," said Stone, "besides the expensive wristwatch he was wearing. No, whoever killed him had certainly not come to rob."
The dining-room yielding nothing of any interest, they went into the nearest bedroom, which was obviously the one Mainwaring used. It was very nicely appointed, with all the luxuries of a well-to-do man.
"All tidy," remarked Stone after a quick look round, "and evidently just as the woman left it yesterday morning."
"But not quite, I should say," said Larose, walking over to a big chest of drawers, one of the long bottom drawers of which was half open. "She would surely never have left it like that," and he pulled the drawer wide open. Its contents, underwear of various kinds, pants, vests, and shirts, were all seemingly slightly disarranged.
Disturbing nothing, he closed the drawer and proceeded to open and glance over each of the others in turn. "Notice anything?" he asked Stone.
Stone nodded. "Someone's been going through all of them except that last bottom one there," he said. "It might be that he was interrupted when he was searching the one he left half-open and had to bolt away."
"Exactly!" said Larose. He smiled. "Now this is very interesting. He didn't take any of the things right out of the drawers, but just felt among them. So he was evidently looking for something that would feel very different from this soft underwear, something hard. Now let's have a look at this other chest of drawers."
As they had expected, the contents of this was in much the same condition as the other. Everything had undoubtedly been gone through. Turning next to a big wardrobe, directly they had opened the door they looked significantly at each other. The coat-hangers in the middle had been pushed aside, leaving a clear space in the middle.
"And this probably is where the gentleman hid," said Stone, "when he heard somebody, undoubtedly Mainwaring, coming into the flat. Quite a good hiding place among these coats!"
Larose flashed the rays of a little torch upon the floor of the wardrobe and immediately bent down and touched some little black marks he saw there. "Tar from the road," he exclaimed, "which I noticed, and probably so did you, had been recently sprayed. Then we ought to find marks upon the carpet as well." In several places, in both the hall and the dining-room but nowhere else, they found faint traces of the tar. "Which means, of course," Larose commented, "that, whatever this hiding man had been looking for, his search came to an abrupt end at that half-opened drawer."
Returning to the dining-room, they seated themselves comfortably and took out cigarettes. A short silence ensued with Stone clearing his throat, and then commencing briskly, "Well, Gilbert, as I have said already we must consider our job here as having nothing whatever to do with the enquiries we have been making lately at Dr. Hendrick's bungalow. Instead, we now have to go back along that trail which petered out so badly for us at Orwell Hall."
"I know that, Charlie," said Larose a little testily. "We've got to find out something linking together these two homicides, that of the butler and that of Mainwaring. The matter of the burglaries doesn't come into it at all."
"Well, we've certainly no time to waste," said Stone.
"None at all," agreed Larose. "And first of all we've got to try to find out if Mrs. Scrutton has any tar marks upon her shoes—and find out, too, without letting her learn of the suspicions we have about her."
"Then how shall we approach her?" asked Stone.
"Oh, quite pleasantly," smiled Larose, "and probably she'll shake hands and offer some refreshment." He became stern. "Remember, Charlie, that all our suspicions about this woman are, after all, only conjectures, and now we are following them up with another conjecture that she was the murdering visitor to this flat."
"But we have a chance here of putting this last conjecture to the proof," said Stone with animation. "If we find tar upon her shoes and she can't produce a satisfactory alibi for yesterday afternoon, we have a very strong case against her."
Larose looked doubtful. "But it won't be in any way complete, Charlie," he said, "until we can produce the motive. We can guess now that what the Chelmsford Superintendent suggested was right and that he had stolen something from her, but then again it is all conjecture. If we find tar upon her shoes it will certainly strengthen our case, but there is nothing final even about that." He shook his head. "No, we daren't venture an outright accusation upon that."
"And about asking her where she was yesterday afternoon?" said Stone.
Larose shook his head again. "We mustn't mention it," he said. "It would put her on her guard at once."
"But if we're going to ask her no questions," said Stone, frowning, "I don't see what chance we have of finding anything out. What excuse shall we make for going down to Orwell Hall?"
"We shall find out, at any rate, if there's tar on any shoes," said Larose, "and as for our excuse for coming down, we can refer back to the discharged prisoners she has entertained and ask for a complete list of them all, as far back as she can remember. Then as an afterthought we'll ask if she knows if anyone in the house wears shoes with very peculiarly shaped heels, as one of our men found the imprint of one in the ground, and we'll go on to say that for form's sake we'd better look at the heels of everyone in the house."
"But how about asking where she was yesterday afternoon," said Stone, "without arousing her suspicions?"
"I'll get what I can out of the footman," said Larose. "Remember, we've got a sort of private understanding with him, as it was he who told us on the quiet about some of his mistress's visitors being old lags. I'll say I want another talk with him."
Driving down to Ingatestone, Larose seemed so hopeful about everything that the elder detective brightened up and became quite sanguine, too.
When they arrived at the Hall the footman answered the door. He said he was sorry, but his mistress was out, having gone to spend the day with some friends in Chelmsford. Both the detectives thought it could not have happened more fortunately, but Stone tut-tutted apparently in great annoyance and remarked that they should have come yesterday.
"But you wouldn't have seen her, sir, if you had," smiled the footman, "as she was out all day and didn't return until nearly seven o'clock. She was helping with a big Sunday School treat."
"Where? Here in Ingatestone?" asked Stone.
"No, sir, they took the children to the Zoo," said the the footman. "It was a combined Sunday School treat and included the children of eleven parishes. Nearly two hundred of them went, and no end of teachers."
"Good gracious!" exclaimed Stone. "Did they go by train?"
"No, sir," said the footman, who seemed very proud of the whole business, "in seven charabancs and some private cars. Mistress used her own car among them, of course."
Stone appeared to consider. "Then we'll have to do what we can without her as we've come all this way," he said, and he told him how as, a matter of form, they wanted to have a look at everyone's shoes.
Accordingly the housekeeper was fetched, and she at once expressed her willingness to help them as much as she could, as she was sure her mistress would have done had she been at home.
"And I have a few more questions to ask of some of you about poor Mr. Robson," said Larose. "So, to save time, I'll do it while Inspector Stone here is going over the shoes." He took a paper out of his pocket and went on, "This is a list of the names of the staff which Mrs. Scrutton gave me. Now let me see who I'll take first. Ah, Miss Brodie! She's Mrs. Scrutton's personal maid, isn't she?"
The housekeeper was most polite. "Fetch Brodie," she said to the footman. "She's in the sewing room."
"No, have me taken up to her," smiled Larose. "I want to interrupt your domestic routine as little as possible."
So a very few minutes later Larose had asked the girl a few questions about the butler's general way of life and was passing on to the matter of the shoes. "Of course, though it's only a matter of form," he smiled, "I'd better see those of your mistress."
"Of course, sir," said the girl, who was charmed with the detective's pleasant manner. "Come into her room, and you can see them all."
"Oh, what a lot she has!" exclaimed Larose when the door of the big shoe cupboard was opened.
"But of course I can't show you," smiled the girl, "the ones she's wearing to-day."
"But I suppose they are the same ones she wore yesterday," smiled back Larose.
"Oh, no, sir, they're not," said the girl. "These are what she wore yesterday, brown ones to match her dress," and she took out a pair and handed them to Larose.
His heart beat quickly for a moment, but almost at once all his hopes were dashed to the ground. There was not the very slightest appearance of any tar upon them anywhere! And they were almost new shoes, too, which would certainly have shown some sign of tar being scraped or rubbed off.
Hoping against hope, he drew a bow at a venture. "Well, these at any rate didn't give you much trouble to clean," he said smilingly.
"No, I had only to go over them with a polishing cloth," she laughed. "Mistress is very particular about her shoes and never steps in any mud if she can possibly help it."
Some half an hour later a very dispirited pair of detectives were driving back to town. They had found no tar on any shoes, Mrs. Scrutton could certainly put up some sort of alibi, and a tactful questioning of the footman had told Larose nothing more than that the only firearms he had heard of in the Hall were a shot-gun and a small rook-rifle.
"There is only one thing on the credit side," remarked Stone gloomily, "and that is—if she were among a lot of others looking after those children at the Zoo yesterday afternoon she might easily have slipped away unnoticed for half an hour and put that bullet in her nephew. It wouldn't have taken even half an hour, as from the Zoo it would only be a few minutes' drive to Mainwaring's flat." He sighed heavily. "But there's evidently going to be no short cut here, Gilbert. If we get the killer at all it'll only be through devilish hard and prodding work."
Certainly the investigations that followed were both hard and prodding. Mainwaring's office was ransacked from top to bottom, and all his correspondence files, diaries and private papers were most conscientiously gone through. His son was questioned sharply, and his fiancee was brought to tears by being asked if she knew of any possible enemies whom the dead man might have made by becoming engaged to her.
But it was all to no purpose, and no reason could be found why some unknown killer had thrust that pistol in the stockbroker's face.
The days went by with nothing happening and no further discoveries being made. Then on the afternoon of the third day, when he was walking down Fleet Street, Larose almost knocked up against a tall spare man who was striding along with his head high in the air, as if taking little notice of any others passing by. A collision was narrowly averted, and both men frowned in some annoyance. Then Larose recognised that the other man was the private investigator Padlock Jones.
"Mr. Padlock Jones!" exclaimed Larose.
"The same," nodded Jones. He smiled his cold, grim smile. "So far, young man, I have had no occasion to change my name."
Larose smiled as if greatly amused at the joke. "But how fortunate my meeting you like this, sir," he went on with mock deference. "Only a few minutes ago I was thinking how much I should like to have a few words with you."
Jones noticed the "sir" and was pleased at the respect shown to an older man.
"And what do you wish to speak about?" he asked. He frowned. "Remember, I am a busy man. I am due at the Admiralty in a quarter of an hour. They are in a spot of bother there."
"But if you could spare me only five minutes," said Larose, "I should be very grateful. I would like your advice." He indicated a public-house close by them. "Will you come and have a drink?"
"I never drink," said Jones grandly. His frowning face lightened. "Still, as my advice is being asked by a rising star in the Scotland Yard firmament, I think I am justified in breaking my invariable rule for once. Yes, I will have a drink, and I'll give you five minutes."
He followed Larose into the public-house and was speedily served with a double liqueur brandy in a large balloon glass. From the change he received back from his note Larose realised that the great investigator had selected a most expensive brand. However, Jones sipped with evident appreciation and announced loudly enough for all in the lounge to hear that a good brandy was the aristocrat of all spirits.
"The others are of bastard birth," he exclaimed pompously. "Gin is of an unspeakable gutter origin, whisky is a plebeian impostor and rum has a tarry flavour, reminiscent of those cut-throat ancestors of ours who in blood and rapine sailed the seven seas."
They sat in a quiet corner of the lounge, and now lowering his voice, Jones was the first to speak. "Of course," he remarked judicially, "if it is about that killing in the flat at Belsize Park that you want my advice, I can say very little, as all I know about it is what I have read in the newspapers. Still, I will say this—it is no coincidence that the stockbroker's death has followed so quickly upon that of the butler of Orwell Hall. It's the natural sequence of events, though why has yet to be found out."
Larose nodded. "It is about Mrs. Scrutton," he said, "that I want to speak to you. Now from your long experience of dealing with all sorts of people, Mr. Padlock Jones, is it your opinion that she was open and straightforward when she was speaking to you?"
Jones laughed raucously. "Certainly not!" he said. "She is an out-and-out liar and has some discreditable secret to hide. To my thinking she enlisted my services only out of pure bravado to preen herself upon how clever she was." He looked very grim. "But she soon saw that with me she had walked into the lion's den, and I could realise very speedily from her manner that she was wishing she had not called me in." He snapped his fingers together. "I told her flatly that of all people in the Hall I was inclined to distrust her most."
Larose grinned. "You told her that!" he exclaimed.
"Yes, and she was furious," said Jones.
"What did you think of her mental condition?" Larose then asked. "I am wondering how she struck you."
"She struck me," said Jones impressively, "as a clever and determined woman, quite sane in her everyday life, but one who in any stress of great emotion would be liable to break out into acts of violence which one would usually associate only with a person of deranged mind. I mean, she wasn't mad in the ordinary way. She would think and reason quite clearly, but be utterly devoid of all social sense and scornful of all ideas of right or wrong. In effect she would have no conscience, and her only rule of life would be to do as she wanted to. A very dangerous woman!"
"And you think she would have been quite capable of killing that butler of hers?" asked Larose.
"Quite capable!" nodded Jones. He laughed grimly. "In fact I think she did it." He leant forward and tapped Larose upon the arm. "Young man," he said mysteriously, "I'll tell you something." He paused a few moments, and then went on impressively, "That Scrutton woman has hands that are exactly like those of Ann Stella Rooney, who was hanged in 1909 for the murder of her mistress. It struck me every time I saw her. I was present in the Court at Ann Rooney's trial when Lord Brenton put on the black cap, and I shall never forget those hands of hers as she put them up to cover her face." He shook his head. "Not unshapely, but peculiar, and the memory of them is always present in my mind."
"Did you ever see Mrs. Scrutton's husband, the late Judge Scrutton?" asked Larose.
"Yes, several times upon the Bench," replied Jones, "and it happens I met him privately as well. He was a great chess enthusiast and patron of the Fleet Street Chess Club"—he spoke grandly—"where I used to play first-board."
"Was he a man of timid disposition?" asked Larose.
"On the contrary," said Jones, "he often defied public opinion by his harsh sentences. He didn't care a rap what the public thought and was occasionally very severe." Jones's eyebrows went up and he looked amused. "A-ah! I know what you want to find out, young man—did he carry a pistol and, upon his death, had his widow got hold of it?" Without waiting for a reply Jones went on, "Yes, he might have done, as I remember he was threatened in open court not long before he died. He had given some burglar the full sentence of twenty years for being caught with firearms, and as the man was being taken from the dock he shouted that he had friends who would avenge him and that the judge would soon rue the day when he had given him the twenty years." He nodded. "The threat caused quite a sensation at the time."
"But Judge Scrutton has been dead more than twenty years now," said Larose, "and I don't seem able to contact anyone who knew him well privately."
Jones considered. "Now let me think," he said. "I may be able to put you on to someone. Yes, I can, a Colonel Hodderson. He was a member of our chess club, too, and a great friend of the judge. Scrutton always stayed with him when his duties kept him in town for the week-end. I believe he's still alive, though he must be pretty old now. He lives somewhere in Chelsea. You'll get his address from the phone book. Don't write. Go and see him, and mention my name if you like." He laughed. "He beat me once in a match, and so he'll probably remember that. Chess players have long memories about the games they've played when they may have forgotten everything else."
Larose lost no time in going after Colonel Hodderson. To his joy he found his name in the telephone book and saw that he lived in Chelsea. Within half an hour he had arrived at the house and sent in his card, with "Friend of Padlock Jones" written at the bottom of it. After only about a couple of minutes' waiting the colonel appeared, holding the card in his hand.
He was a very old gentleman, nearly in the nineties, Larose thought. He was bent and frail, but his deep-set eyes were bright and clear, and looked out shrewdly under his big and bushy brows.
"I am sorry to——" said Larose, but the old man interrupted sharply.
"If you've come for another subscription for the Police Orphanage," he said, regarding Larose very sternly, "I have given all I intend to give, the usual half-crown, and shall decline to give any more."
"No, no," said Larose quickly, "I've not come for any money. I've come upon a private matter. Mr. Padlock Jones sent me. He told me you would very——"
"Who's he?" asked the colonel, interrupting again. "I've never heard of him."
"But he says——" began Larose.
"Never mind what he says," snapped the colonel. "What does he want of me?"
"He doesn't want anything," smiled Larose. "All he said was that he used to play chess with you at the Fleet Street Chess Club, years ago, when you were a friend of Judge Scrutton."
"That's nothing," frowned the colonel. "At that time I played with hundreds and hundreds of men whom I didn't know from Moses or Julius Caesar. But why do you bring up Judge Scrutton's name? He's been dead these twenty years."
"Because it's about him I want to ask you. You see, sir, we want to trace a small pistol or revolver that we believe was once in Judge Scrutton's possession. Now, do you happen to know if he ever had one."
The colonel's answer was prompt. "Yes, he did have one, and I gave it to him. His life had been threatened, and I thought it wisest for him to be prepared to defend himself."
"And the pistol——"
"A small .22 revolver with five chambers."
Larose felt a sudden new hope.
"Would you recognise it if you saw it?" he asked.
"Only that I should know it must be a Westerhanger."
"And where did you buy it?"
The colonel smiled for the first time. "Oh, that I couldn't tell you. I bought it in India many years before I gave it to him. It might have been anywhere—Bombay, Delhi or Calcutta. I have no recollection exactly where it was." He pressed upon the bell and inclined his head with old-fashioned courtesy. "I bid you good afternoon, sir."
Returning jubilantly to the Yard, Larose found an urgent telephone message awaiting him. Someone who refused to give his name was wanting to see him upon a very important matter. Would he please ring up the number given directly he came in?
Ringing up the number, he was kept waiting quite an appreciable time before there came over the wire the unmistakable voice of Raphael Croupin. The Frenchman said he had been ill with a bad attack of influenza, which the doctor whom he had called in at first was almost sure was going on to pneumonia. Happily, however, he was on the mend now and able to get upon his feet again for a few minutes at a time.
"Come at vunce," he ordered, "to zee Hotel Arras, Soho Square. Ze matter ees most urgent."
When Larose arrived at the hotel he was taken into Croupin's room, and found the Frenchman lying upon his bed, and looking very seedy. He was very solemn, too, in his manner.
"Now what fresh suspicion has come to you now?" asked Larose.
"It ees no suspicion," burst out Croupin sharply, "much more zan zat." He lowered his voice to a barely audible whisper. "Mrs. Scrutton shoot zat nephew of 'ers. I vas in ze next room to her ven she did it. I was 'iding in ze big wardrobe zere."
Larose held his breath. It was as if a great light had burst suddenly in a darkened room. And yet he realised he was not as astonished as he might have been. Ever since he and Stone had quitted that flat upon the morning of the murder he had sensed, rather than actually thought, that some very simple explanation would account for the murderer hiding himself in the bedroom and yet later making his bloody kill so many yards away, within a few feet of where the door of the dining-room opened into the hall. Certainly it had entered his mind that there could have been two trespassers in the flat that afternoon, but that there actually were, with each unaware of the other's presence, had seemed altogether too unlikely a coincidence.
Croupin went on, "No, I did not actually see 'er shoot him, but not vun minute later I 'eard somevun's footsteps running quickly avay and did dart out into ze uzzer room to see vat 'ad 'appened—I smelt ze smell of Mrs. Scrutton, zat strong scent she alvays use and zat I have smelt all zose days I vas staying viz 'er."
Then he told Larose the whole story—how Mrs. Scrutton had noticed the loss of the case of salt-cellars, how she had rung up her nephew and taxed him with being the thief, how he had laughingly admitted to it, but had jeered she would never be able to produce the slightest proof. Also, he had offered to sell them back to her for a thousand guineas.
Croupin next related that for £500 he had agreed to break into Mainwaring's flat and recover the salt-cellars. Mrs. Scrutton was to find out when Mainwaring would be away from his flat and phone him, Croupin, when the coast was clear. However, she had kept him waiting so long for the expected phone call that at last he had decided to do things on his own, and, accordingly, upon that fatal afternoon, had made his way up to the flat by way of the back entrance.
"I open ze 'all-door easy enough," he said, "but I did not really expect to find ze sings zere. She tell me ze salt-cellars was in a case about half ze size of a cigar-box."
"How soon after you had got into the flat," asked Larose, "did Mainwaring come in?"
"Not five minutes. I 'ear ze click of 'ees key and I get into ze wardrobe quick. 'E come inside and I 'ear 'eem cough, and know it vas a man. Zen 'e move about not two minutes, and 'e suddenly call out 'A-a-ah!' and I 'ear ze shot and 'im falling down. Not anuzzer sound come, and zen I 'ear running footsteps in ze 'all and ze front door vas shut very quietly. I did not vait any seconds zen, but come into ze room and see."
"But how did Mrs. Scrutton get into the flat?" asked Larose sharply.
"'E must have left ze key in ze lock, as I found it zere ven I vent out. I sink she 'ad been vatching for 'eem to come in. No, she did not vait then ten seconds after she 'ad shot 'eem. I expect she was afraid to stop to look for anysing. So vas I. I vas off in two minutes after 'e vas shot. I saw nuzzing of 'er."
A long silence followed, and Croupin said, "Vell—you 'ave ze motive now for 'er vanting to kill 'eem."
"We know the motive," commented Larose grimly, "but it is of no use to us unless we can produce the things he stole. We searched and they are certainly not in the flat."
"No and eet ees not in ze flat you should 'ave been looking for them," said Croupin. "I do not sink 'e 'ave sold zose salt-cellars yet, for at an open art sale zey might fetch the seven or eight 'undred guineas, but in selling zem to a fence 'e might get only two 'undred. No, 'e 'ave put zem somevere to vait until ze old woman die."
Late that night Larose talked over everything with Stone in the chief inspector's home in Pimlico.
"No, my boy," said Stone rather despondently, "we can lay no definite charge against the woman until we have traced those salt-cellars, and I can see only one chance there."
"And what is that one?" asked Larose quickly.
"It's this," said Stone, "and you listen carefully. If the story your friend Croupin told you is to be relied upon, then——"
"It can be relied upon," broke in Larose confidently.
"Good!" commented Stone. "Then we can be certain Mainwaring had not got rid of the salt-cellars when he was talking to his aunt over the phone. Otherwise, he certainly would not have offered to sell them back to her. Now suppose that, in his usual casual and careless way, he had been keeping them in his flat."
"But how are you justified in supposing that?" asked Larose, frowningly.
"Well, what would have been more natural?" argued Stone. "Up to the happenings following upon the butler's murder he would have been feeling quite safe. He didn't know his aunt had missed them. He had been visiting the Hall since he had stolen them, and she had been quite friendly to him and had even arranged that house-party when his engagement to that young girl was announced. However, then came some nasty shocks for him. He realised his aunt had been trying to murder him. Dr. Hendrick would have certainly told him of the enquiries we had been making about the visitors to his bungalow, and finally he must have got a terrible jar when he had learnt about those burglary tools having been found in the grounds of the Hall."
Larose nodded. "Yes, he would certainly have put that down to us."
"Of course he would," said Stone. "He wouldn't have understood everything, but he would certainly have thought Croupin was one of our men." He went on quickly. "Then what happened?" Stone answered his own question. "He panicked! He got the wind up properly and without an instant's delay got the salt-cellars out of his flat!"
"And took them where?" asked Larose, seemingly in no way cheered by the optimistic tone of Stone's voice.
"To the place to which," cried Stone triumphantly, "the petty criminals of our generation have always had to resort in times of urgency—why, to the cloakroom of some railway station, of course."
Larose smiled. "Dear old Charlie!" he exclaimed. "Who's making a wild guess now?"
"Not so wild as you seem to think," said Stone. "I know if I wanted to put something away temporarily so that it shouldn't be found in my house, the very first and, indeed, the only place I could think of would be a railway cloakroom." He banged his fist on the table. "It's a cloakroom voucher we must look for in that flat."
"All right," said Larose a little wearily, "we'll try it on, the first thing to-morrow morning."
"And we'll take two of our best men with us," said Stone with enthusiasm, "and look in every crack and crevice in that flat for a cloakroom voucher folded up tightly and pushed in somewhere."
So early the next morning the search began, with Stone hopeful, Larose very, very doubtful and two plain-clothes men thinking it rather a joke. However, hardly had they started before Larose gave an excited exclamation. He was looking through the pigeon holes of Mainwaring's roll-top desk.
"Look at this, Charlie," he called out, and he held up a small pad of tie-on labels. "All new and clean. Can only have been bought lately, and only one has been torn out!" His eyes opened widely. "The devil! But the one that's gone may be the very one he used for that parcel he put in the cloakroom!"
They were all four greatly encouraged, and the search continued now with animation. Carpets and linoleum were turned up, the chairs were turned upside down, the frames of the windows were minutely examined and every likely and unlikely place was gone through thoroughly. Hour after hour went by with no results, and they were all thinking they had about had enough when the cleaner put in a belated appearance. She looked amused when she learnt what they had been looking for, but offered no suggestion. Finally, all very dispirited, they left the flat with the cleaner still there.
Going into a cafe for some much-needed refreshment, it was not until about an hour later that the two inspectors returned to the Yard. "Well, that's that," grunted Stone, as they sat down in his room, "and we are no nearer than ever."
Suddenly the phone upon Stone's desk tinkled and he picked up the receiver. "A Miss Chester!" he scowled. "Who is she? She won't say. Then tell her I'm busy and she'll have to wait. She says it's very urgent? All right! Bring her in."
The woman appeared. She was shabbily dressed with a big hat which had long since passed its better days. She was evidently of the poorer class. Neither inspectors recognised her, but, later, they both wanted to make out they had been sure at once that they had seen her before. They regarded her frowningly.
Suddenly they were electrified. "And don't you recognise me in my outdoor togs?" she asked with a grin. "Why, I thought you great detectives were so clever that you never forgot a face when once you had seen it, and you saw mine not an hour ago." She made a sort of mock curtsy. "I am the cleaner at Belsize Mansions and"—she took a crumpled piece of paper out of her bag—"this is what I think you've been looking for."
Stone literally sprang at her outstretched hand. "Good Heavens, it's a cloakroom voucher!" he exclaimed. "For a parcel left at Charing Cross railway station, and dated the fifth of this month!"
"Just a week ago," said Larose. "The very day after Croupin found those tools in the grounds of the Hall! What's the name on it?"
"L. Menzies," laughed Stone happily, "but that doesn't matter at all." He turned a beaming face to the cleaner. "And where did you find it, Madam?"
"Where you ought to 'ave looked the first thing," she laughed back, "wrapped round the bottom of the candle in one of those two candlesticks upon the mantelshelf, to make the candle fit tighter."
"But I looked there myself," frowned Stone. "I distinctly remember taking both the candles out."
"But you didn't look properly," said the woman. "It was inside a bit of newspaper. The paper of the ticket wasn't thick enough by itself."
Without a minute's delay the two inspectors were raced off to Charing Cross Station in the police car that was always held ready outside. The parcel was retrieved from the cloakroom, and the contents were quickly gone through as the car was being driven back to the Yard. For quite a minute neither Stone nor Larose said a word when the case with the salt-cellars in it was uncovered. Inside the case, inscribed in gold letters, was the name of a well-known Bond Street jeweller, and there was also a card with "R. R. Scrutton" written upon it.
"She's nearer hanging now," said Stone.
Arriving back at the Yard, they received another great surprise. Monk, the second-hand dealer, was waiting for them. With him was a woman whom he introduced as his wife.
"She has been away in Scotland, on holiday," he said, "and returned home only this morning. She has something to tell you that I believe you'll think is very important."
Stone was all politeness. "Take a seat, Madam," he said with his most pleasant smile. "Now what is it you want to tell me?"
The woman's voice shook. "My husband has told me, sir," she said, "all about your taking him down to Ingatestone to see if he could remember that lady coming into his shop. He said to you that he couldn't, but I can. He's shown me her photograph in one of the newspapers, and I remember her quite well."
"Oh, you saw her in the shop?" asked Stone. "When was it?"
"I have no idea what day it was, sir," said the woman, "but it was one morning when I was just going out to do my marketing. We met at the door of the shop, and I stood aside for her to come in."
"But how is it," broke in Stone sharply, because the woman had stopped speaking and was now fumbling in her bag, "that you can remember her so distinctly, when you could have only seen her for a few seconds?"
"Because of this, sir," replied the woman, holding out a good-sized old-fashioned jet brooch and proceeding to unfold a page of a newspaper. "That brooch belonged to my grandmother and must be at least sixty or seventy years old. The lady was wearing one exactly like it, and it caught my eye at once." She handed over the newspaper. "See, sir, she is wearing it again here in this photograph—and see how similar the two brooches are!"
Stone did see, and Larose saw, too. The woman's statement was taken down and signed by her, and the brooch and sheet of newspaper were impounded. Now that her nervousness had passed, the importance was most pleasing to her and she left carrying herself like a film star.
"Now for a few words with the Chief," said Stone gleefully.
UPON the morning of the day when Larose had had his little talk with the pompous Padlock Jones, Ben had delivered to Mrs. Scrutton a letter from Dr. Hendrick. Ben had ridden to the Hall on his bicycle and, acting on his master's instructions, he had placed the letter in her hands, declined all offers of refreshment, and ridden away again having spoken hardly half a dozen words.
In some excitement that the doctor should have written to her Mrs. Scrutton opened the letter at once. She read:
"DEAR MRS. SCRUTTON,
"I have found out something so extraordinary about your nephew that I feel you ought to hear all about it at once. It is a terrible revelation of the double life he was leading, and when I make everything known to you you will realise what a wonderful escape you have had, thanks to that unknown person who dealt out the punishment he so richly deserved. The whole matter is so important that I will take it for granted you will come and see me to-morrow. So I shall expect you about noon, and I hope you will favour me by staying to lunch. Come by yourself, as it is best no one should be aware that I am putting you in possession of a secret which is supposed to be known only by the very highest in Scotland Yard circles. Expecting you to-morrow,
"Believe me, with kind regards,
"Very sincerely yours,
"P.S. I might add that the police are quite certain they know who the murderer was—a man whom your nephew had swindled very badly and who for a long time has been threatening he would have his revenge. I will tell you who he is when I see you."
Mrs. Scrutton's eyes were bulging with excitement, and a fearful thrill surged through her. What did Dr. Hendrick mean by saying she had had a wonderful escape? She caught her breath. Then had Washington been intending to murder her? Another thing—what was this double life of his? What had he been doing? What was the great secret the doctor was going to tell her?
Of course she would go to the bungalow on the morrow! In fact she would have liked to jump into her car and go straight away! What a friendly letter the doctor had written! It was evident his sympathies were with her.
Dr. Hendrick was feeling a very sick man and knew he would not be able to put up with things very much longer. He was getting very little sleep now, and that only in snatches. What little appetite he had had, too, he had lost now, and often the very sight of food was nauseating to him. Also, a deadly weariness was oppressing him more than ever. In fact in every way the utter mysery of his malady was increasing.
Still, strange to say, his brain was remaining quite clear and, such is the power of the mind over the body, with a great effort of will he could often pull himself together and for a short time again be the capable and commanding personality he had once been.
Ben was very worried. It was anguish to him to see his beloved master in such misery and yet be able to do nothing for him. Still, the doctor had so often made out he might live for many years yet, and so Ben was now hoping his present appearance of dire sickness might be due only to some passing indisposition which would disappear in a few days. Accordingly, waiting upon him with the greatest care and devotion, he was at his side almost every minute of the day, ready to carry out his every wish almost before it was even spoken.
Ben himself was not too well. His headaches had been very bad lately, and the medicine his master so often made him take now—he did not know it was a preparation of opium, and would not have been much wiser if he had—after a first feeling of ease and stimulation made him feel horribly heavy and dizzy. Indeed, prescribed for him by anyone else, he would have refused to continue with it, but his master's word was law, and it never entered his mind to disobey.
So things were at the bungalow up to the morning when Ben was sent off on his bicycle to take the letter to Mrs. Scrutton at Orwell Hall, and he rode away in a much happier frame of mind than he had been at any time during the previous few days. His master had got up early that morning, had eaten what was for him quite a good breakfast, and been bright and even merry, joking with Ben that he was getting fat. He seemed full of resolution and as if hugging to himself some pleasant secret.
Upon Ben's return from his long journey the doctor rubbed his hands gleefully. "So we shall expect the lady for lunch to-morrow," he told Ben. "She'll be here at twelve, but we'll not have the meal until one or half-past, as I have some important business about shares to talk over with her first."
"Very well, Master," said Ben, "and you'll have the cold lamb and asparagus."
The doctor's animation continued the next morning. After breakfast he told Ben he was to motor into Chelmsford to obtain some particular medicine. "Last night I was reading in the current number of my medical journal," he said, "and saw they had discovered a new cure for your headaches. I'll put you on to it at once, and a few doses may effect a lasting cure. You're to take it on an empty stomach about an hour before food. I understand that it may make you drowsy at first, but if you lie down for a few minutes the drowsiness will soon pass off."
Ben went for the medicine and, though it was much too early as yet to expect their visitor, returned home to find his master seated upon the little grass plot in front of the bungalow looking anxiously through his binoculars up the road along which Mrs. Scrutton would come. To his obvious satisfaction the doctor did not have to wait long, as in her eagerness to hear what he had to tell her she arrived a good quarter of an hour before her time.
He received her in a most friendly way, and before ushering her into the bungalow he insisted she must run her car into the garage out of the hot sun. Taken into the dining-room, she sat down in a twitter of excitement. Dr. Hendrick began to speak slowly and impressively, and from his appearance it might have been thought he was a little nervous.
"It is a most extraordinary story I have to tell you," he said, "and I'm afraid, knowing the close ties of relationship between you and the dead Washington Mainwaring, it will be a very painful one for you." He paused a few minutes and then rapped out quickly, "You will be amazed to hear that your nephew was the head of that robber band which has been burgling all those country houses lately."
Mrs. Scrutton gasped. "He took part in them!" she exclaimed.
The doctor nodded sadly. "Worse than that," he said, "for not only was he the master mind of everything but he induced a number of young fellows, some almost boys, to become criminals, too. They had been his brother officers during the war and"—he raised his voice—"he led them, deliberately into a life of crime."
"Oh, how awful!" exclaimed Mrs. Scrutton. "And to think he was of my own flesh and blood!"
"Yes, it is a very sad story," went on the doctor, "and there is much to tell. He had no pity or mercy for you, and your house was next on the list. Indeed, if he had not had to kill that butler, it was going to take place the following night, and——"
"He killed Robson?" she exclaimed wildly.
The doctor nodded again. "Yes, and the detectives believe you are shielding him there. They say he took the skewer from among your curios, though you denied to them you had ever had it in your possession. Then, in order to silence you for ever, young Belt says your nephew was going to——"
"That young fellow Belt in it, too?" almost wailed Mrs. Scrutton.
"Yes, up to the hilt," said the doctor, "and"—but he stopped suddenly and went on sharply, "Mrs. Scrutton, as I say, there is much more to tell, and it is going to be most painful for you to listen to it." He rose to his feet. "So I am going to insist that you have a little brandy. I don't intend you to have another heart attack here. It might be very dangerous." He moved over towards the door. "I'll be back in a minute."
Mrs. Scrutton sank back in her chair, trembling all over in her excitement. What a liar Washington had been! So the detectives had never, as he had said, suspected her, and she had worried herself for nothing! And her house was going to be burgled the next night and young Belt was mixed up in it!
The doctor returned with a tumbler in his hand. "This is a little brandy in some iced coffee," he said briskly, "and it will ward off any heart attack."
"But I can't drink it," she said. "I don't like coffee."
"I insist that you drink it," said the doctor sternly. "I insist that you do. Come, drink it up at once and no hesitation." He smiled. "If you don't—I shan't tell you another thing. As yet I haven't made you realise half of the danger you have been in. Come! Quick! Drink it up at once with no nonsense."
Giving her no time to think he made her gulp it down, and then went on to tell her a very extraordinary story about how Belt had come under the notice of the police, because the extravagant way in which he had been living had aroused the suspicions of the Heads of the bank where he worked, and they had put detectives on to watch him. Searching the rooms he was renting, said the doctor, they had come upon a number of articles that had been taken from the burgled country houses, and he had broken down and confessed everything.
At first Mrs. Scrutton had listened in rapt attention and with wide staring eyes, but gradually her eyes narrowed and she kept pulling herself up in jerks. Finally, she said the brandy was making her feel sleepy, and the doctor helped her on to the sofa and made her comfortable with a pillow under her head.
"You'll be quite all right again in a few minutes," he said, and left the room to go, as he told her, to speak to Ben about lunch.
Ben was in the kitchen making a potato salad. "Now my boy," said his master with just the slightest quaver in his voice, "it's time for your medicine," and the obedient Ben at once drank up the contents of the tumbler which was handed to him.
"It's very strong stuff," went on the doctor, "and I think you had better lie down for about half an hour as a precaution. Then you are not so likely to feel sick." He looked at his watch. "At any rate, I'll come and see how you are in about half an hour. There's no hurry about lunch," and Ben went off at once to his room, as he had been ordered.
Returning to the dining-room, the doctor saw that Mrs. Scrutton had now actually dropped off to sleep. However, it seemed to be an uneasy and light slumber, as she kept moving herself about and, at times, apparently trying to sit up.
"I'd better give her the injection as well," murmured the doctor. "It'll make things quite certain," and opening one of the drawers of his desk, he took out an already filled hypodermic syringe and injected the whole contents into a vein in one of her arms. It appeared to quieten her at once, as in a couple of minutes or so all her movements ceased and it appeared that she hardly breathed.
The doctor sat down at his desk and, taking a sheet of paper out of a drawer, began to write.
He wrote slowly and with great care, as his hand was shaking. From time to time he lifted his eyes from the paper to glance intently at the restful form upon the sofa, and once he stopped in his writing to go and see how Ben was; the latter was sleeping very quietly.
"No need for the hypodermic here," the doctor whispered. He brushed the moisture from his eyes with the back of his hand. "Dear old Ben," he choked, "but it is better you should go like this! No worry and no hard questions to be answered. Just the deep unending sleep," and he bent over and kissed his servant's forehead, notwithstanding that it was wet with what he knew was the sweat of death.
A few minutes later the doctor had finished his letter. He left it open upon the table, weighing it down with his silver inkstand and, as a further precaution that it should not blow away, pinning it down with one of the blades of his pocket-knife.
Then, after a final glance at the still figure on the sofa, and having held the hypodermic syringe he had just used upon her under the tap for about half a minute, he refilled it from a bottle he took out of the cupboard and, with no hesitation, thrust the needle into his arm. Next, from a drawer in his desk, he took out a little box in which, in a bed of cotton wool, lay three small glass capsules. He took out two of them and left the box, with the third one still in it, open upon the table.
Finally, looking neither to the right nor the left but only straight before him, he strode purposely out of the room, and a few minutes later closed the door of his own sleeping quarters very softly.
Five—six—almost seven minutes passed, and then anyone listening intently might perhaps have heard the low and muffled cry of "Ben, Ben," which, however, lasted only a few seconds. It was the quick and piercing death agony of the cyanide of potassium.
At that moment, as if in a fading opiate dream the servant heard his master calling, Ben, faithful to the last, stirred uneasily in his sleep.
In the meantime things had been moving in Scotland Yard, and a very few minutes after Mrs. Scrutton had set off for the bungalow by the Tillingham marshes two big police cars had left London for Ingatestone. The mission of those they were carrying was the arrest of the lady of Orwell Hall upon the charges of murdering Peter Robson and Washington Mainwaring.
Arriving at the Hall, Inspectors Stone and Larose jumped out quickly. Stone's face was very grim and stern, and his mouth seemed dry, as he kept swallowing hard. Indeed, it might almost have been thought that he was nervous. Larose looked troubled and certainly showed no sign of triumph.
Anthony, the footman, opened the door, and his eyes boggled when he noted the number of the arrivals and that they included among them two hefty-looking women. He told Stone his mistress was out, and that he had not the slightest idea when she would return. She was driving herself in her own car, and might be in for lunch and might not.
As the one in authority in her mistress's absence the housekeeper was fetched, and Stone produced a search-warrant and intimated they intended to go through the house. The chief inspector ordered that the telephone was not to be used and no one was to be allowed to leave the premises.
The housekeeper, looking very frightened, gave him all the information he needed about the rooms, and one by one they were searched thoroughly. No pistol or revolver was found, but in Mrs. Scrutton's two private rooms, her bedroom and boudoir, there were some cupboards, two cabinets and a desk all locked up. They were not forced open, but an official seal was put upon them to await her return with the keys. By then it was nearly two o'clock, and the housekeeper, after a little hesitation, suggested some refreshment; but Stone refused, and instead sent one of the plain-clothes men into Ingatestone for some sandwiches. He had rung up Scotland Yard to let them know what was happening.
Seated upon the terrace, the little police party passed the time smoking and talking. Three o'clock came, and then hour after hour passed with no appearance of the mistress of the Hall. The housekeeper was now looking more scared than ever, being sure Mrs. Scrutton must have met with some accident.
At six o'clock Stone rang up the Superintendent of Police in Chelmsford and, telling him guardedly their purpose at the Hall, asked him to come round with no delay. He was then told the whole story, and at once arranged for every hospital and doctor in the district to be rung up, and every police station and village constable to be notified about the missing Mrs. Scrutton.
"She was not intending to go up to town," said Stone, "as the housekeeper tells us she was wearing her country clothes. Also, the handy-man, who is also her chauffeur and looks after the car, says that when he told her this morning that there were only three gallons of petrol in the tank, she said that would be quite enough as she was not going far. Her car goes about twenty miles to the gallon."
Nothing happening, at nine o'clock Larose persuaded Stone to return to town for the night, while he and one of the plain-clothes men and the two policewomen remained on at the Hall. Though understanding nothing and terrified now at what she thought might be going to happen to her mistress, the housekeeper placed a bedroom at the disposal of the two women, who proceeded to lie down fully clothed. Larose and the plain-clothes man slept on sofas in the lounge.
As arranged, Stone was back again by eight o'clock the next morning. He shook his head gloomily. "No news come through yet. Not a trace of her!"
However, Larose had news and, upon the face of it, it was promising. Questioning Anthony sharply about everything which of late had been happening at the Hall, he had drawn out from him that, upon the day previous to the one when his mistress had gone off so mysteriously in her car, she had received a letter delivered by hand by a man on a bicycle. The man had insisted upon giving it to her himself, and then had gone off immediately without waiting for an answer.
"And from the description Anthony gave of the man," said Larose with some excitement in his tones, "I'll swear he was the doctor's servant, Ben. He described him as big with a round sunburnt face and very taciturn in his manner."
"Good, then we'll follow that up at once," said Stone.
The journey was accompanied with all speed, with the policeman-driver ignoring all traffic rules and taking corners in a way which with all their wish for the utmost speed rather scared both the inspectors. At length pulling up before the bungalow, their arrival coincided with that of one of the coastguards. It was the one to whom Larose had spoken before, and the recognition was mutual.
"I'm afraid something's happened here," said the coastguard, jerking his head in the direction of the bungalow. "I've tried to raise them on the phone but can't get them"—he pointed back along the shore—"and there's the doctor's boat washed up with a number of newly baited lines in it."
Proceeding quickly up the short garden path, with some uneasiness the inspectors noted that all the blinds of the bungalow were drawn. Stone knocked hard upon the door with his knuckles, but no answer came. He tried the handle of the door, and it opened.
"Anyone at home?" he called out, but only a deep and heavy silence followed. The inspectors hesitated a few moments before stepping into the bungalow. The door of the dining-room was ajar and, pushing it wide open, they stepped inside. When only just across the threshold, however, they both stopped dead in their tracks.
With the blinds drawn the light was dim, but it was not too dim for them to see the figure of a woman huddled upon the sofa. Her face was turned towards them, and it did not take them two seconds to grasp that its whiteness was the whiteness of death.
"Good Heavens," exclaimed Stone, "it's the woman, Scrutton! That devil of a doctor has killed her!"
Larose jerked up the blinds, and for a long minute they stood looking down upon the waxy discoloured face. Stone touched the forehead and made to lift one of the arms. "She died yesterday," he whispered. "It was that letter he sent which lured her to her death." He pointed with his finger. "See where the needle went in. She probably had a painless death."
"And him?" queried Larose, also in a whisper. "I expect we shall find him dead, too," and, followed by Stone, he strode quickly from the room. The next door up the passage was wide open and without entering the room they could see at once that their surmise was correct.
The body of Dr. Ramsden Hendrick lay stretched out upon the bed, an unsightly piece of clay which had once housed so much wisdom and knowledge. So swiftly had his malady made his body responsive to the ravages of death that even in those few hours his face was almost unrecognisable. His eyes had sunk back into their sockets, his colouring had taken on a horrible greenish hue and it was as if the flesh had melted away from the bones. What expression was still discernible upon his face was one of great suffering.
"His death wasn't as pleasant as the one he gave to that woman," whispered Stone. He bent down and smelt the lips of the corpse. "Yes, the almond smell is still there, but it's faint now. Probably morphia to begin with and then, just as he was getting unconscious, he crushed a cyanide capsule between his teeth to make his ending certain. See where the bits of the broken glass have made those little flecks of blood upon his lips?" He shook his head. "Not a death I'd like, but as good as he deserved."
"And now for poor old Ben," sighed Larose. "It's any odds he'll have been put to sleep, too. There was a great love between them, and I'm sure Hendrick wouldn't have left him alive—to face us alone."
But to their surprise there was no sign of Ben anywhere. From the clothing in it his room was easily picked out. It was all spick and span except for the bed and, though it was evident it had not been slept in, someone had been lying down upon it just as it was.
Returning into the dining-room where the body of Mrs. Scrutton lay, they noticed for the first time the open letter pinned on to the table by the blade of the pocket-knife. With frowning faces they read it together. It was dated the previous day and addressed to "The Coroner for the Chelmsford Division of Essex." It read:
"I have just given to Mrs. Scrutton of Orwell Hall, Ingatestone, a perfectly painless form of death. I considered it to the interest of the community that she should no longer live. She was a vile woman, and I know for certain that she had murdered her butler, Robson, in mistake for her nephew, Mr. Washington Mainwaring. It was probably she also who shot the latter in his flat at Belsize Mansions.
"To my great sorrow, but in his own interest, I have thought it necessary also to destroy my servant, Ben Hunter. We have been so long together and he is so dependant upon me for everything that he should not be left to live his life alone. I am sure that would have been his wish had I put the question to him. There has been a great affection between us. He has been a good-living man and has never done anyone a wrong. His death, too, was a perfectly painless one.
"Lastly, when I have finished this letter I intend to destroy myself. I am in the last stages of an incurable disease and consider I have every right to deal with myself as I choose.
"Quite mad!" nodded Stone when he had finished reading the letter. He frowned angrily. "But, damn him, he has spoilt us from finishing off one of the best cases I have ever handled! We should have got no end of kudos for running that Scrutton woman down, and now the public will never learn one-tenth of the work we put in."
"And as for poor old Ben," frowned Larose, "my guess is that the doctor did not give him a big enough dose to finish him off and that he recovered. Then the shock of finding his master dead sent him right off his rocker and he couldn't take in what had happened. That matter of the drifting boat is certainly rather strange, but somehow I don't believe, as that coastguard thinks, that he is drowned." He nodded. "You see—we shall probably pick him up pretty soon, wandering about and quite out of his mind."
Then followed for the public what was indeed an orgy of sensationalism. Upon the Orwell Hall murder and the murder in the Belsize Park flat were now piled the thrilling happenings in the lonely bungalow by the sea. Quite naturally the Press and the public considered everything as a whole, but to their intense annoyance and disappointment they learnt that certain links in the chain of evidence were missing, and in their opinion they were cheated, with not half of the tale being told.
Of the three deaths, those of the butler, Mainwaring and Mrs. Scrutton, in only the last one was a verdict of wilful murder by an individual—Hendrick, of course—brought in by the coroner's juries. In the other two cases verdicts were returned that wilful murder had been committed by a person or persons unknown. The revolver with which Mainwaring was shot was not found, though a most intense search had been made even in ponds and ditches far distant from the Hall.
Contrary to what Larose had predicted, no trace of Ben was found, either. The search for him, however, had been only a half-hearted one as, though his body was never washed up, it was confidently believed he had been drowned.
The day following the discovery of the bodies in the bungalow by the sea Mrs. Scrutton's lawyer rang up the Rector of Ingatestone to inform him that in her will his client had expressly stated that upon her death it was her wish to be buried in the Ingatestone churchyard, next to where her husband was lying. The lawyer said he would be coming down on the morrow to arrange everything; and he added that, except for a few legacies, she had left everything to charities.
Then, to the Rector's almost stupefied amazement, he learnt that he was one of the legatees and had been left the sum of £5,000, as was stated in the will, "because of his untiring and efficient services to the parish for so many years."
Trembling in his excitement, the Rector immediately rang up his son to give him the stupendous news. "Five thousand pounds, my boy!" he exclaimed. "Why, in all my whole life I could never have laid my hands upon one-tenth of that! I shall give you £500 of it, and then your mother and I will go for a good holiday. We've not had a proper one almost since you were born. With all her sharp and funny ways, the old lady must have had a very kind heart to think of me."
Reggie's voice was shaking as badly as his father's. "It's magnificent, Dad," he exclaimed, "but of course I won't touch a penny."
"But I'll make you, Reggie," laughed the Rector. "Now, another thing. The least thing we can do—is for you to be one of the pall-bearers."
So young Belt went down to the funeral and helped carry the coffin to the grave. He thought how beautifully his father conducted the service and, taking good stock of him, noted as he had never done before how age was telling on the old man. Pangs of conscience stirred in the boy as he thought of the shame he might so easily have brought upon him in his last years.
The next day, returning to town, young Belt rang up the other members of the band at the places where they worked to suggest that on the following day at lunch-time they should meet him in the Refreshment Room at the British Museum. He had something most important to tell them, he said, though it wouldn't take five minutes.
All of them arriving as arranged, and managing to get a table to themselves, with no beating about the bush he told them over prosaic coffee and toast that he never wanted to set eyes on any of them again.
"We've been selfish fools," he said bitterly, "and I've only just woken up to it. We've been taking big risks and getting good compensation for them, but it wasn't fair to our relations and friends who, without knowing it, were sharing all the risks and getting none of the compensations. So I've done with everything," he went on, "and from to-day I want to forget it all and cut out these last months of my life. I don't want to be reminded of them by meeting any of you chaps. So I vote, in quite a friendly spirit, that if ever we meet anywhere we cut one another dead."
Greatly to his relief and rather to his surprise, they all appeared to think it was the best thing to do. "We are all sick of it, too, Reggie," said Harcourt, the engineer, "and, if we only knew it, we'll probably be stopping only just in time." He nodded. "Yes, let's try to be decent fellows once again." He shrugged his shoulders. "If we hadn't spent it, which most likely all of us have, we couldn't return the money we've had because we don't know whom we've robbed. Thank goodness we've done only what that cranky old doctor put us on to and stolen only from the well-to-do." He looked uncomfortable. "I know it's a damned funny sort of repentance, but it's the only thing we can do."
They talked on for a few minutes, and then young Belt rose abruptly from his chair. "Then don't let us prolong the agony," he said. "Good-bye, boys, and from now on we are going to be perfect strangers to one another." He picked his bill off the table and grinned. "Don't forget that each one of us pays for himself. Good-bye!" and he went off with that engaging smile which had always made him so popular with everyone.
One morning about two years later, Larose arrived at the Yard much beyond his usual time. He was about to start upon his annual holiday and had called in only to wish his friend and colleague, the stout Chief Inspector Stone, good-bye. Rather to his surprise, he learnt the latter had been enquiring after him. He went at once to his room.
"Ah, then you've come at last," said Stone. "I've just had a visitor, but as I didn't know exactly when you would be coming in I didn't keep him."
"Who was he?" asked Larose.
"Don't be impatient," smiled Stone. "I'll tell you in a minute." He spoke reminiscently. "You know, Gilbert, it has always been a bit of a grief to me that that crazy Dr. Hendrick, so to speak, took the whole business out of our hands and did in the Scrutton woman himself."
"The same here," said Larose. "We had such a splendid case against her."
Stone looked gloomy. "Ah, but it could have been better. I realise now we weren't persevering enough."
"Ho, ho, not persevering enough!" exclaimed Larose. "And what the devil do you mean by that?"
"We ought to have found that revolver. It would have clinched everything and the woman wouldn't have been able to put up the ghost of a defence."
Larose laughed. "A revolver is very small and the world is very wide." He shook his head in his turn. "No, Charlie, no one will ever learn what she did with it. No one will ever know."
Stone eyed him intently. "But I know," he said. His face broke into a smile. "I've got the damned thing here. Would you like to see it?" And, lifting up a newspaper on the desk, he exposed to view a small revolver looking very much the worse for wear.
Larose's eyes seemed almost popping from his head. The revolver was badly rusted and all crevices in it were choked up in mud. Larose snatched at it. It was a Westerhanger right enough.
"And where the devil did that come from?" he gasped. "Are you sure it was hers?"
"It seems so," smiled Stone. "In fact, it must be. It was found in a pond in the garden of the Rector of Ingatestone. The old boy was having the pond drained because it brought mosquitoes to the garden."
"Good Heavens!" exclaimed Larose. "And the Scrutton woman would have been passing the garden every time on her way home!"
"Yes, and here's a photograph of the garden," said Stone. "That Sergeant Trevor of the Ingatestone police took it yesterday afternoon. The Rector phoned him up directly the revolver came to light. The Rector of course had no idea of the significance of the find, but the sergeant had, and brought it up here straight away. See how close the pond is to the Rectory fence. The old woman probably threw it over from the road without getting out of her car."
"Whew," whistled Larose, "and if we'd only known there was a pond there! But how were we to know? Why, the Ingatestone sergeant couldn't have known, or he wouldn't have helped drag all the other ponds he did and left that one out."
"No, he didn't know," said Stone, "and he's wild about it now."
"Well, it's interesting," smiled Larose, "but that's all. Still, it's annoying to think we missed it when it was so near."
It was a cycling holiday Larose was intending to take, so that, with his food and camping equipment upon his carrier, he would be independent of all hotels. Taking the train as far as Inverness, he turned his face northwards to seek out the most unfrequented parts he could and at night pitch his camp miles and miles away from town or village.
One beautiful summer's evening he had set up his little tent upon a most lonely stretch of coast in the extreme north of Sutherlandshire. He had picked a spot upon the sands just above high water, in a small cove at the foot of a low cliff which gave him shelter from the wind.
He had not spoken to a soul all day, but in the valley behind him, less than a quarter of a mile from the sea, there was a good-sized building which he knew from his map to be a Dominican Monastery. During the afternoon, through his binoculars he had been watching the lay brothers at work in the fields and had envied them the utter peace of their lives. From time to time the wind had wafted to him rich organ music and the choruses of men singing.
His simple evening meal finished just before dusk, he was sitting before his tent, idly watching the gentle breaking of the waves upon the shore. Suddenly his eyes fell upon a small fishing boat rapidly approaching the shore. He was pleased at the thought that perhaps he might be able to get a fish which would make a welcome addition to his food.
As the boat came nearer, he saw there was only one occupant in it, a man, and from his long garment he knew at once that he must be a lay brother from the monastery in the valley behind. The boat was run up on the sands, and Larose went forward to speak to the fisherman. He was very pleased to note a good haul of fish upon the floorboards of the boat.
"Good evening!" he exclaimed, and then, rather puzzled, he screwed up his eyes. Where had he seen this man before? If he hadn't seen him, then who did the man remind him of?
"Good evening!" he said again, and without replying the man just inclined his head.
"Can I buy a fish from you?" asked Larose.
"Take one," said the man, and he pointed to the heap in the boat.
Larose started. The man's abrupt manner had stirred another chord of memory in him, but this time he remembered which one it was. Good Heavens—the man was Ben! Ben! Dr. Hendrick's servant!
"Ben Hunter!" he exclaimed with some excitement. "Ben, it's you who were that Dr. Hendrick's man down in Essex?"
The man started as if he had been stung by a wasp. His eyes stared and it was as if a greyish colour was creeping under his tan.
"Then you weren't drowned after all," laughed Larose. "Of course, you don't remember me, but I was one of——"
"I don't know you," exclaimed the man hoarsely. "I am Brother Abel. I come from the monastery there."
"So I see," smiled Larose, "but your name was Ben when I met you two years ago."
"You've never met me," said the man. "I've always lived here."
"No, no, not always," said Larose. "Only a little while." He spoke sternly. "Come, Ben, it's no good your denying who you are and that you've never seen me. You've seen me several times. I was one of the detectives sent down from London to enquire about that poor fellow whom your master had shot because he saw him among the reeds watching the bungalow."
The man was now looking terrified, but, as he did not speak, Larose went on, "Come, Ben, own up at once. The police have been looking for you for two years. They've been wanting you badly to explain quite a lot of things."
A cry as from a hunted animal burst from Ben. "But I've done nothing wrong," he said piteously. "My master always told me the police could make no charge against me if I didn't talk. And I did not say anything, as I always did what he told me." He passed his hand over his forehead. "I don't remember a lot that happened in those days. I had fits and my master gave me medicine which made me forget. I was often very ill."
A great wave of pity surged through Larose. For all his denials, probably without his knowing it, in the way of a simple creature Ben had now admitted who he was. Larose spoke very kindly. "Well, you don't look ill now, Ben," he smiled. "You look very well and very happy."
Ben smiled back, and the grey look seemed to be passing from his face. "Yes, and I am happy," he said. "As I've told you I'm a brother at the monastery here"—he spoke proudly—"and I catch all the fish for the refectory. Father Joseph says I am the best fisherman they have ever had. I go out fishing almost every day."
"That's splendid!" exclaimed Larose. "It must be very healthy for you."
"It is, for I am never ill now," said Ben confidingly. "I never have those fits or headaches and I don't take any medicines. I loved my master very much, but I think now he gave me too much of them."
"Probably he did," agreed Larose. "And you like your life here?"
"Oh, I love it," said Ben. He spoke rather shyly. "I sing in the Choir, too. They found I had a natural singing voice." Suddenly, however, the terrified expression appeared upon his face again and he burst out piteously, "And now you're going to spoil it all, aren't you? You're going to tell them that the police have been looking for me?" His voice became a wail. "Oh, please, please, don't."
Larose regarded him thoughtfully. It was as if a child were pleading to him, a little child who had committed some trifling wrong and were asking to be forgiven for it. Larose knew where his duty lay. The cloud that had hovered so heavily over Scotland Yard in the matter of the Hall, the flat, and bungalow murders had never been completely swept away, and to the public thinking there was much that had never been accounted for and many loose ends which had never been picked up. The young men who made up the "robber band" had never been caught. If, apparently after two years' searching, Larose could produce the missing servant of Dr. Hendrick's, a lot of credit would go to the Criminal Investigation Department, and the public would nod their heads and chatter about the long arm of the law. He, too, would get credit, as due to one of whom it was so often said that in the end he never failed.
Certainly the prospect was not unpleasing; but, now regarding the poor anxious creature before him, Larose was mindful of the cost at which it would be achieved. It would wreck the happiness of this poor simple soul, and the ship which had come so safely into harbour would be given to the tempest once again. Probably all to no purpose, too, as it had always been considered doubtful if any specific charge could be laid against Ben, and it was still more doubtful if he would be able to help the police to track down the individual members of the "robber band."
Larose made a sudden decision and smiled very kindly at Ben. "No, I don't think I shall," he said. "I don't think I shall tell anyone I have met you. You give me one of those nice fish you've caught, and tell me exactly what happened upon that last day at the bungalow—and I'll call it quits and no one shall ever learn from me that you are here."
So Ben, in great thankfulness, in jerky sentences related what he knew. That morning, he said, his master had given him some new medicine to drink. He had told him it would make him feel very sleepy, and so it did. Still, before he had dropped right off he had gone into the yard and been very sick. When he woke up it was nearly dark. His head was aching horribly and he felt dazed and couldn't think or take in anything.
He rowed out to sea in the boat, but he did not know why he did it. The next thing he remembered was when he found himself in the sea swimming to the shore. That cleared his head, and he felt a lot better. He was shocked at finding his master dead and the body of the woman on the sofa. He read his master's letter on the table and decided to go away.
He could not ride his bicycle, because one of the tyres was punctured and he had no rubber patches left. So he walked into Chelmsford during the night and caught the early train to Great Yarmouth. He had a sister living there once, but his mind was so confused that he did not remember until he arrived there that she had died two years before.
Of what happened next he was very hazy, but he thought he got a job as cook upon a trawler and that they were very kind to him because they believed he was half out of his mind. He wouldn't talk to them. Then one day they arrived at a place he heard was called Inverness and he left the trawler without saying he was going or collecting his money.
Still, he had some money of his own on him, and he bought a bicycle and rode out of the town. He wanted to get to a place where no one would find him, as the idea had come to him that he must have put poison in their food and killed both his master and the woman on the sofa. For the time being he had forgotten all about the letter on the table.
He rode about for days, he didn't know how many, sleeping under rocks and in haystacks and buying his food where he could. Then one day he felt very ill with a fever and lay down to die, but one of the brothers of the monastery found him, and they took him and nursed him until he was well.
Most of his memory had come back by then, but all he told them was that he had been a seaman. He helped them with the fishing, and they found he was the best fisherman of them all. So the Abbot said he could become a Brother if he liked, and he did.
That was the end of his story, and Larose could see that he was telling the truth. It was almost quite dark when at length they parted, and as Ben disappeared into the gloom Larose noticed the jaunty steps and the head held high, as if he had already got over the shock of meeting with someone who knew all his past life.
The next morning, hearing the bells ringing, Larose strolled over to the Monastery. One of the Fathers invited him to come in and led him to a seat in the chapel. The service was just beginning and Larose searched among the Brothers for Ben, but in the dim light could not find him. He thought how glorious the organ sounded and did not wonder how satisfying the one-time servant of Dr. Hendrick's was finding his present semi-religious life.
Presently, with the music of the organ dying very soft and low, a rich deep voice came upon the air, swelling to saturate the chapel through and through with its sad and glorious melody. "Misericordias Domini," chanted the singer; and Larose, more accustomed now to the gloom, looked searchingly among the choristers to pick out who he was.
The singer was Ben.
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