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Title: Tragedy at Beechcroft Author: A. Fielding * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0600211h.html Language: English Date first posted: Mar 2006 Most recent update: Aug 2020 This eBook was produced by Jon Jermey, Colin Choat and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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VICTOR GOODENOUGH was shown at once into the studio where Santley was painting the Moncrieff twins. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man in the middle thirties, who looked as though he would do anything efficiently to which he set his hand—a well-kept, muscular hand, browner even than his face, and with the palms calloused by the swinging of golf clubs. He was a "plus" man. For the rest, he was handsome, with regular features of a rather wooden type, lit up now and then by a pleasant smile.
The artist was about his age, but belonged to another world. Nervous, diffident, shy, the youngest R.A. was rarely to be met anywhere but at his studio out here by Putney Bridge, where he lived as well as worked. He had a scholarly face, with deep-set, brooding eyes, that looked as though they would go through life seeking for something just beyond their vision.
"Good sitters?" Goodenough asked, waving a hand at the two children just now squirming a welcome to him.
Oliver Santley groaned. He had never tried to paint children before, but he needed a couple for part of a panel design, and Lavinia Moncrieff had suggested the twins, Cordelia and Dorothy—Dilly and Dolly in everyday life—aged five. They were the wards of her husband, Major Moncrieff, and only distantly related even to him, but they were orphans, and lived with her and her husband down in the country.
Santley went across now, and once again arranged them back to back on the white rug, their daffodil-yellow muslin frocks no brighter than their curls, a gay rag picture-book in each lap.
"Children give one no chance to paint what's inside the shell," he said now, returning to his easel, "and that's all I really care for. Kids are all shell."
"Except that shells stay where you put them," Goodenough said pointedly, and Santley yet once again put his models into position.
"I'll go into the lounge," Goodenough volunteered. "I only came on the chance of meeting Ann."
"Chance is likely!" murmured Santley; and Goodenough acknowledged the hit with a laugh. Ann Bladeshaw was the twins' governess, though it seemed quaint to call vital, impulsive Ann Bladeshaw by a name that suggested anything repressed or repressive.
"She's coming for them in half an hour," Santley said, looking gloomily at the clock high up on the studio wall, "But Mrs. Phillimore promised to stay during the sitting."
Mrs. Phillimore was Lavinia Moncrieff's mother, and a sort of adopted grandmother to the twins.
"I think I hear her just coming in. Well, so long then, Santley, I'll blow in again after half an hour. Don't let Ann go before I get back."
Goodenough paused in the lounge outside, to shake hands with a tall, grey-haired woman. Mrs. Phillimore looked ill, he thought, and rather blown about, as though she had just got off a long journey on a train.
She clung to his hand for a moment.
"Victor, I want to ask a favour of you! But later will do. I must have a word with Oliver first," and with a forced, apologetic smile, she hurried on into the studio.
Goodenough wondered what the trouble was, apparently it was trouble, then he went on out to his car. He could just do a small affair of business in the neighbourhood and get back in time to go on somewhere for lunch with Ann.
Mrs. Phillimore came in so quietly that Santley thought she must be afraid of starting the twins off, and gave her a grateful look which she did not seem to see, as, sinking into a deep chair at the farther end, she leant her cheek on one long shapely hand, sitting so that her face was in the shadow.
"I's growing pains!" Dilly suddenly announced triumphantly, scrambling to her feet.
"I stopped growing months ago!" Dolly said scornfully, "when I stopped biting my nails," she added. Dolly was fond of giving precise details.
"You didn't!" came indignantly from Dilly. "You haven't. Why, you've lots to grow yet!"
"I haven't! I did! I did!"
The artist expected to see them tearing each other's hair in another second, but Mrs. Phillimore, usually so alert in such cases, seemed to notice nothing. She sat with her head still bent, apparently engaged in meditation.
"Here's Nanny!" said Santley with relief. After all, there is nothing like a woman about the place, he thought, as nurse entered, picked up the two rag-books, placed them neatly on a table, and had each little girl tidied and straightened out, and held by one hand, all in a moment.
It was a miracle, Santley thought humbly.
"They're not themselves this morning, sir," she said primly. "The gentleman chauffeur he took us down to the station at a rate which must have made them feel as though they had left their little insides behind them." She looked over at Mrs. Phillimore, who did not seem to notice that nurse was in the room.
"I liked it!" said Dolly. "I thoughted a wheel was coming off!"
"Didn't!" squeaked Dilly.
"Did!" snapped Dolly.
The nurse shook them both like a couple of tambourines. "What will Mr. Santley think of you! It's a good thing Miss Bladeshaw isn't here! Shall I take them to the shops, Madam? I was to get them new slippers."
"Pink!" squeaked Dolly.
"Blue!" came from Dilly. Both in one breath.
"Not blue, pink!" clamoured Dolly.
"Not pink, blue!" Dilly insisted.
Considering that the twins always were dressed alike, Santley did not envy nurse, but that good soul merely retorted, "You'll wear what's bought for you. Black slippers as usual. Madam!" She almost had to touch Mrs. Phillimore before that lady looked up, and Santley was disturbed by the lost look on her face and by the pallor of it.
"Oh, by all means, nurse, and when you've finished, take them back down to Beechcroft," Mrs. Phillimore spoke as though in a sort of dream. "I shall have to stay in town for at least a week, it seems. I must have a thorough overhauling by the dentist."
"Very good, ma'am. Miss Bladeshaw said not to wait for her. If she wasn't here, we could pick her up at her club. Miss Dilly, don't drag your feet! Miss Dolly, don't prance! And say good-bye nicely. I'm sure the gentleman will be glad to be rid of such naughty little girls."
"I'm not a naughty little girl!" came virtuously from Dolly.
"I'm ever so good, really," came from Dilly, and Santley laughingly was about to see the two paragons and their Nannie off his studio floor, when again the front door opened, to admit a young and very charming girl who swooped down on the two children, hugged them, and then turned to the woman still sitting in the shadow.
"Will it be all right if we go on Madame Tussaud's?"
"I shan't be able to come, Ann," Mrs. Phillimore said in a low, tired voice. "I've been to the dentist, and shall have to go again. In fact, I shall have to stay up in town for at least a week for a thorough overhauling. As Lavinia knows."
Ann glanced at the elder woman with sympathy. She herself looked the picture of fitness in her red and white dotted frock, her big red hat aslant on her shining brown hair, her fresh, slightly sunburnt face, with its white teeth and dancing brown eyes.
"Then suppose you do any shopping you have on your list, Nannie, and meet me at the old Fullers, upstairs on the first floor, at one o'clock."
"'scream sodas!" begged Dolly promptly, and for once Dilly gave an echoing "'scream sodas!" and, clasping hands, the imps jumped up and down in beatific expectation.
"Perhaps!" Ann said with a laugh.
"I think I must have a moment outside in the air!" Mrs. Phillimore said unexpectedly, and brushing past the merry little group, was out of the door before Santley could reach it. They all stared at one another. Mrs. Phillimore was a gentle soul, but she had plenty of poise and a great deal of quiet dignity as a rule.
The nurse without another word pried the twins loose from Ann, and got them out of the door and into the waiting taxi.
Ann stood a moment as though about to make some remark on Mrs. Phillimore, but Santley said, "Your young man came along, hoping to meet you here. I told him to come back in half an hour. You've got to stay till then, or he will shoot me on sight."
"I think I see Victor shooting!" Ann said, and began making the tour of the pictures on the walls. Her comments amused Santley. Ann had done well at college and then gone in for a course of child psychology before starting on her first job—the Moncrieff twins. But she was very young herself, not at all astute, very gullible, very self-confident. Her father, a brilliant scholar, had not troubled even to insure his life, and had spent every penny of his very comfortable income on explorations of the Matto Grosso. But, apart from necessity, Ann's choice would have made her earn her own living for at least a couple of years. This was the reason for putting him off which she had given to Victor Goodenough when he had asked her, a month ago, to marry him. He said that it did not sound very adequate to him, but Ann had only laughed and refused to give a more encouraging answer. In reality she was very much in love with him.
"I wonder you don't paint Lavinia, she's so lovely," Ann said, as she finished her tour.
Santley did not tell her that there had been a time when he had painted little else, but that that had passed. Lavinia Moncrieff had changed, or he had changed. Probably both had, and somehow her face no longer lured him to try to explain it on canvas. It was still a very subtle face, however.
"I hear that you're coming down to Beechcroft Thursday week to help with the tableaux."
He said that, in a weak moment, he had agreed to this.
"Unlike Victor, I have little else but weak moments," he added whimsically. "By the way, when I was last down at Beechcroft to talk over the tableaux with Lavinia and the Major, who was the lad I saw dancing attendance on you so persistently?" Santley asked with a grin that said his question had a meaning. "Name of Edward Hope Pusey," he added as though to jog her memory.
"Nobody in particular," Ann said promptly, "Came down to see the Major really. On business."
"I never should have guessed it," Santley assured her. "I thought he had come down for the express purpose of getting to know the twins."
She laughed outright.
"Has Victor been talking to you? Is he jealous?" she asked almost eagerly.
"You heartless creature! Do yon know there's no torment like jealousy? As a matter of fact, I think Goodenough did feel that though we had both come down together, I, about the pictures, he to see you, I had got what I wanted, but he hadn't."
"If so, it was good for him," Ann said promptly, "But now about the pictures—"
The Moncrieffs were helping to raise funds for the purchase of a Children's Convalescent Home near them at Totteridge. They were staging a set of tableaux of Famous Pictures, and Santley was helping them.
"Coming down on Thursday week, I shall have ample time over the week-end to watch you at work on the twins," he said a trifle maliciously. "You're not leaving for the seaside till the Monday after, are you?"
She shook her head. "That's put off. We were hoping to stay with Nannie's sister, but she's chosen measles instead."
Goodenough came in just then. He looked pleased at the sight of Ann, as well he might, but anything but pleased at what she was saying.
"But look here, I counted on Cromer...on running down there!" he protested indignantly.
"Why not? Cromer's still on the map," she said laughing.
"It's not a laughing matter," he said shortly. "I counted on seeing a lot of you down there. The children would be off in a boat or paddling with the nurse. I hoped to have you practically all to myself."
"You wouldn't have," she said to that. "The Mishes would have been there."
"The who?" he asked in surprise.
"Missionaries. A Mr. and Mrs. Dexter-Smith. The twins call them 'the Mishes.' They're over in Europe on their holiday, studying child education. They had a letter to an aunt of mine, and she passed them on to me. Nice people. Really keen on doing the best they can for the children on their island."
"I thought only giant tortoises lived there," Santley threw in.
"No, there are peons, and settlers—quite a lot, comparatively. The Mishes are going to be at the waxworks this afternoon. Do come, Victor, you'd enjoy meeting them."
"I would love to, but for an engagement at Buckingham Palace," he assured her gravely. "Are they often down at Beechcroft?"
"Yes, she's taken a fancy to the twins. They love her. I'm passing on to her all my ideas about how to treat children."
"Well, don't introduce me, if I should run across them with you," he warned her.
"I shan't. Though Mr. Pusey likes them, so why shouldn't you?"
"Pusey? Is that the name of the chap who seems to haunt Beechcroft lately?"
She nodded with a glint in her eye.
He followed her out after she had said good-bye to Santley, and came in again a few minutes later looking distinctly glum.
"Pusey, indeed!" he said under his breath. "Silly young bounder without an idea in his head! Ann's always talking about him lately. I can't think what she sees in him!"
Santley smiled, unnoticed by the other.
"The trouble with Ann is that she's too fond of improving people," Goodenough went on, feeling for the matches. He knew the studio quite well.
Santley murmured that there weren't too many girls nowadays with that complaint.
"Oh, quite! But it's apt to spread. I mean, a girl begins by wanting to improve the young. Well, that's all right. We had to suffer as kids, so why not the present generation? But she's liable to carry it a step further, and want to improve her friends, and—well—you never know where that sort of thing will stop."
He so obviously wanted it to stop short of himself, that Santley chaffed him, but Goodenough refused to let his gloom be lightened.
"I had counted a lot on Cromer," he said finally, "a lot! I should have had Ann all to myself—"
"—except for the Mishes—charming name that!" Santley reminded him.
Goodenough gave a sort of contemptuous grunt that said that he would have made short work of them. "Whereas down at Beechcroft lately...who is this booby Pusey? D'ye know?"
"Ann spoke of some connection with the Major's business affairs."
Goodenough snorted, and took his leave on that, looking thoroughly disgruntled. The next minute the artist forgot him and his woes, for he had a French buyer coming to look over his pictures, a buyer whose approval conferred a cachet even on Oliver Santley.
Mrs. Phillimore came back just as he had finished his selection. There was still half an hour before the expert would arrive, and Santley solicitously drew a chair forward for her. The air did not seem to have done her any good. She looked very ill.
"Oliver, I must have a word with you! I couldn't bear to hear the laughter of those children. It quite upset me. For what I want to talk to you about is so terrible."
"Yes?" he asked in genuine concern. Mrs. Phillimore had dandled him on her knee as a baby, and he was very much attached to her.
"It's about my son-in-law, about Major Moncrieff," she said and her face paled still more.
Now, though not clever, Mrs. Phillimore was a very shrewd, sensible woman. For her to turn white when she spoke Moncrieff's name meant a great deal.
"It's in strict confidence," she began, and actually waited for his assurance.
He wondered, as he gave it, what was coming. But he was not prepared for her next words.
"Harry Moncrieff is going mad—raving mad. Or else he takes drugs and is not always responsible for his actions." She spoke almost in a whisper, her eyes dilated. "My poor Lavinia! No wonder she has changed into something so white and frightened. And the twins! No one at Beechcroft can be safe with that man. I thought he was going to murder me this morning. I think he would have, had we been alone in the house. As it was, though he chased me round the breakfast table, I managed to get out of the room and away from the house. I couldn't find Lavinia...Ann Bladeshaw had left with the twins and Nannie...The chauffeur refused to drive me to the station..." She stopped and seemed unable to go on.
Santley felt as though he were in a dream. She gratefully took the glass of water that he held out to her. He was too dumbfounded to ask any questions. Mrs. Phillimore looked her usual truthful self, though very upset. He eyed her almost fearfully. She read his glance.
"Oh no, I'm not romancing. I wish I were! I've been as fond of Harry as though he were in truth my son. But—" she hesitated, took another sip of water, and then the words came out in a flood. This was the second time that she had stayed with the Moncrieffs since their marriage now nearly five years old. The first time, some three years ago, had deepened still more the ties between them all. They had asked her to make her permanent home with them, but Mrs. Phillimore lived in Switzerland with an invalid niece, who took so much of her time and care that she could only rarely get free. She had, however, intended to stay at Beechcroft for six weeks in the autumn, but as her niece had to have a sudden operation and a long convalescence in a medical home, she had written to say that she would come now, and had arrived at the same time as her letter, taking her daughter and the Major by surprise.
She had had a feeling from the first that she was not welcome, that her son-in-law did not want her, and that even her daughter wished that she had kept to the time on which they had originally settled. But Mrs. Phillimore was badly off. Her niece's operation had left her momentarily high and dry, and she had made all her arrangements. She had let her little chalet at Montreux. She could not afford hotels in England, and boarding-houses were out of the question. There was nothing for it but not to notice trifles, she thought.
"Not that Lavinia loves me any the less, Oliver, but she's so completely under his thumb these days. Completely. My laughing, pretty, gay Lavinia is changed almost out of knowledge. Why didn't you tell me? Where were your eyes this last year?"
Now Santley had noticed that Lavinia Moncrieff was a great deal thinner and paler and more silent of late than she used to be. But he had attributed it all to the craze for slimming. He had seen so many laughing girls changed into morose cigarette-fiends for the sake of a figure, that he had not given the alteration in Lavinia a thought. Nor had he seen as much of her as her mother assumed to have been the case.
"She's changed out of all knowledge," Mrs. Phillimore went on passionately. "She looks as though she cries a great deal more than she laughs nowadays. She's grown pale and haggard. She jumps, too, at any sound, and goes quite white when she hears a bang outside, if it's only a tyre bursting."
"But this morning...the reason for your leaving Beechcroft so hurriedly—" prompted Santley. He thought that he must have misunderstood her before.
"I'm coming to that, but I want to explain that, in the three days of my visit, things have steadily got worse and worse. Or rather Harry has. At first he tried simply to show me that I wasn't particularly welcome." She flushed. "Next day, he was frightfully rude to me when we were alone. When Lavinia or any one else is present, he simply ignores me, or even—at times—pretends to his old affection for me. Or no!" She put a hand to her head. "Poor, unhappy man! I don't think it's pretence. He is himself at those times, and not himself at the other times. I think he knows that. And I think Lavinia suspects the truth. Else why is it they see so little of their old friends, and never seem to have any one to stay with them nowadays?"
Santley, with a slight start, realised that the Moncrieffs had rather withdrawn from things this last year. He hardly ever saw either of them. Or heard of them. And it was true that, until these tableaux came up, he hadn't been asked to Beechcroft. They had only had the house a little over a year. And, thinking quickly, he did not remember having heard of any one else staying down there.
"Perhaps they're hard up," he suggested. "If you're hard up, as Goodenough says, you've dashed few friends."
"On the contrary," Mrs. Phillimore said. And added, to his great surprise, "They're much better off than they've any right to be. I mean the kind of table they set in such a forlornly furnished house, staffed by a couple of untidy maids. It might be Claridges from the food you get. And as for wines—I assure you that a guinea a bottle would be cheap for what is drunk every day there at lunch as well as dinner."
"Does Moncrieff drink?" Santley asked bluntly.
"Not openly. That's what makes the wines handed round odder still. He takes one glass, or at the outside two. Never more. But it's possible that he drinks in secret. I saw his hand yesterday trembling like this, Oliver—" and she gave an imitation of palsy. "Lavinia saw it too, and went quite white. But she said nothing, only shot a sort of frightened glance at me as though wondering if I had noticed it, and he too turned his head and looked at me in a sort of watchful, furtive way..."
She was silent for a moment. "But about this morning," she went on; "he chased me round the room. And that brute of a chauffeur of theirs stood by and grinned. I felt as though in another moment he would join in too and help to batter me senseless."
"Chased you! Moncrieff chased you! But what caused it?" Santley asked. The story seemed to him utterly incredible, yet Mrs. Phillimore was a most truthful woman.
"Nothing whatever. Lavinia and I breakfasted alone, and she looked more than usually grave and worried. She said that she had to rush away to see people about the arrangements for the tableaux, and I had gone up to my room and written a couple of notes before I discovered that I had left a letter on the table. I went back to the breakfast room. Major Moncrieff and this chauffeur of his, a man of the name of Edwards, were talking together. I took my letter from the table, and choosing a chair by the window, I opened it, sat down to read it, and said to Harry that it was a fine morning. He ground his teeth at me. He looked—oh, horrible! 'I'll teach you to call the weather fine before noon!' he yelled, and snatching up the first thing close to his hand, it was a big silver teapot—part of my wedding present to Lavinia—he made a rush for me. I managed to get to the door somehow after running right around the table with him after me—" Mrs. Phillimore went white again. "I got to Lavinia's room, but she had gone. Perhaps it was just as well. I might have said things we would both have been sorry for. Irreparable things. As it was, I left a note saying that I had to hurry up to town to see the dentist. I am going to see him, of course—" Mrs. Phillimore broke off to look earnestly at Santley as though to reassure him as to her truthfulness. "But before coming here to see you and talk to you, I sent her a wire saying 'Unable to finish my visit. Please have my things packed and sent to Thackeray Hotel. Writing.' That will give me time to think of what I can do! It's a frightful position. I can't, won't, leave Lavinia with that brute. Yet to separate husband and wife! I know Lavinia is living in terror of him, but she won't hear a word against him. Yesterday when I suggested her coming out with me to Montreux, she said that she wouldn't leave him alone just now for worlds. And she meant it, too, Oliver. And said it in a tone that generally only signifies one thing."
Mrs. Phillimore looked at him with troubled eyes. They were still very pretty eyes.
"What thing?" Santley asked.
"When a woman says that, in that tone, it usually means that there's another woman somewhere. That's why I can't insist on her leaving Beechcroft immediately. If she thinks, or rather knows, that that sort of thing may happen, well, it's easier to leave a husband than to get back to him! And though he's been a brute to me this last week, I too know how fond one can be of him. How charming one side of him is. It's possible that a doctor...that some treatment...or if he stopped taking whatever it is that makes him act like a madman, he would be himself again—his charming, dear, self. I was so fond of him when he married her, and when I stayed with them before. They were poor, but as happy as the day was long—and it was midsummer!" she added with a laugh up at him through the tears. "Now both of them are living under some sort of a dark shadow. A black cloud. Something that makes both of them all nerves."
There was a short silence. The telephone rang. The French buyer could not come till the afternoon at four, would Mr. Santley excuse him, and be at that hour in his studio? Oliver said that he would do both, and hung up.
"What I want of you is this—" Mrs. Phillimore had recovered something of her usual calm. "You promised Lavinia a canvas as a wedding present, the subject to be chosen by her, and she asked you some months ago, as I happen to know, to paint her a picture of her husband."
"Yes. I hope to make the sketches for it when I go down next week," he said.
"Don't wait for next week. Go this week. Go now! I know you always study your subject beforehand, to get under their skin, as you call it. Well, do just that. Study the Major and let me know your verdict. Whether, as I fear, he's going really insane, or whether he's taken to drugs, or if it's drinking bouts..."
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Phillimore. I'm truly very sorry, but I can't possibly leave town this week. Not a day before next Thursday. Besides, I'm an artist, not a medical expert!" Santley began. Yet he knew that the idea of painting a potential madman, or drug-taker, or even a secret drinker, had its horrid fascination. He only cared for putting on canvas what lay hidden from most men's eyes—the soul of the sitter; or if not that, then the key in which his nature moved, by which its harmonies could be best understood.
"It's my daughter I'm concerned about," Mrs. Phillimore said simply. "It's Lavinia, Oliver. I can't stay there to help her—perhaps to save her," her voice trembled, "and I very much fear that she will need help, and possibly saving, from that husband of hers before very long, unless something pulls him up. You really can't go down before next week—a week from this coming Thursday?"
"I'm so sorry. I definitely can't. But meanwhile, perhaps Lavinia will be able to give him a hand over the stile," Santley suggested.
"She's completely under his thumb," the mother replied sadly. "She's hypnotised...like the bird and the snake."
"Did any one see you leave?" Santley asked, to get her on to more common-sense subjects, he hoped.
"He did. And it wasn't easy to get away. That dreadful man Edwards answered the telephone to the garage when I said I would like a car to take me to the station. He replied that there wasn't any one who could drive me." Again her face flushed, this time with indignation. "So I rang up and got a car from outside to fetch me. I waited by the gate for it. I felt, as I climbed in, as though I were escaping. Heaven knows what. And I saw both the man Edwards and the Major watching me go. The Major actually started after me, as though to stop me. He had an iron bar in his hand, but Edwards laid a hand on his arm, and the car drove off before anything worse happened."
"It's the most amazing story I've ever heard," Santley said, walking to and fro in front of her in his absorption.
She nodded sadly.
"When did it begin? I mean the change in him?" he asked.
She could only say that she had no idea.
"But I'm afraid you'll hear of a worse change yet," she said. "Beechcroft is so lonely. He chose the house, though Lavinia's money went to buy it. It's surrounded by trees...murder might be done there and no one would know for weeks..."
"Oh come, Mrs. Phillimore!" Santley strove for a lighter tone. "Strong word—murder!"
"I saw murder in his face this morning," she said simply. "Well may Lavinia spend hours crying. She does! In secret. You used to care for her once, Oliver."
Yes, he had once wanted to marry Lavinia very much indeed. But that was six years ago. His life had gone on. Widened. Deepened. He now felt merely faint surprise at the intensity of his old feeling. But Lavinia had the gift of arousing violent, if swift, passion. He remembered how he had felt her refusal, her marriage...and he was very kind to Mrs. Phillimore.
"I can do nothing," the mother went on. "The Major was ever so much worse when we were alone. I think he realised that I was watching him. Whereas my poor Lavinia—as I say, whatever her doubts and terrors—and she has plenty of both, she pretends that everything is as it used to be. Oliver," she leant forward and laid one of her hands on his arm, "Oliver, I'm sending her in you the best of protectors—though I wish you could go at once. However, you'll soon see what's wrong with the Major, and once I know that, I shall know how to safeguard her."
"I can't stay but over the week-end," he said reluctantly.
"Make it longer!" she begged. "Lavinia is so alone in the world!"
"But what about these tableaux," he said. "I understand that every one for miles around is coming. That doesn't look like a desire to keep out of the light?"
"I've been pondering that as I sat here," she said. "I think he wants to be able to show himself to all the world, with Lavinia, as a devoted young couple, with a happy home...Somehow, thinking about it, makes it seem rather sinister—to me." She eyed him with anxious eyes, eyes which he had always thought so cheerful and placid.
"Look here, Mrs. Phillimore," he said next, "what you need is a private detective. Not a painter. I shan't be any earthly good for what you want."
"Perhaps not," she said slowly, "but you're the best that I can do. They themselves have asked you down. I can't send them a stranger. You're on Lavinia's side, if there should be trouble. I know you will be better than your words, and try to help me."
"But what can I do?" protested Santley, half in pity, half in vexation. "Apart from the fact that I shall be his guest—"
"Not a bit of it," Mrs. Phillimore said promptly. "The house is Lavinia's, and it's her money—entirely—that runs it. Up till this last quarter I've always had to help her. The Major put his few hundreds into some car gadget—a patent gear change, I believe—anyway, it's something that isn't finished even yet. Oh no, Oliver, you'll be Lavinia's guest entirely. Now one more thing...you may need extra help...oh yes, you may! Victor Goodenough will be there. I shall have a word with him, but it will have to be so guarded—just wondering what's wrong with Lavinia—that it may not do much good. Besides, selfish people are always optimists where other people's troubles are concerned, and Victor is frightfully selfish. Then too, he's so wrapped up in Ann just now that, except at night, I don't suppose you'll find him easy to get hold of, for she and the children and their Nannie live in the cottage, quite apart from the house. I wish I could think of another ally for you." She smoothed the tips of her gloves on her fingers as she sat thinking. The way in which she took it for granted that she had carried the day with him amused Santley. But she had, or rather, his own curiosity had.
"I have it!" she said triumphantly. "Favelle Bruton is back in England!"
Santley blinked. Favelle Bruton...she was making quite a name for her mosaic work. Favelle Bruton...a handsome young woman with extraordinary eyes. You never knew if they were bright green, or bright blue, or hazel, so rapidly and utterly did they change. It was at Favelle's studio that he had first met Major Moncrieff. Major Moncrieff, not married then nor even engaged. Lavinia was Favelle's great friend, and all but lived with her. He remembered a vicious tempered female, Favelle's aunt. Favelle had gone to Paris, where her work had made quite a sensation. And now she was back from Spain, where she had been working on some government buildings. But why Mrs. Phillimore should think that Favelle Bruton would be any use...
"She hates Harry Moncrieff," Mrs. Phillimore said half to herself. "She always did. I met her in Montreux last year, and she still can't bear the man. And she adores Lavinia. Well, that's what I want. I'm going on at once to see her. She's staying at Dalmany Court, I saw in the papers. I'll get her to go down at once, on the plea of—" she paused and seemed to think.
Santley wondered how she would set to work.
"She's just had the 'flu, it seems. Well, Beechcroft is an ideal place in which to recover. I shall take her a message from Lavinia to spend this coming week with them."
"But will the Moncrieffs back up the invitation?" Santley asked, open-eyed. He was not used to such highhanded doings.
"Oh, I shall, of course, speak to Lavinia as though Favelle had practically asked herself down, and as though I wasn't able to get out of it...After all, one has to manage these things. The point is, I couldn't have sharper eyes and a clearer brain than Favelle Bruton's to watch for me. Just a hint will be dropped her that the two don't get on well together, that I am dreadfully worried—"
Mrs. Phillimore's eyes filled with tears, but she blinked them back. "Yes, from one point of view, she's admirable," she murmured, "if only she is clever enough to find out what the trouble is. She used to be very dreamy in the old days at her studio. Only half alive except as regarded her work. But I thought her very much improved when I met her last, alert, and quick, and clear-brained...Between the three of you I shall feel that Lavinia really has faithful guards...And obviously there'll be no trouble until after the tableaux...oh, he's clever, is Harry! But once I know where the trouble lies, and what is wrong, I can take the proper measures."
"And lawless enough they'll be," Santley could not help saying with a grin.
"Oh law! There always has been one for women and one for men!" And with that Mrs. Phillimore held out her hand.
SANTLEY could not get the amazing interview with Mrs. Phillimore out of his mind. It sounded incredible, but how much did he really know of her son-in-law, Major Moncrieff? How much does any one really know of any one else? After the French buyer had left him, he decided to go and have a talk with his Aunt Julia. When the world grew too complex to Santley, he talked to his aunt and the paths seemed to straighten. He would not tell her of what he had just learnt, but he usually found that, no matter of what they spoke, he came away with clearer eyes, and a simpler outlook.
After Lavinia had refused him, for instance, Santley had had some wild thoughts of—well, wild thoughts. But Aunt Julia had changed them. Subtly she had made him feel that, apart from its spiritual side, life was a fair. You entered booth after booth that caught your fancy, and were amused awhile, or bored awhile, or you yourself took part in the show awhile, but you passed on. That was life—passing on.
When he got to her flat in Battersea, he was told that she was out. Mary—all his aunt's maids were promptly called Mary on entering her service—told him that Miss Santley was in the Park. He went there on the chance of encountering her. It was very gay and bright. Flowers were the despair of Santley. How did they do it? Whence came those shadows, and half-tints and under-tones? All they had was the dull old earth, and out of it they produced colours which he, with all his palette set, could not even copy. Then he caught sight of his aunt. Santley was always amused when he read of ladies of seventy wrapped in shawls and tottering around on sticks. Aunt Julia was seventy-two but he would not care to bet on her not catching him up should he ever try to run away from her, and he was exactly half her age.
Neither handsome nor ugly, she looked what she was, a wise woman. For the rest, she was neatly dressed in some extremely comfortable, time-saving sort of garment which had the effect of a uniform.
She never fussed over him. And with a smile as their only greeting, they now walked on together, talking about a book she had in her hand. She was making, she told him, for a certain seat which she especially liked, because it was so secluded. At one spot she made a sign to him to stand still, and saying that she could see from a place in the hedge whether it was free or not, reconnoitred. There was quite a steep curve to the bench which was some distance off, and Aunt Julia did not care for needless labour.
Santley saw her make a gesture of annoyance. "That's the second time that's happened! And the same man again. Why, it's the same two men! How odd!" And Aunt Julia peered through her hole, while her nephew hunted for a match. He was about to ask her for one, when she held up a peremptory hand for silence. Naturally he joined her at that, and pushing her gently but firmly to one side, looked in his turn through the branches to where the park bench stood. On it were two men. Even as he looked they rose, and separated without a glance at each other. One going to the right, the other to the left as a keeper approached down a centre path.
"What happened?" his aunt asked under her breath, as he stepped back on to the gravel again. "They're gone? Did he hand him some money as he did last time? Exactly a week ago that was."
"My dear aunt, are you Miss Marple by any chance?"
Aunt Julia smiled tolerantly. "Nihil humani—" she began. He made a gesture as though to flee.
"But listen!" she went on. "About a month ago that same man was sitting on that seat when I came here. It, too, was on a Tuesday. And the same man joined him. I waited about, because I like that corner. To my surprise the well-dressed one gave the other, the one who looks like a tramp, five one-pound notes. He counted them into the other's hand, and then left without a glance at the other, for all the world as two strangers would part. But the other jumped up and rushed after him. He had to be fairly shaken off. And very firmly shaken off he was too, nephew. I think he was threatening the other..." she stopped. The very man of whom she was speaking was passing.
The man's teeth were clenched, and through them he seemed to be swearing to himself. He had a wind-blackened, thin face with deep-set eyes just now fastened on his clenched right hand which held some pound notes. Then, still muttering in a tone of half-suppressed fury, he turned down another path. From first to last he had not glanced at either of them.
"I could imagine bloodcurdling oaths which would sound less unpleasant than those low mumbles," Aunt Julia said, after a little pause, as they walked on. Oliver began to talk of the flowers about them.
"What's the matter?" she asked on the instant. "Do you know that man?"
That was just like Aunt Julia.
"No," he replied. And again got a look of inquiry.
"I'll tell you, in strict confidence," he said to that.
"I should get it out of you any way," she murmured, quite correctly.
"It was the other man whom I know by sight. He's Major Moncrieff."
She knew the name well enough, and what it had once stood for in her nephew's life. But she did not refer to Lavinia now.
"I'm thinking of painting him," Oliver added.
"How interesting," said his aunt, "you always like to put some sort of a symbol into your pictures. I thought that dim coronet just indicated in one corner of Lord Liverpool's portrait was entrancing. He who had sacrificed everything worth having to get a peerage. And Mr. Ardente's with the porthole and the glimpse of the sea...well, how about a park bench in the corner of Major Moncrieff's picture?"
"Or a hand rampant with banknotes gule—" he suggested. "Luckily it was he who was giving the notes, not cadging for them. And a charitable action," he said ruminatingly.
"Stuff!" came from Aunt Julia. "You don't call that charity, any more than I do. That was hush-money. The man who passed us was a blackmailer, and not satisfied with what he got."
"Then he wasn't a blackmailer," Oliver pointed out. "They can call the tune, and their wretched victims have to pay up without any chance of bargaining." And again he talked of the trees. They sat down on the next bench they came to, and Aunt Julia gave her reasons for considering French literature vastly overrated. A pause followed. Oliver drew pictures in the gravel and finally said, looking up for the first time since they had sat down:
"If you were asked to spy on someone, would it make any difference if his wife ran the house, and you were in point of absolute fact her guest, not her husband's?"
"Only one thing would influence me," said Aunt Julia firmly, "The reason for my spying. Say you thought the Major was about to cut his wife's throat—then you needn't mind whose house it is."
Santley gazed at her with a dropped jaw.
"Oh, I'm not so melodramatic as to think that that really is the reason," she said promptly, "though evidently I'm not so far out. Is it Mrs. Phillimore who is worried?" she went on.
Oliver made the gesture of drawing a cross between them.
"You're a witch," he said half laughing, half vexed. "Now, how on earth...what do you know? How much?"
"My dear Oliver—" she gave a contemptuous flip of some crumbs to a sparrow, "you were talking about the Moncrieffs...you were drawing an outline of Mrs. Phillimore's profile while I talked to you about Anatole France. Next, you asked me that funny question...I jumped to the obvious conclusion. I'm as often wrong as I'm right," she added modestly.
"It was confidential," he said under his breath. "But when one has a witch for an aunt...Mrs. Phillimore wants me to paint Moncrieff as a long overdue present to her daughter, and she's worried about her daughter. Thinks she isn't as happy as she might be." There was a silence. Aunt Julia rarely volunteered advice.
"Do you remember my once taking you to the studio of a Miss Flavelle Bruton?" Oliver asked next. "Dark-haired girl, very thin, with wonderful eyes and hair worn in plaits around her fine little head? She's quite a celebrity nowadays."
He meant to change the subject by way of her work, but his aunt knitted her brows for a moment and suddenly said: "I remember the afternoon perfectly. It was the only time I ever saw her. I have always wondered why she didn't marry Major Moncrieff?"
"Why did you expect her to? I thought you hadn't set eyes on him before this afternoon on the bench there!"
Oliver was puzzled.
"I didn't see him. I only heard his name. Miss Bruton's telephone bell rang. She answered it, and came back saying, 'It was from Major Moncrieff' to her aunt, who would talk to me about smart people I'd never heard of."
"Favelle Bruton always loathed him, and he seemed to avoid her in the old days," Oliver said. He decided that, for once, his aunt had been speaking inconsequentially. She got up now from the seat, saying that she wanted to show him a piece of Rhodes weaving which she had brought back with her last month. As he took her book from her again, Oliver happened to meet her eye, and in spite of the disparity in years, the utter absence of any likeness between them, he could have sworn that his aunt's eyes were the eyes of La Gioconda.
Now, Oliver had always maintained that those eyes were fixed on the painter in derision, that she was saying to herself: "So you think that, do you! Of all the silly juggins!" But his aunt apparently was only concerned with pointing out to him the effect of a copper beech against a young oak.
When he had duly admired the piece of linen and had some of her special tea cakes, he said good-bye to her. He was still more occupied with Moncrieff than before. Mrs. Phillimore's startling words in the morning, and now in the afternoon—that odd scene on the bench...Moncrieff parting as though from an absolute stranger and yet, according to his aunt, parting with a man whom he had met several times before, in all probability by appointment. Banknotes...blackmail...it certainly could not be linked with Mrs. Phillimore's certainty that the Major was going mad, with her story of being chased around the room by him only early to-day, but it did not clash with her certainty that there was something wrong at Beechcroft...
Santley always thought of that day as "the Moncrieff day," for, as he and a friend were shown to his table at a restaurant that evening, he saw the young couple seated near them. Lavinia was easily the prettiest woman in the room, he thought, and he thought it without a pang. Lately, her face, to him, had grown very commonplace. But Major Moncrieff seemed to find nothing amiss in it, judging by the eager way he was talking to her, his dark, ugly face almost touching her delicately made-up, beautifully-waved golden head. Santley studied them under cover of becoming lost in the wine list. Mrs. Phillimore must be mistaken. The two looked as happy as any other couple there. Then he noticed the lines of strain around the man's lips. They only showed in certain lights. And, looking for them, he saw marks of strain too in Mrs. Moncrieff's face. Yes, he thought, both of them were, or had been until just now, under a heavy strain. However, late hours can leave very similar marks, and yet...Moncrieff's eyes did not suggest late hours, or if so, then he took some sort of stimulant to account for their almost excessive brightness. They fairly glittered as he laughed at something Lavinia said. A young man joined them with a pleasant, sunburnt, freckled face. It was the young man whom Santley had seen down at Beechcroft dancing attendance on Ann Bladeshaw. It was young Pusey.
He seemed very keen on having a word with them. But Lavinia did not appear overjoyed at seeing him, Santley thought. A cable was handed her and she tore it open. "From Madeleine at last!" she said as she did so, and Santley noticed that Moncrieff stopped the story which he was telling for a moment.
Mrs. Moncrieff gave a little cry. "Oh, what a pity!" Her husband went on calmly with his story to Pusey. It struck Santley as odd that he should not ask what was amiss, for Lavinia sat pushing the cable into her petit point evening bag with a worried frown. But she too, said nothing more. Then, turning, she caught sight of Santley, who was alone at the moment. She signed to him to come to their table. Pulling out a chair, Santley found himself laughing heartily at some of her quips. Lavinia always had the art of quickening the tempo. She excited always, if only to more sparkling talk.
He threw in the suggestion that, since he was coming down next week about the tableaux, it might be possible to arrange some sittings for the long overdue portrait of Moncrieff. Both husband and wife seemed charmed.
Pusey with a light word left them. Santley had a feeling that he was annoyed at his joining the table, or was it at something said by the smiling Moncrieff? Moncrieff's smile showed two magnificent rows of teeth, but it looked rather formidable. Not the face of a man to lightly pay over notes on a park bench...
Mrs. Moncrieff was begging him to come down before the Thursday. Any time after next Tuesday—that was a week from to-day—would suit her and her husband admirably. But Santley explained that he was just off for Brussels, to inspect some tapestry intended for a Belgian church which was being woven there according to one of his designs. He was crossing by air next morning, and would not be back until the Wednesday of next week.
"Brussels!" Lavinia suddenly looked across at her husband, a question in her eyes. Santley, without turning in his seat, could not see if Moncrieff gave an answering glance.
"Ah, well!" Lavinia seemed to bear up, "if you can't come earlier, why, you can't! Perhaps you can stay on? We should be delighted to have you, and what with the rehearsals and flying around to get things together, I'm afraid there won't be much time for sittings until the 'doings' are over. Everything finishes on Saturday, thank Heaven. Harry will have to be on his best behaviour while you're there so as to make a good impression. That's half the battle when you're having your picture painted, isn't it?"
"It's not half so important as the impression I make on him," Santley explained. "What you see on a canvas is not so much what the painter thinks of the sitter, as what the sitter thinks of the artist."
"Is that why most of them look so glum?" Moncrieff asked, in his rather harsh voice, but he had a taking laugh.
"What are you going to put in the background?" Lavinia went on. "I loved the hunting picture you hung on the wall of Lord Marchmont's room in your picture of him. It was such a contrast to his wig and gown, and yet—it explained his eyes."
Santley thought of his aunt's suggestion about a park bench. He said instead: "I should say something swift and dangerous would suit you best. How about a car, a racer?" He spoke to Moncrieff himself.
Just for a second a startled look crossed Moncrieff's face, with its beak-like nose, formidable jaw, large bold black eyes, and wide, broad lips, tightly pressed together most of the time. He said nothing.
"Why not a ray of light?" Lavinia put in hurriedly. "Surely that's the swiftest thing there is."
"And can be extremely dangerous too, when it falls on something you want kept dark," Moncrieff added, with his deep-throated laugh.
Santley was conscious of something below the surface in that sound—of an inner as well as an outer laugh.
"Not so quick as thought," he said now, looking full at the other.
Moncrieff returned the look with the effect of pricking up his ears.
"How would you paint a thought?" he asked with apparently real interest. "What symbol would you use?" His grin, a pleasant grin, said that he had the other beat there.
"A corkscrew,"—began Santley gropingly. He got no further. The word was to be an adjective, but explanations were drowned in the burst of laughter. The talk went on. Santley's friend had drifted out with some relations who had turned up unexpectedly, and Santley, for the moment, remained attached to the Moncrieffs. He was studying the Major. Those eyes of his, for instance, Santley had no idea how he would paint them, paint what, to his mind, lay behind them, except that he must render an impression of a remarkably strong will. In some ways...not all. Whatever this man wanted to do, he would want tremendously...But rather blindly, Santley thought. He doubted if Moncrieff would care for his picture. There was nothing subtle here. Therefore anything subtle would be beyond the man, and Santley's portraits were always illusive, suggestive. On the whole, the artist was disappointed. From Mrs. Phillimore's terrible words, from the strange incident in the park, he had, illogically, expected something very complex, deep...hidden. But Santley caught no glimpse of this. He saw Moncrieff as a fighter born. A man who would be at his best facing overwhelming physical odds...
"About Brussels," Lavinia suddenly broke in, giving Santley an impression of speaking with care. "Do you know it well?"
He explained that he had had to run over a good many times lately, as there was some trouble in carrying out his colours.
"I'm getting quite chummy with the douaniers," he went on. "At first they used to unpack my little bag of coloured wools with tremendous care. Now that they know I'm designing something for one of their own churches, they're awfully obliging. But then Belgians are, when you know them—and they know you. At least the Walloons are."
Lavinia had been listening with most flattering attention. Now she jumped up with a quick cry of greeting to some one who had just entered and was passing near them. It was her mother. Mrs. Phillimore was with some friends, but she hurried across to sit for a moment on a chair which her son-in-law drew out for her with every appearance of solicitude. He began talking to her too, with really noticeable devotion, but she promptly turned a shoulder toward him and spoke to her daughter.
"I've been trying to get you on the 'phone all day, to explain that I shan't be able to return to Beechcroft for weeks and weeks. In fact, to be blunt, dear child, I shall be due for my visit to Scotland to the Mackenzies before the dentist has finished with me."
Sounds of grief and disappointment came from both Moncrieffs. They looked crushed. Genuinely so, any one would say, who had not heard what Mrs. Phillimore had told Santley only that morning.
"But I wondered," Mrs. Phillimore went on, "whether you would let me send an old friend of yours down to stay with you, who needs quiet and rest after an attack of 'flu."
Santley realised that he was watching Mrs. Phillimore going into action, and felt amused.
"Certainly! Charmed, mother!" came from Lavinia.
"We can have her, or him, or them, any time after to-morrow week," the Major said with what sounded like warm hospitality.
"Why not till then?" asked Mrs. Phillimore with a sharp ring in her voice.
"The drains have gone wrong," Lavinia said promptly. "Didn't I tell you this morning? Ah, you rushed off before I could. Yes, it'll be to-morrow week before everything's in order again. But who is the old friend?"
"You know her quite well. She adores you...oh, here she is!"
Mrs. Phillimore would make a good stage-manageress, Santley thought, as she sprang up with every appearance of pleased surprise as a tall, slender young woman came in with a group of young people. Yes, it was Flavelle Bruton, but Mrs. Phillimore was right, she had changed, Santley thought, looking at her—changed enormously. A certain dreamy, hesitating something that used to envelop her was gone. This face was both hard and cold. She had painted her skin, which he remembered as a warm ivory, to a dead matt white, her mouth to a pillar-box scarlet. She had plucked her thick eyebrows to slender half-moons, and put purple shadows under those strange eyes of hers. Even the way her hair grew on her forehead seemed to have been altered. But there was no denying that the effect was striking. In the old days, few people in that smart gathering would have given her one glance. Now people looked many times. She was beautifully dressed, Santley thought, in something black that gleamed with gold threads as she moved. It was swathed tightly around her lovely thin figure, leaving her shoulders and all of her back quite bare, Her hair, in two thick dark plaits, was still wound tightly around her small head, but over some sort of gold tissue which shone between the braids. A great splash of jewelled flowers was on one shoulder. Another at one hip.
Santley as a rule refused to paint the faces of young women. He would not have refused to paint Flavelle Bruton as she stood there smiling at Lavinia, a blue light, like the light shining on a wave, in her eyes. He remembered that blue glint in her eyes when she looked at any one of whom she was fond, and how green they could seem when they looked at any one whom she disliked. Even in the old days, when she had been a plain young woman, he had thought, now and then, that a man might do strange things for the sake of Flavelle Bruton's eyes. The old days...it had been Lavinia then who had seemed to him much the more subtle of the two. He would not say so now. That white, painted face, with the heart-shaped painted mouth, and the half-moon brows were very difficult to read. It had lived, this face. His aunt would say that it had entered the booth called sorrow in life's fair, or was the booth called suffering?
Lavinia was greeting her with effusiveness. A horrid word.
"You 'phoned to me to say you were in London? My dearest thing, I never got the message! You wrote? But I haven't opened any letters for ages—we've had the most awful times with the drains—nothing but builders' estimates and sizes of pipes...darling, how delightful it will be..."
"It's all settled," Mrs. Phillimore said gaily, "you're to go down, Tuesday week, if you can manage it."
Lavinia joined in. The three women laughed and talked on, making, it must be admitted, quite a stir around them.
And to think this was quiet Flavelle Bruton, with her look of self-effacement, her manner that had always suggested diffidence, self-distrust. Well, Santley thought, success changes all of us. The curious thing about the change in Flavelle to him was, that he would not have said that happiness had had anything to do with the alteration. Quite the other way.
He made some idle remark to Moncrieff beside him. The Major did not reply. Glancing at him Santley saw that he was standing rigid, his eyes on the floor and had evidently not heard. Santley repeated the sentence. Still no reply from Moncrieff; still quite obviously, he had not heard what was said.
Santley decided that it was high time to go, but Lavinia was chattering too fast for him to get in a word. "Oh, it's a beast of a house," she was saying. "It's only the fag-end of a lease. You mustn't mind a spot or two of discomfort. You can have all the quiet you want, after Saturday, that I can promise you."
Somehow it did not sound alluring, Santley thought. But Flavelle only smiled, and said, in her voice that used to be so low and soft and was now so firm and decisive, that she was used to discomfort, that she would gladly come down for a week-end, and with that, and some more light chatter, Mrs. Phillimore and she passed on to their friends.
They left a sudden silence behind them. Santley used it to say good-bye, and went on to a place where some very good ballet dances were being given. He enjoyed the show, the strange rhythmic poses, the gorgeous garments. Rising to leave, he almost collided with Flavelle Bruton in the doorway. She was with a tall young man who instantly arrested Santley's attention. He was good-looking in what is called in books an aristocratic fashion, which has nothing to do with birth and yet has a definite meaning. His eyes met Santley's and the artist felt the power in them—power of personality, of will, of many other things. Then Flavelle turned and said a few words in Spanish to him. The man bowed, and went back into the room.
Santley apologised for having almost stepped on her.
She was quite friendly. And quite chilly. Then she glanced towards the young man who had come in with her.
"That's Don Plutarco. The name means nothing to you, of course," she said lightly. "He's the idol of Spain at the moment. A bull fighter born in Heaven, they say. At any rate, he's the leading espada. He wants to stay on and see more of this dancing. I'm tired. I'm off to bed."
"May I take you home? And if so, where?" he asked.
"I'm going back to my old studio," she said unexpectedly. "I've a fancy to sleep there to-night. Off King's Road, you know. The smelly end."
"Do you still keep it on?" he asked, as she gave more precise directions to a taxi which he called.
"I had it on a seven years' lease...I sub-let it. Make quite threepence a month profit on it!" she said lightly, but she leaned her little head back with a weary gesture. "You know those old legends about a monk caught up into Heaven for what he thought was a moment, but on his return finds was years and years, and that meanwhile an angel has taken his place on earth?" she said suddenly.
Santley said he had read many versions of it. "Why?"
"I was wondering whether the angel, when he got back to Heaven, found that he ought to've stayed on earth," Flavelle said. "It seems such a mistake—coming back to anything."
"What about your studio?" he asked, making as though to stop the driver.
She only gave a little empty laugh and told him to let the man carry on. They were at the studio almost immediately. She had the key in an envelope, or rather the two keys, and a moment later Santley stepped into a room which made him take an involuntary step backwards. He had seen it before, but not like this. It had then been painted a thick, dead white, with black squares in the ceiling inside which were lightly coloured flower motifs. The whole had had a Tudor effect. But now! Each wall was painted a different colour, and each colour was sharp and vivid. A green wall, a geranium red wall, a buttercup yellow wall, and a deep purple wall. The floor was painted black. The ceiling a vivid cornflower blue, as were the few hangings. The chairs were painted the same rich hue. At the height of a dado, an enormous dragon in gold ran around the four walls, his tail meeting his huge mouth. The studio was large and the effect overpowering.
"My God!" murmured Santley under his breath. He supposed that this was the effort of the latest tenant.
Flavelle laughed, a snap of a laugh. "Does rather hit you below the belt, doesn't it, but I enjoyed doing it before I let it. And the man who had the studio until last month rather liked it. He's going to keep it on—says it helps to drown the street noises."
Santley was surprised. The new Flavelle was quite capable of painting this room, but the old Flavelle? The meek little grey mouse?
There was another room opening out of this which the late occupier had kept as it was—whitewashed. It held a small firing oven, for pottery had been Flavelle's chief work before she left England and took to mosaics in earnest.
"My modelling tools," she laid a hand on a handsome old carved box of Arabian work on the table. Idly Santley fingered the contents while she moved about. Santley saw in a moment that the box had a secret bottom. He was fond of old furniture, and there is not an old box worthy the name which has not some hiding-place. It amused him to find this one. Perhaps Flavelle knew nothing of it. It was a simple matter of lifting up two compartment divisions and out popped a drawer below which was not visible to the eye in the network of carvings.
Flavelle had drifted into the bedroom. He expected to find the space empty, but a dusty little modelled figure in clay lay inside it. He picked it up. His mouth, which he had opened to call to her, shut with just such a snap as the drawer had given when it jumped out in answer to his tug. The figure was a tiny model of Moncrieff, and it was stuck through and through with a pin driven in where the heart would be and coming out in the back. Santley stared hard, then he dropped it hurriedly back and shut in the drawer. He strolled out into the studio and met the violence of the colours, the fierce eyes of the gold dragon again.
Flavelle was standing by the cornflower blue table with its glossy black top, rattling her scarlet painted nails on it in a tattoo. Santley used to like the girl. He was not at all sure that he would like this woman. Yet he had to acknowledge, as he said good-bye to her, that if the years had taken much away—and they had, he thought—they had also given with a free hand. He felt in her, what he had felt so oddly when his eyes met those of the Spaniard at the ballet dances—a sense of power, of poise, of character.
Driving back to his own rooms, he found, however, that it was not Flavelle Bruton who held his thoughts, but Moncrieff, the subject of his next canvas.
The telephone rang as he closed his own front door behind him. "Yes. Santley speaking," he said into it.
"At last!" came in Goodenough's voice. "I've been trying every half-hour to ring you up. Look here, can I drop in for a word with you? You're off to-morrow morning, aren't you?"
"Yes. Come round by all means."
Santley took but little sleep as a rule. But Goodenough did not stop long. He looked very disturbed as he came in.
"I had a talk with Mrs. Phillimore this afternoon," he began. "She said that she had spoken to you. She wants me to get Ann away from Beechcroft. Wouldn't give any reason, any reason which was a reason...Then about half an hour ago she rang up and said she could now tell me what was wrong at Beechcroft, it was the drains! Now what do you suppose she meant by that? All she said this afternoon was that she thought Ann should not stay down there. I tried to get Ann on the 'phone, of course, but couldn't. She had taken the children for a picnic. What's it all about?"
"The drains, I was told," Santley said firmly, and to that he stuck.
He had no intention of spreading tales about the young couple. As for Mrs. Phillimore's real fear, it was far too ghastly to speak of without some personal experience to back it up. But if she were right and the Major really was not always in his right mind, then it stood to reason that Ann Bladeshaw and the children too, ought not to be down there.
"I should get her away, I think," he said now. "Drains are dangerous things to be wrong in an old house. Did Mrs. Phillimore say anything about the twins?"
"Not a word. It's all extraordinary. So sudden! So vague! Precious disturbing!" and Goodenough looked genuinely disturbed. "I had an idea, when she spoke to me, that she was hinting at trouble between Lavinia and Moncrieff, but apparently I was wrong?" He looked at Santley, who shook his head as though he knew nothing of such an idea.
Goodenough, a year ago, had been very attentive to Lavinia. So much so that people had talked about it. But Lavinia, as Santley knew, was devoted to her husband. He would never forget the tone of her voice when she had told him that his own feeling for her was hopeless, that she was going to marry Harry Moncrieff. And he had seen only this evening that she had not changed...His last sight of her had been as she turned to Moncrieff again, with a look of almost infatuated devotion in her eyes. Mrs. Phillimore had said she was hypnotised. It was self-hypnosis in that case. Goodenough had transferred his affections, if they had ever been bestowed on Lavinia, to Ann Bladeshaw as soon as he met the gay, cheerful girl, and Lavinia very much encouraged the friendship between the two.
"I haven't any authority with Ann," Goodenough now said, "nor do I understand what Mrs. Phillimore is driving at...if the twins can stay there, why can't Ann? Just when I'm going down for a week-end. I'm dashed if I grasp the old lady's game..."
Goodenough looked vexed. And no wonder, Santley thought, it did sound inconsiderate...and incomprehensible...
"She spoke of having a talk to Ayres about the kids being there at all," Goodenough went on frowningly.
Ayres was Moncrieff's partner in some patents which the Major was putting on the market, and he was also co-trustee with Moncrieff for the twins.
"I rang him up just now, and he says he can't think what Mrs. Phillimore's getting at. That he knows of nothing wrong. He's going down there for these tableaux too. He ought to know...It's all uncommonly funny, if you ask me!"
Santley had not asked Goodenough, and did not want Goodenough to ask him any more questions. He suggested that as they were both going down to Beechcroft next week—
"I'm not going if Ann's not there!" Goodenough said to that.
"They're counting on you," Santley tried to soothe him down, and finally, after fuming a bit more and lighting cigarettes and flinging them half smoked into the hearth, Goodenough decided to have a talk with Ayres next morning, and get him to use his influence to have the twins and their governess stay where they were, at least until after the coming week.
NEXT morning, Santley was at the Victoria Air Terminus station when a hand touched his arm. It was Lavinia Moncrieff. She had a small package, obviously from a confectioners, dangling in her hand from a pink and silver ribbon. Across the top, also in pink and silver, was the name of a very smart sweet-shop.
"I wondered if you would be kind enough to take this to Brussels for me. You know the Hotel Adolphe Max? Yes, I thought you would be going there as you're flying over. Will you give this to the head porter? It's for his little daughter. See, I've written her name on it. She's learning English, and I promised her some English chocolates last time I was over there."
Santley saw the name Gudule Broukere in Lavinia's small writing, and below, "English sweets to help with English verbs." Privately, he thought that sending chocolates to Brussels was like taking coals to Newcastle, but he said he would take charge of the little box with pleasure.
"It's under a pound," she went on, "so even if you have to pay duty it won't be much. Let me know if you do, won't you?" She left him almost immediately with a charming smile and wave of her hand.
Santley put the box in the pocket of his summer overcoat, which he hung over the back of his seat in the air-liner. Then he got out some papers and looked at designs. He felt something twitch him as they were nearly in. He looked around. Two men were in the seat behind him, one was leaning forward, apparently trying to see something of the Belgian coast far below, the other appeared to be asleep. But he had drawn the end of Santley's coat over his knees and this was what had roused the artist from his study of an old Flemish border design.
Santley saw no reason why the man needed a rug, nor even so, why his coat should serve for one, and picking up the overcoat, he laid it folded beside him. But there was no box of sweets in the pocket. He sat around instantly, saw the box on the floor, made a long arm, and picked it up, looking indignantly at the sleeper who, apparently, was quite oblivious of it.
Santley was well known to the douaniers of the Brussels Aerodrome, and with a smile they waved the little box of chocolates aside as of no importance. Arrived at his hotel, after securing his rooms, he asked for Monsieur Broukere, the head porter, saying that he had a little box of sweets for his daughter sent her by an English lady.
He was told that the man had had an accident only this morning. A car had run him down in the Avenue outside, and he was now in the hospital of St. Jean Tenoode near by, with a broken arm. Santley decided to go to the hospital, which was only a few minutes' drive away, and hand him the box personally. Visitors' hour at the hospital for the private rooms was from four to five, he was told. It was now just past three. His head weaver would be at the hotel at five for the alterations and dye patterns...Santley thought that he could fill in a half-hour very nicely by a nap on his bed. He fell asleep almost instantly, and woke with a start to see his door gently closing. He had asked the chambermaid to call him at a quarter to four without fail. Probably some servant had strayed in, found a visitor in occupation, and retired. Santley watched the door being closed with elaborate caution. The hand that was drawing it shut was a man's hand, brown and muscular, with a nail on the first finger which had evidently been crushed many years ago and still showed as an oval of corrugated blue and purple.
Santley looked at his watch. He had been asleep only twenty minutes, but he felt refreshed, and getting up, went downstairs into the cool and airy garden room, where he ordered a cocktail and had a glance at the papers. At five to four he asked for a taxi, and went up to his room again for the box of chocolates, which he had put on a side table when he first went in.
It was not there. He rang for the maid. She had not been near the room after knocking—futilely—at a quarter to four. The floor waiter was summoned. He knew nothing about the box, he said. Santley, ruffled, reported the loss downstairs, explaining whose loss it really was. The manager could only look his vexation, and assure him that he would keep an eye on the chambermaid, though both he and Santley agreed that it might have been some wandering child who, stepping in by accident, had succumbed to temptation. At that, Santley recalled the incident of the closing door. He described the broken nail, or rather the crushed nail. No one in the hotel staff had such a deformity. The manager and Santley, both half annoyed, half amused, at the absurdity of the theft, were talking by the reception clerk's desk. It was a quiet hour, and they had the corner to themselves. At the description of the nail, the clerk had started.
"On his right hand? But that is droll! An Englishman called in here about half an hour ago who had a nail just like that. He took a room, signed his name, here it is, 'Alfred Green, Lordship Lane, London,' and went upstairs, promising to let me have his passport later, but instead when he came down, he said that he had decided to go on at once to Waterloo, and not put up here till his return, to-morrow. He offered to pay for the room, but of course, we refused. He seemed, however, Mr. Santley, the last sort of man one would associate with an interest in a box of chocolates! A business man, I should have said. Or very likely connected with railways. He may have made a mistake in the number of his room, and you may have seen him stepping out again, but I really think that it a mere coincidence about the sweets being gone."
Santley, too, saw no reason to credit the unknown Green with an illicit passion for boxes of confectionery, and after a joke or two on the subject he went off to buy little Gudule Broukere a substitute for the lost treasure. He would explain the affair to Lavinia when he went down to Beechcroft.
He bought a magnificent coffer with a doll on top, for Gudule was just nine, he was told, and drove off to St. Jean, a huge gloomy building, with endless narrow corridors which suggested that the building dated from the Middle Ages. He found Monsieur Broukere, the injured head porter, to be a stout man with a very intelligent look in his dark eyes. Santley thought that he stared rather hard at him when he explained that he came with a little present from Mrs. Moncrieff for Gudule, that it had unfortunately been lost on the way, but he hoped that the English verbs would be sweetened nearly as pleasantly by Belgian chocolates.
The man sitting in a chair with an arm in plaster strapped to his side, pressed his lips together, and raised his eyebrows until they almost touched the bandage across his forehead. He looked like a man who has to make up his mind about quite a knotty point.
"I cannot accept your very kind present. Monsieur," he said finally—to Santley's great surprise. "You say the English chocolates from Mrs. Moncrieff were stolen! As it happens, my daughter is no longer here in Brussels. She is in school in Switzerland, and on a walking tour at the moment. I cannot send them on to her. They would spoil before she got them. Also the school does not like sweets sent to the girls. It is severe. An Ursuline convent, you see. The Ursulines are like that." And all the time his shrewd eyes, the eyes of a very experienced head porter, Santley imagined, were raking him from head to foot, in a searching way that seemed to the artist very funny. Had he another daughter, Santley wondered, who was eighteen rather than eight, and who gave him a good deal of trouble with hotel guests and chocolates—or flowers...whose good graces were often wooed through the means of the little one?
"Yes," Broukere now said finally, "I am much obliged, but as you see, grateful though I am for the kindness intended, I cannot take the box," and he handed it back to Santley with an air of pushing him out of the room.
Santley left immediately. He stepped in at a sort of inquiry office beside the front door, where a very charming young nun had directed him to Broukere's room, Number 33, and asked her if she would accept the box for some of the children. She thanked Santley, and the artist, charmed with the sweet face in its white setting, stood talking to her about the hospital. Suddenly through the open door bustled a sister whom Santley had met before being allowed into Broukere's room. She smiled at him, handed a paper to the younger nun and scuttled off.
"A telegram—to go at once—" repeated the sister, mechanically moving towards the telephone. Then her brow—what was visible of it, wrinkled in perplexity.
"What writing! Oh, of course, he wrote it with his left hand. In French I might make it out, but it is in English! You will perhaps be kind enough to look, monsieur. Is this an f or a p? And what are these letters d g e...is that possible? Would you perhaps write it down for me to spell through the telephone to the cable office?"
Santley took the paper. It was laboriously printed in characters hard to decipher. But he wrote it down for Sister Genevieve and went his way very puzzled indeed. For the cable ran:
"Moncrieff. Beechcroft, Totteridge, England. Box of chocolates lost by carrier. Broukere."
Santley thought of the park bench...the cable was to either of the Moncrieffs apparently...he recalled the glance which Lavinia had sent her husband last night when she heard that the artist was going on to Brussels so soon...He telephoned Lavinia an account of what had happened. He received a reply from her assuring him that the loss was of no consequence whatever, and that he was not to give the matter a second thought. For a minute this assurance in its turn puzzled Santley. If of no importance, and her voice had a genuinely indifferent ring, why had he been asked to carry the box across, why Broukere's refusal to accept a substitute, why...but he gave it up, and devoted his mind to colours and patterns.
He returned to London by 'plane late on Wednesday, rang up Goodenough, and suggested their going down to Beechcroft together. Something about the other's rather silent personality made Santley like him for a companion. Also Goodenough interested Santley, because the artist never felt quite sure what he was thinking behind that wooden face of his. The artist did not feel by any means sure that Goodenough's thoughts as spoken by him always represented Goodenough's thoughts as thought by him. That he was all but engaged to Ann Bladeshaw surprised Santley. Ann was so straight, so transparent, so "young," so easily impressed by others, that he could easily understand the attraction Goodenough would have for her, but what the rather cold, stiff, man of the world saw in the ardent enthusiastic young reformer was the puzzle. Just lately, Santley had thought that Goodenough too, was beginning to ask himself that fatal question. Now had it been Flavelle Bruton! Goodenough had not met her yet. Well, he would do so shortly. They ought to get on well.
Goodenough, as usual, was punctual to the minute. He looked very serious, Santley thought, and for a while, as the artist's chauffeur drove them through the London streets, only Santley talked—about Brussels—their splendid tapestry factories—their general artistic feeling—finally he turned to his companion.
"You seem very silent, Goodenough. Touch of liver?"
"How dare you jeer at my age!" came the retort. "No, it's not liver...or perhaps it is..." and with that he began to talk in his amusing, cynical way—the way of a man who had not many illusions left. Or perhaps had never had them, for Santley held that you didn't lose your trust in your fellow men. You were born "with" or "without," and you kept what you had to the end. He himself often wished he could lose some of his own, his bank balance would certainly stand higher if he did not believe every yarn told him, no matter how often he had found them to be lies.
Both men had been to Beechcroft before. It was one of those sprawling houses which take a great deal more to keep up than they are worth. Lavinia always explained that she had got the leasehold for a song, and that, as they did not have to pay for dilapidations, they were letting things look after themselves. The owner intended to pull the place down and put up a block of flats when it should come to him again. The house was shaped like a capital E without its middle projection. Only the front was used. The two wings remained unfurnished. At the back of them was what had once been really good stables and loose boxes. A few of these, quite to one side, had been turned into a garage and lock-ups for visitors' cars, but the bulk of them remained as a little block of buildings enclosing a huge stable yard, and quite private, as only the windows of the unused part of the house overlooked it.
"There's Ayres!" Goodenough said as they drew up at the front steps. Santley knew Ayres fairly well. "He says Mrs. Phillimore has been dreaming—about the drains. There's no question of Ann not being here for at least some weeks more."
A gentle-faced rather timid looking man with a diffident manner came forward now with a smile and shook hands. Then he turned and rang the front door bell for them. There was no answer. Ayres looked as distressed as though he were the host.
"I think the parlourmaid must be busy...it's a busy household...these old houses make a great deal of work...Does your chauffeur know where the garage is? I can show him the—ah, here's Mrs. Moncrieff," he finished in tones of great relief.
Lavinia welcomed them warmly, hoped they would excuse the lack of men servants, and told them that lunch would be ready in half an hour.
"What brings you down here?" Goodenough asked Ayres, as the latter volunteered to show them to their rooms. "I thought it was the tableaux, but you've evidently been installed for days."
"Well," Ayres said importantly, "I'm here really as watchdog. Young Pusey is staying down here. He wants to look into one of our patents on behalf of his firm. That's very nice, but we don't want him to learn too much," and Ayres chuckled. "Moncrieff's a clever chap, and some of his newer ideas are worth keeping to ourselves for a bit...ah, here we are, Mr. Santley."
Santley stepped into a charming sitting-room, a north room which he could use as a studio should he wish it. A very comfortable bedroom opened off it, and if the house was short of maidservants, it seemed to make up for it in electric contrivances.
Just before one o'clock Flavelle Bruton arrived. She looked magnificent, and Santley, who was in the square, ill-kept lounge, wondered what did it. She had on a black pony-skin coat with silver fox around the neck, and a frock of peacock blue which seemed to set off her dead white skin. Lavinia seemed delighted to see her; as for Moncrieff, he barely glanced at her, though he brought a chair forward and pressed the merits of some particular cocktail on her attention. Something electric seemed to have entered with her. It used to be Lavinia who had this power, but she, to-day, seemed not at all her usual gay self. So pale was she that Santley thought of Mrs. Phillimore, and wondered whether any unpleasant scenes had taken place while he was in Belgium. But the maids looked the kind to leave at any hint of that sort of thing, and they were the same ones he had seen before.
"By the way," Flavelle said in her deep throaty voice, "there are a couple of the quaintest people roaming your drive. Are they safe?" Her eyes were beautiful as she glanced around her, talking and laughing. Now the lights were blue, as though a sheet of blue crystal lay over old amber, now the blue was gone, and you saw them as sheer green. Now that too passed and left them shining hazel. She did not glance at her host, Santley noticed, though she seemed to include him in her light easy talk. She was like a jet of flame in the room, and Santley found himself wondering whether he would not break his custom and ask her to sit to him.
"Those will be the 'Mishes,'" Lavinia said laughingly. "Friends of Ann Bladeshaw. You haven't met her yet? Oh, a charming girl, trying out some wonderful theories of education on Dolly and Dilly."
"And on other people," breathed Goodenough half to himself, half to Santley.
"She'll probably bring them in shortly," Moncrieff said, "when the glasses are out of the way."
"Twins? Yours?" Flavelle looked smilingly at Lavinia.
"No. They're distant little cousins of my husband's. But the Mishes—that's the name the twins give them, and it's too good not to use—are coming to lunch too. You don't mind—" to Moncrieff, whose brow had darkened. "They're not coming down again. This is their final visit to Ann. By chance, I too, met them in the drive, and I really couldn't help asking them to the one meal."
"Am I expected to ask him to say grace?" Moncrieff demanded in a tone that made them laugh.
Almost on the instant Ann and the twins came in followed by a prim looking couple. The woman was young and not bad looking, but as atrociously dressed as was her husband whose clothes seemed to have been made about the year the Prince Consort died. Glancing at them now and again at lunch, Santley did not care for either face. Both were absolutely vacant, as far as showing character was concerned. That meant, in his experience, that they had either purposely kept their faces blank, which was not likely in the case of missionaries or, they had such feeble characters that no records showed. But missionaries—among the islands to which they seemed to have been sent, many of whom were inhabited by cannibals...surely courage, and devotion to duty, and love of God, and a contempt for comfort, and even for life, should all be recorded. Yet not one of these qualities showed. The woman, when she smiled—that drawer aside of veils as a rule—merely looked sly. But the man looked like a fat lug, Santley thought. Yet both the children seemed devoted to them. Santley told himself that he must be unjust.
The usual skirmish between the twins took place as they were leaving, after having been quite remarkably good during the meal itself.
"I saw Dod this morning," Dilly announced with understandable pride in her tone.
"You didn't! You never did! No one never did!" came from Dolly in tones that were indignant, yet just a trifle awed.
"Saw God?" Moncrieff repeated, grinning, "What was He like?"
"Just an eye in the clouds—like on the nalter cloth—Ann told us that meant Dod—'broidered on the nalter cloth. Well, I saw, the same eye in the clouds looking down at me."
"That wasn't God," Dolly said contemptuously now, "God isn't just an eye! He looks like Great Uncle John."
"Dod isn't old," Dilly said to that. "Great Uncle John's ever so old."
"Yes He is. He's lived ever since—oh, ever since ever!" Dolly said firmly. "Hasn't He, Mr. Mish?"
"Since the beginning of time," came in a sonorous, pulpit-like tone from the missionary, who was eyeing his refilled glass with a look of ecstasy.
"So He's older than Great Uncle John!" Dolly said triumphantly. "Lots!"
"But, Mr. Mish was all wrong about David and Jon'than. Ann said so. He's wrong now!" Dilly said, uncrushed.
"I said YOU were all wrong," Ann explained promptly.
"'Muddied up with Cain and Abel,' you said, but it was Mr. Mish was muddied. I told you 'xactly what he told me. All 'bout how they fought, and how David killed Jon'than with a stone!"
Mr. Mish spluttered into his wine glass and all but choked at the laughter that swept round the room. Mrs. Mish gave Dilly a look which, to Santley, suggested a fondness for skinning small children. That look seemed to Santley oddly out of place. Every one was laughing at the child. Now Mrs. Mish was laughing too. As was her husband. But why that look of real fury and of something rather horrid...vindictive...? Santley told himself that he was getting to read all sorts of black things into the simplest expressions, just because he disliked the couple.
But they were not coming down again. They spoke of a fortnight in town to let Mr. Mish work at the London Library and then they expected to return to Galapagos.
"What a life for a pretty girl!" Flavelle said, as Ann vanished from sight a few minutes later with the Mishes and the children.
"And with missionaries thrown in," Goodenough said rather sourly. "But if a wilful woman maun hae her way, what of a wilful girl?"
"Rather a dreadful couple..." Flavelle went on slowly. "Forgive my criticising your guests, Lavinia—" Lavinia's smile gave her the 'Mishes' to say what she liked about, "—but personally I should count the spoons. He has a taking eye."
"The poor chap shows how frightfully fattening bananas and breadfruit and cocoanuts are." Goodenough looked with pardonable complacency at the reflection of his own spare frame in the glass opposite.
"I'll put Harry on it," Lavinia said promptly. "He's getting so thin that I'm worried every time he walks over grating." And the talk became frivolous.
AFTER the lunch was over, they all sat smoking and talking round the table. The chief topic was furnished by the tableaux, which were to be rehearsed in full dress to-morrow afternoon. Santley learned incidentally that the Moncrieffs had guaranteed a hundred pounds to the fund as their takings from the pictures. Lavinia laughingly said that if the expenses were covered, the Major and she would be surprised. As he looked around the very casually furnished room, he wondered at the ease with which they had put their names down for a sum which many people in their apparent circumstances would consider needlessly generous. Mrs. Phillimore had spoken of this odd effect of plenty and of scarcity. Santley studied Lavinia covertly. She was certainly very haggard under her make-up, and yet he saw no sign of fear of her husband, nor of being really unhappy. She was unusually silent, that much was true, but Santley thought the latter might be due to the fact that Flavelle Bruton kept up a running fire of quips and glittering chaff which rather monopolised the conversation.
Pusey was announced as they still sat chatting, and Santley saw the swift expression of intense uneasiness which crossed Lavinia's face at the name. Her manner, too, as the young man came in, was coolness itself. Santley now remembered that it had been very distant when he had met Pusey here before. The young man seemed to haunt the house. Glancing at Goodenough, Santley saw no signs of annoyance, except that he eyed Pusey very steadily while the younger man mentioned, as an excuse for dropping in again, that he was putting up at the rectory, and, as the tableaux were set for Saturday, he had wondered whether they might like an extra helping hand with the preliminary preparations. Moncrieff accepted before Lavinia could refuse, as she was going to, Santley thought. He wondered what Lavinia saw in Pusey with his pleasant face and easy manner to dislike. True, there were lines in his face that suggested anything but an easy-going character underneath the light manner, but why should that vex Lavinia?
"I suppose you'll want to go bird-nesting with Miss Bladeshaw and the twins?" she asked the newcomer suddenly, as he and her husband began to talk in quick, low tones together.
Pusey nodded, laughing. "Charmed. Have you warned the birds? How does Miss Bladeshaw explain it to the twins? Isn't a bird's nest its own?"
"Oh, you're only to locate them, let the twins see the eggs and pass on. It's the idea of some missionaries who're down for the afternoon. But Ann will love to have you—"
Pusey asked if he might drop in for tea should the nests prove so easy to find as the children seemed to expect, received a grudging invitation to "come by all means," and went off. Lavinia's eye was on her husband as he went, but it distinctly and plainly intimated that she wanted Pusey to go off alone.
Santley wondered whether a suggestion of making a sketch of the Major would meet with approval. It did, from both husband and wife.
The artist really wanted to establish some sort of personal touch with his prospective sitter. So far, Moncrieff was very elusive. Genial, cheery, but as though the man himself were always absent. Under the circumstances, seeing what dreadful suspicion on Mrs. Phillimore's part accounted for his own presence in the house, Santley very decidedly wanted the real man to be present, not absent, and to get a good look at him.
Going up to his rooms, Goodenough passed him on the stairs.
"Pretty cool!" he murmured. Moncrieff had delayed in the dining-room for a word with Lavinia. "Pretty damned cool! I mean Pusey and Ann. She didn't ask me to join her party!" And he stamped on to his own room.
Moncrieff came running up. He was not very light on his feet considering how athletic he looked, Santley thought. He too looked rather put out as he strolled aimlessly about, begging Santley to pose him as he preferred.
Santley never posed people in a hurry. To him a painted pose was a revelation of the man himself. He let Moncrieff finally come to rest by the mantel with his back to the wall. One elbow on the marble shelf, one hand in his pocket. Santley rather liked the figure against the light of the window. It looked important. It bulked. He laid a black runner on the white marble. The severe effect suited Moncrieff. He put a jade ornament on the black, and mined it. He suddenly realised that if any ornament was to be there at all, it must be modern. Leaving the mantel alone he sketched swiftly. Moncrieff had an easy face to draw. His bones were good and sharply defined. Afterwards would come the difficult part. Santley blocked in the head in a few minutes. Moncrieff stirred.
"By the way, as you're here, I should very much value your opinion of a bit of old jewellery I picked up the other day. It's for Mrs. Phillimore. She's fond of such things, and she's an awful brick, and I want to be sure the thing's right."
"Have you it here?" Santley asked. He wanted to put on painting Moncrieff for a bit.
"I'll fetch it." And Moncrieff hurried out, to come back in a moment, a package in his hand. It reminded Santley of the box of chocolates which he had taken to Brussels for Lavinia.
"She's an awful brick," Moncrieff went on, "and I'm afraid she didn't have a very amusing time down here. I was frightfully busy, and so was Lavinia. And, then the drains..." this last was added hurriedly, as an afterthought. "Look!" Moncrieff undid a leather case and held out a necklet.
Santley took it with delight. It was a charming thing. Blue oval moonstones and small round cabochon sapphires with silver links, and here and there a tiny pearl.
Moncrieff seemed pleased at Santley's enthusiasm.
"It's Finnish," Moncrieff explained. "I saw it some time ago in Talinn when I happened to be there, and thought of Lavinia's mother. I'm glad you approve of it. Personally, I liked it immensely, but I don't know anything about such things..."
For a moment Santley thought of painting Moncrieff with the piece of jewellery in his hands, but antiques did not go with Moncrieff's face. He looked essentially modern as he stood there. Santley was searching for the fundamental, or dominant, characteristic of the man. Studying him now as only the painter can study the sitter, analysing him, breaking him up into moral constituents, Santley found that they eluded him.
"You see," Moncrieff went on dreamily, swinging the necklace by one long, brown forefinger, "I'm awfully fond of Mrs. Phillimore. And I was a bit of a beast to her. Really downright rude!"
Santley thought of her account of the chase around the morning-room, and nodded. But of one thing he was certain. This man was not mad. He had not yielded to any sudden whim. Whatever he had done would be much more likely to have been planned, as this showing to Santley of the gift might be. Santley was on his guard.
Suddenly, and, as far as he was concerned, for the first time, Moncrieff's face came to life. Turning, the artist saw that he was looking through the window at the main road, which was visible from where he stood. On it were a couple of cars. Fairly large sized. They were racing each other. Now one, now the other drew ahead. Finally one kept the lead and vanished round the corner.
"Well, of course, if he lets himself be beaten!" came with profound contempt from the Major. "With any guts he could have raced ahead of that tin pot, even on one wheel. He's in a 'four—and—a—half' Lagonda. She can do 94 on top."
And Santley looking into his stirred face and brightly lit eyes, saw a man who loved a race.
"You're fond of motoring?" he asked.
"I like a car," came the answer in a guarded voice and the face became blank again and hard to read, "though there are more comfortable ways of getting about. Goodenough is right when he says that it's swank that makes a fellow always arrive in a car, no matter how long the distance. Actually, of course, he'd do a ninety mile journey, say, in much more comfort in the train, and as fast." And with that he stopped abruptly, and Santley saw quite another face stare out of the window—down into the garden this time. In the loop of the drive leading to the garage, overgrown with grass and weeds, stood two men talking together. One was in immaculate shirt sleeves, and plus fours which came from a good tailor; the other was a worn and ill-fitting suit of some kind, that looked as though it had been slept in many times. The man in the shirt sleeves had a spanner in his hand, and seemed to be trying to get away from the other. And now Santley saw that Moncrieff, too, had retreated into the room, only craning his head forward to watch what was going on below.
The beggar—he looked like one, and held himself like one—seemed to be pleading. Surely something about him was familiar. The man in the trim shirtsleeves shook his head, and pointed angrily to the house as though telling him that that was where the orders came from. The other turned and gave the house a swift, almost frightened look over his shoulder, and Santley knew him in the instant. It was the man whom he had seen in Battersea Park, the man to whom Moncrieff had given some money—not for the first time, according to his aunt.
Santley stole a look at Moncrieff now as the man hurried back to the gates, and through them out of sight. There was a very grim, relentless look on the Major's face. A dangerous man to cross, Santley decided. He wondered whether this was the face that Mrs. Phillimore had seen when alone with him, the face that had chased her around the table, if so, he did not wonder at her agitation; but again he was certain that the man was not mad. Nor was he a drinker, Santley thought, nor yet a taker of drugs.
"Anything wrong?" Santley now asked.
"Wrong?" Moncrieff turned back to the mantel. "No. Or at least, it won't be so for long. I mean—" He seemed to recover his temper, "Did you see that beggar? Fancy any man having the face to beg with all the work on the roads around here. There's a job for any chap who wants it, and has two pairs of arms and hands."
"That chap has," Santley replied, "uncommonly powerful ones. As he shot out a hand a minute ago, his wrist looked as though made of steel and whipcord."
The Major eyed Santley without speaking for a moment. "You have to be observant, of course, to paint as you do. Ever seen the chap before? I mean, did you see him hanging round the house when you came?"
"He passed me in Battersea Park one day last week," Santley said to that, and Moncrieff's face grew expressionless on the instant.
"Oh? What was he doing?"
"Swearing under his breath, I thought," Santley said, placidly. "He had a bundle of pound notes in his hand."
"Seems an odd combination," Moncrieff said with a questioning inflection in his voice, but Santley went on with his canvas.
"Shouldn't wonder if the notes were some I had just handed him," Moncrieff said next, with a wary eye on the other. "I had met him, too, last week in Battersea Park. The fact is—in strict confidence—he used to work for me years ago. I had to sack him because he drank. He never meant to, you know, always chock full of the best intentions; but every now and then, after going straight, he'd turn into the nearest pub and have to be carted home, I'm sorry for him,"—Moncrieff did not look it—"but even Heaven only helps those who help themselves, and poor Lee won't lift a finger to get himself out of the ditch. He wants me to do it all—put him back at his old job. I had no idea he knew where I lived. This is going to be a nuisance. If he comes cadging here—" and again his face grew grim and forbidding.
"What are you going to do about it?" Santley asked; there was a line around the nose that he wanted to get clearer.
"Kick him out. Or get Edwards to. But Edwards likes me to do that sort of thing myself. You saw him just now evidently assuring the other that it all lay between me and him—as it does."
So the trimly dressed man had been Edwards. He had looked a gentleman in some indefinable way, even from this distance, even in his shirtsleeves.
"Who is Edwards?" Santley asked.
"My chauffeur. He's a gentleman really, but hard times, I suppose, have made him temporarily take a situation."
The face became very wooden again. Moncrieff clearly had no intention of talking about Edwards. Santley painted on. That explanation about the money given on the park bench! Could it be a true one! Moncrieff was not a liar by preference. He was much more the type to tell the truth and damn the consequences; but why that appearance of parting as from a stranger when the two men had risen from the bench as one of the park keepers came up? Lee, if that was the real name of the poorly dressed man, had not given one look towards Moncrieff—towards the man who had handed him those notes.
However, Santley told himself now, that accompanying the money, the gift of the money, might have been some words exhorting the other to mend his ways which had so infuriated the drunkard that, at the moment, the gift counted for nothing. Yes, he told himself, Moncrieff's explanation was quite possible, and took away the touch of something underhand—secretive—which to his aunt had meant blackmail.
Even the fact that the two had been seen by her on the bench before, and that money had then too passed between them, was explained by Moncrieff's words. He was evidently doing more than he said. He was trying to let the man have a chance to live while looking for work.
Moncrieff again caught sight of something moving in the garden. He had keen eyes evidently.
"Ann, and the twins," he said smiling, "the blessed twins! I took them on 'to oblige' as the charlady puts it, and now I wouldn't do without them."
"Cousins of yours, aren't they?" Santley mumbled around a couple of brushes between his lips.
Moncrieff nodded carelessly. "Distant. My only kin now their great-uncle's dead. Funny old chap he was. Didn't care for money, but made it as most men give out nitrogen—couldn't help but make it. Funny world!"
"The twins will be wealthy then?" Santley asked without paying much attention to the talk.
"Anything but!" came sharply from Moncrieff. "Three hundred a year between the two of them. The old man spent and lost as freely as he made. One-fifty apiece is safety, but not riches."
"Just enough to spoil them thoroughly if they were boys," Santley said. "Either be poor, or have a modest capital, but not an annuity."
"They're girls, so it won't matter," Moncrieff said, speaking now as casually as Santley. "The estate allows us three hundred a year till they're of an age to go to a good school. May they come up here and see the picture?"
Santley had no objections, and Moncrieff halloed an invitation out of the window.
The twins did not think much of the picture.
"You look cross, Cousin Harry!" said Dolly. "Come and see our glass houses. Real glass!"
"Real plants," came from Dilly, "in real pots!"
"And you can water them with real water!" finished Dolly.
"It's a gift from the Mishes," explained Ann, "awfully good of them. Two darling little glass houses with sloping glass roofs that open up and let them get at the staging...I don't wonder the twins like them."
"I don't like mine," said Dolly, dancing up and down on the carpet. "I love mine!"
"Quite so, darling, but I didn't want to exaggerate," Ann explained.
"But you shouldn't exsmallerate either," protested Dolly. "I love mine more than Dilly does!"
"You don't! I love mine more! Ever so much more!" squeaked Dilly.
Santley looked at Ann with a grin, and Major Moncrieff, a child clinging to each arm like an affectionate young octopus, went out, and down the stairs.
"New methods seem to leave old sinners unregenerated," he murmured.
"It is difficult!" Ann said a little helplessly. "It's so frightfully important not to intrude one's own personality into that of a child's, but it's so frightfully difficult to keep them in order without."
"Intrusion of slippers being banned, I remember," Santley laughed.
"That's what the Mishes wanted to talk over," she said, perching on a chair. "They run the orphanages on the island on the old methods of punishments and rewards, Which is entirely wrong—"
"And yet," Santley laughed, for there had been longing In her tone, "which worked? Have they left? The Mishes, I mean?"
"Yes, just come back from seeing them on the train. The twins adore them. And I don't wonder!" She hesitated, then she began to laugh a little. "The nests weren' t real," she said under her breath.
He looked his inquiry.
"We've been bird-nesting—or rather looking for nests, and the Mishes pointed out five. Five nests in one afternoon's stroll! I became suspicious, for I'd drawn the same hedges blank only this morning. So I went back and had a look at one. Took it out of the hedge. It was artificial, and so were the eggs. Perfect little copies but bought where they bought those enchanting glass houses, I'll be bound. Hamlin's in Regent Street, as a first guess. Now wasn't that dear of them to go to all that trouble just to amuse two little kids?"
"And their governess." he added. "You've been awfully good to them, remember."
"Oh no, it wasn't for me, it was for Dolly and Dilly," she said.
"Yet they're not millionairesses," he murmured, "or are they?"
He spoke idly, but nevertheless the idea of the two people with whom he had lunched going to any great trouble for the sake of two unimportant little children, seemed to him to be out of drawing somewhere.
She shook her head. "Three hundred a year between them. That's all."
"Let me see," he ruminated aloud. "Isn't your uncle the Bishop of Polynesia?"
She laughed and nodded. "But they don't know that. No, no, I know they don't. From something they said about him. A rude, but probably true, remark they would never have made had they known we are connected. Nor would that make any difference. He hardly knows of my existence, though I believe he did baptize me when he was a curate. No, it's real goodness of heart that makes them take so much trouble." She fell silent on that, and her face lost its laughter, and grew steadily more thoughtful.
"What about Pusey," he said, "did he detect the pious frauds?"
"Oh, he didn't stay with us. He only started out, and then excused himself, and made a loop back to the house. Back to the Major, I suppose."
"No, Moncrieff was up here with me, being painted."
But Ann seemed to have no interest in Pusey. Her face looked wistful, Santley thought.
"Is Victor anywhere about?" she asked finally, with a patent effort at a casual tone.
"Grinding his teeth in his room, I fear, at the thought of you and Pusey off with the Mishes and the twins." He spoke with comic dryness, but Ann did not smile, and it usually took very little to make her laugh gaily.
"I don't think he would grind them long or hard," she said, and then suddenly she turned to the artist. "I don't think he would care a bit!" Her voice was low but pained. "The fact is, Saint—" she often called him that—"I've lost him for the sake of those infants—who infinitely prefer the Mishes. Oh, yes, I've lost him. He thinks me too fond of teaching—"
"Intrusion of personality," murmured the artist wickedly, and felt remorseful as he saw her wince.
"I suppose it IS a fault. I'm not really a prig. But if you like teaching, and I do, and you love children, and I do, and you do believe you're shaping immortal souls for Heaven, and my father being a parson, I do believe that too, well, what better hobby can you have?"
Santley had never liked Ann better. She looked very young, and sincere, and rather panic-stricken.
"The twins played with balloons all the way back from the station—oh, yes, gifts from the Mishes, of course. Do you remember how as a child you thought you were holding them tight, and then you found they had floated away, and were far out of reach against the ceiling? Victor makes me feel like that all day. As though he were floating away from me."
Santley could not say "Well, darling, let him float!" Young people in love feel it to be so tragically important, And perhaps it is.
"He won't float far, nor for long," he said instead.
"You mean I must get a better grip on him?" she asked with a return of her usual manner. "It's too silly his minding about Pusey. The boy doesn't come to see me really. He wants a word with the Major about something, and uses me as a sort of 'hide.'"
"I don't mind," she said carelessly, "but it's a quaint position. Somehow one expects it to be t'other way to. But he doesn't count, one way or the other. Only it's irritating—being misunderstood."
There was a short silence.
"Forgive my vapours!" she said with honest compunction, "I'm not often given to them. But ever since Mrs. Phillimore left, I've felt out of sorts, or on edge, or as though something unpleasant were hanging over me. It's just fancy." She got up resolutely and went to the window, but she wheeled at it and faced him with a frown on her smooth low forehead. "Of course, it's just fancy. Isn't it? I mean, Lavinia is fond of this Miss Bruton, isn't she? And the Major does love Lavinia, doesn't he? And—and—" she did not finish, for the twins burst in.
"If you 'mell a 'mell, it's me!" shrieked Dilly.
"'Tisn't! it's me!" claimed Dolly, twirling on her toes.
"I fell into the lavender."
"Yes, but I stepped on a ger-grani-um." Dilly was not to be downed by any claims of her sister's.
"The gardener will be pleased!" Ann said, collecting the children, picking up the bits of lavender and leaf, and calling for Nannie, who had just come into sight. They left in a chattering bunch.
Moncrieff laughed, and he and Santley went on down together for cocktails. In the hall a man was standing. He wheeled to face them. It was a police superintendent.
"Good-afternoon, sir," he said at once to the Major.
"Afternoon, Superintendent. Want me? Not for exceeding the limit of safety this time. Any slower and I shall be had up for backing into things on the road." There was mockery in Moncrieff's voice and eye.
The superintendent, a clever looking man, one of the new type, said that he had heard that the Major and Mrs. Moncrieff were giving a party on Saturday, and that some good jewels might be worn. As the Major knew, there had been many jewel thefts in the neighbourhood lately, and the police would like to know what precautions they were taking against thieves.
"Have a cocktail," Moncrieff said hospitably.
The superintendent declined. Stiffly, Santley thought. The police officer's eyes ran over him with a very searching look in it. Santley felt sure that he was catalogued down to some wrinkles in his left sock, of which he had just become aware.
"If you'll be so kind as to give me a list of the guests, sir," the superintendent went on, "I could have a man outside at the gates to check the arrivals."
"Won't be necessary. It's not a State Ball, you know, officer."
The superintendent did not smile. "I heard that some tableaux vivants are to be shown," he persisted, "and that some of the ladies, and gentlemen too, taking part in them, might be wearing very valuable jewels—"
Lavinia had come out of a room near by and stood listening.
"The superintendent must be thinking of Mrs. Brenville's brooch," Moncrieff said to her now, with a grin. Mrs. Brenville was the postmistress.
They both declined the superintendent's offer, and very stiffly he left, after giving Santley another long look.
"I must be Bill Sykes' double," the artist observed, strolling over to the mirror and examining his long, ugly face with interest.
"I don't wonder he's careful," came from Mr. Ayres, who seemed to have heard what had just passed, though Santley had not seen him in the hall. "There have been a most disturbing number of houses broken into not far from here, and some very valuable property taken. I was reading this morning of a diamond necklace belonging to one of the Duchess of Eastshire's American guests having been stolen, together with a rope of pearls, only last night. I wonder you weren't held up by the police on some of your nightly runs, Moncrieff," Ayres went on, reaching for the shaker on the cocktail table.
"I had luck," Moncrieff said to that. "I always did have luck. Here's to more of it!" And he raised his glass with a curiously triumphant look at his wife. Lavinia caught it and returned it. Something vehement, passionate and almost savage came into her face as she stretched out a hand and laid it on his free one.
Something in the look of each hinted at a meaning known only to themselves. A joke, or jokes, which no outsider shared. Lavinia's expression, to Santley's thinking, even excluded her husband. It was definitely and exultantly solo, he thought.
He wandered out into the garden. A few minutes later Ayres joined him.
"Have you seen the Zoffany?" Ayres asked politely. "At least, it may be a Zoffany. As an artist, it might interest you. It's a portrait of the twins' great-uncle."
"The one who was not so old as God?" Santley asked, laughing at the recollection.
"They spoke of him as still alive. He's been dead these ten years, before the kiddies were born. But the picture is in their schoolroom. Come this way." He led Santley to the little cottage off one side, and pushing open the front door, took him into a pleasant sunny room, where over the mantel hung what Santley called a daub. A copy of a copy, he decided in one glance.
"John Calvin Moncrieff," he read aloud. For it had its name fastened to the gilt frame. He hoped to avoid having to pass an opinion on its quality or authenticity. "Sounds familiar...Calvin Moncrieff...or was it Bruce Moncrieff...Was he famous in any way?"
"Bruce was his son. Only son. Only child. You, evidently like most people, read of the tragedy in the papers. He was kidnapped in the mountains near Athens. The father refused to pay, thought it bluff...or that they wouldn't dare to go to extremes. But they had already killed poor Bruce when they sent the father the note asking for the ransom. Ghastly business!"
Vaguely it sounded familiar to Santley, who did not dare confess how little he remembered of it all. "I was with Calvin Moncrieff at the time. Just by chance," Ayres went on. "We met on the boat going to Athens. Moncrieff—he was Captain then—was taking part in the first Monte Carlo Rally—"
"For motor-cars, isn't it?" Santley asked vaguely.
Ayres nodded. "Moncrieff thinks it's the finest race in the world. He had chosen Athens because of the 1000 points to be won by starting from there—supposing you ever reach the Quai de Plaisance at Monte Carlo, that is. A mere two thousand miles of mud and ice and precipices and wolves and brigands away." Ayres turned from the picture and strolled to the window. They had the cottage to themselves at the moment. "Victor Goodenough and Bruce Moncrieff were at Balliol together. They came along with the older Moncrieff, partly for the cruise, partly to see Harry Moncrieff start. At least Bruce wanted to see him off. Goodenough isn't keen on cars. He's always blamed himself for not going out with Bruce that morning. And it might have altered everything if he had. But the three of us stayed in the hotel at Athens. It was a beastly day, and the starting place was packed with Greeks, and God knows what other riff-raff. Some of them must have persuaded Bruce to be rushed off to a pass in the mountains where he could get magnificent pictures of the starters. Twenty cars set out from Athens that year, and dozens of other went part of the way with them. Well, that's all that was ever known of Bruce's fate. Even his body wouldn't have been found, but for the chance that some French press photographers had gone on higher up the same pass, and coming back found Bruce with his head battered nearly off. Marks of a motor-cycle were all around. He had had some sort of a meal, and must have been clubbed as soon as it was over. There was an autopsy, of course. The doctors said he must have been killed about five hours after leaving the hotel. Only five hours!"
There was a silence.
"Of course I was only a chance acquaintance, met him and his father for the first time on the boat," Ayres went on, "but it was ghastly. I stayed on with the father, helping to straighten out what had happened. Goodenough had to go back to Balliol, but he couldn't stick it. He left at half term and went out East. The father too, couldn't face going back home again. He went to Australia and finally settled there—he was a banker—and made a huge pile in land and mines."
"Were the kidnappers ever caught?" Santley asked, following the other out into the garden again. It was a terrible story. It seemed to darken the sunlight.
"Never. The authorities insisted that he had been lured to his death by an English guide he often used, and it was true that Bruce spoke no modern Greek. But signs would have done the trick. In that excited crowd."
"He wasn't seen?" asked Santley.
"Seen?" Ayres was almost shrill. "My dear fellow, you have no idea how Athens was packed that week. Have you ever been there?"
Santley had. But not to the Athens where motor-cars start for Monte Carlo. He had stood of an evening on the Areopagus, after a day spent in "marching through an ether of surpassing brightness." He had sat in the Seat of the High Priest, and the twelve gods of Olympus had sat there with him, as they had when they tried Ares in the old days, the days when they and the world were young. The grove of Academus—the knoll of Colonus—he had seen them grow purple in the fading light. He drew a deep breath. Yes, he had seen Athens, and this tale of murder...it was just such a tale of crime as must have been told to the Fathers of the City many a time—a young man waylaid, held to ransom—a rich father—murder. If you called the motors, 'chariots '...
"Well, if you've never seen the place," Ayres went on, "you wouldn't believe how small it is. The streets are wide enough. But they were crammed to bursting point that week as I say. Harry Moncrieff didn't start till the next day, something broke at the last minute and he wasn't at the starting pits, but he never even caught sight of poor Bruce, who may have been quite close to him, for at least a few minutes."
"What a dreadful story," murmured Santley.
"Dreadful!" agreed Ayres. "Goodenough swore at the time that he would never rest till he found out the truth. But what could he do? He never refers to it, and goes out of the room if one mentions it."
"I don't wonder!" Santley said. "I read about it at the time, but I never connected it with Major Moncrieff."
"Why should you? Bruce was a very distant kinsman. Too distant almost to reckon up. But it was a frightful shock to him."
"Rewards were offered, I suppose?"
"Big ones. By the Greek government, as well as by the father. But nothing came of them except to bring forward a lot of liars. Bought witnesses, of course."
"Had he much money on him?"
"Fifty pounds. Not a penny when the body was found. Also, of course, what probably happened was that the scoundrels heard those French pressmen coming, and decided to cut their losses. Evidently Bruce was putting up a fight, and they just clubbed him, and ran for it on their cycle."
Santley gave a shudder, and the two went back to the house.
AT dinner that night Lavinia was called away to the telephone. She came back looking rather worried.
"The Grayson girls have the measles," she said wearily.
"Kind of you to care," Flavelle Bruton said in her deep voice, "but why this look of deep anxiety?"
"They are our two Greuzes," Lavinia explained. "Two pictures gone out of our dozen...Amy Grayson as the Girl with the Broken Jug was perfect, wasn't she, Oliver?"
Santley agreed that she had made a splendid living copy. Ayres suggested in his mild voice that possibly he might be made into something—with spectacles and a wig "Uncle Toby sort of thing..."
"Too late for clothes to be made," Lavinia said to that, after thanking him for the offer.
"I have a friend who would do magnificently, as he is, for 'A bullfighter by an Unknown Spanish Painter,'" Flavelle threw in. "Don Plutarco Ramon is his name. Young as he is, he's considered to be the greatest espada in the world. And the only man of good family to take to the sport. And he has the most gorgeous clothes. With him in town, too. He's afraid to leave even an umbrella in Spain these days."
"Will he come?" Lavinia asked in a tone which showed how much she would like to have him. "But perhaps he won't like posing."
Flavelle laughed. "He'll love it. He adores the ring. And no wonder. It's the finest sport on earth for a man who, like himself, loves danger."
"What about car racing?" Moncrieff said sharply.
"Machines?" Flavelle's tone was like the flick of a whip. "All right for machine-made men. But Ramon—he loves nature—"
"And horses?" threw in Moncrieff, nastily.
"Oh!" she tossed her head impatiently, "what about the race-courses. What about the fate of the horses who don't win anything worth having?"
"No, no!" Moncrieff said to that, "they're not tortured."
"Well, horses or no, bull-fighting is the finest sport in the world," Flavelle repeated, her cheeks flushed. "In the long run the odds are against the bull, of course—" as Mr. Ayres murmured words to that effect, "but at each actual moment they're against the bull-fighter. Which is why so few men are taking to the profession. But Ramon loves it. He loves a risk. He's like me in that!"
"A well-matched couple," Lavinia laughed as though delighted; "when is the wedding to be, Flavelle?"
Miss Bruton only shrugged her shoulders "Quien sabe? I'm in no hurry to tie myself. Marriage seems to me very dull," and just for a second the green flicker flashed around the table. Lavinia did not seem to hear; but for the first time, as far as Santley knew to-day, Moncrieff gave Flavelle a long, hard stare. It was inimical. She met it, and it was his eyes which first turned away. But that only because he remembered that he was the host, Santley thought. He sensed a wave of animosity passing between the two. Each looked at the other as though they would like to hurt or maim. Santley thought of the little wax figure with the pin through the heart. Why was Miss Bruton getting a friend into the household? Merely to help out Lavinia from a difficulty about the tableaux, or did she think she needed an ally? Had the young woman seen anything that she thought threatened her friend's peace?
Then Ayres chirped in with some speech about the twins, and the tension relaxed, but Santley thought the Major and Miss Bruton watched each other secretly as though each felt the other's presence to be an irritant.
"That's one picture made up for, then," Lavinia was writing down the alteration. She had just telephoned a telegram to be sent to the Spaniard. "Supposing Don Plutarco can, and will, come down. But that still leaves a gap...By the way, Harry, Lady Murdoch was awfully pleased to hear that you would do some conjuring tricks. What have you decided on? She liked The Sheikh immensely, and The Disappearing Conjurer. You're down for ten minutes."
Moncrieff said he could do both in the time. He loved his "illusion stunts," as people called them. They were always successful, for they depended not on sleight of hand, but on his properties.
"For The Disappearing Conjurer I need an assistant rather like me in height, though it's wonderful how one can make up to match. How about you, Ayres?"
"I can't do tricks of any kind," protested Ayres so hurriedly that they all laughed. "Besides, I'm wanted to see to the curtains and that sort of thing. I'm a perfect prompter..."
"Don't want one here. I think we must rope you in as a co-conjurer. All you have to do is to wear a most comfortable rig, and appear in the door just after I have stepped behind a screen on the stage. You walk through the gaping audience, get on to the stage, walk round to the screen and I step on out and go on with my patter. It's absurdly easy, but if well-timed, always works. We must rehearse it together."
Ayres with a sigh said he would do his best.
"And The Sheikh is easier still," murmured Lavinia. "Just us two. But we're still a picture short—" she was working out a time-table. "Everything—band, supper—everything, has to be set to the minute, like so many alarm clocks. Flavelle, darling, surely you can help out some more. What about your own talents? Can't you dance a Spanish tortella, or something? Only five minutes? I know! Recite! You used to do it magnificently. And it's so long since people have had anything recited to them, it'll be quite new!"
"Right," said Flavelle. "And to make sure they've never heard it before, I'll give them something from Browning. Five minutes? Good. Count on me."
"What will you wear?"
"For Browning? I think my new white organdie with the blue sash and the little blue silk taffeta evening coat. I'll wear my hair in a net and look as Early Vic. as possible."
"Splendid!" Lavinia was at her gayest. "We'd better hurry up and finish dinner, we'll rehearse Harry's illusions once before the complete dress rehearsal to-morrow."
They all made a move to the large room in the empty wing where the performance was to be given on the Saturday. At the door Goodenough and Pusey collided. It was Goodenough's fault, Santley saw. Pusey took it as a joke, but Goodenough gave him a black look as he passed on.
"I really must be getting back," Pusey said to his hostess, who turned a smiling face to him, but Moncrieff put a hand on his arm, and said something to him in a low quick tone.
Santley went on up to his studio for something. As he passed through the hall again the two Moncrieffs were standing by the newel post.
"You're foolish!" Lavinia was saying earnestly. "I don't trust him, Jack! For all his smiles, I don't—" she caught sight of Santley and went on—"I think we need any further help, and I don't trust him not to drop some of the properties."
What had she really meant, Santley wondered idly...Seemed very odd...everything only slightly off the true, and yet the total effect was decidedly aslant.
Moncrieff said he wanted to do his two tricks first of all. The first one, rather a longish affair, went very well—he and Ayres were really quite alike when dressed in flowing robes and turbans, and black beards. His second trick was shorter, but more startling. Mrs. Moncrieff lay down on a narrow trestle table. She would be bound and gagged on Saturday and at the rehearsal to-morrow. Now she lay smiling so gaily that Moncrieff said he would pinch her unless she managed a look of anguish and horror at once. He explained that he was a Bedouin Sheikh, and that this woman was his captive. That he had expected a heavy ransom from her tribe, that it had not arrived, and so he had decided to cut his losses. She ate far too much for a robber chieftain to support—here Mrs. Moncrieff gave a screech of protest—but he waved her to silence and drew out a long glittering knife. He ran his fingers lovingly down the edge, and then with a whoop of delight appeared to plunge it straight into the centre of a knot of artificial flowers which she had fastened to her breast. He seemed to run it in up to the hilt, and so swift was his action, so fierce the thrust, that there was a horrified stir among those watching. Especially as Mrs. Moncrieff gave a convulsive shudder and then lay still. The Sheikh glared down at her, then he passed his hand across his brow, and murmured that he could hear the feet of the camels approaching bringing her ransom in gold, and precious stones. He was going to be out of pocket over this, he feared. And all because of a little impatience. Then he remembered a magic ring given him by a Jinn. Taking it off, he passed it over and around her, muttering incantations as he did so, and Lavinia, the knife still apparently sticking in her breast up to the haft, let him help her to her feet and bowed smilingly to the others.
"But how's it done?" came from every one. "Amazing! I saw it go in!"
"This is the secret," and Lavinia unfastened the clump of geraniums. With it came away a twisted sash of gold tissue. Inside the sash, wrapped around by it was a hollow, flexible, flat, brass tube which ran part way around her body, its opening hidden in the bunch of geraniums, its end under her arm. "See!" She showed the roller slide at its mouth, and Moncrieff plunged the knife in again and again. The blade was a property blade too, flexible as a piece of tinfoil, and it ran along the curved sheath with absolute ease.
"Suppose he bungled it though," murmured Flavelle, eyeing the whole thing with a frown.
"Yes, indeed!" breathed Ayres. "It's really too realistic to be comfortable to watch," he added.
"The knife would only buckle up," Moncrieff said, "and take the deuce of a time to straighten and polish again. It wouldn't pierce a pat of butter. Hello! Who's this? My word!" The last came in honest admiration, for a stranger stood in the doorway wearing the gorgeous rig of an espada—the bull-fighter who kills the bull. He was a splendid figure as he stood arm on hip, cloak thrown over it, one hand resting on a naked sword. In the other the muleta, the little stick with gay scarlet silk cords—the stick on which the maddened bull fastens his eyes, and for which he rushes when it is held out and shaken. Standing before them, beautifully balanced on the balls of his feet, as a feather might touch the ground before blowing away again, his eyes were fixed straight ahead of him with an oddly fatalistic expression in them, the expression Santley felt that they wore when seeing the bull in the flesh as Ramon was now seeing it in fancy—for it was Don Plutarco Ramon.
In a moment he moved. He fairly creaked with gold embroidery as he bowed.
"I was going to a costume dance at the Spanish Embassy," he explained, "and so, when your kind invitation came, I just got into my car, and here I am!"
Flavelle introduced everybody, and Don Plutarco gave to each a courtly bow. Her own hand he had kissed lightly. He was posed at once inside the gilt frame. He filled it magnificently, and yet sombrely. When he stepped down, he was besieged with questions as to the uses of this and that in his attire. Then Ayres asked in a nervous way how he gave the actual final thrust.
"Like this," Don Ramon's hand shot out with the muleta. He pressed his body lithely away from the hand that was holding it a-quiver, then, so quick that the eye could not follow it accurately, there came a flash of steel, and the espada made his marvellous stroke, plunging his sword down to the hilt, he explained, in a three-inch space between the bull's shoulder-blade and spine. Stepping back from his imaginary dead bull, Ramon gave a haughty little bow.
Santley watched him enthralled. Utterly fearless, loving danger, this young man was yet of a totally different type to Moncrieff, Santley decided. He wanted to paint him, naked steel in hand, his eyes looking straight ahead of him, just showing the whites under the over-large iris. He looked as though he could have the temper of a fiend. Not at all a type of his race, this, rather the product of a revolution. But whatever the cause, it was as though something new stood in the room. Something swift, and hard, and cutting. The Spaniard was looking at Moncrieff now, and the eyes, inscrutable though they were, showed hostile. Well, that was what Mrs. Phillimore wanted—friends of Lavinia's, not of her husband's. Was that why Flavelle Bruton had got this Spaniard into the house?
Santley became aware of Moncrieff asking him to lend a hand. Something had gone wrong with the trestle table.
"I'll ask Edwards to alter this caster—he'll do it like a shot," said Moncrieff.
A moment later the man whom Santley had seen from the window came in. He looked more unmistakably the gentleman than ever, and he spoke like one. Moncrieff, too, addressed him exactly as he would have a guest in the house. In a minute the other took a tool from a box, gave a couple of skilful turns and the thing was done. What he did, did not interest Santley, but his attention was riveted on the man's right hand. He had seen that hand before with its strength, and the crushed nail of the first finger. A moment more and Edwards, with a nod to Moncrieff who thanked him, left the room as though in a hurry. The rest of the party had broken up. Moncrieff and Santley were alone.
"You know that chauffeur of yours?" Santley said.
"Slightly," came the amused reply.
"I've seen him before—or rather that damaged right hand of his."
Moncrieff gave him one of his swift looks. "Really? Where?"
"Just closing the door of my bedroom in Brussels—this last time. When I took over the box of chocolates for Lavinia. The box that was taken from my room," Santley went into details.
"Edwards never eats chocolates," said Moncrieff dryly. "As to seeing his finger—as a matter of fact he was in Brussels that same day. Had to fly over for a spare part we wanted in a hurry. Had we known it he could have carried the chocs for little Gudule. But it was a sudden thing, his having to go. He would put up at the Adolphe Max—as he went by 'plane; and he evidently opened the door of your room."
"No man of the name of Edwards stayed at the hotel that day," Santley said shortly. "The only other Englishman signed his name as Green. He had a crushed nail. First finger of the right hand."
"Wonder is everybody's nails aren't damaged with so many trying to repair their own cars," Moncrieff said lightly, and turning the talk to the sinful charges at garages, he kept it resolutely there. Santley went on up to bed in a very grave mood. Mrs. Phillimore was right. Things were not as they seemed. The wife had handed him that package, The husband, he believed, had sent the chauffeur to get it, and Edwards had got it! Yet Lavinia did not seem to mind...and the stiffness of the superintendent, and the keen scrutiny which he had bestowed on Santley himself...The trouble was, things if moving and not drifting, were doing so very slowly. He was certain only of one thing, and that was that Moncrieff was not mad, and that he showed no signs of being a drug-taker. Beyond that all was guesswork.
Next morning the day began early, and hard labour was the order. Moncrieff breakfasted betimes, and with Edwards was busy directing arrangements in the empty wing. Local men were bringing in chairs, nailing boards together. Every one helped. Coats were piled on the chairs or the floor. As work went on, waistcoats followed. Lavinia, Flavelle, Ann Bladeshaw, and other women were in and out, tacking up draperies, or painting, or gilding.
Quicker than Santley had thought possible, the room became an auditorium and a raised stage. Dark red felt covered the latter. The big gilded frame with its layers of chiffon was put into position. Gold curtains were hung across the stage.
Don Plutarco Ramon was not of much use. But what he did was done with a beautiful accuracy and swiftness. Santley had an idea that he avoided his host. And Moncrieff certainly avoided him. Ayres and Goodenough worked well. Even Pusey, who had, it seemed, been asked by Moncrieff to stay over, worked so well that Lavinia included him in her general sunshine. She had never looked lovelier, Santley thought, as she smiled at him over a gilded gate.
Then the work slackened. Then it seemed done, and with streaming faces the men mopped their faces, and declared everything "Fine!"
The twins had been kept out of the way until now. Dilly was sick—in bed, the result of an effort to eat a toy cucumber, but Dolly appeared, feeling very superior to sick sisters. She had been busy with her glass house all morning, and now dashed in, spotted like a pard with the efforts to plant seeds properly and water them in. She wanted "Cousin Love," the name the twins had given Lavinia. Lavinia, hot but radiant, as she was to-day, put an arm around her and asked what she was to do.
"Will you please paint this for me," Dolly asked, looking guilty, "and do it quickly, and not—not let on. I've broken the door into the tool-shed from my glass house in getting out the watering can. But this is just as good. Only, please, will you paint it shiny for me?"
Lavinia gave her an affectionate squeeze, took the oblong of daubed cardboard, and gave it a coating of instantaneous drying "Oak varnish stain" which she had been using for other things. She stood it against the wall on a table, and Dolly floated round with squeaks of interest and delight. Pusey let her climb into the picture frame and peer out, then Ann called her away for a moment, and with a look at Lavinia and a finger to her lip, as she passed the varnished card, Dolly ran off, chased by Ayres, who said he was a lion.
"Beer," called some one, "and lashings of it!"
Pusey and Lavinia were alone. Ayres came back in.
"It's dry already," Lavinia said, first touching Dolly's card gingerly, and then taking it up. "Why, the little sinner has got hold of a photograph! One of Ann's, probably. Let's hope Ann gave it her, but Dolly has a disconcerting way of helping herself to anything handy which she has a use for. Why! hello!" This last inelegant exclamation was whispered more than spoken, as Lavinia stared at the snapshot.
"Mr. Ayres!" Lavinia's tone was almost hushed, "have a look at this! Who are these two? And whom does that face there remind you of? Where would you say this was taken?"
Mr. Ayres took the card and held it at arm's length, his head first on one side, then on the other. "Can't place them. Taken somewhere around Snowdon, I should say. Or the Peak country perhaps, though there's no sign of a rope. Now, do you think it's safe to put this painted chair against its curtain yet?"
Lavinia did not reply. She was studying the photograph. She had unusually good eyes, but she was peering closely at it. She slipped the brown varnished oblong into her handbag, and returned to the questions around her.
Santley, who felt that he had earned a rest, had gone on up to his rooms. He was working on Moncrieff's picture about an hour later, when he heard a scream. It was not loud, but it seemed to pierce the walls. He flung open his sitting-room door and saw, down the passage, eyes starting, hands clasped on her breast, Mrs. Moncrieff come racing, and behind her, an open, old-fashioned razor in his hand, stood the Major. His face was not like the one on which the artist had just been working, for it was the face of a madman.
"Mrs. Phillimore is right!" flashed through Santley's mind, but Moncrieff was calling out something.
"Yes, run!" he jeered. "Run! But you can't run away from what's coming to you!"
Lavinia flung herself into Santley's arms. "He's mad. He'll kill me!"
Santley swept her behind him into his own room, closing the door on her with one hand, while he kept his eyes on the terrible figure with the glaring eyeballs and the razor, until, with something more like a snarl than a human sound, the man turned, went back into his own room, and the door slammed shut behind him. Santley hesitated. Then he heard the Major turn the key in the lock, and at that the artist drew a breath of relief. The madman was shut up for the time being. He stepped back into his own room. Lavinia had sunk to her knees on the floor and was lying with her face hidden in her outstretched arms which were flung over a chair seat. She was shivering and trembling violently. At his entrance, she raised a ghastly face, and looked at him with eyes that seemed to have sunk far back in her head.
"Don't talk till you're better," Santley said gently. "Shall I take you up to town—to your mother?"
"Not I!" she said surprisingly and fiercely. "Leave, when to-morrow everybody who knows us will be here! Publish it to all the world? Never!"
"You've hidden it very pluckily," Santley said gently to that.
"And I won't give it away now," Lavinia said through clenched teeth. "I won't! I won't! Day after to-morrow, yes; but not before! The rehearsal this afternoon and the show to-morrow will go on just as we planned them." She spoke imperiously, and her face had regained some of its colour.
"But will it be safe? Is he—?" Santley hesitated.
"I can manage him," Lavinia said in a confident tone. "As I have before this," she wound up with a flash in her eye.
She puzzled Santley. This was quite a new woman to him. This Lavinia could face danger and square up to it. Eye, voice, carriage told him as much. But she mustn't be allowed to do it! That face in the doorway that he had seen...that open razor...never!
He put his feelings into words. Very urgent words. Lavinia seemed to snap her fingers at what he said.
"I can manage him," she repeated, "a razor? Oh, it was just a second's madness. He will be all right in a few minutes—by himself."
"But such attacks are dangerous," Santley said earnestly. "He may do some terrible injury to some one. You ought to have a doctor see him...find out the root of the trouble..."
"Day after to-morrow!" Mrs. Moncrieff said impatiently. Then she pulled herself together. She went to the mirror. She rouged her cheeks. She patted her hair into position again. Santley watched her speechless.
"Sorry, Oliver, so dreadfully sorry that I lost my wits." She turned to him when she looked herself again, but an older, harder self. "To come shrieking down the hall and to you like that! I'm ashamed of myself. No, no, I'm going back now. Oh, it'll be all right now." And confidently she went out into the passage. Santley, after trying in vain to hold her back, went with her. He felt boundless admiration—and suspense. She knocked on the door that he had heard locked. There was no reply.
"You must open," Lavinia said firmly and calmly. "Let me in! I want a word with you."
She had her hand on the door-knob, but it did not open the door.
"Let me in!" she repeated, "come, Harry! People will be coming up to dress. What does it look like, me out here, asking you to open the door?"
The door opened and Mrs. Moncrieff passed on in. Santley stood ready to rush to her assistance. As he stood tensely waiting, a sound reached him. Turning, he saw a door ajar behind him being pushed farther open still. A mirror showed in the slit, and in the glass he saw an outline.
This was evidently Don Plutarco's room. And he was in it. Then he must have heard Mrs. Moncrieff cry out. She had rushed past this very door.
Why had Ramon not come forward? Santley would have thought that any man would have leapt to investigate such a cry as she had given. Yet Don Plutarco Ramon, Hidalgo of Spain, had stayed hidden, within sound, but not in sight. Why? Was he a friend of the Major's? Moncrieff himself came out of his room at the moment, his arms full of clothes. His face was livid but firmly set, as he made for a room in the empty wing which he had called his property room only this morning. They had all been in it, while he had showed them with almost boyish enthusiasm his various equipments. From Sandhurst days he had loved disappearing cabinets, trunks with double sides, "property" rope which went to pieces under any strain. Santley heard Moncrieff shut the door firmly. He turned back to his own room. They must get an alienist down, and as soon as possible. But how would the rehearsal go off? And the performance to-morrow when the house would be crowded?
A tap came on his door. He opened it. It was Lavinia, looking very ghastly under her make-up, but with a resolutely gay smile.
"Please forget what just happened," she said urgently. "I'll think over what had better be done on Monday, but to-night and to-morrow everything is to go on just as it is."
"But it's not safe," protested Santley. "I beg you, my dear girl, to let me take you—"
"You may be sure I know best," she went on.
"It's madness!" Santley protested, "just as it was madness to go back into that room when you knew he had an open razor in his hand. Madness, Lavinia!" He spoke in a hushed but very urgent voice.
She shuddered violently for a moment. "Madness!" she whispered as though off her guard, and quite assenting. Then again she burst out under her breath, "It was all madness!" Then as she caught his bewildered expression, she went on, "However, I only stepped in now to say that everything goes on just as arranged, till after to-morrow."
"But—" Santley took one of her hands and found it icy chill, "suppose he misses that opening, and jabs you with his knife? Don't do that particular turn!"
And at that she gave a real smile which for the first time reassured him. "It couldn't hurt. It has no point or edge. Nor would he do it. I assure you, Oliver, there's absolutely no need to worry." Suddenly she reached up, and drawing his face to hers, kissed him. "I wish—no, I don't! It's been worth it!" And with that she ran out of the room.
She had calmed his fears, however. He felt that she knew what she was talking about. There was an absolute certainty in voice and eye that told him she was not acting.
THE rehearsal was to begin at five o'clock. Up to the last second Santley did not think that things would be ready. "The hour should have been five a.m. to-morrow, not p.m. to-day," he said to Ayres, who, looking very tired, nodded assent, as he staggered along under a load of what the shops call soft furnishings. But Santley was wrong. To the minute, Ayres and Goodenough were able to pull their curtains apart and show the first of the "Pictures," A Rembrandt Interior.
It was a great success. So were the ones that followed. But the honours of that particular part fell to the last. The Spanish Bull-fighter gained the reward of a second's dead silence before it was clapped. There was no invited audience to-day. But those not wanted on the stage or not busy dressing would slip into a seat and watch the stage a minute.
With the end of the tableaux quite a good many of the seats were filled. Friends and neighbours who had come in their cars to take part in the Pictures waited in good-natured interest to see what the entire show would be like. Santley knew some of them in spite of their fancy dresses, and his roving eye was caught by another face that he knew too, though less well. The man of Battersea Park, the man whom Moncrieff had seen in the garden yesterday talking to Edwards. Santley wondered whether he had any right to be here. He was neatly dressed, but he kept himself well flattened against the wall near the door. Then Ayres gave an unexpectedly amusing skit of an old gentleman trying to get his cat to perform for some friends. Afterwards he touched Santley on the shoulder.
"We're not going to do The Conjurer's Disappearance," he whispered. "Moncrieff has only just got back from town. He still has to change." Ayres slid away again, as Flavelle Bruton stepped on to the stage. She alone had not altered her dress from the tweed which she had worn in the morning. Santley stared at her. Was this Flavelle Bruton? This tall, ugly, girl whose eyes wore an expression of fury that fairly singed what they fell on.
Santley remembered now that he had not seen her for hours. What on earth had happened to her in the meantime? Had the tension between herself and Moncrieff culminated in a quarrel? Was that madman's face above the open razor to do with her, and was that why Lavinia had dared to go back alone into the room?
Miss Bruton came forward to the edge of the stage. She had decided, she said, to recite some verses from Browning's Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came instead of from Rabbi ben Ezra, as was down on the programmes.
She began at: "Burningly it came on me all at once—" and every one in the room was listening; every one felt that before them something real and terrible was happening, though they could not see it.
Her voice seemed to swell to the very roof. Standing rigid, she spoke the words as though from behind clenched teeth.
"By Jove, this is either fury incarnate, or it's genius!" whispered Doctor Andrews, got up for a Franz Hals. He was a well-known medical man from near by.
"Wild cats in a red hot iron cage—" rang out and the doctor nodded meaningly.
In a great rush, like dark wings uprising, the words went on. But when she came to: "Yet half I seemed to recognise some trick of mischief happened to me, God knows when—In a bad dream, perhaps." the voice cracked, the words were like sobs. Then it went on, harsh as before, until with a wild cry that shook them all of:
"Now stab and end the creature—to the heft!"
The right hand swept up and above the head, and then crashed down in a blow that drove an unseen knife deep into the vitals of something that lay before her.
Santley hardly heard the rest of the lines, not even when, with an imaginary horn to her lips, she rang out the finale:
"Childe Roland to the dark Tower came."
For a moment she stood, her hands now clenched at her side, a grim glare slowly passing around her spellbound audience. Then she walked off the stage, and a door crashed shut behind her. Santley drew a deep breath. Every one in the room drew a deep breath. Pop eyes asked of pop eyes, dropped jaws of dropped jaws, what on earth they had been watching. Was this acting? Or was this how dear old Browning should be recited, or was it special to this particular poem, or was this merely a lady in a rousing, rearing, swearing rage? If so, what had caused it? Did she often come unstuck like this? Santley was glad of the next item, a couple of Eastern Dances by some young girls, execrably stiff and amateurish, in spite of next to nothing on.
"Exercises to keep warm," mumbled Doctor Andrews scathingly from behind his pipe.
Then came The Sheikh.
The curtains were drawn back to show a large tent. In it Lavinia lay bound and gagged on a padded table covered with a scarlet Eastern shawl. Ayres and Goodenough, once the curtain cords were fastened back, were to go upstairs and be on hand to help Moncrieff should he get hooked up in anything. It was Ayres' suggestion. He was always offering to be on hand to help people. And Moncrieff had come in late.
Lavinia looked very white and very done, Santley thought, as she lay with closed eyes and a becomingly adjusted gag which she had fastened herself. He thought—rightly—that exhausted, she had fallen asleep before the Sheikh appeared on the stage through a door in the back of the tent. He made a magnificent figure as he stood there, towering above her with feathers in his huge turban, a long embroidered scarlet coat, voluminous white satin trousers, enormous green cummerbund from which dangled a perfect, arsenal of weapons, and scarlet slippers with turned-up toes. Yes, Moncrieff was in a hurry, Santley thought. He cut out all the explanations about his captive's ransom not having arrived. Instead, after merely waving his hands in the air while his long black beard quivered, and his eyeballs rolled, he drew out a sword and drove it down into the heart of the geranium cluster on Mrs. Moncrieff's breast. This part was exactly as rehearsed, and again an audible in taking of breath could be heard, as every one craned forward. Lady Murdoch gave a little excited giggle.
"Marvellous, isn't it!" she murmured of some one beside her. "Always so thrilling!"
Lavinia again gave her effective shudder. It was shorter and quicker over than this morning, but it was a very effective shudder. Then the Sheikh turned, and with a loud cry of what those who heard him considered effective "Easternry," and with both hands flung into the air, he rushed back off the stage. There was a pause.
"Forgotten his ring," thought Santley.
"Gone for a drink," muttered Doctor Andrews, who was short-sighted and had not changed his spectacles to the right ones in time to get the full benefit of what was passing on the stage.
"Breath-taking!" came from some one behind Santley appreciatively.
A sound reached them from somewhere in the house. It was either a door banged, thought Santley, or a tyre burst. Then there was silence again. It grew rather long. People stirred in their seats. The ring had got mislaid thought Santley, but surely any ring would do...at a rehearsal?
A woman who had posed as A Vandyke Lady, said rather sharply, "Well, I really must be getting back home...shall I help you down, Mrs. Moncrieff? Evidently it's the Sheikh who's been captured by some rebel tribesmen this time."
Every one laughed. More than the words called for. Pent-up emotions found an outlet. That thrust, and that silent shudder had been very dramatic. The lady stepped up on to the stage.
"Shall I help you down?" she repeated, bending over' the table. Then she gave a cry. "Doctor! Doctor Andrews! She's hurt! She's bleeding. She's—she's—"
Doctor Andrews was beside her in a moment. So was Santley.
"Good God, she's dead!" came from the medical man-as he bent over Mrs. Moncrieff.
Mrs. Moncrieff was most certainly dead by the look on her face from which the doctor had snatched the gag, and by the blood that had been soaking beneath her, and around her. Santley had often read the expression of feeling as though one were in a nightmare. Now he knew what it meant. The next thing he remembered amid the buzz of horror and exclamations was hearing some one rattle the handle of the door leading into the hall, the door by which the audience would enter to-morrow. It was not locked, Santley knew, and he thought it showed how unnerved every one in the house was, that whoever was outside did not walk in as usual.
A voice reached him. It did not sound at all like the voice of a rattled man. "Kindly open this door, some one!"
No one else seemed to pay any attention, but Santley, still half in a dream, crossed to it. Miss Bruton stood beside it, he now saw. At the same moment the voice spoke again, in a louder tone.
"I am Superintendent Tomlinson. Please unlock the door."
"The key must be on your side," Miss Bruton replied in a quiet, level voice. "Are you sure it's not?" In reply to a quick negative. "Just a minute then, it must have dropped out." She stood there, not looking for anything, but—to Santley—quite patently waiting. Something in her face sent a chill through him.
"The other door—" Flavelle Bruton now said, still speaking very quietly, "what about the other door? That's not locked."
"Yes, it is," came the instant reply. "Has anything happened inside there? Please find the key at once, if so. It sounds as though there were some sort of trouble. We must open the door ourselves if the key can't be found at once." The tone was not a threat but as one who promises support, and is anxious to relieve anxiety.
"The key has evidently dropped out. We shall find it," came from Flavelle, "or the lock has gone wrong. No one could have locked the door."
"What are you listening for?" Santley asked her abruptly.
She turned her eyes on him. He never forgot the expression in them. "Sh! That might have been a door that slammed," she murmured. Then as he stared at her, she threw at him impatiently, but still in a very low tone, "That noise just now. It might only have been a door. We must give him time."
"Give who time?" Santley was still dazed, but he whispered the words. "Time for what?"
Then he understood. Perhaps she was right. Of course she was right. It was the only way out for poor Moncrieff. But then there surged through his brain, unbidden, unwelcome as such visions can be, the picture of a demoniac face above an open, old-fashioned razor. And he was not so sure. Was this girl holding the police there until Moncrieff should escape? That must not be.
He spoke through the door.
"You'd better break in. We can't find the key. Mrs. Moncrieff has been killed. By a blunder."
In a second the door burst open under a blow that sounded as though a cannon had been fired.
The superintendent, rubbing his shoulder, came in with two policemen. Doctor Andrews looked delighted to see them. Every one looked delighted to see them—except the girl by the door who stood in the shadow. As for Santley, he eyed two more policemen who showed on the other side of the doorway. The constabulary seemed to have turned up in force. And before the accident too. Why, it might have been a crime which they had expected to happen, not a ghastly blunder. Again he saw that face and that razor, again he refused to look at them. The doctor was speaking now: "Quite dead. Instantaneous. Right through her heart. Poor woman. And poor man! He got hold of the wrong knife. Ghastly affair. No wonder he gave such a cry as he rushed off."
And suddenly Santley remembered what he had thought only natural at the time, that that cry had sounded forced—artificial—overloud—
The superintendent looked at the body before him. Santley saw his cheek muscles move as though he were clenching his teeth. He noticed how moved he looked as he stared down at the blood-stained cloth. Yet in spite of that, it spoke volumes for the training of our police, Santley thought, that in a situation which must have been absolutely novel to the officer, he appeared perfectly calm and collected.
"Please stay here until I have time to have a word with each of you." He addressed the room in general. "As you know, there appears to have been a dreadful accident. Mrs. Moncrieff is dead. I'll try to be as quick as possible."
"What had the Major forgotten?" suddenly asked a voice at the door, "and why is the back door locked? What's wrong?"
Every one stared at Ayres. Surely it was hours ago that the Major had rushed away with that loud cry? Ayres was looking from policemen outside to policemen inside. A screen stood between him and the table on which the body lay.
"What's gone wrong?" he repeated in his agitated babble, "he almost knocked me down just now in the passage. Oh!"
The superintendent had made a gesture. His two men outside had stepped clear of the doorway. Ayres had come in and now saw the table. "Oh!" came from him again in tones of horror. "Who—what—how in the world—"
"Where did you say you saw the Major? Quick, sir!" demanded the superintendent. But Ayres only gaped.
"I say, what's the matter with Moncrieff?" came again from the open door. "He's bolted himself in and won't answer. He dashed in like—" Goodenough stopped abruptly. In one stride he pushed through the two constables and was in the room, in another he was at the table and staring at what lay on it.
"Where is the Major?" asked the superintendent. "This lady is dead. Take us to his room at once, please."
"Poor devil! The wrong knife!" Goodenough looked at Santley and spoke the words under his breath, as he nodded to the superintendent and turned away with him. He wasted no time in asking how the accident had happened, nor how the police had got there so quickly. Santley followed the two. So did the doctor. So did Ayres.
Before leaving, the superintendent said a low word to his men, who took up positions by back door and window.
"This is the room—" Goodenough led the way up to the 'property room.' "I saw him rush in, and heard the bolt click."
One heave of the superintendent's shoulder as he grasped the knob and the door was open. The bolt fastened to the inside had but the flimsiest of holds, they saw afterwards. The superintendent rushed through the door with a look that suggested that for once something unofficial as well as official was moving him. Then he stopped, almost in the middle of his stride. There, sprawled on the floor, was the body of Major Moncrieff. A revolver lying half in and half out of his outflung right hand explained his position and the silence of the room.
"Thank God! He's taken the only way out," breathed Santley. The superintendent flashed him a non-committal but rather scathing glance. Sounds of agreement came from the doctor and Goodenough. Even little Mr. Ayres on the threshold nodded a stricken acquiescence.
"Shot himself through the right ear—bullet still in the brain...been dead only a minute or so..." the doctor, all professional now, murmured. "The best thing he could do," he too added. "Poor fellow! Poor fellow! I suppose he telephoned to you to come, and then pulled the trigger!"
The superintendent did not reply. He never went anywhere without a folding pocket camera, and he asked the doctor to stand back a moment while he took a few exposures.
"What for?" Doctor Andrews asked rather unwittingly.
"The coroner likes 'em," was the explanation and Andrews nodded. He had heard that Mr. Bennett liked all the red tape that he could get.
"Yes, put the pistol into his right ear and fired. There's the scorch ring." And again the doctor ended up with the remark that Moncrieff had done the best thing, and again the others murmured agreement, and again Santley thought that the superintendent gave them all a particularly unsympathetic glance; but that, he reflected, was probably the official attitude towards any suicide. Probably every police officer disapproved of felo de se as thoroughly as might a priest. His camera work done, the superintendent was carefully examining the revolver before wrapping it in waxed paper. Doctor Andrews meanwhile scribbled a line to say that the wound fitted the size of automatic found in the dead man's hand, that the wound bore every indication of being, as the position of body and weapon suggested, self-inflicted; that death had certainly taken place a very few minutes before they had all entered the room, certainly not more than five. "Here you are," he went on, holding the paper out to the superintendent, who put it away carefully. "Now, I suppose you'll send everybody about their business, and then I take it you'll have Mrs. Moncrieff's body brought up here too, and I'll get that knife out for you. It won't come out at a touch, been driven into a bone, or I'm much mistaken. Which was why I left it where it was. Not a pretty sight to see it wrenched loose."
The superintendent agreed. "A dreadful affair, this."
"Dreadful affair," Doctor Andrews repeated. "An hour ago, half an hour ago, here were these two young people full of life and happiness. And now both dead. Both by the same hand, poor fellow!"
The superintendent nodded, and again Santley noticed the unsympathetic look that he gave the speaker.
"I'll have her body brought up, and leave one of my men with you in case you want him," was all he said, as with a gesture he swept Santley and Ayres and Goodenough out into the passage with him, leaving the doctor and a man in blue alone. A word over the balusters to a constable in the hall, and the superintendent turned to the three men beside him.
"There's sure to be some little room on the ground floor, near where it happened, where I can ask a few questions? Just so," as Ayres offered to show the way, "thank you, sir. Only just an outline of what happened."
"But that's what we none of us know," bleated Ayres as he closed the door of the morning-room on them. "I was upstairs in the passage, in case I was wanted to lend a hand to Moncrieff in getting out of his things."
The superintendent stopped him with a hand like a traffic signal. "You, sir," he turned to Santley, "you were inside. What happened?"
Santley told him of the rehearsal this morning, and its repetition just now. "The same in every detail except that he cut out all his patter. He was in a great hurry, as he had only just got back from town, Mr. Ayres here had already told me, and the show was just the barest essentials. Mrs. Moncrieff, a knife, a thrust." He explained about the sheath into which the property knife should have slipped.
"But it wasn't the property knife that killed Mrs. Moncrieff. It was that Spaniard's sword!" Goodenough said, looking at him as though the artist must surely have seen as much at a glance. And Santley knew now that something about the blade as it flashed down had struck him as familiar and yet unfamiliar.
"Good God!" came from Ayres, "but he snatched it off that belt of his! How did it get among his things?"
The superintendent was already at the door. "Perhaps you'd better come back upstairs with me, gentlemen."
On its big table now lay two covered figures. Doctor Andrews was examining a formidable looking blade as they came in.
"I put on gloves, though there's no question of fingerprints here. But this isn't a property weapon. Of course we knew that." He held out what was certainly Don Plutarco's sword. The others said as much.
"I'll have him fetched at once," said the superintendent. "Where was he at the time?"
No one knew.
"Don Plutarco!" called Ayres down the passage, and the door of a room in another part of the house could be heard opening.
"Yes?" said a voice, harsh and resonant at the same time. The voice of the Spaniard. "I am wanted?"
Ayres went out. So did the superintendent.
"This is Don Plutarco Ramon," said Ayres to the latter as the Spaniard, wearing his usual well-cut tweeds, came round the corner towards them, and Santley, watching with the others, noticed that he stepped towards them without a sound over the uncarpeted floor. He looked like a black panther, Santley thought. Something in his face suggested the idea, something oddly unhuman. And when Ayres told him what had happened, and the superintendent added a confirmatory word or two, the expression did not change. Don Plutarco expressed horror and sympathy, but neither was to be seen in his tight lips, his cold eyes. He identified the sword on the instant as his. He had last laid it on the mantel in the room where he had posed for his picture. Why had he put it there? Major Moncrieff had told him this morning that he would very much like to compare it with one supposed to be French, which belonged to him, and as the weapon in question was locked away in the Major's cupboard at the moment, Don Plutarco left his own downstairs for him to examine and compare at his leisure.
"He must have taken it to the property room," Ayres pointed out, "and somehow, as such things will, he collected it together with his property things and hung it on his belt without noticing what he was doing."
The Spaniard gave a slight bow, as though to say that doubtless the speaker was right, but, as he looked at the body of the Major, Santley would have said that a ghost of a smile flitted over the well-cut mouth for a second. The ghost? Rather the demon of a smile, the artist corrected.
The superintendent was now examining in detail the cummerbund worn by the Major. It too was a "property" affair, fastened on the side with a zip fastener, as did all Sheikh clothes which he wore over his own usual garments. On each side of the broad green belt fasteners were sewn, from which dangled an array of cutlery, murderous in appearance, absolutely harmless in reality, unless they hit you in the eye.
"This is the knife that would fit the sheath that Mrs. Moncrieff was wearing." The doctor had loosened the girdle with its bunch of geraniums, and the superintendent saw for himself how difficult it was to miss the opening, and how impossible for the property sword to do any damage, even should it be thrust in awkwardly. The superintendent was very careful to make this quite plain to himself, and the Spaniard, standing a little apart from the others, now and again threw a rapid, half contemptuous, glance towards him. Most of the time he stared out of the window.
As for Superintendent Tomlinson, watching him Santley had an idea that what he was seeing, and what he was hearing, fitted in with something already in the officer's mind, making a total quite clear to himself.
The police officer asked Don Plutarco where he had been just now. The Spaniard said that he had gone at once upstairs after posing for his "picture," and after changing, had been folding and laying away his bull-fighter's dress and paraphernalia.
The doctor bent over Moncrieff, sniffing. Patently sniffing. Ayres and Goodenough exchanged a glance, and Goodenough nodded.
"Just so. Reeks of it. That's the explanation of the whole thing."
"You mean the whisky smell?" said the superintendent, looking up from his notebook. "Yes, very noticeable," and again he jotted down something.
"I certainly noticed it when he passed me," Ayres said apologetically, "and as he's the most abstemious of men..."
"He rocketed down the passage and into this room none too steady on his pins, and, as you say, shedding an aura of Double Scotch around him," agreed Goodenough. "I suppose the rush of getting back in time from town, and all that...isn't that so, superintendent?"
"Major Moncrieff smells of whisky," the superintendent said, putting his notebook away, and reaching for his case, "that's as far as I care to go at present, gentlemen. Now, this sword of yours, sir," he turned to Ramon, "it must go with me, of course. We will take the greatest care of it. And it will be returned to you as soon as the inquest, and so on, is over."
"Thanks," said Ramon gravely, "I value it exceedingly."
Santley told himself again that he was too much upset to be his usual self, for really the Spaniard's voice, and a glint in his eye, suggested to him that what had happened, the dreadful tragedy of just now, lent the steel an added worth. Which was an absurd and ridiculous as well as a horrible fantasy.
NO ONE had any regular dinner at Beechcroft that night. For one thing the maids had left in a body. For another, it seemed indecent after what had happened. People strayed to and from biscuit tins, and plates of oranges, and the cocktail table. No one spoke. Every one went to their rooms early. Flavelle Bruton had not been seen since the police broke in the door through which she had called out to them that she was looking for the key. She had sent word that she was too ill from the shock to see any one. Doctor Andrews had promptly gone in, and had given her a sedative. He told the superintendent that she ought not to be questioned until the morning. Not that the police questioned any one very much, since the only man responsible for the death of Mrs. Moncrieff was beyond their queries, as Tomlinson said to the chief constable.
Walking up and down in his room that night, Santley decided that Flavelle must have instantly recognised the sword used as soon as the blow went home by her actions at the door, and she had very likely given the Major time to kill himself. Santley believed that she had locked the door intentionally as soon as it happened. But why had she done it? She, who hated Moncrieff? She, the friend of Lavinia? He thought again of that dusty little clay figure transfixed with a pin, which he had found in Flavelle's hidden drawer. But he had little time to spend thinking over her. His own position was too terrible. He had been asked by the mother to come down and protect her daughter. True, no one can forfend against accidents...And at that, something cold just touched his thoughts, Mrs. Phillimore had expected something terrible to happen...something which would not be an accident, but the outcome of a deliberate plan...that fiendish face—that razor—Lavinia's shriek—the Major calling out that his fleeing wife could not escape what was coming to her.
Had it come? Was it possible that there had been no accident? Even to him, it had seemed extraordinary that the Major could have made a mistake between the weight, the feel, of the property sword and the Spaniard's. And to Moncrieff, who was a fencer, one would have expected the difference to have been impossible to ignore.
Santley dropped into a chair and felt chilled to the marrow of him. After the mother's talk, he ought to have considered what the choice of that particular conjuring trick might mean. It was a horrible reflection. He went into his sitting-room, and stood with folded arms staring at the picture which he had begun. It should have shown—it must have shown—a nature capable of such a deed. To let his wife lie down on that table and in full view of smiling friends to plunge a knife through her was not possible to a normal man. Again Santley heard Mrs. Phillimore telling him that Harry Moncrieff was not normal. That he was mad, or was going mad.
In his drawing, the Major had one elbow on the mantelshelf, his other hand provisionally in his trouser pocket, his eyes met the artist's full on. Very frank that gaze, both in the canvas and in life. Direct. Fearless. With a hint of something fierce below it, true, but no suggestion of trickery. And Lavinia had met her death by sheerest and foulest trickery—unless it was a blunder.
Santley turned the sketch round to the wall and walked to the window. But no night breeze could cool the fever in him. Had he missed the truth so utterly? He knew that he could read faces well—that he was rarely badly out where he thought he could decipher the lines. And here he had felt a certain mask-like hardness, but no sense of the abnormal. Daring, he had read into that face. Love of difficulties, of strife even. A man to whom a risk was as wine. But this deed? Impossible! He told himself that his thoughts were unhinged. But he felt that he must see that face again which he seemed to have so totally misread.
To-morrow the dead bodies would be taken away. But to-night, both still lay side by side on that table. To-night he could search Moncrieff's face...for the answer.
He automatically looked at his watch. Nearly two o'clock. He slipped on his dark dressing-gown, and went out in his noiseless felt slippers. He carried an electric torch, and had slipped his sketch-book into his pocket. He had never drawn a dead face. How would it compare with his sketch of the living? Moncrieff's shot had left his face unmarked. Santley was impatient to decipher it.
As he stepped into the passage, the beauty of the night, seen through the windows, struck him for the first time. He would take a turn in the garden before going into that room where the two dead bodies lay.
He opened a door very quietly, and stood there a moment as he drew deep breaths of that tranquillity which seems to come and to go with the light of the stars.
A faint sound made him turn his head. To his right stretched the wall of the house with the room where the dead couple lay. An ash tree, light as lace, moved and danced and swayed in front of it. But through it, Santley's keen eyes saw some object which seemed to be in front of the window. He stared harder. Then he saw that he was not the only person out in the garden to-night. Some one was standing on a ladder and peering in at the room. His head—Santley fancied that it was a man's head, from the breadth of it, though he could not be sure—was just above the sill. Now it ducked below the level of the sill. Now, after a full moment, the head lifted again, and with a strange caution lifted inch by inch and peered over the sill, ducked a second later, only to rise once more slowly, slowly, as though life or death depended on the difference between haste or care.
Santley found himself holding his own breath, all but ducking with the figure there, so absolute an impression of danger did it give. The man was looking into the room where the dead couple lay. What on earth could cause this strange interest, these odd actions?
Noiselessly he went back into the house and up the stairs to where the bedroom in question was. He had his torch on, or he would not have noticed the sheet of crumpled brown paper lying in front of the door. Was it a sort of guard? One step on it and it would crackle. With infinite care he took it by its corners and dragged it softly away and to one side. The door had been locked by the superintendent, who had the key, yet that figure outside was watching something. Had any one told Santley that morning, that by night he would be peering through the keyhole of a room he would have laughed, yet he was doing it now. He could see nothing, except that the light of a torch was on in there, shining steadily as though at rest.
He hesitated. But curiosity was too strong for him. What was that figure watching from outside, peering in through the window, with its ducking head? Quite noiselessly, he turned the handle. The door was not locked, yet he opened it with the certainty that something was wrong. What would he see? Stepping in swiftly, the light of the torch full on him. And it was kept on him. And the holder of the torch was moving swiftly to the door, shielded by that blinding glare. Now Santley was one of those quiet, gentle-spoken men who are not to be frightened. He stepped to one side, but lunged forward, caught the hand that held the light, and tried to twist it sideways. The arm and wrist he held were like steel and the light did not move sufficiently for him to recognise the holder, but beyond him, he saw the figure at the window, and the light shining on something in his hand—a small shining barrel—then something came down on his head and he dropped like a log.
He came to, still lying in the room. He was alone. Staggering to his feet, he found that, bar a headache, he was all right. As for the window, no ladder now stood against it. He looked about him. Two sheeted forms on two beds. Santley was too much of a dreamer to be frightened of death. It is your materialist who cannot bear to see the body without the soul, but he hurriedly made his way to his own room, where after a stiff drink, he tried to see some rhyme or reason in what had happened.
He could find none, and he went to bed, after bathing his head, still all at sea. Who had been in the room, who on the ladder? Why?
It was bright sunlight when he awoke. A hand was on his shoulder.
"Sorry," Ayres said apologetically, "but the maid was frightened. She said she knocked three times 'loud as a policeman' and got no reply from you. So I thought...well, I didn't know what to think," Ayres ended almost tremulously. Then he bent over Santley solicitously. "I say! You do look groggy. Feeling ill?"
Santley told him that he felt as though some one had hit him on the head. He was amused at the calm way in which his literally true words were taken.
"Naturally, after such a shock." Ayres shook his own well-groomed head. He was a very tidy man.
Santley hesitated. "Look here, I suppose there's no doubt about things—yesterday, I mean. I mean, you've no doubt, the police have no doubt?"
"Doubt of what?" asked Ayres, puckering his brow.
"I mean, I suppose there's no chance of there being a crime here, is there?"
"None whatever." Ayres spoke with, for him, unusual decision. "How could there be? Why should there be? He adored Lavinia, and she him."
Santley said nothing, but tenderly felt his head. It seemed unbroken.
"You're feeling overwrought," Ayres went on. "I don't wonder! We are all of us overcome. Edwards, Moncrieff's chauffeur, 'gentleman chauffeur' as the maids truthfully call him, is in bed. He's quite ill. Temperature and all that. Evidently devoted to Moncrieff. His wife says no one must see him...Very superior woman, Mrs. Edwards—evidently a lady."
Still Santley said nothing.
"The police want us all to stay here until after the inquest to-morrow. The funeral will be the day after. By the way, those missionary friends of Miss Bladeshaw's have telephoned to me to send the children to them. Awfully good of them. But Ann thinks they should stay here until the funeral. She thinks they wouldn't like to remember afterwards that they were playing about on that day, for after all, they've been like children here, especially to Moncrieff. She's waiting to see Mrs. Phillimore before deciding whether they shouldn't see their kinsfolk once before the burial. Tragic! Tragic!"
Santley was not listening. He was thinking about that extraordinary incident of last night.
Ayres asked him what was wrong, and Santley told him. Mr. Ayres seemed at first to think that the other was holding something back.
"But you must have seen him! I mean recognised him. One of them!" he said almost indignantly. Santley could only repeat that he had no idea who had struck him down or who had watched from through the window.
"Obviously a confederate," Ayres said, "I haven't the faintest idea who he was, but I'm afraid I can name the intruder, however. I would rather not. Look here, Santley, you're the best of fellows, forget the whole incident! I mean as far as the police are concerned. If there's one thing I bar, it's the police being brought into things. You agree with me, of course?"
"But the police are in this, Ayres. You can't keep them out."
"You can keep them from burrowing," Ayres said testily, as though talking of moles. "Give them half a chance and they'll have every incident of poor Harry Moncrieff's and Lavinia's lives spread out on the green for all the world, and all the reporters, to gape at."
Santley said nothing.
Ayres looked at him almost pleadingly. "I suppose it's that old Greek affair," he went on. "What we endured! Every man jack of us! It's given me perhaps an exaggerated dislike to a doubtless worthy, and certainly necessary, profession. So just forget last night, there's a good chap."
"Who was it?" Santley asked. "I must know that much."
"Pusey, of course. He's keen on some plans Moncrieff half promised him. Plans for a totally new lighting-up set which the Demon Cars are all out to get. But it was only half a promise, and Lavinia agreed with me, though for her own reasons, fears lest the Major should try night tests and get hurt—that he oughtn't to have anything to do with them. They're a ruthless lot of pirates, the Comet people. Moncrieff was too unsuspecting to have any dealings with them."
"Pusey!" murmured Santley. "Are you sure?"
"Positive. And positive of what he's after," Ayres said. "Come, then, keep it to yourself. I don't suppose he had an earthly idea of who you were when he hit out. In the excitement he evidently used a bit more force than was required. We may be sure that the last thing he intended was to really lay you out, so that the police would inquire into your accident."
Santley let it go at that. Ayres spoke with such conviction that he finally took his word for it, and agreed to say nothing about the affair. Certainly, he himself did not want to be detained to give special evidence, as Ayres hinted would certainly be the case. Santley was due up in the north at a house which he loved to visit, and the idea of postponing that pleasure greatly helped Mr. Ayres' words to win the day. They parted on that, and after breakfasting Santley went for a stroll in the garden. Last night's odd affair began to drop back. After all, though it showed the sort of stuff that lay beneath young Pusey's apparent easy-goingness, it did not concern him.
Other thoughts, more horrible ones, were crowding his mind. Had Moncrieff killed his wife intentionally before shooting himself? On the Spaniard's sword were the gay tassels and cords with which the make-believe sword should have been decked. Who had changed them?
Don Plutarco passed him in the hall. A maid was just telling him that Miss Bruton was not yet up. Like all his race, Ramon was a very early riser.
"I've been wondering," Santley said to him, motioning him to walk on into the garden with him, "how on earth those fantastic tassels and loops came to be knotted to your sword. Without them, the mistake could not have happened."
Even as he spoke, one answer stood clear. If Moncrieff had meant to kill Lavinia, wanted to be sure that no one would stay his hand before it was done, he himself might have tied them on...
The other nodded carelessly. His look of utter indifference struck Santley as incredible.
"I'm saying that I can't understand how those tassels got fastened to your sword hilt, nor how it got among the property knives dangling from the Major's belt." he repeated.
"Nor can I," said Don Plutarco, with a cynical smile.
Santley felt a cold wind blow over him. He felt, through the other's armour of coolness and quiet, something of the fury that had rung through the recitation of Flavelle Bruton just before the dreadful tragedy.
Santley was what is called psychic by nature, but more by reason of his incessant preoccupation with what lay beneath the surface, that preoccupation which made him a really great portrait painter. His nature studies were very tame. A maid now came flying down towards the men, her cap still more awry, her hair still more dishevelled.
"I can't make Miss Flavelle hear, and I've knocked and knocked! She doesn't answer. Her door is locked. Oh, whatever is wrong now?"
Something like sheet lightning crossed Don Plutarco's face at the words, and he sprang up the stairs, a miracle of bounding energy. Santley followed. He had no clue, but he was sure that the other had, quite sure that the Spaniard felt certain of what they would find. Even as he thought it, the other turned his head over his shoulder. "Perhaps you will telephone, discreetly, for a doctor. There may be time. Say that Miss Bruton had taken an overdose of sleeping medicine. She has some morphine tablets, I know—"
"How can you be so sure?" Santley asked with a deep suspicion of the man. Ramon turned to him a face like a snake about to strike, dark and narrow and fleshless it looked in that second. Convulsed with fury it was.
"Telephone!" he commanded under his breath, but with an hypnotic energy that few could have withstood. "I do know. Get help at once!"
But Santley was not a man whom one could hypnotise. He came on steadily, and in silence they ran to the bedroom. The other making no sound on uncarpeted stair or passage. Santley felt as though a spirit wore the flesh of a man, a spirit of evil just now.
The maid was still gently knocking. Santley took out the key of the next door. It fitted. He opened the door, refused to let Ramon shoulder him away, and, followed by the maid, the two men together stepped into the room. Miss Bruton lay fast asleep in bed. Fast asleep as the two men bent over her. Fast asleep as the maid, with an exclamation, touched her cheek.
"It's all cold!" she gasped.
Ramon turned and said something in Spanish to Santley, still in his calm quiet voice, but showing his excitement by his unconscious use of his own tongue. Santley understood as though the man were speaking English, and this time he ran down to the telephone, and asked for Doctor Andrews, got him, and said that it looked as though Miss Bruton must have taken an overdose of some sleeping draught, she was fast asleep, very pale, and her cheek felt cold to the touch. Andrews assured him that he would be there instantly, and that meanwhile bottles were to be heated, some very strong coffee made, and Miss Bruton forced to walk up and down her room, if possible.
Santley passed on the orders to the cook, and then rejoined the Spaniard who was staring down at the sleeping figure. The artist could have sworn that he was cursing under his breath. This was not the way a lover looked at his lass.
"The doctor will be here at once," he told him, and got Flavelle by one arm while the maid wrapped a dressing-gown around her. Santley repeated Doctor Andrews' directions, and Don Plutarco nodded sullenly. But he worked, and Santley marvelled at the steel strength of the man, for it was he who practically carried the girl to and fro, up and down. Her own feet did not move. Her head lay on Ramon's shoulder. Her dressing-gown dragged the floor as though a dead body dangled inside it. The maid's face wore an expression of excited pity.
"It's too late, sir," she said, "she's cold and stiff already." The latter was imagination, Flavelle was limp as a sandbag.
"It's not too late," said Ramon in his own tongue, and again Santley understood it from the likeness of the words to French.
The doctor arrived while they were still carrying her about. He had the girl laid in blankets and warm bottles packed around her. Then he motioned to the two men to leave him with the maid, as he began to rummage in his black bag.
"This habit of taking sleeping medicine is very dangerous," Ramon said as they went down together and decided to share a little of the surplus coffee that had been made. Ayres joined them.
"What is this about Miss Bruton and a sleeping draught?"
They told him.
"But she told me, when we talked about a death reported in the papers, that she never touched such things. Mrs. Moncrieff said she would not know how to get along without their help at times, but Miss Bruton replied that she had never taken anything of the kind. It's incomprehensible!" Ayres went off in response to a telephone call for him.
Santley felt again that everything was but a shadow of its reality, that he was seeing the shadows all awry. Moncrieff's dreadful face and the open razor—the fury of Flavelle Bruton's recitation—the double tragedy—and now she herself...the doctor had seemed hopeful after feeling her pulse that he could save her, but could he? Was that just professional cheer?
He believed that Don Ramon had some key. "How did you know?" he asked now. "I mean, what she had taken, and that she had taken it?"
Ramon looked at him steadily and Santley wondered whether his eyes looked as inscrutable to the bull about to be slaughtered as they did to him.
"Women always take sleeping draughts, even when they say they don't," was the reply, "and after yesterday—Mrs. Moncrieff was her very great friend—what more likely? She may even have had none of her own, but she would know where her friend kept it, how much she usually took. When the maid said she could get no reply, I felt quite sure that that would be the explanation. A simple explanation."
"A pity you can't as easily solve the riddle of how sword got among the property knives hanging from the Sheik's belt, tied with those property cords," Santley said dryly. And at that a glint came into those keen eyes, a mocking look just twisted the edges of the narrow tight lips as a hand might ruffle the pages of a book.
"A pity," Ramon repeated smoothly, and then sprang up as the maid came in again to say that the superintendent was there, and would like to have a word with the Spanish gentleman.
Santley made his way to Miss Bruton's room. Goodenough joined him. They heard quiet voices inside and tapping, went in. Again Flavelle Bruton was being marched up and down, this time before a blazing fire. Her head still sagged, but on her own breast, and her feet moved, though reluctantly and unwillingly.
"Let me be," she said peevishly. "Oh, let me be! You're tormenting me! I want to be quiet. Quiet."
"You shall have it," Doctor Andrews said cheerily, pulling her along with a grip that brooked no denial. "Take hold, Goodenough! Santley, would you pour out a little more of that coffee standing on the hearth. Just a quarter of a cup, and a teaspoonful of brandy in it, and eight lumps of sugar." Santley held it to Flavelle's pale lips. She drank unwillingly, but she drank it.
"Tell them not to torture me," she said in a thread of a voice, "I must have quiet!" Her lips fell apart drowsily, and her head began to loll on her shoulder again. Half an hour of work with the sweat running down them in that stiflingly hot room, and the doctor let them lay her down in her bed again, still wrapped in her gown, still in blankets, but now he had fresh bottles brought, hotter ones this time and, feeling her pulse, nodded.
"She will do now. She can be left to sleep it off. But just look around with me and make sure that there's no more morphine left for her to take. I have the bottle. Luckily she must have taken what she took very late—or rather very early this morning. Not being used to such things she took far too much."
They found but the one little phial which the doctor put away in his waistcoat pocket. "Luckily the superintendent had said that he was coming very early this morning for a word with every one, and that Ayres had told the maid to see that all the house were up and had their breakfasts, or I might have been fetched too late. Another hour, and I don't think any one could have saved her. Yes, she owes her life to Ayres' foresight. Tower of strength that man in this emergency," and Doctor Andrews turned to greet a nurse for whom he had sent, before going on downstairs to have a word with the superintendent.
The police officer saw him at once.
"Took an overdose? Think it was accidental, doctor?"
"I can hardly imagine any reason which would make Miss Bruton want to kill herself," Andrews said judicially, "I'm told she earns big sums, and is half-way through an important piece of work for the Spanish government. What more natural, than that after yesterday's dreadful happening to a great friend of hers, she should find herself unable to sleep, and after trying all night, finally decided to take some pellets which she knew that Mrs. Moncrieff used for that purpose. As a matter of fact they were given to Mrs. Moncrieff in case of a recurrence of gall stone attacks to which she was rather subject."
"As you say, sir, it sounds natural," agreed Tomlinson, and they parted.
"But not so natural," Andrews said to himself as he drove off, "if you knew that her first and repeated words were, 'Why did I let him think it! Oh, why did I let him think it!'"
Doctor Andrews had no intention of repeating what his patient had moaned, and though by no means certain that the taking of the overdose had been unintentional, he intended to keep his doubts where, according to his code, they belonged—locked in his own heart.
MAJOR HOGG, the Chief Constable of West Surrey, had an appointment at Scotland Yard on the morning following double tragedy at Beechcroft. Among other things which he wanted to discuss with the Deputy Commissioner, there were the jewel robberies which had been taking place lately in his part of the county.
"You say you think the diamond necklace I 'phoned to you about has been traced to Shoreditch," he said thoughtfully. "That's only one of the missing things. You think it's three well-known cracksmen taking a country holiday, and combining a little business with their pleasure?...I wonder!"
"Superintendent Bradford thinks so, and he's not often out," Major Pelham said briskly, "but why don't you like the idea?"
Hogg laughed. "I don't dislike it, Pelham, but—I wonder, that's all!"
"What makes you wonder?" Pelham pushed his best box of cigars across. The two army men were old friends.
"My Superintendent Tomlinson," was the reply. "He's quite a sound fellow, is Tomlinson, and he's been hoping for a rather spectacular capture. Not of one of your old hands. Not at all!"
He said nothing more for a moment, but lit his cigar.
"Portentous silence!" murmured Pelham. "Well!! has he slipped up on his capture? Mournful note in your voice sounds like it."
Major Hogg did not answer directly. "I suppose you've seen in the papers about the dreadful affair at a house called Beechcroft—a Major and Mrs. Moncrieff both dead?" he asked instead.
The A.C. signified that he had. He looked all interest at the question in connection with their talk.
"Well, Superintendent Tomlinson got an idea into his head that Major Moncrieff was connected, in some way, with those robberies. Frankly, I think Tomlinson's wrong. But he claims to've found Moncrieff and his car very near some of the places where the thefts occurred, at odd hours of the night, which fitted. And the places were miles away from Beechcroft, and the Major's explanation of what he was doing there—and then—was thin. Or rather was missing. He generally said he couldn't sleep and wanted a bit of fresh air. Now, I think it may have been mere coincidence each time. And, of course, I told Tomlinson so, and also to go slow. Still, it is a fact that Moncrieff, and his car, and a very rangy looking chauffeur of his called Edwards, who talks like a gentleman, according to Tomlinson, certainly did turn up very frequently close to the houses where jewellery was afterwards missing..."
"Doesn't sound much of a proof," Pelham said.
"Of course not, or Tomlinson would have had him, or them, in quod long ago. He's been on their tracks for the last month. Can't get the proof. But now this affair—well, he's rather broken up over it!"
"Lost his hoped-for capture?" asked Pelham.
"That, too, of course, but it's much worse than that. Poor Tomlinson, who's a good chap, fears that it was some bluff he put up which caused Mrs. Moncrieff's death. He doesn't think it was an accident at all. I mean that stabbing business. What happened was this. Tomlinson, keyed up at still finding no proof, and suspecting that the Major intended to stage a robbery of his guests at a coming jamboree they were to give to-morrow to all the neighbourhood—" Major Hogg broke off long enough to explain the reason for the tableaux, and the rest of the entertainment which Beechcroft was giving—"Tomlinson suspected this sudden burst of hospitality," he went on, "and tried to put some of his men into the house. The Moncrieffs refused. Both of them. So the superintendent yesterday morning had a talk with Mrs. Moncrieff."
"Docs he think she was in the robberies too?" asked Pelham.
"Oh no. Quite definitely not. But he tried to get hours and dates out of her as to her husband's absences at night. She seemed quite frank, he thought, but the hours she gave wouldn't fit the times when that car was encountered, unless Moncrieff had an engine that could do ninety on third."
"Has he?" Pelham asked at once.
Hogg did the equivalent of shrugging his shoulders. "No one can get into his garage. Unpickable lock—so at least burglars say," he added virtuously, with a very grave face, and Pelham nodded equally gravely. "Tomlinson thinks that either she doesn't know when Moncrieff slipped out of the house, or was too much under his thumb to speak. So he got another word in—alone with Moncrieff himself, and bluffed about what he had learnt from Mrs. Moncrieff—what she had let slip. Moncrieff only laughed in Tomlinson's face, but now the super's wondering whether it may not have been due to those words of his that the Major ran that knife into his wife."
"Nasty position," said Pelham with real gravity this time.
Hogg nodded. "Just so. He thinks Moncrieff may have believed him after all, thought the game was up, and revenged himself on his wife before blowing out his own brains."
"Um—" murmured Pelham doubtfully. "Moncrieff's reputation seems to me to rather knock the stuffing out of your superintendent's ideas..."
"Yes, I think it's just coincidence," the chief constable agreed. "I mean Moncrieff's being near the houses in question on the nights in question. But Tomlinson's an eager chap. Always longing to do a bit more than his duty." His superior sighed. "And he evidently exceeded the speed limit himself in what he said to the wife first and then the husband. It's rather weighing on Tomlinson, his idea that he put the wind up Moncrieff to such an extent. He liked Mrs. Moncrieff. He doesn't for a moment think she was 'in' anything criminal. And it's rather a beastly thought that, if her husband got suspicious through anything he—Tomlinson—said, and thought his wife had blabbed, this poor woman may have been murdered because of it. Or if not that, then he's afraid that his questions may have set her off making some inquiries on her own which have brought this tragedy down on her head. Now, personally, I don't think there's anything in his fears. I mean, I don't think he was right, in the first place. I, too, have looked very thoroughly into Major Moncrieff's record, and it seems to rather put the idea of jewel robberies out of court. Though you never know!"
The A.C. waited. He felt sure that more was coming, and he could guess what it would be. "I rather wondered whether you could lend us a good man," Hogg went on in accordance with Pelham's guess, "just to run over things with Tomlinson. I don't want to blacken the Moncrieffs' names needlessly, for I don't believe Tomlinson has got hold of the right end of the stick. As I say, I don't myself think the tragedy is anything more than it appears to be—a dreadful blunder by a man who promptly took the only way out. But Tomlinson is a bit worked up..."
Major Pelham reflected a moment.
"I'll tell you what," he said finally. "I have a chief inspector free at the moment. Pointer by name, who can see farther into brick walls than most people. We'll have him in, and find out whether, without knowing anything about your superintendent's suspicions, he sees anything odd in the affair as related in all the papers. I mean anything to confirm Tomlinson's theory that Moncrieff may have deliberately killed his wife before shooting himself—not from grief or horror, but because he felt the net closing around him?"
Hogg looked disappointed. "I don't see how he can light on anything odd in the papers," he said. "Now, if you let me explain about the jewel robberies..."
"We'll try the other way first," Major Pelham touched a hidden bell and spoke into a tube. A moment later the door opened. Tall, lean, sunburnt, with a grave, pleasant face, Chief Inspector Pointer stepped in. Something about him suggested personality in spite of his tranquil bearing.
"Look here, Pointer," his own superior began at once, after making the necessary introduction, and waving him to a chair, "you've seen the account of the Beechcroft double tragedy in the papers?"
"Nothing to make one think there's anything odd about the affair, is there?" Pelham asked in the tone of one sure of his answer.
The other's fine grey eyes rested on him for a fraction of a second. Then Pointer said in his quiet, resonant voice, a voice that suggested great reserves.
"Frankly, sir, I can't understand it at all."
"Eh? What don't you understand?"
"That a man should run a knife through his wife's heart and not try to pull it out. One would expect that quite automatically he would snatch the weapon out, and fling it aside, as soon as he saw what he had done. I should call that an instinctive action with any normal person."
"Um—m," demurred the other. "The Major might have had his wits about him in spite of the shock of what he had done, and so be aware of the fact that it might be a fatal thing to do, to pull a knife out of a wound."
"I still think, sir, that it would be the natural, the automatic thing to do. Nor, according to the account here, did he shout for a doctor, though there was one in the room, nor catch her up in his arms and try to staunch the bleeding, or find if she was still alive...No, sir, frankly, that rush off out of the room with a shriek and his hands up above his head sounds to me—well, the whole thing sounds odd."
"That fits in with what my superintendent thinks. That he meant to kill her," Major Hogg, who had kept silent with difficulty, now explained Tomlinson's suspicions.
Pointer listened to them intently. But he said nothing. Nor did he nod as though what he was hearing confirmed his own ideas on the subject. That he had some idea of his own at the back of his mind, his superior was certain.
"You go down with the chief constable," the A.C. said finally, "and make up your mind on the spot. Meanwhile Rogers can carry on with that affair of the missing bank manager."
At the Edgware police station they found Superintendent Tomlinson waiting for them. He greeted Pointer, whom he had met before, warmly.
"Not much you can do to help," he said rather sadly. "We've the motive all right, but the man has put himself where we can't reach him. All I want are the proofs that he did kill her intentionally, and that he was mixed up in those jewel thefts; and, of course, we can only get negative ones. If he's the Head, as he probably was, then they'll end around here. But as to proving that he knew right well what he was doing when he ran that knife into poor Mrs. Moncrieff, I only wish it were possible! Perhaps the one will show the other. But as it is, why, it will have to pass as a terrible double tragedy, that's all. One word as to our suspicions of his being implicated in those thefts, and away goes all chance of proving it. His chauffeur Edwards is still alive. He didn't shoot himself." Tomlinson spoke grimly. "The garage is well watched. I'm on my way for a word with the household. I've decided to take them this much into my confidence, sir,—" he was speaking to Major Hogg "—to show them that I'm not satisfied to let that conjuring trick pass as an accident. I shouldn't wonder if I learnt a few facts, once they know that much of what's in my mind."
"Think so?" Major Hogg was sceptical. "What's done's done, most people would think, and would bottle up any suspicions they might have had themselves. However, you can but chance your arm," and directing the superintendent where to meet him later in the day, Hogg said good-bye to Pointer and hurried on. Pointer would have preferred to view the bodies first of all, but Mr. Ayres had telephoned down that he wanted to go up to town, and Tomlinson thought it only fair on the household to have his talk with each of them first of all.
"Mrs. Moncrieff's mother, lady of the name of Phillimore, a widow, lives abroad but home on a visit, might have been a lot of help, but she had to get herself run down in Baker Street yesterday afternoon," Tomlinson spoke as though Mrs. Phillimore had done it on purpose. "They took her to a nursing home, and she isn't well enough yet to hear the news. Two ribs broken and they are afraid of concussion. Now, as to the people in the house, there are only four men, and a young woman who took an overdose of sleeping medicine last night. All but passed out. Yes, I thought it funny," Tomlinson met Pointer's gaze on him questioningly, "but the doctor says possibly she wasn't used to such things and it probably acted a bit too much. But it's funny—funny! For she was the girl inside the door yesterday evening who kept insisting that she would find the key if we would only wait. Those locked doors! I hope to learn something about them in this talk. I let things slide last night. Didn't want to be told I had rushed them, and also we had our hands full getting reports from the people who had lived around and had seen it all. Now then, I'll tell you who the people are," and Tomlinson ran over the five in outline. They lasted till the car drew up at Beechcroft. "Mr. Ayres is his partner in 'Car Fitments Ltd.' Never has paid a dividend yet, he says, but prospects are brightening, or were, until the Major's death. This has knocked the Fitments sideways. Would you like to see Mr. Ayres first of all?" he wound up.
Pointer said he would, and a moment later the gentle-faced, soft-spoken Ayres was recommending the superintendent to try the chair here, it had better springs, and warning the chief inspector not to sit on that one over there as it had a habit of coming unstuck at intervals.
He seemed very frank, did Mr. Ayres, but he added nothing to their information. He apparently believed that Edwards was a gentleman down on his luck whom Moncrieff was helping with a job, a job which the other man filled splendidly.
Ayres spoke with apparently great regret of the Major. As to the money part of it, he said that Moncrieff's death would end the firm, but that he, Ayres, had intended retiring from business some time ago, and though this would mean that he could not sell his partnership for anything worth having, yet thanks to money invested around his home at Enfield in land and houses, and the coming of the Tube, he did not consider himself a poor man, and was quite content to let his "Car Fitments" shares be written off.
Pointer said that he had been told that Mr. Ayres and Major Moncrieff were co-trustees for a couple of little girls who lived here at Beechcroft.
Mr. Ayres said yes, he would have to choose another co-trustee now, and intended to ask a young man to fill the post. He did not want to have to do it again, and the twins would be a long trusteeship, as they did not come "of age," as far as getting any capital was concerned, until they were twenty-five.
"Wealthy?" Tomlinson asked. Ayres explained that three hundred a year between two young women would hardly bring its owners into that category.
Was Mrs. Moncrieff a fellow trustee? She was not. Was she in any way associated with "Car Fitments "? Again Ayres said no, and seemed amused at the idea. "Not that she wouldn't have been a welcome addition to our board," he added, "but Mrs. Moncrieff was not a business woman."
He explained what little there was to be known of Lavinia Moncrieff, and referred to yesterday's accident to Mrs. Phillimore. "Of course, in a way one would consider that a dreadful accident at her age, but as it is, in spite of the shock it will be to her to hear of it afterwards, one can only be thankful that she hasn't got to be told the dreadful news now. She and her daughter and Moncrieff were devoted to each other. Moncrieff, as I happen to know, had just bought her a charming necklace. Her birthday is some time this coming month. Yes, they were devoted to each other, he and she."
"By the way," Mr. Ayres went on, in the tone of a man reminded of something, "I had a telephone talk with Moncrieff's solicitor just now. Bird, Cage, and Graham is the firm, of Lincoln's Inn Fields. Graham's 'phoned up to say,—of course it's of no importance but there it is,—he's 'phoned up to say that the Major had written him only yesterday afternoon to the effect that he intended to alter his will. Strange coincidence, isn't it?"
"Do you know how this present will stands?" Tomlinson asked.
Ayres said that he supposed it would leave everything to Mrs. Moncrieff, but that he had no idea, really. "And now, Superintendent, or should I ask it of the Chief Inspector?"
The man from the Yard explained that he was down here merely in an advisory capacity, that the superintendent was in charge of the case.
"Then, Superintendent, I suppose you will have no objection to my going up to town? There are several things that, in view of this dreadful affair, must be seen to urgently. I 'phoned my brokers this morning, but there are other things that can't be 'phoned."
"We have no objection," Tomlinson said after a glance from Pointer; "but, before you go, Mr. Ayres, I think I should tell you that we are by no means satisfied that we have got to the bottom of this case yet."
"Case? What case?" Ayres looked around the room as though expecting to see a wooden erection there.
"These two deaths," Tomlinson said.
"But good Heavens—how do you mean? Not satisfied? What on earth—" Therewas a pause. Ayres's placid face showed consternation. "Oh, I see! But what a ghastly idea! You're afraid that poor Moncrieff may have killed his wife and then himself in a fit of insanity?"
"We want to be quite sure exactly how it all happened," Tomlinson said stolidly.
"You don't mean to say that you think he intentionally killed her and himself in order to avoid some trouble—some money difficulty?" Ayres asked briskly. "Oh no, Chief Superintendent, no, no! Moncrieff was quite certainly not in any money difficulties. Of late, a thousand signs have spoken of a man who could afford to lose a hundred pounds or so with equanimity. No, no! Nothing of that kind."
"Are you an executor to either will?" Pointer asked now. Mr. Ayres said that he was executor to both. The Moncrieffs had not asked him to read the wills, but had mentioned in conversation afterwards that they felt sure he wouldn't mind taking on the responsibility. He was sole executor, he understood them to say, and, seeing that he and Moncrieff were associated, he thought it simplified things.
The chief inspector asked him if he would have any objection to their seeing the wills, provided Mr. Graham had no objection to opening them.
Mr. Ayres said that he would ask Graham to bring them down this very afternoon at an hour when he himself would be back, and they could have a look at them. Not that they would help to clear up the dreadful fancies of the superintendent. Here Ayres shot him a keener look than one would have imagined his mild eyes capable of, for, as they all knew, a man could write himself down in his will as the possessor of vast funds or actually own them, and yet die a beggar.
They agreed to this, but Tomlinson said that they would like to have an early, private glance at the wills if it could be arranged.
"I wish I understood exactly what your difficulty is," Ayres said in his kindly way, looking at the two much younger men as though he yearned to help them.
Pointer said nothing. Tomlinson murmured that perhaps the difficulties would pass as the inquiries cleared up things more and more. "But I don't understand!" complained Mr. Ayres, and still shaking his head over it, he left them.
They had a talk with Mr. Santley next. He was the only member of the household known to have actually witnessed the fatal "conjuring trick" from the front. He was questioned very closely on what happened on the stage, and he described accurately just what he saw. As to who else of the house was watching too, he could only say that he had no idea.
"Miss Bruton was at the door," the superintendent reminded him, quite needlessly. Santley had not forgotten her. "Could she have had anything to do with locking the doors? Both doors were locked, we found."
Santley only repeated exactly what the superintendent had heard her say through the door. He described her vaguely as groping round the door, apparently looking for the key.
"No one seems to know who locked those doors," Tomlinson eyed Santley as though to say that if the young man were guilty, now was the time to confess. But Santley only said that in such a moment no one paid any attention to doors.
"On the contrary," Pointer put in with a faint ironic smile, "the superintendent is complaining that some one seems to have paid too much attention to them."
"What I'm driving at," Tomlinson amplified, "is whether the Major himself locked them? Was it part of his show?"
Santley, startled inwardly, only said that they had not been locked at the first rehearsal of the trick, but that had been a very impromptu affair. He added that he could see no reason for them to be fastened.
"The keys were found in a broken jardiniere this morning," Tomlinson went on.
They questioned Santley closely as to the inmates of the house, and the last few hours. He told them nothing. The thing was done, was over, and he did not see how broadcasting his own horrible fear lest Lavinia's death might not have been an accident would help matters. "Least said soonest mended," was a wise old saw, and one which appealed to Santley always. He could offer no suggestions as to how those gay trappings came to be knotted on to the Spaniard's sword, and finally he was thanked, and allowed to go.
"Seems to have no suspicions as to anything wrong," Tomlinson said, but his voice was interrogative.
"He was watching his step," was Pointer's laconic comment. "In my opinion the people will be a great deal more helpful if you let them guess, as you did Mr. Ayres, that you aren't satisfied that things yesterday were as they appeared to be. This Mr. Santley—I've seen his pictures shown at the Academy—he ought to be able to be a help to us. He's not only observant far beyond the ordinary—I suppose every good artist is that—but he observes psychology as well. His portraits show that."
"I'll have Mr. Santley back, and just say to him what I said to Mr. Ayres," said the superintendent, who proceeded to do so, and vastly increased Santley's own growing horrible conviction that he had witnessed a murder, not an accident. But even so, the artist saw no reason to speak, to tell of Mrs. Phillimore's tragic premonitions, of Lavinia's dreadful race down the passage to him, while Moncrieff, open razor in hand, called after her—he saw no good too, in recounting to the police all these facts, which, told beforehand, might have saved Lavinia, but which were only tittle-tattle now.
And then there came a ringing of the telephone in the room, and the superintendent listened. "Mrs. Phillimore?" he repeated, looking exceedingly alert, "Yes, madam, I can hear you quite clearly. Yes?" He listened for some minutes, his face impassive, then he reached for his notebook. "Do you mind if I jot down what you say? Just a minute first, please." He turned to Santley. "Would you be so kind as to go to the extension in the bedroom upstairs and listen to what Mrs. Phillimore is telling me. She is repeating a conversation which she had with you, she says."
Santley rose reluctantly. What a pity, he thought, to bring in what could not help either of those two dead young people. The superintendent with a very grim face watched him go.
"Mrs. Phillimore has learnt of what has happened, and is trying to tell us something very important. She half guessed that this was coming, and she told this Mr. Santley as much! She really got him to come down here to protect Mrs. Moncrieff, she says. And yet he doesn't cheep a word of all that to us!"
Tomlinson's tone of disgust was almost comic. Then he became official again and took his hand off the mouthpiece. "That you, Mrs. Phillimore? Ready, up above, Mr. Santley? Now then, please, madam, you say that as soon as you arrived down here at Beechcroft—" and Tomlinson launched Mrs. Phillimore afresh on her account of what had caused her to get Mr. Santley to go down to Beechcroft as soon as possible, and to add Miss Bruton to the household. Mr. Goodenough, she explained, was to be there in any case.
WHEN Mrs. Phillimore had said all she had to say for about the third time, a nurse forcibly hung up the instrument; and Tomlinson, feeling that he had really extracted all there was to get out of the lady, re-filled his fountain pen from an inkstand near him. He had passed sheet after sheet over to Pointer as he wrote, and the chief inspector could almost hear the agony in the voice at the other end. Santley, when Mrs. Phillimore had finished, came downstairs very troubled. It was a ghastly business this. Tomlinson began to reproach him civilly enough when he came into the room again, but Santley made a quick movement of his hand that stopped the police officer.
"All that is nothing. Nothing can change or alter the fact that possibly we—some of us—stood around, or sat around, and watched Mrs. Moncrieff murdered before our eyes without raising a finger to save her." He bit his lip. Again he saw the table and the slender young figure lying on it, a sham gag over her mouth, sham cords tying her wrists together.
"Yes, I'm afraid that's just what did happen," Tomlinson said in a low voice. He too had been in the house not a stone's throw from the room. Quite apart from his thought that by his words he might have sealed her death warrant, was another very similar idea that it had been, perhaps, the sight of him waiting about in the hall to get a word with Moncrieff, and of his men strolling along the road outside the garden gate, which might have hurried on the tragedy, supposing Moncrieff to have misinterpreted their presence. He put both thoughts aside.
"Well, at least you will perhaps tell us now, sir, whether you saw anything whatever in the Major to bear out this suspicion of Mrs. Phillimore's?" Santley hesitated. "I don't mind saying, sir, that we think it highly likely that there was a reason for the Major's killing his wife, not by accident, which would have nothing to do with any idea of mental derangement. If so, there may have been more than just the Major in it," prompted the superintendent.
And that started Santley into an instant decision to tell anything he knew to the police. Whatever the mystery hinted at in those words, Santley had no intention of blocking any real work which the police might be doing. He told them of the razor incident, and Tomlinson found that it must have taken place very shortly after he had had his own talk with Moncrieff. So that, in a way, it did not help him much, it told him nothing new. It only confirmed—it did not reveal.
"Was that all?" he now pressed. "Was there nothing unusual that happened here in the house, sir? Anything odd, however slight? As I said, we have a theory, a far-reaching theory—" The superintendent hoped to hear something linking up the dead man with the jewel robberies, and he was not disappointed this time, for Santley described the affair of the box of chocolates which he had been asked by Mrs. Moncrieff to take to Brussels, and of the hand with the damaged finger-nail which he had seen there, and again here at Beechcroft. Tomlinson uttered an exclamation. Pointer said nothing, he had only once stirred in his chair, and that was when the incident of the open razor had been told them, but even then he had made no comment.
Santley could think of nothing else, he said. The incident of the bench in Battersea Park had been explained away by Moncrieff himself, and for the moment the artist had forgotten it, like the search of Moncrieff's room.
They thanked him, and let him go.
"Edwards!" repeated Tomlinson meaningly. "He's probably the gang's go-between. It begins to look to me as though—" he paused and went on. "I don't believe Mrs. Moncrieff knew what was in that box of chocolates, though you never can be sure, but I think she was just being used by the two men. Anyway, Edwards is the next event for us. Lucky he's got that temperature."
Another ring on the telephone. Tomlinson snatched up the receiver. "Oh, the chief constable. Yes, sir? At the police station? We'll be there immediately."
He turned to Pointer. "The chief constable wants us at the station. The vicar's wife is down there with something she wants to tell. We'll have to let Edwards wait for a few minutes. I'll put an extra man on, and tell them to keep their eyes open."
So said, so done; and in a moment more the two were speeding down to the Totteridge police station for the interview with the vicar's wife.
When they got to the police station Tomlinson saw from his superior's wooden face that he had just heard an odd story. The more astonishing the tale told him, the more stony grew the chief constable's countenance. Major Hogg introduced Mrs. Whipple, an inquisitive looking woman with a long, pointed nose and sharp little eyes. Her tale was certainly strange. It had happened about a month ago.
"Of course, I shouldn't have dreamt of saying anything about it," she began, "but for having met Mr. Ayres just now. Such a comfort that he is at Beechcroft. I called to take the dear children to the vicarage, but their governess, Miss Bladeshaw, actually prefers that they should stay where they are. Extraordinary, I call it! Thinks that in later years they would want to remember something of all the fuss, and that she mustn't dock them of the recollection. Extraordinary! However, what I have just told Major Hogg is this, Mr. Ayres spoke as though you—the police, that is—had some sort of an idea that, well, that there was something odd about the whole affair, if one can use such an adjective when it's all so terrible?"
She glanced a little hesitatingly at the three men, met three pairs of eyes, each of which assured her that she could use what expression she liked, provided she got ahead with her tale. Encouraged, if a trifle hurried, she went on. "For it certainly was odd in itself. I spoke to the vicar about it, of course, but to no one else. Of course. Well, about a month ago my car was getting overheated so I stopped outside Beechcroft for some water. It was quite dark, but I had my torch with me and walked up to the house. As you know, Major Hogg, there's a short cut across that lawn which passes by one of the windows. The curtains weren't drawn, and a broad band of light showed. I stopped in passing, as one does to just see who is at home, and so on. There stood Mrs. Moncrieff in a cotton frock, holding around her neck a most wonderful diamond necklace, while her husband stood smiling by. And some one else was there too. Also smiling. That chauffeur of theirs. I don't know his name. And not only smiling, that might have been just sharing in some piece of his employer's pleasure, but sitting on the edge of the table, smoking a pipe. Amazing! It really was just that. Amazing! I suppose I made some sound, for on the instant all three whipped around and stared out into the night. I had switched off my torch as soon as I got near the house. The battery had been in some time, and I wasn't any too sure it wouldn't give out. The chauffeur said something to the Major. I couldn't hear what it was, but it looked very rude—just as though he snapped a command at him, and the Major snatched the curtains while Mrs. Moncrieff whipped off the necklace somehow. Of course, I wasn't looking at her when I was looking at the others," Mrs. Whipple explained quite unnecessarily, "but when I did look at her again, there wasn't a sign of a necklace, and she held a hand behind her back. And if you could have seen how the Major flung those curtains together...with a look of guilt. Really, it was extraordinary! The vicar could make no more of it than I could."
"Did you get the water?" Tomlinson asked. She had not. She had not felt like ringing, she said, so furtive had been the whole proceedings after they realised that the curtains weren't drawn. As soon as Major Moncrieff had drawn the curtains, the light had gone up again, she said, but of course she had hurried away and back to her car, getting water for it somewhere else.
"Did you tell Mr. Ayres this?" Major Hogg asked, as though forgetting that she had said that she had only spoken of it to her husband.
Mrs. Whipple repeated that she had not told any one but the vicar.
"Then please don't!" said Major Hogg.
Both the chief constable and the superintendent knew her and her husband as two people who were neither of them gossips. Tomlinson cocked an interrogative eye at his superior. Major Hogg nodded curtly.
"In strict confidence," the superintendent began, "knowing as we do that what I ask you won't go any further, had you ever seen that diamond necklace before?"
Mrs. Whipple eyed him with a puzzled frown.
"Say, worn by some other lady," he went on. "Please don't read more into my words than I mean. We all know there have been many jewel robberies round about. Now say some one had got hold of a piece of jewellery and was trying to get Mrs. Moncrieff to buy it. Do you think it could have been one of the stolen necklaces here on my list?"
Mrs. Whipple took the paper, but handed it back. "I haven't the faintest idea," she said, "but—well, some such idea had crossed my own mind, which—"
"Which was why you came?" Tomlinson asked smiling.
She nodded. "Which was why I came. Not that I'm so young as to think there's only one explanation to puzzles."
"There's only one right one, madam," Pointer said to that, and she agreed.
She could tell them nothing else. The vicar and she hardly knew the Moncrieffs, who were not churchgoers, and she never listened to gossip. She was thanked, and seen to her car.
"What about Edwards?" was Hogg's instant query when he returned from this errand of civility. "Is he safe?".
"Absolutely, sir. Archer is on guard, and I heard Mrs. Edwards talking to her husband as I passed the windows."
"Good." The Major was silent a moment. "Like Mrs. Whipple, I think that little affair, she told us about, very odd."
"Ah!" came in gratified tones from Tomlinson.
"It looks as though Mrs. Moncrieff had been in it all," Major Hogg said slowly.
'"It does," Tomlinson agreed with a dark brow. "It does, sir. Which would have made my bluff all the worse as to her having told me this and that. The Major would know that she would have any amount to tell if she chose to speak."
"But why should he imagine that she would choose to speak?" Hogg asked shrewdly, looking at the chief inspector.
"Thinking of Miss Brunton's sleeping draught, sir?" Pointer asked in return, seeing that Hogg wanted a word from him. The chief constable and Tomlinson nodded like two old-fashioned mandarin ornaments.
"Something of that sort was what I thought when I heard of it," Tomlinson said vaguely. "Just something of that sort. The Moncrieffs quarrelled over her. With or without reason, that's to find out yet. And we learnt from Mr. Santley how they could quarrel!" and the superintendent told of the incident of the open razor and also of the box of chocolates. "Poor woman, whatever she did in the way of helping her husband, she escaped the razor blade but got the knife all right!" Tomlinson said.
"Talk of pluck!" Major Hogg spoke warmly, "To go back into that room!"
Something in the reflective grey eyes that just swept his own for a second made Major Hogg turn directly to the chief inspector.
"Don't you think so too?"
"You think she would have gone back if there had been any danger of such a fate?" was Pointer's counter question. It was unexpected.
"But she did go back! Foolhardy thing to do. Don't you trust Mr. Santley's account of what happened?"
"I should expect it to be very accurate. But I asked you on the way down here, sir, if the portraits in the papers were good ones, and you said the one of Mrs. Moncrieff was a capital likeness. Well, if so, I don't believe that she was of a foolish or reckless type. Rather the other way. Passionate, yes "—Pointer was bending over the table again where a paper was spread out with the two faces on it—"determined to have her own way, yes. Jealous, yes. But I shouldn't expect physical courage from that face."
"She rather affected me that way too," Hogg said now, "Cat, not dog, was her breed, I thought, when I met her once. Now he was the dog breed."
"Oh, he looks it!" Pointer said promptly. "No end of courage in that chap, I should say."
"Fond of danger for danger's sake, perhaps," Tomlinson suggested, "but as to Mrs. Moncrieff—what can one think of her returning to that room?" He asked it as a practical question.
Pointer hesitated. "I should say that probably she was in no danger whatever and knew it," he said at length. "But—but—" They eyed him in perplexity. "What I mean is," Pointer explained, looking closely at his shoe tips, his hands in his pockets, "that off-hand, the incident suggests that he had taken the open razor away from her."
His hearers looked startled. "By Jove!" muttered Hogg reflectively.
"I see what you mean! Quarrelled over the other woman—" Tomlinson suggested, "or over the booty, or my bluff to each that the other had spilled a bit from the pail in talking. You think she meant to kill herself?"
"No, no," Pointer said almost smilingly. "Threatened to kill herself. A very different matter. I don't think one often finds her type of face among suicides."
"But," Tomlinson went on, "he called after her that she couldn't escape what was coming to her."
"Yes, by killing herself," Pointer finished in his turn. "Those words would suggest that he really believed she meant to do it."
"Yet he himself killed her a few hours later!" Major Hogg said.
"Just so, sir. Inconsistent. Very." Pointer's tone was thoughtful. After a moment's silence he turned to Tomlinson, who was hunting in his notebook. "Did anything that you said to the Major or to his wife sound as though every hour brought discovery, or arrest nearer?"
Tomlinson nodded. "Very much so. The tableaux were to be given to-day, Saturday, you know, and we had heard of some fine jewel cases to be fetched from town or brought down by bank messengers. The Major, and perhaps Mrs. Moncrieff, were planning some rather clever scheme to rob their guests, I feel sure, with Edwards' assistance. Unless indeed, Edwards isn't the gang leader, who has put the Moncrieffs in that house where they are living, to further his own ends. They may really be the employees. Ah, here it is!" Tomlinson had run a date to earth. "Yes, that American woman staying with the Lady Maud Tempest near here at Tempest Park had her jewel case stolen just three days before Mrs. Whipple saw that necklace being held against Mrs. Moncrieff's neck. Just three days before! Among them was a fine diamond necklace—she gives the particulars, of course, or rather the insurance company does. But what made you think I had hurried the Moncrieffs up a bit?" Tomlinson asked Pointer.
"Many things are odd in this case," Pointer said almost dreamily. "One of them is the choice of the rehearsal for a murder. Last day I should choose. At the regular show everyone would be in their appointed place, you would know where to look for them, but yesterday! Extraordinary time to choose! People are generally all over the place at a rehearsal."
"I stopped the waiting till to-day," Tomlinson said with modest pride.
"And why that complicated way of killing her when he intended to shoot himself afterwards?" Pointer went on. "To stage an accident, if he meant to live it down afterwards, makes sense. But why not have stabbed her in peace and quiet upstairs, before he killed himself? Why all the mummery?"
"You have an answer to these queries," Hogg said. "You have seen from the first something in this case that we don't. Yet I don't know what. Surely your first objection that Moncrieff might have been expected to act differently about that knife in his wife's heart is explained by the possibility, to put it no stronger, that he meant to kill her—that it was a planned murder, not a blunder?"
"That is another explanation, sir," Pointer said, and the chief inspector felt that the speaker was deeply stirred, in spite of his quiet.
"And that is?"
"May I wait awhile before replying, sir? I haven't seen either of the dead bodies yet, nor the rooms where they were found. It's quite possible that the idea caused by that knife having been left in Mrs. Moncrieff may fade out as I see more, or hear more."
"Mad the Major was not, that much I'll swear," Tomlinson said firmly. He was thinking of Mrs. Phillimore's words.
"Nor did he look like a man who drank or took drugs," added Major Hogg.
"Just so, sir," Tomlinson agreed. "Neither, or rather not any of the three notions will fit him. Yet what about his chasing Mrs. Phillimore around the room? Does that square with your ideas about the knife?" he asked Pointer.
"It goes better with your notion of jewel thefts," Pointer said. "It suggests a man who wanted to frighten the lady away. Taking your word for it that he had all his senses about him."
"That's what I thought when she told me the tale over the 'phone," Tomlinson said. He looked pleased that the man from the Yard went at least that much of the way with him. "Trying to scare her off the premises. And why? As you say, clearly because of what was going on there. Jewel robberies."
Personally Pointer was eager to be off up to Beechcroft, but the chief constable was keen on learning all that he could of Pointer's opinion as to what had happened. There was no escaping from the station for the moment. That being so, the chief inspector asked if he could see the "exhibits." Tomlinson got them out at once. He, too, looked intensely curious.
"It is funny that it was the Spaniard's sword that was used." He spoke as though answering some of Pointer's problems for him, "And that he was brought to the house by Miss Bruton, the girl who took that sleeping draught, the girl who seems indicated as a possible 'third' in the house. She certainly tried to keep me out of the room. I think it's likely that it was she who locked the doors. Looks as though she hoped Moncrieff would have time to escape, or possibly this Spaniard was got down to help him, and is a member of the gang in disguise. Here's the sword—probably Moncrieff himself tied those fallals on to the hilt, which the Don says is always bare." Tomlinson handed over the blade carefully. "No fingerprints. Too richly chased for that. Magnificent piece of work, eh? And would drill a hole in a block of cement. Here's the revolver. The Major's fingerprints on it, of course. Only his. Bullet fits. Also of course."
Pointer was studying the little deadly thing as it lay unwrapped on its square of cardboard, covered with transparent paper.
"Anything odd about the revolver?" Tomlinson asked quickly, as Pointer did not at once lay it down, after he had merely glanced at the sword.
"Very," was the reply. Again quite unexpected.
"In what way?" Tomlinson was at his side in a bound. The chief constable, too, took a stride towards the table.
"The way in which these fingerprints are half obliterated."
Tomlinson looked like a perplexed gun dog who cannot see where the bird has fallen.
"I don't understand," said the superintendent. "As Moncrieff fell forward on his face, the revolver slid forward too. It was half in and half out of his hand."
"Quite so, but look at those marks!" Pointer indicated a set. "They're not the prints of a man's relaxing grasp as the revolver slipped away from him, but were evidently each sharp and clear and well defined, and then have been smudged by a thrust backwards. Yes, this revolver was shoved backwards, sir." This last to Major Hogg, who had made an exclamation.
Major Hogg and Tomlinson both, with tight-pressed lips, bent over the revolver, and both nodded agreement—finally.
"It looks as though some one had shoved it back, towards the hand, into the Major's open palm, probably to where you found it, with the toe of his shoe." Pointer continued. "If the pile of the carpet had been less thick the prints might not have been wiped off at all. Was it on a rug?"
Tomlinson recalled a very thick pile rug of hairy Indian make. "Yes. But—but—" He stopped himself, and bit his lip in perplexity. "But look here, the door was bolted on the inside! There was only the one."
"There was a window," Pointer said. "You speak of it in your report as wide open. The room is on the first floor. What about a ladder?"
"There is a ladder," Tomlinson said. "Leaning against a tree. Some one might have put it to that window when they heard the shot and found the door bolted, might have got into the room, found Moncrieff dead and thought it would be more certain to be known as suicide, if he shoved the revolver a bit more into the Major's palm. And I ask you, what about an accomplice in those jewel thefts? What about Edwards, the gentleman chauffeur? He wouldn't want all the inquiries that any question of Moncrieff's death being a murder would raise. Of course he would want the Major's suicide unmistakably labelled as such."
Major Hogg laid down the revolver, which he had been holding by a pencil thrust into the barrel. He looked keenly at the chief inspector.
"Is that what you think, that some one came into the room after Moncrieff had shot himself, and altered the position of the revolver? 'Fraid it wouldn't look natural? Painting the lily sort of thing?"
"I think some one shoved it back," Pointer said, his clear grey eyes fixed on the other.
"That idea you had when you first heard about the case," Hogg went on, "does this amazing discovery you've made bear it out, or wipe it out? I should value your frankness very much."
"It bears it out," Pointer said instantly. He was about to go on, for he was no mystery maker as to what he thought in a case, unless, as here, he had not sufficient ground on which to place two feet, when Tomlinson broke in.
"What's the connection with that knife left in Mrs. Moncrieff? Those who watched the conjuring trick thought it was shock that drove the Major from the stage without making an effort to draw it out, or call for the doctor sitting right in front of him. I myself feel sure that he meant it for murder, and had no intention of any one being able to save her. But what else did it mean to you?"
"It suggested to me a man who didn't want to get blood on his hands or clothes," Pointer replied simply.
The two men, listening so intently, felt that the case had been given a jolting turn to face yet another way, but they could not, either of them, see which way. Pointer went on, looking now at his shoe tips as though they were his magic crystals.
"I couldn't, and can't, see why the Major, whether appalled or satisfied with what he had done, would care about blood marks on his hands when he intended to shoot himself directly. But if it was not Major Moncrieff at all? If the Sheikh was another man altogether? In other words, did the leaving of that knife, the anxiety to have no blood on him, mean that those watching the conjuring trick saw some one who was not Major Moncrieff at all come on the stage and murder Mrs. Moncrieff."
There followed the silence of shock, of deep thought.
"No one heard the man dressed as a sheikh speak," Pointer said. "At least according to the evidence so far. He wore what would make a perfect disguise—flowing robe, turban, black beard, brown-stained hands or brown rubber gloves."
"True!" came from Tomlinson. "True!"
"But, if not Moncrieff, who then?" asked Hogg almost under his breath.
"Ah!" Pointer said, looking up.
"You think he may have rushed upstairs and shot Moncrieff? You think there may have been two murders done yesterday? That the Major and his wife were both killed by a third party?" demanded the chief constable.
"I think it may turn out to have been so. But in that case, there will be evidence to show it, or to make it sufficiently probable."
"And you came down here with this in your mind?" continued the Major.
Pointer said that that was the case.
Major Hogg said nothing, but he looked at Pointer with new eyes.
"Then that would mean that my talk to the wife and then to the husband had no part in the affair?" Tomlinson looked deeply relieved. "I'd give a year's pension to have that be the case. But I don't see how it could have been that way. The Sheikh was seen to rush off the stage, dash up to the 'property room,' and a few seconds later, or minutes—no one noticed the time in the horror of discovering that Mrs. Moncrieff was dead—a noise was heard which we think was the shot that killed him. Doctor Andrews is absolutely certain that he was only just dead when found. The body was still warm, the blood still liquid. I don't see how anyone could be sure of timing things like that. And if not timed to a hair, the show would have been given away.
"Yes, a clever crime, and deep waters," Pointer agreed.
"Edwards, and a jewel gang," Tomlinson said with confidence.
"I don't necessarily see your jewel gang at work," Major Hogg said, rousing himself from a reverie. In such discussions all were equal. "As I see it, there are a startling number of possibilities to this case."
Pointer's eye agreed that there were. Horribly many.
"I'm wondering whether it wasn't Moncrieff on the stage, but that he intended to escape, not to shoot himself, and was followed upstairs by some one who saw him kill her and was not taken in by that idea of a blunder. In that case the motive would be love or jealousy—that sort of thing. That girl and the sleeping draught might fit in here. You, Tomlinson, cling to the jewel-gang idea—with modifications, eh?"
"Certainly. Edwards," came the instant reply.
"The chief inspector's solution of the puzzle is a third person who stabbed the wife and shot the husband. That, I think, is about it?"
Pointer agreed, adding that unfortunately many other variants were possible, more so than in any other case he had ever handled, but that if they held close to facts as found out, they ought to be able to decide which seemed to link up with each other. In short, he thought routine would clear it up. He was looking as he spoke at the flat, curving brass sheath which Mrs. Moncrieff had strapped around herself, hidden by a scarf of gold tissue and ending in a bunch of scarlet geraniums. He tested the knife that should have been used. It ran into the roller mouth and along it to the end without the least difficulty. And tried on anything even slightly resistant it rolled up like a spill.
"Is there any large wardrobe or large chest in that room where you found the Major, the 'property room,' you mark it on the plan?" Pointer asked.
"There is. A big chest. Used for some of his disappearing tricks," Tomlinson replied with an inquiring look at Pointer, but the chief inspector was balancing the sword for a second on his other palm. Both Tomlinson and Major Hogg had done the same.
"Impossible to mistake the one for t'other," all three agreed.
Pointer handed back the "exhibits," which Tomlinson locked up quickly.
"If you think that a third person may have killed both the Moncrieffs, Chief Inspector, how would you account for the time being so short between the two deaths? As Tomlinson says, that seems a difficulty." Hogg asked. "I noticed on the way down here that you wanted to be quite sure that there was no mistake about Moncrieff's being only just dead when he was found. I assured you that there was no possibility of error there. Yet Moncrieff looked an uncommonly tough customer to tackle."
"He did!" Tomlinson added with vigour. "Wouldn't have taken it lying down. He'd have fought to the last ounce of life left in him. That's why we intended to turn up in full force to-day, and even yesterday, I took a fair-sized squad along, just in case."
"I don't think the time difficulty is insuperable," Pointer said; but at that instant a constable came in to say that Mr. Santley, who was staying at Beechcroft, would like a word with the officer in charge of the inquiry into the Moncrieff deaths. A minute more and the artist was shown in. He looked startled to see all three men together, and he apologised for the trifle which had brought him. On thinking it over, he felt that he ought to mention an odd little happening in Battersea Park connected with Major Moncrieff and a man apparently now claiming to be in his service, a man whom he was told was called Lee.
Tomlinson nodded. "Yes. Told me the Major engaged him yesterday, what about him, sir?"
Santley described the incident on the park bench in Battersea Park and the Major's words to him while sketching in his picture.
The chief constable thanked him, said nothing was unimportant in such a case, and walked out with him to his car, while Tomlinson heaved a sigh of relief.
"Clear enough, eh? Edwards is the head as soon as Moncrieff is dead. So he wasn't in command before. Had to do as the other told him, and probably had to let the other divide the spoils. We know from Mr. Santley that he had tried to get hold of that box of chocolates which Mrs. Moncrieff sent by Santley. Chocolates! Intended for Amsterdam eventually, probably. Many a good stone has been sent out of the country like that. I wonder"—Tomlinson's keen eyes grew narrower—"now, I wonder if learning that Mr. Santley had seen Moncrieff and Lee together could have had anything to do with what has happened, or his seeing Lee and Edwards together in the drive." Tomlinson fell into a deep study, to be roused by the chief constable returning, catching a glimpse of the clock and then rushing out to his car again, calling directions as to other cases on hand as he went; for Major Hogg was an hour late for an appointment.
The two officers, glad of the chance, made off for Beechcroft.
"I told Archer, the constable on duty outside the garage, to get another man take his place and take Lee round to the pub and let him have anything he liked. Lee looks to me like a man fond of his glass. Over-fond probably," and the car dashed on.
POINTER looked thoughtfully at the dead man's face when it was uncovered for him to study it.
"He doesn't look like a crook," he said to Tomlinson. There was no one else present. "Looks too impatient, for one thing."
"That's what I thought had dished him, and us," Tomlinson murmured. "He looks a dare-devil all right, doesn't he?"
But Pointer was now examining the bullet wound. Then he passed his magnifying glass carefully around the mouth, and inside the mouth over the teeth. Whipping out a pair of pincers he picked a couple of threads from the strong teeth in front, and a few more from the back. He put them into an envelope. Tomlinson stood rigid. He knew what the other was doing.
"I'd like to get his clothes off," were Pointer's next words.
"Right!" Tomlinson, with a very eager face, helped to strip the dead man. They had only got his outer, gaudy, sheikh robe off, when the superintendent gave his first exclamation. Underneath, Major Moncrieff had on his usual clothes. His striped pique shirt and its crisp sleeves bore unmistakable marks of having been tightly tied halfway between shoulder and elbow.
"Tied with very thin cord, and for some time. Fish line, I should think," Pointer said briefly.
"Or wire?" suggested Tomlinson.
But Pointer shook his head. "Take too long to cut. Now for the ankles. The wrists wouldn't be touched, of course, for fear of leaving marks to catch your eye."
When the body was stripped there was no doubt possible. The arms between shoulder and elbow, and the legs at the ankles, showed unmistakable signs of relentless tying.
"I think the line passed round the neck," Pointer said, looking at a faint mark under the ears. A minute later his long brown fingers were feeling the man's head over very carefully. He stopped for a moment at one place on the back of the head. Tomlinson felt it and nodded.
"Nice bump. Tiny place. Don't wonder that Doctor Andrews didn't find it. You don't think of examining the head of a suicide for cracks."
Pointer was looking round the room. It was a big, bare place, unfurnished save for cast-outs from the rest of the house, such as a broken kitchen table with a groggy leg, a cracked looking-glass, a chair whose back had a pleasing trick of coming off in your hand. But there were exceptions. A big handsomely carved chest fully seven feet long stood by the window. A wardrobe with a door that would not fasten was against the wall. It was stuffed full of clothes—property clothes. Another wardrobe was empty, and showed on examination curious double sides and sliding backs. A couple of boxes of the same ilk stood on one side; a screen which had really six folds instead of the three it showed; a hamper with a mysterious lid; and other such very expensive adjuncts of an entertainer's possessions were here and there.
"Even when he was in the army he went in for this sort of thing," Tomlinson explained. "He did some stunts for our yearly concert. Jolly good they were too. Couldn't understand how they were worked. Useful for a jewel thief—but I forgot, you don't think he was one. I still think it looks like it—and dissensions in the family."
Pointer was standing by the big chest, and raising the lid, which could be fastened shut by means of a rod thrust through stout staples. Tomlinson and he lifted out article after article which lay inside. Half-way down they stopped. There, before them, were unmistakable marks where something long and heavy had crushed down on what lay below. Pointer and Tomlinson had the measurements of Moncrieff. They fitted the marks.
"That's it! He was bound, gagged, and laid in there while unconscious. Light things were put over him and the lid closed and probably secured with these rods. I don't think you'll find any fingerprints on them."
"Was this what you meant when you asked about wardrobes or chests in here? Well, I'm—I really am!" Tomlinson was staggered.
"But the Major wasn't shot lying down," he said finally, deeply puzzled; "yet he would have shown fight—there was no sign of a struggle."
"Oh no, I don't think there would have been a struggle," Pointer said. "I shouldn't wonder if the murderer posed as a deliverer, flung up the top, cut the gag, and the ties, and got the man out and on his feet. It would be a case of 'Hurry! I'll explain afterwards. Now take this!' 'This' would be the revolver, 'get ready to fire the moment he comes in if need be,' and then, stepping behind the Major, I fancy that his supposed rescuer shot him dead, through the ear with the mate to the revolver he had first handed him. It's a very ordinary one. The Major pitched forward, his hand still grasping the revolver, which fell from it, and skidded a bit too far forward for our friend's taste, who, as I think, poked it back with his foot till it lay half within Major Moncrieff's hand. Now then"—Pointer was looking around him again—"this idea, that it wasn't the Major downstairs who went through that sheikh performance, but the man who had stunned and hidden him, means that there must have been another costume just like the one the Major was wearing, or sufficiently like it to pass muster."
A glance in the battered wardrobe against the wall, and they found a complete double of the Major's suit thrust to the back.
"It takes off in a couple of tugs," Tomlinson said, examining it.
"And was torn, even so, here and here in the great haste the murderer was in." Pointer looked at the long black beard, the big turban with its elastic straps of pearls which passed under the chin. There were even a couple of enormous eyebrows upcurving like damascus scimitars on the floor of the cupboard beside it. Pointer put all carefully on one side.
"He probably wore it when he sandbagged the Major," he said now. "It would make a magnificent disguise. Then when he opened the box next time as the deliverer, he would be back in his usual clothes."
"The revolver was the Major's own," Tomlinson said slowly, reconstructing the scene once more. "A brilliant idea this of yours, and, so far, it certainly fits in with the idea of those jewel robberies. That's why the Major took that revolver and didn't stop to ask who the hell had tied him up, and so on; he knew that the sandbagging and the rest was what he might expect...Yes, it fits...like to see Edwards now?" he finished hurriedly. Evidently Tomlinson wanted a word with the chauffeur whether ill or well.
He opened the door. Ayres was passing, and stopped for a kindly word of greeting to Chief Inspector Pointer. He gave them both "the key of the house and of all the rooms," though he seemed puzzled by the interest they showed in where he stood when the Sheikh had passed him, and where Goodenough had sat. He pointed to a corner of a passage about half-way from the hall to the stairs which led to the property room. A chair stood there. Again he described how the Major had passed him like a whirlwind, brushing him out of his path, storming up the stairs four at a time, and how he had heard the slam of the door upstairs, and, he now fancied, the sound of the bolt shot home.
"Had he noticed anything peculiar about the Major's face?" Pointer asked; but Ayres said that he had had no time to notice anything. The Major had swept him out of his way as though he, Ayres, had been a kitten, and stormed on up.
When was the last time that he had spoken to him before the performance?
Ayres could not give any exact time. But roughly, it would have been when the Major was dressing. No, he did not go in. The Major called out in a very muffled voice, evidently with his head in his robes, that he wouldn't need any help. He had asked Ayres earlier in the day to lend a hand with his rig.
A few careful questions, and Mr. Ayres would seem to have seen Moncrieff in his usual clothes about a quarter to five or thereabouts.
Goodenough was questioned next. He had sat on the window-seat at the end of the passage off which Moncrieff's property room opened. The light was full on any one coming along to it. He had noticed nothing peculiar, he said, about Moncrieff, except his tearing hurry. He described how the Sheikh had left his room shortly after Ayres had asked him if he needed anything. He had gone on down the stairs without a word, and after a few minutes had rushed up them again, darting into his room, slamming and bolting the door behind him as he did so. Goodenough seemed to have nothing fresh to say. He, too, had seen Moncrieff—as Moncrieff—about a quarter to five, more or less; he could not fix the time exactly, he added. It was Ayres who had suggested his being on hand upstairs to help the Major if necessary, as the latter was in a great hurry.
Pointer walked back with Tomlinson the way the Sheikh must have come. A little farther along than where Ayres had stood was a bend which hid the door of the hall in which the tableaux were being given. Just around this bend a picture was standing, leaning against the wall, a hole in the latter showing where a nail had fallen out, or been jerked out—the latter looked the more likely from the size of the hole. The nail itself, bent to one side, was lying beside the picture.
"The Sheikh evidently knocked that down when he came out of the hall; he was waving his arms above his head, we were told," Tomlinson said. "I noticed the picture like that last night."
"I don't see how any man making straight for the stairs down this passage hit that picture," Pointer said, "unless his arms were going round and round like flails. Mr. Ayres says they were hanging down when the Sheikh stormed past him. Yet that picture was evidently shoved hard to one side. And look at this mark on the bare boards"—he showed a sort of star of fresh wood—"someone's heel did that. Looks like a man all but falling, and it's right to one side; yet, as I said, the Sheikh would certainly not go one inch out of his way when making for the room up there."
Pointer left it at that, and followed Tomlinson into the hall itself. It told nothing, except that the mantel on which the Spaniard said that he had left his sword was well to one side of the stage proper, so that anything lying on it would not easily have been mixed with stage properties. The room only detained them a minute, then they left the house and hurried to the garage, which was quite out of sight around one of the disused wings.
At the garage they found a dark-haired man of early middle-age busily polishing a car handle.
"This is Lee," Tomlinson said to Pointer. "I had a word with him last night. Never saw you here before that, Lee. When were you taken on?"
"Oh, sir, I've served the Major and Mr. Edwards for many a year. Only I left to better myself, thought I could be a chauffeur too, and found I couldn't. The Major engaged me as mechanic again only yesterday, sir. Took me back, having known me so long." He polished as he spoke with automatic ease. His hands too spoke of a mechanic's life. His face was rather curious, with its deep-set eyes and bitter mouth. He looked a man who would brood. Pointer thought, and might be carried away by the results of that brooding. There was something in his rather challenging stare just now that had a hint of defiance. For the rest, he was uncommonly lithe and agile, and would have great physical strength and courage, the chief inspector thought.
"I want a word with Mrs. Edwards," Tomlinson said now, making as if to pass him. But Lee barred the way.
"Mr. Edwards is ill, sir, and Mrs. Edwards spends all her time with him. You can't—" He stopped, for the chief inspector, picking up a long stick lying near, had applied one end of it to the bell-push over Lee's shoulder and kept it there.
Before Lee could speak, and a very ugly word looked about to come from him, the door opened and a young woman of perhaps thirty stood there eyeing them silently from under level lids. She was dressed in some simple material which yet struck both men as expensive, and she carried herself with that nameless air which we call an attribute of good breeding. A mastiff stood beside her gazing very seriously at the two strangers from under wrinkled brows.
"How is your husband?" Tomlinson asked abruptly, in a severely official voice.
Mrs. Edwards' head went higher at the tone. She was not pretty, Pointer thought, but she had plenty of spirit, or he was no judge of faces. Her hair was dull flaxen in hue, so was her skin. Her lashes were almost white. Her eyes were a fine, clear true blue, very steady and very bright. Her mouth was well cut and suggested self-control. For the rest, she used no make-up, though she was a type which it would have improved out of all knowledge. From this, and from other details of her features. Pointer fancied that she was a woman quite satisfied with her personal appearance.
"He is very much the same as when Doctor Andrews saw him last night," she now replied to Tomlinson in a quiet voice. She did not step back from the door one inch. Her eye was distinctly frosty.
"Will you take us into a room where we can have a word you?" Pointer asked. "You know Superintendent Tomlinson. My name is Pointer. I'm from New Scotland Yard."
She hesitated, met his eye, turned, and led the way up handsomely carpeted stairs to a room above, with a word to the dog who followed, sniffing at the visitors' heels.
The room into which she showed them was well furnished, and yet it showed an utter absence of any of those domestic touches which make a home. But it was very neat and clean.
"We want just one word first of all with your husband," Tomlinson began afresh.
She shook her head. She was not shingled, but wore her very fine, quite straight hair gathered into a loose knot on her long leek. Parted in the centre, it framed her over-long face like looped back window-curtains.
"The doctor forbade it utterly. He ordered him at least four days absolute quiet," she went on, "or he won't be responsible for the result. Yesterday was a frightful shock to Mr. Edwards. But in time, four or five days, he ought to be able to answer any questions you want to ask. Though he knew nothing whatever of what had happened until some one, the cook it was, telephoned the dreadful news to me."
Tomlinson stood by the door. He was disgruntled. Edwards' arrest, for it would be practically that, must wait.
Pointer suddenly started forward, and flinging the door open, stepped into the passage, wheeling with a dramatically upflung hand as he did so. "I heard a cry for help. From further down the passage. Come on, Tomlinson, this must be looked into!" He spoke under his breath, but very peremptorily. The superintendent, who had heard nothing, told himself that he didn't wonder that work with Pointer was popular. They hurried down the passage, disregarding Mrs. Edwards' voice telling them to stop. The mastiff came too. He looked more like a policeman than any of them. But he made no effort to prevent the men's run.
"Edwards' bedroom?" breathed the man from the Yard.
Tomlinson pointed ahead.
"Coming, Mr. Edwards! Coming!" Pointer called aloud, as though in reply to a call for extra speed. "Where are you? Which room?"
Tomlinson had his hand on the door-knob. He turned it. The room was empty. There were two neatly made beds in it. They faced Mrs. Edwards, who had now run after them. The dog stood back, looking to her for a signal. In the centre of the room was a half-packed trunk. A woman's trunk, evidently.
Pointer looked puzzled. "But wasn't this where the voice came from?" He stared about him as though to discover some hidden burglar. "Where is your husband, Mrs. Edwards? If it was he who was calling, he may be in some danger."
"This is the only bedroom," Tomlinson said sharply. "Come, Mrs. Edwards, what does this mean? Where is your husband?" The superintendent's voice was harsh.
Mrs. Edwards looked absolutely bewildered, but quite cool. "He must have wandered out when my back was turned. Well, he can't get far with such a temperature. There's nothing to be done but wait for him to come back. I'll send Lee, the mechanic whom you saw downstairs, to look for him."
"But who was it I heard calling?" Pointer asked.
Mrs. Edwards flashed him a glance of fury.
Tomlinson called the man up.
Lee did not look like a good actor. He stared in what looked like real perturbation at Mrs. Edwards. "No, I didn't call, and I didn't hear any one call, either. Mr. Edwards gone! Walking about with a temperature of 104! Why, it may kill him! I remember at Tripoli when he got that chill from the burst—" he caught Mrs. Edwards' placid eye, and stopped. "I'll bring him back if you want me to," he finished lamely, looking at her.
"Do," she said laconically, "he can't have got far. And put him to bed if I'm out." She turned away and straightened the frill of a net curtain.
Lee hesitated, looked at her, found that she did not glance in his direction; looked at the two officers, found that they, on the contrary, were staring hard at him, and finally, clicking his fingers to the dog, went down the stairs very slowly, like a man not quite sure of what he is to do. The mastiff followed.
Tomlinson, with a glance at Pointer, slipped out after him and said a word to a constable lounging on a garden roller. The man jumped up on the instant, and a moment later another took his place.
Mrs. Edwards looked at the dock, and asked if they would excuse her, she wanted to do the usual daily shopping. When her husband was brought back, she wouldn't want to leave him alone again.
"We must see him as soon as possible, in his own interest," the superintendent said.
Mrs. Edwards looked inquiringly at him.
"There is a possibility that Major Moncrieff was murdered—shot by another hand than his own," Tomlinson said slowly.
Mrs. Edwards turned very white. Terror, not unreasoning, but the terror of a woman who knows of what she is afraid, stared out of her eyes for a second.
"Oh, what about Will!" she breathed.
Pointer saw that in another moment it would be possible to get past her guard of self-control. Her husband's name was William. She was afraid for him now; of that the chief inspector was certain.
At that moment there came a double knock on the door downstairs. "I'll go," the superintendent said with suspicious alacrity. The postman handed him a box with a well-known London florists' label on it marked "Fragile." He took it to Mrs. Edwards, who snatched it from him, her face suffused with emotion. Her eyes when she looked at the chief inspector had lost all their startled frightened look of a moment ago. They met his steadily. All chance of her unburdening herself was gone, and he knew it. Knew, too, that the box which she had not even troubled to open had conveyed a reassuring message.
"Don't you want to see what's inside?" Tomlinson asked suspiciously.
Mrs. Edwards at once cut the string and took off the lid. "Just some flowers from town," she said negligently.
Tomlinson, with but the poorest pretence of helping her, searched the box for any writing. There was nothing inside but tissue paper without any marks on it.
"Who sent them?" Pointer asked, and received the reply he expected—and wanted.
"I haven't the faintest idea."
Tomlinson began questioning Mrs. Edwards as to where her husband was. "If he doesn't come back very shortly indeed, it will look uncommonly bad. Uncommonly bad," he repeated meaningly.
Mrs. Edwards looked uneasy, but vaguely so this time. There was a telephone outside in the passage. Pointer asked if he might use it.
She gave a preoccupied permission, her eyes intent on the superintendent's. Pointer rang up the florists. He said that a box of flowers—marguerites—had just been delivered to a Mrs. Edwards at Beechcroft garage. Mrs. Edwards did not know from whom the flowers came. Could the shop tell her? A voice from the other end answered that she couldn't supply it, as the flowers had been ordered from Brussels. Oh, but when? By whom? Pointer asked, surely you must know? The voice explained that there would probably be no way of finding this out. Her shop belonged to the International Union of Florists. Any one stepping into a shop in any of the large capitals of Europe or America which belonged to this union would only have to give an order, pay for it, and be certain that on a given date or immediately, a box of any given flowers would be despatched from the nearest town.
"Clever," Pointer thought as he thanked the voice and hung up. So some one—Edwards himself, he thought—had sent a message by that simple means. The box was the message. Its contents unimportant, and the message, he believed, was "Safe!" He went back into the room. That Mrs. Edwards had not heard his telephone conversation he saw at once from the indifferent glance which she gave him. Tomlinson was repeating very gravely, "I must see your husband, Mrs. Edwards. In his own interest. Will you get into touch with him at once, or tell me how to?"
"I can't," she said now, "there's a girl...I wanted to keep it to myself, of course, who's infatuated with him, and he with her. I'm afraid he may have slipped up to town to be with her, in which case he may not be back for days..."
"And where does she live?"
"I haven't the faintest idea. I only know of her existence."
"Mary. I don't know the surname. I found a letter...he doesn't know I know, of course..."
The two men looked at one another. Each was certain that the lady was lying, and to do her justice, doing it very badly.
"May I see your husband's passport?" Pointer said quietly. Her pupils dilated for a second, but she shook her head calmly.
"I haven't the faintest idea where it is." And that Pointer thought was probably true. Somewhere around Brussels would be the nearest guess.
"I hope you will have no objection to our looking through the rooms here, and the garage," he said next. Mrs. Edwards looked as though she had very decided ones.
"I can obtain a search warrant, if you prefer," Tomlinson volunteered.
"Not at all," she said frostily. "I fail to understand what it means, but do whatever you feel to be your duty. I'm all alone. If my husband were here, you might not find him so complaisant."
Pointer walked over to a big table in the window. The top drawer, unlocked, contained an automatic, a lady's weapon. Beside it was a box of cartridges to fit. In the drawer of the table by the bed was another, a man's size, and beside it again a full box of ammunition. This room looked out to the front. In the sitting-room, which faced the back, they found still a third revolver, also with its ammunition.
Mrs. Edwards, who looked slightly flushed, but not frightened any more, showed three permits taken out in different places of England.
"Any machine guns?" Pointer asked politely.
"I'm very nervous," Mrs. Edwards said with an odd little smile that spoke of an endless store of courage and a high heart. Pointer was certain that, if this woman lived with three revolvers handy, it would be because she had good reason to think that they might be wanted. In all likelihood her husband had still another with him.
"And now for the garage downstairs," he said. "We needn't trouble you, Mrs. Edwards, any more for the present."
For a moment she hesitated, looking as though she longed to object, but if so she thought better of it, and handed over three keys.
"There are three keyholes," she said shortly. "Each owner of Beechcroft wanted to use his own key, and had his own hole fitted."
"Indeed," Pointer murmured. "Three keys, three revolvers, one mastiff—the garage is well guarded!"
She looked him in the eye with a faint challenging smile.
The three keys used in turn unlocked the door.
"The stable is empty," Pointer said meaningly, as they stepped inside. They looked it over without finding anything of interest until among some sweepings in a corner Pointer found a nut, at which he looked thoughtfully as it lay on the palm of his hand.
"What is it?" Tomlinson asked. "I'm no engineer."
Like most first-class detectives Pointer would have made a good one. "It's a holding nut," he now said slowly, "sort of thing you would fix on the connection of a two-branch manifold with the pipe, but it's not of any make I know, nor can I quite follow—" he dropped off into silence.
"The Major's two cars are foreign makes—Excelsa and eh—eh—some other name like that," Tomlinson said. "We have them entered at the station. Neither of them looked like doing twenty downhill. But we never got the chance to lift their bonnets. You bet we tried! Now what's that?"
Pointer had retrieved something else from the corner and put it away too in an envelope. "Part of a vertical steel coil spring," he said, "but one which has had the life taken out of it by terrific pace. It's snapped as though it were tinder, and feels like it." He found nothing else, and after listening to Mrs. Edwards descending the stairs and shutting her front door, the two men went up the stairs again into the bedroom, where the trunk was now closed.
The floor was of painted wooden boards, and Pointer was promptly interested in two scratches in front of the wardrobe which he found when they took away a rug that lay there. Two three-foot long marks straight out from the feet of the wardrobe ending each in a sort of blur of scratches to the right.
Pointer felt up the back of the wardrobe, a heavy looking affair.
"Hooked to the wall," he said, and Tomlinson found another hook on his side. They lifted up with surprising ease, and easily, too, the wardrobe pulled forward.
"That has been done many times before," Pointer said, looking keenly at the wall left blank. It showed no sign of a break or a cut. The room had walls of cream painting with lines of gilding to represent large square bricks.
"Those two bricks in the middle there are soiled." He examined the spot in question and decided that the marks he saw had been made by the palm of a left hand pressed on them. There were no scratches.
"That's how it shuts, pressed back, but how does it open? I shouldn't be surprised if a safe is concealed here."
They tried the oak boards of the floor where the blurred marks were, and found that by standing there with the wardrobe in place and at the same time lifting up the hooks which held it to the wall, moving out the wardrobe straight and then jumping hard on the blurred spot again, the two "bricks" from the centre of the blank wall behind projected about half an inch, and the drawer so revealed could be easily removed. It was quite empty. But inside were many fine scratches on the steel lining. Also a good deal of white dust. Pointer emptied the latter into an envelope. Tomlinson pointed to the scratches. "Jewellery did that. Dropped in quickly or snatched out quickly. Especially after the stones are removed. It's scratchy stuff."
They pushed home the brick safe, and tried the remainder of the walls with no result.
"That was the hiding hole. Probably the Major used this as safer than anything at the house," Tomlinson said. "It begins to look to me more and more as though Edwards and not Moncrieff may have been the real leader. I'm afraid I think that my remarks to Mrs. Moncrieff started her off yesterday morning. She probably lost her temper. Edwards decided to remove her and her husband. Unfortunately he's tricked us all. I can't think how he pulled the wool over Doctor Andrews' eyes, for he's a clever doctor. He must have got away at once—or rather during the night. I didn't put a man to watch the place till this morning, and of course Mrs. Edwards can play the duped wife, and we can't prove it against her."
Pointer led the way upstairs again, and looked through the books. They were few in number, and chiefly periodicals dealing with big motoring events of this and previous years.
He passed on to a corner set of shelves, drew aside the curtain, and studied the remedies standing there. One was a bottle of quinine of a very concentrated brand.
"There's the explanation of the high temperature, probably," he said. "Soak enough cigarettes in quinine, let them dry, smoke them, and you'll get a temperature promptly. It's a Foreign Legion dodge. As a matter of fact, I believe it was by noticing the dual effect of chinchona bark that started Hanhemann on homeopathy. I think Mr. Edwards knew of this idea."
The cottage garage held nothing further to interest them. And Pointer led the way back to the house itself, and to the Major's study. A little room close by a door into the garden—and the garage. The room was practically unfurnished save for one revolving desk chair, a big writing table, another table under a splendid set of three lights in the centre, and a couple of shelved cupboards. There were ink bottles of about five colours on a shelf, with a tray full of pens with fine map nibs in front. Rulers of various kinds, and almost an architect's outfit of instruments. Sheets of special papers such as engineers use for plans, and blue prints, were there too...
The writing table was stuffed with drawings, of motor engines apparently. On a sheet of paper left in the blotting pad was scribbled under the date of two days ago, and in what they soon found to be Moncrieff's writing:
"Edwards thinks my 7n squared over 2 2sp a more likely ratio. And below came:
"Acceleration fair. If on third gear speed of 75 m.p.h. can be attained in 27 secs., the max. is only 78 h.p. On second the car will do 50 m.p.h. and reach that speed from a 10 m.p.h. start in 8 secs., while a standing start to 75 m.p.h. using all the gears was done in 26 3/5 sees. The gear ratios were 3, 4.75, 7.35, and 11.49 to 1.
"Standing start uphill in bottom gear..." here followed other details, then came overall ratios and back axle ratios with many workings at the side.
And then Pointer came on the charts. They were not many. Each was dated. Hour and weather condition and compass points also. They began apparently a fortnight ago, but the pad from which they had been torn must have held a large number. Tomlinson took the address of the shop where it had been bought in the city, and would inquire the date. The hours were always night. There was one chart carefully worked out comparing the outputs of the voltage controlled dynamo (full line) and the third brush dynamo (broken line) in different conditions, carefully and very expertly done. Then again came more tests with automatic starting switches, fully worked over, and beautifully clear of the vacuum controlled diaphragm. These were not shams. Loose sheets showed where Edwards, as well as the Major, had pencilled and corrected. Several of these had evidently been scribbled while running. Suggestions for quicker petrol filling gaskets, with diagrams, were on one page...Pointer looked at the kind of paper used. Extraordinarily fine and yet tough. Foreign make. A bundle of these could be compressed into a very small space. All the books in the study, and indeed in the house, bore out the papers they found. Except light literature, there was no print which was not in some way connected with cars. Nothing even touched on precious stones or on metal work other than that used in, or for, cars. Pointer wondered how the superintendent's theory of jewel robberies would stand up to these papers. This man was no jewel thief, but a car expert of some kind, of that he felt sure. He thought of that nut...of that broken spring...and he thought he saw the reason for much that was perplexing in the life of Major Moncrieff at Beechcroft, a reason which might very well explain his murder, and possibly hers too, if she was in his confidence.
"EVIDENTLY keen on cars," Tomlinson said when everything had been replaced, and they were ready to return to the garage and wait the return of Lee.
"Evidently. Very," was the reply, with a faint smile.
"Useful hobby for a jewel thief," Tomlinson hazarded.
Pointer shook his head. "Wouldn't have the time," he said. "The Major was a car tester, Tomlinson, for one of the big firms, of that I feel quite sure. We know how secret they are, and have to be. Edwards was probably as good an engineer as the Major, but possibly the latter was the better driver, and so they arranged the positions accordingly. I take it that they were equals, really. But besides that, I suggest that the Major was working on a new type of car altogether. That very unusually shaped nut suggested as much. So do some of the readings of tests made..."
"But look here," expostulated Tomlinson, "that diamond necklace that Mrs. Whipple saw Mrs. Moncrieff trying on in such secrecy!"
"A gift, possibly, to mark either the end of the Major's engagement, this house suggests a short term—"
"End of a lease. Only a bit over two years," agreed Tomlinson.
"Or for some special piece of good work," Pointer went on. "Mind you, Tomlinson, I'm only guessing. But there are a dozen perfectly respectable explanations of that necklace, in my opinion."
"Including the secrecy?" came in sceptical tones which yet suggested a half-unwitting admiration.
"Evidently his whole contract was a secret one. As we both know, secrecy is the very foundation of such contracts as a rule."
"According to your idea, those chocolates that Mr. Santley carried—" Tomlinson was frowning hard.
"Papers under the chocolates, possibly. Some rival firm was to be evaded, perhaps the usual carriers, including Edwards, were getting well known. Evidently the head porter of the Brussels hotel was an agent, and when he was unexpectedly disabled, I fancy that Edwards himself flew over and took the papers into safety."
"Of course, there are the Crolls Boyce cars," admitted Tomlinson against the grain, "and Sir Mark Crolls does live near Waterloo. He's married to a Belgian lady and lives there since he was smashed up, while driving one of his own cars."
Pointer nodded. Sir Mark Crolls was indicated as the most likely employer of Moncrieff and Edwards, supposing he were right. Both from his home outside Brussels and from the kind of cars which his firm made.
There followed a short silence. Then Tomlinson said: "If this new idea is right, it certainly alters everything. Yes, it certainly does." Tomlinson was impressed at the speed with which the change had been brought about. Beginning with the fact that the prints on the Major's pistol showed that it had been pushed backward, a whole new theory of motive of the double crime was being built up.
"Yet one thing remains," he said finally. "Edwards! As much Edwards now as before, if not more so. That new car of the Major's. I understand there's a huge fortune in such things. Well, of course, Edwards would have shared in that, or wouldn't he? And was a share too small for him?"
Pointer could only say that so far, and they had but brushed the fringe of the conjuring trick murders, he saw no reason for thinking that Edwards knew of Moncrieff's design. As he said, he thought the two were engaged together in testing the cars of some one or other of the famous car makers. Both he and Tomlinson knew the secrecy with which any new makes are enwrapped. How the big firms have their own special couriers, as well as their own men for secret tests. But the association of the two men did not extend, Pointer thought, to the Major's machine. There was no hint of any other hand on the drawings of those locked-away papers but his own. And if murdered for them, they had not been taken away.
"Not yet!" added Tomlinson. "Of course, thinking the two murders would pass for accident and suicide, the murderer wouldn't want to spoil things by being precipitate. Personally, I'm inclined to wonder whether the Major didn't keep copies of these in that safe in the garage, and, if so, whether Edwards didn't skip with them, after all. Of course, now one comes to think of it, car gadgets was a sort of official line of the Major's.
"Ah, here's Lee coming back! We'll see what we can get out of him."
"I can't find Mr. Edwards," the man called out now, catching sight of the two just returning to the garage, the door of which they had left ajar.
"Come in here," was all Tomlinson said. He took the man into the garage, closed the doors and then wheeled on him. "Edwards happens to be securely locked up in our gaol at the moment." There was a man named Edwards, who had been arrested for thieving, serving a sentence at the moment.
"Mr. Edwards! You'd never dare! What for?" There was no mistaking the incredulity in Lee's face, the awe in his voice.
"We suspect that he had something to do with the death of Major Moncrieff," came the reply.
"Mr. Edwards!" repeated Let. The tone was still incredulous, but the kind of speculation in his tone and face suggested the hearing something that fits some facts known to the listener, but not all.
"And with Mrs. Moncrieff's death too," finished Tomlinson.
"Oh, rats!" came in a relieved voice from Lee. "No, no, Mr. Super! Besides, that was an accident, wasn't it, and his was suicide afterwards? What's this about Mr. Edwards, then? How could he or any one else be concerned with what happened here?"
Lee looked fairly quivering with some tense interest in the answer.
Tomlinson froze that, by refusing to add another word, and by suggesting that it would be better for Lee to explain exactly how much he knew of the Major's work, and that of his so-called chauffeur. But the man refused to speak. Never talkative, he was dumb now, and the interview was a draw, so to speak.
After he left, Pointer stood for a moment looking at his shoes, his hands thrust deep into his pockets.
"You say that I think the motive is that Edwards murdered the Moncrieffs for the sake of some papers, some possible patent of great money value. I don't go so far as that, Tomlinson. I don't feel at all sure that we have got as near to the heart of this crime in so short a time. There are many possibilities. Only one thing stands certain—to me—unlike the guilt of Edwards, which. I consider highly problematical, and that is, that the murderer was hurried; that this was a rush affair."
"Your reading of that open razor incident would fit that." Tomlinson, too, had been thinking hard. "It, too, suggests an emergency, something new, or just found out by Mrs. Moncrieff."
"It looks as though he had wanted to take some course of action which she violently opposed," Pointer allowed.
"Mrs. Phillimore suspected another woman. There's Miss Bruton. She acted very oddly; though she is engaged to that Spanish Don whose sword was used."
"Engaged to him?" Pointer had not heard this fact. It seemed to interest him.
"He told me so."
Pointer took a turn up the room. "I'd like a word with him next." His tone was very grave.
A moment later, Don Plutarco came into the ugly little room which the chief inspector and Tomlinson had taken over as a sort of office. Both men paid an instant, silent, tribute to his physical fitness, and to something more, something of the spirit as well. Pointer heard afterwards some tales of this young man's indifference to danger. But at the moment what he felt most, was a certainty that laws meant nothing to Ramon, whether civil or religious. He would make his own, and respect none other.
The Spaniard had all his race's charm of manner when talking to the two officers. By every inflection, they were put on an equality with himself. His haughty bearing had nothing to do with class distinction. It would have been the same had he been speaking to his king—and he was a Royalist.
Hardness is a spiritual quality, but it usually leaves its mark. It had done so here. You do not let a bull charge at you, while you sit, one knee cocked over the other, smoking a cigar. You do not let him toss you high into the air, and alight, cigar still in mouth, still burning, well behind the brute who is breaking your chair to matchwood, without nerves and muscles of steel. Don Ramon was one of the few seated espadas. He professed to know nothing bearing on the tragedy. Yet within two minutes, Pointer was absolutely certain that this man had some knowledge, and vital knowledge. It spoke in a certain curl of the lip, glance of the eye. Yes, Don Plutarco had seen or heard something, and had not the slightest intention of passing it on to the police. More, Pointer was sure, that he hoped that they would slip up on the case. A "don't-you-wish-I-would-tell-you" glint shone out from those black eyes. They had a quality in them that could cow the bull in front of him, thought the keen observer watching him.
Pointer thanked him and held out his hand. Just for a second Ramon hesitated, but as Pointer's hand remained extended, he just touched it with the tips of his own slender steel-like fingers, but Pointer gave a little exclamation.
"You wrist is badly bruised. How did that happen?"
Ramon's eyes seemed to flicker, and Pointer felt as though a whip had been snapped close to him.
"An accident in my sleep. I grasped it with my other hand. A silly trick of mine sometimes. It is quite painful."
Pointer let it go at that. The mark certainly had been made by a bigger, broader hand than the Spaniard's slender long fingers. Had it been there yesterday morning, when he had shown the others the sort of passes made in the bull ring? He hoped to settle that question. It must have been a most powerful grip which would leave those marks. It looked the kind of grip that one would have imagined the dead man's hands capable of inflicting in a struggle such as might have taken place when he had been gagged and tied up. A gagged man cannot struggle long. He cannot breathe properly. It was quite possible that it was then that this grip had fastened itself on those steel-strong, slender wrists.
Another thing too of which the chief inspector felt sure, after this talk, brief and inconclusive though it seemed, was that if this young man was in the crime, money played no part in the motive. This was not a character to covet money, though what it did care for it would care for with a volcanic fury of which a northern nature could have no notion. It was not the type that a detective cares to find on the scene of a murder. Just as Pointer definitely set Mr. Santley aside from the crime, by reason of inability to be a murderer, he as definitely included Don Plutarco in his list of suspects. Don Plutarco, Goodenough, Ayres, and later on even young Pusey, when he talked to him, were all men who might be guilty, and, as far as psychology went, Don Plutarco headed the list. And another thing: this crime must have had clever timing, and an espada must have that in his very blood. Dexterity of his hands, strength of heart and of hand, accuracy of foot and eye and of every muscle; absolute pitilessness, absolute courage, these were all parts of the make-up of a fine torero. Pointer had travelled. He had seen bull-fighters in the ring. Setting on one side the ghastly part where horses are used, there is no profession which calls for such courage, which is so dangerous. A proof, if needed, is that very few die in their bed; that the supply is always less than the demand; and increasingly so as men can earn money with less risks. The bull-fighter faces huge and dangerous animals with no weapon but the primitive weapon of Tubal Cain. He has his sword, his wits, and his courage. To hear a man who shot tigers safely from a machan, generally with a wretched goat tethered below as bait, condemn bull-fighting, always amused the chief inspector. He knew, after watching one, that it took what he himself had, a store of courage which could be drawn on and never fail, to face successfully those horns, that bulk, that incredible swiftness of attack. There is one spot, and one spot only, to pierce which means death, and the espada must find this in one apparently careless thrust or lose his own life.
One thing seemed certain, whether this young man were connected with Moncrieff's death or not, and that was, that he had been a stranger to the Major and his wife until quite recently. A few skilfully put questions showed that his knowledge of, and interest in machinery was nil. He glanced at the nut which Pointer showed him with as little interest as though it had been a teething ring. Pointer's impossible suggestion that it came off the ferule of an umbrella was met with a careless agreement. Remained then, Flavelle Bruton as a means of finding out more about the Spaniard. Mrs. Phillimore had stressed her fondness for Mrs. Moncrieff, her dislike of the Major. She did not sound promising.
They thanked Don Plutarco, who assured them with his haughty politeness that he was always entirely at their service at any hour of the day or night.
"Says he was in his own room at the time, and heard nothing, saw nothing," Tomlinson said. "I suppose that's possible?"
Pointer looked at him. "Many things in this case are possible. Such as that Mrs. Moncrieff was murdered by a woman who wanted to marry Moncrieff, and so wanted the wife's death to pass as an accident; and that some one else, a man in all certainty, saw through the idea, decided that she should not benefit from her crime, and shot the Major upstairs," was his reply.
"My Lord," came from Tomlinson, "that's an idea! And that chap would do it, all right! But if so, why was Moncrieff bound and gagged?"
"Say some one loved the murderess passionately, or wanted to get her into his power utterly. Such a some one might, given a certain type of character, let the woman go ahead and kill Mrs. Moncrieff, knowing that he had taken all his measures so that the Major would be instantly shot, if she did what he suspected that she intended doing—"
"—but not otherwise." Tomlinson was listening enthralled. "Sounds fair minded, and yet incredibly horrible, even for a murder case."
"The idea might explain," Pointer went on, "the only thing of which I feel certain, and that is the inability of the criminal to put off the crime until a better occasion. If the man knew what the woman intended to do, knew that she might never feel like that again once she had come to her senses, and wanted her entirely in his power."
"But what about her being fond of Mrs. Moncrieff and disliking the Major?" Tomlinson said in the tone of a man who wakes up from a disturbing dream.
"Did Miss Bruton seem overcome with anguish at Mrs. Moncrieff's death?" was the chief inspector's question to that. "Did she rush to her, try to be of some use, or give way to her feelings in any way? We haven't been told so. All we know is that you heard her at the door, apparently giving some one time to get away.
"After having turned the key," Tomlinson nodded. "That's right. No, I didn't see her go near Mrs. Moncrieff...still, every one has it that she and the Major didn't care for each other..."
"Even when she came to from that overdose," Pointer went on in his thoughtful way, "she didn't say one word about Mrs. Moncrieff's death." He looked up. "Suppose we have another word with Mr. Santley. A guarded word, of course...His portraits show that he sees far below the surface of men and women."
"Like you! My word!" said Tomlinson.
Santley was painting when they were shown into his room.
"What I would like to know is this, Mr. Santley," Pointer began. "I have a clear idea now of the facts as so far known. But not as to the people in the house. Take this Don Plutarco Ramon, for one. What would you say was the foundation stone of his character? Pride? Furious temper? Or meekness and patience?"
Here Tomlinson gave a sort of snort, and the three smiled.
"Love of domination, I would say," Santley said, mixing some paint with a thoughtful stir. "He does dominate you, unless one is careful. His very glance says as much. Quite unconscious, possibly."
"Yet I hear he's going to marry Miss Bruton," Pointer seemed puzzled. "I should have thought that characteristic would hardly appeal to her."
"I don't think it does," Santley said. "Probably she loves him in spite of it. Possibly he makes an exception in her case. The eagle and his mate..."
There was a short silence.
"Then there's another question about Miss Bruton herself," Pointer continued. "Do you think that Miss Bruton was so friendly to Mrs. Moncrieff that she would twist anything she had to tell us about her so as to seem only flattering to the dead lady? Does she strike you as able to be impartial to her?"
Santley thought this over. He really could not answer it, and said finally:
"The two certainly seemed very friendly. Especially Miss Bruton seemed very fond of being with Mrs. Moncrieff. Mrs. Moncrieff rather kept a distance between herself and other people—with the exception of the Major," Santley added.
"She was devoted to him, I understand."
"Utterly. It spoke in every word she said, every look she gave him. I think Mrs. Moncrieff was one of those women who can only love one person, and who love so utterly that they have nothing but tolerance for the rest of the world. Certainly, during this short time down here it was always Miss Bruton who hunted up Mrs. Moncrieff, not the other way round."
"Then you would not credit a rumour that the two ladies had quarrelled very violently on the day of the rehearsal?" fished Pointer.
Santley stared. "I shouldn't have thought they would have had any time for it," he replied with a rueful reminiscent smile. "Everyone worked like a navvy. Certainly, it must have been a short affair."
"When Don Plutarco was showing you his sword, as I understand he did, in the morning, did you happen to notice his wrists?" Pointer asked.
"Most certainly. I sketched them from memory. Look." Santley flipped a paper over to the chief inspector who saw two hands holding a sword and a muleta in four or five positions. The wrists with their supple play had evidently attracted the artist strongly, and they were very effective even in the sketches.
"You couldn't sketch the bruises." Pointer said with a humorous smile.
Santley picked up the sheets and put them away. "Not a bruise on that body of bronze will you find, chief inspector. I doubt if a boa-constrictor could leave a mark on it."
Pointer said that that was very likely, thanked him for the help he had tried to give, and left.
"So that bruise wasn't there yesterday morning," Tomlinson said sagely.
"No. I think he would assure us that he grasped his own wrist last night," Pointer said, and both gave a swift smile at each other.
"All the evidence is still that Miss Bruton was Mrs. Moncrieff's friend," Tomlinson reminded him.
"I think it wouldn't be a bad idea to have a woman's opinion on that," Pointer said. "I think I will have a word with that charming looking governess they have here."
"With Mr. Pusey to act as witness," grinned Tomlinson. "I was told by the maids here that she was as good as tied up to Mr. Goodenough, yet it's all Mr. Pusey as far as I can judge."
"Let's hope we don't have another murder," Pointer said as he left the other and walked across to the little building on one side of the drive.
He found Ann at the back looking over the two toy glass houses given by the Mishes to the twins, which amused her as much as they did the children. And there was young Pusey too, as Tomlinson had prophesied.
Pointer asked if he might have a word with her. She looked surprised, excused herself to the young man, and took the chief inspector into the schoolroom.
"I can't go into details," he said after a few words about the tragedy and the coming inquest, "but I want to know very urgently just how much I can rely on any praise or blame of Miss Bruton left behind her by Mrs. Moncrieff in her letters. And vice versa, just how much I can believe Miss Bruton when she praises Mrs. Moncrieff, or thinks that she ought to have acted otherwise in such or such an event."
Ann looked at him with her quick brown eyes. Nice eyes, he thought. Clear and true. Like Santley's, they were a pleasure to meet in this dark affair where treachery certainly had played a leading part.
"I think anything Miss Bruton says about Mrs. Moncrieff would be most accurate and fair," she said after a second's thought. "She is very fond of her, but I don't think that would blind her. But Mrs. Moncrieff...frankly," she hesitated, then wound up in a lower voice, "frankly, I think she had rather outgrown her old friendship, or else she was one of those people who change with the years..."
"You liked her?" Pointer asked. "Forgive the personal question."
"Yes, I liked her very much indeed," Ann said in a tone that suggested a certain superficiality in the affection. "She's been extremely kind to me."
"May I ask how you came here?" was the next question.
"An aunt of mine knows all the world. She heard the Moncrieffs talking about a nursery governess of theirs who was leaving, and how they hoped to get hold of some one with modern ideas, and promptly suggested me to them, and them to me. I was in the house at the time, and we, the Moncrieffs and I, had a long talk and I was practically engaged on the spot."
"At—forgive what isn't an impertinence, Miss Bladeshaw, but is all part of routine work—at a good salary?"
"Good beginner's salary, yes," she said frankly. "A hundred and all found. Not wealth, but I was keen on trying my hand quite free and unfettered. Of course, it's really too late. The next hundred years will see people engaging college trained girls for their babies as soon as they're born, but one does what one can."
"They will be well off, I suppose?" he asked casually, and again he was assured that wealth was not to be the twins' portion, unless they won it for themselves, or married it.
He asked a question or two about Miss Bruton and the Spaniard, and found that Ann knew nothing more than he did, and seemed to think the couple quite fond of each other. Nor did she know of anything of importance, or anything new which had happened yesterday morning. Yet underneath all the fog of this case Pointer was still sure that something had happened, something had occurred, something which had made it impossible for the murderer to wait. It might be a psychical necessity such as he had sketched to Tomlinson, it might, on the other hand, be connected with something concrete, some piece of information which had arrived by post, or telephone, or been passed on by one of the guests. It had reached the murderer—to use that name for either sex or a partnership—long enough before the rehearsal to enable the duplicate sheikh costume to be taken away and put on, time enough to concoct the horrible plan...
He went slowly back to the house feeling that this was going to be one of his most difficult cases. He had never slipped up on one yet, but he was not at all sure that he would be able to grasp this criminal through the mists of this case.
At the house he found Tomlinson deeply engaged in a talk with Mr. Goodenough.
"Mr. Goodenough has something very interesting to tell us," was Tomlinson's quite unnecessary remark. His own position, and that of Goodenough, said as much to Pointer's quick eye.
"Nothing but a feeling of duty, however repugnant," Goodenough said, apparently with some confusion in his mind as to what he found repugnant, "makes me come to you at all. But your remarks this morning seem to me so odd..."
Pointer did not amplify them, as Goodenough's eye seemed to ask,
"—that I feel it better to get it off my chest," finished that gentleman swiftly and inelegantly. "It's this. And whether it means anything or not I leave it to you. Just before the rehearsal, before that terrible double tragedy—" he hesitated as though still not quite certain about speaking, then he went on, "—I happened to step into a room which isn't often used—this room, as a matter of fact—and found Moncrieff and Miss Bruton in one another's arms."
Tomlinson shot Pointer a glance of honest admiration and congratulation as one hunter to another. He admired the ease with which the keener brain had found the right trail.
"Who was in whose arms?" Pointer asked.
Goodenough gave a fleeting grin. "He had his arms around her, and she had her head on his shoulder. I think she was crying. I think so." He added the last as though even to one who had seen them, tears and Miss Bruton did not seem to fit.
Had either of them seen him? Goodenough said that had he appeared with horns and tail and flames he did not think either of them would have looked away from each other. No, they had not noticed him, and he had stepped out instantly, and shut the door.
He put the time of his intrusion at roughly half an hour before the rehearsal began.
"And did any one else know of this?" Pointer asked.
"I can't say for certain." Again Goodenough seemed to hesitate. "But—I would be willing to bet a pony that that Spaniard had stepped in before me. I passed him standing at the foot of the stairs drumming on the newel post. He looked up from under his bent brows at me. I was glad that I don't resemble Moncrieff in any way, so that he couldn't mistake me for him," he finished. "It was a look! Oddly enough it made me think of a savage bull waiting. A killer."
"Did he say anything?"
"No need! His eye told me to hurry on, and not cumber the ground any longer than was necessary."
"But you didn't hurry on," Pointer said with certainty. "No," Goodenough said gruffly, in a tone that suggested that he was indeed finding frankness repugnant. "Evidently you have heard about this. I went to the dining-room and left the door open."
The dining-room door faced the door of the room in which they were, across the lounge. "I thought that Spaniard's look a wicked one. But nothing happened. Moncrieff came out, very white about the gills, and rushed off upstairs into his own room. And Ramon—I stepped out to see what he would do, but he merely remained where he was a second looking after Moncrieff from under his bent brows. Then, as he started up the stairs, Miss Bruton called to him. She evidently saw him too and knew he could be dangerous..."
"And what did Don Plutarco do?" Pointer asked.
"Hesitated for a fraction of a second, and then wheeled, and made a sort of rush for this room, slamming the door shut behind him. I waited. Oh, I frankly confess that I waited. I expected to hear a scream from Miss Bruton, and indeed, as I heard nothing, I opened this door again—people can be strangled," he added as though in excuse, "and really that young man's diabolical look..."
"And what did you see, sir?" asked Tomlinson eagerly.
"I don't know," Goodenough said slowly rubbing his chin, "I really don't know what I saw. And I don't think even you would have known." He cast Pointer a swift look. "Ramon was standing with his face in shadow, his back to the window. Miss Bruton was facing him, holding his sword in her hand as though begging him to take it, holding it out like this, upright." Goodenough looked about him, and taking up Superintendent Tomlinson's umbrella, seemed to present arms for a second. "Then she hugged it to her heart, and some one called me and I closed the door. I have no idea whether they saw me or not. The window is sideways to the door as you see. I stood here," Goodenough went over to a spot. "Miss Bruton was in the centre there, and Don Plutarco in the window. Possibly they didn't! I have no idea, as I say. I was wanted to see about some screens which had toppled over, and when I looked in here again, the room was empty. Now, of course, this may be of no importance whatever. In fact, it's sure not to be. This is a plain simple tragedy of a blunder and a suicide by a heart-broken husband who loved his wife, though he may have side-stepped for a moment. Miss Bruton is a devilish handsome woman."
"Do you know anything about when she first met the Moncrieffs?" Pointer asked.
Goodenough said that that had been before he had met Mrs Moncrieff. He understood from what was said when Miss Bruton came down for this visit that she was a very old friend of hers. Ayres had said so.
Tomlinson asked him if he had seen anything before to-day which suggested that the Major and his guest were interested in one another. But Goodenough declined to commit himself. He said he wasn't altogether surprised, but he couldn't give any one instance...a look between them...a lingering way of passing things, he had fancied...but he had told himself that he must be mistaken..."however, I finally decided to tell you what I had seen yesterday, in view of your questions a little earlier to-day."
They assured him that such a course was most commendable, adroitly avoided all his efforts to get them to say whether it was really of any interest to them or not, questioned him without tripping him up in any way, and closed the door on him, without, so Goodenough's face suggested, giving him adequate value in return.
"It's important enough," Tomlinson said as the door shut. "When she hugged that sword, she was telling the Don what she intended to do with it, and he, as you say, was making up his mind what he would do—if she did!"
TOMLINSON went to the telephone to question the doctor as to the possibility of a talk with Miss Bruton. Pointer asked for a word with Mr. Ayres. From him he learnt that Miss Bruton and Mrs. Moncrieff had been friends as girls, or at least that they had been friends before the Major and his wife had met. "They first met in Miss Bruton's studio, as a matter of fact." To Pointer's query as to whether Miss Bruton had ever seemed at all taken with the Major, or he with her, Ayres smiled, and assured the chief inspector that the two disliked each other heartily. It was the two women who were close friends. Pointer hinted that he inferred from something told him that they had quarrelled yesterday. Ayres looked faintly surprised, and said that that was quite possible, as both had worked very hard at getting the rehearsal ready. But if so, it must have been some slight affair of nerves, which would have soon blown over.
Pointer seemed to be convinced by this, and suggested that perhaps the quarrel had been between the Major and his wife instead. And then Ayres had looked uncomfortable and mumbled something about that happening in every household. No two people, however devoted, but had tiffs at times, unless one or the other was absolutely under the domination of the other.
Pointer would not let it go at this, and finally drove the other into admitting that he knew of that quarrel of which the artist had already told them one startling fragment. Ayres had evidently no conception of the open razor part, but from his room on the other side he had heard Major Moncrieff's voice raised in tones which, though quickly suppressed, certainly suggested "a—well—misunderstanding." Ayres' face and voice suggested that if he could have maintained that the tones had conveyed the idea of a tremendous joke or passionate love-making, he would have been glad to do so. Pointer then had another word with Mr. Santley. How had Miss Bruton seemed while she recited? And from him he finally learnt of her strange appearance and manner of delivery. Santley said that certainly she had been in a raging temper. He was quite unaware what had caused it, and suggested asking her when she was well enough. Pointer inquired what she had recited, and learnt of the substitution at the last moment of Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. More: Pointer borrowed a volume with the poem in it, and read it through. He raised his straight eyebrows, and asked Santley to be good enough to read it aloud to him imitating Miss Bruton as much as possible.
Santley declined, and said that he was no good at imitations.
Pointer apologised for this sort of cat-and-mouse intrusion, and went in search of Tomlinson, whom he found again entreating an obdurate physician to let him have at least one word...just one word with Miss Bruton, he didn't even want the permission for himself, he was saying as the other came in, but for a chief inspector from the Yard, one of their ablest men—he made a face at Pointer over the instrument—who had so far not even seen Miss Bruton. The doctor must surely appreciate how irregular that was! For a chief inspector not even to have seen one of the members of the house after such a tragedy, and after nearly twenty-four hours! In the end Tomlinson hung up with a pained expression. "Doctor Andrews says he knows what the police are!" He looked so indignant that Pointer laughed.
"I'm surprised at him!" the superintendent went on. Then he cooled down. "But after all, she's his patient. He's a cautious doctor. Now what about you? What have you learnt—anything bearing out the theory of Miss Bruton and the Don being in it?"
"Theory?" questioned Pointer. "You mean guess.'"
"Well, the kind of guess then that generally takes one to the end of the case in one stride," Tomlinson said ungrudgingly. "Now, what else have you learnt?"
Pointer summed up what Ayres and what Santley had said. It was the artist's words that most interested Tomlinson. Whereas it had been Mr. Ayres' information which had seemed most important to Pointer.
"Tearing passion!" Tomlinson now repeated. "Because Mrs. Moncrieff, poor little woman, wouldn't agree to divorce her husband."
"Like to see what she recited?" Pointer held out the book at the poem in question.
Tomlinson looked surprised, but he read it carefully, then he whistled.
"Put that, together with what Mr. Goodenough saw in her holding up that Don's sword, and you get—what happened, eh? It would have been better for Mrs. Moncrieff if she had fallen in with their suggestion."
Pointer said nothing.
"That's about the ticket, eh?" Tomlinson pressed.
"What about those words of his to her, 'You can't escape what's coming to you'?" Pointer asked.
"Well, what about them?" Tomlinson inquired frankly. "As you evidently have the gift of second sight, there's no need for me to fag my brains."
"Two young women, one young man—" mused the seer aloud. "One goes to Paris, the other marries the man. Friendship apparently breaks off. No meeting between any of them until Mrs. Phillimore gets Miss Bruton to come down here as her daughter's old friend, because of her supposed, or real, animosity to the husband. Mr. Santley bore out that idea. So does Mr. Ayres."
"Only Mr. Goodenough saw through it," Tomlinson murmured. "But I follow you, well?"
"The husband and the wife's friend have a talk together, the husband storms up to his room where his wife is and there is a scene which she ends, we think, by her snatching up an open razor and threatening to kill herself if he persists in doing something—this latter is but fancy, of course—but it seems, to continue the fancy, that what he has told her is that he and Miss Bruton are going away together..."
"...She objects, and is murdered within little more than an hour," Tomlinson finished.
"We think that is linked, but we don't know that it is," Pointer reminded him.
"Miss Bruton's fury!" Tomlinson said with confidence.
"Sounds to me as though there had been some act of treachery in the past," Pointer said slowly. "That past when they were all three meeting each other...before he married Miss Phillimore. Yes, I'm inclined to suspect that she thought herself in the past the victim of some act of treachery on the Major's part; whereas the treachery was on Mrs. Moncrieff's part, or Miss Phillimore as she was then. Say that Miss Bruton's hatred of him, on which Mrs. Phillimore banked, was due to this idea! That he had seemed to care for her in the old days, or had really cared; and that Miss Phillimore had stepped in between them and tricked them both, suppressed their letters, cooked up tales...There are ways..."
"Miss Bruton thinks she has been let down by the Major, and has no idea of the part you think Miss Phillimore may have played..." Tomlinson said. "Certainly, that poem she chose bears out this idea. Though that's nothing to go on. When does she learn the truth? Supposing this idea is the truth."
"Yesterday. Just before that scene between the husband and wife which so shocked Mr. Santley. I think some chance word of Miss Bruton's to him, or his to her, told both of them the truth...he rushed up, and taxed his wife with what she had done. And threatened that he was now going away with Miss Bruton, or at any rate, going to separate from Mrs. Moncrieff, without further delay...She thinks of the invitations to the tableaux."
"She loved him," Tomlinson said gruffly.
"True. There seems no doubt of that in any one's mind. But still, the invitations might have weighed if he had threatened to leave the house with Miss Bruton at once. She bluffs with the razor and gains time. And then?" Pointer's eyes were filled with thought. "What then?" he repeated under his breath.
"Miss Bruton killed her," Tomlinson said promptly, "and the Don, as you say, spoilt her little plan. And of all the ghastly treacheries, that murder was the worst! No matter what lay behind it."
"'Theoretically, it's the next step in this tragedy. But in reality? It would take a very unusual type of woman. Of a brutal as well as of a passionate character..." Pointer was speaking more to himself than to the superintendent.
"I didn't pay much attention to her one way or the other at the time," Tomlinson admitted. "I intended, of course, to have it out with her later about that hanky-panky with the keys."
"Yet her character is nil important," Pointer finished, "only an interview could help one to make up one's mind."
"As you say, an interview," Tomlinson said, pursing up his lips.
"Which Doctor Andrews does not want us to have," Pointer's tone was full of meaning.
"Oh, he's all right!" Tomlinson was startled.
"Doubtless. But he doesn't intend us to see Miss Bruton yet awhile. He would hardly want to keep her out of our way if he thought her connected with the tragedy, but if she had said something, murmured something, when coming out of her stupor which suggested that she and Moncrieff had been in love?...He might want to give her time to pull herself together."
"And it's true, the wife's death didn't upset her, but it was only after the Major was dead that she took that overdose." Tomlinson wished he had a clearer idea of Miss Bruton. As he confessed, he had hardly glanced at her, thinking that her turn would come later.
"If this was how the murder was done, which means why it was done," Pointer said next, "it may be impossible to prove it. Even if we ourselves become certain that we're right, it may be impossible to make an arrest." He stood a moment frowning down at his shoes. "I think I'll have a look at her studio. You have its number? I ought to get some idea of her character from her work."
Tomlinson could not come, but Pointer made for the address in question. There was no answer to his ring, and he let himself in, finally, with one of his own keys. He was not, however, Pointer of New Scotland Yard, but a grizzled artist with a flowing beard and a big black hat. He was a Monsieur Verhaeren Claes, a Flemish artist on a visit to London, who had knocked in vain, tentatively tried the door, and "found" to his surprise, that he could walk in. But he was not challenged, and Pointer made a very careful tour of the rooms. At first he found only the strange, violent-hued walls, a few sketches of Don Plutarco in the bull-ring, evidently recently laid on the table beside an old box with her modelling tools in it. But a moment later, he too found the drawer, and the dusty little wax figure of Moncrieff with a pin run through its heart. Run in too in very much the same way that the sword had been run through his wife's. So she really had hated him; if this was her work, as one could presume it to be. She had hated him, and then melted into tears on his breast, when she learnt of the baselessness of that hate? There was no evidence here connecting her with the crime. No letters from the past. But a charming head laughed at him from among a group of plaster masks on one wall. It was Mrs. Moncrieff's; and a dainty rogue she looked, with that arch sly smile...
Among a group of men's masks on the other side of the room, Pointer found one which had been badly crushed in. The damage had evidently been done some time ago...
Some one came whistling a Brahms melody up to the door. A ring followed. Pointer, opening, found an elderly man, shabby and bright-eyed, who stepped briskly in, and without a word walked into the inner room, and took up a palette knife.
"Mine." And with that he slipped it into his pocket and turned to go. He would have gone, too, without another word, but for the chief inspector's question.
"I take it you are Miss Bruton's last tenant?"
The man nodded, he looked distrait and in a hurry. Then, as Pointer still stood by the door, he looked him over.
"And you're the new one, eh? Architect then, or engineer?" and again he made for the door. Pointer was amused at the way in which his disguise had failed to convince the man. He decided to be as brief himself.
"Who smashed that?" he asked, waving his hand towards the unrecognisable plaster mask.
"The Bruton. Last thing she did before slamming the door behind her."
"Interesting," Pointer murmured. "Why did she want to smash up Major Moncrieff's face?"
"Dunno." And the intruder again looked hopefully at the door,
"Was it a good likeness?" Pointer asked.
The other gave him a surprised look, as might a man who hears an animal begin to talk. He waited, with inquiry in his eye.
"I happen lo know what the Major looks like," Pointer explained, "and I wondered whether she is really as good as people say she is. But what about a smoke? Pipe, I fancy," and he held out his pouch.
The other laughed, and for the first time seemed to become human. He had been before a walking thought, a cogitation on legs.
"My name's Humphreys," he said, filling his pipe. "Good stuff, this. Rather like my own. The Bruton's work?...She was a puling babe when she did those things," he waved a contemptuous pipe stem around, "but she grew up in Paris. Some do, you know. Atmosphere. Docs exist. Grew up in a few months. She got backbone...there's no backbone, or any other bone, in those things. I suppose you've met her, as you are taking on the studio?"
"Not yet. I hope to meet her this evening. But I am particularly interested in that mask. The why it was broken. Reasons of my own. Valid ones. Not just curiosity."
"You'll have to ask her. She'll tell you—if she feels like it. All I know is that when she cleared out for Paris, she left a few things behind, as I did my palette knife, and came back for them, wished me luck, half closed the door—I had started some work—and then came back, snatched up my mallet and biff—biff—Moncrieff was no more. She looked as though she enjoyed herself too while doing it," mused Mr. Humphreys. "Women love violence, you know. And to see that little meek mouse, as she was then, in that mood amused me."
"Well, small blame to her, if Moncrieff had treated her badly," Pointer said.
The other looked mildly interested and smoked on.
"Wasn't there some talk of their being engaged before he married Miss Phillimore?" Pointer indicated the little face opposite.
"Never heard of it," said Humphreys.
"Did you know them well?"
The other nodded, and yawned with engaging frankness. "I think I'll be getting back. My plaster ought to be just about dry enough now to work on," he murmured; explaining in the last sentence why he had stayed at all. And this time, Mr. Humphreys succeeded in getting away. Pointer looked a moment at the crushed mask.
So it had been Moncrieff. As it had been Moncrieff's little effigy which she kept transpierced. She had returned too to demolish it. And she had been a meek mouse in those days; while her going to Paris was only some six months before the marriage of Moncrieff and Miss Phillimore. And Goodenough's story. That embrace, those tears? Pointer had thought him telling the truth, and genuinely puzzled by it. Also, there seemed no reason for the tale...for, unless Goodenough were himself the murderer, he would not know what the police suspected. To them his odd story pointed to the young woman and to her Spanish friend as being possibly implicated in this really horrible crime. But to any man ignorant of the truth, it would seem only a reason the more why Moncrieff might have shot himself. Moncrieff's face smashed, Moncrieff's effigy pierced by that pin. He must wait until he could have a word with her before finding out where she stood in the whole affair. But the Spaniard...with the bruised wrist...Pointer would have a look at him and see if he had any other bruises.
Back at Beechcroft, he found that Tomlinson had just had an interview with Miss Bruton. The doctor had tried to head him off, but the superintendent would not take no. And finally Doctor Andrews had allowed him across the threshold where Flavelle Bruton lay on a couch her face upturned to the ceiling, looking, at a quick glance, almost as lifeless as Lavinia or Major Moncrieff. Tomlinson told the chief inspector that the only thing that he had got out of her was the fact that she had rushed to the doors and locked them when she saw that Mrs. Moncrieff had been killed "by a dreadful accident." She said that this was done in order to give the Major a chance to do what she felt sure he would do—kill himself. She maintained that she had not thought of the police, but only of the friendly interference of the men in the house. Mr. Ayres, Santley, Goodenough, and young Pusey. As the police had found, she had not been seen in the audience after her recitation, but she could, or would, say only that she had gone immediately to her room to rest.
"Gone immediately upstairs to her room, is all right," Tomlinson allowed grudgingly, "but as to resting? Not much! Dashed into that sheikh's rig and rushed down to finish Mrs. Moncrieff, more likely! She dashed back again into the room just before she locked the doors. No one saw her, but she would have had time to tear off the sheikh's robes and fling them up to the Don..."
"Mr. Goodenough says he was sitting on the window-seat facing down the passage," Pointer reminded him.
"I forgot for the moment. What happened was that she dashed into the room where the Don already was, the property room, flung out of those robes, dashed down the ladder and in by one of the windows. She could just do it."
Pointer agreed that there would have been time for it. He said that he would like a talk with Miss Bruton himself. Perhaps by himself. Tomlinson was only too glad to hear him say so. He felt, he said, corners and ends sticking out of her silence. The ends and the corners of a multitude of things hidden behind it.
Pointer sent up his name, and asked for an interview. A reply came down at once that Miss Bruton would see him now.
Pointer gave the figure lying on the couch a very keen look as he bowed over the hand she held out. A beautiful hand, he thought it. Not small. Not slender. Your narrow-knuckled hand too often means a nagger. But this had that peculiar effect of having brains in it, which now and again a hand or a foot can convey. The thumb was if anything on the delicate side. Not the thumb of a violent person, though it was the hand of a nervous, high-spirited woman.
Pointer did not think any woman with those hands, above all with those thumbs, could by any possibility, for any reason whatsoever, have butchered Mrs. Moncrieff. He looked at the face turned half towards him, though the eyes seemed to hardly see him, so obsessed and haunted were they by another sight, he thought. He had heard her spoken of as handsome, though Tomlinson, the admirer of Mrs. Lavinia Moncrieff, would not allow that there could be any comparison between the two women. But this Flavelle Bruton was ugly. Her complexion was sallow and mottled. Her eyes, deep set with purple rings below them, seemed small and lifeless. Her hair was rough and tumbled.
"Why have you come?" she asked tonelessly. "I can't be of any use to you." She closed her eyes as though to keep their expression hidden.
"Miss Bruton," he began gently. "You think that Major Moncrieff killed his wife intentionally, and then, in belated remorse, shot himself. I think both ideas are quite wrong. No, I can't at the moment explain further. But I assure you that if you are suffering from that thought, you are suffering needlessly."
In her eyes Pointer could read the question as to how the Major could have used the Spaniard's sword instead of his stage rapier, could have missed the opening and thrust it through his wife's heart, by a blunder; could have killed himself for any other reason but horror at what he had done. She was staring at him with white, parted lips.
"It will be difficult to prove," he added. "Now, I want you, if you are innocent of her death—" and on that she fell back as though he had struck her.
"You and Major Moncrieff loved each other once, did you not?" Pointer asked gently; "and she came between you? I rather thought so, and that you—both of you—only learnt the truth yesterday just before the rehearsal. The Major taxed his wife with whatever it was that she had done—treachery of some kind probably—and because of what happened immediately afterwards, you think he killed her in a fit of fury, and then, horrified at what he had let his hand do, shot himself. Now, that is not how we see it. Not in the least. Will you be frank with me? I assure you that, unless it's a confession of guilt, which is not what I am expecting, whatever you tell me will be kept strictly confidential. Do you want us to get at the real facts? Those facts which I believe were quite different from what you think? If so, please be frank, and tell me exactly how things were between you and the two Moncrieffs."
She jumped to her feet. "I will." She looked as though chains were tumbling off her. "Oh, if you—" She stopped herself, put a hand to her head, and sat down dizzily.
"Don't spare anybody," Pointer urged her. "Nil de mortuis is very poor counsel in such cases. Miss Bruton."
She looked up at him—a long searching look. Then: "Sit down here nearer to me,"—she motioned to a chair—"and I'll tell you the whole story. I will do as you say, I won't spare anybody—Lavinia, or Harry, or myself. Harry Moncrieff and I met in my studio and fell in love with each other six years ago. But an aunt on whom I was entirely dependent was a strange domineering woman. She had set her heart on my marrying a young man, the son of a man with whom she herself had once been in love. She was certain that I could have him, if I tried. I think she was a little mad on that point. And I was terrified of her. Always had been. I was timid in those days. I didn't dare tell her the truth, that I had fallen head over ears in love with Captain Moncrieff. He wasn't Major then. Mind you, Chief Inspector, looking back last night and all since, I see things in their true light. I realise, oh, completely, that my own cowardice is the real cause of all this tragedy. But I was a timid little slave."
Something in Pointer's gaze made her repeat. "Five years ago I was just that. Cowed by my aunt's browbeating to a degree that seems as comic to me as incredible to you, I suppose. She thought that Captain Moncrieff was attracted to my great friend Lavinia Phillimore. He and I used her as a cloak; believing that she was absolutely on our side. We corresponded through her. Or rather we started that way. Later on, neither of us got the other's letters. She swore to each of us that she had handed them in person, and as my aunt and I lived in a suburb, Dulwich, and as both Lavinia and Harry Moncrieff lived in town, it was all so easy for her. We simply, each of us, ceased to hear from the other. Engagements to meet were made and not kept. Her plan worked. In time I didn't see much of Lavinia either. Then, I summoned my courage to life; decided that I would sink or swim by my own effort; and I went to Paris. There I finally got a letter from Miss Phillimore telling me that she was going to be married to Harry Moncrieff. That she didn't love him, but she liked him. That he had told her as soon as I left England that he had made a mistake in thinking he cared for me, whereas it was really her whom he loved. It seemed natural. Lavinia was lovely, chief inspector, far lovelier then than she was this last year. She had great charm, and many good qualities. I saw no reason to question what she wrote me, and we remained friends. But we did not try to meet. When, the other day, her mother heard that I was back in England, she asked me to go down and see what could be done to help Lavinia. I ought to have refused. Yes, yes!" She spoke as though Pointer had murmured some polite negative. "I ought to have refused! I knew as much even then. But I hated him so much that I wanted to find him utterly a brute. Mrs. Phillimore said he was slowly killing Lavinia. I thought him capable of any treachery." She looked up with a sudden flash of green in her eyes which appeared to enlarge them beyond belief. Then, even as Pointer looked into them, they shone quite blue, so that it seemed as though the green must have been a mistake. "I wanted to find him all that I thought him," she repeated sombrely. "To justify the hate of him that I felt." And Pointer knew that in the pause that followed she, like himself, was thinking of a waxen effigy pierced by a red-hot pin. "Oh, I don't white-wash my reason for coming down here," she went on. Then she looked at him with a genuinely seeking glance for the first time, "I wonder if you have ever stayed in a house where your host loathed you? It was a quaint sensation, and to me all bitter and unjust, an amusing one. I wasn't any more in love with Major Moncrieff—" she leant a little forward, and her face now had lost its sallowness and showed itself in its beautiful configuration, "not in the least, but I was very much in hate with him. Lavinia was charming. And how she loved Harry! She tried to hide it. She even spoke quite coolly of him to me, but it showed in her every word and look. But her mother was right, she was not happy. She lived in some sort of constant dread. He never went out in his car but she didn't grow pale. There never came a noise which might have been a shot, though only a burst tyre, that didn't seem to turn her to stone. Lying here in misery these last hours, I've thought—wondered—if she had some sort of premonition."
Pointer said nothing. This dread and fear on Lavinia Moncrieff's part might but be due to the engagement which he believed bound her husband to a firm of motor-car makers, or it might be due to something more sinister. But the first idea would amply justify it.
"And then, yesterday—was it only yesterday, or was it years and years ago?"
"Yesterday," he prompted gently, for she really had lost all count of time for the moment. No one who has ever suffered anguish, or true joy, needs to learn that there is no such thing as Time. The heart and the mind both know that they function outside of its span.
"Yesterday morning, then, just before those who had to change were beginning to start dressing for the rehearsals, he and I happened to be alone in the dining-room. A picture I had given Lavinia which was not hung, she had hung hardly any of her own things, was there. Mr. Ayres had suggested that it would be just what was wanted in A Zoffany Conversation Piece. He had got it down from the attic and stood it back to front, and on the back was a sketch of Harry Moncrieff. I had painted it just at the time that we fell in love with each other. And he came up to me and caught me by the shoulders. 'Why did you do it, Flavelle? Why did you torture me? Why?' And I—" she choked; "I don't know what I replied, but the truth came out. Mutually. Bit by bit. Letter by suppressed letter. And we knew what Lavinia had done. He burst from me finally, saying that he must see her and tax her with it." Again Miss Bruton paused. "She told him she was going to have a baby," she went on in a calmer tone. "She picked up his razor, left ready for him to use before the tableaux, and said that she would cut her throat there and then unless he gave her his word of honour that he would stay at least under the same roof until after the performance was over. He got the razor away from her, but she rushed screaming wildly from the room. Then she went back and repeated that if he would stay until over the week-end, without making any scene, she would be reasonable too. I don't know what he said to her. He was mad with fury when he repeated to me what she had said. But he had given way for the moment. Somehow, it seemed to me that his anger was too big to find vent in words."
"Had you promised to go away with him?" Pointer asked.
"No." Flavelle Bruton looked him squarely eye to eye. "No. But he took it for granted, and that I was still in love with him."
"You didn't undeceive him? Why not?"
She hesitated. He thought it honestly done to express clearly what she had only felt in turmoil. "I can't quite understand myself," she said to that. "Time seemed to have slipped back for a few minutes just then. It was again as it had been—but without reality. It was more like a dream. A dream of something that happened when one was a child. So we were lovers again—in a dream. But as soon as he rushed off for that interview with his wife I came to myself. I love Don Plutarco Ramon, Chief Inspector, not Harry Moncrieff. But I don't think I felt any room for love of any one just then. All I felt was fury against Lavinia! I had been her dupe! She had deliberately roused that in me against Harry Moncrieff." Flavelle bit her lip. "I think we always find it very difficult to forgive those who call out our worst emotions, who drag us down; and I was still more enraged by the lie she had told Harry. It was so clever of her! It was a lie, wasn't it? I mean that she was going to have a baby? Ask the doctor if it's true."
"It is not true," Pointer replied. "The doctor has assured us of that."
"How like Lavinia!" And something like a smile flitted for a second across Flavelle Bruton's worn face. "I felt sure it was one when Harry told me. And, if anything, it added fresh fuel to what I felt for her! We couldn't have more than a word or two, for I had to recite something," and this time the smile was more genuine. "I could have raged around on the little stage and sworn myself black in the face. But I chose some lines that went with my feelings and let off steam that way. When it was over, I rushed to my room and had a cold bath. That helped, and I began to feel rather ridiculous. Also, I had to face another talk with Major Moncrieff and tell him that though something, memory—or something—had brought back the old feeling for a second, it had been only a last flash. I wanted to see him as soon as possible, for fear lest he make some arrangement with Lavinia which he wouldn't have done had he known that I had no intention of going away with him. I thought that if I waited until the end of his own performance I should be able to speak to him as he left the stage. So I slipped into the hall, as we called the room where the tableaux were being rehearsed, just before the conjuring trick. Mrs. Moncrieff was already lying on the table. Waiting!" Flavelle Bruton's face showed intense pallor. "I sat at the back and closed my eyes for a moment. When I opened them the sword was just descending." She looked still more ghastly. "I knew, as it flashed through the air, that he held Don Plutarco's sword, and not the property one. I tried to call out, but no sound came from my throat. Then he rushed on. With that cry. And—" her voice was low and all but spent, "I have told the superintendent all the rest. My one thought was to give him time—for what must be the next thing. I thought I heard a shot, but I couldn't be sure. I didn't dare be too sure. I didn't want the others rushing after him. Least of all the police, when I knew they were present, rushing up to his room before—before!"
She was sitting far back in her chair now, her hands half covering her face; utterly exhausted by what she had gone through.
"And the overdose of sleeping medicine?" Pointer asked.
She raised desperately unhappy eyes to his. "I thought that if he had taken that road, so must I. I knew he thought that I still loved him. I thought I saw the result lying on the table. Poor Lavinia!" Her face quivered. "I loathe lies and deceit and treachery, and she had been guilty of them all. And yet, now, I can only think of her as a girl too madly in love to count any cost."
She spoke with apparently deep sincerity. Was she honest? Pointer did not think that she herself had stabbed Lavinia Moncrieff. She was not the type to commit a brutal murder. But she was the type to feel deeply, to brood, to incite others, to help revolutions on their awful way. In Don Plutarco she would have a splendid weapon. Had she used it? Those words of regret for the wife's death might well be a sham. That she no longer loved the husband, Pointer believed. Her voice had rung true in that. But could he trust it about "his" wife?
"And later, your talk with Don Plutarco Ramon?" Pointer said, after a long silence during which she and he had each been plunged in thought.
Her face flushed, green shone in her eyes for a second, then the anger faded. "That was an entirely private affair, Chief Inspector, but having told you so much, I will tell you about it. Don Plutarco had heard, or guessed, something of the talk with Harry Moncrieff. And he was desperately jealous. That is a blemish in a very noble nature. I had to tell him that for a moment, just for a short space, I had been swept off my feet, caught back as though by a tide-wave into the past, but that it was most certainly and most definitely the past. I—" her face flushed again, but this time without anger; "I swore on his sword that the old affair was truly and really done with, and that I loved him, not Major Moncrieff. His sword is to Don Plutarco what it is to a Sikh. He told you that he left it lying on the mantel in the hall. I ran and fetched it, and laid it on a chair in the morning-room. Only chance, or some one who saw it in there, could have known where to find it. Yet Harry found it, or some one found it for him, and hung it on his belt." Her face grew sombre again. "You say it was used by accident, that it was a genuine blunder? I can't believe it! Yet you must have some reason?" She searched his face. A face pleasant enough at the moment, but quite unrevealing.
"We quite definitely think that the Major had no intention of killing or injuring Mrs. Moncrieff," Pointer assured her.
Her face lit up with relief and thankfulness. But was it relief and thankfulness that nothing was as yet, apparently, suspected? In face, in voice, in bearing, she gave the impression of a fine character, built on big lines; but an impression, in a murder case, was of as much weight with the chief inspector as a feather of a butterfly's wing.
She professed herself unable to give him any further information, and obviously needed rest. Pointer left at once. He walked away deep in thought. He did not like this case. He was always thankful when he could put women on one side as definitely out of the question as far as a crime went. He could not do so here. Love...hate...and only her word for the old love affair. There might have been nothing before Captain Moncrieff, as he then was, married Lavinia Phillimore, and any love-making since, such as the scene which Goodenough had described, might have been a very recent affair. No one else seemed to have even known of the old state of affairs. Had it ever existed? And, supposing it to have existed, was it true that her hate of the Major had passed as her old love for him had? Or was there some quite different tale behind it all, a tale which would account for an open hatred of the husband and a secret hatred of the wife too? Was this double tragedy a double revenge? A clever woman, and he felt Flavelle Bruton to be that, could have tied the Major up, supposing she had strolled in to his dressing-room and shown him some "trick knots," but instead of "trick rope" used real jute. Yes, there were many ways in which she could have lured the Major into the chest, then, pretending it had been a joke and that she had forgotten him, lured him, got him out, handed him the revolver to hold, as part of a picture in which she was to appear, and then shot him. While downstairs another more physically capable hand than hers had despatched the wife. The eye, the mouth of steel, of the young bull-fighter rose again before Pointer's mind, and he felt that he was swimming in deep waters. These two might still be in the very heart of the crime.
DON PLUTARCO seemed to find time hanging on his hands. Santley noticed that he seemed to be strolling around the house all day in his silent, cat-like way. The artist found himself sketching him from memory, and remarkably well too; a certain proof that the man interested him. He suggested to Don Plutarco to let him paint him, sword and muleta in his hands. Ramon seemed to think the idea amusing. The highlights in the picture were the blade and the man's eyes, which looked straight out over it. In the corner, Santley made a small Moorish arch through which one saw a far-off, tiny bull.
Ayres came in while he was blocking the whole in, and watched for a moment.
"Wonderful!" he said in admiration; and Santley knew that, as far as outlines went, he had got his man. The young man's expression was another matter.
Pusey drifted in too. Santley put his brushes up, and Don Plutarco rose, looked at the canvas, paid the artist a compliment, and slipped from the room, sword in hand. All three men watched him close the door.
"Reminds me of a panther going after his dinner," Pusey said. Santley was cleaning his palette and made no reply. A blob of brown paint fell on the floor, and he wiped it up with his palette knife and a rag.
"Was that photo yours then?" asked Pusey, with a look of sudden interest.
"Whose photo?" Santley glanced inquiringly at him.
"The one with the brown paint smeared on its back. The one which has disappeared."
"Disappeared!" Ayres for once sounded quite impatient. "Only valuables 'disappear.' Snapshots only 'get lost,' surely."
"Did you look at this one?" Pusey's voice suggested a man from whom a question bursts against his better judgment.
"Yes," Ayres said casually. "A couple of young men camping out, or hikers stopping for a rest. The background suggested Snowdon."
He looked placidly at Pusey, who bit his lip. A maid came to say that Mr. Ayres was wanted on the telephone. Ayres went with alacrity.
Pusey hesitated, then he looked at Santley. "It wasn't Snowdon! It was Mount Olympus in the background. I was out there on my last holiday—Tour of the Classic Spots—and I took any amount of photos of it. One from that very plateau. And that plateau—" again Pusey paused. Then he went on: "I suppose you have heard about the Moncrieff who was murdered out in Greece some years ago?"
Santley said that he had.
"Well, this photograph, with brown paint on the back, wasn't only taken on that plateau showing Olympus in the rear; it was a portrait of that Moncrieff and of his guide. My uncle is charge d'affaires out there. Was there at the time, and has always taken an interest in it. He feels sure that the investigation was mishandled in some way. I've often seen the photo of the Moncrieff in question, and of Murphy, his guide. And I'll eat my hat if those weren't the two young men in that identical snapshot."
"But I thought Ayres knew them, and was there at the time?" Santley said.
"Oh, he's as blind as a bat unless he changes over his spectacles, and half the time he's too lazy to take the trouble and so pretends to see all right. He's a nice chap, but hates any trouble."
Santley was a little puzzled. As much by Pusey's air of intense interest and yet of secrecy, as by the sudden appearance of such a photograph.
"Your uncle believed that the guide was guilty, I suppose?" he asked.
"Oh, definitely, and yet they let him slip through their fingers and lose himself. He's never been found, you know."
"Evidently Mrs. Moncrieff didn't recognise the picture. But it would have happened before she married Moncrieff, of course. I don't suppose she knew more than I did about it," Santley said.
"She recognised it! I happened to be helping her with some drapery for the back of that Velasquez which you liked least, when she suddenly pulled the picture out of her bag again, stared at it once more, and said it must belong to the Major. She'd give it back to him as soon as he returned. 'Though why—' and then she checked herself, and stared hard at it once more. I tried to have another look too, but she edged away to the window."
"Didn't you tell her what it was?"
Pusey gave one of his boyish-sounding laughs. "I never go off half-cocked. And I wasn't absolutely certain myself, then."
Ayres came back into the room, still with the absent-minded air which he wore these days; for he was sole executor of two dead people as well as the business partner of one of them; and now in charge of the business. He agreed, however, when the question was put to him by Pusey, that he had noticed a great deal of interest in the questions put to him on the subject of the two young women's communications with the outer world yesterday morning.
"Well, what about this photograph?" Pusey asked; "I only remembered for certain what it was last night."
"And what was it?" Ayres was evidently expected to show some interest.
Ayres looked as though the young man were making a mountain out of a very tiny speck. "What would it matter if it was a snapshot of poor Jack Moncrieff?" he asked. "Not that it was. Wrong or right glasses on, I would have recognised his face, I feel sure. But even if it had been, what of it?"
"You didn't think it odd?" Pusey asked hesitatingly. "I mean it's turning up just yesterday...that old tragedy...Mrs. Moncrieff saying she would keep it and show it to Moncrieff when he got back, and the fact that now it seems to be missing, Is it among his papers? You would know, of course."
Ayres said that he thought he would have been asked to identify it. He had torn up quite a lot of rubbish, old snapshots among them, when going through Moncrieff's papers. Chiefly snapshots of the twins. Nothing which could be this one with the paint on the back of it.
"You don't think I ought to have mentioned it to the police?" Pusey asked in the tone of a man relieved to hear that he is worrying himself unnecessarily.
Ayres stared round-eyed at him. "Why should you? What possible interest could they have in it? What they want to learn is something of importance—evidently some news which may have upset Miss Bruton so that she was a bit reckless with that sleeping draught."
Again Ayres, usually the imperturbable, sounded impatient. "No, no," he went on in a calmer voice, "for heaven's sake, don't make the police think that anything important is missing, or we shan't be able to call our pocket handkerchiefs our own. Of course, the police have to sound as though they were suspicious! But that's only official red tape. But for heaven's sake, as I say, don't give them something to chase!"
He slipped a hand around Pusey's arm. "Ann's waiting for you to show her and the children something about the working of their little car. Come along." He gently levered the younger man out of the room, and it was only then that Santley turned to Goodenough, who had stepped in while Pusey was speaking. He saw that Goodenough's face was livid; that he was breathing through his clenched teeth as though after a hard race, his lips pulled back in a sort of risus sardonicus; that one hand was clenched; and that from it (Santley never forgot the sight) drops of bright red blood were dripping on to the wood floor. The man's nails must have been dug into the flesh, and yet Santley would swear that Goodenough was quite unconscious of any pain in his hand. The something hard which Santley had always felt below the other's features was well forward now. It was a face to make any man turn and stare after it. Pusey had gone on out with some word about having promised to show Ann something or other, and did not seem to have noticed the new arrival. The room had three doors.
Goodenough seemed at last to feel the artist's eyes on him.
"What photo was that chap talking about?" he asked in a thick voice, as though his lips were stiff.
Santley hesitated. Then he repeated briefly what the other had said. "Was it for it that you were looking last night?" he asked as a rider.
For suddenly the conviction had come to Santley that it had been Goodenough. It had come from a whiff of the tobacco which Goodenough was smoking, and which generally clung around his clothes. Santley remembered as it reached him that, though he had not consciously noticed it last night, he had smelt it just as he was struck down.
Goodenough eyed him. He was sitting on the table, wrapping a handkerchief around his hand.
"I don't know what you are talking about," he said sharply.
"Oh, yes, you do," Santley retorted. "And so do I."
The two men stared at each other.
"I suppose the photograph was yours?" Santley said presently.
Goodenough nodded. "You know about young Moncrieff, the Major's distant kinsman? And my great pal?" he asked heavily.
This time it was Santley who nodded.
"That the murderer, Murphy, disappeared, and has never been found? I mean to find him yet. That photo must have-slipped from my pocket by some infernal bad luck."
"When we moved the piano, probably," Santley suggested, "we all took off our coats and waistcoats."
"Ah!" Goodenough's eyes lightened for a moment. "That could have been when it happened!"
"It was one of the twins who brought it to Lavinia. The child must have picked it up off the floor."
Goodenough frowned. "But I had put it in an inner pocket which has a lightning fastener, I think they call it, one of those metal marvels which you have to pull a tag to open. Surely neither of the infants are pickpockets? Or is this the result of Ann's method?" Goodenough gave a sort of empty smile.
Santley was thinking back. Both the twins picked up things in his studio like a couple of young magpies, but would they pull open a pocket even though its fastening ended in a tag? Suddenly he remembered. "The Don's dog was playing about. He's just at an age when he pulls at anything, fringe, tags, bootlaces. He might easily have pulled it open."
"By Jove," Goodenough recalled something, "that accounts for the tag being just a damp wisp of string! I should have puzzled over it if I hadn't had other things to puzzle about." And with that, the temporary look of interest left his face, and it showed hard and grim.
Santley began to understand. He could imagine this man determined to get back that picture. "And, since we're talking it over, how did you come to have that photograph on you? I don't suppose you carry it about all the time? Why, if I may ask, did you have it yesterday?"
"Because I can't remember faces. Never could. And I want to recognise Murphy again if ever we meet. That picture never leaves me, or rather, never has left me before since it all happened. I have a look at it at least once daily. Moncrieff thought it a poor likeness when I showed it to him, but it's the best I could obtain."
"Moncrieff?" Santley asked idly. "When did he see it?"
"Before he went to town. I happened to meet him in the garden, and strolled with him to the garage. We were alone. Something came up about that old affair, and I showed it to him. Poor devil! poor devil! I never thought him half good enough for his wife, but still, poor wretch!"
There was another silence.
"But who was the man I saw last night outlined at the window?" Santley suddenly asked.
Goodenough stared his question.
Santley told of the ducking, peering figure.
"The police, of course!"
Santley said nothing, but he did not think it was a policeman whom he had seen as a sort of black silhouette. He himself had a fancy that it might have been Lee. The man's ears were pointed and stuck out from his head, as those of the outline had done.
"Was the man Lee at Athens at the time?" he asked suddenly.
Goodenough blinked like an owl for a moment. "He was, come to think of it. He was the Major's mechanic."
"Was Edwards there?"
Goodenough shook his head. "Edwards was definitely out of that old, grim, tale." He got up. "Well, I must carry on as though I hadn't found, and lost, that photo." And with that he left Santley to himself.
Santley worked on awhile, and then went in to lunch. No one lingered over their meals now. The artist came in late. So did Goodenough. Lee waited on them. He explained that the new servants were settling in.
Goodenough seemed quite indifferent to Lee's presence. He hardly noticed it, Santley thought.
"Ann and I have quarrelled," he said suddenly. "I seem to've drifted into telling you things. I'm sorry, of course, about the quarrel. However, I shall leave as soon as the police let us go, and time will bring her round, unless it's all right by then. As a matter or fact, nothing seems to hold my attention these days since that snapshot tumbled from my pocket. I know I'm irritable. I shall be till it's found. Irritable? I feel as though—" He stopped himself, and turned a pair of flaming eyes on Santley. "I tell you it's never left me before. I shan't know Murphy from Adam without it." he tried to laugh, and changed the subject by snapping his fingers to Piccaro, the Spaniard's dachshund, who was under the table and came forward expectantly. Goodenough, who liked the little chap, tweaked off a piece of his cheese from its silver wrapper. The cheese at Beechcroft was always bought done up in little circles and triangles neatly wrapped in tinfoil, and a circle and a triangle were placed on each cheese-plate beside the napkin for lunch. Piccaro made one delighted gobble of the morsel.
The two men were soon finished. Lee was rung for, but no one answered the bell, and it was Santley who saw to the boiling coffee in the little machine, and switched off the current at the right moment.
They each had a couple of cups and then rose. Goodenough half stumbled. "What the—" he began. Then he stopped. He stood staring down under the table close to where he had been sitting. So did Santley. Piccaro was lying on his side, a thick froth around his muzzle. He was dead.
Goodenough knelt down and sniffed. "Prussic acid," he said, looking up. "Not a word about this, Santley!" He rose.
The door opened. "Piccaro!" came a call and a low whistle. There was no reply. "Where's my dog?" Don Plutarco asked sharply. Goodenough looked blank, so did Santley, with a dreadful feeling of guilt and sympathy. To lose one's dog! And the Spaniard was fond of the little chap, or he would not have had him, for Piccaro reflected no glory of long lineage on his owner. Mother had very clearly married beneath her.
"I left him here," Ramon said, coming in and staring about him.
"Well, he's apparently not here now!" was Goodenough's reply, but his eyes raked the cold haughty face of the Spaniard. "Suppose we ring for Lee. He served us just now."
Santley pressed the bell. A maid answered. Goodenough said peremptorily that he wanted a word with the man who had just been there—Lee.
She said: "He's gone back to the garage, sir. He only came over to oblige. And the telephones all seem to be out of order. Oh, dear, this is an awful house! Lee just came for the once," she added; and on being told that there was nothing that she could do, repeated that the house was "something dreadful," and left them.
"Came over for the once! Quite enough," Goodenough muttered. "I'm sorry. He could have told you where the dog had gone," he added.
"I told him to wait. Piccaro never disobeys." The puzzled master called again. Santley felt it all very frightful. Somehow the poor little tyke's dead body, not three feet away from the master whom he had never failed before, struck a pathetic note.
"You're not playing a joke on me, are you?" Ramon asked suddenly, first of the artist, then of Goodenough.
"Certainly not!" came the reply from Santley in tones of fervour. What had happened was far enough from being any joke. Nor of their playing.
"Not my idea of a joke!" came with equal emphasis from Goodenough.
Ramon apologised. "I never before knew him to disobey, or fail to come at my call."
"Something unexpected has happened to him," Goodenough suggested, his eyes on the cheese plate; "he's met something new...and has stayed...investigating..."
Ramon was gone with a curt nod of assent. They heard his whistle outside.
"What are we going to do about it?" Santley asked. He had kept silence from a feeling that Don Plutarco, too suddenly confronted with a poisoned pet, might get a mistaken idea in his head as to the men in the room having had something to do with his dog's end.
"Have the body analysed at once," Goodenough said to that. "Wait here on guard for a moment. I'll bring a suitcase down; and take the body to a vet.'s in town. He may have had a fit, or died from some natural cause."
He ran upstairs, and a moment later came back with an empty suitcase in which he placed the little body. Santley walked round to the garage with him. There was no Lee to be seen. Goodenough got his car out of its shed, and said good—bye to Santley, murmuring the name of a well-known place in Church Street, Kensington, as his destination.
"But what's it all mean?" Santley asked. "Why Piccaro? Or was it meant for one of us? If so, why, in Heaven's name?"
"Meant for the dog, of course!" Goodenough replied with assurance. "I never eat cheese, and always rejoice the little chap with mine. Oh, Piccaro was for it, evidently, and whoever wanted him out of the way thought it a dashed clever idea to have me be the one to poison him. Draw the Don's fire, so to speak! Well, we'll see about that later!" And he was off. At the gate he explained to the plain-clothes man who was apparently tidying up some plants, that he was going up to town to see his tailor; giving the address.
He got out at the old building in Church Street, which had seen so many animals pass through it. To the clever young vet. who came into the waiting-room, he explained that he was afraid some one had poisoned his dog. The vet. gave one look and one sniff at the little body, lifted the lip, and said it certainly looked like it. Goodenough said he would wait and see if the vet. could find out what had been used. He thought it was contained in a piece of cheese which was probably still in the poor beast's throat. The further analysis he wanted sent to—he gave his home address in St. John's Wood.
The young man in his white overall and rubber gloves was back in a few minutes.
A man who had been sitting waiting in an adjoining waiting-room —he had arrived only a minute after Goodenough—came on in. He nodded to Goodenough, and stood politely waiting while the vet. continued: "Piece of cheese did it, and the poison was prussic acid. Of course, when we get to work we shall be able to give quantities, but there's no doubt as to that much."
Goodenough was quite unable to stop the man by word or sign.
"How long ago would you say the poison had been taken?" Chief Inspector Pointer asked. "I'm with this gentleman," he added, indicating the rather red-faced Goodenough. The fact that a suitcase had been taken and yet that Goodenough had not put in it any of his own clothing, had been duly noted by the sharp eyes at Beechcroft, and the chief inspector had done Mr. Goodenough the honour to follow him in person.
"About an hour ago," said the vet. "The cheese wasn't even swallowed."
Pointer nodded, and strolled out with an "I'll wait for you outside," to Goodenough; who responded with a grin that tried to look amused.
"Now, Mr. Goodenough," Pointer said, as the latter came on out, "do you mind being a little more gossipy?"
"Sorry," Goodenough said promptly; "I intended to open up later, of course, but I wanted to know what was what, first. Some one's poisoned the Spaniard's dog. Bit of gratuitous spite, I take it."
"You found him poisoned?" Pointer asked.
"Almost stepped on the poor brute. He was lying under the table."
"Any one with you?"
"Yes, Santley," Goodenough wished that he had dared to send Santley a 'phone message from the vet.'s to be careful as to what he should say, but he had decided that if they knew enough to follow him, the Yard might have as sharp ears as eyes.
"When you sat down to lunch?"
"No, I found him when I got up from lunch. Unpleasant thought. He was quite warm and limp with froth over his muzzle. Dead obviously. So I decided to bring him along as I had to come up to see my tailor—and learn the facts from a vet. before saying anything about it to any one."
"I left the Don calling for the dog and whistling all over the place," Pointer said. "I wonder you didn't tell him of your considerate errand."
"And have him run me through with his spare sword—he has a pair—before I could convince him that it had nothing to do with me?" Goodenough asked. "Besides, my one thought was to rush the poor little beggar's body up to expert advice. It might have been a natural death for aught I knew. And then, I think I had an obscure idea that once I handed the dog over to his master, I couldn't find out anything more about what was at the root of so strange an incident. It would all lie with him, then, to explain it."
"And what do you think is the explanation?" Pointer asked dryly,
"Pretty obvious, isn't it? Spite against the Don. Or jewel thieves on the look-out for some of his possessions. I hear he has some marvellous jewellery given him for his work in the bull ring."
"I shouldn't say that anything in this case is obvious," Pointer replied.
"This poor little chap in there isn't in your case. Chief Inspector, but in my suitcase," was the retort, as Goodenough again spoke of his tailor and climbed into his car. Pointer watched him go. This dog-poisoning was very intriguing.
Don Plutarco had lunched unusually early at a little past twelve. The others at one, except only Santley and Goodenough, who had come in just after two. It had taken Goodenough just forty-five minutes to reach the veterinary hospital. That meant that, if the dog had been dead around an hour, he must have eaten that cheese about a quarter of an hour before Goodenough left Beechcroft, and some time after the others had left the dining-room. Around the moment, in all probability, when he and Santley were finishing their lunch. In other words, the poisoned cheese seemed to have reached the dog when the two men would have got to the cheese stage of their own meal. Was the poison really meant for Piccaro? He slept in his master's room. Don Plutarco was reputed to have some magnificent jewellery in his possession. But the dog was not fed at noon, and when he was present, his master strongly objected to any tit-bits being given to him. Going by the hour when it had happened, only Don Plutarco, a servant, Santley, or Goodenough would seem indicated as the poisoner. Pointer was certain that Goodenough had not staged it. Lee had waited on them. There was nothing about the man to absolve him in the chief inspector's eyes, but Piccaro had come unscathed through the early lunch hour, during part of which time Lee would have had ample opportunity to toss him a deadly morsel unobserved. Was the poison intended for one or other, or both of the two men?
Had it been Santley who had intended to poison Goodenough, and slipped up on it? Pointer could not easily think of the artist as a criminal. But if not he, then it looked as though the poison must have been intended for one or other of the two by a third party? By the murderer of the Moncrieffs? Now, Santley had watched the whole conjuring trick from the front. Had he seen something which he had not told to the police? Or which he did not realise that he knew? People are not usually chosen haphazard for murder. The feat is too difficult and too dangerous to be lightly undertaken. Of the two, it looked as though the artist were the more probable one to have been chosen as a victim, unless there was some very good reason of which Pointer knew nothing, to put Goodenough in such hazard. Pointer lingered over this last thought; for it was Goodenough, and not the artist, who had raced the little body up to town for an autopsy.
He stepped back to the vet.'s and said that his friend had, after all, decided to take the body back with him and bury it in the garden somewhere. The young vet. said that the analysis had not yet been begun, and came in wrapping Piccaro up in brown paper. Thereupon Pointer took the parcel to the Yard for his own exact information.
AT New Scotland Yard, Pointer found that Edwards had sent a message to say that he was flying back to England at once. He was shown into Pointer's room two hours later. If not one in reality, then Edwards gave a really splendid imitation of an innocent man. Tomlinson was present, and was keen to find out if the tale that he was about to hear would fit the reconstruction made by the chief inspector of Major Moncrieff's work, and that of the so-called chauffeur.
Edwards at once explained that the dead man had been a remarkable inventor, and a man endowed with an uncanny skill in instantly locating any fault, and suggesting just where an improvement could best be affected by merely listening to the running of the engine which he was driving. He himself, Edwards, was a mechanical engineer specialising in luxury motor-cars. For the last two years, Moncrieff and he had been under a contract, a secret one, with the Crolls and Boyce car people as triers out of their special car makes. He went on to say that the head of the firm, Sir Mark Crolls, had married a Belgian lady, and lived outside Brussels. Over a year ago, Sir Mark had had a very bad smash, and would never be able to walk again, and at the same time, from certain indications in the car world, and certain marks on their letters and on the seals of the envelopes enclosing them, the firm suspected that Sir Mark's mail was being tampered with. Edwards digressed for a moment to speak of the almost fantastic lengths to which car designers went to keep any new designs or alterations a secret. So that when they felt the post to be insecure, they organised other means of communication with the bedridden head. At first, Moncrieff and he used to take turns in carrying the blue prints and notes over to Brussels, but their trips were evidently watched, for after a while a rival firm obtained the ear of the Belgian Customs, and had so managed matters that Moncrieff and he were suspected, or rather said to be suspected, of illicit drug-running, so that everything they carried with them across the Channel, every paper, every piece of metal, was carefully detained for long enough to photograph it or test it for secret writing. This led to the personal friends being used by the Major and himself as carriers of the less important papers, while a lugger and the Belgian canals played their parts in getting the more important and most secret documents and pieces into the hands of Sir Mark. This last time, a relation of Mrs. Moncrieff's was going over with some diagrams, but she developed mumps, which was why Santley had been asked to take a box of chocolates over to Brussels to the head porter of the Adolphe Max Hotel, who acted as a go-between. They learnt just after Mr. Santley had started that the man in question had had an accident, upon which he, Edwards, had flown over, been able to retrieve the precious box from Mr. Santley's room while he was fast asleep, and had duly passed it on. Under the chocolates had been some very important papers. As for Moncrieff's inventions, apart from some very clever gadgets, he was working on a new type of car, his own, of which some parts were to be made for him under Sir Mark's own supervision. No, Sir Mark had never seen all the plans, but he was immensely interested, and a little perturbed. Personally, he, Edwards, believed that Moncrieff's car would take the country by storm when finished.
As to Lee, he was a mechanic who had once got drunk during a race; Edwards repeated what Moncrieff had told Santley, and added that the man had a passionate admiration for the Major, and would not work for any one else, though he raged and swore at his old master whenever the latter refused to let him work for him. He had turned up at Beechcroft two days before the fatal day, pestering him, Edwards, to say a good word for him with Moncrieff. Edwards knew that Moncrieff liked the man in himself, and suspected that he frequently gave him money, but he had said that Lee was not to work for him for the space of one year, after his last outbreak, and the Major never broke his word. Still, Lee was a good mechanic, and he, Edwards, believed that the man was thoroughly cured of any likelihood of again letting drink get the better of him.
"One moment, Mr. Edwards," Pointer put in; "did Major Moncrieff keep his own papers, the papers to do with his inventions, in the garage safe?"
Edwards nodded. "My wife told me you found it when you didn't find me. She doesn't love you, Chief Inspector, for your little game! Heard my call for help and rushed to my assistance!" Edwards gave a dry but appreciative chuckle.
"Well, you got your message through to her that you were safely across," Pointer said with equal good humour, "though we were standing by when the flowers arrived. The Florists' League was also quite neat, sir."
Edwards opened his eyes a little, the narrow eyes of a man used to driving in open cars, but he nodded again. "It was simple and useful, and worked both ends. I mean, my wife, or Mrs. Moncrieff, or any of us could send Lady Crolls flowers whenever necessary. But now about the papers—" He went on to say that when the dreadful Conjuring Trick tragedy—so Edwards called it—happened, he was on the point of leaving Beechcroft with the very last batch of papers to take them to the lugger which they used on such occasions. In the normal way he would be back in the garage by next morning. But then came the dreadful news of what had happened. His wife heard it from the cook, to whom she was telephoning for some sandwiches for her husband. On that, Edwards had emptied the safe, and engaged Lee definitely to stay until his return, acting as temporary chauffeur. "I knew I must get all Moncrieff's papers out of the house," he said, "before the police should go through the things. Those Talisman Car people wouldn't want much of an excuse to get a newspaper man to steal them for them...a shady lot...young Pusey has joined them. I don't trust him. Nor more did Mrs. Moncrieff..."
"And what about Mrs. Phillimore, and what happened to frighten her so while she was at Beechcroft this last time?" Pointer asked.
Edwards looked very uncomfortable. It had been all clumsy play-acting on the Major's part and on his, he said sheepishly. She had arrived without warning just as the Major and he were getting through the last of the new chassis tests for Sir Mark Crolls. In another week their contract would be up, and this was the last difficult piece of work they were doing for the firm.
It was rather belated and the two men were in a tremendous rush. The Major was running the car chiefly at night. It had a lighting device which, if it could be altered according to Moncrieff's ideas, would revolutionise night driving. Moncrieff wanted Mrs. Phillimore out of the house so as to put in every moment of the day in the workshop or the garage, and between them they tried to frighten her away. The Major shammed madness when his wife was not present. Mrs. Phillimore had been taken in, and had left—well, hurriedly! It was a shame, of course. The Major was very fond of her really, but they needed Beechcroft entirely to themselves for a few more days.
"That iron bar which he picked up as she was driving off, was that part of the play-acting?" Pointer asked.
Edwards gave a laugh. "He had no idea he had it in his hand! We were working hard, clearing out a lot of old iron from the corner of the workshop trying to find a nut off his own car, a very special nut, which had got lost. He caught sight of Mrs. Phillimore leaving, and couldn't bear her to go like that. He started after her to apologise...I grabbed his arm and told him not to spoil it all. It was only afterwards that we saw that bar, and how we laughed! It put the finishing stroke on her staying or coming down again, we thought.
"His hands used to tremble as hands will if you've gripped the wheel of a bucking car, and of course we tried all sorts of tricks with the machines. Mrs. Phillimore suspected him of drink, Moncrieff said. At least he thought so from the horrified way she stared at them once. Mrs. Moncrieff? She loathed his contract. She was terrified every time he was late, or she heard a tyre burst, that he had had an accident. She had an odd way of speaking," Edwards said slowly. "Almost as though he were too good for her...or no, more as though she had no right to him...I'm no hand at conveying these sorts of things," he wound up finally. "She was terrified lest her husband should stay on with the firm, or accept the many tempting offers made him by the other firms."
He himself was a Rugby and Brasenose man. Name of Peregrine Edwards-Holgate. Younger son of Major-General Edwards-Holgate. His wife was Ida, daughter of the late Colonel Guthrie of the Rifle Brigade. Edwards rattled off his facts now as though slinging ring-bolts, and Pointer picked them up as swiftly. All this might be true, and yet he might be speaking to the murderer. The motive might be jealousy. Mrs. Moncrieff had been an unusually pretty woman, which was a great deal more than could be said of Mrs. Edwards-Holgate.
As to the friendship between the dead woman and Miss Bruton, Edwards said impatiently that he couldn't speak with any authority, nor could he see its relevance. Pressed by Pointer, he said that he thought Mrs. Moncrieff rather avoided Miss Bruton. As for the Major and his guest—well, they avoided each other quite markedly and noticeably.
There was a short silence. Edwards asked few questions. He was not naturally endowed with deep emotions. Pointer thought. It would take great danger, or excitement, to rouse the rather sluggish tempo of his blood.
"Did the Major drink?" Pointer asked finally.
"Never touched anything but a glass or two of wine, though Sir Mark used to send him presents of magnificent stuff. Lady Crolls' father has some superb vineyards. Cold tea was his stand-by. I think his preference, too."
"He certainly couldn't have mistaken the real for the sham sword when under the influence of cold tea," Pointer murmured dryly, and Edwards nodded.
"And the relationship between the husband and wife?" Pointer asked.
"She was devoted to the Major."
"And he to her?"
"Does that matter?" Edwards asked gruffly.
"Very much indeed. We want to be sure whether he killed her by accident or by intention," Pointer replied as coldly.
"Oh, that's impossible! The Major? Good God! Quite impossible! He was very fond of his wife. Proud of her...I don't say that he loved her in the same adoring way that she did him. Perhaps he was too wrapped up in machinery to care deeply for any woman. Certainly, there was no other woman in his life. That I can say confidently."
Pointer asked him many other questions. Edwards answered them swiftly in his staccato style. He added details that were of no importance, but which seemed to give his story a varnish of truthfulness, if nothing more. Certainly, it stood up to all Pointer's most skilful questions.
Pointer next had a word with the solicitor of the two Moncrieffs. For they had employed the same lawyer. He was willing, with Mr. Ayres' permission and in his presence, to open the wills which he had himself drawn up. There was something in his face, as he did so, which prepared Pointer for a surprise. Tomlinson, too, sat forward more expectantly—they were seated in the Beechcroft dining-room.
Mr. Graham took the Major's first. It left nothing to his wife, since she was amply provided for by her marriage settlements. His patents, which were already in the firm's hands, he left to his partner, Ayres, absolutely; as well as all the other patents which the firm had handled. These were very carefully specified. Anything else, of which he might die possessed, or to which he might be entitled, was to go to Peregrine Edwards-Holgate, who, at the time the will was made, was acting as his chauffeur.
Tomlinson drew a deep breath and pressed his lips together.
"Extraordinary!" murmured Mr. Ayres. "Everything to Edwards? Well, well! I suppose, as a matter of fact, that's rather a success d'estime, eh?"
Mr. Graham did not reply. "And now I have here the will of the late Mrs. Moncrieff." He glanced just for a second at the police officer and the man from the Yard. "It was made a couple of years ago," He read out a loving message for her mother, to whom Mrs. Moncrieff left all the money settled on her at her marriage. "Anything else of which I die possessed, or to which I am entitled," Mr. Graham read on, "is to go to Peregrine Edwards-Holgate absolutely, who at the time of making this will is acting as my husband's chauffeur."
The solicitor read the single page down and looked around him.
"All to go to Edwards!" Ayres repeated, still more surprised apparently. "About how much would she have to leave, beside her settlements?"
"Nothing that we can trace," the solicitor said, "that's the quaint part. As far as I can make out, both her, and his, legacies represent nothing tangible. If they refer to any property, there's no record of it at their banks, nor entered in any books of which I know anything. What's left to Mr. Ayres is all right. So is what Mrs. Moncrieff leaves to her mother. But as to Edwards' legacy from either Major or Mrs. Moncrieff—it's air, as far as I can make out." And that, repeated many times, was all that Mr. Graham could tell them.
As to the omission of the twins, Ayres explained to Tomlinson that their kinsman's legacy was only given on condition that no one else left them any money. The old gentleman did not believe in large fortunes, Tomlinson surmised, noting this down. He murmured that it explained the omission of the children's names. When he was outside with the chief inspector he also said that the wills explained other things too.
"I should have looked on them as blackmail had I known of them that first day. But as it is, 'Rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's,' I take it." And with that the wills dropped out of the talk.
Then came the inquest, and the police allowed it to be known that they had reason for thinking that the man dressed as a sheikh who had murdered Mrs. Moncrieff was not the Major, and, further, for believing that he had not shot himself.
The sensation was great. The coroner, duly informed of the facts, or he would have otherwise proved unmanageable, adjourned the inquest after the formality of identifying the bodies, and hearing sufficient of the evidence to establish the police belief.
Mr. Ayres caught hold of Goodenough's arm as they left the room beside the police station where the inquest had been held.
"But it's not possible!" he said, eyes round, in tones of stupefaction, "not Moncrieff! Then who was it? I saw him pass me in the passage. So did you."
Goodenough shook his head. "I saw the Sheikh. I was looking out of the window at the moment, lighting my pipe, as he dashed into his room, and hardly glanced at him. I'm not even sure that I did as much as that. I saw the figure, and took the rest for granted. So did you, evidently."
"It's-it's-well, words fail me!" and having said that, Ayres proceeded to use them in one steady stream for some five minutes. Every one else seemed to be equally amazed.
Only Flavelle Bruton, who learnt from Don Plutarco what had been said, sent for the chief inspector.
"That was what you meant, was it? That they were both murdered? But I still can't think it's true. It must be a mistake. They led such separate lives...you mean, whatever it was he worked at in secret?"
Something in her eye said that she knew what it was. Challenged, she said that the Major in that last interview they had had, had said that he was about to put a gearless car on the market which would make him a millionaire, so that he could leave everything he possessed at the moment to Mrs. Moncrieff and start life with very little and yet be able to live in comfort. She spoke of Mrs. Moncrieff's distrust of young Mr. Pusey, and of one laughing sentence of the Major's to the effect that young Pusey was finding it as difficult to pick his brains as he would to pick a safe.
Pointer asked her very few questions. It was not only young Pusey whom he considered as a possible suspect, and she had told him herself that she loved Don Plutarco.
As for Santley, when he realised that he had indeed sat in front and watched Mrs. Moncrieff being deliberately murdered, he felt as though he must be in a nightmare. Then he tried to think back to what he had actually seen. But the shock of what followed had wiped most of it away. The Sheikh had not said one word. That much he did now remember. But his gesture—surely it was the same as the one which Moncrieff himself had used when showing them the trick? But no...Something now realised that that one had been quite different, yet this...he had seen that gesture of the upflung arm and backward tilted wrist somewhere. Where? When? Then he knew. Flavelle Bruton had used it in her recitation. It was an exact copy. Santley stood in front of his mirror, palette—knife in hand, and stabbed at a pillow placed on his dressing table. No, his hand did not automatically go like that. Did this mean that Lavinia had been killed by someone who had watched the recital of Flavelle Bruton and copied her gesture, intentionally or unintentionally? Every one but Moncrieff himself had been present, Santley thought; then he remembered that he had not seen Don Plutarco anywhere about, but he might have been there. He had noticed Goodenough staring hard at Flavelle. Goodenough...that search through the Moncrieffs' belongings. This was murder, a double murder! Santley realised the horror of the situation. Unless done by an outsider, then the man—Santley did not even think of a woman in connection with what had happened—might still be in their midst, still be one of them. True, Goodenough's story of what he had been looking for was fairly borne out by the fact of the missing snapshot, of which Pusey had first spoken. But dared he, Santley, take anything at its face value now? He had accepted the Sheikh as genuine, and by doing so, had let him murder Lavinia.
But what possible motive could have made Goodenough...impossible! Besides, why? He had been an admirer of Lavinia's until he had met Ann.
Ayres? Still more impossible! Santley apologised for the mere thought. But then who? Was it Lee who had watched Goodenough through the window? Was Lee implicated? Goodenough said that the old snapshot could have no bearing on the deaths—the word murder had not been used then—of Lavinia or the Major. And even now, with the knowledge of the new aspect of the double tragedy fresh in his mind, Santley, try as he would, could not see that it could be linked. But the attempt to poison Goodenough?
He heard his step and went out to him. "Look here," he said, "this is a much more terrible affair than we first thought. It may matter enormously for whom that poison was meant."
"Yes, I'm beginning to wonder," Goodenough said slowly, "if some one thinks you saw something when Lavinia Moncrieff was killed. You sat in front. You saw the Sheikh as no one else did, or rather as no one else staying in the house did."
"I know!" Santley groaned. He felt sick at the thought. "I know, but I can't see what it was I could be supposed to have noticed..."
"A clue to the real identity of the murderer evidently," Goodenough persisted. "Rack your brains! Live again through the whole scene! Something must have been vital." And he went on to the telephone which was ringing.
Santley agreed, but rack his brains however hard, he could not seem to light on anything really useful. That the gesture seemed copied from Miss Bruton could not be of any real help. Every one had been able to watch her recitation...any one might have copied that rather theatrically upflung arm...He was told that the chief inspector would like to see him. Pointer asked him about the hands of the Sheikh. Had he noticed them? Pointer did not in the least agree that you put ideas into the minds of your witnesses by suggestion. Perhaps with those of other races this might be so, but not with John Bull. He sees what he thinks he sees, and not what you think he saw. He may be mistaken, quite as easily as his more volatile brother, but the mistake will be his own, not due to the suggestions of others. Santley stiffened. He did not recall their shape at all, but he did recollect a something...not very noticeable from where he sat, but a something like a stain on one finger...or a stain on the nail...no, it was not as vivid or as outstanding as the purple nail which he had seen on Edwards' hand; but there was something...there was something...and that was the utmost that he could do.
"Hardly seems worth poor Piccaro's death, does it?" he said finally.
"Something more may come to you, sir," was the encouraging reply; and once more Santley, though he doubted it, agreed.
The trouble was, that Flavelle Bruton's recitation had quite diverted Santley's attention from what he now knew to be the simplest of trick effects. He had not really watched it at all, as he had done the first time.
When Santley had gone, Pointer too stood a while thinking. He knew that Lee had left Beechcroft immediately after serving lunch to Santley and Goodenough. And, as far as the police were concerned, he had vanished. Unfortunately, being partly of gipsy blood, he would be very difficult to find. And Pointer very much wanted to find him. Orders were at once sent out that, at sight of a gipsy encampment or caravan, any policeman on a bicycle, or in a car, was to have a breakdown, and at once report any particularly skilful help furnished him.
Pointer looked hard at his shoes. Lee—a gipsy, a motor mechanic, and therefore in touch with other motor people—had tried to get back into the house just before the tragedy...Was he the solution? But Pointer thought it quite impossible for him to have played the part of the Sheikh. He had seen him. The man could key himself up to be a very nasty customer. Pointer thought, but not in the kind of work which had been done here. Besides, the whole idea of the conjuring performance had been only recently decided on. It was asking a great deal of Lee to find out where all the clothes were, make up such a plan as had been made here, and carry it out without a hitch. One of Pointer's men stepped in.
Don Plutarco was having a bath. Now, Pointer had had one of his clever men put a fresh bolt on the bathroom door. A bolt that looked very much like any other bolt except that it seemed to be a bit stiff. Ramon always bolted the door.
Pointer turned the handle of the bathroom door after first putting down a catch beside it which nine people out of ten would never notice. The handle now rolled back the bolt, and Pointer entered. Ramon was standing, bending forward, just reaching for his back brush when the chief inspector came in. His eyes spoke for his amazement. Pointer got in one knife-like glance before stepping out with an apology. He had seen what he wanted to know. Ramon's body bore no marks of a fight except his right shoulder, which showed a livid mark of where something with a sharp corner had struck it—the picture in the passage which had been knocked down. Pointer thought. He waited until the Spaniard came out and asked for a word with him. Pointer did not ask him vague questions. He put it to him that that was precisely how he had got that bruise on his shoulder.
Ramon's thin, well—cut lips tightened. His eye was absolutely impenetrable as it met Pointer's. "I think my back is my own," was the reply in mordant tone.
"And I think that you recognised your sword when the Sheikh struck Mrs. Moncrieff dead, and that you knew on the instant that murder had been done. I think you rushed after the Sheikh, and tried to stop him; that he flung you off against the picture in the passage; that you heard him, as you thought, shoot himself, and decided to let things be. And because you are afraid of having Miss Bruton mixed up in the inquiry, you still keep silence. Now, as it happens, we are inclined to think that she had nothing to do with the double crime. But to be sure of that, we must find the motive and the murderer. If you had no hand in it yourself, Don Plutarco, suppose you help us by telling just what you know."
Pointer believed that the young man might actually know who the Sheikh was; but he must go cautiously with him.
Ramon had turned livid for a moment when Pointer mentioned Miss Bruton. But otherwise he did not show how that had flicked him on the raw. He now waved him politely to a chair, and offered his Manilas, which Pointer declined, lighting one of his own cigarettes instead.
"Every man to his own world, eh?" Ramon began whimsically. "I know what to expect from a bull, but not from a murderer, evidently. Yes, as you have divined, I knew that Mrs. Moncrieff must have been killed by that thrust, since I knew my own blade at a glance. It was fairly well handled, considering. My first thought—"
He stopped. His face sombre and dark.
"Miss Bruton has been very frank," Pointer prodded, and Don Plutarco shot him a swift glance.
"Then you realise what my first thought was. I thought Moncrieff's conjuring trick consisted in getting rid of his wife so as to be free to marry Miss Bruton."
"You knew of the meeting between her and Major Moncrieff a little earlier in the day?"
This time Ramon went white. "Yes. I misunderstood it at first, but she told me that all that was past. She swore it on my own sword. Steel and gold, and silver, are in the hilt, and what is sworn on it must stand. But still...the fact is," he went on in a burst of apparent frankness, "I really did not think at all. Ah, hombre, the bull ring is simple compared with life! I acted on impulse, and caught him by the wrist as he rushed past me. I was standing awkwardly, and he flung me off with amazing strength, and rushed on. Then I heard a shot"—the Spaniard looked directly at Pointer—"and I thought, well—that what had happened had happened. And that my duty was to Miss Bruton; not to have her story dragged in where it has no meaning. Frankly, if the murder of Mrs. Moncrieff could only be solved by using her story as the key, it would never be solved as far as I was concerned." Again he glanced up, this time with a look very much like his own blade. "There is one thing which has rather bothered me; bothered me more and more. If I were sure, I would have spoken of it before. It is this: I have a vague belief that the Sheikh had a blue ridged finger-nail on his left hand. Only an impression, mind you."
Pointer questioned him about the finger-nail. Incidentally he learnt that Ramon had never seen Edwards. Ramon refused to be more explicit, saying that he really could not be more precise. "I confess I am wondering if here was just the 'third' avenging himself on a lady, who had found that, after all, she preferred to return to her husband. I have nothing to go on in making such a suggestion, but I know now how Mrs. Moncrieff treated Miss Bruton, and once a thief always a thief." He shrugged his shoulders in a quick, contemptuous gesture.
"And your dog, Don Plutarco? I understand that it has been lost."
"Piccaro? Yes, he is nowhere. I have never known such a thing to happen before, but possibly he went off rabbit-hunting. He is fond of that sport...If so, he may have got caught in a trap..." Don Plutarco was so worried that he dropped into Spanish.
"Apart from what has been said, are you surprised now to learn that the Sheikh was not Major Moncrieff? Thinking back, can you recollect any differences between the Sheikh on the stage and the Major? Height, breadth, gait, hands—apart from the finger-nail?"
"It was a broad hand, and had a grip of steel," Don Plutarco said slowly. "It was swift too; and the eye was swift as well. But otherwise, apart from that nail-no, I confess that I took him for granted. Unfortunately, I did not use my eyes much. I was perturbed...worried...and my thoughts were too vivid for me to notice sharply what I saw before me. Unfortunately!"
And that was all that he professed himself able to tell.
Pointer left him after that; and paced the room which the police had taken over as temporarily their own in the house. Supposing the Spaniard to be telling the truth, was the poison in the cheese aimed at him? Did the man who had flung him off fear that he had been, or would be, recognised? Privately, Pointer still believed that Ramon guessed who the Sheikh was. But he was absolutely certain that, even if so, he would not name him to the police. For Ramon, Moncrieff's murder had removed a man of whom he was, and always would be, jealous; no matter what Flavelle Bruton might say or do. And because of that, Pointer was certain that the murderer, as far as the Spaniard was concerned, was to go free. And even when he knew that he had also murdered Lavinia Moncrieff, Pointer doubted if that would weigh with Ramon.
Was the finger-nail of the Sheikh blue? If so, did it mean much? Would any man clever enough to plan such a double crime, not take the elementary precaution of painting over that tell-tale nail? Edwards had not done so in Brussels, on a much less important occasion. Perhaps he did not realise how noticeable the nail was. Perhaps! On the other hand, the faintly blurred effect of which both the artist and the Spaniard had spoken might be due to some painting over of the damaged finger which had not stayed on well.
Oddly enough, Edwards wanted to see him at this very stage in his thoughts. Edwards wasted no time on exclamations of horror or incredulity. For him the double murder was a business crime, he said. "Quite obviously," he added firmly.
As to the Moncrieffs' wills: he murmured that, of course, between themselves, he knew where Mrs. Moncrieff had banked all gratuities paid to the Major for special work, and they had been considerable; "including a very fine diamond necklace as a parting present from the firm. It was to be presented formally next month, but three were sent for her to choose from."
Pointer asked the date. Edwards looked in his notebook and gave the day on which Mrs. Moncrieff had been seen with the diamonds around her neck. Questioned, Edwards remembered the click of some falling stone or breaking twig calling their attention to the oversight of the undrawn curtains. Where was the necklace? At a jewellers in Brussels, to have a clasp tightened a little and be ready for the handing over "in solemn form" on the final parting of Moncrieff and himself from the firm.
"Mrs. Moncrieff didn't really earn her share, did she?" Pointer asked, to hear what he would say.
"The Major and I both thought she did," Edwards replied warmly. "A pretty woman who liked to be gay and lively, buried for three years, first in one place, then in another, as best suited the cars' trials and the secrecy we had to observe—swore to observe, in fact. No, I think Mrs. Moncrieff earned every penny of what her husband handed over to her." He spoke with apparent sincerity.
"Was she in her husband's confidence about his own gearless car?"
"To a certain extent, yes. She wouldn't have understood technical points, of course, but the murderer might think she knew more," and Edwards repeated that here was a crime to obtain designs and plans which the murderer had wrongly fancied to be in the possession of the husband or the wife. He professed to be absolutely convinced of this.
POINTER was not often as perplexed as he was by this case. Edwards, by the double crime, came into what was evidently a big fortune. He was not in any money difficulties as far as was known to the police, and moreover, he was a man to whom risk was as the breath of life. Money as a rule means nothing to such natures. But undoubtedly he could have had motive, as well as opportunity.
Edwards was very insistent that the crime was what might be called a business one—for the sake of the gearless car designs. But he himself had these designs, all of them, and no attempt seemed to have been made on his life. A murderer so clever, so calculating, and so daring as this one had been, does not usually leave the reason for his crime out of his calculations. True, there might be other patents, other designs. Moncrieff's papers had been searched, but not, to Pointer's acute eye, as they would have been for plans. Pointer had finally decided that only very recent papers were disturbed, and that the search was still going on. But nothing suggested that the murderer knew of the safe in the garage, or was interested in that building. Also, he could not see that any such motive would have necessitated, what he thought he had here, a quick, ruthless, cunning crime, which had to be improvised, and in which time was all-important.
Edwards, for instance, would have had plenty of chances and would expect to have plenty more in the future for disposing first of the husband, then of the wife in far simpler ways which would be very difficult to bring home to him. To Pointer the key to this double crime was still some sudden, dire, unforeseen emergency, which apparently could only be met by a cunning and instant action. The murderer must be—as Edwards was—a man of resource, swift to take a decision, to see what from his dreadful point of view alone could save the situation. For so clever had been the crime in its conception, that Pointer felt sure it would never have been committed at all, had not the need been urgent, and vitally concerned the murderer himself. Machinery...money...Pointer did not see these as a sufficient motive here; and the fact that both husband and wife were killed within so short a time of each other, would have suggested that the time element was of enormous importance, but for the use made by the murderer of the husband as the ostensible author of the wife's death. As far as the local police were concerned, he had succeeded. What could the Moncrieffs have possessed which must be either got from them at once, or instantly suppressed? Was it some piece of knowledge?
All telephone calls which had reached them on the fatal day had been carefully sifted. They were all quite demonstrably harmless. Ann Bladeshaw had had a couple of strangers as visitors on the day before; but she maintained, and everything bore this out, that they had never met the Moncrieffs before, and were two missionaries home on holiday. Had a letter reached the husband and wife which told something that the murderer or murderers were determined should not be passed on? Passed on to whom? To the police? Could what had been revealed to them be connected with the jewel robberies in which Tomlinson was so interested? It could hardly be so unexpected as to explain this crime, Pointer fancied, though he had an open mind on the question. But he was looking for a totally unexpected emergency which had been met by the killer in what he thought was the only way—instant deletion—total erasure from the map.
Much more than jewels. Pointer would have expected that some piece of vital evidence had come into the hands of the Moncrieffs on the day of their death connected with one of those many "not proven" cases that leave the law courts every year. But no one at Beechcroft, as far as could be learnt, was implicated or even concerned in any old trial. And had this been the case, why was the Major not followed, attacked and murdered going up to London or while in town? It looked as though the Major's doings were not of any importance just then, unless Moncrieff was waiting for some additional news for which the murderer knew that he would wait. But nothing of any interest had come to Beechcroft since the murders, which looked as though the Major had not set anything in motion. Was it possible that Mrs. Moncrieff alone had come into the possession of some fact after her husband had left the house, and had been killed first to ensure against her not telling him? After eleven-thirty that would mean. But the Major had returned home in plenty of time for his wife to have passed on to him anything that she had learnt. If so, it looked as though she did not know the importance, or danger, or immediacy, of what she had learnt. Possible, too, that the murderer himself had staved her off with some flimsy explanation which would be proved a lie on a little investigation. Or were the supposed facts on which she had stumbled of a kind that would inevitably be exposed in their real meaning within a very short time? This last notion lingered in Pointer's mind; but for the moment he had to keep to the main thread. Both ideas—that she had no notion of the real nature of what she had learnt, or that some sort of temporary explanation had been given her—would explain why she had apparently not told the Major of what she had learnt. Also, Pointer knew that the nature of the Major's talk with Miss Bruton, which had taken place as soon as he came back, and the consequent stormy scene with his wife, were the sort of thing to drive everything but something of capital importance or menace from the mind of a wife. So that one could not stress too much the apparent insignificance of what she had learnt. It might be something which under normal circumstances she would have considered very urgent...this underlined the probability of a temporary explanation having been given her. The more Pointer thought this idea over, the more possible it seemed. He was wary of theories that only relied on intuition. But where, as here, there were no facts that helped to solve a puzzle, he used his mind, and followed its light. How could Mrs. Moncrieff have learnt anything unknown to the Major?
Through local gossip? And was it from some spread of this gossip that an attempt had been made to poison Santley or Goodenough? But Pointer again put the death of the dog on one side. It was a bungled affair, very amateurish, he thought; not to be compared with the killing of the Moncrieffs. He did not think that clearing it up would lead to an understanding of the major crime. He believed, on the contrary, that it would be explained when once that strange, double tragedy had been deciphered. He concentrated on the greater, therefore; leaving Tomlinson to try to find out just what had been intended when the cheese was poisoned. The substance used had been proved to be rat poison as supplied to Beechcroft; a rough form of strychnine.
But since no one at the house—and the crime looked an inside one—was connected with any known crime in the past, where lay the danger for the criminal? In the future? Had Mrs. Moncrieff stumbled on some preparation for a crime?
Pointer went back to Lavinia Moncrieff's last day, and took it through hour by hour. He had learnt that only a couple of letters had come for her; and they by the first post. She had opened them before the cook, who said that she had dropped them into the paper basket. The basket bore this out. But Pointer, indefatigable, at last drew from the housemaid the statement that, waiting to use the extension on her own affairs, she had taken off the receiver in the middle of a talk which Mrs. Moncrieff was having, and had heard her say: "I'm sure I'm not wrong. I'll show you it when you come. I can't think how it got here! I thought of course you'd know about it. You say you don't? Amazing." The Major's voice had said something about being in a tearing hurry, but that he'd have a look at "it" when he got back, and that had finished the talk.
Pointer's pulse beat quicker. Coincidences dog the steps of the detective. The more important the hunt, the more perplexingly frequent they can be, but this certainly sounded like the first confirmation of his idea. The servants were not allowed to use the telephones, and in this particular case the woman had her own reasons for being anxious that the person to whom she was going to speak should remain unknown. It was some other woman's husband, a man of no importance whatever to the police, though she seemed to think that secrecy about him far outweighed the importance of helping the superintendent.
The time had been at noon. She was in a tearing hurry, because she was expecting to be called to her dinner at any moment. Pointer laid several traps for her which she did not see, but into which she did not fall. Satisfied that he could rely on her statement, he let her go.
Around twelve meant little, for Mrs. Moncrieff might have tried to reach her husband on the telephone before then. But it showed that it was not later than that hour when Mrs. Moncrieff had found something which struck her as singular enough to telephone to Moncrieff about. The words did not sound as though she had received any message, any "news." It spoke of some definite object, found where Mrs. Moncrieff thought that her husband might know about it, repudiated by him. They fitted his idea of something having been found by her—incriminating to the highest degree in reality, but not necessarily known as such by Mrs. Moncrieff—Pointer's thoughts passed by forgeries and counterfeit coin since the wife seemed surprised to hear that what she had found was not connected with the Major. His swift mind ran over objects as a musician's fingers run over the keys before he finds the chord he needs. Books? Pictures? He stopped there. Santley was an artist. An old painting, old portrait? But she would not say that she could not think how any picture of Santley's got there, and believe that her husband would know about it. But what about a photograph? Pointer held that thought mentally down while he riffled the edges of many more, only to come back to it as the likeliest to be a danger, and yet linked with her husband.
But for the way she had spoken over the telephone, Pointer would have thought of some jewel or jewels, or objet d'art, the discovery of which at Beechcroft would bring police inquiries down on the members of the household.
With a very open mind, therefore, adopting the notion of a photograph as a tentative choice, Pointer continued his questions. And the kind of search going on in the house bore out the idea of a photograph. Goodenough and Pusey both seemed interested in books and places where a small photograph might have slipped. Those chocolates taken by Santley to Brussels, the safe's contents at the garage, had they included a photograph? Put there by Moncrieff at the last moment?
Pointer thought it too important to mention, since it seemed possible that one was being hunted for, if not by the criminal, then by some one who knew or guessed its importance. If some tangible object, whether photograph or not, what had become of it? Nothing that seemed of any importance had been found among Mrs. Moncrieff's possessions; but it was Miss Bruton who had glanced swiftly over them at the request and in the presence of Superintendent Tomlinson and Mr. Ayres. Did this account for the fact that nothing had been found? But the search that was, however placidly, still going on, looked as though whoever was on the hunt, did not think that Miss Bruton had taken whatever they were after.
Where would Mrs. Moncrieff have put anything that she meant to show her husband, anything to which she would refer as she had in that talk over the telephone? Pointer went to the police station. Tomlinson was out hot on the rat-poison trail; but he looked again at Mrs. Moncrieff's little tapestry handbag which she had carried about with her in the house. He knew by heart what it contained. There was a powder-puff in a soft silk envelope which showed faint brown smears.
Their interest for him was this: Ann Bladeshaw had identified the puff and envelope as hers, throwing in the casual remark that it was a new one which she had practically given to Mrs. Moncrieff on the latter discovering that she had mislaid her own. Ann had handed her this new one and told her to keep it if she liked it. She had further said that the faint brown streaks were not on it then. Pointer now found other, similar, streaks on the lining of the bag itself, far too faint to have marked the silk cover of the puff, but showing that something brown—stained had been carried in the bag, and, according to Ann Bladeshaw, carried quite recently before Mrs. Moncrieff's death. This might mean nothing, but what if Mrs. Moncrieff had painted or stained whatever she had found brown, and fitted it into something where it might pass undetected? It seemed a lot of trouble to take for anything to which she had referred, as she had over the telephone to her husband. Yet, apparently, she had carried something stained in her bag. It might mean nothing, but Pointer decided to have a look through Ann Bladeshaw's own things this afternoon.
He went to the schoolhouse, as the cottage where she and the Nannie and the twins lived was called, and found Ann herself just setting out for town with the twins. They were off to the Children's Theatre, at which a performance of Fairy Tales was being given. Ann was dressed in pewter grey and a soft shade of green which suited her admirably. Simple green frock, grey hat with a wreath of small close green leaves around it, grey shoes, stockings, gloves, and a green leather bag. The twins looked like geranium petals as they swirled around her in pink muslin. A gay little trio in this house of mystery and death and attempts at poison, the chief inspector thought, as he walked down to the gate and learned that they would not be back for at least three hours. Nannie, by good luck, had the afternoon off too.
Pointer gave them time to come back for something forgotten, then he walked into the unlocked house and through the rooms. He found nothing which could be a hidden treasure, photograph or otherwise, stained brown and placed where it would not be noticed. Compared with Beechcroft itself, though simple, the cottage was charmingly furnished and fitted up.
Then he went on to the play-room built on to the south of the cottage, with windows which rolled away so as to transform it into a loggia; and where, on the rubber tiled floor, all sorts of toys were neatly set in order. Some animals from the zoo detained him quite a few minutes. So did a set of monkeys, also recently oak stained. But they all proved to be solid. It was real interest that took him over to the green-tiled table on which stood one of the most charming playthings that he had ever seen, a small glass house, all scarlet, green, and white paint, barring the oak brown doors and floor. He bent with a smile over rock plants blooming nicely in three of the diminutive pots; and the tiny tickets marking the owners' hopes for the others. Then his smile was wiped away. At one end the little house had a brown wooden sliding door which pulled to one side to show a tool house. This door was of a rather smeared brown, as though its paint had come in contact with something while still not quite dry.
Pointer flapped back the glass top, and putting his hand in with infinite care, slipped the door out of its metal slides. It came out quite easily. Turning it, he saw that he held half of a mounted photograph in his hand; and that the stain on the back, when damp, might have made just such stains as he had found on Lavinia Moncrieff's bag lining and powder puff. It was a very clear photograph, admirably taken with a good lens, and showed him a man sitting at some sort of a table with some one else—there was a bit of coat sleeve—the rest of the other figure was cut away. The background was a wild mountain scene-a high snow—capped peak came up well in it. Snow and the plants showed that it was winter. Pointer's experienced eye, he loved snow climbing, believed that this was what he called real snow—"eternal" snow, as it is quaintly called.
As a mountain-climber in his holidays, Pointer was familiar with the outlines of most European mountains of any note. And if that was not a very good and characteristic view of Mount Olympus he would be much surprised.
As he stood looking at it, he remembered the piles of magazines and articles in Edwards' room dealing with the Monte Carlo Rally pretty well since its start in 1921. True, many other starting places were equally to be found in those pages piled carefully together, but the greatest number dealt with Athens.
If this photograph was in any way connected with the Rally, Mrs. Moncrieff might well have expected her husband to know about it...Pointer knew from the dead man's papers that he had started from Athens three times, because, being the most distant point and the most difficult, a thousand points are won by merely starting from there, and because also, said Edwards, Sir Mark Crolls was very keen on winning that journey of 2,350 odd miles across snow and ice and broken bridges and steep bends and ravening wolves, and dogs as fierce as wolves. It was a gruelling test. He looked at the half-photograph again. The man's plus fours looked as though of a cut at least five years old. Scrutinising the back carefully, he saw that some writing had once run across one corner. With great care, using a little turps which he found in a housemaid's pantry, he cleaned the stain away sufficiently to read "In Memory—" The rest was cut off. Pointer hunted for the other half, even in the children's little shoes, but he did not find it. He doubted very much if he ever would find it. Then came a hopeful thought. The twins always had gifts alike. Here was only one little glass house. Was it possible that there was another in existence elsewhere? With the missing half-photograph used in the same way? He had a talk over the telephone with New Scotland Yard. He wanted all information available about Major Moncrieff's connection with Greece to be collected for him. Dates, companions, and all events linked in any way with the part of the country around Mount Olympus. Probably, but not certainly, in connection with car races such as the Monte Carlo Rally.
He had just turned away when there came the sound of children's voices and the rush of little feet.
"I forgetted the tickets!" came importantly from Dilly as she dashed in.
"No, I forgetted them!" claimed Dolly. "Oh, that's my door! The door Cousin Love painted for me. Cousin Love's gone away. She's gone to be a nangel, says Nannie. Are you going to be a nangel?" She had stopped breathless beside the chief inspector.
"What about this photograph?" Pointer asked, drawing the child to him, and deferring conversation as to any future transformations on his own part till another time. "Where did you get it?"
"Took it," Dolly said promptly. "It was on a floor."
"Which floor? Can you remember?" He spoke lightly, smiling into the child's merry eyes. Dolly and Dilly looked what they were, imps.
"The room where the party was, the party when Cousin Love went off to be a nangel."
"But when?" Pointer asked. "That's the question, Dolly. When did you find it?"
"I'm not Dilly!" came in tones of horror from Dolly.
"She's not me!" Dilly squeaked from the stairs, clasping an envelope tightly as she tumbled down them. "Can't you see she's not me?"
"When was it, Dolly?" Pointer amended.
"She can't tell the time," came from Dilly in lofty tones, "but I can. I can tell all the clock-face round."
"You can't!" came from Dolly in an envious howl.
"Well, nearly all round. Only just a little bit at the top," Dilly modulated her excessive claim reluctantly.
"But what day of the week was this? Was it long before the party, Dolly?" Pointer asked.
The child grew flustered in trying to be accurate, and the hour of the find had to be given up. But Pointer learnt about the painting by Mrs. Moncrieff, and how Dolly, captivated by the sight of the little dog Piccaro, playing on the floor, had run off with him into the garden, and quite forgotten to take the picture, until some time later—time again unsettled—when she had run in, missed it, run in to Cousin Love's own room to ask her about it, and found it on the table. She had taken it and rushed off back to the cottage.
"What about them tickets?" demanded a would-be official voice behind them. "Tickets please! All tickets ready, please!" Pusey suddenly appeared around the door leading into the garden. The photograph was back in the chief inspector's pocket, but he would have preferred it to be the Nannie or Miss Bladeshaw. Pusey was returning to town. He had been expected to go in his car, but he now explained that the carburettor had stuck, and so he was going up with the twins as far as Paddington. Ann herself came in sight now.
"Put the tickets in the bag this time, Dilly," she said, holding the mouth open. Dilly did so, and shrilled her admiration of the bag.
"Yes, isn't it lovely, it's a new one. A present from Mrs. Mish—like your glass houses. Come along, infants, we ought to be off. Spencer, I include you in that term!" She laughed as she said it, and Pusey, with an answering laugh, crouched down between Dolly and Dilly and did a Russian Moujik dance towards the gate. Ann waved to Pointer and followed. She evidently thought that he had merely happened to be passing the cottage when the children were sent back.
"I want to see those glass houses," Pointer said, hurrying after them. "May I look at them? I have a couple of little friends who would love a pair. Are they both at the cottage?"
"Not mine." Dilly said; "Dolly sat on it. It's broke."
"Broken!" Ann said.
"Only people are 'broke,' Dilly," Pusey explained.
"She broken the door, too," Dilly said accusingly, "when she broken her own."
"I mended it!" Dolly was indignant; "better nor ever. Aunt Love painted it. I mended yours, and I mended mine. And—"
But Ann Bladeshaw really was in a hurry now, and swept the children on, calling back that Mr. Pointer would find one glass house in the playroom even though the other was off to be mended.
But Pointer had no longer any interest in the cottage. Back in the house itself, he met Mr. Ayres hovering about, looking palely worried, as he had done ever since the inquest.
Pointer asked him again about the falling of the picture which he had heard. Ayres said that he had not slept last night for thinking it over, and he now believed that a scuffle had preceded that fall. At the time he had taken it for granted that Moncrieff had slipped, and, stumbling, either clutched at the picture, or knocked against it. But he had a fancy now that it was more like a short scuffle between two people; which ended in the picture falling with a thump. He had heard no voices, and he would have done so had any one spoken. When the Sheikh passed him with that reek of alcohol—whisky to be exact—about him, Ayres had attributed it to that; and when he knew of the terrible death of Mrs. Moncrieff he had felt sure, he said, that for once the Major had drunk too much to be aware of his surroundings, or of what he was doing.
"But this new idea—surely—?" Ayres bit his lip. He looked paler still. "It means a murderer in our midst," he said suddenly, and quite unnecessarily.
Pointer agreed that it did, but he could learn nothing more definite.
Ayres said that he had not consciously noticed footsteps following the Sheikh. Then Pointer, after a few words about Mrs. Moncrieff's dreadful death, mentioned his belief that she might have learnt something of importance. He was purposely vague; but finally said that he had heard about a photograph or a paper of some kind which she had been seen examining, and which seemed to possess some special meaning or significance for her?
Ayres said that he had seen her looking at a photograph, but it could not have had any special interest, as it was only of a climbing or walking party in the Peaks, or perhaps Snowdon. Yes, he rather thought Snowdon was in the background. But in any case, it was only a snapshot—a couple of young men eating lunch at a wooden trestle table. Did the chief inspector know the Peak district? Was he fond of rock climbing? Mr. Ayres, as a young man, had done some fine climbs there. No, he could not exactly say that he recognised the scene. He had not scrutinised the photograph. As to how Mrs. Moncrieff had come to be looking at it, he had an idea that the picture belonged to one of the twins, who had asked her to stain the back brown. Probably an old snapshot thrown away by somebody in the house...Anyway, a trifle of no importance. The telephone bell rang. The chief inspector was wanted on it, Some one at the other end who called himself Ridgeway, said that the following things were in stock, and ran over a list of wireless accessories which Pointer took down at once. Decoded by the swift code he used, it meant that already one interesting piece of news in connection with Greece and Major Moncrieff was to hand. Thirteen years ago, when he had been there starting from Athens for the Monte Carlo Rally, a kinsman of his had been murdered. He had been found not far from Mount Olympus, and Pointer heard for the first time the details of that old affair.
THERE seemed no doubt that Murphy the guide had been the kidnapper and murderer of young Moncrieff. The chief inspector's informant added that all the private information pointed definitely to this. The man was known to be in ample funds on his arrival, six months later, in Argentina. He had disappeared from that country in about another six months, and had not been heard of since. In appearance, since Pointer promptly asked for this, he was a big man with dark-brown small eyes, and but one marked physical characteristic at the time of the kidnapping and murder, which was that the lower half of his left ear lobe was missing.
The man of the photograph, then. He was big, fat, and the ear turned towards the camera was minus the lower half of its lobe.
Pointer walked away from the telephone and stood, head bent, hands thrust into his pockets, eyes fixed on his shoe tips. This old crime...this photograph...could they be the kernel for which he had been seeking? He could imagine it vital as to the story in Greece. But for it to have led to the deaths of the two Moncrieffs, the Major and his wife, it must also have some enormous present significance. As Pointer saw it, it could not be so important unless the murderer was planning a new crime similar to the old one, and that a crime for which preparations were on foot, or already completed.
Now, kidnapping has to be very carefully planned. It is an expensive amusement. Almost invariably it has to be the work of more than one person. You don't get together a gang, however small, without trouble and expense. Who at Beechcroft, or connected with it, could be considered a possible victim? The actual kidnappers themselves are rarely to the front in their victim's circle of acquaintances. Santley? He had no relatives who would pay a large ransom. The same was true of Ayres and Goodenough. Pusey, with a presumably devoted and certainly wealthy family, was not an inmate of the house. There remained only Ann Bladeshaw and the twins. Ann Bladeshaw had no nearer relative than an aunt with a small annuity, and an uncle who was a bishop with a large family and other heavy charges on his income. From the point of view of a kidnapper he was no good. But the twins were poor, said every one. True, Mr. Ayres, now their sole guardian, might be expected to want to save them pain, and he was a well-to-do man. But kidnappers want more than a hope. They go for a certainty. The certainty that there are funds enough behind to pay them for their own risks. Yet the twins seemed the only possible solution here, if that photograph really was the clue.
Pointer thought of the Melbourne Argus, that big Australian newspaper with offices in the Strand; and Mr. Johnson, the proprietor, happened to be in town, he knew. The chief editor lived down at Dorking and was away on a holiday, but Mr. Johnson was at the Ritz. He picked up the receiver; found after a skirmish with his private secretary that Mr. Johnson was in. Asked if he could have a word with Mr. Johnson himself over his private telephone; put his own man at the extension upstairs, and a moment later was hearing a harsh voice at whose tones a good many men in Melbourne were said to tremble. Pointer had already explained who he was to the secretary. He now went on to say that for the sake of speed he could not dash up to town, as he would like to, for a private word, but Mr. Johnson had met him in the Assistant Commissioner's private rooms only a few days ago. The talk had been about tracking down a certain swindler who purported to have a gold mine in Kalgoorlie for sale.
Johnson interrupted. "I remember your voice perfectly. You're tall, fit, brown, and played football for All England once—I happened to be over here then and saw you. Well?"
"I'm investigating a very difficult case, sir," Pointer continued quickly.
"The Conjuring Trick Murder, as the papers call it, I know."
"Do you know either of the dead couple by name, sir?"
"Major Moncrieff's distant cousin was a great chum of mine, but he's dead. I never met your Moncrieffs. Why?"
"There is a pair of twins; the Moncrieff twins every one calls them, who are also connected with the Melbourne Moncrieff.
"Oh! Well, what about them?" asked a very guarded voice.
"Quite confidentially, sir, we are wondering whether there's a kidnapping plan on foot with them as the object. But according to all accounts they're not wealthy...Is there any off-chance of your dead friend's huge fortune coming their way? At any time? Under any circumstances?"
There was a short pause. Then: "Look here. Chief Inspector, you've hit a very big nail bang on the head. Moncrieff lost his nerve when his son was kidnapped and killed in Greece six years ago. Those twins are his next of kin. Every one thinks, except just us few in the know, that he left his money to universities and charities and so on. As a matter of fact every penny of it goes to those blessed infants. He had insured against death duties with them in view. So the government was all right and we his friends—owners of the two other big papers out there—had a talk with him when he lay dying, and promised him to do all in our power to let it be thought that his money went to no one particular person. It's astonishing what you can do with determination...A will was, of course, put forward with no mention of the kids in it. The solicitor said he had been given a later will by Mr. Moncrieff which would be looked for. It was duly 'found' later on, when public interest had quite drifted away from old Moncrieff's money."
"And Major Moncrieff and Ayres—surely they know?"
"They may guess. But the solicitors who acted for my Moncrieff are discreet and had clear instructions. Nothing was to be handed over to them, to guard, but a sum bringing in about three hundred a year. That was all that was 'ostensibly' left them by the old man. Why, he spent nearly a year making it watertight, as he thought. And you tell me that the secret is out, and the kids are in danger?"
Pointer hardly heard the last words. He thought of the Mishes—they were a new element down here at Beechcroft. They, if not genuine (and it would be an easily assumed identity, if certain precautions were taken as to avoiding church gatherings and bishops' parties), would be ideally situated; provided—important proviso—they had a helper in the household who would inform them as to the twins' time-table.
Pointer was not often hurried, but he was in a rush now. He thanked Mr. Johnson warmly, but in one brief sentence, told him that he should have news immediately there was any, and rang off, to get into touch with two of his men at the Yard. They were by no means his best, but the rest were on duty elsewhere. They were to go at once to the Children's Theatre and find out if the twins were there. If so they were to follow them and Miss Bladeshaw (here followed her description and their description) and must on no account let them slip away. Then Pointer gave a word to his man at the other end of the extension and raced down for his car. He wanted to see the Mishes, and as soon as possible. He might be wrong; but the fact that there was a huge fortune on which to draw if a ransom were demanded for the twins seemed ominous. He looked at the clock in the dashboard. It was only three. The children's performance lasted until four. He had ordered two more men to go to the Mishes' address which he had found scribbled on Ann Bladeshaw's address book, when over at the cottage, and jotted down merely as a matter of routine. But if he was right, time might be of incalculable importance. If the twins, or Pusey, or any one else, let it be known that he had found that photograph, and if all plans were ready for a safe disappearance of the criminal...he raced on.
He found the Mishes in their apartments at Paddington Green. The rooms were cheaply furnished, and dreary. Pointer guessed that the two brand new texts that dangled from opposite walls were the Mishes' own property. Mrs. Mish, a young woman with a tight mouth, was darning socks. Her eyes struck Pointer unpleasantly. He had once watched the eyes of a cobra having a death fight with a constrictor; and from first to last they had not altered in expression. They had showed no anger, no trace of any emotion, even while the constrictor was being swallowed with appalling thoroughness. Mrs. Mish's eyes had the same ophidian suggestion. Mr. Mish was reading aloud, apparently from a book of sermons, as Pointer was shown in. They welcomed him cordially, Mr. Mish carefully inserting an embroidered bookmark after doing so. He was a big man with a deceptive layer of fat over really good muscles. Pointer decided, as they shook hands. He had a flabby handshake and protuberant eyes of light blue. Also a big beard which he constantly combed with his fingers, and through which a very red mouth showed when he talked. Pointer had seen people to whom he was more attracted at first sight, but that meant nothing. Both of his ears seemed to be perfect; which meant more.
Pointer explained that, having seen everybody connected with Beechcroft, however remotely, save themselves, he must also have a word with them. They talked of the tragedy, of the twins, of Ann Bladeshaw.
"I love the twins and I admire Miss Bladeshaw immensely," Mrs. Mish said warmly. "She's a splendid type of the new girl. Determined to get on—to be somebody—to make her fortune. And she's so bitterly poor! Yet not used to poverty; which makes it gird more. There's pluck for you! And she has a will of steel."
Pointer thought that Mrs. Mish had a will of the same metal. She looked to him, as Ann Bladeshaw certainly did not, like a tyrant as well. He pitied the children in any orphanage run by her. He had had a note handed to him, on his arrival outside the house, by one of his men. As far as the Yard could find out, the Dexter-Smiths were genuine. At least, as Pointer already knew, a Mr. and Mrs. Dexter-Smith were on the list of the Society's missionaries; and the Society said that they were at the moment on leave, prior to taking charge of an orphanage on Galapagos Island. It had not hitherto seemed likely that there could be any reason for masquerading as, or claiming to be, the Dexter-Smiths, but he was not so sure now. Mr. Mish had changed his seat as Pointer changed his; and still sat with his left ear turned to him, as it had been from the first. The right lobe, Pointer had noticed with his swift, apparently casual glance that was photographic in its retention of detail, appeared to be slightly larger than the left. Mish wore spectacles with very long, very curved, very thick frame extensions. They seemed almost to encircle the ears. You could not piece a lobe without the join showing, a surgeon had told him over the telephone; even supposing the operation to be a complete success. Which in nine out of ten times skin grafting was not. Pointer himself was past master in "make-up." He had rubber rims which fitted on to his own trim ears and augmented their size, and altered their shape; yet, by the skilful use of make-up, were all but undetectable. A word as to Paddington Green, which he said was new to him, and he was at the window. Turning, he glanced again just for a second at the ear that interested him. Yes, he thought it quite possible that a lobe had been added artificially by means of a small piece of adhesive plaster underneath at the back, and then skilfully touched up with liquid powder and rouge to appear rather thick and red. As he sat down again Mish again shifted, until once more he sat with only his left ear in view.
"Suppose we have tea," Mrs. Mish said gaily, turning to the chief inspector. "Don't be afraid we shall offer you mate tea. It's just the one thing my husband and I can't get used to. But the orphans love it. I wish you could see them in our little house below Santa Cruz. The children are brought up at its very foot."
"Like Saul, at the foot of Gamaliel, a mountain in Judea," Pointer quoted the old howler, and the Mishes nodded gravely.
"Just so. There's nothing like mountain air for children," Mrs. Mish said, leaning forward and reaching for the other sock. As she did so, the cross-over garment which she had on opened at the neck, to show an odd shade of soft tulip green which seemed to be an underblouse. Pointer had seen that same shade, and, as far as looks went, that same material only a short time ago. On Miss Bladeshaw. He looked at Mrs. Mish's shoes. They were new ones, smart in cut, with some sort of openwork on the cross strap. Exactly the same shoes as those that Ann Bladeshaw was wearing. Mrs. Mish's stockings were thick and brown and wrinkled. Now Santley, in speaking of her, had referred to her extreme neatness, and the rest of her bore this out. But those corkscrew legs? Had the brown stockings been pulled on hastily when his name was sent up? Were they being worn over grey silk stockings? She had given Ann Bladeshaw that bag, Ann had said. To do so she must have been with Miss Bladeshaw, to match it so well to the blouse and the leaves on the hat. Besides, Pointer had not seen Ann in any other than that grey and green outfit. It would be a well-known combination.
Mr. Mish spoke of the hostility of the natives, and how constantly on the alert the missionaries had to be. Pointer tried him with another reference to the Bible, from Nehemiah this time. He was very fond of Nehemiah. "You're like the Apostles," he said lightly. "I seem to remember a text 'Every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon. For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded.' In St. John, isn't it?"
"Yes," murmured Mr. Mish, apparently not at all put out by Nehemiah's New Testament name. Pointer was fingering his hide-and-seek button, as he called a little flat oval of hard stone, found on a beach, which had some peculiarity of smoothness or shape that made it easy to wedge between boards; and as difficult as an arrow-head to dislodge unless you knew just the right twist to give it. Before now, when he wanted to engross some one's attention, Pointer had dropped it, groped for it, wedged it home, and then asked for assistance. He did so now. But as Mish obligingly stepped forward and bent down, he himself stood back; leaving the field to the other. Mish tugged at first easily, then with vigour. The little oval did not budge. He was the kind of man who does not like to be beaten by anything, and he settled down to work it out, his face and neck ruddy with exertion. Which was what the chief inspector wanted. For the lower part of the lobe of his right ear did not share in this heightened colour, but remained unaltered. As Pointer thought; it was evidently artificial, held on by some posterior strapping of plaster, and by the curving bone ear-pieces of his spectacles. Pointer begged him to desist; bent down, and, with the right twist, got out his button, pocketed it, and thanked Mish.
So the probability was that Mish was Murphy, the guide of that old Greek tragedy: a man who had kidnapped, and possibly murdered, young Moncrieff, though this last was by no means proved, as the two things seemed to cancel out mutually. Pointer thought that the kidnapping had been according to careful plans, but that the murder must have been an unexpected alteration, due to some one's blunder.
"By the way," he said now, "what about one of the twins' glass houses? It's up for repairs, isn't it? When can she have it back? They love them; and no wonder."
"It's downstairs in the office," Mrs. Mish said, "waiting to be called for by the makers. One of the children has broken the glass off the top."
At that moment tea was brought in. A full and positively overflowing tea, a tennis tea, a nursery tea, with plates of cakes and hot buttery things, and cool sandwiches, and round ginger and fruit cakes. Mrs. Mish began to clear a way for it while Mish looked on beaming.
"You'll stay, of course," the lady said, putting her work aside, and this time exposing a line of soft green at the wrists as she did so.
"Of course you'll stay," Mish said hospitably; and on the instant Pointer knew that they wanted to detain him. They indeed went so far as playfully to refuse to let him leave. But Pointer, equally playfully, fairly pushed his way out. He was frightened. Like a man high up in an aeroplane he had caught a glimpse of a landscape beneath him, far down, half-hidden by billowing and shifting clouds, and it was a terrible one. He raced his car to the Children's Theatre. He jumped out. His man appeared at his elbow. There was no one in the place answering to the description given him, but three seats in the middle of the dress circle were empty. He had found out that these had been taken by a Miss Bladeshaw. Something cold touched Pointer's heart for a second. But he had no time for anything but active, creative thought. Suppose the twins and Ann Bladeshaw had been decoyed away; where would they have gone? The Mishes were out of it. They, very likely, had been delighted when he came to see them; thus giving them an unshakable alibi. But where would Miss Bladeshaw take the children without suspecting anything? True, Pointer believed that she had no idea of their real wealth, their real danger, and would therefore not be on the alert. Nor did he think Ann Bladeshaw of the frank gaze, the open brow, the unsubtle mouth, the honest voice, would be difficult to deceive. Truthful herself, as he believed, she would not readily suspect a lie. Still, where would she be most easily induced to take the children? Mrs. Phillimore was in a nursing home, and forbidden all visitors. Pointer stared at his shoe tips. There was only one place which he knew of, where, if a message had reached her on the way to the theatre, she might go without a second thought. Mr. Santley's studio by Putney Bridge. And once there...Pointer's face looked careworn. He could think of no other place so likely to be given her as a rendezvous. A message might have reached her in Santley's name...it need not have been an urgent message. It might merely have concerned the children's picture. Santley was a man of sufficient importance to make her postpone a visit to the theatre at his request.
Every one at Beechcroft knew that the artist had been at work on the twins' picture...every one at Beechcroft...Pointer was on his way to the studio by this time, running the car as fast as he dared, and he was a magnificent driver. It was a Yard car, and he took full advantage of that fact as, unchallenged, he cut corners and swept along at a terrific speed. He wanted to reach the studio before Mrs. Mish. For he believed that she would go there, that she, dressed as Ann Bladeshaw, would manage to have herself seen taking the children away; in a car, probably. Though possibly on foot to a car around the corner. Then a swift dash out of town, a change of cars, and then? Boat or aeroplane? The latter for a certainty. Pointer thought. Mish could probably manage one; his hands were very powerful, they bore the marks of a man who had used tools or machinery. A landing in some desolate region, Pyrenees...Greece...and then? Meanwhile what of the real Ann Bladeshaw? Would she be taken, drugged, along with the children? But Pointer could not see any reason, if that were part of the plan, for the Mishes' efforts to win the children's confidence. It looked to him, therefore, as though they were to be taken alone for a pleasure trip with their kind friends. And that Ann would be merely left behind was negatived by the duplicate dressing which Pointer believed was part of the plan. He drove faster yet; swirled to a standstill some distance from the studio, which he had visited—unknown to its owner; and for which he now made in a taxi that was waiting for him. A taxi in outward appearances, but a Yard car in reality. It had torn along to meet him, but by another route, and had had a shorter distance to cover. It, too, stopped long enough to put him down, and then went on farther down the road. Some suitcases were pulled well up so as to show, and give a genuine effect to its wait, while Pointer walked up to the studio and rang the bell. There was no reply. Something with cheap and patched tyres had been here a very short time ago. The marks of its turning were clearly to be seen. Emphatically not the tyres on which to start on any such expedition as Pointer thought had been planned for the twins. Miss Bladeshaw's taxi, he guessed, the taxi taking her and the children to the studio. He opened the door with a key and stepped inside the big square hall.
As he shut it a faint sound caught his ear. Somewhere above him a door had been opened with intense care. He ran up the stairs, none too lightly. If there was danger menacing Ann Bladeshaw, as he believed, it would be well if his presence were known. As he ran, he called, "I am a detective officer from New Scotland Yard. Is there any one in this house?" There was no answer; but something too faint to be called a sound, like the ghost of a slither across a floor. There were several ways out of the studio, and Pointer had thought each of them over on his drive down. The front, the back, had each two doors. There was a fire-escape staircase, and a way over the roof by a short jump to another artist's studio and out—through his garden. Unfortunately, owing to a parapet, the roof could not be seen from the ground; and Pointer believed that what he had first heard was the window of the skylight being shut down; and that the second sound was some one swiftly crossing the roof.
Nor could he see from Santley's house whether any one was on the next roof, without himself getting out on to the roof. He had only one man with him in his car, who was watching the house from down the road. As for the neighbouring studios...with a sigh, Pointer left the unknown presence which had fled at his approach, and hurried down to the studio itself, the room into which he would expect Ann Bladeshaw to have taken the twins. Having been over the house once, he knew how to find the model's door, at the back, that opened into a little dressing-room, which, again, opened into the studio proper. The twins were inside. Sounds of light smacks, and skips not so light, and shrieks of delight reached him. A game of some kind was on. With infinite care he peered in and saw the two children having a romp of battledore and shuttlecock. They were alone. Then came the sound of his watching taxi squawking its horn. That meant that a car was turning in at Santley's gates. A moment later and the front door was opened. Opened without any attempt at secrecy; and a young woman, dressed exactly as Ann Bladeshaw had been dressed hurried into the studio. It was Mrs. Mish. The children ran to her. "Ann's in the other room," they called. "Oh, Mrs. Mish, you look just like her to-day. Oooh, you've gotted her bag!" Squeaks of pleasure from the two as though that fact lent additional pleasure to the afternoon.
"Where did you say she is, darlings?" Mrs. Mish hugged them both, while her eyes swept the room over their heads. Those bright, unchanging eyes of hers.
"Over there. She went over there," piped Dolly, still patting the green bag.
"She's sleepy," came from Dilly. "We mustn't make no noise!"
Mrs. Mish left the room, but she was back in a moment, a wide smile showing her teeth. "She wants me to take you for a drive, darlings. A nice long drive. Hurry, now. Come along! Don't disturb her!" And with a delighted child squealing on each hand, Mrs. Mish bustled out. The door shut, and utter silence fell on the house. Pointer's ears had told him that Mrs. Mish had not been followed. She had thrown his man off her track, as he had feared that she might. But his own car would follow her; and his man had had his instructions as to puncturing the tubes of hers while she was in the house. If he had done so (which meant that Mrs. Mish had been alone in the car), a rag was to be tied around the lower rung of the gate. Pointer looked out of the window. It was there! Mrs. Mish would not get far. The trouble was that they had as yet no provable charge on which to arrest her. A kindly soul taking the twins for a drive! An admiration for Ann Bladeshaw which extended even to the flattery of copying her pretty clothes: not exactly criminal proceedings, either of them. Yet Mrs. Mish must be stopped before she could join her husband. Pointer stepped out through the studio into the other room. There was a lounge in it, easy chairs, and a table or two, on one of which stood a tray with cakes and a big jug of lemon squash in which a few tiny dots of ice still bobbed. Pointer tasted it without swallowing it. There was ginger ale in it, and underneath that very disguising flavour there was another taste...sickly...sweetish...the taste of poppy or he was much mistaken. He stood by the lounge. Yes, some one had recently sat here, yet the three cushions were still puffy and unrumpled. Mrs. Mish's hand had shaken them out probably, but she had been too hurried to notice the slight folds and pressed creases of the couch's cover which spoke of some one having sat there recently. Ann Bladeshaw was hardly likely to have been taken over the roof into another house or another garden. Obviously her body was not to be discovered—Mrs. Mish was Ann Bladeshaw for the moment, as far as any chance observer would notice.
The real Ann Bladeshaw was never to be seen again, Pointer thought. As for the means to ensure this—there was the river; and there was the central heating furnace, a mighty cast-iron affair as Pointer knew, for the house was a big one and had originally been three studios until Mr. Santley preferred to have it for his sole use, and bought it as it stood. He liked to be able to see his designs for stained glass windows or tapestries from a distance; and each floor housed a different kind of work. He painted on the ground floor. He worked at his stained glass designs on the first floor. He slept and lived, when in town, on the second floor. And his tapestry and textile designs were done on the top, the third floor, and on the roof.
The radiators were all turned off, but even so the house felt very hot. Pointer descended to the basement. Yes, the stove had an enormous fire going in it. He opened the coal-cellar door, which was beside it. He had rummaged in it on his previous, and only, visit. On top of the coke now lay something that was not coke, nor ashes—not yet. It was Ann Bladeshaw in a heavy drugged sleep.
He had her in his arms in a moment. A police car had been ordered to come, in strict disguise, to take the place of his own car now hard on the heels of Mrs. Mish, he hoped. A glance outside the gate, after he had laid Ann down on the lounge from which he believed that she had been originally carried, showed him a dilapidated looking taxi that hardly looked able to crawl. Catching sight of him, the driver touched his cap—using a special finger—and then came on up to the front steps. Again catching Pointer's eye, he followed him into the house, and between them they carried Ann out and leaned her in a corner. The address of a hospital was given and the car was off. Pointer stepped back to telephone to the hospital in question, and was assured that the very swiftest and best restoratives would be applied. Then he returned to the room where the drugged lemonade stood. He believed that he might yet meet Mish in this house. In an affair of this kind, where murder is involved (and obviously Ann Bladeshaw was to be murdered), every member of the gang must have been at the place of the murder. That is done in the common interest, so that the shadow of the same rope shall encircle every neck. Some one had been here and arranged the drugged drink, had probably met Miss Bladeshaw with some excuse on behalf of Santley, and then left; leaving her to send the children to play in the studio at the new game provided for them; probably by Santley, "in case he was late." She would fall asleep quickly and be carted to the coal-cellar, there to wait the final death blow and the horrible means of disposing of her dead body provided by the furnace. This last would be a dreadful piece of work. Few men, even among murderers, would face it. Who would have been chosen for it? Or would lots have been drawn? Pointer thought not. It was too important that no squeamishness, as they would call common feelings of humanity, should spoil the plan. No; he thought that the man called upon to do that last part would be a paid man. Very well paid; some one who would sell his soul for money. No one among the Beechcroft guests stood in such urgent need of it. But the Mishes? They were obviously to be handsomely paid for the kidnapping. To add to this commission the last part of the accompanying murder would but mean increased pay; and Pointer believed them to be a couple who, for money, would have skinned Ann Bladeshaw or the twins alive.
But how to prove his conviction without letting things go too far? He would very much have liked to know for what place the Mishes would make when Ann was out of the way definitely and for ever; but he dared not risk losing their trail. As it was, they could still say that Ann had gone into the coal-cellar herself, and feeling faint or sleepy, had lain down on the coke. A sound came to him: a car was driving in. He looked out through the kitchen window and saw that it was his own car. That meant that Mrs. Mish was inside it. She was: a tight-lipped woman with eyes that looked as though made of beads. The children had been handed into safe keeping. "I am told that there has been an accident to Miss Bladeshaw," she said coolly enough; but she had unconcealably started at the sight of the chief inspector. "I'm frightfully sorry. Is she here? She wasn't when I came for the children?" Her voice expressed polite concern.
Pointer looked at her in silence. She turned very yellow under that steady piercing look.
"She has been taken away to a hospital," he said, "and you are to take her place."
She gave another start, but her cold eyes did not alter.
"Here is some of the lemon squash made for her. Drink it." He held out a tumbler from the jug which was on the table. And at that she clutched the back of a chair. Her tongue, narrow as a snake's, licked lips evidently too dry to move. With a sudden movement she would have dashed the glass from Pointer's fingers if it had been less firmly held.
But with that futile gesture she broke. Broke utterly. The journey back in the car after it had been stopped at an A.A. post and the children lifted out in spite of her vehement protests and their own squeals, and then she herself helped into the waiting car and driven back to the studio at top speed, had been too much for her. She must have known then that the game was up; and during the drive her nerves must have been on the stretch, to give way at the words of the chief inspector. Panic seized her. With a scream of terror she fainted. Her "will of steel" had snapped under discovery with all its consequences.
POINTER wasted no time in trying to revive Mrs. Dexter-Smith. On the contrary, she was bound and carefully gagged, so that she could not make any loud noise, and carried into the coal-cellar. One of Pointer's men stood behind the door which, owing to a skilfully placed sack of coal, gave him ample shelter. Beside the sack of coal stood the axe and the other things which were to have been used to prevent Ann Bladeshaw's body from ever being found. Pointer had hardly closed the door behind the two men carrying the woman down the stairs, when there came the sound of the front door being opened. Pointer stepped into the entrance hall. Santley was letting himself in. A very roused-looking Santley.
"How did you get in? Who screamed?" he asked.
Before Pointer could reply there came a long ring of the bell. Santley opened the door. Goodenough stood there.
He stared in amazement at the two men. "Where's Ann? She was to lunch with me. Anything wrong, Chief Inspector? I've tried to ring her up twice and got no reply."
"Come on in," said Santley, "and explain. Why did you expect to meet Ann under my humble roof?"
"Because she brought the kids here for their picture, of course," Goodenough spoke impatiently. "You asked her to bring them. But where is she?"
Santley wheeled on Pointer. "That wasn't Miss Bladeshaw I heard, was it?"
"Certainly not," Pointer said promptly. "As far as I know. Miss Bladeshaw is quite all right. But do you mind explaining?" he turned to Goodenough. "You say you expected to find Miss Bladeshaw and the twins here?" From his voice one would have said that the chief inspector was quite surprised.
"I met Miss Bladeshaw at the station as we had arranged," Goodenough said shortly. "She told me that a message had been handed to her at some station on the way (I forget which), from you, Santley; asking her to bring the kids here for you to go on with their portraits. She accordingly scrapped the tickets they had for the Children's Theatre, and said she would leave them here; come on and have lunch with me, and would call for them at whatever time you should arrange with her. I saw them into a taxi, and waited an hour for her at The Florence. What's wrong?"
He stopped, as another car could be heard driving up. "That's her!" he said in relief, and flung the door open; but it was Pusey's car, and Pusey and Ayres were getting out of it. There was no sign of Ann.
Pusey stared. "Are Miss Bladeshaw and the twins holding a reception? Or—" he stopped at sight of the chief inspector. "Anything wrong?" he asked quickly. And Ayres repeated it like an echo.
"Nothing," Pointer replied blandly. "May I ask why you expected to meet her here?"
"Telephone message," Pusey said promptly, "asking me to come here at once and bring Ayres. If she wasn't here, we were to wait half an hour and then go down to Beechcroft. Said it was urgent. No, it wasn't her voice, but it was a woman's voice. I supposed it was the Nannie...Well, I called for Ayres, and here we are. Now, what's brought all the rest of you? And especially you. Chief inspector?" He picked up a glove from the table as he was speaking, and slipped it into his pocket.
"Your glove?" Pointer asked.
Pusey nodded casually. "The twins are at the magpie stage," he said. "I missed it when talking to Miss Bladeshaw some days ago. Left them in my hat, and the kids had been at them," he smiled pleasantly. "But is anything wrong?" His eye was on Pointer.
"What about you, Mr. Santley?" Pointer asked, "how did you happen to come back to-day?"
"Chance. And I confess I don't understand what all this means."
"I found the twins here, but not Miss Bladeshaw." Pointer spoke as though perplexed. "I, too, came because of a telephone message from her," he went on mendaciously. "I decided there was some mistake in the time; came back an hour later to find her just driving off in a taxi with the twins. She didn't see me. I suppose we may take it that they were going back to Beechcroft."
"But how did they get in?" Santley demanded.
"Do you mean to say YOU weren't here?" Goodenough spoke as though this was too much to believe.
"I was on my way down here from Westmorland. I've only just got here to find the police apparently in possession." He nodded to Pointer.
"The door wasn't caught," Pointer said to that. "I came on in expecting to find you, Mr. Santley."
Santley looked more bewildered than ever. "I have another key, but I lent it to Miss Bruton. She wanted to house some of her tiles here; but she wouldn't have lent it without asking me—hallo, who's this?" For still another car was driving up. Driven at top speed too, and when it came to a dashing stop they saw that Don Plutarco was driving, while beside him sat Flavelle Bruton.
"It's a hoax, that's what it is!" Pusey said as though relieved and vexed at the same time. And when Don Plutarco and Miss Bruton came in, asking where Miss Bladeshaw and the twins were, and why they had been asked to come at once, he began to roar with laughter.
"Don't say you were to wait half an hour!" he begged. But yes, that had been the telephone message.
Flavelle looked uneasy. "I suppose it is only a joke?" she asked Pointer in a low tone.
"I'm afraid it is," he said smiling broadly, "and I think we must carry out the second part of the message and go to Beechcroft to hear the explanation."
"I don't think much of her lemonade," Goodenough said after pouring himself out some. "Too sweet."
Santley alone refused to see any humour in the situation.
"My dear Mr. Santley," Pointer explained, "I think we shall find that Miss Bladeshaw was asked to come here, and then asked to take the twins back to Beechcroft by the same merry jester. Some one who evidently opened the door to her. Probably posed as your secretary or housekeeper or butler. Now, suppose we all do as she seems to have done?"
"But how did she, or he, or they, get in?" Santley demanded.
"You needn't look at me so searchingly," Flavelle said to that. "Here's the key you lent me. I haven't been near the place. Don Plutarco shifted the tiles for me."
"And closed the door carefully," Don Plutarco supplemented. "I tried it, to make sure it was locked."
"I think the sooner we are back at Beechcroft the sooner we shall have a chance of understanding things," Pointer urged, and the others agreed that this was good sense.
Santley had also poured himself out a drink of the tempting lemonade, but he set his tumbler down after the merest sip.
"You need grape juice to make lemonade, not water," Ramon said, "white grapes. A drink for the gods. But we should start back?"
Pointer had felt certain that the criminal must return to the studio, but he had not expected this general meeting. A clever brain was here. Each person from Beechcroft was to be at the rendezvous; probably wait different lengths of time, and finally make for Beechcroft; leaving the field free for the dreadful last act, which would certainly not take place till dusk. Pointer had seen as he went over the house that the telephones were all cut. A clever brain. That glove was Pusey's. But that new dent in the door of the room where the lemonade stood was Goodenough's hallmark. It was a trick of his to shut a door with foot as well as hand. It only remained for something of Ayres' and Don Plutarco's to be provided, and since Santley's belongings were here anyway, the set of clues would be complete.
"But what was that screaming I heard?" Santley again demanded.
"Mrs. Dexter-Smith came here just a little while ago," Pointer said to that. "She evidently saw me arrive. She wanted to know why we had arrested her husband."
"Arrested Mr. Mish?" Pusey sounded delighted. "What for?"
"Shoplifting, according to her," Pointer said casually. "Nothing to do with me, but women have no idea of division of work."
"Shoplifting!" Pusey repeated, rolling it under his tongue like a delectable morsel. "Texts or Bibles? Thought he looked a thorough wrong 'un."
"I don't know what he took," Pointer said. "When I pressed his wife for details, she—but you heard her—" he finished to Santley, who still had a frown on his face.
"I heard what sounded to me like a shriek of sheer terror."
"Just so," Pointer agreed, "that's what hysteria always does sound like. I'm afraid she didn't believe me, but at least she went off in a taxi to see if by any chance he had been released and was back at their rooms. Of course she insisted that he was innocent. I didn't tell her that even if he is, he won't be home to-night."
"But look here," Goodenough said in anything but an amused tone, "these people had introductions to Miss Bladeshaw! She's made friends of them. She intended staying overnight with them."
"Can't you give us more details, or tell us where we can get them?" Ayres added.
"I don't know them myself"—Pointer was speaking the literal truth—"but I suppose he was caught red-handed, and taken at once to the local police station. If so, we shan't hear of it till the morning. However, the first thing now is to go back to Beechcroft, and see Miss Bladeshaw." Pointer led the way with decision.
Every one seemed to feel the same need for finding out what did lie behind this extraordinary series of summons and dismissals. No one appeared to want to linger. Santley touched the chief inspector on the arm.
"May I drive you back, and have a word with you on the way? Mine's a two-seater. For the funny part of this very funny afternoon is that I came all the way back expressly for a word with you. I only stopped in here to get rid of my traps."
Pointer said he would be only too glad to hear anything that Mr. Santley might tell him.
"It's only this," the artist began as they started off, the last of the procession, thanks to Pointer's difficulty in finding his notebook and pencil. "Only a guilty feeling that I ought to have told you what a very clever aunt of mine thought when she first saw Moncrieff, without knowing it was the Major, giving money to Lee, that mechanic who has run away. She said it looked unmistakably a case of blackmail. Now, I'm wondering if that might not be the truth, rather than the Major's explanation to me, and if so, whether there doesn't lie the key to the dreadful happenings at Beechcroft. Something in Moncrieff's past. Something that Lee knows. He was waiting on us when that attempt to poison Goodenough, or me, was made. I think, when you get him again, you will find he's the master-key. But probably you know that already."
"I think I should like to look into it," Pointer said as though grateful for a most original tip. "Which means that I must go back to the Yard. But I think the rest of you ought to go on to Beechcroft to have a word with Miss Bladeshaw. Even if she's not there when you get to the house, she'll probably turn up very soon. Now, suppose you drop back a little, and slow down without actually stopping. I want to slip out unnoticed. And if you can stop at the police station, so that the others assume that I got out there, I should be much obliged."
Santley dropped back and slowed down; Pointer was out of his seat and out of the door with the ease of a practised contortionist, and Santley drove on.
Pointer motioned to the decrepit taxi which had followed the cars, and, getting in, heard how Miss Bladeshaw had been taken to hospital and was even now being worked over. They thought she would pull round. Pointer thought so too. He did not think that the murderer intended to poison her with the drug. That might be too dangerous in the event of anything untoward happening. Pointer believed that she would only have been killed immediately before her body could be disposed of.
But if Mish was to do this last horrible part, and was believed to be unable to see to it, who would take his place? Only the actual planner of the whole long-thought-out crime; the crime that had already caused two murders, the crime based entirely on greed. This was why Pointer had casually thrown in the quite imaginary news that Mish was arrested. That good man was still at liberty, and unfollowed, unless Pointer's man was proving better than the chief inspector feared.
He let himself in once more to the studio, and telephoned to the Mishes' apartment house. Yes, he was told, the child's glass house had just been fetched. The manageress had been out and the office locked, which was why the man could not have it the first time he called. Pointer hung up the receiver, and went down to the coal-cellar. The man on duty behind the door was sent outside to get a breath of fresh air and stretch himself, while Pointer untied Mrs. Dexter-Smith's gag. She sat looking at him with those cold, soulless eyes of hers.
"Are you going to help us," he asked, "or are you ranging yourself along with the murderer of the Moncrieffs? The man who is coming back to finish off Miss Bladeshaw—as he thinks."
She said nothing, but her eyes darted to and fro, to and fro, to and fro.
"Mr. Dexter-Smith isn't coming back to do it," Pointer went on. "He has just been arrested. So we both know who will come here to-night to see to things himself. I'm afraid he's vexed with you. Thinks you blundered."
And at that the woman was stung into speech.
"And he's to do me in instead of that Bladeshaw?" Mrs. Dexter-Smith asked fiercely. "That your idea, eh? Not much! Not me!" But she was patently terrified of what she professed to scout. Had been so ever since she was brought back to the house.
"You know best what to expect from him, when he finds things have gone wrong," Pointer said indifferently. "You will be lying here helpless—just as Ann Bladeshaw was."
"Look here! Be a gentleman!" she suddenly urged. "Get them first! Get them safely, and I'll tell you everything. No, no," as he opened his mouth, "I won't speak while they're at liberty. Not much!"
Pointer looked at her. He believed she would do just what she said, tell everything which she could twist so as not to implicate herself, once she was certain that she had no violence to fear.
"You'll have to help us to get them," he said. "If you'll let me gag you again, and will lie still on the coke. I'll be here behind the door. And I can promise you that you won't be in any real danger."
"I'm worth a lot more to you alive than dead," she said to that. "As for the rest—" She hesitated, then she pressed her lips still more tightly together. "I'll do it! Provided you make it easy for me afterwards."
"I can't promise you anything," Pointer answered. "The kidnapping of the twins lies at the root of the Moncrieff murders, and of this intended murder of Miss Bladeshaw also."
"I wasn't in on any murder," she retorted promptly. "Nor did I have any notion of what was to happen to Miss Bladeshaw. I thought she was in it, too," insisted Mrs. Mish adroitly. "My orders were to dress like her to-day, come for the kids, and drive them to where a plane would meet us and take them into safety. See? I knew nothing more than just that."
Pointer looked at her. She would stick to that defence, he felt sure; and because she thought she saw a way out for herself she would be willing to give any accomplices away.
"I quite understand," he said grimly; "but can I get my man back and have him take down in shorthand what you are going to say?"
"And have me sign shorthand squiggles? Not much. I don't sign what I can't read." Mrs. Dexter-Smith spoke with assurance. Pointer explained that the notes would be written out in longhand at once; and the sheets, in that legible form, signed by her. And on that understanding they got to work.
They brought her some port wine—her request—and a very decent dinner which she ate on a blanket over the coke. But they dared not be too certain that the master criminal would wait until dark, though Dexter-Smith—or Murphy—(for she acknowledged that he was Murphy) was not to go to the studio until ten. But it was quite darkish by nine, and Pointer hoped for an earlier capture.
His man brought word that the child's glass house was at the Yard; and that, as Pointer had hoped, the missing half of the photograph had been used to make the similar door. But that it was so smudged with paint that it would be no help.
Eight o'clock came at last. At half-past eight, they took up their positions; Mrs. Mish's last warning to Pointer being not to be too quick. To let the man get hold of the axe before he stopped him. She wanted the man safely hung, and warned Pointer that if he could plead extenuating circumstances he would. Exactly what extenuating circumstances could be found, Pointer did not see; but he was only too thankful that the woman was for the time being, and her own purposes, on their side.
At a little before nine something creaked in the house. Then came another creak. Some one was in; some one besides Pointer's men. Mrs. Mish's teeth began to chatter. Pointer held out a brandy flask. She took a gulp and then lay back. After a minute they heard the door at the top of the basement opened, and steps come cautiously down. Then came a horrid sound. The noise of the furnace being stoked up. Pointer had seen to it that it was going well, but now another hod of coke was put on and the whole raked clear.
The light of the coal cellar was clicked on outside, and the door opened.
A man came in. Mrs. Mish had been carefully laid, with her own help, in such a way that her face was in deep shadow, as indeed was all the cellar; for the light was only of five-watt power.
The man stood a moment quite still, then, with what sounded like a breath of relief at sight of the figure stretched on the coke, he stepped closer; a revolver in his right hand.
There was a blinding flash, and a report which seemed to shatter the very walls of the cellar. Something leapt from the doorway and flung itself on the man; they struggled on the floor. Pointer got first one and then the other revolver. In spite of their efforts he pried the men apart. The top man was Lee.
"Steady on," Pointer said calmly, "no need of violence. No call for shooting."
"He murdered the Captain and his wife, and he's after the gov. now!" panted Lee. "I saw him do it. Yes, I saw you—"
There followed a spate of luridly descriptive words.
Some of Pointer's men had followed Lee, and two caught and held him now, while another helped the chief inspector secure the man at whom Lee had fired; and whom, incidentally, he had missed by nearly a foot.
"Now then. Lee!" Pointer turned to him sharply. "What's this about your having seen this man shoot Major Moncrieff? As to Mrs. Moncrieff, you couldn't have seen him kill her."
"But I did!" Lee insisted. "I was in the hall at the back; watching. Many's the time I've helped the Major with his tricks when I was his mechanic in the old days. I know every one of 'em. That bloke in the dressing-gown wasn't the Major! And when he dashed off the stage I dashed out too, and round by the garden, and up the ladder. I had placed it there to have a word with the Major after his trick. I could get into his room that way, and after doing his little piece he ought to be in a reasonable temper, I thinks. At any rate, he can't throw me out so quick. So I left the ladder all handy. And when the bloke rushed off, I rushed out and climbed up it, but a branch caught me in the eye. Rose-branch it was, with thorns in it. I thought I was blinded for life. Then when I could see again I went on up, and I saw all right! I saw that there bloke put a revolver to the Captain's ear and shoot him same as if he was an old hoss. Then he kicks something, I couldn't see what, for just then I fell off the ladder—lost my balance and dropped like an apple from a tree; on to grass, luckily. Lucky I made no noise, I mean! I crawled around the corner damned quick, I can tell you, and lay quiet till I got my wind. Then I went for Mr. Edwards at the garage. But he was in a sweating hurry and wouldn't listen to a word from me. Told me that the Major had just killed his wife by accident, and shot himself, and that he must get off at once, and I was to carry on, meanwhile, as chauffeur. I couldn't get no word in edgeways. Not that I was sure of what I wanted to say. It was too big for me. I wanted time to think things over, and the more I thought, the less I liked the look of them. I hadn't no proof. You chaps could tear my story to pieces. Time was when I could have told it and been believed. But—" Lee looked frowningly at the officer, "not now! 'Cause of the drink. 'Cause of my having lost my place and not kept the other one the Captain got for me. I thought of a-nony-mouse letters to you, but what reason could I give? I saw I'd a lot more to find out. But I couldn't find it. And you seemingly couldn't neither. He was too cunning to be caught, I saw then. But I'd get him; law or no law. He mightn't swing for what he had done, but poison wasn't a bad way to get things even. My father's a gardener. He uses prussic acid for white fly. I took some! But I got the little dog instead, I know now. Wish it had been the cat! However, I thought as how I had paid him out and got away. I'm half-gipsy, and they passed me along to my cousin in London what's a window-cleaner. He got me took on, and him or me watched this swine since, after I heard as how he was still alive. I followed him here to-day; but he was out of the house again too quick for me. I was just opening a window at the back and a-letting myself in when I heard the front door slam after him. I sees as how visitors is expected, and I felt sure as how that bloke was a-coming back. So I waited. I saw a clergyman come in who swore something wonnerful when he stubbed his toe on the umbreller stand. And I saw the gov. and the kids come. He and she had quite a little chat, then off he goes and the gov. she says, 'Of course, we'll wait for him.' So I waits too. Then you come and sent me racing over the roof, sir." He looked at Pointer. "Then I picked him up again at his club and followed him here once more. Then the party began to arrive. Then they all went off. Him and you too. But I stayed on here. I seed you come in, but as time went on, and all seemed quiet, I thought you had slipped out again. But I waits. And he come back, and stokes up that fire in there and opens the door of the coal shed and comes on in, and I sees the gov. a-lying on the coke, and I thinks it's time to let loose, so I fired. And missed him! Time was when I could have got him running at a dozen yards. But it doesn't pay to drink. It costs you dear in the end."
Pointer turned from the drunkard, who was seeing the effects of drink so ruefully, and stepped to the other man, the man at whom Lee had fired, the man who had not spoken since he was caught, but only tried desperately to get his hand into an inner pocket.
"Victor Goodenough," Pointer said, "I arrest you for the attempted murder of Ann Bladeshaw, and the murders of Major and Mrs. Moncrieff." He proceeded to give the usual caution.
"An' he done it for his papers! That new car of the Major's," Lee went on hotly. "I watched him search for 'em. And I saw him dot Mr. Santley one on the nob too, 'cause he came in while he was a-hunting. I got down from the ladder, then, and was off back to the garage. Next morning I wanted a word with Mr. Santley; but I saw him and this bloke, all friendly, strolling around the garden. He'd got over Mr. Santley with some lie; or Mr. Santley didn't know who coshed him."
Victor Goodenough was not listening to any of this. He was desperately trying to get a finger-tip into a pocket. But his hand was too firmly grasped and he was led away just as Lee was yelling that the lady on the coke wasn't the gov.
"Lucky your men were better than you feared and got Murphy before he sailed away into the blue. You think the photograph, the missing part, would have shown Goodenough himself?" The Assistant Commissioner and Pointer were talking the case over that evening.
"Sure of it, sir. Mrs. Mish described it. It was being taken by young Moncrieff himself; and showed dimly, but quite visibly when you looked into it, the face of Goodenough peering round a tree trunk. Murphy says that Goodenough, seeing he was discovered, came forward; and that he and young Moncrieff had quite a pleasant chat, until something Goodenough let slip roused the other's suspicions. When in a flash Goodenough clubbed him to the ground and killed him. Murphy got the film and kept it. But it wasn't much use, as he too would have had to swing for it. In spite of the fact that I believe him when he swears that he had no hand in that murder. Not that he would have minded, in my opinion, had he been paid a little extra for it," Pointer added.
"Goodenough's alibi would have been torn by it. Still, as you say, the two were as mixed up as a coil of snakes. Hard to disentangle one from the other." Pelham lit a cigar. "That photograph which would have made a leper of Goodenough," he went on, "and dished his carefully thought out, elaborately planned new scheme for getting rich. I don't wonder that, given his nature, given the fresh crime already well started, he murdered the Moncrieffs rather than have it fall into the Major's hands. What I don't know yet is how Mrs. Moncrieff got hold of it." The A.C. was frankly curious.
"Mrs. Mish brought it down with her in her handbag, sir, when she and Mish lunched at Beechcroft. They had had a private talk with Goodenough before presenting themselves at the cottage, and she showed him the snapshot, just as a hint that he was in the same boat as themselves, and that they were not his slaves—her words to me. When she got back to town she found that it was missing. Goodenough had stolen it."
"But how? When?" pressed Pelham.
"I think he did it while it was hanging on the back of her chair together with her cloak at lunch, sir. So does she. She says that she noticed his pretty manners in getting up several times to help carve and pass things and take plates off the table. The service at Beechcroft was distinctly elementary, we know."
"That would have given a neat-fingered man all the opportunity he needed," Pelham agreed. "But how did it reach Mrs. Moncrieff?"
"Goodenough lost it while helping with the preparations for the tableaux, sir." And Pointer read a summary of the artist's words talked with the accused, arrested man on the subject. "Mrs. Moncrieff evidently was not quite sure of her ground," he went on. "She knew that Goodenough wasn't supposed to have been anywhere near the scene of the kidnapping, let alone anywhere in company with that young Moncrieff and Murphy, but she wasn't certain...I think she asked Goodenough about it, after telephoning to her husband, and that he gave her some sort of explanation which the Major would be sure to look into, given time. For which reason, since the kidnapping programme was already in full swing, both had to be put out of the way."
"Goodenough should have burnt it!" Pelham said.
"I think he kept it as an additional hold over Murphy, sir. Also, he wanted to get hold of the film. Murphy told him it was a lie, says Mrs. Mish, that he had the film. According to her, the film was destroyed by Murphy himself long ago in Greece."
"And Mr. Ayres thought he was gazing on a rural scene in Wales or Derbyshire. Do you think he's honest?"
"I do, sir. Though he's certainly not helped things forward in this case. But an honest blunderer is worse than a clever knave at times."
"Expensive hobby, kidnapping," murmured Pelham. "I doubt if it ever really pays. Overhead charges must be enormous."
"Ten thousand to the Mishes," Pointer said, "according to Mrs. Mish, but that included, of course, Mish's getting rid of Miss Bladeshaw. It was only five thousand before that."
"Who drugged the lemonade?"
"Goodenough, I think, sir. Just as I feel sure he splashed some whisky over the Major and over his own duplicate Sheikh's robes, to create the right atmosphere—literally. As for the lemonade, he had most at stake and would be the most concerned to see that all went as planned. We know that Mish met her in the studio with that yarn about Santley having been unexpectedly called away by the French art expert, and would she stay and wait for him. 'Meanwhile, what about a spot of lemonade?' We know, without her telling, that the place was baking hot, though she luckily didn't guess what the furnace was lit for." Pointer's lips pressed themselves together for a second. "She felt sleepy after a second glass, told the twins to go into the next room and play the game so thoughtfully provided by their good kind friend Mr. Mish, and then curled up herself in the corner of the chaise-longue for a rest."
"And woke up to find herself in hospital with every one looking delighted at her misery. The sicker the better! I hear she was distinctly peevish about it at first." Pelham laughed a little. "And the Don is out of it. Stiff chap. Nasty temper! You told me in the beginning, that next to him, you rather had your eye on Goodenough. Why Goodenough?"
"He sat, so he said, on the window-seat. Which meant that he would sit facing the Sheikh as he dashed to his room. The light would be full on any one coming along. Whereas Mr. Ayres was standing with his back to whoever rushed from the hall, and the light was poor there. He could easily be deceived. Also, Goodenough's character was in accordance with the qualities which the murderer had shown. He was clever. He had a ruthless jaw. He loved money. Altogether, he struck me from the first as the most likely to be a criminal of the household at Beechcroft. Only Miss Bruton and the Spaniard got in the light, so to speak, for a while."
"I wonder what Goodenough thought when that dog was poisoned," Pelham said thoughtfully.
"I think he guessed the truth—and with it solved the riddle as to whom it was that Mr. Santley had seen looking through the window watching the desperate hunt for that photograph. Goodenough was certain, I fancy, that he would find it among Mrs. Moncrieff's things, since it wasn't on the Major."
"Just as well for Lee that he did run away," Pelham said meaningly.
At the trial the murder in Greece was dropped, except for the assertion that it was a photograph showing Murphy and young Moncrieff eating an impromptu meal and Goodenough peering craftily from behind the hut, which was the reason for the murder of Lavinia and her husband. That old kidnapping plan had gone wrong; which was why Goodenough could not bear to hear it mentioned. But he did not intend to slip up on the kidnapping of the twins. To get the money out of "old Moncrieff," after all, would have been a double joy to him, apart from the size of the ransom which they intended to secure. Copies of letters which were still extant under files showed that, contrary to what Mr. Johnstone thought, Mr. Ayres was in the older Moncrieff's confidence, though pledged to inviolable secrecy. Mr. Ayres had most unfortunately lost one such letter when Goodenough had been under the same roof. The latter's astute, alligator brain had evidently seized on the hint and followed it up.
The Public Prosecutor did good work. The attempted murder of Ann Bladeshaw clinched matters. He got a conviction. Mrs. Phillimore lived only long enough to know the truth—that her terrors had been needless, that Lavinia had never been in any danger from her husband. But she died before the trial which would have told her that, by getting Goodenough to go down to Beechcroft, she was sending down her own child's murderer. They kept that from her. Goodenough was hung, Murphy got a term of penal servitude that satisfied even Pusey's feelings on the subject, and they were keen enough. Miss Bladeshaw was going out to New Zealand to his married sister to teach her children according to the latest ideas. But Pusey hoped to go out in the summer and see if by that time she would not have forgotten her experience with Goodenough. Goodenough, who had pretended first a knightly devotion to Lavinia Moncrieff, and then affection for the governess, so as to get to know the routine of the household perfectly.
"It was a clever conjuring trick of his," Pelham said as he and Pointer were having a last talk over the case before putting the papers away, "even to the painting of a purplish finger-nail on his hand; but owing to you, the trick didn't come off. You always did say that the regular performance would have been chosen unless something had hurried things up. Your time-table helped Sir Harold Mere immensely in proving that Goodenough couldn't have shown that photograph to the Major, let alone talked it over with him in the garage as he said he had. I have an idea that you weren't entirely surprised that Goodenough was the murderer; am I right?"
"Well, sir, my first idea was that it was an act of vengeance. Double vengeance. It looked like that, and the Don fitted in uncommonly well with that notion. Especially if one thought of Miss Bruton as having killed Mrs. Moncrieff. Once I had seen her that seemed impossible; still, it was only my own impression of her character that cleared her. Barring them, the most suspect person was, of course, whoever had sat in that window-seat."
Pelham pushed over a box of cigars, and looked an inquiry. "The two men in the corridor," Pointer explained, "would have the best chance of getting into the Major's room without arousing attention. They were both absent from the audience while Mrs. Moncrieff was butchered, with an absence that seemed innocent. Of the two, to get to Major Moncrieff's room, Mr. Ayres would have had to walk down a longish corridor facing the window-seat, on which according to his own evidence sat Mr. Goodenough, who has very sharp eyes. But he himself would have had to pass no one. The window was not in view from where Mr. Ayres was placed. Incidentally, I think, Mr. Ayres dozed off in a very comfortable chair placed in a bend of the passage."
"Probably," assented Pelham, who had met Mr. Ayres.
"Goodenough looked ruthless and selfish. Two necessary characteristics for a murderer. While Mr. Ayres has the kindest eyes I've ever seen. Then Don Plutarco...his way of taking his dog's disappearance was odd...believing, as I did, that he had an idea who the Sheikh had been—supposing he himself to be innocent, that is."
"Odd in what way?"
"He was clearly suspicious of one or both the men who had been lunching just then. He didn't pay any attention to the fact that Lee was missing. Did he connect one of the two men with another piece of foul play? Santley, we knew, could not have been in either murder, he was on view all the time. But again what about Goodenough? And the Don's manner to Goodenough bore out the notion. Watchful...resentful...silent. Then came the finding of that photograph, and again Goodenough's name turned up. Besides, of course, as Miss Bladeshaw's so-called lover jumping into first place, as soon as the twins seemed to be the focus of the new kidnapping scheme."
"Pusey?" queried Pelham.
"He only fitted there, sir, and with Mr. Holgate-Edwards' idea that the murders were linked with an effort to obtain the Moncrieff papers. He didn't touch the case at every point as did Goodenough." Pointer rose, his papers neatly banded together.
"The Conjuring Trick." Pelham read the name on the top sheet. "'That was distinctly not worth while' might be added," and with that, as far as those two were concerned, the case was finished.
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