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Title: Queen of Hearts Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1201711h.html Language: English Date first posted: February 2012 Date most recently updated: March 2012 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy. HTML version by Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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The younger of the two two men standing just outside the Royal enclosure at Ascot on that sunny Cup day heaved a sigh of relief as the more or less informal mannequin parade mingled with the well-dressed crowd and vanished. The other—tall and distinguished, with his silver hair and hawklike, aristocratic features, smiled just a little grimly as he caught the expression on his junior's face. His smile, though humorous and perhaps a trifle mocking, did not lack a certain austerity that hinted at stern determination of character behind the jauntiness of the mere man of the world.
"Yes," he said. "She is an amazingly pretty girl, but, if I were you, Tom, I would not think seriously about her."
Tom Gilchrist looked a little uneasy. There were times when his uncle, Sir Walter Vanguard, seemed to read his thoughts in an almost uncanny fashion.
"And why not?" he asked. "What is your prejudice against Maudie Vascombe? Dash it all, uncle, if she does get her living as a mannequin and serve in a milliner's shop, that is no disgrace these times, is it? And, anyway, she is a lady. And, what is more, I have known her and her brother Ian practically all my life. It was not so many years ago since the Vascombes were big people, before the smash came, and the war reduced them to poverty. But, of course, seeing that you have spent most of your life in China, you have probably forgotten that. Don't you think you are rather inclined to be old-fashioned? Everybody nowadays is in business of some sort or another. And I don't see any difference between a girl getting her living as a shop girl and hanging on to some of her aristocratic friends, waiting for a chance to sell herself to some rich man who probably started life in a marine store."
"I dare say there is something in what you say," Vanguard replied. "But that is not exactly the point, my boy. I know what hard work is, nobody more so. When I was a boy I could have hung about the old house and watched my father beggaring himself over horses and cards and selling the family estates by instalments, as he did, and found myself today a pauper. Instead of which, I went out to China, about the time most boys are leaving school, and made a fortune there by my own exertions. And that is why I am a rich man today and why you, the last of the race, and my dead sister's only son are enjoying a handsome allowance after ruffling it at Eton and Cambridge with the best of them. I dare say you will think this is no time for a moral lecture, but I think you owe me something. Tom—"
"Of course I do," Tom Gilchrist said warmly. "I owe you everything. And I am not ungrateful. But, dash it all, uncle, I don't want to marry Mona Catesby and might just as well say so sooner or later. Because that is what you are driving at, though why, goodness only knows."
"But, my dear boy, a little consideration would show you. Who bought the best part of our family property 20 years ago? Tell me that."
"Why, Mona's father, of course."
"Now happily dead," Sir Walter said, a trifle sardonically. "A self-made man of the worst type, but he had the money and the best part of land which has belonged to our family for 300 years. And, what is more to the point, he had a daughter, to whom he left everything. She is still single and so far as I know, unattached. And anybody can see with half an eye that she would be only too willing to throw her lot in with yours and, once that was done, the ambition of my life would be satisfied. I should like to live to see the Vanguard property back in the family again, though your name is Gilchrist. And you can't say she is not an attractive girl, and you can't say she is not a lady."
"Oh, attractive enough, if you like," Tom Gilchrist agreed. "But she doesn't come out of the top drawer. I don't care for those big girls, though I must admit that she carries it off very well. I can't see—"
Sir Walter turned away a little impatiently. There was a hard gleam in his eye and the humorous lines about the corners of his mouth had stiffened into something like cruelty.
"Well, we won't discuss it now," he said. "I didn't mean to bring it up at all yet, only you looked so infernally sentimental when those girls were passing that I felt impelled to speak. Come inside and we can watch the big race together."
"Presently," Tom said. "You go alone, uncle, and I will follow a little later."
Sir Walter passed in through the gates of the Royal Enclosure, whilst his nephew turned and pushed his way through the crowd. He came presently to the object of his search. She was standing quite alone, gazing about her with an interested air, for it was the first time she had ever been on the famous heath and she was enjoying the prospect to the full now that her rather trying ordeal was over.
A beautiful girl, slim and rather tall, with a certain haughty carriage of her head and a free movement of her slim limbs which spoke of perfect health. There was something about her that would have attracted attention anywhere. Even had Maudie Vascombe been dressed in rags, she would have stood out from her fellow women with a distinction that is more easily imagined than described. And now, beautifully dressed for the occasion in the last word of fashion, she stood there with a hundred curious eyes upon her. If she was aware of the fact, she did not show it, for she had all that savoir faire and serenity which is the hall mark of birth and breeding all the world over.
She turned with a brilliant, almost caressing smile as Tom Gilchrist murmured her name.
"Oh, you, is it?" she said. "I saw you just now with Sir Walter, though you may not know it."
"Did you?" Tom asked. "That is very sweet of you, Maudie. But what are you doing here all by yourself?"
"All my lovely companions have faded and gone, like the last rose of summer," the girl laughed. "As a matter of fact, I am looking for Ian. He is about somewhere, taking notes. You know what he is. A most forgetful boy, especially when he has his notebook in his hand."
Gilchrist smiled. He knew all about that. He was perfectly aware of the fact that Ian Vascombe made a fair and increasing living by dress designing—a rather ignoble profession for a man who had once been captain of the Eton cricket eleven, but then, in these strange times, the mere fact of getting a living at all is no mean achievement.
"Oh, never mind about Ian," Gilchrist said. "Have you had any lunch? No, I can see you haven't. I suppose Madame Ninette sent you and the rest down here without making any provision of that sort."
"We are supposed to take care of ourselves," Maudie smiled.
"Ah, yes, I thought so. Now, you come with me to the club tent, and I will give you a glass of champagne and a lobster salad or something like that."
"My dear Tom, are you actually proposing to entertain a mere mannequin in your exclusive club tent? You would never hear the last of it."
"I am not troubling about that," Tom said. "Besides half the women there get their own livings, don't they? And some of them not half as honestly as you do. Now, come along, don't be silly."
With that, Gilchrist led the way to the gaily decorated tent which, by this time, was half empty. He found seats for himself and his companion and, over a more or less elaborate lunch, proceeded to discuss certain intimate affairs.
"How long are we going on like this, Maudie?" he asked. "I simply hate to see you leading this sort of life. It is damnable to think of a girl, bred and born like you, going to shows like this, dressed up doll fashion for a lot of male and female cads to make remarks about. Why don't you marry me and have done with it?"
Just for a moment a soft look crept into the great grey eyes that were turned on the speaker.
"Now, my dear Tom, do be reasonable. How can I marry you? Oh, I am not saying I am not fond of you, but am I as fond as all that? I live fairly comfortably and with what I earn and Ian earns, we can afford to run the cosy little flat we have been living in for the last year or so. And now answer me one straight question. What are we going to live on? When you tell your uncle that you are going to marry a mannequin, what will he say, and, more to the point, what will he do?"
"Make the best of it," Tom said sanguinely.
"Oh no, he won't, my boy. He'll cut you off with a shilling. I don't say he hasn't been a good uncle to you up to now, but if you don't offer to marry Mona Catesby, then you will have to look to yourself. Oh, Tom, don't make it harder for me than you can help. Let's be happy whilst we have a chance. Of course I could listen to what you say and ruin your life, but you may be sure I shan't do that."
"Well, it's dashed hard," Gilchrist groaned.
"Of course it is," Maudie laughed. "And perhaps it is a good deal harder on me than it is on you."
Meanwhile, Sir Walter had returned to the sacred enclosure as if the subject recently under discussion had been settled once and for all. It was the first time that he had ever spoken freely to his sole surviving relative on the subject of the latter's future, and, from his point of view, there was no more to be said. Tom Gilchrist was entirely dependent upon him and he was not in the least likely to imperil his future and ruin his prospects for the sake of a romantic attachment to a girl who was no more than a mere shop assistant. Of course, Maudie Vascombe was a lady and all that sort of thing, but it was ridiculous to imagine that she could fly that little kite of hers to the detriment of a scheme which Sir Walter had had in his mind since the day, twenty years ago, when his only sister had died and he had made up his mind to see to the future of his nephew, for even in the midst of his activities in china, where he had remained for upwards of forty years without a break, there had always been one object uppermost in his mind.
And that object was the restoration of the family estate. A considerable portion of it had remained to him after his father's death, subject to heavy mortgages, and these he had gradually paid off, but the old family residence and the home park had been sacrificed to strangers, and, unless luck stood him in very good stead, they had gone for ever.
And then, a few years before had come the news that the new man, Catesby, was dead, leaving an only daughter to inherit the property that Sir Walter so coveted. And when he returned to England, he found that the girl was much more presentable than he had expected, that she was single and unattached and by no means averse to fall in with his scheme which had shaped in his mind directly he had discovered how the land lay.
It seemed to him to be an excellent plan and one, moreover, which he could bring about without any expense to himself. He was quite prepared to buy the old homestead, but if it came back into the family through a marriage between his nephew and the present owner, so much the better. It almost looked as if the whole thing were providential.
And when once Sir Walter made up his mind to a thing, he carried it through. In his way, he was a kindhearted, genial man, but a business one to his finger tips and not inclined to allow sentiment to stand between him and his ambitions. And now he had warned his heir and if Tom liked to defy him, then that foolish young man must take the consequences. He had spoken his mind and there was an end of it.
It was characteristic of the man that, once having come to this decision, he could turn aside to other and lighter things without giving it a second thought. He strode through the crowded enclosure in search of somebody he knew with a view, presently, to getting up to the top of the stand and watching the great race of the day, for it was nearly 3 o'clock and before long the numbers of the starters in the Gold Cup would go up on the board opposite.
It was just at that moment that Sir Walter came face to face with the one individual who had been recently uppermost in his thoughts. Here was Mona Catesby herself, beautifully dressed and strikingly handsome and alone.
"Oh, Sir Walter," she cried. "You are quite a godsend to me. I have been deserted by my party because I didn't want to go into that wretched paddock to see the horses. They are all very well when they are racing and you have a bet on, but otherwise I dislike the creatures extremely."
"Ah, the modern touch," Sir Walter laughed. "You, of course, prefer cars."
"Of course I do. Who wouldn't?"
"Oh, well, it is all a matter of taste. Now, if my ancestors had preferred cars to horses, if such a thing had been possible, you would never be in the happy possession of my ancestral home, and I should not have had the pleasure of being your faithful cavalier. Now, what do you say to coming to the top of the stand with me and watching the race?"
"Nothing would be more delightful," the girl said. "I suppose you have made all your bets?"
"I have made my modest one," Sir Walter explained. "You see, I have no use for gambling. And that is where I differ from those who preceded me. I have backed Comus for a modest five pound note and that is the extent of my wager. Just sufficient to have an interest in the race, you know."
"And I have got my money on The Palmer," Mona said. "Only I have gone a bit further than you have; in fact, I have a whole hundred on the horse. Disgraceful, isn't it?"
"Oh, well, a bet is a relative thing, after all. What's gambling with one person is merely a pastime with another. Now supposes we have a little bet on between us. I'll back my horse against yours—"
"For how much?" Mona asked eagerly.
"Oh, it need not be for money. Didn't you tell me a night or two ago that you were going to The Twin Arts Ball and that you couldn't think of a really original costume?"
"Fancy you remembering that!" Mona cried.
"So you are still undecided to your mind?" Sir Walter asked. "Very well, then. You bet me a dinner at the Carlton against an absolutely original design for your dress, the loser to pay. If you win, I supply you with a dress design that has never before appeared in public, and if I win, you shall stand me a dinner at the Carlton and give me the pleasure of your company. What do you think of that for a new—"
Sir Walter broke off abruptly as he caught sight of a man a few yards away who took off his grey top hat to Mona as he passed in the direction of the paddock. It was almost as if someone had struck Vanguard a blow.
"I am rather short-sighted," he said huskily. "But that man who saluted you strongly reminds me of an individual who some years ago, struck a note of tragedy in my life. I may be wrong, but would you mind telling me who he is?"
"Oh, that," Mona said with some surprise. "His name is Heek. I have met him once or twice lately. Not an Englishman. I think, in fact, it would be rather difficult to say what nationality he is. But everybody says he is enormously rich and within the last few months he has been seen everywhere. You know how those sort of people get taken up."
Sir Walter seemed to control himself with an effort.
"I may have been mistaken," he said, more quietly. "Come along to the top of the stand and watch the race."
It was a fine race for the Cup and, by a strange coincidence the two horses which were the subject of the wager between Sir Walter and his brilliant companion finished first and second. As they flashed past the post Mona turned to her companion with a smile of triumph.
"There you are, Sir Walter," she said. "What did I tell you? I knew that The Palmer would win, so I not only get my money, but your wonderful design as well. Do tell me what it is. I hope it is something oriental."
"That much I can promise you," Sir Walter said. "But I don't want to spoil your pleasure by telling you too much in advance. Who is your dressmaker?"
"Why, Ninette, of course," Mona said.
The sight of the dark, foreign-looking man who had bowed so politely to Mona Catesby had stirred up a whole train of unpleasant memories. For Sir Walter had not lived for the best of 40 years in the heart of China without coming face to face with more than one thrilling tragedy. And amongst these, outstanding like some nightmare, was one horror which, in all the passing years he had been unable to forget. Why, then, had that man who was obviously a stranger to him, brought the whole thing back so vividly to him.
"Very well, then. I will meet you at her establishment tomorrow morning at 12 o'clock and bring the design with me. I am not going to part with it because it is beyond price, but one of those bright young designers of Ninette's can make a sketch of it which will serve the same purpose."
The two drifted apart presently, and for the rest of the afternoon Sir Walter saw nothing of the girl whom he designed to play so important a part in his future plans. Truth to tell he was just a little ruffled in his his mind? And why had it happened at the very moment when he had just promised to give Mona Catesby that wonderful design? Because the design itself had practically been at the bottom of the whole ghastly business.
Sir Walter was still thinking it over when he reached his flat in Mayfair where, for the most part, he lived in bachelor state with one trusty servant to look after him. Once arrived there, he went into the library and locked the door behind him.
Then, from a safe in the corner, he took out of a carved ivory case a pack of playing cards.
They were not cards in the ordinary sense of the word, but each was etched on a sheet of the thinnest ivory. And each bore on the back a different design in amazing colours of gold and green and blue, in fact, a pack of cards which dated back the best part of three centuries. Amazingly beautiful they were, and the work of a great artist.
From these 53 lovely objects Sir Walter selected one particular card and placed it carefully away in his gold cigarette case. There was a grave look on his face as he did so, and his eyes were troubled.
"Foolish thing to do," he murmured. "Very foolish."
He gave one last glance at the card in his case.
It was the Queen of Hearts.
Although Tom Gilchrist was inclined to bemoan the fate which had overtaken the woman of his heart, Maudie Vascombe's circumstances were not anything like as bad as the infatuated young man was inclined to make out. She had, of course, been born to better things and there had been a time when she and her brother had lived in the lap of luxury. But that was before the War, followed by a series of disastrous speculations, had reduced the head of the family to poverty and broken his heart. For though the elder Vascombe had been in business he was a member of a good old family, and his children had ruffled it with the best of them. It was, perhaps, fortunate that the crash came at a time when Ian Vascombe and his sister were old enough to realise their responsibilities. There was absolutely nothing saved out of the wreck, which meant that they were flung entirely on their own resources.
And Ian Vascombe, that young athletic god so highly appreciated in sporting circles, had not wasted his time in importuning his rich friends for some nominal occupation, but had turned his one talent to account. He had a flair for water colour painting and designing, so that almost from the start he had begun to make a living. Certain drawings of his in connexion with the latest production had brought him under the notice of a famous manager.
"These are devilish good, laddie," the great man had said. "You go on as you started and there is a jolly good living waiting for you. But if you take my advice, you will stick to the commercial side of Art. There will be plenty of time for big work later on. Meanwhile, I can give you a commission or two if you like to undertake it."
Which Ian had done gratefully. And then it occurred to him that if he could design theatrical costumes, it might be possible to do equally well in woman's sphere. So, with one of two original designs, he had boldly called on the famous modiste, Ninette, in her Bond Street establishment and shown her his work. And she, being an artist as well as a business woman, had recognised something like genius in her own line, so that henceforward Ian knew that he had a comfortable living waiting for him at the end of his brush.
And, meanwhile, Maude had not been idle. There was not an atom of snobbishness in her nature, she had not the least desire to become a city typist at two pounds a week, or seek uncongenial secretarial work. She was naturally conscious of her own amazing physical charms, and her perfect manner and carriage did the rest.
"Why shouldn't I help, Ian?" she had asked. "You are making ten or twelve pounds a week and you are going to do better. But that is no reason why I should live upon you, and I am not going to. Besides, you may take it into your head to marry some of these days and then where should I be? Certainly not a burden on your establishment."
"What's the idea?" Ian had asked.
"Why shouldn't I go into Ninette's shop. I am certain she would give me a job if I offered myself."
"Not a doubt about that," Ian agreed. "Why you'd be the most beautiful mannequin in London."
And so it had come about. Because Ninette was something more than a clever business woman who was rapidly making a fortune. She was an artist to her finger tips and loved her work for its own sake. And when Maudie presented herself in all the freshness of her young beauty the highly strung and excitable Frenchwoman did not hesitate.
"Ma cherie," she said. "You are the assistant I 'ave been looking for all these years. Ze ideal figure, ze ideal face. I will give you more zan any other assistant in Bond Street, and you shall have a commission as well. Is zat a bargain? Yes, no. It is zat you agree?"
"I should jolly well think so," Maudie said.
And with that the bargain was completed. It was one that Maudie had had no cause to regret, save when she was in company with Tom Gilchrist who never ceased to mourn the fact that the girl of his heart had so far demeaned herself.
"But I have done nothing of the sort," Maudie pointed out. "I am getting an honest living in an honest way and, what is more, I am paying my share in the upkeep of this flat. If I didn't, Ian would never be able to afford his studio at the top of these buildings. Oh, don't be silly, Tom. If I were secretary to some member of Parliament or a governess or something dreadful of that sort you wouldn't mind in the least. And anyway, what business is it of yours?"
Gilchrist muttered something in reply. He was seated in the sitting room of the flat in Trinity Buildings on the evening of the Ascot Cup day, where he had come after dinner to try and induce Maudie to accompany him to some show. He had taken advantage of Ian's absence in the studio at the top of the block of flats where he was doing business with some customer to air the special grievance which Maudie was beginning to resent. He did not know how much the girl really cared for him, and she had been careful enough to disguise the full extent of her feelings with regard to himself.
"Well," Tom protested. "When you are going to marry a girl—I mean—oh, I dash it, you know what I mean."
"Yes, I dare say I do. But you listen to me, my boy. Let us be practical for a moment or two, and don't think me hard, Tom dear, because I am not. But I haven't forgotten those two bitter years that followed after Dad died. Two years of suffering and degradation and something like starvation in horrible lodgings in a mean street. That is a lesson I am not likely to forget. And if Ian had not been the man he is, heaven knows what might have become of us."
"Yes, but that is all over now," Tom pointed out. "You've got this nice little place here, and Ian getting on like anything. And yet you choose to sell your beauty in a fashion, and prance about in a Bond Street shop showing off fashions to a lot of women who are not fit to black your boots. And they treat you like dirt. Oh, I know they do. Of course, it is all petty, stupid jealously, but don't tell me you don't feel it."
"Not now," Maudie confessed. "I did at first, but what does it matter? I don't see any difference between myself and a popular actress, except that I don't get a quarter of her money. And suppose I gave up my job to oblige you. What then, I should like to know?"
Gilchrist flushed uncomfortably.
"I don't quite follow," he stammered.
"Oh, yes you do. How much better off should we be? I should be sponging on my brother for a living, which I should simply hate to do, and you, well, let's be plain, you couldn't marry me, Tom. You know what would happen if you did. You are absolutely dependent on your uncle for every penny you get, and if you told Sir Walter tomorrow that you were marrying Maudie Vascombe he would cut you off with the proverbial shilling. Oh, you need not shake your head, you know he would. He is a dear old man and he can be very charming when he likes, but he is as obstinate as the devil. He has already told me in as many words that he intends you to marry Mona Catesby. He won't die happily until he sees the estates back in the family through you. And all your talking and arguing won't make the slightest difference. I dare say you think you are the most unhappy of men, but you have a deal to be thankful for. Let sleeping dogs lie Tom, and make the best of it."
Before Gilchrist could respond, the door of the sitting room opened and Ian Vascombe came in. He was not alone, for with him came a tall, dark man, slant-eyed and bearded, with the suggestion of the Slav or Tartar about him. He was a man of more than middle age who carried his years easily and addressed himself to Maudie with an easy assurance which bespoke the thorough man of the world.
"Ah, Miss Vascombe," he said, in an accent that was almost, but not quite purely English. "How are you this evening? I do not come to intrude. But I have business with your brother which is now settled. He is a very clever artist, and there was a Japanese picture of mine that I wanted him to restore. And he has done the work very nicely indeed."
"This is Mr. Mortimer Heek," Ian exclaimed to Gilchrist. "He is a wealthy collector of Japanese water colours. You know the sort of things they paint on tissue paper. And Mr. Heek has honoured me by placing one or two in my hands for restoration. It is rather delicate work—"
"And my young friend has done it to perfection," the man called Heek replied.
"I have done my best," Ian said modestly. "But I think that the picture I have in Bond Street where the light is better than in the studio upstairs will please you still more, Mr. Heek. Any time you like to come round to Madame Ninette's, I shall be only too happy to show you how I am getting on with that particular picture. There is one bit of foreground about which I am rather doubtful, and I should hate to spoil it."
"Is that so?" Heek asked eagerly. "Then I come round to the establishment you speak of tomorrow morning and we will study the picture together. Good night, Miss Vascombe."
With that, the stranger bowed himself out and was seen no more. Gilchrist turned inquiringly to Ian.
"Rather a queer fish, isn't he?" he asked.
"Well, he is a bit of a mystery," Ian agreed. "But he seems too have any amount of money and he goes everywhere and if he pays me well, it is no business of mine."
Despite his dreams and ambitions as to the future of his family estates, Sir Walter Vanguard was in the habit of spending very little time on what remained of the ancient property. To begin with, the historic old house now belonged to Mona Catesby and the fact was a constant pang to Sir Walter, like some aching tooth. So, for the most part, he lived in London in a flat in Royal Mansions, where he was looked after by an excellent service and a personal attendant named Withers, who was nearly as old as himself and who had attended him in most of his Chinese wanderings.
As a matter of fact, though he belonged to a very old and distinguished family, the title that Sir Walter bore was not hereditary, but merely a knighthood carrying certain letters which had been bestowed upon him by a grateful Government for distinguished services in China. He had not been attached to any particular office or mission but, nevertheless, he had served his country well and, in the meantime, had amassed a considerable fortune. He was an authority on Chinese matters and, indeed, some years before, a book of his, called 'China—the Menace,' had attracted a great deal of attention.
But that was all forgotten now, and when Sir Walter was approached on the subject, he was wont to say that it was next door to impossible to obtain a copy of his famous book unless, perchance, a collector might happen upon an odd volume in one of the twopenny boxes in Charing Cross Road.
On the whole, Sir Walter was a fine specimen of an English gentleman, wonderfully well preserved and active for his sixty years and as keen on the enjoyments of life as ever, despite his 40 years of exile. To most people he was a pattern of geniality and kindly humour, generous to a fault, and tolerant of the weaknesses of others.
But there was another side to his nature which he kept carefully to himself. A dogged determination in pursuit of any object he thought worth while, an iron will and a fixity of purpose that could not be deflected whatever happened. And so far as the future was concerned, the particular object of the moment was to see his only relative married to Mona Catesby and so crown the work of a lifetime.
And there was no reason, so far as Sir Walter could see, why Tom Gilchrist should object to such an admirable arrangement. True, Miss Catesby was the daughter of a rather unspeakable father, but he was dead now, and he had made his money early enough in life to enable his only child to benefit by all the advantages that one usually associates with birth. She had been brought up in the best schools and taken in hand at an early age by a society chaperone who had initiated her into all the mysteries of the higher cult.
To all practical purposes, Mona Catesby belonged by birth and right to the set in which she mixed, she had brains and ambition and was capable of taking her place anywhere. Besides this she was strikingly handsome in a bold Rubenesque style and certainly did not lack her train of admirers. There were many young scions of nobility, to say nothing of older men, literally born to the purple, who would have been only too glad to have had the chance which was held out so openly to Tom Gilchrist.
That the girl cared more for Tom than all the rest of her admirers put together was a fact that even a child of ordinary intelligence could see. And Sir Walter ground his still excellent teeth and shut his lips grimly as he watched this golden opportunity being frittered away.
But he was not going to stand it much longer, he told himself, and before the end of the week he was going to speak pretty plainly to the wrong headed young man who was making a sublime a fool of himself over a pretty mannequin. He would let Tom know that the time for this sort of thing was past, and if he ventured to kick over the traces, then, in the future, he would look to himself. He was brought up to do nothing, he was utterly useless outside sport and such ephemeral pleasures as holiday resorts afforded. And Sir Walter could not see his misguided heir getting the barest of bare livings.
This thought was uppermost in Sir Walter's mind when he set out on the morning following the Ascot Cup day to beep his appointment with Mona Catesby in Bond Street. It was just a little singular that when he reached Madame Ninette's establishment he should find his nephew in the front shop.
"What on earth are you doing here?" he asked irritably.
"Oh, well, I might ask you the same question," Tom said. "As a matter of fact, I came here to see Ian Vascombe. He has a workshop upstairs you know, and though Madame Ninette employs him, he is free to come and go pretty well as he likes. I dropped in here to ask him if he would care for a game of golf this afternoon."
The excuse was good enough, and Sir Walter allowed it to pass. But he did not believe it, all the same, especially as he could see Maudie Vascombe in the background showing off an elaborate evening cloak to a lady customer. Sir Walter was about to say something not particularly pleasant when a big car pulled up in front of the shop and Mona Catesby, in all the full flush of her Junoesque beauty came sailing into the establishment.
"Ah, you are punctual, Sir Walter," she said. "I hope I am not late. Where is Madame Ninette?"
It was sot so much a question as a command. From somewhere in the background the tall, graceful French woman appeared. She was as thin as a knife and as slender as a lath, but there was no mistaking the artistic fire that burnt in her big brown eyes. She advanced, rubbing her hands together.
"What can I do for Madame?" she asked.
"It is rather a question of what you can do for me," Sir Walter interrupted.
"You see, Madame Ninette, I had a bet with Miss Catesby yesterday and I lost. It is up to me now to provide Miss Catesby with an absolutely original design for a new dress which she is going to wear at the Twin Arts Ball. And you, Madame, are going to make it."
"Oh, charming, charming, it would be as exquisite delight," Madame murmured. "And the design, Sir Walter?"
By way of reply, Vanguard took the big gold cigarette case from his pocket. From it he produced the thin, ivory card on which was painted the Queen of Hearts. He laid this on the glass counter and Madame pounced on it with a cry of delight.
"It is exquisite, unique," she murmured. "And the colouring! Surely Sir Walter, there is nothing like in the world today? And ze back, it it almost more lovely zan ze front. Oriental at its best."
"Perfectly right," Sir Walter smiled. "That card forms part of a pack which was designed and painted in China over three hundred years ago. It was made for an Emperor of the Ming dynasty and, according to tradition, it took three generations of artists to paint and finish the fifty-two cards."
"And there is nothing like it in the world?" Madame murmured.
"Well; yes, there is one other set which belongs to an American millionaire and yet another which is not complete. Where the incomplete pack is I don't know, but I can give a pretty shrewd guess. But mine is complete and this is the Queen of Hearts. What do you think of it?"
"Ah, Sir Walter, I 'ardly know what to think," Madame cried. "Never 'ave I seen anything approaching it before. It will be a rare happiness to copy that and make a dress on those lines for Miss Catesby. I have, I think, the very material to suit. One moment, and I will fetch it."
A minute later, and Madame Ninette returned with a length of some shining material over her arm. She laid it out on the counter under Mona Catesby's admiring eyes. Then the latter turned and beckoned imperiously to Maudie, who was watching the proceedings in the background.
"Come this way, young woman," she said haughtily. "Take that material and drape it round your shoulders. No, not that way you stupid creature, across from right to left. Yes, that is better. You can go now."
Very demurely, Maudie retired into the background, whilst the hot blood flamed into Tom Gilchrist's face. The insult was so gratuitous, so pointed, that the young man could hardly restrain himself from bursting into speech.
Madame Ninette looked up at Sir Walter.
"You will leave this card with me, yes," she asked.
"Oh, dear, no," Vanguard responded. "I cannot trust that out of my possession. You must get one of your designers to come down with his paintbox and make a sketch of it. It won't take him many minutes. But I can't part with it."
Madame Ninette took the whistle from a speaking tube and called out to someone overhead. A moment later Ian Vascombe came into the shop with a sheet of paper and a box of water colours. And then, for the next ten minutes, he was busily engaged in what he considered a hopeless attempt to reproduce the amazing colours of that wonderful card.
So intent was that little group in watching that none of them noticed the intrusion of a tall, dark man with brilliant eyes and a black beard. He stood just behind the group with his gaze fixed with almost magnetic force on the card lying there on the centre of a glass counter. Then, without a word or a sign, he tiptoed away into the street.
It was the man called Heek.
"Yes, that was it," he murmured to himself. "Now I know. Well, look to yourself, Vanguard, look to yourself."
It took an hour's successful golf in favourable circumstances to bring Tom Gilchrist back to his customary good humour and even then he could not help an allusion to the unfortunate happenings of the morning in which Mona Catesby had played so offensive a part.
"Oh, what does it matter?" Ian Vascombe laughed. "Besides, it comes to the same thing in the long run."
"Oh, does it?" Tom scoffed. "If you think I am going to marry the girl to please my uncle or anybody else, you are mistaken. Nothing would induce me to. I am going to see my uncle tonight and have it out with him."
"Better be careful," Ian suggested. "You don't want to find yourself out in the cold with nothing to do."
Gilchrist nodded grimly.
"You leave that to me," he said. "When the old man sees I have made up my mind he may change his."
But, as matters turned out, the anticipated interview failed to materialise. When, at length, Gilchrist got back to his rooms he found his uncle's faithful servant awaiting him. It transpired that Sir Walter had been spending the afternoon at a public display of the dansant where he had contrived to slip on the polished floor and damage his ankle.
"No, nothing serious, sir," Withers explained. "Only Sir Walter will have to lie up for a day or two."
"He won't like that," Tom grinned.
"No, sir, certainly not, sir. He told me to come round here and ask you if you would call at the flat about half-past eight tonight for a game of bridge. He has a friend coming and wants you to bring someone with you."
"Yes, tell Sir Walter I will come," Tom said. "Say I will be there at the time and that I will ask Mr. Vascombe to come along as well. I am sorry to hear what you have to say, but I suppose it is only a matter of a day or two?"
With that Withers departed, and Tom proceeded to ring up Ian Vascombe on the telephone. In a few minutes the matter was arranged and, after an early dinner, the two young men strolled as far as Royal Mansions where they found the semi-invalid eagerly awaiting them.
"It is a most confounded nuisance," Sir Walter said. "No, there isn't much the matter. The doctor says if I rest my foot I shall be able to get out by the end of the week. It is very good of you youngsters to come round here tonight and amuse an old man, and I am grateful."
"Oh, that's all right, sir," Vascombe said. "I am rather keen on bridge myself and one does not often get a chance of a game with a player of your calibre."
"Who is our fourth, uncle?" Tom asked.
"Oh, a man named Lechmere. You don't know him, but he is one of the best players in London. Now, then, Tom, get the table out and make the room comfortable. I think Withers has seen to our creature comforts. Yes, apparently everything is on the side board and you will find a couple of packs of new cards in the top drawer of the secretaire. We shall have to wait upon ourselves, but you won't mind that."
"Where is the ever faithful Withers?" Tom asked.
"Oh, it's Withers night out," Sir Walter explained. "He offered to stay in, but I have discovered that he was going to some theatrical entertainment with a friend of his, so I told him he need not trouble about me. I can manage to hobble as far as my bedroom and look after myself."
"Yes, but who lets Withers in?"
"Why, himself, of course. He has his own latchkey and I have mine. And, in case of accidents, there is a spare one hanging up in the hatstand in the hall. When we are not using our keys we always hang them up there."
"Then you don't lock the front door?"
"Very rarely. When Withers is off duty he comes and goes as he likes, and there are occasions when I am pretty late myself. The latch is a patent one, something after the Vale style, so I don't have to worry about burglars."
Gilchrist proceeded to put out the table and the cards when the telephone bell rang. At a sign from Sir Walter, Tom took the receiver off the hook.
"I am very sorry, uncle," he said at length. "But that is your friend Lechmere. He says he has been unexpectedly detained at the very last moment and can't possibly get here tonight. Is there anybody I can ring up?"
"What an infernal nuisance," Sir Walter cried. "I can't think of anybody for the moment."
"May I make a suggestion?" Vascombe asked. "I know a man who would be only too pleased to come. I believe he is an excellent player, though I have never sat down with him."
"Oh, that will do, anybody will do," Sir Walter cried. "What is the name at your friend? Do I know him?"
"I don't think so. I only know him through business. He is called Mortimer Heek."
"Oh, it doesn't matter his name or who he is as long as he fills the gap. If you happen to know his telephone number, ring him up. If you don't, go and fetch him."
A quarter of an hour later Vascombe returned to the flat with the rather mysterious-looking individual who was known to his acquaintances as Mortimer Heek. He came into the room, calm and self-possessed and bowed gravely to his host. In the strong light of the electrics Sir Walter studied the features of his guest. Then his bland, friendly expression changed for an instant and he seemed on the verge of an outbreak. Then, as quickly, his mood altered and he was expressing himself politely enough to the newcomer.
"Very kind of you to come to our aid like this," he said. "And I am greatly obliged to you. Will you kindly sit down, Mr. Heek? Now, let us cut for partners."
They proceeded to cut in the usual way and, for the next hour or two, the game proceeded without much conversation between the players. They were all keen enough on the cards and sufficiently interested in the science of bridge to ask for nothing in the way of social amenities. Then, at the end of a second hour, when a rubber had finished, Gilchrist rose to his feet and walked to the sideboard.
"I think we are forgetting our obligations, uncle," he said. "I suggest that before we cut for a new rubber we will have a whisky and soda apiece. Mr. Heek, may I?"
"Not for me, if you please," the man called Heek said gravely. "I never drink. But if I may be permitted, I will take another of these excellent cigarettes of Sir Walters."
"Shall I mix for you, uncle," Gilchrist asked.
Sir Walter shook his head.
"Oh, well, if you don't mind me having one myself, and I am sure you are ready, Ian. Say when."
They sat down again with the tumblers placed on the corners of the table. A few hands had been played before, in reaching for one of the packs of cards which it was his turn to shuffle, Sir Walter overturned one of the glasses of amber fluid so that it spread over the table, deluging the best part of the pack he was gathering together in a liquid stream.
"How infernally clumsy of me," Sir Walter cried. "And what an infernal nuisance. I am afraid we shan't be able to use that pack again and I haven't another one in the house. Mop up the table, Tom, and I will see what can be done."
With that, he gathered up the sodden cards and pitched them in a heap on the floor. In his slow, observant way, Mortimer Heek watched the proceedings.
"You have no other cards, Sir Walter?" he asked.
"Haven't I just said so," Sir Walter said a little irritably. "When I play bridge I like to use fresh cards every evening and Withers either destroys or otherwise gets rids of them, afterwards. I suppose we can try and manage with one pack, but it will be most infernally awkward."
"Are you sure you have no others?" Heek asked.
"Well, no," Sir Walter said. "Yes, by Gad, I have. Not that I am particularly anxious to have them used but, in the circumstances, I see no alternative."
"Oh, I suppose you mean that wonderful pack of yours," Tom cried. "You know the one I mean Ian. You saw the Queen of Hearts this morning."
"By Jove, I should think I did," Ian cried. "A most wonderful pack of cards, Heek. Made and designed in China three hundred years ago. The loveliest work, painted on ivory. I never saw anything like it."
Heek combed his beard with his long slim fingers.
"Is that so," he said gravely. "It will be a great privilege and pleasure to see those cards."
Sir Walter took a little key from his watch-chain and handed it to Gilchrist. Tom took the key as directed and opened a drawer in the secretaire from which he produced the carved ivory box in which the precious cards were hidden. Then they were thrown on the table, and, after being duly admired by Heek were used in the game as if nothing had happened. It seemed almost a sacrilege to put such works of art to so common a usage, but, in the circumstances, there was nothing else to be done and, so long as Sir Walter was agreeable it was not for anybody else to demur.
And so the game went on with varying fortunes till the clock was pointing towards the hour of twelve and then, once more, the telephone bell rang.
Tom jumped up end took off the receiver. Then he turned to the direction of the stranger.
"I don't know who it is, Mr. Heek," he said, "but somebody wants you. It is a man who is speaking and he seems to be in rather a hurry. Shall I hold on?"
Heek rose slowly and moved towards the telephone. He listened gravely for a minute or two before replacing the receiver. He turned apologenically to his host.
"I am very sorry," he said, "but I fear much that I will have to go. It is a relative of mine who is leaving England tomorrow and he says he must see me tonight, however late it is. I suggest we finish this present rubber and then I shall have to ask you to excuse me."
There was no help for it, so, when the rubber came to an end and the settlement of the account was affected Heek rose in his quiet, grave way and bowed to his host. It was a little strange, perhaps, that neither man made the slightest attempt to extend a hand to the other.
"Good night, Sir Walter," Heek said, "and thank you for a very pleasant experience."
"Oh, well, if you are going," Ian said, "I might just as well say good night, too. What about you, Tom?"
"Oh, I think I will stay a bit," Tom said. "I didn't hear Withers come in, so I'd better remain and give my uncle a hand. Good night, old chap, good night."
A minute or two later and uncle and nephew were alone together. Sir Walter sat as if deep in thought by the side of the card table, whilst Tom gathered up the one undamaged pack and threw the other into the fireplace. In a mechanical sort of way Sir Walter took the wonderful collection of painted ivory slips in his hand and slowly laid them out on the table in a row in suits. They lay there presently, four lines of them, fifty two in all, from the aces up to the kings in a dazzling flash of colour that seemed to fill the room with a light and beauty that was all its own.
"They are a wonderful lot," Tom said. "I never saw anything like them. I suppose there was a time when some Chinese swell or another used them regularly. But if those cards belonged to me, nothing in the world would induce me to put them down on a bridge table."
"You are quite right, my boy," Sir Walter said. "There are only two complete packs like that in the world. I happen to know there is another, but in that set there is one card missing and that one card will never be recovered. Three packs were made by the same family, and they are identical in every detail. They don't vary by the fraction of an inch, and the design is so perfect that you could super-impose one card upon another and never know the difference. But never mind about the cards for a moment. Leave them where they are. I'll manage to put them away before you go and Withers will clean up the rest when he comes in."
"Then you don't want me to help you to bed?"
"No, I can manage that presently. Now you sit down in that chair and take a cigarette and listen to me. My boy, the time has come when we must have an understanding. And that understanding might just as well be arrived at now as at any other time. You know my life-story as well as I know it myself. You know that my father gambled away one of the finest estates in the kingdom and that when I was turned out of my home to get my own living he was on the verge of ruin. Well, he was ruined. He had to sell the best part of the property and the house, and between my lawyers and myself we managed to save the rest. It was the object of my life to make money enough to come home some day and re- purchase Vanguards. And I made enough and more than enough. And my idea was that when I was dead that you should take my place as head of the family and live in the old homestead as a gentleman should, with more money than you wanted even in these hard times."
"Yes, I know that," Tom murmured.
"Very well, then. When a man has worked as I have to achieve an end, he is not disposed to relinquish it because someone whom he intends to benefit greatly chooses to stand in the way for no particular reason. Of course, it was just possible that Catesby might leave some sons behind him, but fortunately for me he didn't. There was only one child, and that a girl, and equally fortunately that girl is quite willing to marry you if you will only hold up your little finger.
"But, unfortunately, I don't want to marry her," Tom said stubbornly. "She may be rich and all that, but she is no lady. You know that as well as I do. You saw that for yourself this morning in Madame Ninette's shop. Good heavens, uncle, you are not asking me to marry a woman who goes out of her way deliberately to insult a girl like Maudie Vascombe. The idea is preposterous."
The hot blood mounted to Sir Walter's face.
"And all the more so," he said, "because Maud Vascombe is the girl you want to marry yourself. Mind you, I haven't a word to say against her. She is all you think she is, and I admire the way she has buckled to and got her own living. But that has nothing to do with the case. I want to see the property back in the hands of the family, and you are the only one who can help me to crown my ambitions. Nobody will be able to say that you married Mona for her money because you will have plenty of your own. Now—is it to be or not?"
"I am very sorry, sir," Tom said. "But I am afraid not. No man with any self-respect could live with a woman like that. I would rather go out and starve."
"Oh, you would, would you?" Sir Walter sneered. "Was there ever such a fool born in the universe before? You would sacrifice everything for a pretty girl who serves behind a counter. And she wouldn't marry you unless you could keep her. How do you propose to do that?"
"Oh, I daresay I shall find a way," Tom said. "I am not ungrateful to you for all you have done for me, sir, and I would do anything in reason for you. But sell my liberty and freedom to a woman I hate and despise I will not!"
Sir Walter dragged himself painfully to his feet. His face was white and set, and his eyes were gleaming with fury. He seemed to lose entire control of himself, for he reached suddenly forward and with all his strength struck Tom Gilchrist a blow between the eyes. It was so severe and unexpected that Tom fairly staggered back.
"I think you will be sorry for that, sir," he said. "In a case like this violence never does any good."
But Sir Walter was past listening. He raised his hands above his head and shouted at the top of his voice:
"You are an ungrateful scoundrel," he raged. "You can go and never let me see your face again. From hence-forward we are strangers and until you know what it means to starve and crawl back to me on your hands and knees I want no further communication with you. You—you rascal."
Once more Sir Walter lunged forward, but this time Tom beat the upraised hand and forced Sir Walter back into his chair. The quick, heavy breathing of the two men filled the room until, at length, Tom sprung back and vanished, closing the door behind him. The whole thing had been so quick and so unexpected that it all might have happened in a dream.
"Well, that was that," Tom told himself, as he walked along the deserted streets in the direction of his lodgings. He had burnt all his boats now, and there was no possible way of retreat. Beyond the remains of his last quarter's allowance he was entirely without means, but, he reflected, he had little or no debts to pay, and he was in the best of health. Surely there was some way for a man of his position of getting a living. If the worst came to the worst, he could emigrate and, perhaps, after the expiration of a year or two he might be justified in asking Maudie to come out and join him. But, for the present, the bottom of his universe had fallen out and the future was very black indeed.
Perhaps he had not been altogether blameless. He had allowed himself to be rushed at a moment when Sir Walter was at his worst, instead of temporising and playing for time as he ought to have done. He took these melancholy thoughts to bed with him and lay awake half the night trying in vain to sleep and rising eventually a good hour or so before his time, feeling more worn and exhausted than he had ever remembered. He looked with disgust at his breakfast and pushed the appetising dishes aside. A cup of coffee and a cigarette was all he wanted for the moment—that and time to think.
He was still brooding over the future when the door of his sitting room was flung open and the usually self-restrained and reserved Withers burst into the room. He did not appear to be fully dressed, for he was without a tie or a collar and his waistcoat was partly unbuttoned.
"Why, what on earth is wrong?" Tom demanded. "What do you mean by turning up like this, Withers?"
"It's the master, sir, the master." Withers gasped, as if he had some difficulty in getting the words out. "Dead. Lying dead in his sitting room when I went in just now."
"Dead!" Tom echoed. "My uncle dead!"
Withers grasped at his throat. He might have been trying to wrench the words out of himself.
"Yes, sir," he choked. "But worse than that. My poor dear master has been brutally murdered!"
Gilchrist looked into the rugged face of the faithful Withers with an expression of horror in his eyes. Just for the moment, he could hardly grasp the full force of the tragedy. It seemed almost incredible that such a thing could have happened to a man who had apparently, not an enemy in the world.
"Impossible, Withers," he murmured. "Impossible. Don't say murdered."
"I am afraid I must, sir," Withers almost whined. "I found him lying in the sitting room, face downwards and a wound between the shoulders that must have reached the heart. Oh it is perfectly true, sir. So I came round here as fast as I could to tell you all about it."
"Yes, but did you leave anybody behind in the flat? Did you telephone for the police?"
"No, I didn't, sir," Withers confessed. "I didn't know what to do or think. It was just as if somebody had struck me a blow in the face and stunned me. So when I come to myself I came around here, just as I am, without a hat, to tell you what had happened. You must come back with me, sir, to the flat and take charge. I hardly know what I am doing."
"Oh, pull yourself together, man," Gilchrist said almost impatiently. "The whole thing is horrible to the last degree, but that is no reason why we should behave like two children. Try and tell me all about it."
"Well, it's like this, sir," Withers said with chattering teeth. "I came in late last night and went straight to bed, as I always do on my night out. Sir Walter always allowed me to do that and never wanted me to be on duty after I had come in from my evening's pleasure."
"Yes, but what has that to do with it?"
"I must tell my story in my own way, sir, else I shall get all mixed up," Withers said. "I came in not long before twelve, or it might have been sooner, and I went straight to my room. You hadn't left, then, sir."
"No, I suppose not," Tom remarked. "Did you happen to hear my uncle and myself talking?"
Gilchrist asked the question, because he saw that Withers eyes were fixed with a rather startled expression on his face. Then he remembered the bruise on his cheek caused by the blow from his uncle's fist and the blackening of his right eye. The knowledge strangely irritated him.
"What the devil are you staring at?" he demanded.
"Beg pardon, sir," Withers said humbly. "But I was looking at your face. You see I happened—"
"Oh, never mind about that," Tom interrupted. "You probably heard more last night than you cared to confess. As it happens I had a violent quarrel with my uncle and he struck me. It is no business of yours, Withers, but, in the circumstances, I am bound to tell you."
"I didn't hear no blow struck, sir," Withers said, as if the words had been dragged from him. "But I did hear a lot of violent language as I was passing on the way to my room. But I didn't take much notice of that because Sir Walter was given that way sometimes."
"Well, we will put that on one side for a few minutes," Tom said. "Do get on with your story."
"Well, sir, I went to bed and, slept. And I slept too long. When I woke up it was long past eight and I knew master would be waiting for his morning tea. So I just slipped on some clothes and went into the sitting room to tidy up a bit before I telephoned to the restaurant in the basement for the tea and bread and butter. It was dark in the sitting-room because, as you know, sir, we have heavy curtains over the windows. And when I pulled them back I saw my poor master lying on the floor, face downwards, in a pool of blood. Then I suppose I lost my head for I don't recollect anything else till I found myself on your doorstep. Won't you come back with me, sir?"
"Well, for the moment, I think I had better not," Tom suggested. "You should never have come here at all. You ought to have rung up the police without a moment's delay, and then communicated with me afterwards."
"Perhaps so, sir," Withers admitted. "But it is rather a pity as things have turned out that you were quarrelling—"
Withers' voice trailed away into a broken whisper, as he had been afraid to say any more. But there was a certain significance in what he said that was not lost upon Gilchrist.
"Oh, yes, I understand," the latter said. "I am afraid it is going to be rather awkward for me. But, of course, that dispute of ours was a mere coincidence. Now, you go back to the flat as fast as you can and call up the police. Tell them, if you like, that I was there last night and presumably that I was the last man who ever saw my uncle alive. There is nothing to be gained by concealment. Off you go."
Withers went off on his uncongenial errand and a quarter of an hour later found himself confronted by a Scotland Yard official in the person of Inspector Winch. He told his story as coherently as possible, whilst the policeman took in his surroundings with a comprehensive grasp.
"You say you were out till late in the evening, and that you let yourself in with your latchkey and went to bed without seeing your employer?" the inspector asked. "What was going on in this room? I mean was Sir Walter entertaining friends or was he quite alone?"
"Entertaining friends," Withers replied. "Playing bridge with his nephew, Mr. Tom Gilchrist and Mr. Ian Vascombe, together with another gentleman, whose name I don't know."
"They were still playing when you got back?"
"I don't think so, sir, because I heard my master and Mr. Tom discussing a private matter which they would not have spoken of before strangers. Besides, they were having high words."
The inspector pricked up his ears.
"Oh, a quarrel, eh? Then I take it that they must have been alone. You went straight to bed without waiting for any further orders, and found your master lying on the carpet there when you got up this morning. But who tidied this room? If they were playing bridge, I suppose they were smoking and probably had a drink or two as well. Where are the ash trays and the decanters, and all that sort of thing?"
"Oh, I put those all away. After I telephoned you this morning I thought I might just as well tidy up the room, so I took my master's pet pack of cards and put them away in their case. They are in the secretaire over yonder. I put them there, because it was open and the key in the lock."
"Well, we need not trouble about the cards," the Inspector said testily. "But you have done an exceeding foolish thing, Withers. You ought not to have touched a single thing in the room—not even a bit of cigar ash on the floor. You ought to have telephoned for me at once and waited till I came. Goodness knows what sort of a clue you might have destroyed. Now, tell me, when you came downstairs this morning was the front door open? I mean, was it unlocked?"
Withers explained that the door never was locked. There was a special latch on the door, one key of which he possessed himself, the second being carried by Sir Walter, and a third kept on the nail in the hall in case of emergencies. He was quite sure that when he came down the outer door had not been bolted or chained. The inspector seemed to think that this was rather an important point, and that it indicated some unknown person who possessed the means of entering the flat by way of a fourth key. Otherwise it was impossible for the murderer to have entered unless by some unfortunate chance the front door might have been left unlatched on the previous evening. And there was another 'unless' which brought a frown to the inspector's face as it occurred to him.
"Now let us get to another point," he said. "You say that Sir Walter and his nephew were quarrelling last night. Was it a very violent altercation?"
"Well, it was pretty hot, sir," Withers admitted. "Something about a lady as far as I could make out."
"Very likely," the Inspector said drily. "Am I to take it that Sir Walter and his nephew are on pretty good terms?"
"Well, they were and they weren't, in a manner of speaking," Withers replied. "At least not lately. You see, I have been in Sir Walter's service for the last thirty years and I am pretty well in his confidence. He told me lots of things he would not tell anybody else. I knew that, for family reasons, he wanted Mr. Tom to marry a young lady, whilst Mr. Tom, he was set on another. And that has been the cause of a good deal of friction in the last month or two."
"Oh, there has, has there? Am I to understand that Sir Walter regarded Mr. Gilchrist as his heir."
"That's right, sir. So far as I know, Mr. Tom was the only relation my poor master had. The son of his dead sister. Brought him up and educated him, he did."
"In which case I take it that Mr. Gilchrist was entirely dependent upon his uncle's good nature."
"I think I might go as far as to say that, sir. I know that Mr. Tom did nothing and that Sir Walter made him a very handsome allowance."
"Then I suppose that as he paid the piper he liked to call the tune? In other words, he was the kind of autocratic gentleman who might cut his heir off with a shilling if the latter was foolish enough to defy him. Yes, I can see by your expression that he was. Now, you go to the telephone and tell Mr Gilchrist that I want to see him immediately."
The summons on the telephone was precisely what Tom had expected, so he lost no time in getting round to Royal Mansions, where he found Inspector Winch awaiting him.
"I think you can give me a bit of information, Mr. Gilchrist," the policeman said. "Your late uncle's servant, Withers, has no doubt acquainted you with the story of his master's death."
"That is so," Tom said quietly.
"Very well then. He has also told me that you were the last person to see Sir Walter alive. That is, of course, excluding the man who committed the crime. I will be quite frank with you, Mr. Gilchrist. After the card party broke up here last night you were alone with your uncle. Is that so?"
"There is no object in denying it," Tom said. "I was alone with my uncle till nearly 12 o'clock. I left hurriedly, closing the front door behind me."
"You are quite sure that you did close it?"
"Certainly. I was extremely angry and indignant, and I banged the door behind me in a manner that could not leave any doubt as to its being properly closed."
"You were angry because of the violent quarrel you had with your uncle. You came to blows, I see!"
"Well, that is hardly the right way of putting it," Tom suggested. "I suppose you gather that from the bruise on my cheek and the black eye. My uncle did strike me, but there was no retaliation on my side. He would have struck me again, only I held him down in his chair. Then, because I feared further strife, I left the room abruptly and made my way home."
"And the cause of your quarrel?"
"Ah, that I would rather not discuss," Tom said. "I don't want that made public if I can help it. You may take it from me that I owe everything in life to my uncle, but when it comes to a question of interfering in a man's matrimonial affairs then it is time to draw the line."
"Which means you refuse to tell me."
"That is what it comes to," Tom replied. "Besides, in any case, what does it matter? Suppose the names of two ladies were dragged into this ghastly business. How could that possibly help you to get on the track of the criminal? I have admitted freely that after the card party broke up last night I had a bitter quarrel with my uncle and that he told me to leave his presence and never show my face to him again. To all practical purposes, I took him at his word and that, so far as I am concerned is the end of the matter."
"Possibly," the inspector said drily. "But am I to understand that you were entirely dependent upon Sir Walter for your living? I mean, but for him you have no means of support. He has been keeping you ever since you left school and you have not been trained for any work or profession. Moreover, you are the only survivor of the murdered man. This means, of course, that you inherit all his property. Don't you see, Mr. Gilchrist, that you are in an invidious position."
"I am fully alive to all that," Tom said. "In fact, I recognised its significance as soon as I knew that my uncle was dead. I can only repeat that I am telling you the truth. This has been a great shock to me, and I am profoundly grieved over it, but my hands are clean, thank God."
"I am not saying otherwise," the inspector said. "Anyhow, it is a point we can leave for the present. What I want you to tell me now is who were the other two gentlemen playing cards in this room last night."
"Well, a friend of mine named Ian Vascombe, and a stranger who, I believe, is called Mortimer Heek. I don't know anything about Mr. Heek, but as the original fourth fell out at the last moment, my friend Vascombe, who does business with Mr. Heek, went round and fetched him to make up the table."
"Heek, Heek!" the inspector frowned. "I seem to know that name. Oh, yes. He is a foreign gentleman who has not been in England so very long. A big man with a black beard and very dark, rather oriental eyes. Very rich, I understand, and entertains a great deal on a lavish scale."
"That is the man," Tom said indifferently. "You seem to know much more about him than I do."
Winch asked a few more questions and then intimated that he need not detain Tom any longer.
"There will be an inquest, of course," he said. "Probably tomorrow morning at the Borough Rooms. You will get a summons to attend, but, of course—however, we won't go into that."
Naturally enough, the tragic death of so popular a society figure as Sir Walter Vanguard caused a profound sensation. The evening papers were full of it, and hardly anything else was talked about in certain circles. The Press had got hold of a good deal of information in that mysterious way peculiar to the fourth estate and, consequently, Tom Gilchrist's name figured largely in the countless columns which were poured out by the evening newspapers. So that half London was led to believe, more or less indirectly that Gilchrist knew much more about the ghastly business than he cared to confess.
Later on in the evening, Tom read some of this in the solitude of his rooms and smiled bitterly to himself at what was, at best, a libel on his character. Nor was he rendered happier presently, by the appearance of a policeman who served upon him a summons to attend the inquest the next morning in the Borough Hall. Well, he would go, of course, and tell them all he knew. He had nothing to disguise and nothing to hide, though he told himself grimly that wild horses would not drag from him any details concerning the quarrel between himself and his uncle. There was no occasion for anything of the sort, not sort of reason why the public curiosity should be gratified at any rate, at the expense of Maudie Vascombe.
He was still turning it over in his mind when the door of his sitting- room opened and Maudie, accompanied by her brother, Ian, burst impetuously into the room.
"What's all this vile talk about?" Maudie demanded, as she shook a copy of an evening paper in her hand. "My dear boy, we have been waiting all the evening for you to come round and see us. It must be horrible for you to be sitting here all by yourself brooding over that ghastly tragedy. And, of course, you had nothing to do with it. Tom, if you stood up before me now and told me that you had killed your uncle, I wouldn't believe you. The idea is unthinkable."
"Then we won't think about it," Tom said forlornly. "Look here, Maudie, it is awfully good of you and Ian to come round here like this, and I am not ungrateful. But if you think I am going to tell the Coroner, or anybody else what the quarrel was about, you are greatly mistaken."
"Just as if I didn't know," Maudie said, with a look in her eyes that set Tom's pulses leaping. "Just as if I didn't know that I was the cause of all the trouble. Your uncle was insisting upon your marrying that dreadful Catesby girl, and you refused. Now, isn't that right, Tom?"
"Well, that is about what it amounted to," Tom confessed. "And because I would not hear of it and I would not hear of you being abused, the poor old man lost his temper and struck me. With that, I cleared out of the room lest worse should happen. But, unfortunately, Withers, who happened to come in late, heard most of the quarrel, and that places me in a most awkward position. I have been interviewed by Inspector Winch this morning, but I don't think he got much change out of me. I have to appear at this inquest tomorrow at the Borough Hall—"
"Oh, have you?" Maudie cried. "Then I shall come, too. And Ian will be with me, of course."
"You bet I will," Ian said heartily.
"I would rather you stayed away," Tom murmured.
"I am not going to do anything of the sort. What is the good of having friends if they don't stick to a man in time of trouble? I don't care what you say, Tom—I am coming to the inquest. No power on earth shall keep me away."
True to her promise. Maudie appeared in the crowded hall on the following morning. She contrived to make her way across the floor to the place where Tom was seated and smiled into his eyes as she clasped his hand warmly. Then she sat quietly enough whilst Withers gave his evidence which he did with a hesitation that did not impress the Coroner any too favourably. It seemed to him, and, indeed, to the spectators generally, that Withers was hiding something though, indeed, he was only doing his muddled best to make things as easy as possible for Tom Gilchrist. By the time that he was ordered to stand down he had contrived to convince most people in that court that Tom Gilchrist knew a great deal more about the tragedy than was apparent on the face of it.
Then, after Inspector Winch had told his brief story, there was a pause for a moment or two whilst the Coroner shuffled the papers to front of him and looked round the Court.
"Who is the next witness?" he asked.
"He will be Mr. Thomas Gilchrist, sir," the Inspector said. "That is, in your discretion."
The coroner looked over his spectacles at Tom.
"Are you legally represented?" he asked.
"Why, no, sir," Gilchrist stammered in some surprise.
"Ah, well, that is a pity. At any rate, you need not answer any questions bearing upon your side of the case unless you like. It is just as well that I should warn you."
"I am greatly obliged to you, sir," Tom said gravely. "But I have nothing whatever to conceal."
Unobserved by the rest, Maudie slipped her hand into that of Tom and smiled up into his face with a glance that there was no mistaking. It was an expression he had hoped to see there many times before, and now he knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that all Maudie's worldly wisdom had been no more than a shield between herself and her affection for him. He stepped forward to give his evidence with his head high and an assurance that two people at least, believed in his innocence.
So far the police had not taken a hand in the proceedings. They were quite content, for the present, to leave it to the Coroner. Later on, perhaps, the law would have its say, but, for the moment, it was a matter of formalities.
"Now, Mr. Gilchrist," the Coroner said, "will you kindly tell us exactly what happened between the time when you reached your uncle's flat and the moment when you left."
Very simply and plainly Tom told his story.
"Then I am to understand," the Coroner suggested, "that the bridge party broke up prematurely—that is, one of the players was called away by telephone and left hurriedly?"
"That is so, sir," Tom said. "Mr. Heek was called away, and when he left, my friend, Mr. Ian Vascombe, accompanied him."
"And you remained behind, I suppose?"
"I did, sir. It was my uncle's suggestion."
"Presumably, he had something private to say to you?"
"That is quite correct. He wanted to speak to me about my future. As a matter of fact, what he had to say concerned the future of both of us. My uncle was very anxious that the old family property should be consolidated. In, other words, he wanted to see the house in which the Vanguards had lived for generations in their possession."
"Which means, of course, that he regarded you as his natural successor and the heir to his fortune. May I take it that Sir Walter was an extremely rich man?"
"That is the general presumption," Tom said. "I have always been led to believe that he was very wealthy indeed. And I have always been told that some day or another everything he had would come to me."
"Quite so," the Coroner murmured. "Am I justified in saying that you were dependent upon him for your living?"
"Absolutely," Tom replied. "He took me under his protection when I was quite a child. He paid for my education both at school and college. I should like to have taken up some profession, but he would not hear of it. He preferred to make me a very handsome allowance, saying that there was no occasion for me to work, because, some day, I should be rich."
"Quite so," the Coroner murmured. "Quite so. Then if you quarrelled, and he turned you adrift, you would face the world absolutely penniless?"
"That is correct," Tom said.
"In which case it behoved you to be careful. Now, was there any disagreement on the night of your uncle's death?"
'"May I be allowed to explain, sir?" Tom asked.
"Take your time," the Coroner said. "Tell me your own story in your own words and omit nothing."
Whereupon, Tom told the story of the quarrel, evidence of which he still carried on his face. But though the Coroner questioned him keenly as to the real cause of the dispute, the witness was stubborn and silent on the point.
"With due respect, sir," he said, "I don't think it matters at all. My uncle made certain suggestions to me which I could not accept. What those suggestions were I decline to say, not because I have anything to be ashamed of, but because I decline to bring the names of other people into a tragedy which does not in the least concern them and which might breed a deal of very unpleasant gossip. When I refused to listen to what my uncle had to say, he lost his temper and struck me and, a minute or two later, I was in the street."
"Just as you please," the Coroner said. "You are perfectly justified in declining to say anything which might in any way incriminate you, and if the police have nothing further to say in the matter, you may sit down."
Inspector Winch shook his head and, for the time being, at any rate, Tom's ordeal was over. His place was taken by the police surgeon who had viewed the body and made a professional examination on the cause of death.
"The deceased died from what I should judge to be a dagger thrust between his shoulders," the professional witness said. "He had evidently fallen from his chair and must have expired instantly, for the weapon had penetrated the heart and had been in the hands of some powerful person."
"What sort of a weapon?" the Coroner asked.
"Well, that I can hardly say, sir. Inspector Winch tells me that no weapon was discovered, but I should say that it was a dagger of some kind and not an ordinary one either, for the wound was deep and jagged as if inflicted by a blade of some wavy nature. That is, not straight, but serpentine, much after the fashion of a Malay Kriss. If you know what I mean, sir."
"I know perfectly well what you mean," the Coroner said. "I have seen weapons in museums and private collections. You think death must have been instantaneous."
"I have not the slightest doubt of it," the doctor replied.
There was a good deal more to the like effect, and then, after a hurried consultation with Inspector Winch and the Coroner the proceedings were adjourned for a week. The spectators faded away and presently Tom found himself in the street with Maudie walking quietly by his side.
"Where are you going now?" she asked.
"Oh, what does it matter where I go?" Tom asked bitterly. "I know perfectly well that if I try to leave London the police will stop me and if I remain here I can't go to any of the usual haunts with this cloud hanging over my head."
"Precisely," Maudie smiled. "And that is why you are coming back to the flat to have lunch with Ian and myself. I have begged the day off from Bond Street so that I am entirely at your disposal. Come along."
Gilchrist was only too glad and only too grateful. He found himself, presently, seated in the familiar sitting room of the cosy little flat and listening to the soothing words that came from Maudie's lips. They were still talking when Ian entered the sitting-room with the man, Heek, close behind him.
The latter glanced in Tom's direction and a thin smile crossed his dark, inscrutable face.
"Ah, Mr. Gilchrist," he said. "This is a very sad business. And you have all my sympathy. I am very sorry indeed for what has happened, and all the more so because I feel that in some way I am responsible."
"But that is absurd," Tom protested. "It had nothing to do with you. You were only there by accident."
"Very likely, but if I had not been called away, we might have gone on with our game and all have left the flat together. I cannot say how sorry I am."
Tom murmured something appropriate and a moment or two later Heek made his adieux and left the flat.
"Where did you pick that man up, Ian?" Tom asked. "His manners are all right and I suppose he is as rich as people say, but there is something about him I don't like. Have you any idea what nationality he is?"
"Not the slightest," Ian said carelessly. "Some sort of Russian or Slav, I suppose, with a dash of the oriental. When I asked him if he had bought those Japanese paintings, that I am touching up for him, in China he gave me a very emphatic no. Anyway, he is a good customer and I have done very well out of him during the last two or three months. He comes here entirely on business and so long as those are the terms between us I am not curious about the rest."
"Well, I don't like him," Tom said.
"I don't know why, but there is something about him that repels me. What do you think, Maudie. Woman's instinct is rarely wrong."
"He always strikes me as being slimy," Maudie declared. "But as he takes practically no notice of me I have no cause for complaint. But I wish he wouldn't come here quite so often."
"Well, you are never here in the daytime," Ian pointed out. "Heek comes and goes exactly as he likes and looks upon my studio upstairs almost as part of his own establishment. But what is all this talk leading to?"
"Oh, well, it doesn't matter," Tom said. "I have got quite enough on my mind without worrying about mysterious foreigners. I suppose you realise, Ian, that I am in a very tight place."
"Oh, tight place be hanged," Ian cried.
"But I am," Tom persisted. "Don't you see that the police strongly suspect that I had a hand in my uncle's death, that there was a quarrel overheard by Withers, and my own statement that we had a violent disagreement in which a blow was struck. And, if that isn't bad enough, there is the fact that I have been entirely dependent upon my uncle for a living and at his mercy if I do anything of which he does not approve. Worse than all, the poor old chap was a rich man and, in ordinary circumstances, everything comes to me. I should be very much surprised if during the next few days I don't find myself inside a gaol."
"Oh, don't be horrid," Maudie said with a shiver. "Now, sit down and let me get you some lunch; just as if anybody who knew you could regard you as capable of such a crime!"
It was on the eve of the adjourned inquest and Tom Gilchrist was sitting alone in his solitary lodgings waiting for his dinner when the servant came in with the evening paper. Tom picked it up languidly and without much interest until, on the centre page, his eyes caught a flaming headline at the top of a paragraph connected with the Vanguard murder.
Apparently, the police had found a clue, and an important one at that. Following up a careful search of the room where the tragedy had taken place, it had occurred to a zealous officer to get outside one of the sitting room windows and examine the leads immediately below. And there, jammed down a gutter they had come upon a Malay kriss, still stained with blood which had congealed on the blade. How the weapon had got there was a mystery, but, according to the writer of the paragraph, the police had little doubt that this was the instrument with which the murder had been committed. It was further hinted in the paragraph that sensational details were expected to follow within the next few days.
There was no more but it was quite sufficient to fill the Coroner's Court to suffocation on the following morning indeed. Tom had great difficulty in finding a seat at all. He sat there deeply interested, whilst Inspector Winch rose to make what was destined to be a most sensational statement.
"I dare say you have seen the papers, sir?" he asked the Coroner. "I have very little doubt that we have found the weapon with which the murder was committed. It was discovered in the gutter on the leads outside Sir Walter Vanguard's sitting room window. On it is a quantity of congealed blood. This fact we have ascertained by analysis. I produce the weapon."
With that, the Inspector handed up the sinister blade with its serpentine twists, and the Coroner and jury made a close examination of the gruesome thing.
"Very significant, Inspector," the Coroner said. "But it does not seem to lead us very much further."
"I think it will, sir," Winch replied. "Because I am going to prove the ownership."
A thrill ran round the Court at these quietly uttered words and many an eye was turned in Gilchrist's direction.
"You have a witness then?" the Coroner asked.
"I have more than one," the Inspector said. "Will you ask the usher to call Mr. Isadore Kohn, of the Variety Circle Theatres. He is, I believe, somewhere in Court."
There stepped out a little, glossy man of unmistakably Semitic origin, who took the oath, and, with the examination of Inspector Winch, proceeded to give some startling evidence.
"I am the manager of a theatrical syndicate," he said. "We have many theatres in different parts of the country. We send out a lot of companies with long plays and short sketches, and, from time to time, we have to employ artists who design costumes for us. One of the artists I have employed for this purposes is a painter who is known as Ian Vascombe."
Tom started back as if someone had struck him a blow between the eyes. It seemed almost like a nightmare to find Ian mixed up in this amazing and complicated business. Then he forced himself back to follow the evidence of the witness.
"I wanted some Moorish or Arab costumes," the little Jew went on. "And one of them had to be a figure that was armed with a dagger. It is for a sort of Sheik play or Sketch on what you call the Grand Guignol pattern. Everything turned upon the dagger which, of necessity, had to be of a particularly original type. So when I told Mr. Vascombe this, he produced what he called a Malay Kriss and asked me if that would do. I looked at it for a moment and I said that it would do to perfection. So it was in the original sketch for the design placed in the belt of the Sheik and the drawing handed over to me with the others."
"But not the original dagger?" Winch asked.
"No, no, there was no occasion for that. It was enough for us that I had the design, because the dagger could be reproduced in wood. You see, there is danger in using real weapons on the stage, and wood was quite sufficient for our purpose."
"But what does this tend to prove?" the Coroner asked.
"Just one moment, if you please, sir," Winch said. "Mr. Kohn, you take that weapon in your hand, will you? Is it anything like the one that Mr. Vascombe showed you?"
"It is absolutely the same," the witness said softly. "I recognise it by the missing Jewel that ought to be on the top of the shaft, also, because some of the gold wire, round the handle is no longer there. Yes, it is the same dagger that Mr. Vascombe showed me in his studio."
"That you swear," the inspector asked.
"That I swear," the witness said emphatically.
There was no disguising the tense, electrical atmosphere in the hall, though the majority of those present were still bewildered by a development in the problem which left them all guessing. To begin with, they had not the slightest idea who Ian Vascombe was, beyond the fact that he had been present at the fatal bridge party and that he was an intimate friend of the man who was already strongly suspected of the murder of Sir Walter Vanguard. It was just possible, perhaps, that there were two criminals in the ghastly business and that they were overhearing the first developments of a conspiracy to put an innocent man to death. The one person in the hall who appeared to be taking no interest in the proceedings was Tom Gilchrist himself. He was too utterly bewildered to think. Perhaps presently he would be able to collect his scattered senses, but, for the moment, he sat like a man in a dream.
Meanwhile the witness was going on with his evidence.
"When I read the statement in the evening paper last night," he said, "I went straight to Scotland Yard and told them what I am now telling the Court. It is not for me to say whether my evidence is valuable or not, but that is for Inspector Winch to judge. I am here because I was sent for."
"That is perfectly correct," the Inspector said. "I caused a subpoena to be served on the witness very late last night and another on a fresh witness this morning. For the moment I do not wish Mr. Kohn to be asked any further questions, and, with your permission, sir, I will call my second witness, who will tell you certain things. Ian Vascombe."
The nightmare feeling descended on Tom Gilchrist again and he almost doubted the evidence of his own senses as he saw Ian enter the witness box. The latter was pale and agitated and the nervous twitching of his fingers showed the tension to which he was being subjected. He flashed just one mute look in Tom's direction and then averted his face. He bent down and kissed the Book before he confronted Inspector Winch.
"You are an artist and your name is Ian Vascombe?" the latter asked. "You are a designer of costumes."
"That is perfectly correct," Ian submitted. "I design costumes both for the theatrical profession and for certain ladies' establishments besides."
"You were in Court and heard what the last witness had to say, I presume? Do you agree with his statements?"
"Certainly," Ian said. "I did do those designs for him and I believe that they were copied, so far as the sheik's dagger was concerned, from the weapon in Court."
"Are we to understand it is your weapon?"
The witness hesitated for quite a long time.
"No," he said. "It belonged to a friend of mine. I borrowed it from his lodgings a few months ago, because the design struck me as being rather unique and I thought I would make a little sketch of it with a view to further designs and then I put it on one side—at least, I thought I threw it on one side, but I must have forgotten the fact that I had returned it to its owner, because, a week or two ago, when I wanted to use it again, it was not to be found amongst the odds and ends in my studio, which confirms me in my impression that I returned it to the man from whom I borrowed it."
"And who was the man you borrowed it from?"
"It was my friend, Gilchrist, who lent it to me."
The words were quietly uttered, but they seemed to ring through the room like a clarion call. It was very much as if Tom Gilchrist had risen up from his seat and proclaimed himself to be guilty. But he sat there like some graven image looking blankly into space before him.
He did not seem to realise that the proceedings had suddenly come to an end. He never heard Inspector Winch ask for a week's adjournment and not until he came to appreciate the fact that he was practically alone in the hall with a few policemen around him did he sense his absolute peril. He rose to go, but Winch laid a detaining hand on his arm.
"One moment, if you please," the officer said. "You heard the evidence just now, you heard what Mr. Kohn said and Mr. Vascombe's statement. I don't want you to incriminate yourself, but if you like to deny that that dagger belongs to you—"
"I—I don't," Tom whispered. "I am not in a position to say that it is not my property."
"Then say no more," the Inspector warned. "Not another word, if you please, Mr. Gilchrist. But please regard this as a warning. You are not to leave your lodgings, you are not even to take your car as far as your golf course without giving notice to the police. Do you understand?"
Tom nodded mechanically.
"Oh, I understand," he said hoarsely.
Tom Gilchrist was destined to remember those next two or three days until the end of his life. There were other hours more fraught with peril to follow, but, before then, the keen edge was taken off his mental sufferings, so that he was more able to bear them. But after the dramatic disclosures at the inquest, it seemed to him that he was utterly alone in the world and that everybody was disposed to regard him as an outcast and a criminal. There were some who greeted him cheerfully enough but others who seemed uneasy and embarrassed and yet a few who passed him with their heads averted as if they deemed him already beyond the pale. He could not go near his clubs, he could not appear openly before the world, he could only wait with what patience he could for the police to make the next move.
And that they would make a move he did not doubt for a moment. It was poor consolation to him that the coroner's jury at the final hearing had brought in a verdict of wilful murder by some person or persons unknown, because that meant precisely nothing. The jury very prudently had thrown the onus back on the shoulders of the police, so that whatever conclusion the jury came to, it could not possibly fetter the actions of those in charge at Scotland Yard. So, therefore, there was nothing for Tom to do but to wait until that dread moment when Inspector Winch, or one of his subordinates, came along and arrested him in the name of the law. He would, almost, have welcomed that summons, for the tension was getting almost more than he could bear. Moreover, he had refused, so far, to call in a lawyer or barrister to his aid. He would have to do that sooner or later; but meanwhile, he preferred to remain alone in his rooms until the next step was taken.
It was getting towards the end of the week in which the coroner's jury had finished their deliberations, and just as evening was beginning to close in there came a knock on the sitting room door and Maudie entered.
Without the slightest hesitation, she went up to Tom and placed her hands on his shoulders.
"Why are you behaving like this, my dear boy?" she said. "Why haven't you been to see us? Why didn't you reply to the note I sent you? Upon my word, you don't deserve to have friends. Do you imagine that Ian and myself—"
"Oh, I know. I know, but why should I drag you into this wretched business. And you ought not to have come here alone like this. Where is Ian?"
"Oh, he is not far off," Maudie said. "He will be here in a few minutes. But I wanted to speak to you first, so I came on in advance. You wouldn't come to us, therefore you oblige us to look you up. Tom, you are behaving very stupidly."
"Perhaps I am," Gilchrist admitted, "but you must make allowances for a man in my position. Just try and realise what a chain fate is weaving about me. I don't suppose there are a dozen people in London who regard me as being innocent of my uncle's death. And I don't blame them. If I were a disinterested outsider I should probably think the same thing."
"But it isn't true, Tom, it isn't true. Nothing would ever convince Ian and myself that you were guilty of that atrocious act. Oh, I know that the evidence is all against you, I know that you stand in peril of your life. But nothing will be gained by sitting down with your hands folded. Now, listen, Tom. You are very fond of me, are you not?"
"Fond of you!" Gilchrist said huskily. "Why, you know I worship the very ground you tread on. That is a moth-eaten old cliche, but you know what I mean. There is nothing I would not do for you, Maudie, and it is because I am so fond of you that I feel my position all the more keenly."
Maudie looked up into his face with something more than affection gleaming in her eyes.
"And because I am so fond of you," she said, "your sufferings are mine. I want you to understand that, Tom. There must not be any more misunderstandings between us. It was all very well for me to talk as I did when you were entirely dependent upon your uncle, and I had my living to get, but that is all past and done with now. You are my man, Tom, and there never was any other. And because I think you owe me a good deal, you must listen to reason. You must have a solicitor to represent you, and later on, one of the best criminal barristers at the Bar. You see the necessity, don't you?"
"I see the necessity all right," Tom said. "But where is the money coming from? I have practically nothing when I have paid my few debts, and there is very little in these rooms that I could turn into cash. And I don't suppose anybody would lend me anything on a reversion of my uncle's property."
"Oh, don't joke in that grim way," Maudie implored. "The money will be all right. Never mind where it is coming from, but it will be there when it is wanted. Now, kiss me, Tom, and then we can sit down, and discuss the matter."
A few moments later Ian Vascombe came into the room and then the conference began in earnest.
"Now let us look at this this from all sides," Ian said. "Let us regard it as if we were talking of an impersonal matter. To begin with, here is a man who is suspected of murdering a relative for two reasons. First of all, because he has had a violent quarrel with an individual to whom he owed everything which, in itself, looks very suspicious, and all the more so because the suspected person benefits to such an extent by the death of the man with whom he has quarrelled. Moreover, he is entirely dependent upon the dead man. And if that is not bad enough, we trace beyond the shadow of a doubt the weapon with which the crime was committed to the suspected individual. Of course, I am speaking about that peculiar dagger. How on earth the real murderer managed to get hold of that I cannot understand. Do you suppose he got into this room and stole it?"
"He might have done so if it had been in this room," Tom said. "But, as a matter of fact, it wasn't. Because you had it. Surely you have not forgotten that?"
"Of course I have not forgotten it, my dear chap. Neither have I forgotten that I gave it you back again."
"Gave it me back again?" Tom echoed.
"Of course I did. I borrowed it when Kohn came to me became it was exactly what I wanted to complete that sheik design. I wish to Heaven I had never asked you at all. However, it is no use talking about that now. But you had it back."
"Indeed, I did not," Tom protested.
"Let me try and refresh your memory," Ian said patiently. "You came round to our flat one evening and I remembered that I had not restored your weapon. I went upstairs to the studio and brought it down and laid it on the dining-room table."
"Yes, I remember that," Tom agreed. "You did lay it on the dining-room table. But I did not take it with me when I left because we started talking and I forgot it."
"Then what became of it? Where did it get to?"
Maudie jumped from her seat and gave a little cry.
"Oh, dear, oh, dear," she said. "How very dreadful. You are both right and both wrong. I remember the occasion very well. You went out with Tom, Ian, and the knife was forgotten. I saw it lying on the table, an ugly-looking thing without a sheath, the mere sight of which was repugnant to me. So I carried it upstairs again to the studio and placed it on a shelf there. I cannot think how I could have forgotten it. At any rate, Tom didn't have it back."
"Well, that is a consolation, anyway," Ian said. "But, my dear old girl, who is going to believe you when you tell that story. Practicably everybody who knows us is aware of the fact that you two are more or less engaged, and you may be pretty sure that counsel representing the Crown in a prosecution will drag that fact out of you when you come to give evidence."
"She mustn't give evidence," Tom exclaimed.
"Oh, yes, she must," Ian retorted. "First of all, it is her duty to do so in the face of what she had just told us, and in the second place, if we don't call her as a witness, the Crown will. And don't forget Withers's evidence. He heard the quarrel between you and your uncle and he knows that it was connected with Maudie and the Catesby girl. It doesn't matter how unwilling he is to speak on that point, because counsel for the Crown will drag it out of him. And the more reluctantly he gives his evidence, the worse will be the impression in your favour, Tom."
"But I shall be speaking the truth," Maudie cried. "I am not in the least afraid to face any counsel. Do you suppose I mind admitting in the open court that Tom is the only man I ever loved, and that I am doing my best to save his life? What, then, should I have to fear?"
"It isn't what you have to fear, old thing, as what the judge and jury will think of your evidence," Ian pointed out. "They will naturally assume that you are perjuring yourself to save the man you love. And I can't help you, because I shall have to say that I was honestly under the impression that Tom had got his dagger back. Oh, let us look facts in the face, Maudie. Don't you think that after all this time your story will sound very thin? Don't forget that I have already testified that Tom had his dagger back. But we are arguing in a circle. You must have a lawyer Tom, and I have got the very man for you."
"Very well," Tom said dully. "It is all the same to me. I will go and see your man if you like."
"And I will come with you. His name to Parkhurst, and he has offices in Lincoln's Inn Fields. He is about the best man in London for this sort of work. I'll call for you tomorrow morning about 11 o'clock, and we will see him together."
The famous criminal lawyer received his visitors the following morning and listened carefully to all that Tom Gilchrist had to say. It was a pretty lengthy statement and, at the end of it, the lawyer nodded gravely.
"It seems a very complicated case," he said. "But there are certain points which are not unfavourable. Of course, Miss Vascombe's evidence will be regarded with a certain amount of suspicion, that is, unless we can get someone to substantiate what she says. Speaking on the spur of the moment, what I most fear is that the jury would regard Miss Vascombe's evidence on the subject of the dagger as sheer perjury. Assuming that, my client, Mr. Gilchrist, is correct, he did not have the dagger back again, and, therefore, it was returned to the studio. Let us assume for the moment that it was returned to the studio, and I am rather inclined to believe, myself, that it was. Who had access to the place?"
"Well, nobody, as far as I know," Vascombe explained. "It is never tidied, and no servant ever goes near it, and I don't suppose my sister enters the room once a month. Of course, I have had one of two of my artist friends in there from time to time, but always in my company. I can't see any of them taking away the dagger, all the more so because it is not an antique, and is of no special value."
"Where did you get it from, Mr. Gilchrist?" Parkhurst asked.
"Well, as a matter of fact, I picked it up in Mespot during the last year of the war," Tom replied. "It was after we had had a dust-up with an irregular tribe and I presume some native must have dropped it. At any rate, I picked it up and brought it home as a souvenir. Not that I attach any particular value to it, and if I had known it was going to cause all this mischief I would have seen the thing damned before I touched it."
"Well, we need not dwell upon the point. Let us assume for a moment that Miss Vascombe's evidence is true. If that is so, then somebody who had a hatred of Sir Walter Vanguard found a means of stealing that dagger and killing him with it. It sounds to me rather like the clever plot to get hold of a weapon belonging to Mr. Gilchrist so as to throw suspicion on him. More than that, I am inclined to think that the murderer, after despatching his victim, coolly got outside the window of Sir Walter's sitting room and placed the weapon where it was found, knowing pretty well that the police would stumble upon it sooner or later. At least, that is the theory that occurs to me on the spur of the moment. Now, Mr. Vascombe, can you think of any acquaintance of yours capable of that sort of cold-blooded crime? Because, if my theory is to hold water, somebody who knows of your movements must have had access to your studio and smuggled the dagger away in his pocket. Do you see what I mean?"
"I see perfectly well what you mean," Ian said. "But I can't for the life of me think of anybody who is likely to have done a thing like that. I believe, if I had time, I could tell you the name of everybody who has visited my studio during the last two months. But you don't suppose that this crime was committed solely with the idea of placing the responsibility on the shoulders of my friend, Gilchrist?"
"Certainly I don't," Parkhurst said. "That side of the crime was merely a sort of red herring across the track. It was designed to secure the retreat of the murderer. But you may depend upon it that the criminal had some other reason for killing Sir Walter. I never met that gentleman myself, but I have heard of him frequently, and I understand he is a man who has spent the best part of his life in China. A sort of gentleman adventurer, if I may use that expression."
"That is perfectly correct," Tom said. "I told you that when I was relating my story just now. My uncle went out to China to make his fortune and buy back his family property. He was a man of strong will and indomitable courage. Whatever he made up his mind to do he did at any cost. He was a good servant to his country, but he never lost sight of the main object of his long exile. I should think it is exceedingly probable that in the course of his wanderings in China he made more than one enemy. And if he happened to fall foul of one of the Chinese secret societies or have trouble in getting hold of some treasure he coveted, then he might have been a marked man. You know, Mr. Parkhurst, from your own experience, that more than once an Englishman has come home and been murdered in his own house by some fanatic Chinaman who has followed him all across the world. It may be that such a thing happened to my uncle, though he never said a word to me as to any probable peril of that sort. In fact, such a thing never occurred to me."
"I don't suppose it did," Vascombe pointed out. "But I daresay that old Withers could tell us a thing or two."
"Of course he could," Tom cried. "I never thought of that."
"And who is Withers, pray?" Parkhurst asked.
"My uncle's body servant," Tom explained. "He was with my uncle in China for nearly forty years. Born and bred on the estate and devoted to his employer."
"Ah, that is very interesting hearing," Parkhurst said. "Now suppose we take a taxi round to your uncle's flat, and have a chat with this man, Withers? I mean now."
A taxi was called and half an hour later Withers was being interviewed in the kitchen of the flat. He seemed disinclined to say much, and it was only at Tom's earnest solicitation that he began to speak freely.
"Very well, Mr. Tom," he said. "I am all on your side, sir, and I don't believe as you had any more to do with this business than I. Of course, I heard a good deal of the quarrel between yourself and your uncle, and I am not looking forward to telling that story, if it ever comes to a case of judge and jury. I don't hold with dragging those two young ladies into the case, and I am not going to if they will let me alone."
"Come, get on, get on," Parkhurst said impatiently.
"Begging your pardon," Withers said. "But I must tell my story in my own way and I don't rightly understand now what it is you want me to say."
Parkhurst proceeded to explain lucidly.
"Lor' bless you sir," Withers went on when the lawyer had finished. "Sir Walter he had lots of enemies. He used to go where he liked, when he liked, and how he liked. And some of those Chinese swells didn't care for his way of going on a bit. He could speak their languages like a native, and so could I, for the matter of that, and when I say languages, I don't mean dialects—I mean the Chinese that all the mandarins and that class speak, though we did know a few of those provincial lingoes, pidgin-English and the like."
"Then Sir Walter was not exactly persona grata with high personages?" Parkhurst asked.
"Well, no, he wasn't, sir, anything but. You see, my master he was always a collector. There is a fine lot of stuff in this flat but it is nothing to what Sir Walter has stowed away in his bank. And I can tell you that a good many of those wonderful things were—were—"
"Appropriated," Parkhurst suggested.
"Well, sir, that is as good as any other word," Withers smiled. "Sacred things, some of them were. I can recollect two occasions when we got away by the skin of our teeth and had to lie up, in hiding for three months before we dared show our faces, again. There is a good deal about that in a book that Sir Walter wrote. Let me see, what was the name of it?"
"I can tell you," Tom said, "it was called 'China—A Menace.' I never saw a copy of it and I believe it has been out of print for some years. I remember once trying to get the book from the publishers, but they told me they had not a single copy left."
"Indeed," Parkhurst muttered. "Now, do you know, I should like to have a look at that book. It may contain a deal information likely to be of use to us."
"I believe it would, sir," Withers smiled grimly. "Not as I recollect any trouble with anybody after we got away with some particular treasure. You see, sir, China is a very large country, where there are no less than four hundred languages, so that news travels slowly. And that was all in our favour. Still, I never remember any trouble after the first two or three months and I am sure my master would have told me if he had suspected that anybody was following him to England. You see, I know the Chinaman and his little ways, and if there had been anything of that sort, Sir Walter would have certainly taken me into his confidence. It must be ten years since our last exploit and I have even forgotten the names of the Chinks who were mixed up in it. But I should not be at all surprised if one of that lot was responsible for my poor master's death."
"I should be very much surprised if one of them wasn't," Parkhurst said. "Well, you haven't told us very much, Withers, but I believe you have put us on the right track. What we have to look for now is a highly educated Chinaman who came to this country not long ago, actuated by motives of revenge. I think that will do for the moment, Withers. You had better not tell anybody that we have been here."
Withers gave the desired assurance and his visitors departed. They were hardly outside when a man, unmistakably of the detective type, placed a hand on Tom's shoulder.
"I have a warrant for your arrest, sir," he said. "I think I am speaking to Mr. Thomas Gilchrist? Yes, I thought so. I arrest you on a charge of wilful murder of Sir Walter Vanguard and I must warn you that anything you say will be liable to be used in evidence against you."
As was only natural, the dramatic arrest of Gilchrist caused more than an ordinary sensation. For here was no mere vulgar murder charge, but one against a man who was well known and popular in society and a sportsman of repute. There were those, of course, who were disposed to condemn him off hand, but there were others who positively refused to believe that Tom Gilchrist could be guilty of such a crime, and these were ready enough to some to his aid. They could not, of course, approach him directly, but they could offer assistance through Ian Vascombe, and that they did without the slightest hesitation. So far as Ian knew, Gilchrist, had no immediate resources available for his defence, and this, on the face of it, was a serious matter. He discussed the question with Parkhurst in the latter's office, and was informed that at least five hundred pounds would be necessary, but Ian was not dismayed.
"Oh, I could find that myself," he said. "I have been pretty lucky during the last twelve months, and if you want a cheque for a hundred or two on account, I can give it to you."
"Then you had better do so," Parkhurst said. "But surely there are others ready to help?"
"Of course there are, but I haven't asked anybody yet. Oh, I know that there are lots of people who believe in Tom's guilt, but, thank goodness, there are more who don't. I will send you a cheque tonight. What is the next move?"
"Well, we shall have to go slowly," Parkhurst said. "You see, Gilchrist will be brought before magistrates at Bow Street probably two or three times. Of course, that won't cost much, because I can appear for him myself. Then, when he gets committed for trial—as he is bound to be—I propose to brief George Lyttleton. He is about the biggest man available at the moment, and I think I can get him to take up the case for three hundred guineas or so. Mind you, Vascombe, it is a pretty black case. There is the bitter quarrel, an interchanging of blows, and don't forget most of this was overheard by Withers. That old servant may be very unwilling to give his evidence, but the other side will drag it out of him. It doesn't matter how much he tries to conceal a point which tells against the prisoner, and I hope he won't attempt it, because it will do more harm than good. Well, that is something for the prosecution to open with, isn't it? Then we have the much more serious case of that knife. He can't deny that it is his own property, because that would mean nothing less than downright perjury, not only on his part, but also on yours, and, to a certain extent, on your sister's. You see, in stating our own case, we are merely strengthening the case for the prosecution. It will be very difficult to convince the jury that your sister is telling the truth when she says that she put that dagger back in your studio."
"But I am quite sure she did," Vascombe said.
"Of course, she did. I have discussed the matter with her, and she convinced me beyond the shadow of a doubt. But that is a very different thing from standing up to the witness-box in a crowded court facing a famous advocate who has to think as much about his reputation as he does about his case. I don't envy your sister her ordeal, I can tell you."
Vascombe nodded his head moodily. He could quite see the force of what Parkhurst was saying. And then, again, it was bound to transpire that Maudie and Tom were something more than friends. And that, again, would tell strongly against the prisoner. At any rate, if it didn't, it would seriously prejudice the value of Maudie's evidence in the eyes of the jury.
"Yes, it looks very black," he admitted.
"And that is not all of it," Parkhurst went on. "I happened to be dining at my club last night, and I ran against a junior partner in the legal firm that has Sir Walter Vanguard's affairs in hand. He told me quite casually that Sir Walter had left everything to his nephew, except his collection of Chinese antiques which goes to the nation. Of course, you can see how this tells against your friend. It is not a very big point, but when there are so many others—well, I won't labour it. We have got to be up and doing. And that brings me to a most important item in the case. Now, we know pretty well all that happened on that fatal night to you and to Gilchrist, and we have heard what Withers has had to say. But we seem to have overlooked the presence of another individual. I mean the man who made up the four at the bridge table."
"But what could he have had to do with it? It was I who suggested that he should be asked, because Sir Walter's friend had failed him at the last minute. It was I who went to fetch him. He had never met Sir Walter before, and when I left he left with me. So why trouble about him?"
"I don't know that I am troubling particularly," Parkhurst replied. "But my idea is to suspect everybody. No doubt this man is as ignorant about the affair as I am, but, all the same, he was more or less in it, and I should like to have a few words with him. I do not even know his name."
"Oh, his name is Heek—Mortimer Heek. I can't tell you much more than that. I believe he is very rich, and lately, he seems to have been taken up by a good many of the best people. He is vary lavish in his hospitality, and, consequently, more or less popular. But who he is and what his nationality, I cannot tell you. Certainly not English."
"Oh, not an Englishman, eh?"
"No, something Slavonic or Tartar with, perhaps, a dash of the Mongolian. Very tall and dark with a black beard and piercing eyes. But you must have heard of him."
"Oh, that is the man, is it?" Parkhurst exclaimed. "Oh, yes, I did hear something about him. One of those mysterious individuals who suddenly emerges from nowhere and seems to have the command of unlimited capital. A romantic prototype of the 'new' City man. Nobody yesterday and a capitalist today. I should very much like to meet Mr. Heek. Tell me, how did you manage to come in contact with him?"
"Oh, that was natural enough. I do a bit of restoring work from time to time and touched up some Japanese prints for one of the big firms in St. James Street. Heek happened to see it, because he is a collector in a large way himself and, as he had some rice paper pictures that needed attention, he got my address from some people and called to see me. To make a long story short, he gave me some work to do, which I did to his satisfaction."
"And I suppose he had the run of your studio?"
"Certainly. He came several times to see how the work was getting on. But, look here, Parkhurst, you don't—"
"Who said I did?" Parkhurst asked. "I am merely asking questions which will probably lead to nothing, but information in cases like this is always useful. I am not suggesting for a moment that Heek has anything to do with this business. There is a famous dramatist who says 'You never can tell.' I want you to arrange a meeting between Mr. Heek and myself. Over a game of bridge, if you like, but there is no hurry about that. There is no hurry at all for the next few days. I am going to see Withers presently. I didn't have a chance to ask him all I wanted to the other day, so I dropped him a line asking him to call here this afternoon. I need not detain you any longer now, and I will let you know if anything turns up."
Vascombe went away feeling that he had done all he could for the time being and a little while later, Withers was ushered into the lawyer's office.
"You sent for me, sir?" he asked.
"Yes, I did, Withers, because I wanted to ask you one or two questions. First of all, is there any other way into your late master's flat than by the front door?"
"No, there isn't, sir. You see, we are on the ground floor and there is no occasion either to use the lift or the fire escape. And all the back windows are barred. I have examined them myself, and they have not been tampered with."
"Yes, I can quite believe that. Now, look here, Withers, you told me last time I saw you that you were very late in getting up on the morning when you found the dead body of Sir Walter."
"Very late indeed, sir," Withers admitted.
"Very well, then. What did you do first?"
"First of all, sir, I slipped into my shirt and trousers and went into the kitchen to light the fire and put the kettle on the gas ring. That was for my own breakfast. I was ashamed of myself for being so late and that is why I didn't disturb my master who, of course, I thought was in his bedroom. So it was some considerable time before I got in the sitting-room. I wanted to tidy that up before I woke Sir Walter, because he sometimes goes into the sitting- room directly he rises to get a cigarette. So, you see, the poor gentleman was lying dead in that room for nearly an hour after I got out of bed."
"Just so. And all that time you saw and heard nothing. You didn't admit anybody in the flat or anything of that sort, I suppose. Nobody came to the door?"
"No, sir. Oh, yes, they did. I can't think how I came to forget it. It has only just come back to my mind. I suppose I was too upset to remember. About half an hoar after I got up, which would be after nine, I did have to answer a ring at the door, and let a gentleman in."
"Well, sir, he was a stranger to me, but he told me he had been playing bridge with Sir Walter the night before, and that he went away leaving a silk handkerchief behind him. When I asked him his name he said he was Mr. Heek."
Parkhurst smiled quietly to himself.
"Oh, Mr. Heek, was it? Yes, I heard that was the name of the fourth gentleman who was at the bridge table. And you say he was an absolute stranger to you?"
"I had never seen him before, sir, though I have met many like him. I was with my master for nearly forty years in China, so I know something about the breed. Mr. Heek was dressed like an Englishman and his accent was almost perfect. I am not saying he was real Chinese, because you very seldom see one of them with a full beard. But apart from that, I am pretty certain."
"Oh, he came to call for a handkerchief?" Parkhurst asked. "Rather a strange thing for a rich man to do."
"It was a beautiful handkerchief, sir," Withers said.
"Oh, then I suppose you found it?"
"Oh, yes, we found it, at least, he did. I don't suppose you could buy anything like it in London. I have had some beautiful Chinese fabrics through my hands and I know what they are worth, because Sir Walter had a lot in his collection, but nothing finer than the squared silk Mr. Heek came to look for."
"And you say he found it himself?"
"Yes, sir, he did. Bunched up in the bottom of the umbrella-stand. He thought he must have dropped it out of his pocket last night, when he was putting his overcoat on."
"I should think that is very probable," Parkhurst said.
"Well, there it was, sir. He spotted it when I was looking all about the hall. I wanted to go into the sitting room and look for it, but Mr. Heek said it was no use doing that because he remembered having it in his hand just before he put his over-coat on. So he took it and went away."
"And that is all that happened? Are you quite sure that is all that happened, Withers. No other little thing? Because you never know. In cases like this, even the smallest trifles turn out to be of the most vital importance."
"Well, sir, he gave me half a crown. He dropped it on the tiled floor and picked it up again before I could save him the trouble. At least, I suppose he dropped it because I heard something tinkle. And that is all I can tell you, sir."
"And that is all I have to ask you for the moment," Parkhurst said, as he made a sign towards the door. "When I want you again, Withers I will let you know."
For some time after Withers had gone, Parkhurst sat at his desk with a thoughtful frown on his face. Then he smiled as he muttered a few words to himself.
"That is curious," he murmured under his breath. "Very curious. Still, it is a long way between a curious action on the part of a mysterious foreigner and something like a free pardon for Tom Gilchrist. But I should like to know why Heek went round there so early in the morning to recover what he might have got any time during the day. Also, I should like to know a good deal more about that dropped half-crown. Now, I wonder if—by gad, it is just possible."
Parkhurst broke off suddenly and reached for his telephone. It was some time before he got the number he wanted and when he did he spoke rapidly.
"That you, Kelly?" he asked, "Oh, it is Parkhurst speaking. Are you doing anything about five o'clock?"
"Nothing particular," the voice at the other end of the wire replied. "Want to see me?"
"Yes, I want to see you rather particularly. Will you meet me at my club at five prompt? Or shall I come round to your flat? All the same to me which it is."
"Better come round to me here," the other man said.
"Very well, then, I'll be there."
It was just a few minutes past five when Parkhurst entered the flat of the man known to his friends as Eden Kelly. He was about 65 years of age, small and slim, with an alert manner and a pair of equally alert eyes. His dress was neat without being in the least dandified by his diminutive stature, he carried a certain easy dignity which would have stamped him as above the ordinary to any company.
"Sit down, old chap," he said. "And help yourself to a cigarette. A whisky and soda? No! Very well then, I will ring for tea and you shall tell me what you want."
It was after a manservant had brought in the tea that Parkhurst began to unfold his tale.
"Now, look here, Kelly," he began. "I suppose there is no man in London who knows more diplomatic secrets than you do."
"Yes, I think I do know a few," Kelly said modestly.
"Well, you can put it that way if you like, but I am rather under the impression that you know them all. Of course, I know you have retired from the game for some time, but I believe there are occasions when you are still consulted and sent on some delicate mission or another."
The man called Kelly smiled drily.
"Well, as a matter of fact, I am just back from one now," he said. "Though I am somewhat of a dug-out, I have my uses. Of course, you know that I was attached to an Eastern legation before the war, and that during the conflict I was in half a dozen countries, generally in disguise and at the imminent risk of my life. I am not boasting, old chap."
"I know that perfectly well," Parkhurst said. "Or I should not have been here this afternoon."
"Well, during that time I did a fair amount of good work and I was up against some of the greatest scoundrels in two hemispheres. Some of them were pretty big scoundrels, too, sitting on thrones and all that sort of thing. But it was fairly nerve-racking work and I was glad enough to drop it after the War was over. Now, don't tell me that I am to be dragged into another secret service adventure."
"Not this time, anyway," Parkhurst smiled. "Now, amongst your many adventures, were you ever in China?"
"China! I was all over the Mongolian empire. Mind you, during the War, China was our ally. At least she was at war with Germany, and, if things had been handled properly, there would never have been all that trouble and all the bloodshed in South China which has so disgusted Europe. We could have stopped all that if we had only had time. However, I don't want to go into politics. You know what happened. The Chinese Dynasty collapsed and the country was over- run by about a thousand Generals, so called, hardly one of which was anything but a pirate and a brigand. Men who knew no more about warfare than you do, though they called themselves generals and all that sort cf thing. But they cared nothing for their country. They were nearly all on the make, encouraged by a power which I need not mention. I knew a great many of those chaps and a rotten lot they were. Mind you, properly handled, they might have been exceedingly useful, but, as there was nobody to lick them into shape, they all went their own way."
It seemed to Parkhurst quite time that he should stop these reminiscences. Therefore, he went straight to the point.
"Did you know one of them called Heek?" he asked.
Kelly pulled up almost as if he had been shot.
"Heek," he echoed. "Now, look here, Parkhurst, I don't know whether you are aware of it, but you are treading on very dangerous ground and, what is more, you are practically asking me to betray Government secrets. Why?"
Parkhurst proceeded to explain at some length.
"Oh, that's the idea, is it?" Kelly asked thoughtfully. "So you are concerned for Tom Gilchrist. Tom is by way of being a friend of mine and, if I can help him in any way, I will. But it is very strange if Heek is mixed up in this tragedy."
"What is he doing in this country at all?" Parkhurst asked.
"Ah, now you are again treading on dangerous ground. There are lots of rascally foreigners in this country today and they are permitted to stay here during the Home Secretary's pleasure. But every movement of theirs is watched and they can't make a move without the authorities knowing it. Can't you understand why some great international scoundrel is allowed the freemasonry of our Empire? He is much less dangerous in London than he would be, say in Pekin. And if the Home Office wanted to deport him when the time came, he would simply be arrested and sent out of the country. I know the names of half a dozen men who answer the description I have given."
"Yes, but what has that to do with Heek?" Parkhurst protested.
"Oh, we will come to Heek presently. Now, I daresay you take a pretty keen interest in International affairs. Do you remember, about two years ago, hearing a lot about the activities of Chinese general called Quong Pi?"
"I think I do," Parkhurst said. "Yes, that is the sort of name that does stick in your mind. Wasn't he concerned with some particularly atrocious business at Hung Ling?"
"Yes, that is the man. Looked like being a dictator at one time. Then he mysteriously vanished. He was supposed to have gone up country recruiting and never heard of again from that day to this. Of course, he was merely collecting all his loot together with a view to a change of scene."
"But what has this Quong Pi to do with Heek?"
"I am coming to that. Mind, this is absolutely under the seal of secrecy. If you repeat it, I shall get into serious trouble. Can't you guess what I am driving at? My dear chap, it is as clear as the nose on your face. You see, Quong Pi, and Mortimer Heek are one and the same."
Ian Vascombe had acted more wisely than he knew when he had suggested that Parkhurst should be called in to act for Gilchrist in the hour of his trouble. Because Parkhurst was not a solicitor in the ordinary sense of the word, that is to say he was not content with the ordinary routine of the law which is a dry thing in itself, but because he was a man of imagination and a close student of criminology. Therefore, he had chosen, when he left school, to become a mere attorney instead of a barrister. And, having considerable means of his own, he was quite content to wait until some particularly fine piece of work should bring to him the type of client he was seeking.
That was the man or woman who was either in some sort of trouble or trying to escape from it. Intricate missions connected with family secrets, the delicate manipulation of negotiations where blackmail was concerned or the hushing up of some scandal hanging over a great house, all that sort of thing. And from the first, Parkhurst had been successful.
And now he was on a case in which his logical soul delighted. He did not under-rate the difficulties before him, he knew he had a long way to go before he could set his client free to face the world again, nor was he disposed to make light of the charge hanging over Tom Gilchrist's head. Yet, all the same, he was beginning to feel his way towards a sound and logical theory. Sooner or later, he would be able to put that into shape and hand it in due course, to the brilliant advocate who had been selected to defend Gilchrist when he came to face the ordeal of a judge and jury. The fine eloquence and the apparently shrewd handling of witnesses would, to the public eye, at any rate, be entirely the work of a barrister. But the case itself from the start till the time it was handed over to the advocate, in the shape of a brief would be entirely Parkhurst's work.
Up to that moment, he could handle the case as he chose. He could, and did, appear for Tom during one or two hearings before the magistrate at Bow Street, but this was merely an ordinary day's work and had no bearing on the task that faced him.
He had gone about the business much in the same way as a clever detective would, and, already, a theory was beginning to shape itself in his mind. There was not much to go on at present, but there were certain shreds and patches which, later on, might be woven into a harmonious whole.
He was hinting at something of this as he sat in his office one morning confronted by Ian Vascombe. Gilchrist had been remanded for the second time, after an intimation from the police that their case was practically complete and that, at the next hearing, they would ask the Bow Street magistrate to commit the accused on the capital charge.
"And what will happen then?" Vascombe asked, following up a conversation on the subject.
"Well, our friend will have to face his trial, of course. It won't be for a month or so, which is all to the good, because I want as much time as I can get. When the case comes to be heard, one of the big men at the Bar will act for the prosecution and we shall depend, of course, on Lyttleton. If you ask me what the end will be, I don't know, candidly. But I have some sort of idea what our policy will be."
"I wish to goodness you could tell me," Vascombe said dolefully. "I can't see any light anywhere. There was that fatal quarrel with Withers' evidence to drive it home, and there was my evidence that the knife, with which the crime was committed had been handed over to me by poor old Tom. I wish to heaven he had taken it with him that night when I got it out of the studio and put it on the dining-room table in our flat. Still, there is one consolation—Maudie will be able to say that Tom never had the knife back again and that she took it upstairs into the studio after he had gone off without it."
"Yes, I am quite aware of that," Parkhurst said. "But I am afraid your sister's evidence is a two-edged weapon. Now, without being impertinent, is there any sort of understanding between Miss Vascombe and my client?"
"Oh, well, there always has been a sort of understanding. Tom is very keen on Maudie, but she always kept him rather at a distance. You see, she is an independent sort of girl, and all the more so since we fell from our high financial estate, and she has had her own living to get. Mind, she has known for some time that Sir Walter Vanguard had set his heart upon Tom marrying Mona Catesby, and that is why my sister held back. Of course, if Tom had been independent of his Uncle there could have been no question by this time. I think she would have married Tom, because she is fond of him."
"But no actual engagement?"
"Well, there wasn't until this trouble came and then, of course, being a woman, Maudie was beside herself with anger and indignation that anyone should dare to hint that Tom was guilty of that cold-blooded murder. She flung herself literally into his arms, and declared her intention of marrying him whatever happened, even if she had to keep him herself. You know how girls talk when they lose their heads."
"Yes, that is what I meant when I said that her evidence would be a two edged weapon," Parkhurst remarked. "You may be pretty sure that the prosecution knows all about the attachment between your sister and Gilchrist, and you may be equally sure that they will make the most of it."
"What—they won't believe her?"
"I am pretty sure they won't. They will make every endeavour to shake her evidence in cross-examination. Oh, you don't know the law as I do. If we get the man on the other side I expect, he will flight like a demon for a verdict. He won't say in as many words that your sister's evidence with regard to that dagger is a lie, but he will contrive to make the jury believe it, all the same. I am afraid Miss Vascombe is in for a terrible ordeal—and I don't think yours will be much better."
"Never mind mine," Ian said magnanimously. "I suppose the idea is that Maudie and myself put up the story to save Tom from going to the scaffold. Well, let them think it if they like, it is absolutely true."
"You need not impress that upon me," Parkhurst said, "because I am absolutely convinced of it. But I shall be glad when your sister escapes from the witness box."
"Oh, I don't think you need worry much about Maudie. To begin with, she will be telling nothing but the truth, and that must help her. Besides, she has a fine pluck of her own. Oh, she will come through it all right."
Parkhurst switched on to another side of the case.
"Now, look here," he said. "You and I were old school-fellows, and I am more interested in this case then any I have been in before. More than that—I am absolutely convinced that Gilchrist is as innocent as I am. I am building up a theory, but it is only a very shadowy one as yet. I am not going to tell you what it is, because you would only laugh if I did. In a way, it would be like showing a person ignorant of art a picture in its early stages. Now, I want you to tell me, without omitting a detail, however small, exactly what happened on the night when you went round to Sir Walter Vanguard's flat to play bridge. Tell me everything—the minutest fact may turn out to be of absolutely vital importance."
"Well, I will do my best," Ian responded. "You see, to begin with, the man Sir Walter himself had invited to make up a four had to cry off at the last minute. That was after we reached the poor old chap's flat. He was very keen on his game, especially as he was confined to the house, with a damaged foot. So I made a suggestion. I said I thought I could find a fourth, and I was invited to do so. That is how Heek came to appear on the scene."
"Here—not quite so fast!" Parkhurst said. "I know how you became acquainted with Heek, but what put him in your mind?"
"Oh, I don't know. I had to think of somebody, and I had heard one or two people say that Heek was a remarkably fine bridge player. So I went to fetch him."
"Oh, you did. And you found him. Now, how far away does he live from the Vanguard flat?"
"Well, a matter of about five or six minutes' walk," Ian said. "But why do you ask?"
"Well, never mind that for the moment. It is all part of my little theory. Go on with your story."
"Upon my word, there is no story to tell. Heek seemed to be doing nothing that evening and came in to oblige, as the servants say. We played for quite a long time, and then Heek had the telephone message from some relative, I think he said, who was leaving England the next day—"
"But, dash it!—something must have happened in the meantime," Parkhurst interrupted impatiently. "Any incident?"
"Nothing, unless you call spoiling a pack of cards an incident."
"Ah!" Parkhurst said significantly. "Now we are getting to it. A pretty fine hand at a story you are. I told you not to a miss a single detail, and here you are, slurring over something that might change the whole course of your friend's future. I don't say it will, mind you—but it might. Now, continue, and don't forget anything."
"Well, it was like this," Ian explained. "We were playing with two new packs of cards which Sir Walter produced himself. He always played with new cards, and he told us casually that those were the only ones in the house. Then Sir Walter himself knocked over a glass of whisky and soda, and the stuff fairly soaked one of the packs. So, as we couldn't use them any more, another pack was required."
"But my dear chap, you told me just now that there were no more in the house."
"Neither were there; at least, not ordinary cards. But Sir Walter produces a most amazing pack which he had got hold of in China during his wanderings there. Every card on the thinnest ivory, my boy, and the designs in the most amazing colours. You never saw anything like them. There is not an artist living today who could even copy them. I was almost wild with delight when I saw one of those cards beforehand."
"Oh, you saw one beforehand, did you? Now, my ingenious friend, tell me how that came about."
Ian proceeded to explain at some length exactly how one of the court cards from the famous pack had been more or less in his possession for an hour or so. Parkhurst listened with his eyes half closed until the recital was finished.
"Now, that is interesting," he murmured. "Most interesting. What was the card you copied?"
"The queen of hearts," Ian replied. "By jove, Parkhurst, if you could only have seen it."
"Very likely I shall," said Parkhurst quietly. "But we are getting a little off the track, I think. Am I to understand that you played for the rest of the evening with those amazing cards? Oh, you did, did you? And you saw nothing significant about the fact. Did my client or Heek particularly admire them? Or did they pass as a matter of course?"
"Well, you see, we were there to play bridge. Sir Walter briefly explained that the cards were of considerable value and beauty, but nobody commented upon them. I am perfectly certain that not one word was said."
A few more questions and Ian was permitted to go about his business. When he was once more alone, Parkhurst took up a copy of the current issue of the 'Daily Picture' and turned to the first page. On it, prominently displayed in the centre was a photograph of a man with dark eyes and a black beard and underneath it a outline to the effect that this was Mr. Mortimer Heek, the well- known Levantine financier who was reported to have recently obtained control of the Anglo-Irak Oil Corporation. It was a striking photograph, though undoubtedly a snapshot, and Parkhurst smiled as he cut it out from the paper neatly with a pair of scissors and locked it up in a drawer. It occurred to him as rather strange that he, the man who went everywhere and knew most of the celebrities by sight, had never seen the man known as Mortimer Heek in the flesh. Now, he had not only a picture of that undesirable individual, but also a tabloid impression of Heek's lurid past in the back of his mind.
Once having transected some routine business, he called a taxi and went off in the direction of the late Sir Walter Vanguard's flat, with the intention of having a further chat with Withers. That faithful individual was still in occupation of the premises as a sort of caretaker, and was likely so to remain until Sir Walter's executors had had time to dispose of the contents of the flat and the lease. The police had finished their investigation there, so that Parkhurst was free to carry on his inquiries without the chance of encountering some member of the Scotland Yard force.
He found Withers killing his time with a sporting paper and quite willing to meet Mr. Parkhurst in any way that that gentleman should happen to require.
"Oh, I don't know that it is anything particular that I want to see you about," Parkhurst said carelessly. "Just one or two questions that occurred to me as I came along."
"Anything I can do to help, sir," Withers suggested earnestly.
"Well, I am going to ask you to cast your mind back to the night of Sir Walter's death. No, I don't mean the night. I mean, next morning, early. When you woke up and found it was so late. Now, when Mr. Heed called you told me that he found his handkerchief himself."
"That is quite right, sir," Withers said firmly.
"At the bottom of the umbrella stand?"
"Yes, at the bottom of the umbrella stand. Mr. Heek picked it up himself?"
"What were you doing meanwhile?"
"Well, sir, I was looking behind the curtains and under an oak chest. I thought the handkerchief might have fallen at the back of the oak chest, but, of course, I was mistaken."
"Not the slightest doubt of that," Parkhurst said drily. "Then, I think, you told me that Mr. Heek dropped a half-crown."
"I am pretty sure he did, sir."
"Just so, the half-crown he gave to you. You heard it tinkle on the parquet flooring."
"Sounded like it, sir. But you see, I was on my hands and knees and couldn't make certain. As a matter of fact, I wasn't thinking about it at all. Didn't seem worth while."
"Oh, by the way, Withers. When you came down in the morning, I mean, after you let Mr. Heek out, did you happen to see whether the three latch keys were in their place? I saw that they were all then when I came in just now, but were they hanging in their proper places when you discovered the dead body of your late master and ran round to Mr. Gilchrist's rooms?"
"I am quite sure they were, sir," Withers replied. "One doesn't know how one really knows those sort of things, especially in moments of excitement, but I seemed to see them on the shield as I rushed out of the front door. When the police came that was one of the first questions asked me."
"Oh, well, it is hardly worth discussing," Parkhurst said carelessly, though there was a gleam in his eye as he spoke. "Now another thing, Withers. About that book your master wrote. I never saw a copy of it, but I believe it was called 'China—a Menace,' he did many years ago. Do you think you can find me one somewhere about?"
Withers shook his head regretfully.
"I am quite sure I can't, sir. My master had only one copy left and he lent it to a friend who never brought it back. Sir Walter was rather annoyed about it at the time."
"Then you don't know anybody who has one? I have tried the publishers without effect. I suppose I shall have to trust to one of those second-hand book dealers in Charing Cross Road. I think that will do for the present. Withers. This is a very sad business, but we must hope for the best."
With that, Parkhurst went off and, for the next hour or two was busy in various establishments along Charing Cross Road and Kingsway, trying to get on the trail of the missing volume. But though dozens of assistants searched hundreds of shelves, there was no sign of Sir Walter's work.
"I know something of the book you are after, sir," one of the shop people said. "I don't think more than a thousand copies were printed, and I should gather that not more than a quarter as many were sold. You see, it is a good many years ago now, and that makes it all the more difficult. You might get a copy by advertising in the 'Times,' but I doubt even that. I will keep my eyes open, if you like, sir, and write to one or two people in the trade in Manchester and Liverpool."
"I wish you would," Parkhurst said. "It sounds like a forlorn hope, but I am most anxious to get hold of a copy of that volume. I suppose it is just possible, seeing that Sir Walter's name has been brought before the public in connexion with the murder tragedy that somebody might remember they had a copy of the book. Then, if they happened to see the advertisement, I shall have a chance. Look here, there is my card and my address. You take it all off my hands and I will be prepared to pay handsomely, even if you have all your trouble for nothing. You put the advertisement in the 'Times' in your own words. Then I will come along in a few days and see if there is any luck awaiting me."
The bookseller expressed his willingness to act as suggested, and Parkhurst wandered down the street. It was late in the afternoon now, and too late to go back to his office. On the other hand, it was too early to think of dressing for dinner, so it occurred to him that he might just as well take a leisurely stroll down Charing Cross Road, and this time make a rather closer examination of the boxes of twopenny volumes, exposed for sale outside some of the cheaper establishments.
He had spent the best part of a couple of hours on his rather fruitless occupation when, outside one dinghy shop, his eye caught sight of a row of boxes marked with the legend, 'All in this box 3d.' A bent figure was gazing down into one of the boxes through a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles. Then, as the stranger grabbed eagerly at one of the books and darted into the shop with his prize, Parkhurst saw that another volume had fallen over on its side. He gave one glance at it and then his eyes lighted up eagerly.
It was a copy of Sir Walter's book.
Having paid for this unexpected treasure, Parkhurst went off with the book under his arm and made the best of his way to his lodgings. There he proceeded to examine the book carefully and to run his eye over the numerous views and photographs which it contained. He came, presently, to a pair of photographs side by side, one an unmistakeable Chinaman with thin, drooping moustache peculiar to his kind, and the other a face, full-bearded and dark- eyed. Running underneath the two photographs was the printed line, 'The greatest scoundrel I have ever met.' Evidently the same man in two different guises.
But there was something more than that, something that set Parkhurst aflame with excitement.
For the man in the left hand picture, the man with the beard, was none other than Mortimer Heek.
Nine o'clock on the same evening that Parkhurst found the book in which Sir Walter had written so much and so vividly on the inner history of modern China, saw him in Lyttleton's chambers in the Inner Temple, discussing Tom Gilchrist's affairs with the man who was going to defend him at his trial. These two were old friends and had been at school together, so that legal etiquette had little to do with their conversation.
Lyttleton was one of the coming men, keen-faced and alert, and more than unusually interested, seeing that he and Tom Gilchrist belonged to the same clubs.
"Well," Lyttleton asked. "Is there anything fresh? Or have you merely come round here this evening to discuss generalities? Or perhaps you have found the real culprit."
"I am pretty sure I have," Parkhurst said quietly.
"The Deuce!" Lyttleton exclaimed. "Come, the plot thickens. Now, look here, Parkhurst, I am not prejudiced in Gilchrist's favour because I happen to know him, but because I honestly believe that there had been some ghastly mistake somewhere. And if you have put your finger on it, speak out."
"Well, the trouble is that I can't," Parkhurst said. "It is all too nebulous at present, and, what is more, I don't see how anything really important can transpire before our poor friend will have to take his trial. Now, I have discussed the case in detail with you, over and over again, and you know pretty well as much as I do. At least, you did until I made a startling discovery this afternoon."
"Oh, indeed? Well, let's have it."
"I can't so straight to the point like that. I told you, I think, that I was anxious to get hold of a book on China that Sir Walter Vanguard wrote some years ago."
"Yes, I remember that. And you couldn't find it."
"Well, I have found it. I picked up the volume outside a shop in Charing Cross Road just after tea. And I have been reading it on and off ever since. It is a most fascinating story, full of intimate character study and not a few thrilling adventures. But here it is. Now, you turn to page 243 and you will see two portraits. At least, they are two portraits of the same man in different guises. In one he is a typical Chinaman with a thin, drooping moustache and in the other he has a big, bushy beard. But see for yourself."
Lyttleton turned over the pages and for some minutes looked carefully at the two photographs.
"Well, I am bound to confess that they don't convey much to me," he said. "But stop a moment. I seem to know that man with the beard. It's Mortimer Heek!"
"Perfectly right, it is Mortimer Heek. Then, you see his name is not really Heek at all, but Quong Pi, described by Sir Walter as the greatest scoundrel he ever met."
"Well, that is a most remarkable thing," Lyttleton said. "Because I have met this man, Heek. In fact I have met him more than once. I was introduced to him by a man who spoke of him as a great Levantine financier. Supposed to be worth millions. Portraits in the papers and all that sort of thing. One of those mysterious capitalists who emerge out of nowhere and come into the full blaze of publicity like a comet. They are just as likely to go out like a comet, but that has nothing to do with it. Anyway, Sir Walter Vanguard seems to have known this chap pretty well to have formed an adverse opinion on him. But, of course, that doesn't mean that Mr. Quong Pi, alias Mortimer Heek, murdered the man who had libelled him."
"Of course it doesn't," Parkhurst said. "And if you ask me if I have any proof I shall have to say no. But those two were deadly enemies. On two or three occasions, according to the book, Sir Walter was within an second of losing his life at the hands of Quong Pi, or his murderous hired assassins. He got the best of him each time, but more by good luck than anything else. You can read all that from the story."
"Yes, but where does it lead me?"
"Ah, that for the moment, I cannot tell you. But it certainly opens up a new field for conjecture."
"No question about that," Lyttleton admitted.
"Well, then, let me go a little further. As far as I can make out in reading Sir Walter's story, he came to loggerheads with Quong Pi over a pack of playing cards."
"Interrupting you for a moment," Lyttleton said. "Do you mean those cards you told me about a day or two ago? You remember what I mean, that amazing pack painted on ivory that Sir Walter produced after the little accident during the game of bridge. Is that what you mean?"
"That is precisely what I do mean. It seems that Quong Pi is about the last of a very ancient Chinese family. Their history goes back for centuries, indeed, once it looked very much as if they might succeed to the Chinese throne. Anyway, they were very important and powerful and poets and painters delighted to honour them. Some time or another, during the Ming dynasty an artistic family hit upon the idea of making two or three packs of these ivory cards and offering them to the head of the clan. That was done and for a long time those cards were regarded by the family as almost sacred. But changes came with tribal wars and all that sort of thing, and one of those famous packs was stolen. At the present moment it belongs to a New York millionaire, so that it is outside our ken. The second pack was damaged to a small extent, and the third, by some means which Sir Walter doesn't explain, found its way into his hands. I should say that he more or less stole it. But he is discreetly silent on that point. Anyway, he had it and there is no doubt that Quong Pi, alias Mortimer Heek, tried to get it back again and didn't hesitate as to his methods of doing so. But he failed, as we know."
"Yes, we know that. But you are not suggesting that Heek came all this way after these years to recover those cards at any cost, not short of murder?"
"Indeed, I am," Parkhurst said solemnly. "And when you hear what I am going to tell you, you will believe me. Now, on the backs of those cards, woven into the beautiful colours is a sort of intricate pattern in gold. Anybody might think it was merely an artistic device, but, as a matter of fact, the pattern really represents old Chinese characters and is practically a history of the Quong Pi family, running down the centuries. Of course, I shouldn't have known that if I hadn't read it in Sir Walter's book."
"That is very interesting," Lyttleton murmured.
"Yes, isn't it? Now perhaps you can understand why a hundred per cent. Chinaman, with all his superstitions and ancestor worship, is prepared to take any risk to get those cards back again. He will think it a sacred duty. Now Quong Pi was too poor to carry out his ambition until fairly recently. But when all that trouble started in China, Quong Pi, or Mortimer Heek, whichever you like to call him, set up in business as a general. Being a man of great courage and originality, he soon found himself at the head of a large force. Of course, he was only out for himself and when he had collected enough loot he faded out of the picture and came to England, where he renamed himself Mortimer Heek. I had all this from Eden Kelly, under the seal of secrecy. He told me the Government knew all about Heek's activities and that the Home Office had its own reasons for not deporting the fellow."
"Yes, that is all right enough," Lyttleton said. "But you told me that Heek was actually playing cards at Sir Walter's flat on the night of the murder and that Sir Walter, who must have recognised him, gave no sign of having done so."
"That is perfectly true," Parkhurst admitted. "But then, Sir Walter was rather a peculiar man. To begin with, he was very keen not to spoil the enjoyment and I can see him with that sardonic humour of his appreciating the subtlety of the situation. Of course, he knew Heek and Heek knew him. These two had crossed swords more than once before and Sir Walter was well aware that his assumed ignorance was calculated to impress Heek considerably. So Sir Walter chose to ignore the past and they sat down to their game together, just as if they were strangers. More than that, I can almost hear Sir Walter chuckling to himself when he produced those ivory cards after the accident I told you about. It was a sort of challenge to Heek to do his worst, and, by inference, quietly telling Heek that there was not the least chance of his obtaining the very thing that he had come all the way to England to get. You see, Heek knew the ropes, because he was educated in England. But he might have been educated here all his life, yet he would have remained the celestial that he is. Can't you imagine his rage and fury when Sir Walter was pulling his leg like that, and can't you imagine him losing his head and reaching out for his vengeance without letting the grass grow under his feet."
"Yes, I can see all that," Lyttleton said. "Personally, I think you have made a most important discovery. But how are we going to make use of it? By some means or another, Heek managed to get into the flat that same night and murdered Sir Walter. Did he take the cards with him?"
"No, he didn't," Parkhurst admitted. "I haven't looked at them because there has been no occasion. But Withers tells me that he gathered them up when he tidied the sitting room and that they are now in the secretaire quite safe."
"In that case, where does the motive come in? You see, we have got to establish a motive and if the cards have not been stolen your theory is still in the air."
Parkhurst was fain to admit that much remained to be done without much time in which to accomplish it. Still, he had established the possibility of a mistake on the part of the police and he was not the man to abandon hope so long as a single glimmer of it was left. He felt as sure as he could be sure of anything that he was almost within grasping distance of the actual murderer without being able to go to Scotland Yard and lay his discovery before the authorities there, and, within a day or two, Tom Gilchrist had to stand his trial.
It was a wet and depressing afternoon when at length Gilchrist faced a jury charged with what appeared on the face of it to be a cold-blooded murder. He gave one glance round the crowded court and the public gallery at the back, to the judge, sitting in state upon his throne, and something like a thrill passed through him when he saw, not far from the solicitor's table, the pale face and hollow eyes of Maudie Vascombe. It was only for a moment or two, and then he felt that he could look at her no longer. He knew that presently she would be ordered out of court with the rest of the witnesses when Sir Timothy Jessop, KC, had finished his opening statement, and from the bottom of his heart he wished she had not come at all. And then, for the next hour of two, the case went drearily on, so that Tom, listening to the solemn periods of the advocate for the Crown, found himself, before the great man had finished, almost believing himself guilty of the crime.
It was worse still when, late in the afternoon, Withers followed Inspector Winch into the witness box. Evidently Withers was trying to do his best to help the prisoner in the dock, but his hesitations and evasive answers were certainly doing Tom more harm than good, and, clearly enough, the jury was feeling the effect of this, under the skilful questions of Sir Timothy. By the time that Withers was allowed to go, it was almost as if he himself had put a rope round the neck of the prisoner.
Then the theatrical producer, Kohn, stepped smartly into the box and gave his evidence glibly. He was not prejudiced in either way, and as he had a plain story to tell and was anxious to get away he kept closely to the point. All he had to prove was that he had had the dagger with which the crime had been committed in his possession for some time, and he proceeded to identify it in a manner that left no doubt whatever upon the mind of the court. The little man finally stepped down without even a single question from Lyttleton.
Following him came Ian Vascombe. He told his story as to how he had obtained possession of the dagger and the way in which he had used it in connexion with the theatrical costume designs he was making for the producer. It was only when he reached the point of actual parting with the weapon that his examination became keen and close.
"You had the dagger from the prisoner?" Jessop asked.
"Certainly I did," Ian replied. "He lent it to me at my own request, and I showed it to Mr. Kohn. Then the weapon was left about in my studio and remained there until I brought it downstairs one day when the prisoner was calling upon me and handed it back to him."
"Then he took it away when he left you?"
"I thought he did, but I understand that was not the case. He forgot it and it went back to the studio."
"You mean that he took it back himself?"
"No, sir, my sister did that. She saw it was overlooked and, I presume, returned it to the studio. I didn't know that for quite a long time afterwards."
"Which means that you subsequently found it."
"No, I didn't sir, I had no idea that it was on one of the shelves. I never knew till after Sir Walter Vanguard's death and inquest and the subsequent finding of the dagger in the gutter that the weapon had remained in my possession."
"Well, how did you find that it was?"
"My sister told me. Mr Gilchrist was very much disturbed at what had happened and when he came round to discuss the matter with me at my flat, I told him that he had taken the dagger away with him on the occasion previously alluded to. He declared that he had not, and my sister confirmed it. She said that he had forgotten it and that she, herself, had taken it upstairs and put it on a shelf."
There was a good deal more to the same effect, but nothing in Lyttleton's cross examination shook Ian's statement in the slightest. There was a stir in court as he left the witness box and Maudie took his place. She looked almost defiantly round the court with a sort of hard glitter in her eyes, much as if she had been some lithe and beautiful animal caught in a hunter's net. But after she had taken the oath she spoke in a voice that was perfectly steady.
She told her story as outlined by the previous witness and then stiffened as Sir Timothy addressed her.
"You are a great friend of the prisoner's, are you not?" he asked. "You have known him for years."
"Ever since I left school," Maudie said.
"Would it be too much to say that you are rather more than friends?" Sir Timothy asked suavely.
"It would not," Maudie said, in clear tones which carried all over the court. "I am engaged to be married to the prisoner. I hope to marry him yet."
She flung these words at counsel almost defiantly, and Sir Timothy smiled into the calm and beautiful face.
"Precisely," he murmured. "Precisely. Then, naturally, you are concerned for his safety. In other words, you are prepared to go a long way to see him free."
"It would be strange if I were not," Maudie said.
"Oh, quite so, quite so. But don't you think, Miss Vascombe, that you might have been mistaken on the occasion to which I am alluding? I don't want to remind you, but you are on your oath. An intelligent young lady like yourself must see how much depends upon whether your evidence is sustained or not. Now, you say that the prisoner did not take away the weapon on the occasion when your brother brought it downstairs but that it was forgotten. After the prisoner had left and your brother was no longer in the flat, you took the dagger upstairs again and placed it on a ledger in the studio."
"Most assuredly I did," Maudie said.
"That you state absolutely on oath?"
"That I state absolutely on oath, if it was my last breath. I am prepared to do everything I can for a man whom I regard as innocent, but I am not perjuring myself as you are good enough to suggest. I am telling the truth."
But Jessop was not letting Maudie off quite as lightly as all that. He could not shake her main statement, but by certain ingenious questions and half insinuations, he was making a strong impression on the jury as he very well knew. When the time came for adjournment, there was not a single expert in the court who would have given sixpence for Tom Gilchrist's chance of escaping the gallows.
And so it went on all the next day and the day after. Lyttleton put up a very good fight, but he did so, knowing that he was losing ground, especially after it had been established that the cause of the quarrel between Sir Walter and Gilchrist had been the very witness who had evidently done her best by sheer perjury to save the lift of a murderer. This was the view of the man in the street and most of those in court who were familiar with such cases. It appeared, also, to be the view of the judge, for, though he was fair and impartial enough, he was all against the prisoner, so that when the jury left the box to consider their verdict, there was only one opinion as to what that verdict would be.
Parkhurst turned to Ian Vascombe who was seated close to him and whispered a few hurried words in his ears.
"For Heaven's sake," he said, "get your sister out of court. I cannot understand why on earth she came. This is no place for any woman, let alone one so intimately connected with the case. Take her away, Vascombe, take her away and give her some tea, and don't come back. The jury will probably be away for an hour and you know what they will say."
It was almost by force that Maudie was removed from the court. It was no maudlin sentiment that had brought her there, but an impulse she could not overcome. She had sat there all day until she was dazed and confused and moving in the centre of what seemed to be a hideous nightmare. But one side of her brain was active enough and she could see clearly the peril in which Tom Gilchrist stood. Yet she could not tear herself away, she protested, but in the back of her mind was grateful for the outer air so that she could try to shut out the scene that seemed to have seared her very soul.
"Now come with me," Ian said. "I know a quiet little place off the Strand where we can get a cup of tea. You look ready to drop. And then, when we know the best or worst, I will call a taxi and take you home."
It was a good hour later before the news came, in the shape of a newsboy carrying a placard in his hand which bore in black letters the words "Vanguard Case. Verdict."
Ian tore one of the papers from the boy's hand and threw him a shilling. The lad hesitated until Ian waved him aside, then he went off, shouting down the street. Trembling, Ian turned to the stop press edition.
"What is it?" Maudie whispered, "What is it?"
But Ian only covered his face with his hands.
Oh the face of it, the end of the double tragedy seemed to be inevitable. After four days' patient trial by a jury of his fellow-countrymen and a fair summing up, Tom Gilchrist had been found guilty of the murder of Sir Walter Vanguard and, unless some miracle happened, it was certain that he would find himself standing on the gallows. For the most part the public regarded him as guilty, though there were one or two who were inclined to question the verdict.
Parkhurst, for one, had not expected it. To his legal mind, there had been one or two flaws in the evidence and he still hoped to prove this on appeal. Of course, there would be an appeal in the course of two or three weeks, but if it was to be successful, Parkhurst would want something more than mere suspicion of some third party to save the neck of his unfortunate client. It seemed to him that he knew perfectly well where to place his hand upon the actual criminal, but so far, he had very little to go upon.
It was a day or two later before he took the first step in what he hoped to be a series of successful investigations. In the first instance he went round to Vascombe's flat with the intention of asking him a few pertinent questions. He found his man at home, sitting moodily before an empty grate with Maudie on the other side of the fire place.
She looked up with a wan smile on her face and an expression in her eyes that moved Parkhurst to pity. She seemed pale and worn, as if she had suffered from want of sleep, and her manner was altogether supine and listless. It was as if she had ceased to take an interest in life altogether.
"You ought to be in bed," Parkhurst suggested.
"Oh, what is the use of that?" Maudie cried. "I cannot rest, I cannot sleep. I have hardly closed my eyes since I saw the announcement in the paper. What are we going to do about it? Are we going to sit here looking at one another whilst Tom suffers for a crime he never committed? You know that he is an innocent as I am."
"Yes, I know that, if it is any consolation to you," Parkhurst said. "We have not given up hope altogether, you know, Don't forget there is such a thing as the Court of Criminal Appeal."
"Ah, I had forgotten that," Ian said. "Of course there must be an appeal. No matter what it costs, no stone must be left unturned."
Parkhurst nodded approvingly.
"I have talked the matter over with Littleton," he said. "And he is quite prepared to go on, without further fee or reward. Now, mind you, I am not promising anything and my hopes for the moment are not based upon anything substantial. But I have satisfied myself that the criminal is not very far off. It is no use my telling you what I suspect, because that would be a foolish thing to do, unless I can give chapter and verse for it. Now, let us go back a bit. Just for a minute, Vascombe, cast your mind back to the night of the murder. It was you who took Mortimer Heek round to Sir Walter's flat to make up the four at bridge."
"Perfectly right. But I don't see—"
"Never mind what you see or don't see, for the moment. Just answer my questions and don't interrupt. Would you be astonished to hear that Sir Walter and Heek were not strangers?"
"Why, I introduced them," Ian cried.
"Yes, I know you did. But you can take it from me as gospel that those two men had met before and that there was bad blood between them. In fact, on more than one occasion Heek directly and indirectly made an attempt on Sir Walter's life. I don't mean lately—I mean in China, many years ago."
"But the thing sounds ridiculous," Vascombe protested. "I brought the two men together and they met in Sir Walter's flat just as if they had been casually introduced. There was no sign on the face of either of them to show that either had ever seen the other before."
"Yes, in the ordinary way it would pass, but that was not an ordinary occasion. The whole business was one of those amazing coincidences which is supposed to happen only in fiction and yet takes place often in daily life. I can prove to you beyond the shadow of a doubt that those men were old enemies. I can imagine Heek showing no signs of recognition, because he knew that you were taking him round to the flat of a man he hated, and, therefore, was quite prepared. Besides, he is a Chinaman, and no man can read a Chinaman's face."
"A Chinaman. Good Lord!" Ian cried. "But then Sir Walter hadn't the least idea that Heek was coming."
"Very likely not. But don't forget that Sir Walter lived for a great many years in China, and had learnt all about the natives and their ways. I can imagine him, after the first instant, being grimly amused at the idea of entertaining a man who had tried to murder him more than once. Now, tell me, did those two shake hands?"
"No, they didn't," Vascombe said. "Neither when Heek entered the flat nor when he left. What on earth are you driving at?—Even supposing that Heek—"
"Oh, well, perhaps I had better show you my evidence," Parkhurst interrupted. "It will save a lot of talk."
With that, the speaker produced his copy of Sir Walter's book and proceeded to quote extracts at length. He showed his two more than interested listeners the pair of photographs with the striking line underneath. And when, at length, he had finished he was glad to see that the listless look had died out of Maudie's eyes and she was taking more than an ordinary interest in the story he was unfolding.
"No, no," he said in answer to a shower of questions. "I can't go any further at present. I am not even going to say that Heek had a hand in Sir Walter's death. The police made a great point of the fact that the dagger belonged to our friend Gilchrist, and that after the murder he must have crept out of the window and pushed the weapon down the waterspout. Now, to my mind, that is the last thing that Tom would have done. Why should he? He had the flat to himself, he knew that Withers was in bed and asleep, and that there was no suspicion whatever against him. He would have taken that dagger away and got rid of it. Oh, no. The man who murdered Sir Walter knew perfectly well whose dagger it was and he placed it cunningly in the spot where the police were bound to find it sooner or later. He wanted to divert suspicion from himself and fix it on somebody else at the same time. And now, Ian, we come to the point. Who had the run of your studio? Who came to see you pretty well when he liked?"
"Why, Heek, of course," Ian gasped.
"Precisely. He could have taken that dagger away without your being any the wiser. Why, you didn't even know, latterly, that you had it. You thought Tom had had it back, when, all the while, it was in your studio, where it had been put by your sister. You see, I am proving nothing, but I am showing you that there is another side to the case. Now, let us go a little further. Let us talk about that wonderful pack of cards. You know what I mean. Those beautiful pictures on ivory that you played with in the flat that night, after the accident with the glass of whisky and soda. I have found a lot about them out of the book just now, and that they belonged to the Heek family. Or rather, I should say, had belonged to the Heek family. You can see for yourself in the book that there is no such person as Heek. The patronymic is Pi, and the man we know today as Mortimer Heek, the capitalist, is none other than Quong Pi who up to a little time ago, was a Chinese General, in other words a pirate out for himself, and who came to England after he had looted a big fortune and assumed the name of Heek. Now, he knew perfectly well who had that missing pack of cards and when he discovered beyond the shadow of a doubt that Sir Walter was the owner of them, he made up his mind to get them back at any price. No doubt, he knew months ago where the cards were, but there was just the possibility that Sir Walter kept them at his bank. My idea is that Heek had made up his mind to use violence and that he took that dagger out of your studio for the purpose, knowing that by so doing he was minimising his risk and at the same time, throwing the blame on somebody else. Well, we will leave it at that for the moment. Now, to revert to something else. You had seen one of those cards before, hadn't you?"
"Of course I had," Ian said. "I saw it in Madame Ninette's Bond Street Shop. Sir Walter brought it round to have it copied after he had lost his bet to Mona Catesby, so that Miss Catesby should have a dress designed from the Queen of Hearts which dress she was going to wear at a public dance. Sir Walter would not allow it out of his possession so I made a water colour sketch of it."
"Do you happen to have that sketch still?"
"Certainly I have. It is upstairs in my studio at the present moment. Shall I fetch it down?"
Parkhurst nodded an assent. In a moment or two Ian was back again, with the exquisite little water colour in his hand. Parkhurst examined it carefully.
"It seems to be a pretty faithful reproduction," he said. "But what are those faint blue lines on the top left hand margin? It looks like a finger print."
"I am pretty sure it is," Ian said. "It is almost invisible, but if you examine it through a strong magnifying glass you will see signs of whorles. Here, Maudie, just give Parkhurst that glass from the mantelpiece."
With the aid of the glass, Parkhurst made his examination. The lines were faint indeed, but they were distinct and had evidently been made by the artist who painted the original and who had not restored them after the face of the card was finished.
"Why did you copy that?" Parkhurst asked.
"Oh, I don't know. Matter of habit, I suppose. You see, I was so interested in the Queen of Hearts herself that I made a really faithful copy of the card. I thought at first, it was a sort of signature in Chinese characters and I am not quite sure now that it isn't. At any rate, there it it—a faithful copy of a magnificent piece of work and one that I intend to keep amongst my curiosities."
"Well, keep it carefully, mind," Parkhurst warned the speaker. "Very likely I shall want you to produce that piece of paper again. For the present, I think I have told you all you ought to know. So keep smiling and hope for the best."
Parkhurst went off presently, and later the same evening he called on Lyttleton to discuss the information he had so recently obtained from Ian Vascombe.
"Well, it certainly doesn't amount to much," Lyttleton said. "All the same, it may be useful. What is your next move?"
"Well, I don't quite know," Parkhurst confessed. "I have told you all about Heek before. I don't think there is much doubt that Heek or Quong Pi, to give him his proper name, could tell us a great deal if he wished."
"Ah, there I am quite with you," Lyttleton said. "And it is precisely because Quong Pi, alias Mortimer Heek, knows so much that I was careful not to mention his name during the proceedings in the Criminal Court. We talked about my client and Vascombe, but designedly Heek was not brought in at all. Now, didn't you tell me that there were three of those packs of cards?"
"I did. One belonged, or belongs to Heek, a second is in New York, and the third, of course, is round at Sir Walter's flat. But why are you asking?"
"Well, because the cards may give us a further clue. According to that book of Sir Walter's, the gold patterns which are weaved into the backs of all the cards contain a life history of the Quong family. It all looks like artistic tracery, but the story would be plain enough to any profound Chinese scholar. Suppose you borrow that pack of cards of Sir Walter's and bring them round to me tomorrow about tea-time? Then we will go round to the British Museum and see my friend, Professor Pilditch, who knows more about Chinese than any man living in Europe. If those gold signs are legible, he will read them fast enough."
This being arranged, Parkhurst called the next morning at Sir Walter's flat and interviewed Withers, who was still in charge there. The latter was pleased enough to see Parkhurst, for he was feeling the loneliness of the situation.
"Is there anything I can do for you, sir?" he asked
"Certainly there is," Parkhurst said. "I know it is altogether out of order, but I want to borrow that pack of cards which Sir Walter produced on the night of his death. I mean the ivory ones. I suppose they are still here."
"Oh, yes, sir," Withers explained. "Nobody has taken them away, and nobody has ever asked to see them, not even the police."
"Good," Parkhurst said. "I want to borrow them for a day or two. I suppose you don't mind."
"Oh, I don't mind, sir," Withers said. "Only I was told by the gentleman who came from Sir Walter's lawyer that nothing was to leave the flat. But seeing as how it is you, sir, well, that makes all the difference."
With that, Withers went across to the secretaire and produced the wonderful pack of cards in their carved ivory case. Parkhurst slipped the box casually into his pocket.
"You put those cards up the morning after the murder, did you not?" he asked.
"That's right, sir. You told me it was wrong to do so, but I thought there was no harm in tidying up, and I gathered the cards and slipped them inside the ivory case."
A sudden thought seemed to strike Parkhurst.
"Were they lying about?" he asked eagerly. "Lying anyhow? One or two on the floor; perhaps?"
"No, they wasn't," Withers replied. "They was laid out in rows on the table. Four rows with every suit separate. Just as if my poor master had been playing a game of patience when the murderer came in and struck him down."
Parkhurst nodded but said nothing. An astute observer would have noticed that this reply was not displeasing to him. A few minutes later he went off with the cards in his possession and a little after five o'clock the same afternoon, he found himself, together with Lyttleton, in the private room of Professor Pilditch at the British Museum. Lyttleton outlined the object of the visit and, when he had finished Parkhurst took the cards from their case and spread them face upward on the table.
The professor bent over them with every sign of delight.
"Ah, wonderful, wonderful!" he cried. "Of course, I have heard of these cards before. There were three packs of them originally and they took three generations of artists to complete them. I have been trying for years to get a sight of these cards, but it is as if they had vanished from the face of the earth. Where did you get them?"
Parkhurst proceeded to explain. He went at some length into the history of the packs, how they had originally belonged to one Sin Pi and how the last descendant of the race, Quong Pi, was in England, though, for the moment, Parkhurst said nothing with regard to the alias of Mortimer Heek.
"Dear me, how interesting," the professor said. "So one pack is in New York, the other lies before me and the third you believe to be in the possession of Quong Pi. Now, I should very much like to see Mr. Quong Pi."
"So you shall," Lyttleton promised. "But for the moment, if you don't mind, I want you to forget, professor, that the man exists. There are very urgent reasons why this interview of ours should be a profound secret. In fact, a man's life depends upon the secrecy. The reason we came down here today is to invite your cooperation in translating those wonderful gold designs on the back of the cards into everyday English. We think rightly or wrongly, that the knowledge derived therefrom may help us in an important clue we are following up."
"Delighted, delighted," the professor said. "As I told you just now, I know all about those three packs of cards and when I say that, I mean I know of them in my reading. But how did you know that the gold lettering—"
Parkhurst interrupted with a few extracts from Sir Walter Vanguard's book. The professor nodded.
"Oh, yes," he said, "I didn't know Sir Walter personally but his knowledge of China was infinite. However, let us see if I can make out something of those cards."
He took one of the ivory tablets casually from the table and turned it face downwards. For some few minutes he puzzled frowningly over the gold tracery and then, gradually a smile spread over his keen, sensitive face.
"Ah, here we are," he said. "Here is an incident that happened years ago. You must understand that each of those few lines, represents not so many letters, but so many sentences. It is all in the purest Chinese, the sort of Chinese that is rarely spoken now-a-days, even amongst the mandarin class. You see, there are no less than four hundred languages in China and perhaps as many dialects. You may not be aware of the fact that if you were a Chinaman today, living, say, in Brixton, you would not understand the dialect of a man who resides at Clapham. That is why the traders invented Pidgin English. But I am getting a bit off the mark."
The professor stopped speaking for a minute or two and pored over the card once more.
"I am getting through it all right," he said. "But I don't seem to have the key card. There is one card in each pack which is a sort of index and until I can find that particular card I am rather at sea. Yes, I've got it. Mr. Parkhurst, will you kindly sort me out the Ace of Spades?"
Parkhurst found the card and handed it over.
"Yes, that is right," the professor said. "I find I am perfectly correct. It is simply wonderful how these signs and symbols interlock with one another, like some amazing puzzle. And yet they are so purely artistic. I don't know if you want me to read out what I am translating or whether you prefer to leave the cards with me so that I can work it out and get one of my secretaries to type it."
"I think that would be the best," Lyttleton said.
"Very well then, I will do so; but this is wonderful. This discovery will be of interest to thousands. It will throw quite a new light on Chinese history. I have just found—no, I have not—it breaks off just at the most interesting part. Now, let me see what it means. Yes, I begin to have an idea. Here is a break that points clearly to another card in the pack. If you will be patient with me for a minute or two, I will tell you which card it is. Um—yes—and yet—"
For quite a long time the professor bent over the Ace of Spades with a palsied frown between his fine brows and then, suddenly, his face cleared again.
"How very stupid of me," he said.
"Mr. Parkhurst, I wish you would find the Queen of Hearts for me."
Eagerly, Parkhurst shuffled the cards through his hands. "The Queen of Hearts is missing," he cried.
Parkhurst and Lyttleton exchanged significant glances behind the back of the professor. It was as if the same thought had occurred to both simultaneously.
"Dear me, this is very unfortunate," the expert said. "Are you quite sure that the Queen of Hearts is missing?"
"I am afraid there is very little doubt about it," Parkhurst exclaimed. "I had no idea when I came here that the pack was incomplete. Does it much matter?"
"Well, it breaks the continuity of the story," the professor said. "However, if you will leave the cards with me, I will see what I can do. This is a most interesting business and I am intensely curious as to the result."
Lyttleton glanced at his friend as much as to suggest that the next move should come from Parkhurst.
"Oh, keep them as long as you like," the latter said. "It is rather unfortunate that this should have happened, but it may not make much difference in the long run. Now I wonder, Professor, if you can tell me anything about the history of the other two packs. I have a pretty shrewd idea where one is, but I should like to know the whereabouts of the third and how the present owner became possessed of it. It went to America, I know. I suppose there is no way of finding out the name of the American gentleman and the circumstances in which the cards found their way into his possession?"
"Oh, yes, there is," the Professor smiled. "We have a wonderful collection of Chinese works of arts in the museum with their histories, and not only that, but we keep a record of all kinds of transactions concerning Oriental treasures which are outside the museum. I don't think that there is a unique object in the way of a Chinese curio in Europe or America of which we have no record. Whenever there is a big sale of these sort of things, we always follow it up and note down the names of the purchasers. If you would like to see the gentleman here who is responsible for that particular department, I will take you to him at once."
"That is very good of you," Parkhurst said. "You can't do anything more for us at the moment, so we will leave the cards and you can write to me about them at your leisure. But I should like to see the gentleman who keeps the records."
A few minutes later Parkhurst and Lyttleton found themselves in another office, talking to an elderly gentleman who listened attentively to what they had to say.
"Oh, yes," he said. "I can tell you what you want. Excuse me a moment, I will just look at my records."
The speaker came back a few minutes later with a brief, pencilled memorandum in his hand.
"Here you are," he explained. "About four years ago a pack of those cards was put up for sale in the auction rooms of Messrs Whitestrands, the famous art dealers. How it came into their possession I cannot tell you, but that I could find out, if necessary. Probably loot. At any rate, it was sold for a considerable sum to an American gentleman named James P. Riff. I believe he is one of the New York millionaires, and has a perfect museum in his house on Fifth Avenue. I will give you my card, so that if you want to call upon Messrs Whitestrands, they will answer any questions you like to ask."
There was nothing for it for the moment but for Parkhurst and his companion to take their departure. They walked along in gloomy silence, and no word was exchanged between them until they reached Lyttleton's chambers.
"Well," Parkhurst asked. "What do you think of it?"
"I certainly begin to see daylight," the lawyer admitted. "Now, just what is your opinion?"
"My opinion is that Heek murdered Sir Walter Vanguard with the deliberate intention of stealing the Queen of Hearts from his pack. I daresay you will ask why he did not take the lot while he was about it, but that might have led to serious trouble. He only wanted the Queen of Hearts and he took a big risk on the night of the murder to get it."
"Yes, but how was the murder committed?"
"Well, I think that I can tell you. Mind you, it is only theory, but every step we take strengthens it. Let us just go for the facts. We know, now, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that when Heek went to Sir Walter's flat, he knew whom he was going to meet, and the recognition was mutual. That was a pure bit of luck for Heek which he didn't expect. I mean in finding himself under the same roof as his enemy, and with the very object he so much coveted practically in his hand."
"Yes, but why did he want it so badly?"
"Well, to complete his own pack, in the first place. But there was something deeper than that. Ancestor worship and all that kind of thing. When Heek escaped from China with the plunder, he came to Europe with one great object in his mind. And that object was to get the three packs in his possession again. That was part of his queer religion—a fanatical obsession that overwhelmed everything else. If you will grant me that, I will go on."
"Yes, I think so," Lyttleton said thoughtfully. "Sir Walter made rather a point of that sort of thing in his book."
"Very well then. He meant to get that Queen of Hearts, even if he had to wade through blood to do so, and luck favoured him to a wonderful degree. And beyond the shadow of a doubt Heek has that Queen of Hearts in his possession at the present moment."
"Not much doubt about that," Lyttleton murmured. "But how was the crime committed?"
"I am just coming to that," Parkhurst went on. "Don't forget what I told you with regard to Sir Walter's flat, and the fact that the front door was never properly fastened. There was a peculiar sort of Yale lock which was fitted with three keys. One of these Sir Walter had, the second was entrusted to Withers, and the third was an emergency key which hung on a shield behind the front door. It was the custom of both occupants of the flat to hang their key up on that shield when they came in. I know this, because I have closely examined Withers on the subject. He is quite certain that when he came home on the night of the murder after his evening out, he hung the key on the shield. He is equally certain that at that moment the other two were in their places. Have I made that absolutely clear?"
"So far—perfectly," Lyttleton said.
"Let us go a step further. Somewhere about midnight Heek had a telephone call, and the bridge party broke up. He and Vascombe left the flat together, leaving Gilchrist behind. My idea is that, as the two men passed through the passage, Heek abstracted one of those keys from the shield and slipped it in his pocket. Now, mind you, he knew perfectly well that he would be safe in so doing. In the street Heek parted from Vascombe, and then he hung about until he saw Withers return to the flat, and Tom Gilchrist leave. Then, when he felt sure that the coast was clear, and that Withers was safe for the night, he crept back into the building and opened the front door with the spare key. Everything went smoothly, and Sir Walter died. Heek picked up the Queen of Hearts from the table and hurriedly fled with it. We know the cards were lying on the table because Withers found them there before he tidied up. And then Heek made his first mistake."
"And what did that happen to be?" Lyttleton asked.
"Well, he was in such a hurry to get away that he forgot all about the latch key. He only realised he had still got it in his possession when he returned home or probably when he woke in the morning. Now, to make assurance doubly sure, he had to put that key back in its place. By doing so, he made the mystery still more obscure. So he invented some excuse for calling at the flat. He said he had left a silk handkerchief behind him the night before, and, apparently, he had, because it was found in the bottom of the umbrella stand."
"Yes, but didn't he find it himself?"
"Precisely," Parkhurst said. "He found that which was not lost. What he wanted to do was to divert Withers' attention for a moment whilst he put the latchkey back. As you know, Withers told me that he was on his hands and knees, looking behind the oak chest, when Heek exclaimed that the handkerchief was found. And then you will remember I told you about the dropped half-crown. I don't believe Heek dropped a half-crown at all. I am firmly convinced that Heek allowed the latchkey to slip through his fingers on to the floor in his hurry to get it back on the nail again. He had time to snatch it up and replace it, muttering something about a dropped half-crown which he then took from his pocket and handed to Withers. And see how amazingly his luck crept in. He was actually in the flat before Withers had found out that his master was dead."
"Yes, it seems like it," Lyttleton replied. "And I am bound to say that your theory is rather convincing. But how are you going to put it to the proof?"
"Ah, that for the moment I don't know," Parkhurst contested. "All the same, I am pretty sure that I am right, and if I had any doubt, the fact that the Queen of Hearts is missing would remove it."
"I am inclined to agree with you. But, tell me, why were you so keen on seeing that old gentleman at the British Museum who kept the records of those art sales?"
"Because I believe that his information about Whitestrands is going to help us. I shall be very much surprised if I don't find that they have had dealings with Heek."
When, a day or so later, Parkhurst came to make enquiries of the famous firm of auctioneers in St James' Square, he was pleased to find that his suspicions were correct. One of the partners was quite ready to help him in his search, and equally obliging, when, asked to regard Parkhurst's visit as secret and confidential.
"I quite remember the circumstances you allude to, Mr. Parkhurst," the Whitestrand representative said. "Of course I can't tell you the name of the man who brought those cards to us for disposal. You see, we take a good deal on trust, and it is no business of ours to make enquiries as to the bona-fides of our clients. Every day people from all over the world, sailors and explorers and other wanderers, come here with valuable things for disposal. In a way we stand in the same relation to them as if we were pawnbrokers. I have no doubt, whatever, that the pack of cards we sold about the time we mention was brought us by some traveller. I think he must have got them honestly, because he hadn't this remotest idea of their value. I have no doubt that he was amazingly surprised when he got our cheque. Of course we could look up his name, but it might be an assumed one, for all we know to the contrary, still, if you want us to try and trace him, it may not be impossible."
"I am not in the least interested in him," Parkhurst smiled, "but what I am interested in is the man who purchased the pack of cards when you put them up for auction."
"Ah, that," the auctioneer smiled, "is a different thing altogether. I can tell you without looking at our register who bought them. They went to a Mr. Riff, an American millionaire, who spends vast sums on that sort of thing. He not only bought that pack, but he told us there were two more like it in the world, and he offered us a small fortune it we could get hold of them for him. We did our best, of course, but without avail. We did discover that one pack belonged to Sir Walter Vanguard, a gentleman who was murdered not long ago, but nothing would induce him to part with them. Curiously enough, within the last month of two, we have ascertained that a third pack belongs to Mr. Mortimer Heek. You may have heard of him."
"I certainly have," Parkhurst said a little grimly. "You mean the mysterious Levantine financier, who has lately come into such prominence."
"Yes, that is the man. He was most anxious to obtain the cards from Sir Walter and also from Mr. Riff. He knew that Mr. Riff had one pack and we gave him that gentleman's address. I don't think that Mr. Heek had any success, though, by a strange chance, Mr. Riff is in England at the present moment."
"The Dickens he is," Parkhurst exclaimed. "Would you mind telling me where he is to be found?"
"Not in the least," was the reply. "He is staying at the Majestic, where he has a suite of rooms, and he also is the tenant of an old black and white house not far from Sevenoaks. He is very keen on old English architecture, and at the moment is negotiating with the purpose of buying one of the finest specimens of what is called 'magpie' work in the kingdom. He told me the last time I saw him that he should settle down in this country. This information he gave me when I went to see him on business at Sevenoaks last week."
"Does he happen to be down there now?" Parkhurst asked.
"Well, as a matter of fact, he does. He spends all his spare time there. If you want to see him, you had better make an appointment with his secretary at the Majestic."
Pankhurst murmured something indefinite in reply, and, after a few more questions, left the offices of the famous auctioneers. For the moment he had obtained all the information he wanted, and was not disposed to be dissatisfied with it. But there was much work to be done yet, before he was in a position to lay all the facts before Lyttleton if there was to be the slightest chance of success before the Court of Criminal Appeal.
Parkhurst turned his steps in a more easterly direction until he came at length to a block of offices in one of the business streets. There he ascended in the lift to the top floor, and knocked at a door outside of which was a brass plate bearing the name 'John Bent,' and underneath it the word 'Enquiries.' A little later he was seated opposite a small, rather nervous- looking man, who welcomed him with all the respect due from a private enquiry agent to a leading criminal solicitor.
"Now, Bent, I want you to listen to me carefully," Parkhurst said. "Get out your notebook and take down all the facts. They concern the murder of Sir Walter Vanguard, and my client, Mr. Gilchrist, who is under sentence of death. Now, this is going to be a big thing, and if you can do what I hope you can do, then it will be more than a feather in your cap. And you are not to spare any expense, mind. Now, are you ready?"
For the best part of half an hour the little man behind the desk was busy with his notebook. There was not a single detail connected with the Vanguard murder which Parkhurst had not contrived to convey to him.
"I think that is about all, sir," Bent said. "Would you mind telling me exactly what you want me to do next?"
"That, for the moment, is quite simple," Parkhurst explained. "I want you to keep a close eye on every movement of Heek's. Get one or two of your men on his track at once and follow him day and night. If he leaves London in his car, then follow him. Take a taxi, or have a private car at my expense, if you like. But wherever he goes, he is to be kept under observation. I will give you his address which is rather a modest one for a millionaire. Here it is. It won't be very difficult for you sleuths to keep him in sight, especially as he has not the remotest idea that he is being watched, or that we have, in any way, connected him with the Vanguard murder. I expect you to report to me every evening as to your progress."
With that, Parkhurst went his way, and the little detective lost no time in getting to work. It was two evenings later when one of his subordinates came to him with information to the effect that Mortimer Heek was dining at the Cecil, and that his big car was standing waiting outside to take him as far as the Sevenoaks, Bent wasted no time in asking how his employee had obtained this information. He flew to the telephony and in less than five minutes the car he had hired at Parkhurst's instigation awaited him.
Then, later on, began a stern chase of Heek's car from the hotel in London, and thence as far as Sevenoaks. Once arrived at his destination, Heek's car passed through a pair of great hammered iron gates and stood at the entrance to a house where the American millionaire was in residence, and, just outside, Bent's two-seater pulled up in the shadows.
"You stay where you are," Bent whispered to his chauffeur. "I am going through the wicket gate as far as the house to watch. Keep your eyes open for anything suspicious, and use your whistle if you want me. Unless I am greatly mistaken there is some mischief afoot tonight and I don't want to miss it. Whatever you do, don't smoke."
With these instructions, the chauffeur drew a little closer into the roadside, and Bent crept through the side gate and made his way along the dark drive till he saw, right in front of him, the lights from the house. It was a very dark evening for the time of the year, with a thick mist overhead, and a drizzling rain falling without a break. And there Bent listened for the best part of an hour until the front door of the house opened and Heek appeared, evidently in no pleasant state of mind. As he climbed into his car, it seemed to Bent that he could hear the sound of something very like a threat. Then the big car jumped forward and was almost by the gates before Bent could get a proper move on. A moment later something that sounded like a shot rang out on the muffled air and Bent spurted at full speed for the gates. By the time he had reached them Heek had passed through, and was out of sight in the mist before Bent's two-seater could start up again in pursuit.
"Did you see anything?" Bent asked the chauffeur.
"No, sir, I didn't see nothing," the latter replied. "I thought I heard the car stop for a second or two and then go on again. All I know is that it was so close to me I was afraid of a smash. Pity you weren't a bit quicker, sir; we shall never catch that car in this mist now."
Bent nodded approval. The mist was getting thicker and thicker, and the little man had no desire to court a disaster on the high road. There was nothing for it but to pick a way into London and then call up Parkhurst on the telephone, and and let him know exactly what had happened.
"Oh, well, I suppose there is no great harm done," Parkhurst replied over the wire. "I don't suppose you would have discovered anything tonight in any case. I will come round and see you in the morning. I have made one or two little discoveries of my own which may be useful, Good-night."
Parkhurst replaced the receiver, and finished his cigar before going to bed. He was down fairly early in the morning, and, after breakfast, turned for a moment or two to the contemplation of the papers that were neatly folded by the side of his coffee cup. He opened one of then at the centre page and gasped as he saw something there in big type that brought him up all standing. Just two headlines that were filled with a dread import:
TRAGEDY OF A MULTI-MILLIONAIRE
Mr. MORTIMER HEEK MURDERED
From one point of view, the startling information with regard to Mortimer Heek was something of a blow to Parkhurst. Naturally, he had not contemplated another tragedy within a tragedy, for somewhere in the back of his mind was a scheme which would have enabled him to confront Heek with proofs of his crime, and force a confession from him. Now, of course, he would have to abandon that and start from another base.
There was little or nothing in the newspaper beyond the fact that Mortimer Heek had come to a violent end.
But, later on in the day, when the evening papers appeared, there was an amazing amplification of the first announcement. The evening journals were full of it, in the astonishing way in which the Press gathers detail, and its representatives seemed to have done their work thoroughly.
Apparently, Mortimer Heek had been killed just outside the lodge gates of an old-fashioned house near Sevenoaks, where he had gone to pay a call on an American gentleman named Riff. After he had parted from the man in question Heek had re-entered his car and had been driven through the lodge gates into the high road. There the car had been pulled up for some reason or another, possibly owing to the fact that the night was extremely foggy with drifting patches, so that probably the chauffeur had noticed some obstruction in the road. It was only for a moment that the car had stopped and had gone on again after the lodge keeper had heard what he thought to be a shot. He had not troubled about that because the noise might have been caused by a backfire, and the lodgekeeper was positive that he had heard the car move again after a very short delay.
Then, a strange discovery was made. Heek had not been driven back to his flat and when, very late at night, he had not returned, his housekeeper gave the alarm. A visit to the garage where the car was kept disclosed the fact that the big Daimler was safely housed, and that the chauffeur was nowhere to be seen. When the police were called in, they found Mr. Mortimer Heek sitting dead in his car with a bullet through his brain. Knowing that the chauffeur occupied a bedroom over the garage, the police forced the locked door, only to find the man lying in his bed, gagged and bound. According to his story, he had been surprised and overpowered in the garage, just before he was about to take it out to convey his master to Sevenoaks, after which he remembered nothing until the police forced their way into his bedroom. Another strange circumstance lay in the fact that the chauffeur himself was a Chinaman, and that his assailants had been men of the same nationality.
So far as the police could make out, a strange driver had taken the car as far as Heek's flat, whilst the owner was quite unaware of the fact that someone was acting as substitute for his regular chauffeur. One Chinaman being very much like another, it was not unnatural that the dead man should make such a mistake. Then the police had discovered a further important clue to the mystery.
Inside the car, lying on the floor they found a piece of paper on which was drawn a rough outline of three cormorants with some Chinese inscription below. Whereupon an extra intelligent reporter had mentioned this fact to an oriental scholar of his acquaintance, who claimed the cormorants to be the sign manual of one of the most sinister and powerful tongs in China. After that, there could be no doubt that the crime was one of revenge. It had been planned carefully and carried out with swiftness and despatch.
All these facts Parkhurst read in the evening press, and more or less verified by turning up a chapter in Sir Walter Vanguard's book, which was devoted to Chinese secret societies. He found there an actual mention of the Three Cormorants, and a great deal concerning their activities at the hands of those who had used them as a sign and a menace.
"What do you think of all this?" Parkhurst asked Lyttleton when he called on the latter in the evening.
"I have been reading the whole thing myself," Lyttleton replied. "According to my interpretation, Heek was a member of that tong, and probably betrayed it. I mean, when he got away from China with all that loot, after playing the game of general officer, he probably thought that the rest of his followers who ought to have shared in the booty would trouble no further about him. But you see, they did. They followed him to England, and I have no doubt they have been tracking him down for weeks. But all this doesn't help us much."
"On the contrary, it blocks our way," Parkhurst said. "I was hoping to bring Sir Walter's murder straight home to Heek and force a confession out of him. Now we shall have to reconsider our position. What do you suggest?"
"I have been thinking about that," said Lyttleton. "If I were you, I should go and see Inspector Winch, who had the Vanguard case in hand. It was his work that put the rope round poor Gilchrist's neck. Of course, he was only doing his duty, and I don't suppose he has any feeling either way. If you take my advice, you will see him and lay our case before him and invite his assistance. What we want, and want badly, is to get hold of that missing Queen of Hearts. If I could produce that in Court then I think I could save Gilchrist. But without it, we are like a ship without a rudder."
After a little more discussion, it was arranged that Parkhurst should lose no time in calling at Scotland Yard and seeking an interview with Inspector Winch.
The latter was quite ready to see Parkhurst and listened with more than a passing interest to all that he had to say. By the time Parkhurst had finished, Winch was walking up and down the room with a restlessness that proved how deeply all this was disturbing him.
"Every word you say is quite new to me," he said at length. "Why didn't you bring it out during the case?"
"What would have been the use?" Parkhurst countered. "Besides, the last thing I wanted to do was to put Heek on his guard. He would have read all about it in the papers, and taken steps to hide his tracks. It would have been madness to let that man know how much we had learnt about his past from that book of Sir Walter's I was telling you about just now. I don't suppose he even knew that such a book existed. And, another thing—the jury regarded with great suspicion the evidence which was given by our witness, Mr. Vascombe. They were quite persuaded that he and his sister were perjuring themselves over the missing dagger in order to save the life of a man Miss Vascombe loved. At that time we knew nothing at all about the missing picture card. It was only by accident, as I told you just now, that I discovered that the card was missing at all. You remember my saying that, don't you?"
"Oh, yes, certainly I do," Winch said. "I don't think I have missed a single point you have made. I am quite prepared to believe that Mortimer Heek and Sir Walter were deadly enemies. And I can understand the psychology of both when they met as strangers under Sir Walter's roof. I am supposing for a moment that every word you say is correct. I am supposing that Heek made up his mind on that fatal night to murder Sir Walter and get away with the Queen of Hearts. Let us say that he subsequently did. Let us go still further, and take it for granted that Heek behaved exactly as you suggest. I mean that he got away with the latchkey when he left the flat and hung about outside somewhere until the coast was clear. It is quite logical that he did make his appearance at the flat the next morning with the intention of restoring the missing latchkey to its place. I can quite understand his having forgotten all about that. Again, the evidence of the man, Withers, as to the search for that handkerchief and the dropped half-crown is perhaps logical. In the face of all this, I am prepared to believe the testimony of Miss Vascombe and her brother. And you have convinced me that Heek, who had the run of Mr. Vascombe's studio, could easily have stolen the dagger. Now, you tell me that a copy of the missing Queen of Hearts was made by Mr. Vascombe, to enable Madame Ninette's dressmakers to work out a costume for Miss Mona Catesby. Lots of people must have handled that. I mean the copy. Furthermore, you tell me that on the original was the faintest mark in a corner made by the artist who painted the original card."
"Yes," Parkhurst said eagerly. "The faintest green outline of a thumb, as if the artist had been dealing in that colour and had touched the card when his thumb was wet. I will show you the copy if you like, and you can see much the same impression on it as it appealed to Mr. Vascombe's eye. When we find the missing Queen of Hearts and compare it with the copy, you will see that my theory is sound."
"Yes, I believe it is," Winch said. "Now, look here, Mr. Parkhurst, I only did my duty at the trial, and I have no prejudice whatever. If Mr. Gilchrist is innocent, then you can count upon me to do whatever I can. In the first place, tell me exactly what you want."
"Well, so far as you are concerned, there is only one thing, and that is the missing Queen of Hearts. I am perfectly certain that Heek has it somewhere in his flat, and because you Scotland Yard people can do exactly as you like, I am appealing to you, in the cause of truth and justice, to help me to try and find that vital piece of evidence. I can't search Heek's flat, but you can. That is if you have the case in hand."
"I haven't," Winch said, "but my colleague, Docker, has. I will see him for you this very afternoon."
As a general rule, cases before the Court of Criminal Appeal do not excite much interest, became they are usually a forlorn hope on the part of some unfortunate prisoner that something may turn up in his favour at the eleventh hour. But in the matter of Gilchrist public curiosity had been stipulated by various rumours which had somehow got abroad, so that when the three judges took their seats, the space available to the sensation-mongers was filled almost beyond capacity.
The proceedings opened quietly enough. Lyttleton arose to address the Bench, and proceeded to outline the case, so far as it had gone. It was only when he hinted of fresh evidence bearing on the crime and, quite apart from the usual dry legal arguments, that the listeners were conscious of the first thrill in an entirely new and original drama.
"I am not going to trouble your lordships with any legal arguments," Lyttleton began. "I am not even suggesting the usual misdirection of the jury or that the witnesses were not given a fair chance during the trial. I am going much further than that, I am gong to prove, to the satisfaction of the court, that my client is absolutely innocent of the charge against him, and that the murder was committed by somebody else. This may seem obvious to counsel defending a prisoner, but I am going to name the man who murdered Sir Walter Vanguard."
One of the three judges bent forward eagerly.
"That is a very serious statement, Mr. Lyttleton." he said. "I trust you can substantiate it."
"I hope to, my lord," Lyttleton went on. "Now, your lordships are all conversant with what happened to Sir Walter Vanguard. As judges sitting in the Court of Criminal Appeal each of you has shorthand notes of the proceedings and I will not venture to suggest that you have failed to study those notes with the utmost care. I have mentioned this because I want to call your particular attention to what happened on the night of the crime. When two witnesses at the recent trial left Sir Walter's flat on the night of his death, he was apparently alone there with his nephew, Mr. Tom Gilchrist. Now, those two witnesses are exempt from any sort of suspicion, or so it appears. Mr. Ian Vascombe, who told the Central Criminal Court all about what happened on that fatal evening, and also his version of what I may call the dagger incident, left Sir Walter's flat with Mr. Mortimer Heek, and that was the last time he saw the unfortunate gentleman alive. But the same statement does not apply to Mr Mortimer Heek."
"One moment," the second of the judges interrupted, "According to my notes, Mr. Heek left the flat at the same time that Mr. Vascombe did. They parted in the road outside and went different ways. According to the evidence of Thomas Gilchrist, given on his own behalf, he was the last person to see Sir Walter alive. He left the flat, closing the front door behind him in the belief that the man, Withers, had come in and gone to bed. In the face of all this, Mr. Lyttleton, are you asking us to believe that Mr. Heek saw Sir Walter again that night?"
"I am not only asking your lordships to believe it," Lyttleton said. "But I am going to prove the fact. I am going to show you how Mr. Heek went back, and why. And, lastly, I am going to prove that Mortimer Heek murdered Sir Walter Vanguard."
Something like a shout went up from those assembled in court. Nothing like this had ever occurred before the judges of criminal appeal, and it might be a long time ere such a dramatic statement was made again. It came like a thunderclap after two or three hours of something like dreariness.
The three Judges bent forward simultaneously.
"That is a most serious claim, Mr. Lyttleton," one of them said. "You actually want us to believe that you are in a position to prove what you say? The suggestion is all the more disturbing because you are speaking about a dead man."
"I am quite aware of that, my lords," Lyttleton went on. "I can assure the court that I have put a lot of anxious thought to the matter before I decided to speak of it in public. But before going any further, I am going to tell your lordships that Sir Walter Vanguard and Mortimer Heek were deadly enemies. Your reading of the notes of the previous trial will not disclose that fact to you. You will have come to the natural conclusion that Mr. Heek's visit to Sir Walter's flat that evening was a pure accident. Well, I am not going to deny it. It was one of those amazing coincidences that only happen in real life. One of the four players had fallen out, and Mr. Vascombe agreed to find a substitute. He thought of his customer, Mortimer Heek, who lived not very far off, and Mr. Heek was fetched accordingly. He was welcomed without a word on Sir Walter's part, and if you had known Sir Walter as well as his friends do, you would not be surprised to learn that Heek was received just as any other stranger might have been. But, all the same, those men had met in China, years before, and had crossed words more than once. In fact, on the testimony of Sir Walter himself, Mr. Mortimer Heek had attempted his life on several occasions."
"You are actually prepared to prove this?" the Bench asked.
"It is not a question of my proving it, your lordships," Lyttleton said. "I am going to prove it from the written testimony of Sir Walter himself. Some considerable time ago he wrote a book called 'China—A Menace.' It was a volume that had very little vogue, and I have had considerable difficulty in obtaining a copy of it. But the whole story is there, and I would venture to suggest to your lordships that when these proceedings are adjourned at four o'clock, as they must be, you will take an opportunity of studying the book in question. I have marked certain passages and certain photographs that tell their own tale. It will facilitate my case and save a great deal of public time if this course is adopted. And one word before I apply for an adjournment. Your lordships will find that the man known as Mortimer Heek was a Chinaman of family whose real name is Quong Pi. He was, until recently, a so-called general, leading one of the brigand Chinese armies, and he escaped to England when he had sufficiently lined his pockets. And this is not my statement merely, but a quotation from information in the hands of the Foreign Office. And I think, when your lordships come to read the volume I am speaking about, you will understand the reason that brought Quong Pi to England. May I ask for an adjournment till tomorrow morning?"
The three Judges of the Bench agreed with Lyttleton's request, and the excited listeners regretfully left the court, together with the reporters, who hurried off to their respective offices with a life story to tell. There could be nothing more now until the following morning, when the court was crammed to suffocation by an excited mob, wild to hear the latest development of the strangest case that ever came before the Court of Criminal Appeal. It was the President who spoke first.
"We have had an opportunity of reading the remarkable book, which you passed up to us yesterday afternoon, Mr. Lyttleton, and my colleagues and myself would be more than interested to hear the rest of your speech. It is quite clear to us that this Quong Pi and Sir Walter Vanguard were enemies, and that the Chinaman was actuated, not only by a desire for vengeance, but also to obtain possession of a certain card which was missing from that remarkable pack in Sir Walter's possession. But you have a long way to go before you can satisfy this court that those sinister activities were carried out."
"That is just what I expected your Lordships to say," Lyttleton replied. "And now, with your permission, and without wasting your further time, I will call the evidence."
First of all, Withers stepped into the box. Up to a point, he told the three eminent men on the Bench very much what he had told the jury in the Central Criminal Court. He told the story of the quarrel he had overheard as he was on his way to bed, and how he had found his master dead the following morning. He also described the unexpected visit of Mortimer Heek in search of his lost handkerchief, whilst the audience listened open-mouthed to what seemed to be the first clue in the theory that Lyttleton was ingeniously building up. Then, deftly and skilfully, Lyttleton elicited the information as to how the room where the dead man lay was cleared up and how the pack of cards was put away in its ivory case in the old secretaire. Then, when Withers had finished, Parkhurst took his place. He told the court all his suspicions as to the dropped half-crown and the latchkey, and then went on to say how it was he himself who had discovered that the Queen of Hearts was missing from the famous pack of cards which had been used on the night of Sir Walter's death. He told the court, also, how he had found Sir Walters book outside a second-hand book shop in Charing Cross Road.
Then came the turn of Ian Vascombe. He spoke of Heek as one of his wealthy patrons, for whom he had done a great deal of work from time to time, and how Heek had the run of his studio. Then he began to describe the scene in Madame Ninette's shop when he had made a copy of the Queen of Hearts for the benefit of that fashionable modiste's dressmakers. He produced the drawing which was handed up to the Bench.
There was a stir in court at this moment, and Inspector Docker came in. He bent over to Lyttleton and whispered something in the latter's ear. Lyttleton rose immediately.
"My lords," he said huskily. "A most important discovery has been made by inspector Docker, who has the Heek case in hand. In a safe in Mr. Heek's flat, opened just now, the missing Queen of Hearts has been found. I call for it."
Amidst a silence which could literally be felt, Inspector Docker handed to Lyttleton an object wrapped in tissue paper. The latter tore the covering off and, without comment, handed up the thin ivory card to the bench. For some few minutes, the three judges bent their heads over the card and examined it carefully. Then one of them asked for a strong magnifying glass, and, with this, made a still closer inspection. The president turned towards the court.
"This appears to my learned brethren and myself," he said, "to be a very remarkable piece of work. It is a Queen of Hearts and obviously belongs to an ivory pack of cards of rare workmanship and beauty. But that I need not go into. I understand, Mr. Lyttleton, that you claim this card as the one missing from the late Sir Walter Vanguard's collection."
"That is my contention, my lord," Lyttleton said.
"In that, the court is inclined to agree with you. Through a powerful glass, it is plainly established that on one of the corners is the mark of a thumb in a faint green pigment. We should like to hear how this card came into the hands of Inspector Docker. The proceedings are somewhat irregular, but then, this is an irregular case. I suggest, Mr. Lyttleton, that you put Inspector Docker into the box."
The officer in question came forward and took the oath. He turned to Lyttleton and awaited his questions.
"Now, Inspector Decker," counsel said, "will you kindly tell the court how that card came into your possession?"
"It came into my possession, sir, in the course of my duty. I have Mr. Heek's case in hand. I am charged with the responsibility of bringing Mr. Heek's murderers to justice."
"Quite so, inspector. But before we go any further, I should like to show if Heek was the dead man's real name."
"No, it wasn't, sir," the Inspector replied. "He chose to be known in this country as Mortimer Heek, but he was really a Chinaman of a good old family called Quong Pi."
"Is that all the information you have about him?"
"No, sir. From information received, Quong Pi, until the last few years, had sustained losses that reduced him almost to poverty. He was an educated man in fact, he was educated latterly at an English university. When the trouble broke out in China and the Emperor was deposed Quong Pi assumed the role of a general. In this country we should have called him a bandit. In his new capacity, he achieved considerable riches and, having conveyed his fortune abroad, left his own country for good. I may say that I have this information from the Foreign Office. When he was murdered, it was my duty to make inquiries, and I have satisfied myself that what I say is correct."
"Have you formed any theory as to why this particular crime was committed?" Lyttleton asked.
"Certainly I have. I should say revenge. We believe in the Yard that Quong Pi was followed to England by the emissaries of a secret society called the Three Cormorants. What the Chinese call a Tong. In fact, their badge or insignia was found in Quong Pi's car after his death."
Lyttleton turned a moment to the bench.
"I have already mentioned this secret society, your worships," he said. "Moreover, you have read all about it in Sir Walter Vanguard's book."
"Perfectly correct, Mr. Lyttleton," the president murmured.
Lyttleton turned again to the witness.
"And in the course of your investigations you made a search of the murdered man's flat, I presume."
"I did, sir, and there I found the card which I have just produced. It was in an ivory case with its fifty-one companions. I brought it here this afternoon because the solicitor who is representing the appellant in this case suggested that I should find the card amongst Quong Pi's possessions."
Once more Lyttleton turned to the bench.
"I don't think, your worships," he said, "that I need ask the witness any more questions. I promised to bring this particular crime home to Heek, alias Quong Pi, and I am sanguine that the production of that particular card has achieved my object. Your lordships have heard what my witnesses have had to say and, in particular, the evidence of Mr. Vascombe who made a copy of that fateful Queen of Hearts in the presence of several people. I have that copy here on the table before me and I should like your lordships to inspect it."
Followed another tense silence, during which the court examined Ian Vascombe's work. Then the president looked at Lyttleton and addressed him.
"So far we are with you," he said. "This seems to be quite a faithful copy of the original, made under Sir Walter Vanguard's own eye, and in the presence of several people in the Bond Street establishment of Madame Ninette. I understand that you say the card, I mean the original card, was, up till the night of Sir Walter Vanguard's murder, in his possession."
"Can there be any possible doubt about it?" Lyttleton asked. "But that does not complete my case. You can stand down, Inspector. Call Mr. James P. Riff."
Into the witness box came a little, round man with a red face and white moustache, an American not in the least like the typical Yankee of the caricatures. He stood there, perfectly calm and master of himself.
"Now, Mr. Riff," Lyttleton said, "I understand that you were practically the last man to see Mortimer Heek, otherwise Quong Pi, alive. On the night of his death, he called at your home in Sevenoaks, and, within five minutes of his leaving, he was shot outside your gates. I want you to tell me what his business was, and what brought your visitor to Sevenoaks."
"Well, it was like this," the witness said. "I am an American and a very rich man. It is my hobby to spend a large portion of my income on rare works of art. I believe I have the finest collection of Chinese curiosities in the world. Amongst these, in my New York museum, is a pack of ivory playing cards which I bought some considerable time ago through Messrs Whitestrands, the famous art auctioneers in St James' Square. I am told that they are almost unique. At any rate, nobody had seen anything like them and I was under the impression that no duplicate existed until I got in contact with the man who called himself Mortimer Heek. He wrote to me and made me a most generous offer for my pack of cards. Naturally, I refused it, as money is no particular object to me, but I could not put Mr. Heek off. Finally, I agreed to see him at my temporary headquarters at Sevenoaks, and he came. And when he did come, he told me his history. He even told me his proper name and all about his family. I learnt for the first time that, originally, there were three packs of those cards and that all the gold tracery on the backs of them represented the history of the Pi family. From what I could gather, Quong Pi was an exceedingly religious man, according to his lights. I don't mean religious from our point of view, but from his. Ancestor worship and all that sort of thing. He regarded it as his sacred duty to get those cards back. He seemed to think that if he failed to do so he would never join his ancestors in what is his celestial idea of heaven. Now, that was all very well in its way, but it didn't induce me to part with my pack, not even when he offered me £30,000 for it. He told me that he knew where the second pack was and that his own was one card short."
"On the night of his death?" Lyttleton asked.
"No, I am wrong," the witness said. "It was the first time I met him he told me that."
"And when would that be?" Lyttleton asked. "Do you think you could fix the exact date?"
The witness, on reflection, thought he could. Then he was sure. He gave the date and Lyttleton smiled.
"Then on the first occasion, Sir Walter Vanguard was alive?" Lyttleton remarked. "Will your lordships kindly note that fact? Now, Mr. Riff, did Quong Pi happen to say which card was missing from his own special pack?"
"Yes, he did. It was the Queen of Hearts."
At this there was a profound sensation in court. The witness looked unconcernedly around him, for, apparently, he was not aware of the significance of his statement.
"Now, Mr. Riff," Lyttleton went on. "I have almost finished with you. I suppose you met Quong Pi's suggestion with a flat refusal. You would not sell him your treasure."
"You bet I wouldn't," the witness smiled. "I regard his point of view sheer superstition and told him so. Then he got very angry and I had, practically, to turn him out of the house. I saw him get into his car and that is all I know."
One of the three judges on the bench leant forward. "I understand, Mr. Riff," he said, "that you have already given evidence before the coroner who is inquiring into the death of this unfortunate Chinaman. That being so, why did you not tell the coroner what you are telling us now?"
"Well, my lord, because I wasn't asked to, for one thing," the little American smiled. "I was merely called upon as the last person, besides the actual murderer or murderers, who saw my visitor alive. And it didn't seem to me that this card business had anything to do with the case."
The judges on the Bench asked no further questions and the witness was allowed to stand down. Then, once more, Lyttleton took up his story.
"That, my lords," he said, "is practically my case. You may wish me to address you at some length and if such is the case, I shall be happy to do so. But I think I have proven beyond the shadow of a doubt, that my client is innocent. I have shown the court a real motive for the crime on Quong Pi's part and the emotional forces that compelled him to commit the crime for which my client is about to suffer."
The president raised his right hand.
"One minute, Mr. Lyttleton," he said. "At the moment I don't think we need ask you to go any further. I need hardly say that all this sensational evidence was utterly unexpected by my learned brothers and myself. And I think I am speaking for them when I say that today's proceedings have made a profound impression upon all of us. It seems to me that at this point we might adjourn until tomorrow."
"Just as your lordships please," Lyttleton said. "But my unfortunate client is naturally in a state of cruel suspense, and anything your lordships like to say in his favour—"
Once more, the president interrupted the speaker.
"We hardly know what to say," he remarked. "There has never been a case like this in the Court of Criminal Appeal before. There has been no instance when the verdict of a judge and jury on a capital charge has been reversed by the Court of Criminal Appeal. Such a thing has never happened in the history of this bench. Of course, it was bound to occur some day or another, but no one seems to have foreseen what would transpire when we were called upon to squash a conviction."
"Then you are going to squash the conviction?" Lyttleton asked eagerly.
The president glanced across to his two grave companions and three heads were nodded as one.
"It seems to me that we shall have no alternative," the president went on. "Still, there is a lingering doubt. Have you no other witness to call. Mr. Lyttleton?"
"Just one, if necessary, your lordships," Lyttleton said. "And that is Mrs. Mary Merrell, who was acting as housekeeper to the man she knew as Mortimer Heek."
A little woman in black entered the box.
"My name is Merrell," she said in answer to Lyttleton's question. "My late employer let his flat for the season to Mr. Mortimer Heek and I remained on as housekeeper. On the night of Sir Walter Vanguard's death a gentleman came round to the flat and asked for Mr. Heek. Yes, I see the gentleman in court. He gave the name of Vascombe. Just before he went out again with Mr. Heek, the latter came to me and gave me certain instructions. I was to call him up on the telephone at half-past 11 and tell him that he was wanted on urgent business. And this I did before I went to bed."
"That is my last piece of evidence," Lyttleton said, as the woman left the box. "I think I have now satisfactorily explained the reason why the card party broke up prematurely. My suggestion is that directly Heek realised that he was going to the flat of his old enemy—and, moreover, an enemy who held one of the packs of card so greatly coveted—he made up his mind instantly, as to what he was going to do. He meant to steal Sir Walter's pack that very night, or, at least, to steal the Queen of Hearts that he wanted to complete his own. Hence the breaking up of the party by that telephone call. But I need not elaborate the point because I think I have already said enough and proved enough to set my client free."
"It would seem so," the president said gravely. "But in the amazing circumstances, I should like to have the opportunity of consulting with my colleagues. We will adjourn till 10 o'clock tomorrow morning, but, be that as it may, Mr. Lyttleton, we are of opinion that the conviction must be squashed."
A sudden cheer brake out in court, and then the excited crowd poured out into the street. Lyttleton found himself side by side with Ian Vascombe and Parkhurst, all three of them talking excitedly together.
"What is the next move?" Parkhurst asked.
"Oh, well, I think you can leave that to the court," Lyttleton said. "It is only a matter of a few hours before Gilchrist will find himself a free man. Vascombe—"
But Vascombe had already vanished. His one idea for the moment was to get back to the flat and tell Maudie what had happened. She had remained behind at the earnest solicitation of her brother, and, as he burst into the flat, she looked up swiftly and jumped to her feet.
"It is good news," she cried. "I can see it in your face."
"The very best," Ian said. "Within a few hours Tom will be free. The judges as good as said so."
Then, for the first time since the trial began, Maudie broke down and cried. It was some time before she had sufficiently recovered herself to ask the obvious question. Then at length she smiled once more.
"It is rather a strange thing," she said. "But I had a visitor this afternoon. You will never guess who it was. So I had better tell you. Mona Catesby."
"What on earth did she want?"
"Well, she came out of sympathy. I wouldn't believe she could behave so well. She apologised for the way she had treated me in the past and then she told me that she was going to marry Lord Martinborough. Of course, he is poor and she is rich, but she seems to be happy enough about it. What she told me was this—if Tom got off and she felt quite sure he would—he could have the old house back again at a price, because she was going to concentrate on her husband's old castle and had no intention of keeping up two establishments. So if things go as you say they are going, then that poor old man's wish will be gratified after all, because, you see, Tom will have all Sir Walter's money, which sounds rather like a fairy tale, though it is true enough. But, oh, Ian, what a ghastly business it has all been. And partly my own fault. I believe if I had gone to Sir Walter myself months ago and told him that I loved Tom, instead of behaving so prudently, the old gentleman would have come round sooner or later. Oh, Ian, I am so tired. I feel as if I want to go to bed and sleep for a month. Sleep, why I have almost forgotten what it is like. And even when I have dozed off I have always wakened again with a start. Still, the mere idea of seeing Tom again—"
Maudie broke off and said no more, for indeed, at the moment, there was nothing left to say.
It was the best part of a week later before Tom Gilchrist passed through the prison gates a free man once more. It was not for him to know that during the past week the papers had been full of his case and that, on all sides he was believed to be absolutely innocent of the crime which had nearly cost him his life. He walked out into the sunshine of a July morning, rather dazed with the brightness of the world and hardly knowing what to do next. He had not gone many yards before he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to find the beaming face of Ian Vascombe regarding him with every sign of satisfaction.
"Well, old man," he said quite casually. "Here we are at the end of your adventure at last. By Jove, it has been a time, hasn't it? Where are you going?"
"I don't quite know," Gilchrist said vaguely.
"I do," Ian said decisively. "I have got a taxi waiting for me down the road and I am going to take you straight back to our flat. There is somebody waiting there to see you."
"Maudie," Tom said huskily. "What does she think—?"
"Oh, dash it all, old chap, you know perfectly well what she thinks. And so does everybody else, for that matter. The papers are full of it. I have not met a single man or woman who does not regard you as anything but an ill-used individual. You will be welcomed with open arms by all the world and his wife. And that is not the end of it. What do you think of Mona Catesby calling upon Maudie and mingling tears with her? Fact, I assure you. Abject apologies and all that sort of thing. It appears that Mona is going to marry into the poorer aristocracy and devote all her fortune to rebuilding the ancient castle of the man she is going to wed. So, if you want to buy the old property back again, she says you can have it. Of course, you can do that now you have come into Sir Walter's money, which means that the dream of his life will be accomplished. Funny, isn't it, how everything goes right once things are straightened out? But come along and see Maudie."
"How is the dear girl?" Tom asked.
"Oh, splendid," Ian said. "You never saw such a change to a girl in your life. She looked about a thousand years old a week ago and now she is prettier than ever. And blaming herself, my dear boy, for what has happened."
"Blaming herself?" Tom cried.
"Oh, well, you know what women are. Ah, here we are. No, I am not coming in. I know when I am not wanted. Now, you just have it out with Maudie, and meet me in the Carlton Grill at 1 o'clock for lunch. You've got to face the world sooner or later, and that is why I want you to start without delay. And it's going to be some lunch, I promise you."
With that, Ian vanished and Tom went up the stairs to the flat where he knew that Maudie was awaiting him. She opened the door to him herself and with a little cry of pleasure and delight, flung herself into his arms.
Then he led her gently into the sitting room and for the next hour or two the world was entirely forgotten.
"How you must have suffered," Maudie murmured.
"Not more than you did, I am sure," Tom said. "Don't let us talk about it any more. I want to forget it. I want the open air and the sunshine and the sense of freedom. Which reminds me, Ian wants us to lunch with him at the Carlton at 1 o'clock. It will be a bit of an ordeal, but it has to be faced. Of course, if you don't want to go I am quite content—"
Maudie faced her lover proudly.
"But I do want to go,", she said. "I want everybody to see how happy we both are and how happy we deserve to be. Why, look at the clock, it's nearly 1 now!"
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