Thus we stood when Val Beverley returned, and:
"Madame de Staemer will see you, Inspector Aylesbury," she said, "but wishes Mr. Knox to be present at the interview."
"Oh," said the Inspector, lowering his chin, "I see. Oh, very well."
IN MADAME'S ROOM
Madame de Staemer's apartment was a large and elegant one. From the window-drapings, which were of some light, figured satiny material, to the bed-cover, the lampshades and the carpet, it was French. Faintly perfumed, and decorated with many bowls of roses, it reflected, in its ornaments, its pictures, its slender-legged furniture, the personality of the occupant. In a large, high bed, reclining amidst a number of silken pillows, lay Madame de Staemer. The theme of the room was violet and silver, and to this everything conformed. The toilet service was of dull silver and violet enamel. The mirrors and some of the pictures had dull silver frames, There was nothing tawdry or glittering. The bed itself, which I thought resembled a bed of state, was of the same dull silver, with a coverlet of delicate violet I hue. But Madame's decollete robe was trimmed with white fur, so that her hair, dressed high upon her head, seemed to be of silver, too.
Reclining there upon her pillows, she looked like some grande dame of that France which was swept away by the Revolution. Immediately above the dressing-table I observed a large portrait of Colonel Menendez dressed as I had imagined he should be dressed when I had first set eyes on him, in tropical riding kit, and holding a broad-brimmed hat in his hand. A strikingly handsome, arrogant figure he made, uncannily like the Velasquez in the library.
At the face of Madame de Staemer I looked long and searchingly. She had not neglected the art of the toilette. Blinds tempered the sunlight which flooded her room; but that, failing the service of rouge, Madame had been pale this morning, I perceived immediately. In some subtle way the night had changed her. Something was gone out of her face, and something come into it. I thought, and lived to remember the thought, that it was thus Marie Antoinette might have looked when they told her how the drums had rolled in the Place de la Revolution on that morning of the twenty-first of January.
"Oh, M. Knox," she said, sadly, "you are there, I see. Come and sit here beside me, my friend. Val, dear, remain. Is this Inspector Aylesbury who wishes to speak to me?"
The Inspector, who had entered with all the confidence in the world, seemed to lose some of it in the presence of this grand lady, who was so little impressed by the dignity of his office.
She waved one slender hand in the direction of a violet brocaded chair.
"Sit down, Monsieur l'inspecteur," she commanded, for it was rather a command than an invitation.
Inspector Aylesbury cleared his throat and sat down.
"Ah, M. Knox!" exclaimed Madame, turning to me with one of her rapid movements, "is your friend afraid to face me, then? Does he think that he has failed? Does he think that I condemn him?"
"He knows that he has failed, Madame de Staemer," I replied, "but his absence is due to the fact that at this hour he is hot upon the trail of the assassin."
"What!" she exclaimed, "what!"—and bending forward touched my arm. "Tell me again! Tell me again!"
"He is following a clue, Madame de Staemer, which he hopes will lead to the truth."
"Ah! if I could believe it would lead to the truth," she said. "If I dared to believe this."
"Why should it not?"
She shook her head, smiling with such a resigned sadness that I averted my gaze and glanced across at Val Beverley who was seated on the opposite side of the bed.
"If you knew—if you knew."
I looked again into the tragic face, and realized that this was an older woman than the brilliant hostess I had known. She sighed, shrugged, and:
"Tell me, M. Knox," she continued, "it was swift and merciful, eh?"
"Instantaneous," I replied, in a low voice.
"A good shot?" she asked, strangely.
"A wonderful shot," I answered, thinking that she imposed unnecessary torture upon herself.
"They say he must be taken away, M. Knox, but I reply: not until I have seen him."
"Madame," began Val Beverley, gently.
"Ah, my dear!" Madame de Staemer, without looking at the speaker, extended one hand in her direction, the fingers characteristically curled. "You do not know me. Perhaps it is a good job. You are a man, Mr. Knox, and men, especially men who write, know more of women than they know of themselves, is it not so? You will understand that I must see him again?"
"Madame de Staemer," I said, "your courage is almost terrible."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"I am not proud to be brave, my friend. The animals are brave, but many cowards are proud. Listen again. He suffered no pain, you think?"
"None, Madame de Staemer."
"So Dr. Rolleston assures me. He died in his sleep? You do not think he was awake, eh?"
"Most certainly he was not awake."
"It is the best way to die," she said, simply. "Yet he, who was brave and had faced death many times, would have counted it"——she snapped her white fingers, glancing across the room to where Inspector Aylesbury, very subdued, sat upon the brocaded chair twirling his cap between his hands. "And now, Inspector Aylesbury," she asked, "what is it you wish me to tell you?"
"Well, Madame," began the Inspector, and stood up, evidently in an endeavour to recover his dignity, but:
"Sit down, Mr. Inspector! I beg of you be seated," cried Madame. "I will not be questioned by one who stands. And if you were to walk about I should shriek."
He resumed his seat, clearing his throat nervously.
"Very well, Madame," he continued, "I have come to you particularly for information respecting a certain Mr. Camber."
"Oh, yes," said Madame.
Her vibrant voice was very low.
"You know him, no doubt?"
"I have never met him."
"What?" exclaimed the Inspector.
Madame shrugged and glanced at me eloquently.
"Well," he continued, "this gets more and more funny. I am told by Pedro, the butler, that Colonel Menendez looked upon Mr. Camber as an enemy, and Miss Beverley, here, admitted that it was true. Yet although he was an enemy, nobody ever seems to have spoken to him, and he swears that he had never spoken to Colonel Menendez."
"Yes?" said Madame, listlessly, "is that so?"
"It is so, Madame, and now you tell me that you have never met him."
"I did tell you so, yes."
"His wife, then?"
"I never met his wife," said Madame, rapidly.
"But it is a fact that Colonel Menendez regarded him as an enemy?"
"It is a fact-yes."
"Ah, now we are coming to it. What was the cause of this?"
"I cannot tell you."
"Do you mean that you don't know?"
"I mean that I cannot tell you."
"Oh," said the Inspector, blankly, "I see. That's not helping me very much, is it?"
"No, it is no help," said Madame, twirling a ring upon her finger.
The Inspector cleared his throat again, then:
"There had been other attempts, I believe, at assassination?" he asked.
"Did you witness any of these?"
"None of them."
"But you know that they took place?"
"Juan—Colonel Menendez—had told me so."
"And he suspected that there was someone lurking about this house?"
"Also, someone broke in?"
"There were doors unfastened, and a great disturbance, so I suppose someone must have done so."
I wondered if he would refer to the bat wing nailed to the door, but he had evidently decided that this clue was without importance, nor did he once refer to the aspect of the case which concerned Voodoo. He possessed a sort of mulish obstinacy, and was evidently determined to use no scrap of information which he had obtained from Paul Harley.
"Now, Madame," said he, "you heard the shot fired last night?"
"It woke you up?"
"I was already awake."
"Oh, I see: you were awake?"
"I was awake."
"Where did you think the sound came from?"
"From back yonder, beyond the east wing."
"Beyond the east wing?" muttered Inspector Aylesbury. "Now, let me see." He turned ponderously in his chair, gazing out of the windows. "We look out on the south here? You say the sound of the shot came from the east?"
"So it seemed to me."
"Oh." This piece of information seemed badly to puzzle him. "And what then?"
"I was so startled that I ran to the door before I remembered that I could not walk."
She glanced aside at me with a tired smile, and laid her hand upon my arm in an oddly caressing way, as if to say, "He is so stupid; I should not have expressed myself in that way."
Truly enough the Inspector misunderstood, for:
"I don't follow what you mean, Madame," he declared. "You say you forgot that you could not walk?"
"No, no, I expressed myself wrongly," Madame replied in a weary voice. "The fright, the terror, gave me strength to stagger to the door, and there I fell and swooned."
"Oh, I see. You speak of fright and terror. Were these caused by the sound of the shot?"
"For some reason my cousin believed himself to be in peril," explained Madame. "He went in dread of assassination, you understand? Very well, he caused me to feel this dread, also. When I heard the shot, something told me, something told me that—" she paused, and suddenly placing her hands before her face, added in a whisper—"that it had come."
Val Beverley was watching Madame de Staemer anxiously, and the fact that she was unfit to undergo further examination was so obvious that any other than an Inspector Aylesbury would have withdrawn. The latter, however, seemed now to be glued to his chair, and:
"Oh, I see," he said; "and now there's another point: Have you any idea what took Colonel Menendez out into the grounds last night?"
Madame de Staemer lowered her hands and gazed across at the speaker.
"What is that, Monsieur l'inspecteur?"
"Well, you don't think he might have gone out to talk to someone?"
"To someone? To what one?" demanded Madame, scornfully.
"Well, it isn't natural for a man to go walking about the garden at midnight, when he's unwell, is it? Not alone. But if there was a lady in the case he might go."
"A lady?" said Madame, softly. "Yes—continue."
"Well," resumed the Inspector, deceived by the soft voice, "the young lady sitting beside you was still wearing her evening dress when I arrived here last night. I found that out, although she didn't give me a chance to see her."
His words had an effect more dramatic than he could have foreseen.
Madame de Staemer threw her arm around Val Beverley, and hugged her so closely to her side that the girl's curly brown head was pressed against Madame's shoulder. Thus holding her, she sat rigidly upright, her strange, still eyes glaring across the room at Inspector Aylesbury. Her whole pose was instinct with challenge, with defiance, and in that moment I identified the illusive memory which the eyes of Madame so often had conjured up in my mind.
Once, years before, I had seen a wounded tigress standing over her cubs, a beautiful, fearless creature, blazing defiance with dying eyes upon those who had destroyed her, the mother-instinct supreme to the last; for as she fell to rise no more she had thrown her paw around the cowering cubs. It was not in shape, nor in colour, but in expression and in their stillness, that the eyes of Madame de Staemer resembled the eyes of the tigress.
"Oh, Madame, Madame," moaned the girl, "how dare he!"
"Ah!" Madame de Staemer raised her head yet higher, a royal gesture, that unmoving stare set upon the face of the discomfited Inspector Aylesbury. "Leave my apartment." Her left hand shot out dramatically in the direction of the door, but even yet the fingers remained curled. "Stupid, gross fool!"
Inspector Aylesbury stood up, his face very flushed.
"I am only doing my duty, Madame," he said.
"Go, go!" commanded Madame, "I insist that you go!"
Convulsively she held Val Beverley to her side, and although I could not see the girl's face, I knew that she was weeping.
Those implacable flaming eyes followed with their stare the figure of the Inspector right to the doorway, for he essayed no further speech, but retired.
I, also, rose, and:
"Madame de Staemer," I said, speaking, I fear, very unnaturally, "I love your spirit."
She threw back her head, smiling up at me. I shall never forget that look, nor shall I attempt to portray all which it conveyed—for I know I should fail.
"My friend!" she said, and extended her hand to be kissed.
Inspector Aylesbury had disappeared when I came out of the hall, but Pedro was standing there to remind me of the fact that I had not breakfasted. I realized that despite all tragic happenings, I was ravenously hungry, and accordingly I agreed to his proposal that I should take breakfast on the south veranda, as on the previous morning.
To the south veranda accordingly I made my way, rather despising myself because I was capable of hunger at such a time and amidst such horrors. The daily papers were on my table, for Carter drove into Market Hilton every morning to meet the London train which brought them down; but I did not open any of them.
Pedro waited upon me in person. I could see that the man was pathetically anxious to talk. Accordingly, when he presently brought me a fresh supply of hot rolls:
"This has been a dreadful blow to you, Pedro?" I said.
"Dreadful, sir," he returned; "fearful. I lose a splendid master, I lose my place, and I am far, far from home."
"You are from Cuba?"
"Yes, yes. I was with Senor the Colonel Don Juan in Cuba."
"And do you know anything of the previous attempts which had been made upon his life, Pedro?"
"Nothing, sir. Nothing at all."
"But the bat wing, Pedro?"
He looked at me in a startled way.
"Yes, sir," he replied. "I found it pinned to the door here."
"And what did you think it meant?"
"I thought it was a joke, sir—not a nice joke—by someone who knew Cuba."
"You know the meaning of Bat Wing, then?"
"It is Obeah. I have never seen it before, but I have heard of it."
"And what did you think?" said I, proceeding with my breakfast.
"I thought it was meant to frighten."
"But who did you think had done it?"
"I had heard Senor Don Juan say that Mr. Camber hated him, so I thought perhaps he had sent someone to do it."
"But why should Mr. Camber have hated the Colonel?"
"I cannot say, sir. I wish I could tell."
"Was your master popular in the West Indies?" I asked.
"Well, sir—" Pedro hesitated—"perhaps not so well liked."
"No," I said. "I had gathered as much."
The man withdrew, and I continued my solitary meal, listening to the song of the skylarks, and thinking how complex was human existence, compared with any other form of life beneath the sun.
How to employ my time until Harley should return I knew not. Common delicacy dictated an avoidance of Val Beverley until she should have recovered from the effect of Inspector Aylesbury's gross insinuations, and I was curiously disinclined to become involved in the gloomy formalities which ensue upon a crime of violence. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to remain within call, realizing that there might be unpleasant duties which Pedro could not perform, and which must therefore devolve upon Val Beverley.
I lighted my pipe and walked out on to the sloping lawn. A gardener was at work with a big syringe, destroying a patch of weeds which had appeared in one corner of the velvet turf. He looked up in a sort of startled way as I passed, bidding me good morning, and then resuming his task. I thought that this man's activities were symbolic of the way of the world, in whose eternal progression one poor human life counts as nothing.
Presently I came in sight of that door which opened into the rhododendron shrubbery, the door by which Colonel Menendez had come out to meet his death. His bedroom was directly above, and as I picked my way through the closely growing bushes, which at an earlier time I had thought to be impassable, I paused in the very shadow of the tower and glanced back and upward. I could see the windows of the little smoke- room in which we had held our last interview with Menendez; and I thought of the shadow which Harley had seen upon the blind. I was unable to disguise from myself the fact that when Inspector Aylesbury should learn of this occurrence, as presently he must do, it would give new vigour to his ridiculous and unpleasant suspicions.
I passed on, and considering the matter impartially, found myself faced by the questions—Whose was the shadow which Harley had seen upon the blind? And with what purpose did Colonel Menendez leave the house at midnight?
Somnambulism might solve the second riddle, but to the first I could find no answer acceptable to my reason. And now, pursuing my aimless way, I presently came in sight of a gable of the Guest House. I could obtain a glimpse of the hut which had once been Colin Camber's workroom. The window, through which Paul Harley had stared so intently, possessed sliding panes. These were closed, and a ray of sunlight, striking upon the glass, produced, because of an over-leaning branch which crossed the top of the window, an effect like that of a giant eye glittering evilly through the trees. I could see a constable moving about in the garden. Ever and anon the sun shone upon the buttons of his tunic.
By such steps my thoughts led me on to the pathetic figure of Ysola Camber. Save for the faithful Ah Tsong she was alone in that house to which tragedy had come unbidden, unforeseen. I doubted if she had a woman friend in all the countryside. Doubtless, I reflected, the old housekeeper, to whom she had referred, would return as speedily as possible, but pending the arrival of someone to whom she could confide all her sorrows, I found it almost impossible to contemplate the loneliness of the tragic little figure.
Such was my mental state, and my thoughts were all of compassion, when suddenly, like a lurid light, an inspiration came to me.
I had passed out from the shadow of the tower and was walking in the direction of the sentinel yews when this idea, dreadfully complete, leapt to my mind. I pulled up short, as though hindered by a palpable barrier. Vague musings, evanescent theories, vanished like smoke, and a ghastly, consistent theory of the crime unrolled itself before me, with all the cold logic of truth.
"My God!" I groaned aloud, "I see it all. I see it all."
MY THEORY OF THE CRIME
The afternoon was well advanced before Paul Harley returned.
So deep was my conviction that I had hit upon the truth, and so well did my theory stand every test which I could apply to it, that I felt disinclined for conversation with any one concerned in the tragedy until I should have submitted the matter to the keen analysis of Harley. Upon the sorrow of Madame de Staemer I naturally did not intrude, nor did I seek to learn if she had carried out her project of looking upon the dead man.
About mid-day the body was removed, after which an oppressive and awesome stillness seemed to descend upon Cray's Folly.
Inspector Aylesbury had not returned from his investigations at the Guest House, and learning that Miss Beverley was remaining with Madame de Staemer, I declined to face the ordeal of a solitary luncheon in the dining room, and merely ate a few sandwiches, walking over to the Lavender Arms for a glass of Mrs. Wootton's excellent ale.
Here I found the bar-parlour full of local customers, and although a heated discussion was in progress as I opened the door, silence fell upon my appearance. Mrs. Wootton greeted me sadly.
"Ah, sir," she said, as she placed a mug before me; "of course you've heard?"
"I have, madam," I replied, perceiving that she did not know me to be a guest at Cray's Folly.
"Well, well!" She shook her head. "It had to come, with all these foreign folk about."
She retired to some sanctum at the rear of the bar, and I drank my beer amid one of those silences which sometimes descend upon such a gathering when a stranger appears in its midst. Not until I moved to depart was this silence broken, then:
"Ah, well," said an old fellow, evidently a farm-hand, "we know now why he was priming of hisself with the drink, we do."
"Aye!" came a growling chorus.
I came out of the Lavender Arms full of a knowledge that so far as Mid- Hatton was concerned, Colin Camber was already found guilty.
I had hoped to see something of Val Beverley on my return, but she remained closeted with Madame de Staemer, and I was left in loneliness to pursue my own reflections, and to perfect that theory which had presented itself to my mind.
In Harley's absence I had taken it upon myself to give an order to Pedro to the effect that no reporters were to be admitted; and in this I had done well. So quickly does evil news fly that, between mid-day and the hour of Harley's return, no fewer than five reporters, I believe, presented themselves at Cray's Folly. Some of the more persistent continued to haunt the neighbourhood, and I had withdrawn to the deserted library, in order to avoid observation, when I heard a car draw up in the courtyard, and a moment later heard Harley asking for me.
I hurried out to meet him, and as I appeared at the door of the library:
"Hullo, Knox," he called, running up the steps. "Any developments?"
"No actual development?" I replied, "except that several members of the Press have been here."
"You told them nothing?" he asked, eagerly.
"No; they were not admitted."
"Good, good," he muttered.
"I had expected you long before this, Harley."
"Naturally," he said, with a sort of irritation. "I have been all the way to Whitehall and back."
"To Whitehall! What, you have been to London?"
"I had half anticipated it, Knox. The Chief Constable, although quite a decent fellow, is a stickler for routine. On the strength of those facts which I thought fit to place before him he could see no reason for superseding Aylesbury. Accordingly, without further waste of time, I headed straight for Whitehall. You may remember a somewhat elaborate report which I completed upon the eve of our departure from Chancery Lane?"
"A very thankless job for the Home Office, Knox. But I received my reward to-day. Inspector Wessex has been placed in charge of the case and I hope he will be down here within the hour. Pending his arrival I am tied hand and foot."
We had walked into the library, and, stopping, suddenly, Harley stared me very hard in the face.
"You are bottling something up, Knox," he declared. "Out with it. Has Aylesbury distinguished himself again?"
"No," I replied; "on the contrary. He interviewed Madame de Staemer, and came out with a flea in his ear."
"Good," said Harley, smiling. "A clever woman, and a woman of spirit, Knox."
"You are right," I replied, "and you are also right in supposing that I have a communication to make to you."
"Ah, I thought so. What is it?"
"It is a theory, Harley, which appears to me to cover the facts of the case."
"Indeed?" said he, continuing to stare at me. "And what inspired it?"
"I was staring up at the window of the smoke-room to-day, and I remembered the shadow which you had seen upon the blind."
"Yes?" he cried, eagerly; "and does your theory explain that, too?"
"It does, Harley."
"Then I am all anxiety to hear it."
"Very well, then, I will endeavour to be brief. Do you recollect Miss Beverley's story of the unfamiliar footsteps which passed her door on several occasions?"
"You recollect that you, yourself, heard someone crossing the hall, and that both of us heard a door close?"
"And finally you saw the shadow of a woman upon the blind of the Colonel's private study. Very well. Excluding the preposterous theory of Inspector Aylesbury, there is no woman in Cray's Folly whose footsteps could possibly have been heard in that corridor, and whose shadow could possibly have been seen upon the blind of Colonel Menendez's room."
"I agree," said Harley, quietly. "I have definitely eliminated all the servants from the case. Therefore, proceed, Knox, I am all attention."
"I will do so. There is a door on the south side of the house, close to the tower and opening into the rhododendron shrubbery. This was the door used by Colonel Menendez in his somnambulistic rambles, according to his own account. Now, assuming his statement to have been untrue in one particular, that is, assuming he was not walking in his sleep, but was fully awake—"
"Eh?" exclaimed Harley, his expression undergoing a subtle change. "Do you think his statement was untrue?"
"According to my theory, Harley, his statement was untrue, in this particular, at least. But to proceed: Might he not have employed this door to admit a nocturnal visitor?"
"It is feasible," muttered Harley, watching me closely.
"For the Colonel to descend to this side door when the household was sleeping," I continued, "and to admit a woman secretly to Cray's Folly, would have been a simple matter. Indeed, on the occasions of these visits he might even have unbolted the door himself after Pedro had bolted it, in order to enable her to enter without his descending for the purpose of admitting her."
"By heavens! Knox," said Harley, "I believe you have it!"
His eyes were gleaming excitedly, and I proceeded:
"Hence the footsteps which passed Miss Beverley's door, hence the shadow which you saw upon the blind; and the sounds which you detected in the hall were caused, of course, by this woman retiring. It was the door leading into the shrubbery which we heard being closed!"
"Continue," said Harley; "although I can plainly see to what this is leading."
"You can see, Harley?" I cried; "of course you can see! The enmity between Camber and Menendez is understandable at last."
"You mean that Menendez was Mrs. Camber's lover?"
"Don't you agree with me?"
"It is feasible, Knox, dreadfully feasible. But go on."
"My theory also explains Colin Camber's lapse from sobriety. It is legitimate to suppose that his wife, who was a Cuban, had been intimate with Menendez before her meeting with Camber. Perhaps she had broken the tie at the time of her marriage, but this is mere supposition. Then, her old lover, his infatuation by no means abated, leases the property adjoining that of his successful rival."
"Knox!" exclaimed Paul Harley, "this is brilliant. I am all impatience for the denouement."
"It is coming," I said, triumphantly. "Relations are reestablished, clandestinely. Colin Camber learns of these. A passionate quarrel ensues, resulting in a long drinking bout designed to drown his sorrows. His love for his wife is so great that he has forgiven her this infidelity. Accordingly, she has promised to see her lover no more. Hers was the figure which you saw outlined upon the blind on the night before the tragedy, Harley! The gestures, which you described as those of despair, furnish evidence to confirm my theory. It was a final meeting!"
"Hm," muttered Harley. "It would be taking big chances, because we have to suppose, Knox, that these visits to Cray's Folly were made whilst her husband was at work in the study. If he had suddenly decided to turn in, all would have been discovered."
"True," I agreed, "but is it impossible?"
"No, not a bit. Women are dreadful gamblers. But continue, Knox."
"Very well. Colonel Menendez has refused to accept his dismissal, and Mrs. Camber had been compelled to promise, without necessarily intending to carry out the promise, that she would see him again on the following night. She failed to come; whereupon he, growing impatient, walked out into the grounds of Cray's Folly to look for her. She may even have intended to come and have been intercepted by her husband. But in any event, the latter, seeing the man who had wronged him, standing out there in the moonlight, found temptation to be too strong. On the whole, I favour the idea that he had intercepted his wife, and snatching up a rifle, had actually gone out into the garden with the intention of shooting Menendez."
"I see," murmured Harley in a low voice. "This hypothesis, Knox, does not embrace the Bat Wing episodes."
"If Menendez has lied upon one point," I returned, "it is permissible to suppose that his entire story was merely a tissue of falsehood."
"I see. But why did he bring me to Cray's Folly?"
"Don't you understand, Harley?" I cried, excitedly. "He really feared for his life, since he knew that Camber had discovered the intrigue."
Paul Harley heaved a long sigh.
"I must congratulate you, Knox," he said, gravely, "upon a really splendid contribution to my case. In several particulars I find myself nearer to the truth. But the definite establishment or shattering of your theory rests upon one thing."
"What's that?" I asked. "You are surely not thinking of the bat wing nailed upon the door?"
"Not at all," he replied. "I am thinking of the seventh yew tree from the northeast corner of the Tudor garden."
A LEE-ENFIELD RIFLE
What reply I should have offered to this astonishing remark I cannot say, but at that moment the library door burst open unceremoniously, and outlined against the warmly illuminated hall, where sunlight poured down through the dome, I beheld the figure of Inspector Aylesbury.
"Ah!" he cried, loudly, "so you have come back, Mr. Harley? I thought you had thrown up the case."
"Did you?" said Harley, smilingly. "No, I am still persevering in my ineffectual way."
"Oh, I see. And have you quite convinced yourself that Colin Camber is innocent?"
"In one or two particulars my evidence remains incomplete."
"Oh, in one or two particulars, eh? But generally speaking you don't doubt his innocence?"
"I don't doubt it for a moment."
Harley's words surprised me. I recognized, of course, that he might merely be bluffing the Inspector, but it was totally alien to his character to score a rhetorical success at the expense of what he knew to be the truth; and so sure was I of the accuracy of my deductions that I no longer doubted Colin Camber to be the guilty man.
"At any rate," continued the Inspector, "he is in detention, and likely to remain there. If you are going to defend him at the Assizes, I don't envy you your job, Mr. Harley."
He was blatantly triumphant, so that the fact was evident enough that he had obtained some further piece of evidence which he regarded as conclusive.
"I have detained the man Ah Tsong as well," he went on. "He was an accomplice of your innocent friend, Mr. Harley."
"Was he really?" murmured Harley.
"Finally," continued the Inspector, "I have only to satisfy myself regarding the person who lured Colonel Menendez out into the grounds last night, to have my case complete."
I turned aside, unable to trust myself, but Harley remarked quite coolly:
"Your industry is admirable, Inspector Aylesbury, but I seem to perceive that you have made a very important discovery of some kind."
"Ah, you have got wind of it, have you?"
"I have no information on the point," replied Harley, "but your manner urges me to suggest that perhaps success has crowned your efforts?"
"It has," replied the Inspector. "I am a man that doesn't do things by halves. I didn't content myself with just staring out of the window of that little hut in the grounds of the Guest House, like you did, Mr. Harley, and saying 'twice one are two'—I looked at every book on the shelves, and at every page of those books."
"You must have materially added to your information?"
"Ah, very likely, but my enquiries didn't stop there. I had the floor up."
"The floor of the hut?"
"The floor of the hut, sir. The planks were quite loose. I had satisfied myself that it was a likely hiding place."
"What did you find there, a dead rat?"
Inspector Aylesbury turned, and:
"Sergeant Butler," he called.
The sergeant came forward from the hall, carrying a cricket bag. This Inspector Aylesbury took from him, placing it upon the floor of the library at his feet.
"New, sir," said he, "I borrowed this bag in which to bring the evidence away—the hanging evidence which I discovered beneath the floor of the hut."
I had turned again, when the man had referred to his discovery; and now, glancing at Harley, I saw that his face had grown suddenly very stern.
"Show me your evidence, Inspector?" he asked, shortly.
"There can be no objection," returned the Inspector.
Opening the bag, he took out a rifle!
Paul Harley's hands were thrust in his coat pockets, By the movement of the cloth I could see that he had clenched his fists. Here was confirmation of my theory!
"A Service rifle," said the Inspector, triumphantly, holding up the weapon. "A Lee-Enfield charger-loader. It contains four cartridges, three undischarged, and one discharged. He had not even troubled to eject it."
The Inspector dropped the weapon into the bag with a dramatic movement.
"Fancy theories about bat wings and Voodoos," he said, scornfully, "may satisfy you, Mr. Harley, but I think this rifle will prove more satisfactory to the Coroner."
He picked up the bag and walked out of the library.
Harley stood posed in a curiously rigid way, looking after him. Even when the door had closed he did not change his position at once. Then, turning slowly, he walked to an armchair and sat down.
"Harley," I said, hesitatingly, "has this discovery surprised you?"
"Surprised me?" he returned in a low voice. "It has appalled me."
"Then, although you seemed to regard my theory as sound," I continued rather resentfully, "all the time you continued to believe Colin Camber to be innocent?"
"I believe so still."
"I thought we had determined, Knox," he said, wearily, "that a man of Camber's genius, having decided upon murder, must have arranged for an unassailable alibi. Very well. Are we now to leap to the other end of the scale, and to credit him with such utter stupidity as to place hanging evidence where it could not fail to be discovered by the most idiotic policeman? Preserve your balance, Knox. Theories are wild horses. They run away with us. I know that of old, for which very reason I always avoid speculation until I have a solid foundation of fact upon which to erect it."
"But, my dear fellow," I cried, "was Camber to foresee that the floor of the hut would be taken up?"
Harley sighed, and leaned back in his chair.
"Do you recollect your first meeting with this man, Knox?"
"He was slightly drunk."
"Yes, but what was the nature of his conversation?"
"He suggested that I had recognized his resemblance to Edgar Allan Poe."
"Quite. What had led him to make this suggestion?"
"The manner in which I had looked at him, I suppose."
"Exactly. Although not quite sober, from a mere glance he was able to detect what you were thinking. Do you wish me to believe, Knox, that this same man had not foreseen what the police would think when Colonel Menendez was found shot within a hundred yards of the garden of the Guest House?"
I was somewhat taken aback, for Harley's argument was strictly logical, and:
"It is certainly very puzzling," I admitted.
"Puzzling!" he exclaimed; "it is maddening. This case is like a Syrian village-mound. Stratum lies under stratum, and in each we meet with evidence of more refined activity than in the last. It seems we have yet to go deeper."
He took out his pipe and began to fill it.
"Tell me about the interview with Madame de Staemer," he directed.
I took a seat facing him, and he did not once interrupt me throughout my account of Inspector Aylesbury's examination of Madame.
"Good," he commented, when I had told how the Inspector was dismissed. "But at least, Knox, he has a working theory, to which he sticks like an express to the main line, whereas I find myself constantly called upon to readjust my perspective. Directly I can enjoy freedom of movement, however, I shall know whether my hypothesis is a house of cards or a serviceable structure."
"Your hypothesis?" I said. "Then you really have a theory which is entirely different from mine?"
"Not entirely different, Knox, merely not so comprehensive. I have contented myself thus far with a negative theory, if I may so express it."
"Exactly. We are dealing, my dear fellow, with a case of bewildering intricacies. For the moment I have focussed upon one feature only."
"What is that?"
"Upon proving that Colin Camber did not do the murder."
"Did not do it?"
"Precisely, Knox. Respecting the person or persons who did do it, I had preserved a moderately open mind, up to the moment that Inspector Aylesbury entered the library with the Lee-Enfield."
"And then?" I said, eagerly.
"Then," he replied, "I began to think hard. However, since I practise what I preach, or endeavour to do so, I must not permit myself to speculate upon this aspect of the matter until I have tested my theory of Camber's innocence."
"In other words," I said, bitterly, "although you encouraged me to unfold my ideas regarding Mrs. Camber, you were merely laughing at me all the time!"
"My dear Knox!" exclaimed Harley, jumping up impulsively, "please don't be unjust. Is it like me? On the contrary, Knox"—he looked me squarely in the eyes—"you have given me a platform on which already I have begun to erect one corner of a theory of the crime. Without new facts I can go no further. But this much at least you have done."
"Thanks, Harley," I murmured, and indeed I was gratified; "but where do your other corners rest?"
"They rest," he said, slowly, "they rest, respectively, upon a bat wing, a yew tree, and a Lee-Enfield charger-loader."
THE SEVENTH YEW TREE
Detective-Inspector Wessex arrived at about five o'clock; a quiet, resourceful man, highly competent, and having the appearance of an ex- soldier. His respect for the attainments of Paul Harley alone marked him a student of character. I knew Wessex well, and was delighted when Pedro showed him into the library.
"Thank God you are here, Wessex," said Harley, when we had exchanged greetings. "At last I can move. Have you seen the local officer in charge?"
"No," replied the Inspector, "but I gather that I have been requisitioned over his head."
"You have," said Harley, grimly, "and over the head of the Chief Constable, too. But I suppose it is unfair to condemn a man for the shortcoming with which nature endowed him, therefore we must endeavour to let Inspector Aylesbury down as lightly as possible. I have an idea that I heard him return a while ago."
He walked out into the hall to make enquiries, and a few moments later I heard Inspector Aylesbury's voice.
"Ah, there you are, Inspector Aylesbury," said Harley, cheerily. "Will you please step into the library for a moment?"
The Inspector entered, frowning heavily, followed by my friend.
"There is no earthly reason why we should get at loggerheads over this business," Harley continued; "but the fact of the matter is, Inspector Aylesbury, that there are depths in this case to which neither you nor I have yet succeeded in penetrating. You have a reputation to consider, and so have I. Therefore I am sure you will welcome the cooperation of Detective-Inspector Wessex of Scotland Yard, as I do."
"What's this, what's this?" said Aylesbury. "I have made no application to London."
"Nevertheless, Inspector, it is quite in order," declared Wessex. "I have my instructions here, and I have reported to Market Hilton already. You see, the man you have detained is an American citizen."
"What of that?"
"Well, he seems to have communicated with his Embassy." Wessex glanced significantly at Paul Harley. "And the Embassy communicated with the Home Office. You mustn't regard my arrival as any reflection on your ability, Inspector Aylesbury. I am sure we can work together quite agreeably."
"Oh," muttered the other, in evident bewilderment, "I see. Well, if that's the way of it, I suppose we must make the best of things."
"Good," cried Wessex, heartily. "Now perhaps you would like to state your case against the detained man?"
"A sound idea, Wessex," said Paul Harley. "But perhaps, Inspector Aylesbury, before you begin, you would be good enough to speak to the constable on duty at the entrance to the Tudor garden. I am anxious to take another look at the spot where the body was found."
Inspector Aylesbury took out his handkerchief and blew his nose loudly, continuing throughout the operation to glare at Paul Harley, and finally:
"You are wasting your time, Mr. Harley," he declared, "as Detective- Inspector Wessex will be the first to admit when I have given him the facts of my case. Nevertheless, if you want to examine the garden, do so by all means."
He turned without another word and stamped out of the library across the hall and into the courtyard.
"I will join you again in a few minutes, Wessex," said Paul Harley, following.
"Very good, Mr. Harley," Wessex answered. "I know you wouldn't have had me down if the case had been as simple as he seems to think it is."
I joined Harley, and we walked together up the gravelled path, meeting Inspector Aylesbury and the constable returning.
"Go ahead, Mr. Harley!" cried the Inspector. "If you can find any stronger evidence than the rifle, I shall be glad to take a look at it."
Harley nodded good-humouredly, and together we descended the steps to the sunken garden. I was intensely curious respecting the investigation which Harley had been so anxious to make here, for I recognized that it was associated with something which he had seen from the window of Camber's hut.
He walked along the moss-grown path to the sun-dial, and stood for a moment looking down at the spot where Menendez had lain. Then he stared up the hill toward the Guest House; and finally, directing his attention to the yews which lined the sloping bank:
"One, two, three, four," he counted, checking them with his fingers— "five, six, seven."
He mounted the bank and began to examine the trunk of one of the trees, whilst I watched him in growing astonishment.
Presently he turned and looked down at me.
"Not a trace, Knox," he murmured; "not a trace. Let us try again."
He moved along to the yew adjoining that which he had already inspected, but presently shook his head and passed to the next. Then:
"Ah!" he cried. "Come here, Knox!"
I joined him where he was kneeling, staring at what I took to be a large nail, or bolt, protruding from the bark of the tree.
"You see!" he exclaimed, "you see!"
I stooped, in order to examine the thing more closely, and as I did so, I realized what it was. It was the bullet which had killed Colonel Menendez!
Harley stood upright, his face slightly flushed and his eyes very bright.
"We shall not attempt to remove it, Knox," he said. "The depth of penetration may have a tale to tell. The wood of the yew tree is one of the toughest British varieties."
"But, Harley," I said, blankly, as we descended to the path, "this is merely another point for the prosecution of Camber. Unless"—I turned to him in sudden excitement, "the bullet was of different—"
"No, no," he murmured, "nothing so easy as that, Knox. The bullet was fired from a Lee-Enfield beyond doubt."
I stared at him uncomprehendingly.
"Then I am utterly out of my depth, Harley. It, appears to me that the case against Camber is finally and fatally complete. Only the motive remains to be discovered, and I flatter myself that I have already detected this."
"I am certainly inclined to think," admitted Harley, "that there is a good deal in your theory."
"Then, Harley," I said in bewilderment, "you do believe that Camber committed the murder?"
"On the contrary," he replied, "I am certain that he did not."
I stood quite still.
"You are certain?" I began.
"I told you that the test of my theory, Knox, was to be looked for in the seventh yew from the northeast corner of the Tudor garden, did I not?"
"You did. And it is there. A bullet fired from a Lee-Enfield rifle; beyond any possible shadow of doubt the bullet which killed Colonel Menendez."
"Beyond any possible shadow of doubt, as you say, Knox, the bullet which killed Colonel Menendez."
"Therefore Camber is guilty?"
"On the contrary, therefore Camber is innocent!"
"You are persistently overlooking one little point, Knox," said Harley, mounting the steps on to the gravel path. "I spoke of the seventh yew tree from the northeast corner of the garden."
"Well, my dear fellow, surely you observed that the bullet was embedded in the ninth?"
I was still groping for the significance of this point when, re- crossing the hall, we entered the library again, to find Inspector Aylesbury posed squarely before the mantelpiece stating his case to Wessex.
"You see," he was saying, in his most oratorical manner, as we entered, "every little detail fits perfectly into place. For instance, I find that a woman, called Mrs. Powis, who for the past two years had acted as housekeeper at the Guest House and never taken a holiday, was sent away recently to her married daughter in London. See what that means? Her room is at the back of the house, and her evidence would have been fatal. Ah Tsong, of course, is a liar. I made up my mind about that the moment I clapped eyes on him. Mrs. Camber is the only innocent party. She was asleep in the front of the house when the shot was fired, and I believe her when she says that she cannot swear to the matter of distance."
"A very interesting case, Inspector," said Wessex, glancing at Harley. "I have not examined the body yet, but I understand that it was a clean wound through the head."
"The bullet entered at the juncture of the nasal and frontal bones," explained Harley, rapidly, "and it came out between the base of the occipital and first cervical. Without going into unpleasant surgical details, the wound was a perfectly straight one. There was no ricochet."
"I understand that a regulation rifle was used?"
"Yes," said Inspector Aylesbury; "we have it."
"And at what range did you say, Inspector?"
"Roughly, a hundred yards."
"Possibly less," murmured Harley.
"Hundred yards or less," said Wessex, musingly; "and the obstruction met with in the case of a man shot in that way would be—" He looked towards Paul Harley.
"Less than if the bullet had struck the skull higher up," was the reply. "It passed clean through."
"Therefore," continued Wessex, "I am waiting to hear, Inspector, where you found the bullet lodged?"
"Eh?" said the Inspector, and he slowly turned his prominent eyes in Harley's direction. "Oh, I see. That's why you wanted to examine the Tudor garden, is it?"
"Exactly," replied Harley.
The face of Inspector Aylesbury grew very red.
"I had deferred looking for the bullet," he explained, "as the case was already as clear as daylight. Probably Mr. Harley has discovered it."
"I have," said Harley, shortly.
"Is it the regulation bullet?" asked Wessex.
"It is. I found it embedded in one of the yew trees."
"There you are!" exclaimed Aylesbury. "There isn't the ghost of a doubt."
Wessex looked at Harley in undisguised perplexity.
"I must say, Mr. Harley," he admitted, "that I have never met with a clearer case."
"Neither have I," agreed Harley, cheerfully. "I am going to ask Inspector Aylesbury to return here after nightfall. There is a little experiment which I should like to make, and which would definitely establish my case."
"Your case?" said Aylesbury.
"My case, yes."
"You are not going to tell me that you still persist in believing Camber to be innocent?"
"Not at all. I am merely going to ask you to return at nightfall to assist me in this minor investigation."
"If you ask my opinion," said the Inspector, "no further evidence is needed."
"I don't agree with you," replied Harley, quietly. "Whatever your own ideas upon the subject may be, I, personally, have not yet discovered one single piece of convincing evidence for the prosecution of Camber."
"What!" exclaimed Aylesbury, and even Detective-Inspector Wessex stared at the speaker incredulously.
"My dear Inspector Aylesbury," concluded Harley, "when you have witnessed the experiment which I propose to make this evening you will realize, as I have already realized that we are faced by a tremendous task."
"What tremendous task?"
"The task of discovering who shot Colonel Menendez."
YSOLA CAMBER'S CONFESSION
Paul Harley, with Wessex and Inspector Aylesbury, presently set out for Market Hilton, where Colin Camber and Ah Tsong were detained and where the body of Colonel Menendez had been conveyed for the purpose of the post-mortem. I had volunteered to remain at Cray's Folly, my motive being not wholly an unselfish one.
"Refer reporters to me, Mr. Knox," said Inspector Wessex. "Don't let them trouble the ladies. And tell them as little as possible, yourself."
The drone of the engine having died away down the avenue, I presently found myself alone, but as I crossed the hall in the direction of the library, intending to walk out upon the southern lawns, I saw Val Beverley coming toward me from Madame de Staemer's room.
She remained rather pale, but smiled at me courageously.
"Have they all gone, Mr. Knox?" she asked. "I have really been hiding. I suppose you knew?"
"I suspected it," I said, smiling. "Yes, they are all gone. How is Madame de Staemer, now?"
"She is quite calm. Curiously, almost uncannily calm. She is writing. Tell me, please, what does Mr. Harley think of Inspector Aylesbury's preposterous ideas?"
"He thinks he is a fool," I replied, hotly, "as I do."
"But whatever will happen if he persists in dragging me into this horrible case?"
"He will not drag you into it," I said, quietly. "He has been superseded by a cleverer man, and the case is practically under Harley's direction now."
"Thank Heaven for that," she murmured. "I wonder——" She looked at me hesitatingly.
"Yes?" I prompted.
"I have been thinking about poor Mrs. Camber all alone in that gloomy house, and wondering——"
"Perhaps I know. You are going to visit her?"
Val Beverley nodded, watching me.
"Can you leave Madame de Staemer with safety?"
"Oh, yes, I think so. Nita can attend to her."
"And may I accompany you, Miss Beverley? For more reasons than one, I, too, should like to call upon Mrs. Camber."
"We might try," she said, hesitatingly. "I really only wanted to be kind. You won't begin to cross-examine her, will you?"
"Certainly not," I answered; "although there are many things I should like her to tell us."
"Well, suppose we go," said the girl, "and let events take their own course."
As a result, I presently found myself, Val Beverley by my side, walking across the meadow path. With the unpleasant hush of Cray's Folly left behind, the day seemed to grow brighter. I thought that the skylarks had never sung more sweetly. Yet in this same instant of sheerly physical enjoyment I experienced a pang of remorse, remembering the tragic woman we had left behind, and the poor little sorrowful girl we were going to visit. My emotions were very mingled, then, and I retain no recollection of our conversation up to the time that we came to the Guest House.
We were admitted by a really charming old lady, who informed us that her name was Mrs. Powis and that she was but an hour returned from London, whither she had been summoned by telegram.
She showed us into a quaint, small drawing room which owed its atmosphere quite clearly to Mrs. Camber, for whereas the study was indescribably untidy, this was a model of neatness without being formal or unhomely. Here, in a few moments, Mrs. Camber joined us, an appealing little figure of wistful, almost elfin, beauty. I was surprised and delighted to find that an instant bond of sympathy sprang up between the two girls. I diplomatically left them together for a while, going into Camber's room to smoke my pipe. And when I returned:
"Oh, Mr. Knox," said Val Beverley, "Mrs. Camber has something to tell you which she thinks you ought to know."
"Concerning Colonel Menendez?" I asked, eagerly.
Mrs. Camber nodded her golden head.
"Yes," she replied, but glancing at Val Beverley as if to gather confidence. "The truth can never hurt Colin. He has nothing to conceal. May I tell you?"
"I am all anxiety to hear," I assured her.
"Would you rather I went, Mrs. Camber?" asked Val Beverley.
Mrs. Camber reached across and took her hand.
"Please, no," she replied. "Stay here with me. I am afraid it is rather a long story."
"Never mind," I said. "It will be time well spent if it leads us any nearer to the truth."
"Yes?" she questioned, watching me anxiously, "you think so? I think so, too."
She became silent, sitting looking straight before her, the pupils of her blue eyes widely dilated. Then, at first in a queer, far-away voice, she began to speak again.
"I must tell you," she commenced "that before—my marriage, my name was Isabella de Valera."
"Ysola was my baby way of saying it, and so I came to be called Ysola. My father was manager of one of Senor Don Juan's estates, in a small island near the coast of Cuba. My mother"—she raised her little hands eloquently—"was half-caste. Do you know? And she and my father—"
She looked pleadingly at Val Beverley.
"I understand," whispered the latter with deep sympathy; "but you don't think it makes any difference, do you?"
"No?" said Mrs. Camber with a quaint little gesture. "To you, perhaps not, but there, where I was born, oh! so much. Well, then, my mother died when I was very little. Ah Tsong was her servant. There are many Chinese in the West Indies, you see, and I can just remember he carried me in to see her. Of course I didn't understand. My father quarrelled bitterly with the priests because they would not bury her in holy ground. I think he no longer believed afterward. I loved him very much. He was good to me; and I was a queen in that little island. All the negroes loved me, because of my mother, I think, who was partly descended from slaves, as they were. But I had not begun to understand how hard it was all going to be when my father sent me to a convent in Cuba.
"I hated to go, but while I was there I learned all about myself. I knew that I was outcast. It was"—she raised her hand—"not possible to stay. I was only fifteen when I came home, but all the same I was a woman. I was no more a child, and happy no longer. After a while, perhaps, when I forgot what I had suffered at the convent, I became less miserable. My father did all in his power to make me happy, and I was glad the work-people loved me. But I was very lonely. Ah Tsong understood."
Her eyes filled with tears.
"Can you imagine," she asked, "that when my father was away in distant parts of the island at night, Ah Tsong slept outside my door? Some of them say, 'Do not trust the Chinese' I say, except my husband and my father, I have never known another one to trust but Ah Tsong. Now they have taken him away from me."
Tears glittered on her lashes, but she brushed them aside angrily, and continued:
"I was still less than twenty, and looked, they told me, only fourteen, when Senor Menendez came to inspect his estate. I had never seen him before. There had been a rising in the island, in the year after I was born, and he had only just escaped with his life. He was hated. People called him Devil Menendez. Especially, no woman was safe from him, and in the old days, when his power had been great, he had used it for wickedness.
"My father was afraid when he heard he was coming. He would have sent me away, but before it could be arranged Senor the Colonel arrived. He had in his company a French lady. I thought her very beautiful and elegant. It was Madame de Staemer. It is only four years ago, a little more, but her hair was dark brown. She was splendidly dressed and such a wonderful horsewoman. The first time I saw her I felt as they had made me feel at the convent. I wanted to hide from her. She was so grand a lady, and I came from slaves."
She paused hesitatingly and stared down at her own tiny feet.
"Pardon me interrupting you, Mrs. Camber," I said, "but can you tell me in what way these two are related?"
She looked up with her naive smile.
"I can tell you, yes. A cousin of Senor Menendez married a sister of Madame de Staemer."
"Good heavens!" I exclaimed, "a very remote kinship."
"It was in this way they met, in Paris, I think, and"—she raised her hands expressively—"she came with him to the West Indies, although it was during the great war. I think she loved him more than her soul, and me—me she hated. As Senor Menendez dismounted from his horse in front of the house he saw me."
She sighed and ceased speaking again. Then:
"That very night," she continued, "he began. Do you know? I was trying to escape from him when Madame de Staemer found us. She called me a shameful name, and my father, who heard it, ordered her out of the house. Senor Menendez spoke sharply, and my father struck him."
She paused once more, biting her lip agitatedly, but presently proceeded:
"Do you know what they are like, the Spanish, when their blood is hot? Senor Menendez had a revolver, but my father knocked it from his grasp. Then they fought with their bare hands. I was too frightened even to cry out. It was all a horrible dream. What Madame de Staemer did, I do not know. I could see nothing but two figures twined together on the floor. At last one of them arose. I saw it was my father, and I remember no more."
She was almost overcome by her tragic recollections, but presently, with a wonderful courage, which, together with her daintiness of form, spoke eloquently of good blood on one side at any rate, continued to speak:
"My father found he must go to Cuba to make arrangements for the future. Of course, our life there was finished. Ah Tsong stayed with me. You have heard how it used to be in those islands in the old days, but now you think it is so different? I used to think it was different, too. On the first night my father was away, Ah Tsong, who had gone out, was so long returning I became afraid. Then a strange negro came with news that he had been taken ill with cholera, and was lying at a place not far from the house. I forgot my fears and hurried off with this man. Ah!"
She laughed wildly.
"I did not know I should never return, and I did not know I should never see my father again. To you this must seem all wild and strange, because there is a law in England. There is a law in Cuba, too, but in some of those little islands the only law is the law of the strongest."
She raised her hands to her face and there was silence for a while.
"Of course it was a trap," she presently continued. "I was taken to an island called El Manas which belonged to Senor Menendez, and where he had a house. This he could do, but"—she threw back her head proudly— "my spirit he could not break. Lots and lots of money would be mine, and estates of my own; but one thing about him I must tell: he never showed me violence. For one, two, three weeks I stayed a prisoner in his house. All the servants were faithful to him and I could not find a friend among them. Although quite innocent, I was ruined. Do you know?"
She raised her eyes pathetically to Val Beverley.
"I thought my heart was broken, for something told me my father was dead. This was true."
"What!" I exclaimed. "You don't mean—"
"I don't know, I don't know," she answered, brokenly. "He died on his way to Havana. They said it was an accident. Well—at last, Senor Menendez offered me marriage. I thought if I agreed it would give me my freedom, and I could run away and find Ah Tsong."
She paused, and a flush coloured her delicate face and faded again, leaving it very pale.
"We were married in the house, by a Spanish priest. Oh"—she raised her hands pathetically—"do you know what a woman is like? My spirit was not broken still, but crushed. I had now nothing but kindness and gifts. I might never have known, but Senor Menendez, who thought"—she smiled sadly—"I was beautiful, took me to Cuba, where he had a great house. Please remember, please," she pleaded, "before you judge of me, that I was so young and had never known love, except the love of my father. I did not even dream, then, his death was not an accident.
"I was proud of my jewels and fine dresses. But I began to notice that Juan did not present any of his friends to me. We went about, but to strange places, never to visit people of his own kind, and none came to visit us. Then one night I heard someone on the balcony of my room. I was so frightened I could not cry out. It was good I was like that, for the curtain was pulled open and Ah Tsong came in."
She clutched convulsively at the arms of her chair.
"He told me!" she said in a very low voice.
Then, looking up pitifully:
"Do you know?" she asked in her quaint way. "It was a mock marriage. He had done it and thought no shame, because it was so with my mother. Oh!"
Her beautiful eyes flashed, and for the first time since I had met Ysola Camber I saw the real Spanish spirit of the woman leap to life.
"He did not know me. Perhaps I did not know myself. That night, with no money, without a ring, a piece of lace, a peseta, anything that had belonged to him, I went with Ah Tsong. We made our way to a half-sister of my father's who lived in Puerto Principe, and at first—she would not have me. I was talked about, she said, in all the islands. She told me of my poor father. She told me I had dragged the name of de Valera in the dirt. At last I made her understand—that what everyone else had known, I had never even dreamed of."
She looked up wistfully, as if thinking that we might doubt her.
"Do you know?" she whispered.
"I know—oh! I know!" said Val Beverley. I loved her for the sympathy in her voice and in her eyes. "It is very, very brave of you to tell us this, Mrs. Camber."
"Yes? Do you think so?" asked the girl, simply. "What does it matter if it can help Colin?
"This aunt of mine," she presently continued, "was a poor woman, and it was while I was hiding in her house—because spies of Senor Menendez were searching for me—that I met—my husband. He was studying in Cuba the strange things he writes about, you see. And before I knew what had happened—I found I loved him more than all else in the world. It is so wonderful, that feeling," she said, looking across at Val Beverley. "Do you know?"
The girl flushed deeply, and lowered her eyes, but made no reply.
"Because you are a woman, too, you will perhaps understand," she resumed. "I did not tell him. I did not dare to tell him at first. I was so madly happy I had no courage to speak. But when"—her voice sank lower and lower—"he asked me to marry him, I told him. Nothing he could ever do would change my love for him now, because he forgave me and made me his wife."
I feared that at last she was going to break down, for her voice became very tremulous and tears leapt again into her eyes. She conquered her emotion, however, and went on:
"We crossed over to the States, and Colin's family who had heard of his marriage—some friend of Senor Menendez had told them—would not know us. It meant that Colin, who would have been a rich man, was very poor. It made no difference. He was splendid. And I was so happy it was all like a dream. He made me forget I was to blame for his troubles. Then we were in Washington—and I saw Senor Menendez in the hotel!
"Oh, my heart stopped beating. For me it seemed like the end of everything. I knew, I knew, he was following me. But he had not seen me, and without telling Colin the reason, I made him leave Washington, He was glad to go. Wherever we went, in America, they seemed to find out about my mother. I got to hate them, hate them all. We came to England, and Colin heard about this house, and we took it.
"At last we were really happy. No one knew us. Because we were strange, and because of Ah Tsong, they looked at us very funny and kept away, but we did not care. Then Sir James Appleton sold Cray's Folly."
She looked up quickly.
"How can I tell you? It must have been by Ah Tsong that he traced me to Surrey. Some spy had told him there was a Chinaman living here. Oh, I don't know how he found out, but when I heard who was coming to Cray's Folly I thought I should die.
"Something I must tell you now. When I had told my story to Colin, one thing I had not told him, because I was afraid what he might do. I had not told him the name of the man who had caused me to suffer so much. On the day I first saw Senor Menendez walking in the garden of Cray's Folly I knew I must tell my husband what he had so often asked me to tell him—the name of the man. I told him—and at first I thought he would go mad. He began to drink—do you know? It is a failing in his family. But because I knew—because I knew—I forgave him, and hoped, always hoped, that he would stop. He promised to do so. He had given up going out each day to drink, and was working again like he used to work—too hard, too hard, but it was better than the other way."
She stopped speaking, and suddenly, before I could divine her intention, dropped upon her knees, and raised her clasped hands to me.
"He did not, he did not kill him!" she cried, passionately. "He did not! O God! I who love him tell you he did not! You think he did. You do—you do! I can see it in your eyes!"
"Believe me, Mrs. Camber," I answered, deeply moved, "I don't doubt your word for a moment."
She continued to look at me for a while, and then turned to Val Beverley.
"You don't think he did," she sobbed, "do you?"
She looked such a child, such a pretty, helpless child, as she knelt there on the carpet, that I felt a lump rising in my throat.
Val Beverley dropped down impulsively beside her and put her arms around the slender shoulders.
"Of course I don't," she exclaimed, indignantly. "Of course I don't. It's quite unthinkable."
"I know it is," moaned the other, raising her tearful face. "I love him and know his great soul. But what do these others know, and they will never believe me."
"Have courage," I said. "It has never failed you yet. Mr. Paul Harley has promised to clear him by to-night."
"He has promised?" she whispered, still kneeling and clutching Val Beverley tightly. She looked up at me with hope reborn in her beautiful eyes. "He has promised? Oh, I thank him. May God bless him. I know he will succeed."
I turned aside, and walked out across the hall and into the empty study.
PAUL HARLEY'S EXPERIMENT
I recognize that whosoever may have taken the trouble to follow my chronicle thus far will be little disposed to suffer any intrusion of my personal affairs at such a point. Therefore I shall pass lightly over the walk back to Cray's Folly, during which I contrived to learn much about Val Beverley's personal history but little to advance the investigation which I was there to assist.
As I had surmised, Miss Beverley had been amply provided for by her father, and was bound to Madame de Staemer by no other ties than those of friendship and esteem. Very reluctantly I released her, on our returning to the house; for she, perforce, hurried off to Madame's room, leaving me looking after her in a state of delightful bewilderment, the significance of which I could not disguise from myself. The absurd suspicions of Inspector Aylesbury were forgotten; so was the shadow upon the blind of Colonel Menendez's study. I only knew that love had come to me, an unbidden guest, to stay for ever.
Manoel informed me that a number of pressmen, not to be denied, had taken photographs of the Tudor garden and of the spot where Colonel Menendez had been found, but Pedro, following my instructions, had referred them all to Market Hilton.
I was standing in the doorway talking to the man when I heard the drone of Harley's motor in the avenue, and a moment later he and Wessex stepped out in front of the porch and joined me. I thought that Wessex looked stern and rather confused, but Harley was quite his old self, his keen eyes gleaming humorously, and an expression of geniality upon his tanned features.
"Hullo, Knox!" he cried, "any developments?"
"Yes," I said. "Suppose we go up to your room and talk."
Inspector Wessex nodded without speaking, and the three of us mounted the staircase and entered Paul Harley's room. Harley seated himself upon the bed and began to load his pipe, whilst Wessex, who seemed very restless, stood staring out of the window. I sat down in the armchair, and:
"I have had an interesting interview with Mrs. Camber," I said.
"What?" exclaimed Harley. "Good. Tell us all about it."
Wessex turned, hands clasped behind him, and listened in silence to an account which I gave of my visit to the Guest House. When I had finished:
"It seems to me," said the Inspector, slowly, "that the only doubtful point in the case against Camber is cleared up; namely, his motive."
"It certainly looks like it," agreed Harley. "But how strangely Mrs. Camber's story differs from that of Menendez although there are points of contact. I regret, however, that you were unable to settle the most important matter of all."
"You mean whether or not she had visited Cray's Folly?"
"Then you still consider my theory to be correct?" I asked eagerly.
"Up to a point it has been proved to be," he returned. "I must congratulate you upon a piece of really brilliant reasoning, Knox. But respecting the most crucial moment of all, we are still without information, unfortunately. However, whilst the presence or otherwise, of Mrs. Camber in Cray's Folly on the night preceding the tragedy may prove to bear intimately upon the case, an experiment which I propose to make presently will give the matter an entirely different significance."
"Hm," said Wessex, doubtfully, "I am looking forward to this experiment of yours, Mr. Harley, with great interest. To be perfectly honest, I have no more idea than the man in the moon how you hope to clear Camber."
"No," replied Harley, musingly, "the weight of evidence against him is crushing. But you are a man of great experience, Wessex, in criminal investigations. Tell me honestly, have you ever known a murder case in which there was such conclusive material for the prosecution?"
"Never," replied the Inspector, promptly. "In this respect, as in others, the case is unique."
"You have seen Camber," continued Harley, "and have been enabled to form some sort of judgment respecting his character. You will admit that he is a clever man, brilliantly clever. Keep this fact in mind. Remember his studies, and he does not deny that they have included Voodoo. Remember his enquiries into the significance of Bat Wing. Remember, as we now learn definitely from Mrs. Camber's evidence, that he was in Cuba at the same time as the late Colonel Menendez, and once, at least, actually in the same hotel in the United States. Consider the rifle found under the floor of the hut; and, having weighed all these points judicially, Wessex, tell me frankly, if in the whole course of your experience, you have ever met with a more perfect frame-up?"
"What!" shouted Wessex, in sudden excitement. "What!"
"I said a frame-up," repeated Harley, quietly. "An American term, but one which will be familiar to you."
"Good God!" muttered the detective, "you have turned all my ideas upside down."
"What may be termed the physical evidence," continued Harley, "is complete, I admit: too complete. There lies the weak spot. But what I will call the psychological evidence points in a totally different direction. A man clever enough to have planned this crime, and Camber undoubtedly is such a man, could not—it is humanly impossible—have been fool enough, deliberately to lay such a train of damning facts. It's a frame-up, Wessex! I had begun to suspect this even before I met Camber. Having met him, I knew that I was right. Then came an inspiration. I saw where there must be a flaw in the plan. It was geographically impossible that this could be otherwise."
"Geographically impossible?" I said, in a hushed voice, for Harley had truly astounded me.
"Geographical is the term, Knox. I admit that the discovery of the rifle beneath the floor of the hut appalled me."
"I could see that it did."
"It was the crowning piece of evidence, Knox, evidence of such fiendish cleverness on the part of those who had plotted Menendez's death that I began to wonder whether after all it would be possible to defeat them. I realized that Camber's life hung upon a hair. For the production of that rifle before a jury of twelve moderately stupid men and true could not fail to carry enormous weight. Whereas the delicate point upon which my counter case rested might be more difficult to demonstrate in court. To-night, however, we shall put it to the test, and there are means, no doubt, which will occur to me later, of making its significance evident to one not acquainted with the locality. The press photographs, which I understand have been taken, may possibly help us in this."
Bewildered by my friend's revolutionary ideas, which explained the hitherto mysterious nature of his enquiries, I scarcely knew what to say; but:
"If it's a frame-up, Mr. Harley," said Wessex, "and the more I think about it the more it has that look to me, practically speaking, we have not yet started on the search for the murderer."
"We have not," replied Harley, grimly. "But I have a dawning idea of a method by which we shall be enabled to narrow down this enquiry."
It must be unnecessary for me to speak of the state of suppressed excitement in which we passed the remainder of that afternoon and evening. Dr. Rolleston called again to see Madame de Staemer, and reported that she was quite calm. In fact, he almost echoed Val Beverley's words spoken earlier in the day.
"She is unnaturally calm, Mr. Knox," he said in confidence. "I understand that the dead man was a cousin, but I almost suspect that she was madly in love with him."
I nodded shortly, admiring his acute intelligence.
"I think you are right, doctor," I replied, "and if it is so, her amazing fortitude is all the more admirable."
"Admirable?" he echoed. "As I said before, she has the courage of ten men."
A formal dinner was out of the question, of course; indeed, no one attempted to dress. Val Beverley excused herself, saying that she would dine in Madame's room, and Harley, Wessex, and I, partook of wine and sandwiches in the library.
Inspector Aylesbury arrived about eight o'clock in a mood of repressed irritation. Pedro showed him in to where the three of us were seated, and:
"Good evening, gentlemen," said he, "here I am, as arranged, but as I am up to my eyes in work on the case, I will ask you, Mr. Harley, to carry out this experiment of yours as quickly as possible."
"No time shall be lost," replied my friend, quietly. "May I request you to accompany Detective-Inspector Wessex and Mr. Knox to the Guest House by the high road? Do not needlessly alarm Mrs. Camber. Indeed, I think you might confine your attention to Mrs. Powis. Merely request permission to walk down the garden to the hut, and be good enough to wait there until I join you, which will be in a few minutes after your arrival."
Inspector Aylesbury uttered an inarticulate, grunting sound, but I, who knew Harley so well, could see that he felt himself to be upon the eve of a signal triumph. What he proposed to do, I had no idea, save that it was designed to clear Colin Camber. I prayed that it might also clear his pathetic girl-wife; and in a sort of gloomy silence I set out with Wessex and Aylesbury, down the drive, past the lodge, which seemed to be deserted to-night, and along the tree-lined high road, cool and sweet in the dusk of evening.
Aylesbury was very morose, and Wessex, who had lighted his pipe, did not seem to be in a talkative mood either. He had the utmost faith in Paul Harley, but it was evident enough that he was oppressed by the weight of evidence against Camber. I divined the fact that he was turning over in his mind the idea of the frame-up, and endeavouring to re-adjust the established facts in accordance with this new point of view.
We were admitted to the Guest House by Mrs. Powis, a cheery old soul; one of those born optimists whose special task in life seems to be that of a friend in need.
As she opened the door, she smiled, shook her head, and raised her finger to her lips.
"Be as quiet as you can, sir," she said. "I have got her to sleep."
She spoke of Mrs. Camber as one refers to a child, and, quite understanding her anxiety:
"There will be no occasion to disturb her, Mrs. Powis," I replied. "We merely wish to walk down to the bottom of the garden to make a few enquiries."
"Yes, gentlemen," she whispered, quietly closing the door as we all entered the hall.
She led us through the rear portion of the house, and past the quarters of Ah Tsong into that neglected garden which I remembered so well.
"There you are, sir, and may Heaven help you to find the truth."
"Rest assured that the truth will be found, Mrs. Powis," I answered.
Inspector Aylesbury cleared his throat, but Wessex, puffing at his pipe, made no remark whatever until we were all come to the hut overhanging the little ravine.
"This is where I found the rifle, Detective-Inspector," explained Aylesbury.
Wessex nodded absently.
It was another perfect night, with only a faint tracery of cloud to be seen like lingering smoke over on the western horizon. Everything seemed very still, so that although we were several miles from the railway line, when presently a train sped on its way one might have supposed, from the apparent nearness of the sound, that the track was no farther off than the grounds of Cray's Folly.
Toward those grounds, automatically, our glances were drawn; and we stood there staring down at the ghostly map of the gardens, and all wondering, no doubt, what Harley was doing and when he would be joining us.
Very faintly I could hear the water of the little stream bubbling beneath us. Then, just as this awkward silence was becoming intolerable, there came a scraping and scratching from the shadows of the gully, and:
"Give me a hand, Knox!" cried the voice of Harley from below. "I want to avoid the barbed wire if possible."
He had come across country, and as I scrambled down the slope to meet him I could not help wondering with what object he had sent us ahead by the high road. Presently, when he came clambering up into the garden, this in a measure was explained, for:
"You are all wondering," he began, rapidly, "what I am up to, no doubt. Let me endeavour to make it clear. In order that my test should be conclusive, and in no way influenced by pre-knowledge of certain arrangements which I had made, I sent you on ahead of me. Not wishing to waste time, I followed by the shorter route. And now, gentlemen, let us begin."
"Good," muttered Inspector Aylesbury.
"But first of all," continued Harley, "I wish each one of you in turn to look out of the window of the hut, and down into the Tudor garden of Cray's Folly. Will you begin, Wessex?"
Wessex, taking his pipe out of his mouth, and staring hard at the speaker, nodded, entered the hut, and kneeling on the wooden seat, looked out of the window.
"Open the panes," said Harley, "so that you have a perfectly clear view."
Wessex slid the panes open and stared intently down into the valley.
"Do you see anything unusual in the garden?"
"Nothing," he reported.
"And now, Inspector Aylesbury."
Inspector Aylesbury stamped noisily across the little hut, and peered out, briefly.
"I can see the garden," he said.
"Can you see the sun-dial?"
"Good. And now you, Knox."
I followed, filled with astonishment.
"Do you see the sun-dial?" asked Harley, again.
"And beyond it?"
"Yes, I can see beyond it. I can even see its shadow lying like a black band on the path."
"And you can see the yew trees?"
"But nothing else? Nothing unusual?"
"Very well," said Harley, tersely. "And now, gentlemen, we take to the rough ground, proceeding due east. Will you be good enough to follow?"
Walking around the hut he found an opening in the hedge, and scrambled down into the place where rank grass grew and through which he and I on a previous occasion had made our way to the high road. To-night, however, he did not turn toward the high road, but proceeded along the crest of the hill.
I followed him, excited by the novelty of the proceedings. Wessex, very silent, came behind me, and Inspector Aylesbury, swearing under his breath, waded through the long grass at the rear.
"Will you all turn your attention to the garden again, please?" cried Harley.
We all paused, looking to the right.
We were agreed that there was not.
"Very well," said my friend. "You will kindly note that from this point onward the formation of the ground prevents our obtaining any other view of Cray's Folly or its gardens until we reach the path to the valley, or turn on to the high road. From a point on the latter the tower may be seen but that is all. The first part of my experiment is concluded, gentlemen. We will now return."
Giving us no opportunity for comment, he plunged on in the direction of the stream, and at a point which I regarded as unnecessarily difficult, crossed it, to the great discomfiture of the heavy Inspector Aylesbury. A few minutes later we found ourselves once more in the grounds of Cray's Folly.
Harley, evidently with a definite objective in view, led the way up the terraces, through the rhododendrons, and round the base of the tower. He crossed to the sunken garden, and at the top of the steps paused.
"Be good enough to regard the sun-dial from this point," he directed.
Even as he spoke, I caught my breath, and I heard Aylesbury utter a sort of gasping sound.
Beyond the sun-dial and slightly to the left of it, viewed from where we stood, a faint, elfin light flickered, at a point apparently some four or five feet above the ground!
"What's this?" muttered Wessex.
"Follow again, gentlemen," said Harley quietly.
He led the way down to the garden and along the path to the sun-dial. This he passed, pausing immediately in front of the yew tree in which I knew the bullet to be embedded.
He did not speak, but, extending his finger, pointed.
A piece of candle, some four inches long, was attached by means of a nail to the bark of the tree, so that its flame burned immediately in front of the bullet embedded there!
For perhaps ten seconds no one spoke; indeed I think no one moved. Then:
"Good God!" murmured Wessex. "You have done some clever things to my knowledge, Mr. Harley, but this crowns them all."
"Clever things!" said Inspector Aylesbury. "I think it's a lot of damned tomfoolery."
"Do you, Inspector?" asked the Scotland Yard man, quietly. "I don't. I think it has saved the life of an innocent man."
"What's that? What's that?" cried Aylesbury.
"This candle was burning here on the yew tree," explained Harley, "at the time that you looked out of the window of the hut. You could not see it. You could not see it from the crest adjoining the Guest House— the only other spot in the neighbourhood from which this garden is visible. Now, since the course of a bullet is more or less straight, and since the nature of the murdered man's wound proves that it was not deflected in any way, I submit that the one embedded in the yew tree before you could not possibly have been fired from the Guest House! The second part of my experiment, gentlemen, will be designed to prove from whence it was fired."
PAUL HARLEY'S EXPERIMENT CONCLUDED
Up to the very moment that Paul Harley, who had withdrawn, rejoined us in the garden, Inspector Aylesbury had not grasped the significance of that candle burning upon the yew tree. He continued to stare at it as if hypnotized, and when my friend re-appeared, carrying a long ash staff and a sheet of cardboard, I could have laughed to witness the expression upon the Inspector's face, had I not been too deeply impressed with that which underlay this strange business.