BY E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM
"The Master Mummer," "A Maker of History," "The Malefactor," "The Lost Leader," "The Great Secret," Etc.
I. A MYSTERIOUS VISITOR
II. THE HORROR OF THE HANSOM
III. DISCUSSING THE CRIME
IV. UNDER A CLOUD
V. ON THE TELEPHONE
VI. ONE THOUSAND POUNDS' REWARD
VII. THE COLONEL'S DAUGHTER
VIII. THE BARONESS INTERVENES
IX. A BOX AT THE ALHAMBRA
XI. FALSE SENTIMENT
XII. TIDINGS FROM THE CAPE
XIII. SEARCHING THE CHAMBERS
XIV. THE DEAD MAN'S BROTHER
XV. THE LAWYER'S SUGGESTION
XVI. A DINNER IN THE STRAND
XVII. A CONFESSION OF LOVE
XVIII. AN AMATEUR DETECTIVE
XIX. DESPERATE WOOING
XX. STABBED THROUGH THE HEART
XXI. THE FLIGHT OF LOUISE
XXII. THE CHATEAU OF ETARPE
XXIII. A PASSIONATE PILGRIM
XXIV. AN INVITATION TO DINNER
XXV. THE MAN IN THE YELLOW BOOTS
XXVI. MADAME DE MELBAIN
XXVII. THE SPY
XXVIII. THE SCENE IN THE AVENUE
XXIX. A SUBSTANTIAL GHOST
XXX. THE QUEEN OF MEXONIA
XXXI. RETURNED FROM THE TOMB
XXXII. AT THE HOTEL SPLENDIDE
XXXIII. A HAND IN THE GAME
XXXIV. AN ILL-ASSORTED COUPLE
XXXV. HIS WIFE
XXXVI. THE MURDERED MAN'S EFFECTS
XXXVII. THE WIDOW'S ULTIMATUM
XXXVIII. INEFFECTUAL WOOING
XXXIX. THE COLONEL'S MISSION
XLI. THE COLONEL SPEAKS
XLII. LOVE REMAINS
"THERE PLASHED ACROSS HER FACE A QUIVER, AS THOUGH OF PAIN"
"AT THE SIGHT OF THE TWO MEN, THE BARONESS STOPPED SHORT"
"HE WAS THERE ON HIS KNEES, WITH HIS ARMS AROUND THE TERRIFIED WOMAN"
"'TO THE NEAREST POLICE STATION! THAT'S WHERE I'M OFF.'"
A MYSTERIOUS VISITOR
The man and the woman stood facing one another, although in the uncertain firelight which alone illuminated the room neither could see much save the outline of the other's form. The woman stood at the further end of the apartment by the side of the desk—his desk. The slim trembling fingers of one hand rested lightly upon it, the other was hanging by her side, nervously crumpling up the glove which she had only taken off a few minutes before. The man stood with his back to the door through which he had just entered. He was in evening dress; he carried an overcoat over his arm, and his hat was slightly on the back of his head. A cigarette was still burning between his lips, the key by means of which he had entered was swinging from his little finger. So far no words had passed between them. Both were apparently stupefied for the moment by the other's unexpected presence.
It was the man who recovered his self-possession first. He threw his overcoat into a chair, and touched the brass knobs behind the door. Instantly the room was flooded with the soft radiance of the electric lights. They could see one another now distinctly. The woman leaned a little forward, and there was amazement as well as fear flashing in her soft, dark eyes. Her voice, when she spoke, sounded to herself unnatural. To him it came as a surprise, for the world of men and women was his study, and he recognized at once its quality.
"Who are you?" she exclaimed. "What do you want?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"It seems to me," he answered, "that I might more fittingly assume the role of questioner. However, I have no objection to introduce myself. My name is Herbert Wrayson. May I ask," he continued with quiet sarcasm, "to what I am indebted for this unexpected visit?"
She was silent for a moment, and as he watched her his surprise grew. Equivocal though her position was, he knew very well that this was no ordinary thief whom he had surprised in his rooms, engaged to all appearance in rifling his desk. The fact that she was a beautiful woman was one which he scarcely took into account. There were other things more surprising which he could not ignore. Her evening dress of black net was faultlessly made, and he knew enough of such things to be well aware that it came from the hands of no ordinary dressmaker. A string of pearls, her only ornament, hung from her neck, and her black hat with its drooping feathers was the fellow of one which he had admired a few evenings ago at the Ritz in Paris. It flashed upon him that this was a woman of distinction, one who belonged naturally, if not in effect, to the world of which even he could not claim to be a habitant. What was she doing in his rooms?—of what interest to her were he and his few possessions?
"Herbert Wrayson," she repeated, leaning a little towards him. "If your name is Herbert Wrayson, what are you doing in these rooms?"
"They happen to be mine," he answered calmly.
She picked up a small latch-key from the desk.
"This is number 11, isn't it?" she asked quickly.
"No! Number 11 is the flat immediately overhead," he told her.
She appeared unconvinced.
"But I opened the door with this key," she declared.
"Mr. Barnes and I have similar locks," he said. "The fact remains that this is number 9, and number 11 is one story overhead."
She drew a long breath, presumably of relief, and moved a step forward.
"I am very sorry!" she declared. "I have made a mistake. You must please accept my apologies."
He stood motionless in front of the door. He was pale, clean-shaven, and slim, and in his correct evening clothes he seemed a somewhat ordinary type of the well-bred young Englishman. But his eyes were grey, and his mouth straight and firm.
She came to a standstill. Her eyes seemed to be questioning him. She scarcely understood his attitude.
"Kindly allow me to pass!" she said coldly.
"Presently!" he answered.
Her veil was still raised, and the flash of her eyes would surely have made a weaker man quail. But Wrayson never flinched.
"What do you mean by that?" she demanded. "I have explained my presence in your room. It was an accident which I regret. Let me pass at once."
"You have explained your presence here," he answered, "after a fashion! But you have not explained what your object may be in making use of that key to enter Mr. Barnes' flat. Are you proposing to subject his belongings to the same inspection as mine?" he asked, pointing to his disordered desk.
"My business with Mr. Barnes is no concern of yours!" she exclaimed haughtily.
"Under ordinary circumstances, no!" he admitted. "But these are not ordinary circumstances. Forgive me if I speak plainly. I found you engaged in searching my desk. The presumption is that you wish to do the same thing to Mr. Barnes'."
"And if I do, sir!" she demanded, "what concern is it of yours? How do you know that I have not permission to visit his rooms—that he did not himself give me this key?"
She held it out before him. He glanced at it and back into her face.
"The supposition," he said, "does not commend itself to me."
He looked at the clock.
"You see," he declared, "that it is within a few minutes of midnight. To be frank with you, you do not seem to me the sort of person likely to visit a bachelor such as Mr. Barnes, in a bachelor flat, at this hour, without some serious object."
She kept silence for several moments. Her bosom was rising and falling quickly, and a brilliant spot of colour was burning in her cheeks. Her head was thrown a little back, she was regarding him with an intentness which he found almost disconcerting. He had an uncomfortable sense that he was in the presence of a human being who, if it had lain in her power, would have killed him where he stood. Further, he was realizing that the woman whom at first glance he had pronounced beautiful, was absolutely the first of her sex whom he had ever seen who satisfied completely the demands of a somewhat critical and highly cultivated taste. The silence between them seemed extended over a time crowded and rich with sensations. He found time to marvel at the delicate whiteness of her bosom, gleaming like polished ivory under the network of her black gown, to appreciate with a quick throb of delight the slim roundness of her perfect figure, the wonderful poise of her head, the soft richness of her braided hair. Every detail of feature and of toilet seemed to satisfy to the last degree each critical faculty of which he was possessed. He felt a little shiver of apprehension when he recalled the cold brutality of the words which had just left his lips! Yet how could he deal with her differently?
"Is this man—Morris Barnes—your friend?" she asked, breaking a silence which had done more than anything else to unnerve him.
"No!" he answered. "I scarcely know the man. I have never seen him except in the lift, or on the stairs."
"Then you have no excuse for keeping me here," she declared. "I may be his friend, or I may be his enemy. At least I possess the key of his flat, presumably with his permission. My presence here I have explained. I can assure you that it is entirely accidental! You have no right to detain me for a moment."
The clock on the mantelpiece struck midnight. A sudden passion surged in his veins, a passion which, although at the time he could not have classified it, was assuredly a passion of jealousy! He remembered the man Barnes, whom he hated.
"You shall not go to his rooms—at this hour!" he exclaimed. "You don't know the man! If you were seen—"
She laughed mockingly.
"Let me pass!" she insisted.
He hesitated. She saw very clearly that she was conquering. A moment before she had respected this man. After all, though, he was like the others.
"I will go with you and wait outside," he said doggedly. "Barnes, at this hour—is not always sober!"
Her lips curled.
"Be wise," she said, "and let me go. I do not need your protection or—"
She broke off suddenly. The interruption was certainly startling enough. From a table only a few feet off came the shrill tinkle of a telephone bell. Wrayson mechanically stepped backwards and took the receiver into his hand.
"Who is it?" he asked.
The voice which answered him was faint but clear. It seemed to Wrayson to come from a long way off.
"Is that Mr. Wrayson's flat in Cavendish Mansions?" it asked.
"Yes!" Wrayson answered. "Who are you?"
"I am a friend of Mr. Morris Barnes," the voice answered. "May I apologize for calling you up, but the matter is urgent. Can you tell me if Mr. Barnes is in?"
"I am not sure, but I believe he is never in before one or two o'clock," Wrayson answered.
"Will you write down a message and leave it in his letter-box?" the voice asked anxiously. "It is very important or I would not trouble you."
"Very well," Wrayson answered. "What is it?"
"Tell him instantly he returns to leave his flat and go to the Hotel Francis. A friend is waiting there for him, the friend whom he has been expecting!"
"A lady?" Wrayson remarked a little sarcastically.
"No!" the voice answered. "A friend. Will you do this? Will you promise to do it?"
"Very well," Wrayson said. "Who are you, and where are you ringing up from?"
"Remember you have promised!" was the only reply.
"All right! Tell me your name," Wrayson demanded.
No answer. Wrayson turned the handle of the instrument viciously.
"Exchange," he asked, "who was that talking to me just now?"
"Don't know," was the prompt answer. "We can't remember all the calls we get. Ring off, please!"
Wrayson laid down the receiver and turned round with a sudden sense of apprehension. There was a feeling of emptiness in the room. He had not heard a sound, but he knew very well what had happened. The door was slightly open and the room was empty. She had taken advantage of his momentary absorption to slip away.
He stepped outside and stood by the lift, listening. The landing was deserted, and there was no sound of any one moving anywhere. The lift itself was on the ground floor. It had not ascended recently or he must have heard it. He returned to his room and softly closed the door. Again the sense of emptiness oppressed him. A faint perfume around the place where she had stood came to him like a whiff of some delicious memory. He set his teeth, lit a cigarette, and sitting down at his desk wrote a few lines to his neighbour, embodying the message which had been given him. With the note in his hand he ascended to the next floor.
There was apparently no light in flat number 11, but he rang the bell and listened. There was no answer, no sound of any one moving within. For nearly ten minutes he waited—listening. He was strongly tempted to open the door with his own key and see for himself if she was there. Then he remembered that Barnes was a man whom he barely knew, and cordially disliked, and that if he should return unexpectedly, the situation would be a little difficult to explain. Reluctantly he descended to his own flat, and mixing himself a whisky and soda, lit a pipe and sat down, determined to wait until he heard Barnes return. In less than a quarter of an hour he was asleep!
THE HORROR OF THE HANSOM
Wrayson sat up with a sudden and violent start. His pipe had fallen on to the floor, leaving a long trail of grey ash upon his waistcoat and trousers. The electric lights were still burning, but of the fire nothing remained but a pile of ashes. As soon as he could be said to be conscious of anything, he was conscious of two things. One was that he was shivering with cold, the other that he was afraid.
Wrayson was by no means a coward. He had come once or twice in his life into close touch with dangerous happenings, and conducted himself with average pluck. He never attempted to conceal from himself, however, that these few minutes were minutes of breathless, unreasoning fear. His heart was thumping against his side, and the muscles at the back of his neck were almost numb as he slowly looked round the room. His eyes paused at the door. It was slightly open, to his nervous fancy it seemed to be shaking. His teeth chattered, he felt his forehead, and it was wet.
He rose to his feet and listened. There was no sound anywhere, from above or below. He tried to remember what it was that had awakened him so suddenly. He could remember nothing except that awful start. Something must have disturbed him! He listened again. Still no sound. He drew a little breath, and, with his eyes glued upon the half-closed door, recollected that he himself had left it open that he might hear Barnes go upstairs. With a little laugh, still not altogether natural, he moved to the spirit decanter and drank off half a wineglassful of neat whisky!
"Nerves," he said softly to himself. "This won't do! What an idiot I was to go to sleep there!"
He glanced at the clock. It was five minutes to three. Then he moved towards the door, and stood for several moments with the handle in his hand. Gradually his confidence was returning. He listened attentively. There was not a sound to be heard in the entire building. He turned back into the room with a little sigh of relief.
"Time I turned in," he muttered. "Wonder if that's rain."
He lifted the blind and looked out. A few stars were shining still in a misty sky, but a bank of clouds was rolling up and rain was beginning to fall. The pavements were already wet, and the lamp-posts obscured. He was about to turn away when a familiar, but unexpected, sound from the street immediately below attracted his notice. The window was open at the top, and he had distinctly heard the jingling of a hansom bell.
He threw open the bottom sash and leaned out. A hansom cab was waiting at the entrance to the flats. Wrayson glanced once more instinctively towards the clock. Who on earth of his neighbours could be keeping a cab waiting outside at that hour in the morning? With the exception of Barnes and himself, they were most of them early people. Once more he looked out of the window. The cabman was leaning forward in his seat with his head resting upon his folded arms. He was either tired out or asleep. The attitude of the horse was one of extreme and wearied dejection. Wrayson was on the point of closing the window when he became aware for the first time that the cab had an occupant. He could see the figure of a man leaning back in one corner, he could even distinguish a white-gloved hand resting upon the apron. The figure was not unlike the figure of Barnes, and Barnes, as he happened to remember, always wore white gloves in the evening. Barnes it probably was, waiting—for what? Wrayson closed the window a little impatiently, and turned back into the room.
"Barnes and his friends can go to the devil," he muttered. "I am off to bed."
He took a couple of steps across the room, and then stopped short. The fear was upon him again. He felt his heart almost stop beating, a cold shiver shook his whole frame. He was standing facing his half-open door, and outside on the stone steps he heard the soft, even footfall of slippered feet, and the gentle rustling of a woman's gown.
He was not conscious of any movement, but when she reached the landing he was standing there on the threshold, with the soft halo of light from behind shining on to his white, fiercely questioning face. She came towards him without speech, and her veil was lowered so that he could only imperfectly see her face, but she walked as one newly recovered from illness, with trembling footsteps, and with one hand always upon the banisters. When she reached the corner she stopped, and seemed about to collapse. She spoke to him, and her voice had lost all its quality. It sounded harsh and unreal.
"Why are you—spying on me?" she asked.
"I am not spying," he answered. "I have been asleep—and woke up suddenly."
"Give me—some brandy!" she begged.
She stood upon the threshold and drank from the wineglass which he had filled. When she gave it back to him, he noticed that her fingers were steady.
"Will you come downstairs and let me out?" she asked. "I have looked down and it is all dark on the ground floor. I am not sure that I know my way."
He hesitated, but only for a moment. Side by side they walked down four flights of steps in unbroken silence. He asked no question, she attempted no explanation. Only when he opened the door and she saw the waiting hansom she very nearly collapsed. For a moment she clung to him.
"He is there—in the cab," she moaned. "Where can I hide?"
"Whoever it is," Wrayson answered, with his eyes fixed upon the hansom, "he is either drunk or asleep."
"Or dead!" she whispered in his ear. "Go and see!"
Then, before Wrayson could recover from the shock of her words, she was gone, flitting down the unlit side of the street with swift silent footsteps. His eyes followed her mechanically. Then, when she had turned the corner, he crossed the pavement towards the cab. Even now he could see little of the figure in the corner, for his silk hat was drawn down over his eyes.
"Is that you, Barnes?" he asked.
There came not the slightest response. Then for the first time the hideous meaning of those farewell words of hers broke in upon his brain. Had she meant it? Had she known or guessed? He leaned forward and touched the white-gloved hand. He raised it and let go. It fell like a dead, inert thing. He stepped back and confronted the cabman, who was rubbing his eyes.
"There's something wrong with your fare, cabby," he said.
The cabby raised the trap door, looked down, and descended heavily on to the pavement.
"Well, I'm blowed!" he said. "Here, wake up, guv'nor!"
There was no response. The cabby threw open the apron of the cab and gently shook the recumbent figure.
"I can't wait 'ere all night for my fare!" he exclaimed. "Wake up, God luv us!" he broke off.
He stepped hastily back on to the pavement, and began tugging at one of his lamps.
"Push his hat back, sir," he said. "Let's 'ave a look at 'im."
Wrayson stood upon the step of the cab and lifted the silk hat from the head of the recumbent figure. Then he sprang back quickly with a little exclamation of horror. The lamp was shining full now upon the man's face, livid and white, upon his staring but sightless eyes, upon something around his neck, a fragment of silken cord, drawn so tightly that the flesh seemed to hang over and almost conceal it.
"Throttled, by God!" the cabman exclaimed. "I'm off to the police station."
He clambered up to his seat, and without another word struck his horse with the whip. The cab drove off and disappeared. Wrayson turned slowly round, and, closing the door of the flats, mounted with leaden feet to the fourth story.
He entered his own rooms, and walked without hesitation to the window, which was still open. The fresh air was almost a necessity, for he felt himself being slowly stifled. His knees were shaking, a cold icy horror was numbing his heart and senses. A feeling of nightmare was upon him, as though he had risen unexpectedly from a bed of delirium. There in front of him, a little to the left, was the broad empty street amongst whose shadows she had disappeared. On one side was the Park, and there was obscurity indefinable, mysterious; on the other a long row of tall mansions, a rain-soaked pavement, and a curving line of gas lamps. Beyond, the river, marked with a glittering arc of yellow dots; further away the glow of the sleeping city. Shelter enough there for any one—even for her. A soft, damp breeze was blowing in his face; from amongst the dripping trees of the Park the birds were beginning to make their morning music. Already the blackness of night was passing away, the clouds were lightening, the stars were growing fainter. Wrayson leaned a little forward. His eyes were fixed upon the exact spot where she had crossed the road and disappeared. All the horror of the coming day and the days to come loomed out from the background of his thoughts.
DISCUSSING THE CRIME
The murder of Morris Barnes, considered merely as an event, came as a Godsend to the halfpenny press, which has an unwritten but immutable contract with the public to provide it with so much sensation during the week, in season or out of season. Nothing else was talked about anywhere. Under the influence of the general example, Wrayson found himself within a few days discussing its details with perfect coolness, and with an interest which never flagged. He seemed continually to forget his own personal and actual connection with the affair.
It was discussed, amongst other places, at the Sheridan Club, of which Wrayson was a member, and where he spent most of his spare time. At one particular luncheon party the day after the inquest, nothing else was spoken of. For the first time, in Wrayson's hearing, a new and somewhat ominous light was thrown upon the affair.
There were four men at the luncheon party, which was really not a luncheon party at all, but a promiscuous coming together of four of the men who usually sat at what was called the Colonel's table. First of all there was the Colonel himself,—Colonel Edgar Fitzmaurice, C.B., D.S.O.,—easily the most popular member of the club, a distinguished retired officer, white-haired, kindly and genial, a man of whom no one had ever heard another say an unkind word, whose hand was always in his none too well-filled pockets, and whose sympathies were always ready to be enlisted in any forlorn cause, deserving or otherwise. At his right hand sat Wrayson; on his left Sydney Mason, a rising young sculptor, and also a popular member of this somewhat Bohemian circle. Opposite was Stephen Heneage, a man of a different and more secretive type. He called himself a barrister, but he never practised; a journalist at times, but he seldom put his name to anything he wrote. His interests, if he had any, he kept to himself. In a club where a man's standing was reckoned by what he was and what he produced, he owed such consideration as he received to a certain air of reserved strength, the more noteworthy amongst a little coterie of men, who amongst themselves were accustomed to speak their minds freely, and at all times. If he was never brilliant, he had never been heard to say a foolish thing or make a pointless remark. He moved on his way through life, and held his place there more by reason of certain negative qualities which, amongst a community of optimists, were universally ascribed to him, than through any more personal or likable gifts. He had a dark, strong face, but a slim, weakly body. He was never unduly silent, but he was a better listener than talker. If he had no close friends, he certainly had no enemies. Whether he was rich or poor no man knew, but next to the Colonel himself, no one was more ready to subscribe to any of those charities which the Sheridanites were continually inaugurating on behalf of their less fortunate members. The man who succeeds in keeping the "ego" out of sight as a rule neither irritates nor greatly attracts. Stephen Heneage was one of those who stood in this position.
They were talking about the murder, or rather the Colonel was talking and they were listening.
"There is one point," he remarked, filling his glass and beaming good-humouredly upon his companions, "which seems to have been entirely overlooked. I am referring to the sex of the supposed assassin!"
Wrayson looked up inquiringly. It was a point which interested him.
"Nearly all of you have assumed," the Colonel continued, "that it must have taken a strong man to draw the cord tight enough to have killed that poor fellow without any noticeable struggle. As a matter of fact, a child with that particular knot could have done it. It requires no strength, only delicacy of touch, rapidity and nerve."
"A woman, then—" Wrayson began.
"Bless you, yes! a woman could have done it easily," the Colonel declared, "only unfortunately there don't seem to have been any women about. Why, I've seen it done in Korea with a turn of the wrist. It's all knack."
Wrayson shuddered slightly. The Colonel's words had troubled him more than he would have cared to let any one know.
"Woman or man or child," Mason remarked, "the person who did it seems to have vanished in some remarkable manner from the face of the earth."
"He certainly seems," the Colonel admitted, "to have covered up his traces with admirable skill. I have read every word of the evidence at the inquest, and I can understand that the police are completely confused."
Heneage and Mason exchanged glances of quiet amusement whilst the Colonel helped himself to cheese.
"Dear old boy," the latter murmured, "he's off on his hobby. Let him go on! He enjoys it more than anything in the world."
Heneage nodded assent, and the Colonel returned to the subject with avidity a few moments later.
"This man Morris Barnes," he affirmed, "seems to have been a somewhat despicable, at any rate, a by no means desirable individual. He was of Jewish origin, and he had not long returned from South Africa, where Heaven knows what his occupation was. The money of which he was undoubtedly possessed he seems to have spent, or at any rate some part of it, in aping the life of a dissipated man about town. He was known to the fair promenaders of the Empire and Alhambra, he was an habitue of the places where these—er—ladies partake of supper after the exertions of the evening. Of home life or respectable friends he seems to have had none."
"This," Mason declared, leaning back and lighting a cigarette, "is better than the newspapers. Go on, Colonel! Your biography may not be sympathetic, but it is lifelike!"
The Colonel's eyes were full of a distinct and vivid light. He scarcely heard the interruption. He was on fire with his subject.
"You see," he continued, "that the man's days were spent amongst a class where the passions run loose, where restraint is an unknown virtue, where self and sensuality are the upraised gods. One can easily imagine that from amongst such a slough might spring at any time the weed of tragedy. In other words, this man Morris Barnes moved amongst a class of people to whom murder, if it could be safely accomplished, would be little more than an incident."
The Colonel lit a cigar and leaned back in his chair. He was enjoying himself immensely.
"The curious part of the affair is, though," he continued deliberately, "that this murder, as I suppose we must call it, bears none of the hall-marks of rude passion. On the contrary, it suggests in more ways than one the touch of the finished artist. The man's whole evening has been traced without the slightest difficulty. He dined at the Cafe Royal alone, promenaded afterwards at the Alhambra, and drove on about supper-time to the Continental. He left there at 12.30 with a couple of ladies whom he appeared to know fairly well, called at their flat for a drink, and sent one out to his cabby—rather unusual forethought for such a bounder. When he reappeared and directed the man to drive him to Cavendish Mansions, Battersea, the driver tried to excuse himself. Both he and his horse were dead tired, he said. Barnes, however, insisted upon keeping him, and off they went. At Cavendish Mansions, Barnes alighted and offered the man a sovereign. Naturally enough the fellow could not change it, and Barnes went in to get some silver from his rooms, promising to return in a minute or two. The cabby descended and walked to the corner of the street to see if he could beg a match for his pipe from any passer-by. He may have been away for perhaps five minutes, certainly no more, during which time he stood with his back to the Mansions. Seeing no one about, he returned to his cab, ascended to his seat, naturally without looking inside, and fell fast asleep. The next thing he remembers is being awakened by Wrayson here! So much for the cabby."
"What a fine criminal judge was lost to the country, Colonel, when you chose the army for a career," Mason remarked, turning round to order some coffee. "Such coherence—such an eye for detail. Pass the matches, Wrayson. Thanks, old chap!"
The Colonel smiled placidly.
"I am afraid," he said, "that I should never have had the heart to sentence anybody to anything, but I must admit that things of this sort do interest me. I love to weigh them up and theorize. The more melodramatic they are the better."
Heneage helped himself to a cigarette from Mason's case, and leaned back in his chair.
"I never have the patience," he remarked, "to read about these things in the newspapers, but the Colonel's resume is always thrilling. Do go on. There won't be any pool till four o'clock."
The Colonel smiled good-naturedly.
"It's good of you fellows to listen to my prosing," he remarked. "No use denying that it is a sort of hobby of mine. You all know it. Well, we'll say we've finished with the cabby, then. Enter upon the scene, of all people in the world, our friend Wrayson!"
"Hear, hear!" murmured Mason.
Wrayson changed his position slightly. With his head resting upon his hand, he seemed to be engaged in tracing patterns upon the tablecloth.
"Wrayson knows nothing of Barnes beyond the fact that they are neighbours in the same flats. Being the assistant editor of a journal of world-wide fame, however, he has naturally a telephone in his flat. By means of that instrument he receives a message in the middle of the night from an unknown person in an unknown place, which he is begged to convey to Barnes. The message is in itself mysterious. Taken in conjunction with what happened to Barnes, it is deeply interesting. Barnes, it seems, is to go immediately on his arrival, at whatever hour, to the Hotel Francis. Presumably he would know from whom the message came, and the sender does not seem to have doubted that if it was conveyed to Barnes he would obey the summons. Wrayson agrees to and does deliver it. That is to say, he writes it down and leaves it in the letter-box of Barnes door, Barnes not having yet returned. Now we begin to get mysterious. That communication from our friend here has not been discovered. It was not in the letter-box; it was not upon the person of the dead man. We cannot tell whether or not he ever received it. I believe that I am right so far?"
"Absolutely," Wrayson admitted.
"Our friend Wrayson, then," the Colonel continued, beaming upon his neighbour, "instead of going to bed like a sensible man, takes up a book and falls asleep in his easy-chair. He wakes up about three or four o'clock, and his attention is then attracted by the jingling of a hansom bell below. He looks out of window and sees a cab, both the driver and the occupant of which appear to be asleep. The circumstance striking him as somewhat unusual, he descends to the street and finds—well, rather more than he expected. He finds the cabman asleep, and his fare scientifically and effectually throttled by a piece of silken cord."
Wrayson turned to the waiter and ordered a liqueur brandy.
"Have one, you fellows?" he asked. "Good! Four, waiter."
He tossed his own off directly it arrived. His lips were pale, and the hand which raised the glass to his lips shook. Heneage alone, who was watching him through a little cloud of tobacco smoke, noticed this.
"Have you finished with me, Colonel?" Wrayson asked.
"Practically," the Colonel answered, smiling, "unless you can answer one of the three queries suggested by my resume. First, who killed Morris Barnes? Secondly, when was it done? Thirdly, where was it done? I have left out a possible fourth, why was it done? because, in this case, I think that the motive and the man are practically identical. I mean that if you discover one, you discover the other."
Heneage leaned across the table towards the Colonel.
"You are a magician, Colonel," he declared quietly. "I glanced through this case in the paper, and it did not even interest me. Since I have listened to you I have fallen under the spell of the mysterious. Have you any theories?"
The Colonel's face fell a little.
"Well, I am afraid not," he admitted regretfully. "To be perfectly interesting the affair certainly ought to present something more definite in the shape of a clue. You see, providing we accept the evidence of Wrayson and the cabman, and I suppose," he added, laying his hand affectionately upon Wrayson's shoulder, "we must, the actual murderer is a person absolutely unseen or unheard of by any one. If you are all really interested we will discuss it again in a week's time after the adjourned inquest."
"I, for one, shall look forward to it," Heneage remarked, glancing across towards Wrayson. "What about a pool?"
"I'm on," Wrayson declared, rising a little abruptly.
"And I," Mason assented.
"And I can't," the Colonel said regretfully. "I must go down to Balham and see poor Carlo Mallini I hear he's very queer."
The Colonel loved pool, and he hated a sick-room. The click of the billiard balls reached him as he descended the stairs, but he only sighed and set out manfully for Charing Cross. On the way he entered a fruiterer's shop and inquired the price of grapes. They were more than he expected, and he counted out the contents of his trousers pockets before purchasing.
"A little short of change," he remarked cheerfully. "Yes! all right, I'll take them."
He marched out, swinging a paper bag between his fingers, travelled third class to Balham, and sat for a couple of hours with the invalid whom he had come to see, a lonely Italian musician, to whom his coming meant more than all the medicine his doctor could prescribe. He talked to him glowingly of the success of his recent concert (more than a score of the tickets sold had been paid for secretly by the Colonel himself and his friends), prophesied great things for the future, and laughed away all the poor fellow's fears as to his condition. There were tears in his eyes as he walked to the station, for he had visited too many sick-beds to have much faith in his own cheerful words, and all the way back to London he was engaged in thinking out the best means of getting the musician sent back to his own country, Arrived at Charing Cross, he looked longingly towards the club, and ruefully at the contents of his pocket. Then with a sigh he turned into a little restaurant and dined for eighteen-pence.
UNDER A CLOUD
Exactly one week later, six men were smoking their after-dinner cigars at the same round table in the dining-room at the Sheridan Club. As a rule, it was the hour when, with all the reserve of the day thrown aside, badinage and jest reigned supreme, and the humourist came to his own. To-night chairs were drawn a little closer together, voices were subdued, and the conversation was of a more serious order. Not even the pleasant warmth of the room, the fragrance of tobacco, and the comfortable sense of having dined, could altogether dispel a feeling of uneasiness which all more or less shared. It chanced that all six were friends of Herbert Wrayson's.
The Colonel, as usual, was in the chair, but even on his kindly features the cloud hovered.
"Of course," he said, "none of us who know Wrayson well would believe for a moment that he could be connected in any way with this beastly affair. The unfortunate part of it is, that others, who do not know him, might easily be led to think otherwise!"
"It is altogether his own fault, too," Mason remarked. "He gave his evidence shockingly."
"And his movements that night, or rather that morning, were certainly a little peculiar," another man remarked. "His connection with the affair seemed to consist of a series of coincidences. The law does not look favourably upon coincidences!"
"But, after all," the Colonel remarked, "he scarcely knew the fellow! Just nodded to him on the stairs, and that sort of thing. Why, there isn't a shadow of a motive!"
"We can't be sure of that, Colonel," Heneage remarked quietly. "I wonder how much we really know of the inner lives of even our closest friends? I fancy that we should be surprised if we realized our ignorance!"
The Colonel stroked his grey moustache thoughtfully.
"That may be true," he said, "of a good many of us. Wrayson, however, never struck me as being a particularly secretive sort of chap."
"Unfortunately, that counts for very little," Heneage declared. "The things which surprise us most in life come often from the most unlikely people. We none of us mean to be deceitful, but a perfectly honest life is a luxury which few of us dare indulge in."
The Colonel regarded him gravely.
"I hope," he said, "that you don't mean that you consider Wrayson capable—"
"I wasn't thinking of Wrayson at all," Heneage interrupted. "I was generalizing. But I must say this. I think that, given sufficient provocation or motive, there isn't one of us who wouldn't be capable of committing murder. A man's outer life is lived according to the laws of circumstances and society: his inner one no one knows anything about, except himself—and God!"
"Heneage," Mason sighed, "is always cynical after 'kuemmel.'"
Heneage shrugged his shoulders and lit a cigarette.
"No!" he said, "I am not cynical. I simply have a weakness for the truth. You will find it rather a hard material to collect if you set out in earnest. But to return to Wrayson. Let me ask you a question. We are all friends of his, more or less intimate friends. You would all of you scout the idea of his having any share in the murder of Morris Barnes. What did you make of his evidence at the inquest this afternoon? What do you think of his whole deportment and condition?"
"I can answer that in one word," the Colonel declared. "I think that it is unfortunate. The poor fellow has been terribly upset, and his nerves have not been able to stand the strain. That is all there is about it!"
"Wrayson has been working up to the limit for years," Mason remarked, "and he's not a particularly strong chap. I should say that he was about due for a nervous breakdown."
A waiter approached the table and addressed the Colonel—he was wanted on the telephone. During his absence, Heneage leaned back in his chair and relapsed into his usual imperturbability. He was known amongst his friends generally as the silent man. It was very seldom that he contributed so much to their discussions as upon this occasion. Perhaps for that reason his words, when he spoke, always carried weight. Mason changed his place and sat beside him. The others had wandered off into a discussion upon a new magazine.
"Between ourselves, Heneage," Mason said quietly, "have you anything at the back of your head about Wrayson?"
Heneage did not immediately reply. He was gazing at the little cloud of blue tobacco smoke which he had just expelled from his lips.
"There is no reason," he declared, "why my opinion should be worth any more than any one else's. I think as highly of Wrayson as any of you."
"Granted," Mason answered. "But you have a theory or an idea of some sort concerning him. What is it?"
"If you really want to know," Heneage said, "I believe that Wrayson has kept something back. It is a very dangerous thing to do, and I believe that he realizes it. I believe that he has some secret knowledge of the affair which he has not disclosed—knowledge which he has kept out of his evidence altogether."
"A—guilty—knowledge?" Mason whispered.
"Not necessarily!" Heneage answered. "He may be shielding some one."
"If you are right," Mason said anxiously, "it is a serious affair."
"Very serious indeed," Heneage assented. "I believe that he is realizing it."
The Colonel came back looking a little disturbed.
"Sorry, boys, but I must be off," he announced. "Wrayson has just telephoned to ask me to go down and see him. I'm afraid he's queer! I've sent for a hansom."
"Poor chap!" Mason murmured. "Let us know if any of us can do anything."
The Colonel nodded and took his departure. The others drifted up into the billiard-room. Heneage alone remained seated at the end of the table. He was playing idly with his wineglass, but his eyes were fixed steadfastly, if a little absently, upon the Colonel's empty place.
ON THE TELEPHONE
It was a little hard even for the Colonel to keep up his affectation of cheerfulness when he found himself alone with the man whom he had come to visit. His experience of life had been large and varied, but he had never yet seen so remarkable a change in any human being in twenty-four hours. There were deep black lines under his eyes, his cheeks were colourless, every now and then his features twitched nervously, as though he were suffering from an attack of St. Vitus' dance. His hand, which had lain weakly in the Colonel's, was as cold as ice, although there was a roaring fire in the room. He had admitted the Colonel himself, and almost dragged him inside the door.
"Did you meet any one outside—upon the stairs?" he asked feverishly.
"No one upon the stairs," the Colonel answered. "There was a man lighting his pipe in the doorway."
Wrayson shivered as he turned away.
"Watching me!" he declared. "There are two of them! They are watching me all the time."
The Colonel took off his coat. The room seemed to him like a furnace. Then he stretched out his hands and laid them upon Wrayson's shoulders.
"What if they are?" he declared cheerfully. "They won't eat you. Besides, it is very likely the dead man's rooms they are watching."
"They followed me home from the inquest," Wrayson muttered.
The Colonel laughed.
"And if I'd been living here," he remarked, "they'd have followed me home just the same. Now, Herbert, my young friend," he continued, "sit down and tell me all about it like a man. You're in a bit of trouble, of course, underneath all this. Let's hear it, and we'll find the best way out."
The Colonel's figure was dominant; his presence alone seemed to dispel that unreal army of ghosts and fancies which a few moments before had seemed to Wrayson to be making his room like the padded cell of a lunatic asylum. His tone, too, had just enough sympathy to make its cheerfulness reassuring. Wrayson began to feel glimmerings of common sense.
"Yes!" he said, "I've something to tell you. That's why I telephoned."
The Colonel rose again to his feet, and began fumbling in the pocket of his overcoat.
"God bless my soul, I almost forgot!" he exclaimed, "and the fellows would make me bring it. We guessed how you were feeling—much better to have come up and dined with us. Here we are! Get some glasses, there's a good chap."
A gold-foiled bottle appeared, and a packet of hastily cut sandwiches. Wrayson found himself mechanically eating and drinking before he knew where he was. Then in an instant the sandwiches had become delicious, and the wine was rushing through his veins like a new elixir of life. He was himself again, the banging of anvils in his head had ceased; he was shaken perhaps, but a sane man. His eyes filled with tears, and he gripped the Colonel by the hand.
"Colonel, you're—you're—God knows what you are," he murmured. "All the ordinary things sound commonplace. I believe I was going mad."
The Colonel leaned back and laughed as though the idea tickled him.
"Not you!" he declared. "Bless you, I know what nerves are! Out in India, thirty-five years ago, I've had to relieve men on frontier posts who hadn't seen a soul to speak to for six months! Weird places some of them, too—gives me the creeps to think of them sometimes! Now light up that cigar," he added, throwing one across, "and let's hear the trouble."
Wrayson lit his cigar with fingers which scarcely shook. He threw the match away and smoked for a moment in silence.
"It's about this Morris Barnes affair," he said abruptly. "I've kept something back, and I'm a clumsy hand at telling a story that doesn't contain all the truth. The consequence is, of course, that I'm suspected of having had a hand in it myself."
The Colonel's manner had for a moment imperceptibly changed. Lines had come out in his face which were not usually visible, his upper lip had stiffened. One could fancy that he might have led his men into battle looking something like this.
"What is it that you know?" he asked.
"There was another person in the flats that night, who was interested in Morris Barnes, who visited his rooms, who was with me when I first saw him dead."
The Colonel shaded his face with his hand. The heat from the fire was intense.
"Why have you kept back this knowledge?" he asked.
"Because—it was a woman, and I am a fool!" Wrayson answered.
There was a silence. Then the Colonel pushed back his chair and dabbed his forehead with his handkerchief. The room was certainly hot, and the handkerchief was wet.
"Tell me about it," he said quietly. "I expected something of the sort!"
"On that morning," Wrayson began, "I returned home about twelve o'clock, let myself in with my own latch-key, and found a woman standing before my open desk going through my papers."
"A friend?" the Colonel asked.
"A complete stranger!" Wrayson answered. "Her surprise at seeing me was at least equal to my own. I gathered that she had believed herself to be in the flat of Morris Barnes, which is the corresponding one above."
"What did you do?" the Colonel asked.
"What I should have done I am not sure," Wrayson answered, "but while I was talking to her the telephone bell rang, and I received that message which I spoke about at the inquest. It was a mysterious sort of business—I can hear that voice now. I was interested, and while I stood there she slipped away."
"Is that all?" the Colonel asked.
"No!" Wrayson answered with a groan. "I wish to God it was!"
The Colonel moved his position a little. The cigar had burnt out between his fingers, but he made no effort to light it.
"Go on," he said. "Tell me the rest. Tell me what happened afterwards."
"I wrote down the message for Barnes and left it in his letter-box. There seemed then to be no light in his flat. Afterwards I lit a pipe, left my door open, and sat down, with the intention of waiting till Barnes came home and explaining what had happened. I fell asleep in my chair and woke with a start. It was nearly three o'clock. I was going to turn in when I heard the jingling of a hansom bell down below. I looked out of the window and saw the cab standing in the street. Almost at the same time I heard footsteps outside. I went to the door of my flat and came face to face with the girl descending from the floor above."
"At three o'clock in the morning?" the Colonel interrupted.
"She was white and shaking all over," he continued rapidly. "She asked me for brandy and I gave it to her; she asked me to see her out of the place, and I did so. When I opened the door to let her out and we saw the man leaning back in the cab, she moaned softly to herself. I said something about his being asleep or drunk—'or dead!' she whispered in my ear, and then she rushed away from me. She turned into the Albert Road and disappeared almost at once. I could not have followed her if I would. I had just begun to realize that something was wrong with the man in the cab!"
"This is all?" the Colonel asked.
"It is all!" Wrayson answered.
"You do not know her name, or why she was here? You have not seen her since?"
Wrayson shook his head.
"I know absolutely nothing," he said, "beyond what I have told you."
The Colonel struck a match and relit his cigar.
"I should like to understand," he said quietly, "why you avoided all mention of her in your evidence."
Wrayson laughed oddly.
"I should like to understand that myself," he declared. "I can only repeat what I said before. She was a woman, and I was a fool."
"In plain English," the Colonel said, "you did it to shield her?"
"Yes!" Wrayson answered.
The Colonel nodded thoughtfully.
"Well," he said, "you were in a difficult position, and you made a deliberate choice. I tell you frankly that I expected to hear worse things. Do you believe that she committed the murder?"
"No!" Wrayson answered. "I do not!"
"You believe that she may be associated with—the person who did?"
"I cannot tell," Wrayson declared.
"In any case," the Colonel continued, "you seem to have been the only person who saw her. Whether you were wise or not to omit all mention of her in your evidence—well, we won't discuss that. The best of us have gone on the wrong side of the hedge for a woman before now—and damned glad to do it. What I can't quite understand, old chap, is why you have worked yourself up into such a shocking state. You don't stand any chance of being hanged, that I can see!"
Wrayson laughed a little shamefacedly.
"To tell you the truth," he said, "I am beginning to feel ashamed of myself. I think it was the sense of being spied upon, and being alone—in this room—which got a bit on my nerves. I feel a different man since you came down."
The Colonel nodded cheerfully.
"That's all right," he declared. "The next thing to—"
The Colonel broke off in the midst of his sentence. A few feet away from him the telephone bell was ringing. Wrayson rose to his feet and took the receiver into his hand.
"Hullo!" he said.
The voice which answered him was faint but clear. Wrayson almost dropped the instrument. He recognized it at once.
"Is that Mr. Herbert Wrayson?" it asked.
"Yes!" Wrayson answered. "Who are you?"
"I am the person who spoke to you a few nights ago," was the answer. "Never mind my name for the present. I wish to arrange a meeting—for some time to-morrow. I have a matter—of business—to discuss with you."
"Anywhere—at any time," Wrayson answered, almost fiercely. "You cannot be as anxious to see me as I am to know who you are."
The voice changed a little in its intonation. A note of mockery had stolen into it.
"You flatter me," it said. "I trust that our meeting will be mutually agreeable. You must excuse my coming to Battersea, as I understand that your flat is subjected to a most inconvenient surveillance. May I call at the office of your paper, at say eleven o'clock tomorrow?"
"Yes!" Wrayson answered. "You know where it is?"
"Certainly! I shall be there. A Mr. Bentham will ask for you. Good night!"
Wrayson's unknown friend had rung off. He replaced the receiver and turned to the Colonel.
"Do you know who that was?" he asked eagerly.
"I can guess," the Colonel answered.
"To-morrow, at eleven o'clock," Wrayson declared, "I shall know who killed Morris Barnes."
ONE THOUSAND POUNDS' REWARD
But when the morrow came, and his visitor was shown into Wrayson's private office, he was not quite so sure about it. Mr. Bentham had not in the least the appearance of a murderer. Clean-shaven, a little slow in speech, quietly dressed, he resembled more than anything a country solicitor in moderate practice.
He bowed in correct professional manner, and laid a brown paper parcel upon the table.
"I believe," he said, "that I have the honour of addressing Mr. Wrayson?"
Wrayson nodded a little curtly.
"And you, I suppose," he remarked, "are the owner of the mysterious voice which summoned Morris Barnes to the Francis Hotel on the night of his murder?"
"It was I who spoke to you," Mr. Bentham admitted.
"Very well," Wrayson said, "I am glad to see you. It was obvious, from your message, that you knew of some danger which was threatening Morris Barnes that night. It is therefore only fair to presume that you are also aware of its source."
"You go a little fast, sir," Mr. Bentham objected.
"My presumption is a fair one," Wrayson declared. "You are perhaps aware of my unfortunate connection with this affair. If so, you will understand that I am particularly anxious to have it cleared up."
"It is not at all certain that I can help you," his visitor said precisely. "It depends entirely upon yourself. Will you permit me to put my case before you?"
"By all means," Wrayson answered. "Go ahead."
Mr. Bentham took the chair towards which Wrayson had somewhat impatiently pointed, and unbuttoned his coat. It was obvious that he was not a person to be hurried.
"In the first place, Mr. Wrayson," he said, "I must ask you distinctly to understand that I am not addressing you on my own account. I am a lawyer, and I am acting on behalf of a client."
"Who is he?" Wrayson asked. "What is his name?"
The ghost of a smile flickered across the lawyer's thin lips.
"I am not at liberty to divulge his identity," he answered. "I am, however, fully empowered to act for him."
Wrayson shrugged his shoulders.
"He may find it necessary to disclose it, and before very long," he remarked. "Well, go on."
Mr. Bentham discreetly ignored the covert threat in Wrayson's words.
"My mission to you, Mr. Wrayson" he declared, "is a somewhat delicate one. It is not, in fact, connected with the actual—tragedy to which you have alluded. My commission is to regain possession of a paper which was stolen either from the person of Morris Barnes or from amongst his effects, on that night."
Wrayson looked up eagerly.
"The motive at last!" he exclaimed. "What was the nature of this paper, sir?"
Mr. Bentham's eyebrows were slowly raised.
"That," he said, "we need not enter into for the moment. The matter of business between you and myself, or rather my client, is this. I am authorized to offer a thousand pounds reward for its recovery."
Wrayson was impressed, although the other's manner left him a little puzzled.
"Why not offer the reward for the discovery of the murderer?" he asked. "It would come, I presume, to the same thing."
"By no means," the lawyer answered dryly. "I am afraid that I have not expressed myself well. My client cares nothing for Morris Barnes, dead or alive. His interest begins and ends with the recovery of that paper."
"But isn't it almost certain," Wrayson persisted, "that the thief and the murderer are the same person? Your client ought to have come forward at the inquest. The thing which has chiefly troubled the police in dealing with this matter is the apparent lack of motive."
"My client is not actuated in any way by philanthropic motives," Mr. Bentham said coldly. "To tell you the truth, he does not care whether the murderer of Morris Barnes is brought to justice or not. He is only anxious to recover possession of the document of which I have spoken."
"If he has a legal claim to it," Wrayson said, "he had better offer his reward openly. He would probably help himself then, and also those who are anxious to have this mystery solved."
"Are you amongst those, Mr. Wrayson?" his visitor asked quietly.
Wrayson started slightly, but he retained his self-composure.
"I am very much amongst them," he answered. "My connection with the affair was an extremely unpleasant one, and it will remain so until the murderer of Morris Barnes is brought to book."
"Or murderess," Mr. Bentham murmured softly.
Wrayson reeled in his chair as though he had been struck a violent and unexpected blow. He understood now the guarded menace of his visitor's manner. He felt the man's eyes taking merciless note of his whitening cheeks.
"My client," the lawyer continued, "desires to ask no questions. All that he wants is the document to which he is entitled, and which was stolen on the night when Mr. Morris Barnes met with his unfortunate accident."
Wrayson had pulled himself together with an effort.
"I presume," he said, "from your frequent reiteration, that I may take this as being to some extent a personal offer. If so, let me assure you, sir, that so far as I am concerned I know nothing whatever of any papers or other belongings which were in the possession of my late neighbour. I have never seen or heard of any. I do not even know why you should have come to me at all."
"I came to you," Mr. Bentham said, "because I was very well aware that, for some reason or other, your evidence at the inquest was not quite as comprehensive as it might have been."
"Then, for Heaven's sake, tell me all that you know!" Wrayson exclaimed. "Take my word for it, I know nothing of this document or paper. I have neither seen it nor heard of it. I know nothing whatever of the man or his affairs. I can't help you. I would if I could. On the other hand, you can throw some light upon the motive for the crime. Who is your client? Let me go and see him for myself."
Mr. Bentham rose to his feet, and began slowly to draw on his gloves.
"Mr. Wrayson," he said quietly, "I am disappointed with the result of my visit to you. I admit it frankly. You are either an extremely ingenuous person, or a good deal too clever for me. In either case, if you will not treat with me, I need not waste your time."
Wrayson moved to the door and stood with his back to it.
"I am not at all sure," he said, "that I am justified in letting you go like this. You are in possession of information which would be invaluable to the police in their search for the murderer of Morris Barnes."
Mr. Bentham smiled coldly.
"And are not you," he remarked, "in the same fortunate position—with the unfortunate exception, perhaps, of having already given your testimony? Of the two, if disclosures had to be made, I think that I should prefer my own position."
Wrayson remained where he was.
"I am inclined," he said, "to risk it. At least you would be compelled to disclose your client's name."
Mr. Bentham visibly flinched. He recovered himself almost immediately, but the shadow of fear had rested for a moment, at any rate, upon his impassive features.
"I am entirely at your service," he said coldly. "My client has at least not broken the laws of his country."
Wrayson stood away from the door.
"You can go," he said shortly, "if you will leave me your address."
Mr. Bentham bowed.
"I regret that I have no card with me," he said, "but I have an office, a single room only, in number 8, Paper Buildings, Adelphi. If you should happen to come across—that document—"
Wrayson held open the door.
"If I should come to see you," he said, "it will be on other business."
* * * * *
Wrayson lunched at the club that morning, and received a warm greeting from his friends. The subject of the murder was, as though by common consent, avoided. Towards the end of the meal the Colonel received a telegram, which he read and laid down upon the table in front of him.
"By Jove!" he said softly, "I'd forgotten all about it. Boys, you've got to help me out."
"We're on," Mason declared. "What is it? a fight?"
"It's a garden party my girls are giving to-morrow afternoon," the Colonel answered. "I promised to take some of you down. Come, who's going to help me out? Wrayson? Good! Heneage? Excellent! Mason? Good fellows, all of you! Two-twenty from Waterloo, flannels and straw hats."
The little group broke up, and the Colonel was hurried off into the Committee Room. Wrayson and Heneage exchanged dubious glances.
"A garden party in May!" the latter remarked.
"Taking time by the forelock a little, isn't it?"
Wrayson sighed resignedly.
"It's the Colonel!" he declared. "We should have to go if it were December!"
THE COLONEL'S DAUGHTER
After all, the garden party was not so bad. The weather was perfect, and the grounds of Shirley House were large enough to find amusement for all the guests. Wrayson, who had made great friends with the Colonel's younger daughter, enjoyed himself immensely. After a particularly strenuous set of tennis, she led him through the wide-open French windows into a small morning-room.
"We can rest for a few minutes in here," she remarked. "You can consider it a special mark of favour, for this is my own den."
"You are spoiling me," Wrayson declared, laughing. "May I see those photographs?"
"If you like," she answered, "only you mustn't be too critical, for I'm only a beginner, you know. Here's a bookful of them you can look through, while I go and start the next set."
She placed a volume in his hand and swung out of the room, tall, fresh, and graceful. Wrayson watched her admiringly. In her perfect naturalness and unaffected good-humour, she reminded him a good deal of her father, but curiously enough there was some other likeness which appealed to him even more powerfully, and yet which he was unable to identify. It puzzled him so that for a moment or two after her departure he sat watching the door through which she had disappeared, with a slight frown upon his forehead. She was undoubtedly charming, and yet something in connection with her seemed to impress him with an impending sense of trouble. Everything about her person and manners was frank and girlish, and yet she was certainly recalling to his mind things that he had been struggling all the afternoon to forget. Already he began to feel the clouds of nervousness and depression stealing down upon him. He struck the table with his clenched fist. He would have none of it. Outside was the delicious sunshine, through the open window stole in the perfume of the roses which covered the wall, and mignonette from the trim borders, and stocks from the bed fringing the lawn. The murmur of pleasant conversation was incessant and musical. For a time Wrayson had escaped. He swore to himself that he would go back no more into bondage; that he would dwell no more upon the horrors through which he had lived. He would take hold of the pleasant things of life with both hands, and grip them tightly. A man should be master of his thoughts, not the slave of unwilling memories. He would choose for himself whither they should lead him; he would fight with all his nerve and will against the unholy fascination of those few thrilling hours. He looked impatiently towards the door, and longed for the return of his late companion that he might continue his half-laughing flirtation. Then he remembered the album still upon his knee, and opened it quickly. He had dabbled a little in photography; he would find something here to keep his thoughts from the forbidden place. And he did indeed find something—something which set his heart thumping, and drew all the colour, which the sun and vigorous exercise had brought, from his cheeks; something at which he stared with wide-open eyes, which he held before him with trembling, nerveless fingers. The picture of a woman! The picture of her!
It had lain loose in the book, with its back towards him. Only chance made him turn it over. As he looked he understood. There was the likeness, such likeness as there may be between a beautiful woman, a little sad, a little scornful, with the faint lines of mockery about her curving lips, the world-weary light in her distant eyes, and the fresh, ingenuous girl with whom he had been bandying pleasantries during the last few hours. He had felt it unknowingly. He realized it now, and the thought of what it might mean made him catch at his breath like a drowning man. Then she came in.
He heard her gay laughter outside, a backward word flung to one of the tennis players, as she stepped in through the window, her cheeks still flushed, and her eyes aglow.
"We really ought to watch this set," she declared. "That is, if you are not too much absorbed in my handiwork. What have you got there?"
He held it out to her with a valiant attempt at unconcern.
"Do you mind telling me who this is?" he asked.
She glanced at it carelessly enough, but at once her whole expression changed. The smile left her lips, her eyes filled with trouble.
"Where did you find it?" she asked, in a low tone.
"In the album," he answered. "It was loose between the pages."
She took it gently from his fingers, and crossing the room locked it in her desk.
"I had no idea that it was here," she said. "It is a picture of my eldest sister, or rather my step-sister."
The change in her manner was so apparent that, under ordinary circumstances, Wrayson would not have dreamed of pursuing the subject. But the conventions of life seemed to him small things just then.
"Your step-sister!" he exclaimed. "I had no idea—shall I meet her this afternoon?"
"No!" she answered, gravely. "What do you say—shall we go out now?"
She took up her racket, but he lingered.
"Please don't think me hopelessly inquisitive, Miss Fitzmaurice," he said, "but I have really a reason for being very interested in the original of that picture. I should like to meet your step-sister."
"You will never do so here, I am afraid," she answered. "My father and she disagreed years ago. He does not allow us to see or hear from her. We may not even mention her name."
"Your father," Wrayson remarked thoughtfully, "is not a stern parent by any means."
"I should think not," she answered, smiling. "Dear old dad! I have never heard him say an unkind word to any one in my life."
"And yet—" Wrayson began, hesitatingly.
"Do you mind if we don't talk any more about it?" she interrupted simply. "I think you can understand that it is not a very pleasant subject. Do you feel like another set, or would you rather do something else?"
"Tennis, by all means, if you are rested," he answered. "We will find our old opponents and challenge them again."
Wrayson made a supreme effort, and his spirits for the rest of the afternoon were almost boisterous. Yet all the time the nightmare was there behind. It crept out whenever he caught sight of his host moving about amongst his guests, beaming and kindly. His daughter! The Colonel's daughter! What was he to do? The problem haunted him continually. All the time he had to be pushing it back.
The guests began to depart at last. By seven o'clock the last carriage was rolling down the avenue. The Colonel, with a huge smile of relief, and a large cigar, came and took Wrayson's arm.
"Good man!" he exclaimed. "You've worked like a Trojan. We'll have one whisky and soda, eh? and then I'll show you your room. Say when!"
"I've enjoyed myself immensely," Wrayson declared. "Miss Edith has been very kind to me."
"I'm glad you've made friends with her," the Colonel said. "She's a harum-scarum lot, I'm afraid, and a sad chatterbox, but she's the right sort of a person for a man with nerves like you! You're looking a bit white still, I see!"
Wrayson would have spoken then, but his tongue seemed to cling to the roof of his mouth. He had been asked to bring his clothes and dine, and in the minutes' solitude while he changed, he made a resolute effort to face this new problem. There was not the slightest doubt in his mind that the girl whom he had surprised in his rooms, ransacking his desk, and whom subsequently he had assisted to escape from the Mansions, was identical with the original of this portrait. She was the Colonel's daughter. With a flash of horror, he remembered that it had been the Colonel himself who had pointed out the possibility of a woman's hands having drawn that silken cord together! Half dressed he sat down in a chair and buried his face in his hands.
The dinner gong disturbed him. He sprang up, tied his tie with trembling fingers, and hastily completed his toilet. Once more, with a great effort, and an almost reckless resort to his host's champagne, he triumphed over the demons of memory which racked his brain. At dinner his gayety was almost feverish. Edith Fitzmaurice, who was his neighbour, found him a delightful companion. Only the Colonel glanced towards him now and then anxiously. He recognized the signs of high-pressure, and the light in Wrayson's eyes puzzled him.
There were no other men dining, and in course of time the two were left alone. The Colonel passed the cigars and touched the port wine decanter, which, however, he only offered in a half-hearted way.
"If you don't care about any more wine," he said, "we might have a smoke in the garden."
Wrayson rose at once.
"I should like it," he said abruptly. "I don't know how it is, but I seem half-stifled to-day."
They passed out into the soft, cool night. A nightingale was singing somewhere in the elm trees which bordered the garden. The air was sweet with the perfume of early summer flowers. Wrayson drew a long, deep breath of content.
"Let us sit down, Colonel," he said; "I have something to tell you."
The Colonel led the way to a rustic seat. A few stars were out, but no moon. In the dusky twilight, the shrubs and trees beyond stood out with black and almost startling distinctness against the clear sky.
"You remember the girl—I told you about, whom I found in my flat, and afterwards?" Wrayson asked hoarsely.
The Colonel nodded.
"Certainly! What about her? To tell you the truth, I am afraid I—"
Wrayson stopped him with a quick, fierce exclamation.
"Don't, Colonel!" he said. "Wait until you have heard what I have to say. I have seen her picture—to-day."
The Colonel removed his cigar from his mouth.
"Her picture!" he exclaimed. "To-day! Where? My dear fellow, this is very interesting! You know my opinion as to that young—"
Again Wrayson stopped him, this time with an oath.
"In your house, Colonel," he said. "Your daughter showed it to me—in an album!"
The Colonel sat like a man turned to stone. The hand which held his cigar shook so that the ash fell upon his waistcoat.
"Go on!" he faltered.
"I asked who it was. I was told that it was your daughter! Miss Edith's step-sister! Forgive me, Colonel! I had to tell you!"
The Colonel seemed to have shrunk in his place. The cigar slipped from his fingers and fell unheeded on to the grass. His mouth trembled and twitched pitifully.
"My—my daughter Louise!" he faltered. "Wrayson, you are not serious!"
"It is God's truth," Wrayson answered. "I would stake my soul upon it that the girl—I told you about—was the original of that picture! When I look at your daughter Edith I can see the likeness."
The Colonel's head was buried in his hands. His exclamation sounded like a sob.
"My God!" he murmured.
Then there was silence. Only the nightingale went on with his song.
THE BARONESS INTERVENES
The Baroness trifled with some grapes and looked languidly round the room.
"My dear Louise," she declared, "it is the truth what every one tells me of your country. You are a dull people. I weary myself here."
The girl whom she had addressed as Louise shrugged her shoulders.
"So do I, so do all of us," she answered, a little wearily. "What would you have? One must live somewhere."
The Baroness sighed, and from a chatelaine hung with elegant trifles selected a gold cigarette case. An attentive waiter rushed for a match and presented it. The Baroness gave a little sigh of content as she leaned back in her chair. She smoked as one to the manner born.
"One must live somewhere, it is true," she agreed, "but why London? I think that of all great cities it is the most provincial. It lacks what you call the atmosphere. The people are all so polite, and so deadly, deadly dull. How different in Paris or Berlin, even Brussels!"
"Circumstances are a little against us, aren't they?" Louise remarked. "Our opportunities for making acquaintances are limited."
The Baroness made a little grimace.
"You, my young friend," she said, "are of the English—very English. Quite Saxon, in fact. With you there would never be any making of acquaintances! I feel myself in the bonds of a cast-iron chaperonage whenever I move out with you. Why is it, little one? Have you never any desire to amuse yourself?"
"I don't quite understand you," her companion answered dryly. "If you mean that I have no desire to encourage promiscuous acquaintances, you are certainly right. I prefer to be dull."
The Baroness sighed gently.
"Some of my dearest friends," she murmured, "I have—but there, it is a subject upon which we disagree. We will talk of something else. Shall we go to the theatre to-night?"
"As you will," Louise answered indifferently. "There isn't much that we haven't seen, is there?"
"We will send for a paper and see," the Baroness said. "We cannot sit and look at one another all the evening. With music one can make dinner last out till nine or even half past—an idea, my Louise!" she exclaimed suddenly. "Cannot we go to a music-hall, the Alhambra, for example? We could take a box and sit back."
"It is not customary," Louise declared coldly. "If you really wish it, though, I don't—I don't—"
Her speech was broken off in a somewhat extraordinary manner. She was leaning a little forward in her chair, all her listlessness and pallor seemed to have been swept away by a sudden rush of emotion. The colour had flooded her cheeks, her tired eyes were suddenly bright; was it with fear or only surprise? The Baroness wasted no time in asking questions. She raised her lorgnettes and turned round, facing the direction in which Louise was looking. Coming directly towards them from the further end of the restaurant was a young man, whose eyes never swerved from their table. He was pale, somewhat slight, but the lines of his mouth were straight and firm, and there was not lacking in him that air of distinction which the Baroness never failed to recognize. She put down her glasses and looked across at Louise with a smile. She was quite prepared to approve.
The young man stopped at their table and addressed himself directly to Louise. The Baroness frowned as she saw how scanty were the signs of encouragement in her young companion's face. She leaned a little forward, ready at the first signs of an introduction to make every effort to atone for Louise's coldness by a most complete amiability. This young man should not be driven away if she could help it!
"I have been hoping, Miss Fitzmaurice," Wrayson said calmly, "that I might meet you somewhere."
She shrank a little back for a moment. There flashed across her face a quiver, as though of pain.
"Why do you think," she asked, "that that is my name?"
"Your father, Colonel Fitzmaurice, is one of my best friends," he answered gravely. "I was at his house yesterday. I only came up this morning. I beg your pardon! You are not well!"
Every vestige of colour had left her cheeks. The Baroness touched her foot under the table, and Louise found her voice with an effort.
"How did you know that Colonel Fitzmaurice was my father?" she asked breathlessly.
"I found a picture in your sister's album," he answered.
The answer seemed somehow to reassure her. She leaned a little towards him. Under cover of the music her voice was inaudible to any one else.
"Mr. Wrayson," she said, "please don't think me unkind. I know that I have a great deal to thank you for, and that there are certain explanations which you have almost a right to demand from me. And yet I ask you to go away, to ask me nothing at all, to believe me when I assure you that there is nothing in the world so undesirable as any acquaintance between you and me."
Wrayson was staggered, the words were so earnestly spoken, and the look which accompanied them was so eloquent. He was never sure, when he thought it over afterwards, what manner of reply he might not have made to an appeal, the genuineness of which was absolutely convincing. But before he could frame an answer, the Baroness intervened.
"Louise," she said softly, "do you not think that this place is a little public for intimate conversation, and will you not introduce to me your friend?"
Wrayson, who had been afraid of dismissal, turned at once, almost eagerly, towards the Baroness. She smiled at him graciously. Louise hesitated for a moment. There was no smile upon her lips. She bowed, however, to the inevitable.
"This is Mr. Wrayson," she said quietly; "the Baroness de Sturm."
The Baroness raised her eyebrows, and she bestowed upon Wrayson a comprehending look. The graciousness of her manner, however, underwent no abatement.
"I fancy," she said, "that I have heard of you somewhere lately, or is it another of the same name? Will you not sit down and take your coffee with us—and a cigarette—yes?"
"We are keeping Mr. Wrayson from his friends, no doubt," Louise said coldly. "Besides—do you see the time, Amy?"
But Wrayson had already drawn up a chair to the table.
"I am quite alone," he said. "If I may stay, I shall be delighted."
"Why not?" the Baroness asked, passing her cigarette case. "You can solve for us the problem we were just then discussing. Is it comme-il-faut, Mr. Wrayson, for two ladies, one of whom is almost middle-aged, to visit a music-hall here in London unescorted?"
Wrayson glanced from Louise to her friend.
"May I inquire," he asked blandly, "which is the lady who is posing as being almost middle-aged?"
The Baroness laughed at him softly, with a little contraction of the eyebrows, which she usually found effective.
"We are going to be friends, Mr. Wrayson," she declared. "You are sitting there in fear and trembling, and yet you have dared to pay a compliment, the first I have heard for, oh! so many months. Do not be afraid. Louise is not so terrible as she seems. I will not let her send you away. Now you must answer my question. May we do this terrible thing, Louise and I?"
"Assuredly not," he answered gravely, "when there is a man at hand who is so anxious to offer his escort as I."
The Baroness clapped her hands.
"Do you hear, Louise?" she exclaimed.
"I hear," Louise answered dryly.
The Baroness made a little grimace.
"You are in an impossible humour, my dear child," she declared. "Nevertheless, I declare for the music-hall, and for the escort of your friend, Mr. Wrayson, if he really is in earnest."
"I can assure you," he said, "that you would be doing me a great kindness in allowing me to offer my services."
The Baroness beamed upon him amiably, and rose to her feet.
"You have come," she avowed, "in time to save me from despair. I am not used to go about so much unescorted, and I am not so independent as Louise. See," she added, pushing a gold purse towards him, "you shall pay our bill while we put on our cloaks. And will you ask afterwards for my carriage, and we will meet in the portico?"
"With pleasure!" Wrayson answered, rising to his feet as they left the table. "I will telephone for a box to the Alhambra. There is a wonderful new ballet which every one is going to see."
He called the waiter and paid the bill from a remarkably well-filled purse. As he replaced the change, it was impossible for him to avoid seeing a letter addressed and stamped ready for posting, which occupied one side of the gold bag. The name upon the envelope struck him as being vaguely familiar; what had he heard lately of Madame de Melbain? It was associated somehow in his mind with a recent event. It lingered in his memory for days afterwards.
Louise and the Baroness left the room in silence. In the cloak-room the latter watched her friend curiously as she arranged her wrap.
"So that is Mr. Wrayson," she remarked.
"Yes!" Louise answered deliberately. "I wish that you had let him go!"
The Baroness laughed softly.
"My dear child," she protested, "why? He seems to me quite a personable young man, and he may be useful! Who can tell?"
Louise shrugged her shoulders. She stood waiting while the Baroness made somewhat extensive use of her powder-puff.
"You forget," she said quietly, "that I am already in Mr. Wrayson's debt pretty heavily."
The Baroness looked quickly around. She considered her young friend a little indiscreet.
"I find you amusing, ma chere," she remarked. "Since when have you developed scruples?"
Louise turned towards the door.
"You do not understand," she said. "Come!"
A BOX AT THE ALHAMBRA
The Baroness lowered her lorgnettes and turned towards Wrayson.
"There is a man" she remarked, "in the stalls, who finds us apparently more interesting than the performance. I do not see very well even with my glasses, but I fancy, no! I am quite sure, that his face is familiar to me."
Wrayson leaned forward from his seat in the back of the box and looked downward. There was no mistaking the person indicated by the Baroness, nor was it possible to doubt his obvious interest in their little party. Wrayson frowned slightly as he returned his greeting.
"Ah, then, you know him," the Baroness declared. "It is a friend, without doubt."
"He belongs to my club," Wrayson answered. "His name is Heneage. I beg your pardon! I hope that wasn't my fault."
The Baroness had dropped her lorgnettes on the floor. She stooped instantly to discover them, rejecting almost peremptorily Wrayson's aid. When she sat up again she pushed her chair a little further back.
"It was my clumsiness entirely," she declared. "Ah! it is more restful here. The lights are a little trying in front. You are wiser than I, my dear Louise, to have chosen a seat back there."
She turned towards the girl as she spoke, and Wrayson fancied that there was some subtle meaning in the swift glance which passed between the two. Almost involuntarily he leaned forward once more and looked downwards. Heneage's inscrutable face was still upturned in their direction. There was nothing to be read there, not even curiosity. As the eyes of the two men met, Heneage rose and left his seat.
"You know my friend, perhaps?" Wrayson remarked. "He is rather an interesting person."
The Baroness shrugged her shoulders.
"We are cosmopolitans, Louise and I," she remarked. "We wander about so much that we meet many people whose names even we do not remember. Is it not so, cherie?"
Louise assented carelessly. The incident appeared to have interested her but slightly. She alone seemed to be taking an interest in the performance, which from the first she had followed closely. More than once Wrayson had fancied that her attention was only simulated, in order to avoid conversation.
"This ballet," she remarked, "is wonderful. I don't believe that you people have seen any of it—you especially, Amy."
The Baroness glanced towards the stage.
"My dear Louise," she said, "you share one great failing with the majority of your country-people. You cannot do more than one thing at a time. Now I can watch and talk. Truly, the dresses are ravishing. Doucet never conceived anything more delightful than that blend of greens! Tell me about your mysterious-looking friend, Mr. Wrayson. Is he, too, an editor?"
Wrayson shook his head.
"To tell you the truth," he said, "I know very little about him. He is one of those men who seldom talk about themselves. He is a barrister, and he has written a volume of travels. A clever fellow, I believe, but possibly without ambition. At any rate, one never hears of his doing anything now."
"Perhaps," the Baroness remarked, with her eyes upon the stage, "he is one of those who keep their own counsel, in more ways than one. He does not look like a man who has no object in life."
Wrayson glanced downwards at the empty stall.
"Very likely," he admitted carelessly, "and yet, nowadays, it is a little difficult, isn't it, to do anything really worth doing, and not be found out? They say that the press is lynx-eyed."
Louise leaned a little forward in her chair.
"And you," she remarked, "are an editor! Do you feel quite safe, Amy? Mr. Wrayson may rob us of our most cherished secrets."
Her eyes challenged his, her lips were parted in a slight smile. Underneath the levity of her remark, he was fully conscious of the undernote of serious meaning.
"I am not afraid of Mr. Wrayson," the Baroness answered, smiling. "My age and my dressmaker are the only two things I keep entirely to myself, and I don't think he is likely to guess either."
"And you?" he asked, looking into her companion's eyes.
"There are many things," she answered, in a low tone, "which one keeps to oneself, because confidences with regard to them are impossible. And yet—"
She paused. Her eyes seemed to be following out the mystic design painted upon her fan.
"And yet?" he reminded her under his breath.
"Yet," she continued, glancing towards the Baroness, and lowering her voice as though anxious not to be overheard, "there is something poisonous, I think, about secrets. To have them known without disclosing them would be very often—a great relief."
He leaned a little towards her.
"Is that a challenge?" he asked, "if I can find out?"
The colour left her face with amazing suddenness. She drew away from him quickly. Her whisper was almost a moan.
"No! for God's sake, no!" she murmured. "I meant nothing. You must not think that I was speaking about myself."
"I hoped that you were," he answered simply.
The Baroness turned in her chair as though anxious to join in the conversation. At that moment came a knock at the door of the box. Wrayson rose and opened it. Heneage stood there and entered at once, as though his coming were the most natural thing in the world.
"Thought I recognized you," he remarked, shaking hands with Wrayson. "I believe, too, I may be mistaken, but I fancy that I have had the pleasure of meeting the Baroness de Sturm."
The Baroness turned towards him with a smile. Nevertheless, Wrayson noticed what seemed to him a strange thing. The slim-fingered, bejewelled hand which rested upon the ledge of the box was trembling. The Baroness was disturbed.
"At Brussels, I believe," she remarked, inclining her head graciously.
"At Brussels, certainly," he answered, bowing low.
She turned to Louise.
"Louise," she said, "you must let me present Mr. Heneage—Miss Deveney. Mr. Heneage has a cousin, I believe, of the same name, in the Belgian Legation. I remember seeing you dance with him at the Palace."
The two exchanged greetings. Heneage accepted a chair and spoke of the performance. The conversation became general and of stereotyped form. Yet Wrayson was uneasily conscious of something underneath it all which he could not fathom. The atmosphere of the box was charged with some electrical disturbance. Heneage alone seemed thoroughly at his ease. He kept his seat until the close of the performance, and even then seemed in no hurry to depart. Wrayson, however, took his cue from the Baroness, who was obviously anxious for him to go.
"Goodnight, Heneage!" he said. "I may see you at the club later."
Heneage smiled a little oddly as he turned away.
"Perhaps," he said.
It was not until they were on their way out that Wrayson realized that she was slipping away from him once more. Then he took his courage into his hands and spoke boldly.
"I wonder," he said, "if I might be allowed to see you ladies home. I have something to say to Miss Fitzmaurice," he added simply, turning to the Baroness.
"By all means," she answered graciously, "if you don't mind rather an uncomfortable seat. We are staying in Battersea. It seems a long way out, but it is quiet, and Louise and I like it."
"In Battersea?" Wrayson repeated vaguely.
The Baroness looked over her shoulder. They were standing on the pavement, waiting for their electric brougham.
"Yes!" she answered, dropping her voice a little, "in Frederic Mansions. By the bye, we are neighbours, I believe, are we not?"
"Quite close ones," Wrayson answered. "I live in the next block of flats."
The Baroness looked again over her shoulder.
"Your friend, Mr. Heneage, is close behind," she whispered, "and we are living so quietly, Louise and I, that we do not care for callers. Tell the man 'home' simply."
Wrayson obeyed, and the carriage glided off. Heneage had been within a few feet of them when they had started, and although his attention appeared to be elsewhere, the Baroness' caution was obviously justified. She leaned back amongst the cushions with a little sigh of relief.
"Mr. Wrayson," she inquired, "may I ask if Mr. Heneage is a particular friend of yours?"
Wrayson shook his head.
"I do not think that any man could call himself Heneage's particular friend," he answered. "He is exceedingly reticent about himself and his doings. He is a man whom none of us know much of."
The Baroness leaned a little forward.
"Mr. Heneage," she said slowly, "is associated in my mind with days and events which, just at present, both Louise and I are only anxious to forget. He may be everything that he should be. Perhaps I am prejudiced. But if I were you, I would have as little to do as possible with that man."
"We do not often meet," Wrayson answered, "and ours is only a club acquaintanceship. It is never likely to be more."
"So much the better," the Baroness declared. "Don't you agree with me, Louise?"
"I do not like Mr. Heneage," the girl answered. "But then, I have never spoken a dozen words to him in my life."
"You have known him intimately?" Wrayson asked the Baroness.
She shrugged her shoulders and looked out of the window.
"Never that, quite," she answered. "I know enough of him, however, to be quite sure that the advice which I have given you is good."
The carriage drew up in the Albert Road, within a hundred yards or so of Wrayson's own block of flats. The Baroness alighted first.
"You must come in and have a whisky and soda," she said to Wrayson.
"If I may," he answered, looking at Louise.
The Baroness passed on. Louise, with a slight shrug of the shoulders, followed her.
The room into which a waiting man servant showed them was large and handsomely furnished. Whisky and soda, wine and sandwiches were upon the sideboard. The Baroness, stopping only to light a cigarette, moved towards the door.
"I shall return" she said, "in a quarter of an hour."
She looked for a moment steadily at her friend, and then turned away. Louise strolled to the sideboard and helped herself to a sandwich.
"Come and forage, won't you?" she asked carelessly. "There are some pate sandwiches here, and you want whisky and soda, of course—or do you prefer brandy?"
"Neither, thanks!" Wrayson answered firmly. "I want what I came for. Please sit down here and answer my questions."
She laughed a little mockingly, and turning round, faced him, her head thrown back, her eyes meeting his unflinchingly. The light from a rose-shaded electric lamp glittered upon her hair. She was wearing black again, and something in her appearance and attitude almost took his breath away. It reminded him of the moment when he had seen her first.
"First," she said, "I am going to ask you a question. Why did you do it?"
"Do what?" he asked.
She gave vent to a little gesture of impatience. He must know quite well what she meant.
"Why did you give evidence at the inquest and omit all mention of me?"
"I don't know," he answered bluntly.
"You have committed yourself to a story," she reminded him, "which is certainly not altogether a truthful one. You have run a great risk, apparently to shield me. Why?"