Hobbs shook his head, and gazed at Elkin as though the latter was a refractory bullock.
"Siddle's a fair-minded chap," he said. "He can't stand 'earin' any of us 'angin' a man without a fair trial."
Ingerman had marked the chemist for more subtle treatment when an opportunity arose, or could be made. At present, he was not sorry such a restraining influence was removed. The next half hour should prove a golden one if well utilized. He was right. Before the inn was cleared, what between Elkin's savage comments and the other men's thinly-veiled allusions, he knew all that Steynholme could tell with regard to Grant and Doris Martin.
Grant's first thought next morning was of the girl who had been thrust so prominently into his life by the death of another woman. That was, perhaps, the strangest outcome of the tragedy. Doris was easily the prettiest and most intelligent girl in the village, a rare combination in itself, even among young ladies of much higher social position than a postmaster's daughter. But her father was a self-educated man, whose life had been given to books, whose only hobby was the culture and study of bees. He had often refused promotion, solely because his duties at Steynholme were light, and permitted of many free hours. In his only child he found a quick pupil and a sympathetic helper. Of her own accord she took to poetry and music. In effect, had Doris Martin attended the best of boarding-schools and training colleges, she would have received a smattering of French and a fair knowledge of the piano or violin, whereas, after more humble tuition, it might fairly be said of her that few girls of her age had read so many books and assimilated their contents so thoroughly. From her mother she inherited her good looks and a small yearly income, just sufficient to maintain a better wardrobe than her father's salary would permit.
Grant, newly settled in Steynholme, found the postmaster and his daughter intellectually on a par with himself, and this claim could certainly not be made on behalf of the local "society" element. The three became excellent friends. Naturally, the young people spent a good deal of time together. But there had been no love-making—not a hint or whisper of it!
And now, by cruel chance, their names were linked by scandal in its most menacing form, since there was no gainsaying the fact that Doris's star-gazing on that fatal Monday night was indissolubly bound up with the death of Adelaide Melhuish.
For the first time, then, the notion peeped up in Grant's mind that the whirligig of existence might see Doris his wife. But the conceit resembled the Gorgon's teeth, which, when sown in the ground, sprang forth as armed men. The very accident which revealed a not unpleasing possibility had established a grave obstacle in the way of its ultimate realization. Already there was a cloud between him and the Martins, father and daughter. To what a tempest might not that cloud develop when the questionings and innuendoes of the inquest established an aura of suspicion and intrigue around a perfectly innocent meeting in the garden of The Hollies!
Grant ate his breakfast in wrath. In wrath, too, he glanced through the morning newspapers, and saw his own name figuring large in the "story" of the "alleged" murder. The reporters had missed nothing. They had even got hold of the "peculiar coincidence" of his (Grant's) glimpse of a face at the window. His play was recalled, and Adelaide Melhuish's success in the title-role. Then Mr. Isidor G. Ingerman was introduced. He was described as "a man fairly well known in the City." That was all. The press could say nothing as yet of marital disagreements, nor was any hint concerning Doris Martin allowed to appear. But these journalistic fire-works were only held in reserve. "Dramatic and sensational developments" were promised, and police activity in "an unexpected direction" fore-shadowed.
All of which, of course, was mere journalistic paraphrasing of circumstances already known to the writers, and none the less galling to Grant on that account.
And there was no answer from the Commissioner of Police at Scotland Yard. True, the overnight telegram might have reached the Department after office hours. Grant, like most members of the general public, held the vague belief that Government officials do very little work. Still, one might reasonably expect better things from the institution which was supposed to safeguard law-abiding citizens.
Calm analysis of Ingerman's nebulous threats had revealed a hostile force not to be despised. Possibly, the man was already in league with that narrow-minded village constable, so every passing hour made more urgent the need of a trained intelligence being brought to bear on the mystery of Adelaide Melhuish's killing. Grant racked his brains to discover who could possibly have a motive for committing the crime. Naturally, his thoughts flew to Ingerman. Surely that sinister-looking person should be forced to give an account of himself instead of, as was probable, being allowed to instill further nonsense into the suspicious mind of P.C. Robinson.
There were two morning deliveries of London letters in Steynholme, one at eight and another at half past ten. Grant waited until the postman had left a publisher's circular (the only letter for The Hollies by the second mail). Then, in a fever of impatience, he jammed on a hat and went out. He would wait no longer. He would telegraph Scotland Yard again, and, incidentally, demand an audience at the post office.
No sooner had he entered the highroad than he saw P.C. Robinson on guard. That important person was standing on the bridge, apparently taking the air. He was nibbling the chin-strap of his helmet; both thumbs were locked in his belt. From that strategic position three roads came under observation.
It was a fine morning, and Grant's sense of humor was not proof against this open espionage. He smiled, and determined to take a rise out of "Sherlock," as Bates had christened the policeman.
The bridge lay a hundred yards to the left. The road was straight until it curved around the house and its shrubberies, so the view was blocked on that side. Grant filled and lighted a pipe with a deliberateness meant to be provoking, glancing several times doubtfully at P.C. Robinson, who, of course, was grandly unaware of his presence. Then he strolled off to the right, and, when hidden, took to his heels for a hundred yards sprint. Turning into a winding bridle-path tucked between hedges of thorn and hazels, he walked to a point where it crossed a patch of furze. At a little distance a hand-bridge spanned the river, and gave access to the eastern end of the village by a steep climb of the wooded cliff. The path, in fact, was a short cut to that part of Steynholme.
He sat on a hump of rock, and waited. It was a boyish trick, but very successful. Within three minutes, at the utmost, P.C. Robinson hurried past, using a stalking, stealthy stride which was distinctly ludicrous.
The eyes of the two men met, but Grant alone was prepared.
"Hello, Robinson!" he cried cheerfully. "What's the rush? Surely our rural peace has not been disturbed again?"
Robinson knew he had been "sold," but rose to the occasion.
"Excuse me, Mr. Grant," he puffed. "Can't wait now. Have an appointment. I'll see you later."
Honor demanded that he should not relax that swift pace. Unhappily, the path up the cliff was visible throughout from Grant's rock, so, on reaching the summit, Robinson was a-boil in more ways than one. Moreover, peeping through the first screen of trees that offered, he had the mortification of seeing the man who had befooled him go back the way he came.
Purple-faced with heat and anger, the policeman forgot his surroundings, and glowered at Grant with real fury. So he heard no one approaching along the main road until he was hailed a second time with, "Hello, Robinson!"
He turned sharply. This was Mr. Elkin.
"Good morning!" he said. "Have you seen the superintendent?"
"What? Mr. Fowler? No. Is he here so early?"
"I must have missed him."
"Well, you'll hardly find him on Bush Walk," which was the name of the path.
"You never can tell," came the dark answer.
At any rate, the policeman elected to abandon his self-imposed vigil, and the two walked together into the village.
"My! You look as though you'd run a mile," commented Elkin.
"This murder has kept me busy," growled the other, frankly mopping his forehead.
"Ay, that's so. And it isn't done with yet, by a long way. Pity you weren't in the Hare and Hounds last night. You'd have heard something. There's a chap staying there, name of Ingerman—"
"I've met him. The dead woman's husband."
"Oh, perhaps you've got his yarn already?"
"It all depends what he said to you."
"Well, he hinted things. Unless I'm greatly mistaken, you'll soon be making an arrest."
"I believe I could put my hand on the murderer this very minute," said Robinson vindictively.
Elkin laughed, somewhat half-heartedly.
"Lay you fifty to one against the time," he said. "I'm the only one near enough for that limit, you know."
The policeman realized that he had allowed annoyance to shake his wits. He looked at Elkin rather sharply, and noticed that the horse-breeder seemed to be nervous and ill.
"I didn't quite mean that I could grab my man this minute," he said, "but, if I can guess him, it amounts to nearly the same thing. What have you been doing to yourself, Mr. Elkin? You look peeky to-day."
"Too much whiskey and tobacco. I'll call at Siddle's for a 'pick-me-up.' Am I wanted for the jury?"
"Yes. I left a notice at your place last evening."
"I didn't get it."
"No. Fact is, I went home late, and didn't bother about letters this morning. What time is the inquest?"
"Three o'clock, in the club-room of the Hare and Hounds."
"Will that fellow, Grant, be there?"
"Rather. Dr. Foxton warned him yesterday."
"Good! What about Doris Martin? Will she be a witness?"
They were entering the village, and could see down the long, wide slope of the hill. Grant had just come into sight at its foot.
Both men scowled at the distant figure, but neither passed any comment. They parted, the policeman walking straight on, Elkin bearing to the left. The chemist's shop stood exactly opposite the post office, so Elkin, arriving first, was aware of his unconscious rival's destination.
He had not answered Mr. Siddle's greeting, but gazed moodily through a barricade of specifics piled in the window. Then he swore.
"What's wrong now?" inquired the chemist quietly.
"That Grant. Got a nerve, hasn't he?"
"I can't say, unless you explain."
"He's just gone into the post office."
"Why shouldn't he? He wants stamps, may be; plenty of 'em, I should imagine."
"Oh, you're a fish, Siddle. You aren't crazy about a girl, like I am. The sooner Grant's in jail the better I'll be pleased."
"If you take my advice, which you won't, I know, you will not utter that sort of remark publicly."
"Can't help it. Bet you a fiver I'm engaged to Doris Martin within a week."
Mr. Siddle took thought.
"Why so quickly?" he asked, after a pause.
"I'll catch her on the hop, of course. If she's engaged to me it'll help her a lot when this case comes into court."
"I cannot believe that Doris would accept any man for such a reason."
"I'm not 'any man.' She knows I'm after her. Will you take my bet, even money?"
"No. I don't bet."
"Well, you needn't put a damper on me. In fact, you can't. Have you that last prescription of Dr. Foxton's handy? My liver wants a tonic."
The chemist thumbed a dog-eared volume, read an entry carefully, and retired to a dispensing counter in the rear of the shop.
"Shall I send it?" came his voice.
"No. I'll wait. Give me a dose now, if you don't mind."
For some reason, Fred Elkin was not himself that day. He was moody, and fretful as a sick colt. But he had diagnosed his ailment and its cause accurately; a discreet doctor was probably aware of his failings, and had considered them in the "mixture."
The post office was not busy when Grant entered. A young man, a stranger, was seated at the telegraphist's desk, tapping a new instrument. The G. P. O., forewarned, had lent an expert to deal with press messages.
Mr. Martin, sorting some documents, came forward when he saw Grant. His kindly, somewhat pre-occupied face was long as a fiddle.
"Good morning, Mr. Martin," said Grant.
"Good morning. What can I do for you?" was the stiff reply. Grant was in no mind to be rebuffed, however.
"I must have a word with you in private," he said.
"I'm sorry—but my time is quite full."
"I'm sorry, too, but the matter is urgent."
The click of the sounder became less businesslike. There was an element in the tone of each voice that drew the London telegraphist's attention. Martin, usually the mildest-mannered man in Sussex, was obviously ill at ease. But he simply could not hold out against Grant's compelling gaze.
"Come into the back room," he said nervously. "Call me if I'm needed," he added, nodding to his assistant.
Grant did not hesitate an instant when the postmaster reached the "back parlor" through another door. The open window, draped in clematis, gave a delightful glimpse of The Hollies. A window-box of mignonette filled the air with its delicate perfume. Grant hoped that Doris would be there, but the only signs of her recent presence were a hat and an open book on the table.
"Now, Mr. Martin," he said gravely, "you and I should have a serious talk. It is idle to deny that gossip is spreading broadcast certain malicious and absurd rumors which closely concern Doris and myself. To me these things are of slight consequence. To a girl of your daughter's age they are poisonous. If you, her father, know the whole truth, you can regulate your actions so as to defeat the scandalmongers. That is why I am here to-day. That is why I came here yesterday, but your attitude took me aback, and I was idiot enough to go without a word of explanation. I was too shaken then to see my clear course, and follow it regardless of personal feelings. This morning I am master of myself, and I insist that you listen now while I tell you exactly what occurred on Monday night."
"Surely—these matters—are—for the authorities," stammered the older man.
"What? Your daughter's good name?"
Mr. Martin reddened. His agitation was pitiful.
"That is hardly in question, sir," he said brokenly.
"I am speaking of the tongue of slander. Heaven help and direct me! I would suffer death rather than see Doris subjected to the leers and innuendoes of every lout in the village."
Grant's earnestness could hardly fail to impress his friend. But Martin had either made up his mind or been warned not to discuss the murder, and adhered loyally to that line of conduct. He retreated toward the door leading to the post office proper.
"It is too late to interfere now," he said.
"What on earth do you mean?" demanded Grant, yielding to a gust of anger.
"The whole—of the circumstances—are being inquired into by the police," came the hesitating answer.
"Has that prying scoundrel, Robinson, dared to cross-examine Doris?"
"He came here, of course, but Scotland Yard has taken up the inquiry."
"Yes. He is with Doris in the garden at this moment."
Grant knew the topography of the house. Without asking permission, he tore through yet a third door leading to a kitchen and scullery, nearly upsetting a tiny maid who had her ear or eye to the key-hole, and raced into the garden in which the postmaster kept his bees.
Doris, standing with her hands behind her back, was looking at The Hollies, and deep in conversation with an alert and natty little man who was evidently absorbed in what she was saying.
Grant, in a whirl of fury, was only conscious that Doris's companion was slight, almost diminutive, of frame, very erect, and dressed in a well-fitting blue serge suit, neat brown boots and straw hat, when the two heard his footsteps.
Doris was flustered. Her Romney face held a look of scare.
"Oh, here is Mr. Grant!" she said, striving vainly to speak with composure.
The little man pierced Grant with an extraordinarily penetrating glance from very bright and deeply-recessed black eyes.
"Ah, Mr. Grant, is it!" he chirped pleasantly. "Good morning! So you're the villain of the piece, are you?"
SCOTLAND YARD TAKES A HAND
It was a singular greeting, to say the least, and the person who uttered it was quite as remarkable as his queer method of expressing himself seemed to indicate.
Grant, though in a fume of hot anger, had the good sense to choke back the first impetuous reprimand trembling on his lips. In fact, wrath quickly subsided into blank incredulity. He saw before him, not the conventional detective who might be described as a superior Robinson—not even the sinewy, sharp-eyed, and well-spoken type of man whom he had once heard giving evidence in a famous jewel-robbery case—but rather one whom he would have expected to meet in the bar of a certain well-known restaurant in Maiden Lane, a corner of old London where literally all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players.
During his theatrical experiences he had come across scores of such men, dapper little fellows, wizened of face yet curiously youthful in manner; but they, each and all, were labeled "low comedian." Certainly, a rare intelligence gleamed from this man's eyes, but that is an attribute not often lacking in humorists who command high salaries because of their facility in laughter-making. This man, too, had the wide, thin-lipped, mobile mouth of the actor. His ivory-white, wrinkled forehead and cheeks, the bluish tint on jaws and chin, his voice, his perky air, the very tilt of his straw hat, were eloquent of the footlights. Even his opening words, bizarre and cheerfully impertinent, smacked of "comic relief."
"I figure prominently in this particular 'piece,'" snapped Grant. "May I ask your name, sir?"
"A wise precaution with suspicious characters," rejoined the other, smiling. Grant was suddenly reminded of a Japanese grinning at a joke, but he bent over a card which the stranger had whisked out of a waistcoat pocket. He read:
MR. CHARLES F. FUENEAUX,
Criminal Investigation Department,
NEW SCOTLAND YARD, S.W.
He could not control himself. He gazed at Mr. Charles F. Furneaux with a surprise that was not altogether flattering.
"Did the Commissioner of Police send you in response to my telegram?" he said.
"That is what lawyers call a leading question," came the prompt retort. "And I hate lawyers. They darken understanding, and set honest men at loggerheads."
"But it happens to be very much to the point at this moment."
"Well, Mr. Grant, if you really press for an answer, it is 'Yes' and 'No.' The Commissioner received a certain telegram, but he may have acted on other grounds. Even Commissioners can be creatures of impulse, or expediency, just as the situation demands.
"You are here, at any rate."
"That is what legal jargon terms an admitted fact."
"Then you had better begin by assuming that I am no villain."
"It is assumed. It couldn't well be otherwise after the excellent character you have been given by this young lady."
"She, at least, will speak well of me, I do believe," said Grant, with a strange bitterness, for his heart was sore because of the seeming defection of his friend, the postmaster. "What I actually had in mind was the stupidity of the local policeman, who is convinced that I am both a criminal and a fool."
"The two are often synonymous," said Furneaux dryly. "But I acquitted you on both counts, Mr. Grant, on hearing, and even seeing, how you spent Monday evening."
Grant, who had cooled down considerably, found a hint of badinage in this comment.
"You have evidently been told that Miss Martin and I were star-gazing in the garden of my house," he said. "It happens to be true."
"Oh, yes. There was a very fine cluster of small stars in Canis Major, south of Sirius, that night."
"You know something about the constellations, then?" was the astonished query.
"Enough for the purposes of Scotland Yard," smirked Furneaux, who had checked P.C. Robinson's one-sided story by referring to Whitaker's Almanack. "It may relieve your mind if I tell you that I have never seen a real live astronomer in the dock. Venus and Mars are often in trouble, but their devoted observers seldom, if ever."
Grant warmed to this strange species of detective, though, if pressed for an instant decision, he would vastly have preferred that one of more orthodox style had been intrusted with an inquiry so vital to his own happiness and good repute. Eager, however, to pour forth his worries into any official ear, he brought back the talk to a definite channel.
"Will you come to my place?" he asked. "I have much to say. Let me assure you now, in Miss Martin's presence, that she is no more concerned in this ghastly business than any other young lady in the village."
"But she is interested. And you are. And I am. Why not discuss matters here, for the present, I mean? We have a glorious view of your house and grounds. We can see without being seen. None can overhear. I advise both of you to go thoroughly into this matter here and now."
Furneaux spoke emphatically. Even Doris put in a timid plea.
"Perhaps that would be the best thing to do," she said. "Mr. Furneaux has been most sympathetic. I am sure he understands things already in a way that is quite wonderful to me."
The very sound of her voice was comforting. Grant might have argued with the detective, but could not resist Doris. Without further demur he went through the whole story, giving precise details of events on the Monday night. Then the recital widened out into a history of his relations with Adelaide Melhuish. He omitted nothing. Doris gasped when she heard Superintendent Fowler's version of the view a coroner's jury might take of her presence in the garden of The Hollies at a late hour. But Grant did not spare her. He reasoned that she ought to be prepared for an ordeal which could not be avoided. He was governed by the astute belief that his very outspokenness in this respect would weaken the inferences which the police might otherwise draw from it.
Furneaux uttered never a word. He was a first-rate listener, though his behavior was most undetective-like, since he hardly looked at Grant or the girl, but seemed to devote his attention almost exclusively to the scenic panorama in front.
However, when Grant came to the somewhat strenuous passage-at-arms of the previous night between Ingerman and himself, the little man broke in at once.
"Isidor G. Ingerman?" he cried. "Is he a tall, lanky, cadaverous, rather crooked person, with black hair turning gray, and an absurdly melodious voice?"
"You have described him without an unnecessary word," said Grant.
Furneaux clicked his tongue in a peculiar fashion.
"Go on!" he said. "It's a regular romance—quite in your line, Mr. Grant, of course, but none the less enthralling because, as you so happily phrased Miss Martin's lesson in astronomy, it happens to be true."
Grant was scrupulously fair to Ingerman. He admitted the "financier's" adroitness of speech, and made clear the fact that if the visit had the levying of blackmail for its object such a possible outcome was only hinted at vaguely. Being a novelist, one whose temperament sought for sunshine rather than gloom in life, he wound up in lighter vein. The ruse which tricked P.C. Robinson into a breathless scamper of nearly a mile on a hot day in June was described with gusto. Doris, who knew the village constable well, laughed outright, while Furneaux cackled shrilly. None who might be watching the little group in that delightful garden, with its scent of old-world flowers and drone of bees, could have guessed that a grewsome tragedy formed their major theme.
The girl was the first to realize that even harmless merriment was in ill accord with the presence of death, for the body of Adelaide Melhuish lay within forty yards of the place where they stood.
"May I leave you now?" she inquired. "Father may be wanting help in the office."
"I shan't detain you more than a few seconds," said Furneaux briskly. "On Monday evening you two young people parted at half past ten. How do you fix the time?"
Doris answered without hesitation:
"The large window of Mr. Grant's study was open, and we both heard a clock in the hall chime the half-hour. I said, 'Goodness me, is that half past ten?' and started for home at once. Mr. Grant came with me as far as the bridge. When I reached my room, in exactly five minutes after leaving The Hollies, I stood at the open window—that window"—and she pointed to a dormer casement above the sitting-room—"and looked out. It was a particularly fine night, mild, but not very clear, as a slight mist often rises from the river after a hot day in summer. I may have been there about ten minutes, no longer, when I saw the study window of The Hollies thrown open, and Mr. Grant's figure was silhouetted by the lamp behind him. He seemed to be listening for something, so I, who must have heard any unusual sound, listened too. There was nothing. I could hear the ripple of the river beneath the bridge, so everything was very still. After a minute, or two, perhaps—no longer—Mr. Grant went in, and closed the window. Then I went to bed."
"Did Mr. Grant draw any blind or curtains?"
"There are muslin curtains attached to each side of the window. One cannot see into the room from a distance."
Furneaux measured an imaginary line drawn from Doris's bedroom to the edge of the cliff, and prolonged it.
"Nor can you see the river or foot of the lawn from your room," he commented.
"No. In winter I can just make out the edge of the lawn. When the trees are in leaf, all the lower part is hidden."
"You had actually retired to rest about eleven, I suppose?"
"So if Mr. Grant came out again you would not know?" Doris blushed furiously, but her reply was unfaltering.
"I would have known during the next half-hour, at least," she said. "An inclined mirror hangs in my room. I use it sometimes for adjusting a hat. The square of light from Mr. Grant's room is reflected in it, and any sudden increase in the illumination caused by opening the window or pulling the curtains aside would certainly have caught my eye."
"You have an unshakable witness in Miss Martin," said Furneaux, stabbing a finger at Grant. "Now, I'll hurry off. You and I, Mr. Grant, meet at Philippi, otherwise known as the crowner's quest."
Any benevolent intent he may have had in leaving these young people together was, however, frustrated by Doris, whose composure seemed to have fled since her statement about the mirror. She resolutely accompanied the detective, and Grant had to follow. All three passed into the post office, Doris using the private door. Mr. Martin looked up from his desk when they appeared, and requested his daughter to check a bundle of postal orders. The pretext was painfully obvious, but Grant was not so wishful now to clear up matters with Doris's father, as the girl herself might be trusted to pass on an accurate account of the affair from beginning to end.
He was about to reach the street quick on Furneaux's heels when the little man turned suddenly.
"By the way, don't you want a shilling's worth of stamps?" he said.
Grant smiled comprehension, and went back to the counter, where Doris herself served him. She did not try to avoid his glance, but rather met it with a baffling serenity oddly at variance with her momentary loss of self-possession in the garden.
When he entered the street the detective had vanished.
He walked down the hill at a rapid pace, disregarding the eyes peeping at him through open doorways, over narrow window-curtains, and covertly staring when people passed in the roadway. The sensitive side of his temperament shrank from this thinly-veiled hostility. He was by way of being popular in Steynholme, yet not a soul spoke to him. Before he reached the bridge, the other side of him, the man of action, of cool resource in an emergency, rose in rebellion against the league of silly clodhoppers. Back he strode to the post office and dashed off a telegram. It ran:
"Walter Hart, Savage Club, Adelphi, London. Come here and help to lay a ghost."
He signed it in full, name and address. Doris was gone, but her father received it, and read the text in a bewildered way.
"I find myself deserted by my Steynholme friends so I am trying to import one stanch one," said Grant, almost vindictively.
Martin murmured the cost, and Grant stormed out again. This time, passing the Hare and Hounds, he looked at door and windows. He caught a face scowling at him over a brown wire blind bearing the words "Wines and Spirits" on it in letters of dull gold. It was a commonplace type of face, small-featured, ginger-moustached, and crowned by a billy-cock hat set at a rakish angle. Its most marked characteristic was the positive hatred which glowed in the sharp, pale-blue eyes. Grant wondered who this highly censorious young man might be. At any rate, he meant to ascertain whether or not the critic was susceptible of satire at his own expense. He walked up to the window, elevated his eyebrows at the frowning person within, pretended to read the words on the screen, looked again at the man inside, and shook his head gravely in the manner of one who has accurately determined cause and effect.
Fred Elkin was quick-witted enough to appreciate Grant's unspoken comment. He was also unmannerly enough to put out his tongue. Then Grant laughed, and turned on his heel.
Mr. Siddle, quietly observant of recent comings and goings, was standing at the door of the shop, and missed no item of this dumb show. He raised both hands in silent condemnation of Elkin's childishness, whereupon the horse-dealer jerked a thumb toward Grant's retreating figure, and went through a rapid pantomime of the hanging process. His crony disapproved again, and went in. Now, both those men were on the jury panel, so, to all appearance, Grant would be judged by at least one deadly enemy, whose animosity might or might not be fairly balanced by the chemist's impartial mind.
The tenant of The Hollies actually dreaded the loneliness of his dwelling now, though it was that very quality which had drawn him to Steynholme a year earlier. Work or reading was equally out of the question that day. He sought the industrious Bates, who was trenching celery in the kitchen garden.
"Have 'ee made out owt about un, sir?" inquired that hardy individual, pausing to spit on the handle of his spade.
"No," said Grant. "The thing is a greater mystery than ever."
"I'm thinkin' her mun ha' bin killed by a loony," announced Bates.
"Something of the kind, no doubt. But why are the little less dangerous loonies of Steynholme united in the belief that I am the guilty one?"
"Ax me another," growled Bates.
"Who is spreading this rumor? Robinson?"
"'E dussen't, sir. 'E looks fierce, but 'e'll 'old 'is tongue. T'super will see to that."
"Someone is talking. That is quite certain."
"There's a chap in the 'Are an' 'Ounds—kem 'ere last night."
"Ay, sir, that's the name. 'E's makin' a song of it, I hear."
"Fred Elkin is gassin' about. Do 'ee know un? Breeds 'osses at Mount Farm, a mile that-a-way," and Bates pointed to the west.
Grant hazarded a guess, and described the face of condemnation seen at the inn. Bates nodded.
"That's un," he said. Then he drove the spade into the rich loam. "They do say," he added, apparently as an after-thought, "as Fred Elkin is mighty sweet on Doris, but her'll 'ave nowt to do wi' un."
Grant whistled softly. This explanation threw light on a dark place.
"The plot thickens," he said. "Mr. Elkin becomes more interesting than he looks. Are there other disappointed swains in the offing?"
"What's that, sir?"
"Has Miss Martin any other suitors?"
"Lots of 'em 'ud be after her like wasps round a plum-tree if she'd give 'em 'alf a chance. But you put a stopper on 'em."
Bates was blunt of speech, though a philosopher withal.
"Elkin is my only serious rival, then?" laughed Grant, passing off as a joke a thrust which was shrewder than the gardener knew.
"'E 'as plenty of brass, but I reckon nowt on 'im," was the contemptuous answer.
"Well, he is not a likely person to kill a woman he had never before seen. Miss Martin will marry whom she chooses, no doubt. The present problem is to find out who murdered Miss Melhuish. Now, had I been the victim you would be thinking hard, Bates."
"I tell 'ee, sir, it wur a loony."
Nor was Bates to be moved from that opinion. He held to it, through thick and thin, for many days.
Grant wandered into the front garden. His eyes rose involuntarily to the distant post office, and he noticed at once that the dormer window was closed. Yet Doris shared his own love of fresh air, and that window had always been open till that very hour. Somehow, this simple thing seemed to shut him out of her life. He walked to the river, and gazed at the spot where the body was drawn ashore. In the absence of rain the water ran clear as gin, and the marks made by the feet of Adelaide Melhuish's murderer were still perceptible. If only those misshapen blotches could reveal their secret! If only some Heaven-sent ray of intuition would enable him to put the police on the track of the criminal! Theoretically, a novelist and essayist should be a first-rate detective, yet, brought face to face with an actual felony, here was one who perforce remained blind and dumb.
Yet he was not blameworthy for failing to solve a mystery which was rapidly establishing a record for bewildering elements. Wherein he did err most lamentably was in his reading of a woman's heart.
No answering telegram came from his friend in London. The day wore slowly till it was time to attend the inquest. He found a crowd gathered in front of the Hare and Hounds. Superintendent Fowler was there, and quite a number of policemen, whose presence was explained when a buzz of excitement heralded Grant's arrival. He decided not to stand this sort of persecution a moment longer.
Before the superintendent could interfere, he leaped on to a set of stone mounting-steps which stood opposite the door. Instantly, seeing that he was about to speak, the angry murmuring of the mob was hushed. He looked into a hundred stolid faces, and stretched out his right hand.
"I cannot help feeling," he said, in slow, incisive accents which carried far, "that a set of peculiar circumstances has led you Steynholme folk to suspect me of being responsible, in some way, for the death of the lady whose body was found in the river near my house. Now, I want to tell you that I am not only an innocent but a much-maligned man. The law of the land will establish both facts in due season. But I want to warn some of you, too, I shall not trouble to issue writs for libel. If any blackguard among you dares to insult me openly, I shall smash his face."
He knew when to stop. Superintendent Fowler's nudge was not called for, as the orator simply met the scrutiny of all those eyes without another word.
Curiously enough, the sense of justice is inherent in every haphazard gathering of the public. Grant's soldierly bearing, his calm defiance of hostile opinion, the outspoken threat which he so plainly meant, won instant favor. Someone shouted, "Hear, hear!" and the crowd applauded. From that moment he had little to complain of in the attitude of the community as a whole. There were subtle and dangerous enemies to be fought and conquered, but Steynholme looked on, keen to learn of any new sensation, of course, but placidly content that the final verdict should be left in the hands of the authorities.
"ALARUMS AND EXCURSIONS"
The inquest was surprisingly tame after the stirring events which had led up to it. Indeed, save for two incidents, the proceedings were almost dull.
The coroner, a Knoleworth solicitor named Belcher, prided himself on conducting this cause celebre with as little ostentation as he would have displayed over an ordinary inquiry. Messrs. Siddle, Elkin, Tomlin and Hobbs, with eight other local tradesmen and farmers, formed the jurors, and the chemist was promptly elected foreman; no witnesses were ordered out of court; the formalities of "swearing in" the jury and "viewing" the body were carried through rapidly. Almost before Grant had time to assimilate these details Superintendent Fowler, who marshalled the evidence, called his name. The coroner's officer tendered him a well-thumbed Bible, while the coroner himself administered the oath.
Grant eyed the somewhat soiled volume, and opened it before putting it to his lips. The action probably did not please the jury. Elkin nudged Tomlin, and sniggered at the rest of his colleagues, as much as to say: "What did I tell you? The cheek of him!"
Elkin, by the way, looked ill. When his interest flagged for an instant his haggard aspect became more noticeable.
Ingerman was there, of course. Furneaux sat beside Mr. Fowler. A stranger, whom Grant did not recognize, proved to be the County Chief Constable. There was a strong muster of police, and the representatives of the press completely monopolized the scanty accommodation for the public. To Grant's relief, Doris Martin was not in attendance.
He told the simple facts of the finding of Adelaide Melhuish's corpse. A harmless question by the coroner evoked the first "scene" which set the reporters' pencils busy.
"Did you recognize the body!" inquired Mr. Belcher.
"Then you can give the jury her name?"
Before Grant could answer, Ingerman sprang up, his sallow face livid with passion.
"I protest, sir, against this man being permitted to identify my wife," he said.
He was either deeply moved, or proved himself an excellent actor. His flute-like voice vibrated with an intense emotion. Thus might Mark Antony have spoken when vowing that Brutus was an honorable man.
"Who are you?" demanded the coroner sharply.
"Isidor George Ingerman, husband of the deceased lady," came the clear-toned reply.
"Well, sit down, sir, and do not interrupt the court again," said the coroner.
"I demand, sir, that you note my protest."
"Sit down! Were you any other person I would have you removed. As it is, I am prepared to regard your feelings to the extent of explaining that the witness is not identifying the body but relating a fact within his own knowledge."
Ingerman bowed, and resumed his seat.
For some reason, Grant stared blankly at Furneaux. The latter did not meet his glance, but put a finger on those thin lips. It might, or might not, be a warning to repress any retort he had in mind. At any rate, obeying a nod from the coroner, he merely said:
"She was a well-known actress, Miss Adelaide Melhuish."
Mr. Belcher's pen hesitated a little. Then it scratched on. Undoubtedly, he was himself exercising the restraint he meant to impose on others.
"You are quite sure?" he said, after a pause.
"Thank you, Mr. Grant. Wait here until you sign your deposition. Of course, you are aware that this inquiry will stand adjourned, and the whole matter will be gone into fully at a later date."
"So I have been informed, sir."
Ingerman was the next witness. He, like a good democrat, kissed the cover of the Bible. The coroner began by giving him some advice.
"This is a purely formal inquiry, to permit of a death certificate being issued. You will oblige me, therefore, by answering my questions without introducing any extraneous subject."
Ingerman adhered to these instructions. Having already shot a carefully-prepared bolt, he meant avoiding any further conflict with the authorities. His evidence was brief and to the point. The deceased was his wife. They were married at a London registrar's office on a given date, six years ago. His wife acted under her maiden name. There was no family.
The court was well lighted by four long windows in the eastern wall, which each witness faced, so Grant was free to study his avowed enemy at leisure. He thought he made out a crafty underlook in Ingerman which he had failed to detect the previous night. That slow, smooth voice seemed to weigh each syllable. Such a man would never blurt out an unconsidered admission. He was a foe to be reckoned with. The subtle malignancy of that well-timed outburst was proof positive in that respect.
The jury, apparently, attached much weight to his words. On some faces there was an expectancy which merged into marked disappointment when his evidence came to an end. The foreman alone displayed the judicial attitude warranted by the oath he had taken. Somehow, Grant had faith in Mr. Siddle. The man looked intellectual. When spoken to in his shop his manner was invariably reserved. But that was his general repute in Steynholme—a quiet, uninterfering person, who had come to the village a young man, yet had never really entered into its life. For instance, he neither held nor would accept any public office. At first, people wondered how he contrived to eke out a living, but this puzzle was solved by his admitted possession of a small annuity.
Dr. Foxton, general practitioner, who held undisputed sway in the district, told how he had conducted an autopsy on the body of the deceased. He found a deep, incised wound on the back of the skull, a wound which would have caused death in any event. The instrument used must have been a heavy and blunt one. Miss Melhuish was dead or dying when thrown into the river. The body was well nourished, and the vital organs sound. Undoubtedly she had been murdered.
Bates followed, and evoked a snigger by the outspokenness of blunt Sussex.
"I hauled 'um in," he said, "an' knew it wur a dead 'un by the feel of the rope."
The coroner was not curious. He merely wished to put on record the time and manner in which Mr. Grant summoned assistance.
Then P. C. Robinson entered the box, and contrived to bring about the second "incident."
He told how, "from information received," he went to The Hollies, and found Mr. Grant standing near the river with a dead body at his feet.
"One side of Mr. Grant's face was covered with blood," he went on.
If the policeman was minded to create a sensation, he certainly succeeded. A slight hum ran through the court, and then all present seemed to restrain their breathing lest a word of the evidence should be lost. The mention of "blood" in a murder case was a more adroit dodge than Robinson himself guessed, perhaps. Few of his hearers troubled to reflect that a smudge of fresh gore on Grant's cheek could hardly have any bearing on the death of a woman whose body had admittedly lain all night in the river. It sufficed that Robinson had introduced a touch of the right color into the inquiry. Even the coroner was worried.
"Well!" he said testily.
"I took down his statement, sir," said the witness, well knowing that he had wiped off Grant's morning score in the matter of Bush Walk.
"Never mind his statement. That must await the adjourned hearing. What did you do with the body?"
"Took it to the stable of the Hare and Hounds, sir."
"Where it was viewed recently by the jury?"
"It is the body identified by Mr. Ingerman as that of his wife?"
"That will do.... Superintendent Fowler, will this day week at ten o'clock suit you?"
"Yes, sir," said the superintendent.
"Then the inquest stands adjourned until that day and hour. Gentlemen of the jury, you must be here punctually."
"Can't we ask any questions?" cried Elkin, in an injured tone.
"No. You cannot," snapped the coroner emphatically.
After a few formalities, which included the reading and signing of the depositions, the courthouse emptied. The whole thing was over in half an hour. Grant, determined to have a word with the representative of Scotland Yard, went openly to Furneaux, and asked him to come to The Hollies and join him in a cup of tea.
"No," was the curt answer. "I'm busy. I'll see you later."
It was difficult to reconcile the detective's present stand-off manner with his earlier camaradie, to say nothing of the seemingly friendly hint conveyed by the signal to pass no comment on Ingerman's interruption.
Rather sick at heart, Grant went out into the sunshine. He was snap-shotted a dozen times by press photographers. One man, backing impudently in front of him in order to secure a sharp focus, tripped over the raised edge of a cartway into a yard, and sat down violently.
The onlookers laughed, but Grant helped the photographer to rise.
"If you want a really good picture of the Steynholme murderer, come to my place, and I'll give you one," he said.
The pressman was grateful, because Grant's action had tended to mitigate his discomfiture.
"No one but a fool thinks of you as a murderer, Mr. Grant," he said. "What I really want is a portrait of 'the celebrated' author in whose grounds the body was found."
"Come along, then, and I'll pose for you."
The photographer was surprised, but joyfully accepted the gifts the gods gave. He could not guess that his host was pining for human companionship. He could not fathom Grant's disappointment, on reaching The Hollies, at finding no telegram from a trusted friend, Walter Hart. And he was equally unconscious of the immense service he rendered by compelling his host to talk and act naturally. He enlightened Grant, too, in the matter of inquests.
"Next week there will be a gathering of lawyers," he said. "The police will be represented, probably by the Treasury, if the case is thought sufficiently important. That chap, Ingerman, too, will employ a solicitor, I expect, judging from his attitude to-day. In fact, any one whose interests are affected ought to secure legal assistance. One never knows how these inquiries twist and turn."
"Thank you," said Grant, smiling at the journalist's tact. "I'll order tea to be got ready while you're taking your pictures. By the way, what sort of detective is Mr. Charles F. Furneaux?"
"A pocket marvel," was the enthusiastic answer. "Haven't you heard of him before? Well, you wouldn't, unless you followed famous cases professionally. He seldom appears in the courts—generally manages to wriggle out of giving direct evidence. But I've never known him to fail. He either hangs his man or drives him to suicide. If I committed a crime, and was told that Furneaux was after me, I'd own up and save trouble, because I wouldn't have the ghost of a chance of winning clear."
"He strikes one as too flippant for a detective."
"Yes. Lots of people have thought that, and they're either disappearing in quicklime beneath some corridor of a prison, or doing time at Portland. I wonder if Winter also is coming down on this job."
"Who is 'Winter'?"
"The Chief Inspector at the 'Yard.' A big, cheerful-looking fellow—from his appearance might be a gentleman-farmer and J. P., with a taste for horses and greyhounds. He and Furneaux are called the Big 'Un and the Little 'Un, and each is most unlike the average detective. But Heaven help any wrong-doer they set out to trail! They'll get him, as sure as God made little apples."
"Then the sooner Mr. Winter visits Steynholme the better I shall be pleased. This tragedy is becoming a perfect nightmare. You heard that fat-headed policeman speak of my face being covered with blood. He did it purposely. I made a fool of him this morning, so he paid me out, the literal truth being that a branch of that Dorothy Perkins rose there caught my cheek as I entered this room on Tuesday morning—before I discovered the body—and broke the skin. I suppose the cut is visible still? I saw it to-day while shaving."
"Yes," said the other, chortling over the "copy" his colleagues were missing. "The mark is there right enough. Queer how inanimate objects like a rose-tree can make mischief. I remember a case in which a chestnut in a man's pocket sent him to penal servitude. There was absolutely no evidence against him, except a possible motive, until that chestnut was found and proved to be one of a particular species, grown only in a certain locality."
"How fortunate that the Dorothy Perkins is popular!" laughed Grant. "Will your paper publish photographs of the principals in this affair?"
"I expect so. I've a fine collection—the jury, all in a row—and you, making that speech to the mob."
"Oh! Will that appear?"
"By Jove, yes, sir. It was wired off before the inquest opened."
Grant reddened slightly. His own impetuous action had blurted out to the whole world that which Steynholme was only thinking. No wonder Furneaux had warned him to go slow. Perhaps the little man was annoyed because of his challenge to the village crowd? Well, be it so. He meant, and would live up to, every word of it!
The afternoon dragged after the pressman's departure. What Grant really hungered for was a heart-to-heart talk between Doris Martin and himself. But, short of a foolish attempt to carry the post office by storm, he saw no means of realizing his desire. He must, perforce, await the less troubled hours of the morrow or next day. Doris would surely give her father an exact account of the conversation between Grant, Furneaux, and herself that morning, and that greatly perplexed man could hardly fail to see how unjust was the tittle-tattle of the village.
So, avoiding Mrs. Bates, whose fell intent it was to ask him what he wanted for dinner, he struck off along the road to Knoleworth, walked eight miles in two hours, and reached The Hollies about seven o'clock, rather inclined for a meal and much more contented with life.
Minnie announced that a gentleman "who brought a bag" had been awaiting him since half-past five, and was now asleep on the lawn! A glance at the aforesaid bag, still reposing in the entrance hall, sent Grant quickly into the garden. A long, broad-shouldered person was stretched on a wicker chair, and evidently enjoying a nap. A huge meerschaum pipe and tobacco pouch lay on the grass. The newcomer's face was covered by a broad-brimmed, decidedly weather-beaten slouch hat, which, legend had it, was purchased originally in South America in the early nineties, and had won fame as the only one of its kind ever worn in the Strand.
"Hullo! Wally! Glad to see you!" shouted Grant joyously.
The sleeper stirred.
"No, not another drop!" he muttered. "You fellows must have heads of triple brass and stomachs of leather!"
"Get up, you rascal, or I'll spill you out of the chair!" said Grant.
A lazy hand removed the hat, and a pair of peculiarly big and bright eyes gazed up into his.
"Oh, it's you, is it?" drawled a quiet voice. "Why the blazes did you send for me? And, having sent, why wake me out of the best sleep I've had for a week?"
"But why didn't you let me know you were coming? I would have met the train."
"I did. Here's the telegram. That pink-cheeked maid of yours nearly had a fit when I opened it to show her that I was expected."
"You wired from Victoria, I suppose?"
"Would you have preferred Charing Cross, or the Temple? Isn't Victoria respectable?"
Grant laughed as they shook hands. Hart was the most casual adventurer in existence. His specialty was revolutions. Wherever the flag of rebellion was raised against a government, thither went Walter Hart post-haste by train, steamer, or on horseback. He had been sentenced to death five times, and decorated by successful Jack Cades twice as often.
"I'm a sort of outlaw. That's why I sought your help," explained Grant.
"I know all about you, Jack," said Hart slowly, picking up the pipe and filling it from the pouch. The meerschaum was carved to represent the head of a grinning negro, and was now ebon black from use.
"I felt like a pint of Sussex ale after a hot journey in the train, so hied me to the village inn, where several obliging gentlemen told me your real name. Two of them, Ingerman and Elkin, apparently make a hobby of enlightening strangers as to your right place in society."
"I must interview Elkin."
"Not worth while, my boy. Ingerman is the crafty one. I thought I might be doing you more harm than good, or I would have given him a thick ear this afternoon ... Oh, by the way, what time is it?"
"A little fellow named Furneaux is coming here to dinner at seven-thirty. Said he would drop in by the back door, and mutter 'Hush! I'm Hawkshaw, the detective.' He resembles a cock-sparrow, so I asked him why he didn't fly in through an attic window. He took my point at once, and remarked that he wanted none of my lip, or he would ask me officially what became of Don Ramon de Santander's big pink pearl. It's a queer yarn. There was a bust-up in Guatemala—"
"Look here, Wally," broke in Grant anxiously. "Are you serious? Did Furneaux really say he was coming here?"
"He did, and more—he expressed a partiality for a chicken roasted on a spit. You have a spit in your kitchen, he says, and a pair of chickens in your larder."
"How did you contrive to meet him?"
"You're a poor guesser, Jack. He met me. 'That you, Mr. Hart?' he said. 'Mr. Grant's house is the first on the right across the bridge. Tell him'—and the rest of it."
"Have you warned Mrs. Bates?"
"Mrs. Bates being?"
"No, sir. If she's anything like your housemaid, I'm glad I didn't, or I should have been chucked into the road. I had the deuce of a job to reach the lawn. Had I ordered dinner I might now have been in the village lockup."
Grant hurried away, and placated Mrs. Bates after a stormy interlude. Precisely at 7.30 p. m. Minnie came and said that "Mr. Hawkshaw" had arrived.
"Bring him out here," said Grant. "Fetch some sherry and glasses, and give us five minutes' notice before dinner is served."
"Please, sir," tittered Minnie, "the gentleman prefers to stay indoors. He said his complexion won't stand the glare."
"Very well," smiled Grant, rising. "Put the sherry and bitters on the sideboard."
"Say," murmured Hart, "is this chap really a detective?"
"Yes. He stands high at Scotland Yard."
"Never more than five feet four, I'll swear. But I wouldn't have missed this for a pension. I have a revolver in my hip pocket, of course. One would feel lonely without it, even in England. But I hope you can stage a few knives and daggers, and a red light. I can cut masks out of a strip of black velvet. That girl will have a piece stowed away somewhere."
The two entered the dining-room study, where the table was now laid for dinner. Furneaux was seated on the edge of a chair in the darkest corner. His eyes gleamed at them strangely.
"Can you trust Bates?" he said to Grant.
It was a wholly unexpected question, and Grant answered sharply:
"Of course, I can."
"Tell him to make sure that no one trespasses on your lawn between now and ten o'clock. Close that window, draw the blind and curtains, and block that small window, the one through which you saw the ghost."
"Ye gods!" cackled Hart ecstatically.
"Why all these precautions?" demanded Grant, rather amused now.
"I'm supposed to be on the very verge of arresting you, and it would weaken the faith of my allies if I were seen drinking your wines and eating your chicken."
"By the way, how did you know I had chickens in store, and a spit on which to roast them?"
"I looked you over at five-thirty this morning, having traveled from London by the mail train. I must lecture you on your inefficient window-catches, Mr. Grant. Several self-respecting burglars of my acquaintance would give your house the go-by as being too easy. And, one other matter. I suggest that any man who mentions the Steynholme murder again before the coffee arrives shall be fined a sovereign for each offense, such fine, or fines, to form a fund for the relief of his hearers. Cre nom d'un pipe! Three intelligent men can surely discuss more interesting topics while they eat!"
AN INTERRUPTED SYMPOSIUM
"Have a cigarette," said Grant to Furneaux, when the blinds were drawn, a lamp lighted, and the sherry dispensed.
The self-invited guest took one. He sniffed it, broke the paper wrapping, and crumbled some of the tobacco between finger and thumb.
"Ah, those Greeks!" he said sadly. "They simply can't go straight. This brand of Turk used to be made of a tobacco grown on a slope above Salonica. A strip of sun-baked soil built up a reputation which is now being bartered for filthy lucre by the use of Egyptian 'fillings.'"
"You're a connoisseur, Mr. Hawknose—try these," said Hart, proffering a case, from which the detective drew a cigarette, throwing the other one aside.
"Why 'Hawknose'?" he inquired.
"A blend. First syllable of Hawkshaw and second of Furneaux—the latter Anglicized, of course."
"You prefer Furshaw, perhaps?"
"Either effort is feeble for a man who can write about South America, and be lucid. Do you smoke this stuff, may I ask?" While talking, he had smelt and destroyed the second cigarette.
"If it's a fair question, what the devil do you smoke?" cried Hart.
"Nothing. I'm a non-smoker. My profession demands a clear intellect, not a brain atrophied by nicotine."
"Piffle! Carlyle and Bismarck were smokers."
"Who reads Carlyle now-a-days? And what modern German pays heed to Bismarck's dogmas? Look at that pipe of yours. It was once a pure ivory white. Now it is black—soiled by tobacco juice. Your lungs are slowly emulating it, and your wits will cloud in time. Read Tolstoi, Mr. Hart. He will teach you how nicotine deadens the conscience."
"At last I know why I smoke like a Thames tug," laughed Hart, "but I'm blest if I can understand why you make such a study of the vile weed."
"Most criminals are addicted to the habit. I classify them by their brand of tobacco. For instance, a clever forger would never descend to thick twist, while a swell mobsman would turn with horror from a woodbine."
Minnie entered, and nodded, whereupon Grant led the others upstairs to wash. From the bathroom he looked out over a darkening landscape. Doris's dormer window was open. She was leaning on the sill, but he could not tell whether or not her eyes were turned his way. Her attitude was pensive, disconsolate, curiously forlorn for a girl normally high-spirited. He was on the point of signaling to her when he remembered Furneaux's presence. There was something impish, almost diabolically clever, in that little man's characteristics which induced wariness.
The dinner was a marvel, considering the short notice given to the cook. Luckily, Mrs. Bates, a loyal soul, had resolved to tempt her employer's appetite that evening. Village gossip had it that the police were about to arrest him, and she was determined he should enjoy at least one good meal before being haled to prison. Hence, the materials were present. The rest was a matter of quantities, and Sussex seldom stints itself in that respect.
The chatter round the table was light and amusing. The three were well matched conversationally. Furneaux evidently held the opinion once expressed by a notable Walrus—that the time had come
To talk of many things: Of shots—and ships—and sealing-wax— Of cabbages—and kings.
He was in excellent form, and the others played up to him. Hart's slow drawl was ever trenchant and witty, and Grant forgot his woes in congenial company. As for the mercurial detective himself, it might be said of him as of the school-master of Auburn:
And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew, That one small head could carry all he knew.
It was he who dropped them with a bounce from the realm of fancy to the unpleasing region of ugly fact. No sooner had Minnie cleared the table, and brought in the coffee, than he whisked around on Grant as though hitherto he had been only awaiting an opportunity of scarifying him.
"Now," he said, propping an elbow on the table, and supporting his chin on a clenched fist, "the embargo is off the Steynholme affair. You didn't kill Adelaide Melhuish, Mr. Grant. Who did?"
"I wish I could tell you," was the emphatic answer.
"Do you suspect anybody? You needn't fear the libel law in confiding your secret thought to me, and I assume that Mr. Hart is trustworthy—where his friends are concerned?"
"Why that unkind differentiating clause, my pocket Vidocq?" put in Hart.
"Because two Kings and a baker's dozen of Presidents have, at various times, sent most unflattering reports to this country about you."
"I must have annoyed 'em most damnably."
"You had. I congratulate you, but Heaven only knows where I may convoy you some day on an extradition warrant....Proceed, Mr. Grant."
"I assure you, on my honor, that the only reasonable suggestion I can make is that put forward by my gardener to-day," said Grant. "He thinks that the murder must have been committed by a lunatic. I can offer no other hypothesis."
"Your gardener may be right. But what lunatic, barring yourself and the horse-coper, Elkin, is in love with Doris Martin?"
Like Elkin the previous night, Grant struck the table till things rattled.
"Keep her name out of it," he cried fiercely. "You are a man of the world, not a suspicious idiot of the Robinson type. You heard to-day the full and true explanation of her presence here on Monday night. It was a sheer accident. Why harp on Doris Martin rather than any member of the Bates family?"
"Who, may I ask, is Doris Martin?" put in Hart.
"The Steynholme postmaster's daughter," said Furneaux. "A remarkably pretty and intelligent girl. If her father was a peer she would be the belle of a London season. As it is, her good looks seem to have put a maggot in more than one nut in this village."
Hart waved the negro's head in the air.
"The lunatic theory for mine," he declared. "If one woman's lovely face could bring a thousand ships to Ilion, why should not another's drive men to madness in Steynholme?"
"Well phrased, sir," cackled Furneaux delightedly. "I'll wangle that in on a respected colleague of mine, who is a whale at deducing a proposition from given premises, but cannot induce a general fact from particular instances to save his life ... Now, stifle your romantic frenzy, Mr. Grant, and listen to me. If you were minded to instruct me in the art of writing good English, I would sit at your feet an attentive disciple. When I, Furneaux, of the 'Yard,' lay down a first principle in the investigation of crime, I expect deference on your part. I tell you unhesitatingly that if Doris Martin didn't exist, Adelaide Melhuish would be alive now. That, as a thesis, is nearly as certain a thing as that the sun will rise to-morrow. I go farther, and hazard the guess, not the fixed belief, though my guesses are usually borne out by events, that if Doris Martin had not been in this garden at half past ten on Monday night, Adelaide Melhuish would not have been killed some twenty minutes later. It is useless for you to fume and rage in vain effort to disprove either of these presumptive facts. You are simply beating the air. This mystery centers in and around the postmaster's daughter. Come, now, you are a reasonable person. Admit the cold, hard truth, and then give play to your fancy."
"Sir," said Hart, brandishing his pipe again, "I suggest that you and I, here and now, form a mutual admiration society."
"It is a cruel and bitter thing that an innocent girl should be dragged into association with a foul crime," said Grant stubbornly. "I am not disputing the force of your acumen, Mr. Furneaux. My only desire is to shield the good name of a very charming young lady."
"What's done can't be undone," countered the detective, well knowing that Grant confessed himself beaten.
"But what is all the bother about? You heard from Miss Martin's own lips absolutely the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Put her in the witness-box, and what more can she tell you?"
"I am not worrying about her appearance in the witness-box," said Furneaux dryly. "Long before that stage is reached I shall be hunting a star burglar, or, perhaps, looking into the Foreign Office dossier of our worthy friend here, as to-day's papers hint at trouble in Venezuela. No, sir. The county police will get all the credit. P.C. Robinson will be swanking about then, telling the yokels what he did. I, with Olympic nod, say, 'There's your man!' and the handcuffs' brigade do the rest. So far as I can foresee, Miss Martin's name may be spared any undue prominence in this inquiry. I go even farther, and promise that anything I can do in that way shall be done."
"That is very kind and considerate of you," said Grant gratefully.
"Don't halloo till you're out of the wood." said Furneaux, sitting back suddenly and nursing his left knee with clasped hands. "I can't control other people's actions, you know. What I insist on to-night is that you shall envisage this affair in its proper light. We have a long way to travel before counsel rises with his smug 'May it please you, me lud, and gentlemen of the jury.' But, having persuaded you to agree that, willy nilly, Miss Doris is the hub of our little universe for the hour, I now swear you and this fire-eater in as assistants. There must be no more speeches, no punching of heads, very little love-making, and that by order—"
"Has the postmaster's daughter a delectable sister, O Liliputian cop?" demanded Hart.
"No. Two of 'em would have caused a riot long since. Mr. Grant will do all, and more than all, necessary in that direction."
Grant leaned forward. He spoke very earnestly.
"I want you to believe me when I tell you," he said, "that I never gave serious thought to the notion of marrying Miss Martin until such a possibility was suggested last night by that swab, Ingerman."
"Ah, Ingerman! You kept a record of what he said, I gather?"
"Yes, here it is."
Grant rose, and went to a writing-desk with nests of drawers which stood against the wall on the left of the door. He never used it for its primary purpose. When the table was laid for meals, Minnie or her mother had orders to remove all papers and books to the top of the desk. The house contained no other living-room of size. The hall was spacious; a smoking den next the dining-room had degenerated into a receptacle of guns, fishing-rods, golf-clubs, Alpenstocks, skis and other such sporting accessories. The remainder of the ground-floor accommodation was given up to the Bateses.
Unlocking a drawer, Grant produced a notebook, which he handed to Furneaux. The detective laid it on the table. He was sitting with his back to the large window. Hart faced him. Grant's chair was between the two.
"By the way, as you're on your feet, Mr. Grant," said Furneaux, "you might just show me exactly where you were standing when you saw the face at the window."
"For the love of Mike, what's this?" gurgled Hart. "'The face at the window'; 'the postmaster's daughter.' How many more catchy cross-heads will you bring into the story?"
"Poor Adelaide Melhuish undoubtedly came here on Monday night and looked in at me while I was at work," said Grant sadly. "You know the history of my calf love three years ago, Wally."
"Shall I ever forget it? You bored me stiff about it. Then, when the crash came, you walked me off my legs in the Upper Engadine. Ugh! That night on the Forno glacier. It gives me a chill to think of it now. Furneaux, pass the port. Your name is wrongly spelt. It should be fourneau, not Furneaux. A little oven. Hot stuff. Got me?"
"My dear Hart, you flatter me," retorted the detective instantly.
"How long am I to pose here?" snapped Grant.
"Sorry," said Furneaux. "These interruptions are banal. Is that where you were?"
"Yes. I had my hand outstretched for a book. It's dark in this corner. When I want to find a book I light a candle, which is always placed on the ledge of the window for the purpose. The blind was not drawn that night. It seldom is. I had the book in my hand, and had found the required passage when I chanced to look at the window and saw her face."
"Do you mind reconstructing the scene. This lamp was on the table, I suppose?"
"Well, pull up the blind, light your candle, and find the book. Act the whole incident, in fact."
Grant obeyed. He held the candlestick until he had picked out the particular volume; then he placed it in the recess of the window, and searched through the pages of the book.
Furneaux bent forward so as to watch the rehearsal and catch the effect of the light externally. The hour was not so late as when Adelaide Melhuish, or her ghost, gazed in through one of those narrow panes, but the night was dark enough to lend the necessary vraisemblance. Hart, deeply interested, looked on with rapt, eager eyes. For a full minute the tableau remained thus. Then, with a rapidity born of many a close 'scape in wild lands, Hart drew a revolver from a hip pocket, and fired at the window.
He alone was in a position to see through all parts of it. Grant was still thumbing a small brown volume in the manner of one who knew that a certain passage would be found therein but was ignorant of its exact place in the text. Furneaux, intent on his every movement, had only a side-long view of the window, which, it will be remembered, formed a tiny rectangle in a thick wall.
The revolver was a heavy-caliber weapon, and the explosion blew out the lamp. The flame of the candle flickered, owing either to the passage of the bullet or the disturbance of the air. But it burnt steadily again within the fifth part of a second, and they all saw a starred hole in the center pane of glass of the second tier from the bottom.
"What fool's game are you playing?" shrilled Furneaux, nevertheless active as a wildcat in his spring to the French window, there to snatch at the blind and turn the knob which controlled a lever bolt.
"Laying another ghost—one with whiskers," said Hart coolly. "I got him, too, I think."
"You must be mad, mad!" shrieked the detective, tearing open the window, and vanishing.
"For Heaven's sake, Wally, no more shooting!" cried Grant, running after Furneaux.
Minnie and her mother appeared at the dining-room door. Finding the place in semi-obscurity, and reeking with gunpowder, they screamed loudly.
"You Steynholme folk are all on the jump," said Hart. "Cheer up, fair dames! Thunder relieves the atmosphere, you know, and one live cartridge is often more effective than an ocean of talk."
"Bub-bub-but who's shot, sir?" gasped Minnie.
"A ghost, a most scoundrelly apparition, with fearsome eyes, offensive whiskers, and a hat which is a base copy of mine."
"Owd Ben!" sighed Mrs. Bates, collapsing straightway in a faint.
Luckily, Minnie caught her mother and broke her fall, because the housekeeper was large and solid, and might have been seriously injured otherwise. Hart was distressed by this development, but, being eminently a ready person in an emergency, he rose to the occasion by extracting the empty case from the revolver, and holding it to the poor woman's nostrils, while supporting her with an arm and a knee.
"This is far more effective than burnt brown paper, Minnie," he said. "Now, don't get excited, but mix some brandy and water, and we'll have your mother telling us who Owd Ben is, or was, before Hawk-eye comes back to disturb us. Judging by the noises I hear, he's busy outside."
"That's father!" shrieked Minnie hysterically.
"Good Lord! Has your father—"
For an instant, Hart was nearly alarmed, but Grant's voice came authoritatively:
"It's all right, Bates. Let go, I tell you!"
"Phew!" said Hart. "I was on the point of confusing your respected dad with Owd Ben ... That's it, ma! Sniff hard! As a cook you're worth your weight in gold, which is some cook."
Meanwhile, Furneaux, seeing that no dead body was stretched on the strip of grass beneath the window, dashed into the shrubbery to the right, and was clutched in a mighty embrace by an older but much more powerful man in Bates, who had hurried from the front of the house on hearing the pistol-shot. Most fortunately, the gardener, deeming his vigil a needless one, had not armed himself with a stick, or the consequences might have been grave. As it was, no one except Hart had been vouchsafed sight or sound of the latest specter, which, however, had left a very convincing souvenir of its visit in the shape of a soft felt hat with two bullet holes through the crown.
Furneaux, quivering with silent wrath, soon abandoned the search when this piece de conviction was found at the root of the Dorothy Perkins rose-tree. Seeing the lamp relighted, he peremptorily bade Grant and Bates come in with him. He closed the window, adjusted the blind again, and poured generous measures of port wine into two glasses. Handing one to Bates, he took the other himself.
"Friend," he said, "some men have fame thrust upon them, but you have achieved it. To-night you pierced the heel of Achilles. Here's to you!"
"I dunno wot 'ee's saying mister, but 'good health'," said Bates, swigging the wine with gusto.
"Now, for your master's sake, not a word to a soul about this hubbub."
"Right you are, sir! But that there pryin' Robinson wur on t' bridge five minutes since. And, by gum, here he is!"
A determined knock and ring came at the front door. Minnie, helped by Hart, had just escorted Mrs. Bates to the kitchen.
"Let me go!" said Furneaux, darting out into the hall. He opened the door, and thrust his face into the police-constable's, startling the latter considerably. Before Robinson could utter a syllable, the detective hissed a question.
"Did anyone cross the bridge after that shot was fired?"
"Nun—No, sir," stuttered the other.
"You saw no one running along the road?"
"Saw nothing, sir."
"Very well. Glad to find you're on the job. Don't let on you met me here. Good-night!"
Mighty is Scotland Yard with the provincial police. Robinson was back on his self-imposed beat before he well realized that he knew neither why nor by whom nor by what sort of weapon the commotion had been created. But he was quite sure the noise came from the garden front of Mr. Grant's house.
"That little hop-o'-me-thumb thinks he's smart, dam smart," he communed angrily, "but I've taken a line of me own, an' I'll stick to it, though the Yard sends down twenty men!"
He heard footsteps coming down a paved footpath which ran like a white riband through the cobble-beaded width of the high-street, and withdrew swiftly to the shelter of a disused tannery adjoining the village end of the bridge. A cloaked female figure sped past. Though the night was rather dark for June, he had no difficulty in recognizing Doris Martin's graceful movements. No other girl in Steynholme walked like her. She was slim enough to dispense with tight corsets, and tall enough to wear low-heeled shoes, nor did she need to pinch her toes in order to gain the semblance of small feet.
After her went Robinson, keyed to exultation by this outcome of his watchfulness. She was going to The Hollies, of course. The road led to Knoleworth, and no young woman of her age in the village would dream of taking a lonely walk in the country at ten o'clock at night.
For a man of his height and somewhat ponderous build, the policeman followed with real stealth. Thus, when she turned in at the gate, he was there by the time she had reached the front door. He heard her pull the bell. Curiously enough, to his thinking, Furneaux again appeared.
"Is Mr. Grant at home?" he heard Doris say.
"Yes. Will you come in?" replied the detective.
"Is he—is all well here?"
"Quite, I assure you. But do come in. I'll escort you home. I'm going to the inn in five minutes."
Doris, after hesitating a little, entered.
Robinson crept on tiptoe over a stretch of gravel, and took to the shrubbery. It was high time, he thought, that the local constabulary learnt what was going on in that abode of mystery.
HE WHOM THE CAP FITS—
Several minutes had elapsed between the two unexpected visits. During those minutes a somewhat acrimonious discussion broke out in the dining-room. Bates went to reassure his wife, and Hart sauntered back from the kitchen. He was received by Furneaux and Grant more in sorrow than in anger, a pose on their part which he blandly disregarded. He helped himself to the remains of the decanter of port.
"The next point of vital interest in the narrative is to establish, by such evidence as is available, who Owd Ben is, or was," he said. "I presume, since he had attained local celebrity as a ghost, he has passed over, as the spiritists say."
"Sit down!" cried Furneaux savagely.
Hart sat down, and began filling that portentous pipe.
"You fellows merely ran into each other outside, I take it," he said, apparently by way of a chatty remark. "The crack of the pistol-shot and the supposed resurrection of Owd Ben threw Mrs. Bates temporarily off her balance, so I helped in reviving her. Between such a cook and such a ghost, who would hesitate?"
When Furneaux was really irritated, he swore in French.
"Nom d'un bon petit homme gris!" he almost squealed, "why did you whip out that infernal revolver? You spoiled everything, everything! Have you no sense in that picturesque head of yours? Your skull is big enough to hold brains, not soap-bubbles."
"Did your French father marry a Jap?" inquired Hart, with sudden interest.
"And now you're insulting my mother," yelped the detective.
"Not I. You know nothing about the finest race of little women in the world, or you would not even imagine such rubbish."
"But why, why, didn't you tell me that you saw someone outside?"
"You wouldn't have believed me. The goblin was disappearing. I had to shoot quick."
"Why shoot at all?"
"Sir, there are certain manifestations I object to on principle. What self-respecting ghost ever wore whiskers?"
"This was no ghost. You shot the man's hat off."
"Then what the blazes are you growling at? Had I, in blood-curdling whisper, told you that once again there was a face at the window, you would have scoffed at me. The ill-looking scamp caught my eye after his first glance at Grant. He was mizzling when I fired. You would have sat there and argued about hypnosis, with our worthy author's skilled support. And there would have been no hat! I do an admirable bit of trick shooting, yet I am only reviled for my dexterity. Really, Charles Francois!"
"Ah! You remember, at last," and the detective smiled sourly.
"Parfaitement! as they say in Paris, where you and I met once, though 'twas in a crowd. But I didn't steal the blessed pearl. I believe it was that blatant patriot, Domengo Suarez."
"You've got some brains, then. Why not use them? Don't you see what a fix we three would have found ourselves in had you shot the man?"
"But, consider, Carlo mio! A spook with whiskers! What court would find me guilty? Let me produce the authentic record of Owd Ben, and I have no doubt but that the Lord Chief Justice himself would have potted his representative. He'd be bound to confess it."
Furneaux was cooling down.
"You've shaken my confidence," he said. "Unless I have your promise that you will never do such a thing again while in my company, I shall ban you from this inquiry with bell, book, and candle."
"Very well. It's a bargain. Now let us ponder Exhibit A."
He stretched a long arm over the table, and took the hat.
"Put it on!" commanded the detective.
Hart did so, and scowled frightfully. Furneaux bent forward and squinted.
"Notice the line of those bullet-holes," he said to Grant.
"Any man wearing that hat must have had his scalp ploughed up," said Grant instantly.
"Well, we know that nothing of the kind happened. Why?"
"It was perched on top of a wig," drawled Hart.
Furneaux was slightly disappointed—there was no denying it. Being a vain little person, he liked to show off in a minor matter such as this.
"Yes," he admitted, "and what's the corollary?"
"That the wearer is probably a clean-shaven person with thin hair, a daring scoundrel who is well posted in the leading characteristics of Owd Ben. Charles le Petit, time is now ripe for details of that hairy goblin."
"Where did you dig him up from, anyhow?" said the detective testily.
"Mrs. Bates recognized him from my vivid description."
"Her husband can tell us the story," put in Grant. "I'll fetch him."
He had not moved ere the front door bell rang a second time.
"Here is Owd Ben himself, I expect," said Hart.
"If it's that Robinson—" growled Furneaux vexedly, hastening to forestall Minnie.
But it was Doris Martin, and very pretty she looked as she entered the room, her high color being the joint outcome of a rapid walk and a very natural embarrassment at finding the frankly admiring eyes of a stranger fixed on her.
"I don't quite know why I'm here," she said, with a nervous laugh, addressing Grant directly. "You will think I am always gazing in the direction of The Hollies, but my room commands this house so fully that I cannot help seeing or hearing anything unusual. A few minutes ago I heard what I thought was a muffled gunshot. I looked out, and saw your window thrown open, though the light was dim, and only a candle was showing in the smaller window. I was alarmed, so came to inquire what had happened. You'll pardon me, I'm sure."
"Say you don't, Jack, I implore you, and let me apologize for you," pleaded Hart.
"Doris, this is my good friend, Wally Hart," smiled Grant. "Won't you sit down? We have an exciting story for you."
"Father will be horribly anxious if he knows I have gone out."
Nevertheless, there was sufficient spice of Mother Eve in Doris that she should take the proffered chair.
"Sorry to interrupt," broke in Furneaux. "Did you meet P.C. Robinson!"
"You came by way of the bridge?"
"There is no other way, unless one makes a detour by Bush Walk."
The detective whirled round on Grant.
"What room is over this one?"
"She's in the kitchen, with her mother. See that she doesn't come upstairs while I'm absent. You three keep on talking."
"Thanks," said Hart.
Doris, more self-possessed now, read the meaning of the quip promptly.
"Mr. Grant has often spoken of you," she said. "You talk, and we'll listen."
"Not so, divinity," came the retort. "I may be a parrot, but I don't want my neck wrung when you've gone."
"Don't encourage him, Doris," said Grant, "or you'll be here till midnight."
"If that's the best you can do, you had better leave the recital to me," laughed Hart.
Meanwhile, Furneaux had stolen noiselessly to the bedroom overhead. The casement window was open—he had noted that fact while in the garden. He peeped out, and was just in time to see Robinson emulating a Sioux Indian on the war-path. The policeman removed his helmet, and was about to peer cautiously through the small window. The detective's blood ran cold. What if Hart discovered yet another ghost?
"Robinson—go home!" he said, in sepulchral tones.
The constable positively jumped. He gaped on all sides in real terror. He, too, had heard hair-raising tales of Owd Ben.
"Go home!" hissed Furneaux, leaning out.
Then the other looked up.
"Oh, it's you, sir!" he gasped, sighing with relief.
"Man, you've had the closest shave of your life! There's a fellow below there who shoots at sight."
"But I'm on duty, sir."
"You'll be in Kingdom Come if you gaze in at that window. Be off!"
"Robinson, you and I will quarrel if you don't do as I bid you. And that would be a pity, because I want to inform Mr. Fowler that he has a particularly smart man in Steynholme."
"Very well, sir, if you're satisfied, I must be."
And away went the eavesdropper, crushed, still tingling with that fear of the supernatural latent in every heart, but far from convinced.
Furneaux tripped downstairs. The routing of Robinson had put him into a real good humor. He found the three in the dining-room gazing spell-bound at the felt hat.
"Now, young lady, you're coming with me," he said, grinning amiably. "The Sussex constabulary is quelled for the hour."
"But, Mr. Furneaux, I recognize that hat!" said Doris, and it was notable that even Hart remained silent.
The detective looked at her strangely, but put no question.
"I am almost sure it belongs to our local Amateur Dramatic Society," went on the girl. "It was worn by Mr. Elkin last November. He played a burlesque of Svengali. I was Trilby, and caught a horrid cold from walking about without shoes or stockings."
"Don't tell me any more," was Furneaux's surprising comment. "I'll do the rest. But let me remark, Miss Martin, that I experienced great difficulty, not so long ago, in persuading friend Grant that you were the only important witness this case has provided thus far. Playing in a burlesque, were you? We've been similarly engaged to-night. The farce must stop now. It makes way for grim tragedy. Not one word of to-night's events to anyone, please.... Are you ready?"
Doris stood up. Hart thrust the negro's head at the detective.
"Fouche," he said, "do you honestly mean slinging your hook without making any inquiry as to Owd Ben?"
"Oh, the ghost!" said Doris eagerly. "The Bateses would think of him, of course. An old farmer named Ben Robson used to live in this house about the time of Napoleon. He was suspected by the authorities to be an agent of the smugglers, and the story goes that his own daughter quarreled with him and betrayed him. He narrowly escaped hanging, owing to his age, I believe, and was sentenced to a long term of imprisonment. At last he was released, being then a very old man, and he came straight here and strangled his daughter. It is quite a terrible story. He was found dead by her side. Then people remembered that she had spoken of someone scaring her by looking in through that small window some nights previously. Naturally, a ghost was soon manufactured. I really wonder why the man who rebuilt and renamed the place in the middle of last century didn't have the window removed altogether."
"Glad I began the work of demolition tonight," said Hart, and, for once, his tone was serious.
"Why did you never tell me that scrap of history, Doris?" inquired Grant.
"You liked the place so much that father and I agreed not to mar your enthusiasm by recalling an unpleasant legend," she said frankly. "Not that what I've related isn't true. The record appears in a Sussex Miscellany of those years.... Oh, my goodness, can it be eleven o'clock!"
The hall clock had no doubt on the point. Furneaux pocketed the written notes regarding Ingerman, and grabbed the hat off the table. Grant, for some reason, was aware that the detective repressed an obvious reference to the last occasion on which the girl had heard that same clock announce the hour.
Furneaux would allow no other escort. He and Doris made off immediately.
When they were gone, Hart stared fixedly at an empty decanter.
"My dim recollection of your port, Jack, is that it was a wine of many virtues and few vices," he mused aloud.
Grant took the hint, and went to a cellar. Returning, he found his crony poring over the book which, singularly enough, figured prominently on each occasion when the specter-producing window was markedly in evidence. Hart glanced up at his host, and nodded cheerfully at a dust-laden bottle.
"What is there in 'The Talisman' which needed so much research?" he asked.
"Some lines by Sir David Lindsay, quoted by Scott," was the answer.
"Are these they?" And Hart read:
One thing is certain in our Northern land; Allow that birth, or valor, wealth, or wit, Give each precedence to their possessor, Envy, that follows on such eminence, As comes the lyme-hound on the roebuck's trace, Shall pull them down each one.