But his thoughts were far a-field from joyriders, stray cattle, hawkers without licenses, and other similar small fry which come into the constabulary net. It would be a feather in his cap if he could only strike the trail of the veritable Steynholme murderer. The entrancing notion possessed him morning, noon, and night. Mrs. Robinson declared that it even dominated his dreams. Robinson was sharp. He knew quite well that the brains of the London detectives held some elusive quality which he personally lacked. They seemed to peer into the heart of a thing so wisely and thoroughly. He did not share Superintendent Fowler's somewhat derogatory estimate of Furneaux, with whom he was much better acquainted than was his superior officer, while Chief Inspector Winter's repute stood so high that it might not be questioned. Still, to the best of his belief, the case had beaten both these doughty representatives of Scotland Yard; there was yet a chance for the humble police-constable; so Robinson squared his shoulders, seamed his brows, and marched majestically down the Knoleworth road.
He had an eye for The Hollies, of course, though neither he nor anybody else could discern more than the bare edge of the lawn from bridge or road, owing to the dense screen of evergreen trees and shrubs planted by the tenant who remodeled the property.
But the spot where the body of Adelaide Melhuish was drawn ashore was visible, and the sight of it started a dim thesis in the policeman's mind which took definite shape during less than an hour's stroll. Thus, at four o'clock exactly, he was pulling the bell at The Hollies. Almost simultaneously, Mr. Siddle knocked modestly on the private door of the post office, to reach which one had to pass down a narrow yard.
"Mr. Grant at home?" inquired Robinson, when Minnie appeared.
Yes, the master was on the lawn with Mr. Hart. The policeman found the two there, seated in chairs with awnings. They had been discussing, of all things in the world, the futurist craze in painting. Hart held by it, but Grant carried bigger guns in real knowledge of the artist's limitations as well as his privileges.
Hart was the first to notice the newcomer's presence, and greeted him joyously.
"Come along, Robinson, and manacle this reprobate," he shouted. "He's nothing but a narrow-minded pre-Rafaelite. A period in prison will dust the cobwebs out of his attic."
"Hello, Robinson!" said, Grant. "Anything stirring?"
"Not much, sir. I just popped in to ask if you remembered exactly how the body was roped?"
"Indeed, I do not. Some incidents of that horrible half hour have gone into a sad jumble. I recollect you calling attention to the matter, but what your point was I really cannot say now. Perhaps it may come back if you explain."
"Well, we don't seem to be making a great deal of progress, sir, and I was wondering whether you two gentlemen might help. I don't want it mentioned. I'm taking a line of me own."
Grant repressed a smile. He recalled well enough the first "line" the policeman took, and the mischief it had caused. Being an even-minded person, however, he admitted that his own behavior had not been above suspicion on the day the crime was discovered. In allotting blame, as between Robinson and himself, the proportion was six of one and half a dozen of the other.
"Propound, justiciary," said Hart. "You've started well, anyhow. The connection between a line and a rope should be obvious even to a judge.... As a pipe-opener, have a drink!"
Robinson had removed his helmet, and was flourishing a red handkerchief, not without cause, the day being really very hot.
"Not for a few minutes, thank you, sir," said the policeman. "May I ask Bates for a sack and a cord?"
He went to the kitchen. Hart was "tickled to death," he vowed.
"We are about to witness the reconstruction of the crime, a procedure which the French delight in, and the intellect of France is a hundred years ahead of our effete civilization," he chortled.
Grant was not so pleased. The memory of a distressing vision was beginning to blur, and this ponderous policeman must come and revive it. Yet, even he grew interested when Robinson illustrated a nebulous idea by knotting a clothesline around a sack stuffed with straw, having brought Bates to bear him out in the matter of accuracy.
"There you are, gentlemen!" he said, puffing after the slight exertion. "That's the way of it. How does it strike you?"
"It's what a sailor calls two half hitches," commented Hart instantly. "A very serviceable knot, which will resist to the full strength of the rope."
"We have no sailors in Steynholme, sir," said the policeman.
"Oh, it's used regularly by tradesmen," put in Grant. "A draper, or grocer—any man accustomed to tying parcels securely, in fact—will fashion that knot nine times out of ten."
"How about a—a farmer, sir?" That was as near as Robinson dared to go to "horse-dealer."
"I think a farmer would be more likely to adopt a timber hitch, which is made in several ways. Here are samples." And Grant busied himself with rope and sack.
Robinson watched closely.
"Yes," he nodded. "I've seen those knots in a farmyard.... Well, it's something—not much—but a trifle better than nothing.... All right, Bates. You can take 'em away."
"Have you shown that knot to Mr. Furneaux?" inquired Grant.
"No, sir. I've kept that up me sleeve, as the sayin' is."
Robinson shuffled uneasily on his feet.
"These Scotland Yard men will hardly listen to a uniformed constable, sir," he said. "I'll tell 'em all about it at the inquest on Wednesday."
"In effect, John P. Robinson he sez they didn't know everythin' down in Judee," quoted Hart.
"You've got my name pat," grinned the policeman, whose Christian names were "John Price."
"My name is Walter, not Patrick," retorted Hart. Robinson continued to smile, though he failed to grasp the joke until late that evening.
"Did you make up that verse straight off, sir," he asked.
"No. It's a borrowed plume, plucked from an American quill pen."
Hart gave "plume" a French sound, and Robinson was puzzled to know why Grant bade his friend stop profaning a peaceful Sunday afternoon.
"You'll have a glass of beer now?" went on the host.
"I don't mind if I do, sir, though it's tea-time, and I make it a rule on Sundays to have tea with the missis. A policeman's hours are broken up, and his wife hardly ever knows when to have a meal ready."
Minnie was summoned. It took her a couple of minutes to draw the beer from a cool cellar. So it chanced that when Doris led Mr. Siddle to the edge of the cliff about twenty-five minutes past four, the first thing they saw was the local police-constable on the lawn of The Hollies putting down a gill of "best Sussex" at a draught.
"Well!" cried the chemist icily, "I wonder what Superintendent Fowler would say to that if he knew it?"
"What is there particularly wrong about Robinson drinking a glass of beer?" demanded Doris, more alive to the insinuation in Siddle's words than was quite permissible under the role imposed on her by Winter.
She waved her hand to the party on the lawn. Grant, whose eyes ever roved in that direction, had seen her white muslin dress the moment she appeared.
"Who the deuce is that with Miss Martin?" he said, returning her signal.
"Siddle, the chemist," announced Robinson, not too well pleased himself at being "spotted" so openly. "Well, gentlemen, I'll be off," and he vanished by the side path through the laurels.
"Siddle!" repeated Grant vexedly. "So it is. And she dislikes the man, for some reason."
"Let's go and rescue the fair maid," prompted Hart.
"No, no. If Doris wanted me she would let me know."
"How? At the top of her voice?"
"You're far too curious, Wally."
"Semaphore, of course," drawled Hart. "When are you going to marry the girl, Jack!"
"As soon as this infernal business has blown over."
"You haven't asked her, I gather?"
"Tell me when you do, and I'll hie me to London town, though in torrid June. You're unbearable in love."
"The lash of your wit cuts deeply sometimes," said Grant quietly.
"Dash it all, old chap, I was talking at random. Very well. I'll do penance in sackcloth and ashes by remaining here, and applauding your poetic efforts. I'll even help. I'm a dab at sonnets."
Meanwhile, Mr. Siddle had regained his poise.
"I meant nothing offensive to the donor of the beer," he said, tuning his voice to an apologetic note. "But I take it Robinson is conducting certain inquiries, and I imagine that his superiors demand a degree of circumspection in such conditions. That is all."
"Surely you do not rank with the stupid crowd in its suspicions of Mr. Grant?" said the girl.
"I'm pleased to think you refuse to class me with the gossip-mongers of Steynholme, Doris," was the guarded answer.
There had been no reference to the murder during tea, which was served as soon as the chemist came in. The visitor had tabled a copy of a current medical journal containing an article on the therapeutic qualities of honey, so the talk was lifted at once into an atmosphere far removed from crime. Doris was grateful for his tact. When her father went to the office she brought Mr. Siddle into the garden solely in pursuance of her promise to the detective, though convinced that there would be no outcome save a few labored compliments to herself. And now, by accident, as it were, the death of Adelaide Melhuish thrust itself into their conversation. Perhaps it was her fault.
"No," she said candidly. "No one who has known you for seven years, Mr. Siddle, could possibly accuse you of spreading scandal."
"Seven years! Is it so long since I came to Steynholme? Sometimes, it appears an age, but more often I fancy the calendar must be in error. Why, it seems only the other day that I saw you in a short frock, bowling a hoop."
"A tom-boy occupation," laughed Doris. "But dad encouraged that and skipping, as the best possible means of exercise."
"He was right. Look how straight and svelte you are! Few, if any, among our community can have watched your progress to womanhood as closely as I. You see, living opposite, as I do, I kept track of you more intimately than your other neighbors."
Siddle was trimming his sails cleverly. The concluding sentence robbed his earlier comments of their sentimental import.
"If we live long enough we may even see each other in the sere and yellow leaf," said Doris flippantly.
"I would ask no greater happiness," came the quiet reply, and Doris could have bitten her tongue for according him that unguarded opening. Suddenly availing herself of the advice which the detective, like Hamlet, had given to the players, she gazed musingly at the fair panorama of The Hollies and its gardens, with the two young men seated on the lawn. By this time Minnie was staging tea, and the picture looked idyllic enough. Doris saw, out of the tail of her eye, that her companion was watching her furtively, though apparently absorbed in the scene. He moistened his thin lips with his tongue.
"As a study in contrasts, that would be hard to beat," he said, after a long pause.
"Contrasts!" she echoed.
"Well, yes. Even an uncontentious man like myself can hardly fail to compare Sunday afternoon with Tuesday morning."
"Why not Monday night?" she flashed.
"Monday night, in part, remains a mystery yet to be unveiled. I blot Monday night from my mind. I have no alternative, being on the jury which has to arrive at a just verdict. Now, if Fred Elkin were here, he would foam at the mouth."
"Happily, Fred Elkin is not here."
"Ah, I am glad, glad, to hear you say that. You don't like him?"
"I detest him."
"He makes out, to put it mildly, that you are great friends."
"You will oblige me by contradicting the statement. Or—no. One treats that sort of man with contempt."
"I agree with you most heartily. I'm sorry I ever mentioned him."
Yet Doris was well aware that the chemist had dragged in Elkin by the scruff of the neck, probably for the sake of getting him disposed of thoroughly and for all time. Rather on the tiptoe of expectation, she awaited the next move. It was slow in coming, so again she looked wistfully at the distant tea-drinkers. She found slight difficulty in carrying out this portion of the stage directions. Truth to tell, she would gleefully have gone and joined them.
Siddle was not altogether at ease. The conversation was too spasmodic to suit his purpose. Though slow of speech he was nimble of brain, and, knowing Doris so well, he had anticipated a livelier duel of wits. In all likelihood, he cursed the tea-party on the lawn. He had not foreseen this drawback. But, being a masterful man, he tackled the situation boldly.
"I seized the opportunity of a friendly chat with you to-day, Doris," he went on, leaning over the fence to inhale the scent of a briar rose. "The story runs through the village that you and your father dined at The Hollies on Friday evening. Is that true?"
Now, Doris had it on reliable authority that Siddle himself had been the runner who spread that story, and the knowledge steeled her heart against him.
"Yes," she said composedly.
"It was kind and neighborly of you to accept the invitation, but a mistake."
She turned and faced him. His expression was baffling. She thought she saw in his sallow, clean-cut features the shadow of a confident smile.
"You mean that this horrid murder should make some difference in the friendship between ourselves and Mr. Grant?" she cried.
"Yes. To you, though to no one else would I speak so plainly, I have no hesitation in saying that Mr. Grant is far, very far, from being clear of responsibility in that matter. Three days from now you will understand what I mean. Evidence will be forthcoming which will put him in a most unenviable light. I am not alleging, or even hinting, that he may be deemed guilty of actual crime. That is for the law to determine. But I do tell you emphatically that his present heedless attitude will give place to anxiety and dejection. It cannot be otherwise. A somewhat sordid history will be revealed, and his pretense that relations between him and the dead woman ceased three years ago will vanish into thin air. Believe me, Doris, I am actuated by no motive in this matter other than a desire to further your welfare. I cannot bear even to think of your name being associated, in ever so small degree, with that of a man who must be hounded out of his own social circle, if no worse fate is in store for him."
"Good gracious!" cried Doris, genuinely amazed. "How do you come to know all this?"
"I listen to the words of those qualified to speak with knowledge and authority. I have mixed in varied company this past week, wholly on your account. Don't be led away by the mere formalities of the opening day of the inquest. The coroner deliberately shut off all real evidence except as to the cause of death. On Wednesday the situation will change, and you cannot fail to be shocked by what you hear, because you will be there."
"I am given to understand that, even if I am called, my testimony will be of no importance."
"Such may be the police view. Mr. Ingerman will press for a very different estimate."
"Has he told you that?"
"So, although foreman of the jury, you have not declined to hobnob with a man who is avowedly Mr. Grant's enemy?"
"I would hobnob with worse people if, by so doing, I might serve you."
Grant, "fed up," as he put it to Hart, with watching the tete a tete between Doris and the chemist, sprang to his feet and went through a pantomime easy enough to follow save for one or two signs. Doris held both hands aloft. Well knowing that anything in the nature of a pre-arranged code would be gall and wormwood to Siddle, she explained laughingly:
"Mr. Grant signals that he and Mr. Hart are going for a walk; he wants me to accompany them. But I can't, unfortunately. I promised dad to help with the accounts."
"If you really mean what you say, my warning would seem to have fallen on deaf ears."
Siddle's voice was well under control, but his eyes glinted dangerously. His state was that of a man torn by passion who nevertheless felt that any display of the rage possessing him would be fatal to his cause.
But, rather unexpectedly, Doris took fire. Siddle's innuendoes and protestations were sufficiently hard to bear without the added knowledge that a ridiculous convention denied her the companionship of a man whom she loved, and who, she was beginning to believe, loved her. She swept round on Siddle like a wrathful goddess.
"I have borne with you patiently because of the acquaintance of years, but I shall be glad if this tittle-tattle of malice and ignorance now ceases," she said proudly. "Mr. Grant is my friend, and my father's friend. In the first horror of the crime which has besmirched our dear little village, we both treated Mr. Grant rather badly. We know better to-day. Your Ingermans and your Elkins, and the rest of the busybodies gathered at the inn, may defame him as they choose, or as they dare. As for me, I am his loyal comrade, and shall remain so after next Wednesday, or a score of Wednesdays. I am going in now, Mr. Siddle, and shall be engaged during the remainder of the evening. Your shop opens at six, and I am sure you will find some more profitable means of spending the time than in telling me things I would rather not hear."
Siddle caught her arm.
"Doris," he said fiercely, "you must not leave me without, at least, learning my true motive. I—"
The girl wrested herself free from his grip. She realized what was coming, and forestalled it.
"I care nothing for your motive," she cried. "You forget yourself! Please go!"
She literally ran into the house. The chemist, unless he elected to behave like a love-sick fool, had no option but to follow, and make his way to the street by the side door.
The only other happening of significance that Sunday was an unheralded visit by Winter to the policeman's residence.
He popped in after dusk, opening the door without knocking.
"You in, Robinson?" he inquired.
"Yes, sir. Will you—"
"Shan't detain you more than a minute. At the inquest you said that you personally untied the rope which bound Miss Melhuish's body. Here are a piece of string and a newspaper. Would you mind showing me what sort of knot was used?"
Robinson was nearly struck dumb, and his fingers fumbled badly, but he managed to exhibit two hitches.
"Ah, thanks," said Winter, and was off in a jiffy.
From the window of a darkened room Robinson watched the erect, burly figure of the detective until it was merged in the mists of night.
"Well, I'm—," he exclaimed bitterly.
"John, what are you swearing about?" demanded his wife from the kitchen.
"Something I heard to-day," answered her husband. "There was a chap of my name, John P. Robinson, an' he said that down in Judee they didn't know everything. And, by gum, he was right. They knew mighty little about London 'tecs, I'm thinking. But, hold on. Surely—"
He bustled into his coat, and hastened to The Hollies. No, neither Mr. Grant nor Mr. Hart had spoken to a soul about the knot. Nor had Bates. Of course, Robinson did not venture to describe Winter. Finally, he put the incident aside as a clear case of thought-reading.
A MATTER OF HEREDITY
Shortly before noon on Monday occurred two events destined to assume a paramount importance in the affair which was wringing the withers of Steynholme. As in the histories of both men and nations, these first steps in great developments began quietly enough. For one thing, Furneaux returned to the village. For another, the London telegraphist, who expected the day to prove practically a blank, was reading a newspaper when the telegraph instrument clicked the local call.
Doris was checking and distributing the stock of stamps which had arrived that morning; her father was counting mail-bags in a small annex to the main room, the Knoleworth office having acquired a habit of making up shortages by docking the country branches. No member of the public happened to be present. The girl could have heard what the Morse code was tapping forth had she chosen, but she had trained herself to disregard the telegraph when occupied on other work.
Suddenly, however, the telegraphist's pencil paused.
"Hello!" he said. "Theodore Siddle! That's the chemist opposite, isn't it!"
"Yes," said Doris, suspending her calculations at mention of the name.
"Well, his mother's dead."
"Dead?" she echoed vacantly. Somehow, it had never hitherto dawned on her that the chemist might possess relatives in some part of the country.
"That's what it says," went on the other. "'Regret inform you your mother died this morning. Superintendent, Horton Asylum.'"
"In an asylum, too," said the girl, speaking at random.
"Yes. Horton is the place for epileptic lunatics, near Epsom, you know."
"I didn't know. Does it mean that—that she was an epileptic lunatic?"
"So I should imagine, from the wording. If a nurse, or a matron, they'd surely describe her as such."
"I suppose we ought not to discuss Mr. Siddle's telegram," said Doris, after a pause.
"Well, no. But where's the harm? I wouldn't have yelled out the news if we three weren't alone. Where's that boy?"
"Gone to his dinner. Father will take it. By the way, say nothing to him as to the contents. Would you mind calling him?"
Doris hurried swiftly to the sitting-room, and thence upstairs. The telegraphist explained the absence of a messenger, so Mr. Martin delivered the telegram in person.
Crossing the street, he detected a dead bee. He picked it up, horrified at the thought that the Isle of Wight disease might have reached Sussex. So it was an absent-minded postmaster who handed the telegram over Siddle's counter, inquiring laconically:
"Is there any answer?"
Siddle opened the buff envelope, and read. He glanced sharply at Martin.
"No," he said. "What's wrong with that bee?"
"I don't know. I have my doubts. When I have a moment to spare I'll put it under the microscope."
Siddle examined the telegram again. The handwriting was that beloved of Civil Service Commissioners. Unquestionably, it was not Doris's. No sooner had his friend gone off, still intent on the dead insect, than Siddle followed. He knew that the bee would undergo scientific scrutiny at once, so gave Martin just enough time to dive into the sitting-room before entering the post office.
"Did you receive this telegram a few minutes ago!" he inquired.
The young man became severely official.
"Which telegram?" he said stiffly.
"This one," and Siddle gave him the written message.
"Yes," was the answer.
"Excuse me, but—er—are its contents known to you only?"
"What do you mean, sir? It would cost me my berth if I divulged a word of it to anyone."
"I'm sorry. Pray don't take offense. I—I'm anxious that my friends, Mr. and Miss Martin, should not hear of it. That is what I really have in mind."
The telegraphist cooled down.
"You may be quite sure that neither they nor any other person in Steynholme will ever see the duplicate," he said confidentially. "I make up a package containing duplicates each evening, and it is sent to headquarters. If it will please you, I'll lock the copy now in my desk."
"That is exceedingly good of you," said Siddle gratefully. "You, as a Londoner, will understand that such a telegram from—er—Horton is not the sort of thing one would like to become known even in the most limited circle."
"You can depend on me, sir."
Siddle hastened back to his shop. The telegraphist looked after him.
"Queer!" he mused. "Miss Doris guessed him at once. Phi-ew, I must be careful! This village contains surprises."
Doris, watching from an upper room, saw the visitor, and timed him. She imagined he had dispatched an answer. Being a woman, she sought enlightenment a few minutes later.
"Mr. Siddle came in," she said tentatively.
"Yes," said the specialist, smiling. "And I agree with you, Miss Martin. We mustn't talk about telegrams, even among ourselves, unless it is necessary departmentally."
Doris was silenced, but she read the riddle correctly. The chemist was particularly anxious that no Steynholme resident should be made aware of his mother's death. She wondered why.
She was enlightened when Furneaux paid a call about tea-time. She took him into the garden. The lawn at The Hollies was empty.
"Well, you entertained an acquaintance yesterday?" he began.
"Yes. Am I to tell you what happened?"
"Not a great deal, I imagine," he said, with a puzzling laugh.
"No, but I annoyed him, as Mr.——"
"No names!" broke in the detective hastily. "Names, especially modern ones, destroy romance. Even the Georgian method of using initials, or leaving out vowels, lend an air of intrigue to the veriest balderdash."
"But no one can overhear us," was the somewhat surprised comment.
"How true!" said Furneaux. "Pardon me, Miss Martin. Tell the story in your own way."
Doris had a good memory. She was invariably letter-perfect in a play after a couple of rehearsals, and could prompt others if they faltered. The detective listened in silence while she repeated the conversation between Siddle and herself. He took no notes. In fact, he hardly ever did make any record in a case unless it was essential to prove the exact words of a suspected person.
"Good!" he said, when she had finished. "That sounds like the complete text."
"I don't think I have left out anything of importance—that is, if a single word of it is important."
"Oh, heaps," he assured her. "It's even better than I dared hope. Can you tell me if Siddle's mother is dead yet?"
The question found Doris so thoroughly unprepared that she blurted out:
"Have you had a telegram, too, then?"
"No. But Siddle has had one, eh? Don't be vexed. I'm not tricking you into revealing post office secrets. I knew she was dying, and, when I saw your father take a message to the chemist's shop I simply made an accurate guess.... Now, I'm going to scare you, purposely and of malice aforethought, because I want you to be a good little girl, and obey orders. Mrs. Siddle, senior, now happily deceased, was an epileptic lunatic of a peculiarly dangerous type. She suffered from what is classed by the doctors as furor epilepticus, a form of spasmodic insanity not inconsistent with a high degree of bodily vigor and long periods of apparently complete mental saneness. Now, if I were not speaking to one who has shared her father's studies in bee-life, I would not introduce the subject of heredity. But you know, Miss Martin, that such racial characteristics are transmitted, or transmissible, I should say, by sex opposites. Thus, an epileptic mother is more likely to give her taint to a son than to a daughter.... Yes, I mean all that, and more," he went on, seeing the look of horror, not unmixed with fear, in Doris's eyes. "There must be no more irritating of Siddle, or playing on his feelings—by you, at any rate. Treat him gently. If he insists on making love to you, be as firm as you like in a non-committal way. I mean, by that, an entire absence on your part of any suggestion that you are repulsing him because of a real or supposed preference for any other man."
"Do you want me to believe that he is liable to attack me?" demanded the girl, her naturally courageous spirit coming to her aid.
"I do," said Furneaux, speaking with marked earnestness.
"Yet you ask me to endure his company if he chooses to force himself on me?"
"For a few days."
"But it may be a few years?"
"No. That is not to be thought of. Leave it to me to devise a way. Besides, you need not allow him so many opportunities that the strain would become unbearable. You are busy, owing to the certain increase of work brought about by this murder. Your time will be greatly occupied. But, don't render him morbidly suspicious. For instance, no more dinners at The Hollies. No more gadding about by night, if you hear weird noises on the other side of the river. And you must absolutely deny yourself the pleasurable excitement of Mr. Grant's company."
"You are carrying a warning to its extreme limit."
"And am I to keep this knowledge to myself?"
"In whom would you confide?"
"My father, of course."
"I know you better," and the detective's voice took on a profoundly serious note. "Your father would never admit that what he knows to be true of bees is equally true of humanity. You can trust the police to keep a pretty sharp eye on Siddle, of course, but the present is a strenuous period, both for us and for people with maniacal tendencies, so accidents may happen."
"You have distressed me immeasurably," said the girl, striving to pierce the mask of that inscrutable face.
"I meant to," answered Furneaux quietly. "No half measures for me. I've looked up the asylum record of Mrs. Siddle, senior, and it's not nice reading."
"There was a Mrs. Siddle, junior, then?"
"A Mrs. Theodore Siddle, if one adopts the conventional usage. Yes. She died last month."
"Last month!" gasped Doris, feeling vaguely that she was moving in a maze of deceit and subterfuge.
"On May 25th, to be precise. She lived apart from her husband. I have reason to believe she feared him."
She hesitated, hardly able to put her jumbled thoughts into words.
"Yes. That's so," said the detective instantly. "Never mind. It's a fairly decent world, taken en bloc. I ought to speak with authority. I see enough of the seamy side of it, goodness knows. Now, forewarned is forearmed. Don't be nervous. Don't take risks. Everything will come right in time. Remember, I'm not far away in an emergency. Should I chance to be absent if you need advice, send for Mr. Franklin. You can easily devise some official excuse, a mislaid letter, or an error in a telegram."
"I think I shall feel confident if both of you are near," and the ghost of a smile lit Doris's wan features.
"We're a marvelous combination," grinned Furneaux, reverting at once to his normal impishness. "I am all brain; he is all muscle. Such an alliance prevails against the ungodly."
"Is Mr. Grant in any danger?" inquired Doris suddenly.
The two looked into each other's eyes. Doris was eager to ask a question, which Furneaux dared her to put. The detective won. She sighed.
"Very well," she said. "I'm to behave. Am I to regard myself as a decoy duck?"
"A duck, anyhow."
She laughed lightly. Furneaux would vouchsafe no further information, it would appear. For a girl of nineteen, Doris was uncommonly gifted with clear, analytical reasoning powers.
The detective returned to the Hare and Hounds, and went upstairs. He met Peters on the landing.
"The devil!" he cried.
"My dear pal!" retorted the journalist.
"Are you living here?"
"Why not, indeed? Where the eagles are there is the carcase."
"Your misquotation is offensive."
"It was so intended."
"Come and have a drink."
"I say 'yes.' You'll thank me on your bended knees afterwards. The South American gent is having the time of his life. I've just been to my room for Whitaker's Almanack, wherewith a certain Don Walter Hart purposes flooring him."
Wally Hart had, indeed, succeeded in running to earth the Argentine magnate, and was giving Winter a most uncomfortable quarter of an hour.
"Ha!" shouted Hart, when Furneaux came in with Peters. "Here's the pocket marvel who'll answer any question straight off. What is the staple export of the Argentine!"
"How often have you been there?" demanded the detective dryly.
"And you've lived there?" This to Winter.
"Yes," glowered the big man, fearing the worst.
"Then the answer is 'fools,'" cackled Furneaux.
Wally laughed. He had remembered, just in time, that he had no right to claim acquaintance with the representative of Scotland Yard, and there were some farmers present, each of whom had a "likely animal" to offer the buyer of blood stock.
"Gad, I think you're right," he said.
"You wanted me to say 'sheep,' I suppose?"
"Got it, at once."
"As though one valuable horse wasn't worth a thousand sheep."
"Just what my friend, Don Manoel Alcorta, of Los Andes ranch, Catamarca, always held," put in Winter, drawing the bow at a venture.
Hart cocked an eye at him.
"Sir," he said, "I would take off my hat, if I wore one in Steynholme, to any man who claims the friendship of Don Manoel Alcorta, a sincere patriot. I suggest that we crack a bottle to his immortal memory."
"My doctor forbids me to touch wine," said Winter mournfully.
"But these bucolic breeders of browns and bays employ wiser medicos, I'll go bail. Landlord, a quart of the best, and six out, as they say in London."
Six glasses were duly filled with champagne. When it was consumed, Hart buttonholed Peters.
"A word with you, scribe," he said. "Good-day, gentlemen. I leave you to your nags. Treat Mr. Franklin fairly. The friend of Don Manoel Alcorta must be a true man."
Winter heaved a sigh of relief when the professional revolutionist had vanished.
"He's a funny 'un," commented one of the farmers.
"A bit touched, I reckon," said another. "Wot's 'e doin' now to the other one?"
They looked through the window. The two were standing in the middle of the road, and Wally was shaking Peters violently. The argument was not so fierce as it appeared to be. Peters had been commanded to bring both detectives to dinner that evening; when he demurred, trying to hedge on the question of Winter's identity, Hart grabbed him by the shoulder.
"Do as I tell you," he hissed. "Of course, I know now that the big fellow is the man Grant heard of a week ago. I was an idiot to take him seriously about the Argentine. Bring the pair of 'em, I tell you. We'll make a night of it."
"I'll try," said Peters faintly, "but if you stir up that wine so vigorously I won't answer for the consequences."
Winter, wishing devoutly that would-be sellers of horseflesh were not so numerous in the district, noted the names and addresses of the local men, and promised to write when he could make an appointment. Then he escaped upstairs, whither Furneaux soon followed. Winter had secured an extra bedroom, overlooking the river, which Tomlin had converted into a sitting-room. Thus, he held a secure observation post both in front and rear of the hotel.
"Well, how did she take it!" inquired the Chief Inspector, when he and his colleague were safe behind a closed door.
"Sensible girl," said Furneaux. "By the way, Siddle's mother is dead. Telegram came this morning. Things should happen now."
"I don't quite see why."
"No. You're still muddled after floundering in the mud of South America. What possessed you to let that cheerful idiot, Wally Hart, put you in the cart?"
"How could I help it? I was extracting some really helpful facts about Siddle and Elkin from Tomlin and the others when a shock-headed whirlwind blew in, and nearly embraced me because I claimed acquaintance with the El Dorado bar in Buenos Ayres. From that instant I was lost. Like St. Augustine on the gridiron, no sooner was I nicely toasted on one side than I was turned on to the other. That grinning penny-a-liner, Peters, too, helped as assistant torturer. Wait till he asks me for a 'pointer' in this or any other case. He sold me a pup to-day, but I'll land him with a full-sized mastiff."
"No, you won't. He's done you a lot of good. You were simply reeking with conceit when I met you this morning. It was 'Siddle this' and 'Siddle that' until you fairly sickened me. One would have thought I hadn't cleared the ground for you, left you with all lines open and yourself unknown to the enemy. Sometimes, you make me tired."
"Sorry, Charles," said Winter patronizingly. "I had a bit of luck on Sunday, I admit. The chance turn taken by the conversation with Doris, with the result that I was able to occupy a strategic position on the cliff, and hear every word Siddle uttered, was really fortunate. But, isn't that just what men mean when they prate of success? Opportunity knocks once at every man's door, says the old saw. The clever man grabs hold instantly. The indolent one, often a mere gabbler, opens his eyes and his mouth weeks afterwards, and cries, 'Dear me! Was that the much-looked-for opportunity?' Of course, Robinson's by-play with the sack and rope was merely thrown in by the prodigal hand of Fate."
"Stop!" yelped Furneaux. "Another platitude, and I'll assault you with the tongs!"
It was the invariable habit of the Big 'Un and Little 'Un to quarrel like cat and dog when the toils were closing in around a suspect. Woe, then, to the malefactor! His was a parlous state.
"Let's cool down, Charles!" said Winter, opening a leather case, and selecting, with great care, one out of half a dozen precisely similar cigars. "We're pretty sure of our man, but we haven't a scrap of evidence against him. How, or where, to begin ringing him in I haven't the faintest notion. If only he'd kill Grant we'd get him at once."
"But he won't. He trusts to Ingerman playing that part of the game. He's as artful as a pet fox. I bought soap, and a pound of sal volatile, but he did up each parcel with sealing-wax."
"Sal volatile!" smiled Winter. "I, too, went in for soap, but my imagination would not soar beyond a packet of cotton-wool. It was the lumpiest thing I could think of."
"And perfectly useless!" sneered Furneaux. "I must say you do fling the taxpayers' money about. Now, my little lot will keep the electric bells in my flat in order for two years."
"You forget that constant association with you demands that I should frequently plug my two ears," retorted Winter.
Furneaux would surely have thrown back the jest had not a knock on the door interrupted him.
"Who's there? I'm busy," cried Winter.
"Me-ow!" whined Peters's voice.
"Oh, it's you, Tom. Come in!"
The journalist crept in on tiptoe.
"Hush! We are not observed," he said. "Wally Hart threatens to choke me if you two don't dine with him and Grant to-night."
There was silence for a little while. The detectives looked at each other.
"At what time?" said Winter, at last.
Peters was astonished, and showed it.
"Why, I assured him it was absolutely imposs.," he cried.
"Well, it isn't. In fact, it suits our plans. I want exercise, and shall walk back from Knoleworth. Furneaux will make his own arrangements. Tell Grant that I shall drop in without knocking."
"And tell him I shall arrive by parachute," added Furneaux.
"In case of accidents, and there is a shoot-up, with myself as the unresisting victim, my front name is James," said Peters.
"The only good point about you," scoffed Winter.
"You're strong on names to-day," tittered the journalist. "Don Manoel Alcorta was a superb effort as an authority on gee-gees. Wally tells me his donship is the recognized expert south of the line on seismic disturbances, and spends his days and nights watching a needle making scratches on a sensitive plate."
"He would be useful here in a day or two," said Winter.
"Ah, thanks! Is that a tip?"
"Not for publication. What you must say is that this affair looks like baffling the shrewdest wits in Scotland Yard."
"My very phrase—my own ewe lamb. Pardon. I shouldn't have alluded to sheep."
"The only known representative of the Yard in Steynholme is Furneaux," smiled the Chief Inspector.
Furneaux was drumming on a window-pane with his finger-tips.
"True," he cackled. "Just to prove it, he now informs you that Siddle, finding trade slow, has called on Mr. John Menzies Grant!"
FURNEAUX MAKES A SUCCESSFUL BID
The lawn front of The Hollies was not visible from the upper story of the Hare and Hounds owing to a clump of pines which had found foothold on the cliff, but, through the gap formed by the end of the post office garden, the entrance to the house from the Knoleworth road was discernible.
Furneaux's dramatic announcement brought the other two to the window. By this time Peters, gifted with a nose for news like a well-trained setter's for partridges, had begun to associate the quiet-mannered, gentle-spoken chemist with the inner circle of the crime, so waited and watched with the detectives for Siddle's reappearance.
At any rate the visitor must have been admitted, because a long quarter of an hour elapsed before he came in sight again. He walked out slowly into the roadway, thrust his hands into his trousers pockets, and glanced to right and left. Then, turning abruptly, he stared at the dwelling he had just quitted. What this slight but peculiar action signified was not hard to guess. Furneaux, indeed, put it into words.
"Having warned Grant off Miss Doris Martin, and been cursed for his pains, the foreman of the jury does not trouble to await further evidence, but arrives at a true and lawful verdict straight off," announced the little man.
"We ought to hear things to-night," said Peters.
"We?" inquired Winter.
"Yes. Didn't I make it clear that I shared in the dinner invitation?"
"No, and I'm—"
"Don't say it!" pleaded the journalist. "If I fell from grace to-day, remember my unswerving loyalty since the hour we met on the platform at Knoleworth! Haven't I kept close as an oyster? And would any consideration on earth move me to publish an accurate and entertaining account of the roasting of Chief Inspector Winter by Wally Hart? Think what I'm sacrificing—a column of the best."
Winter bent a weighing look on the speaker. There was treason in the thought, as King James remarked to the barber who tried to prove his loyalty by pointing out how easily he might cut his majesty's throat any morning. But Peters maintained the expression of a sphinx, and the big man relaxed.
"The conditions are that not a word about this business appears in print, either now or in the future until we have a criminal in the dock," he said.
"Accepted," said Peters.
Furneaux laughed shrilly, even derisively, but him his colleague treated with majestic disdain. Then, the chemist having reentered the village, the group broke up, Peters to search his brains for "copy" which should be readable yet contain no hint of the new trail, Winter to take train to Knoleworth, and Furneaux to tackle Fred Elkin, who, he had ascertained earlier, would drive home from a neighboring hamlet about five o'clock.
Elkin had returned when the detective reached the house, a somewhat pretentious place, half farm, half villa, and altogether horsey. The entrance hall bristled with fox masks and brushes. A useful collection of burnished bits and snaffles hung on a side wall. A couple of stuffed badgers held two wicker stands for sticks and umbrellas, and whips and hunting-crops were ranged on hooks beneath a 12-bore and a rook rifle.
A pert maid-servant took Furneaux's card, blanched when she read it, and forgot to close the door of the dining-room. Hence, the detective heard Elkin's gruff comments:
"What? That chap? Wants to see me? Not more than I want to see him. Show him in."
Furneaux, looking very meek and mild, entered an apartment of the carpet-bag upholstery period. A set of six exceedingly good and rare sporting prints caught his eye.
"Good day," he said, finding Elkin drinking tea, and eating a boiled egg. "You're feeling better, I'm glad to see."
Now, no matter how ungracious a man may be, a courteous solicitude as to his health demands a certain note of civility in return.
"Yes," he said. "Sit down. Will you join me?"
"I'll have a cup of tea, with pleasure," said Furneaux.
"Right-o! Just touch that bell, will you?"
The other obeyed, and took a closer look at one of the prints. Yes, the date was right, 1841, and the stippling admirable.
"Nice lot of pictures, those," he said cheerfully, when the frightened maid, much to her relief, had been told to bring another cup and a fresh supply of toast.
"Are they?" Elkin had taken them and some kitchen furniture for a bad debt.
"Yes. Will you sell them?"
"Well, I haven't thought about it. What'll you give?"
"I can't resist anything in the art line that takes my fancy," he said, after a pause of indecision. "What do you say to ten bob each?"
Elkin valued the lot at that figure, but Furneaux was a fool, and should be treated as such.
"Oh, come now!" he cried roguishly. "They're worth more than that."
Furneaux reflected again.
"Three pounds is a good deal for six prints," he murmured, "but, to get it off my mind, I'll spring to guineas."
"Make it three-ten and they're yours."
"Three guineas is my absolute limit," said Furneaux.
"Done!" cried Elkin. The original debt was under two pounds, so he had cleared more than fifty per cent. on the transaction, and was plus a number of chairs and a table.
Furneaux counted out the money, wrote a receipt on a leaf torn from his pocket-book, and stamped it.
"Sign that," he said, "pocket the cash, send the set to the Hare and Hounds for me in a dog-cart now, and the deal is through."
Leaving the table, he went and lifted down each picture carefully. Somewhat wonderingly, Elkin rang the bell once more, gave the necessary instructions, and the room was cleared of its art. He was quite sure now that Furneaux was, as he put it, "dotty." The latter, however, sat and enjoyed his tea as though well pleased with his bargain.
"And how are things going in the murder at The Hollies?" inquired the horse-dealer, by way of a polite leading up to the visitor's unexplained business.
"Fairly well," said the detective. "My chief difficulty was to convince certain important people that you didn't kill Miss Melhuish. Once I—"
"Me!" roared Elkin, his pale blue eyes assuming a fiery tint. "Me!"
"Once I established that fact," went on the other severely, "a real stumbling-block was removed. You see, Elkin, you have behaved throughout like a perfect fool, and thus lent a sort of credibility to an otherwise absurd notion. Your furious hatred of Mr. Grant, for instance, born of an equally fatuous—or, shall I say? fat-headed—belief that Miss Martin would marry you for the mere asking, led you into deep waters. It was a mistake, too, when you lied to P.C. Robinson as to the time you came home on that Monday night. You told him you walked straight here from the Hare and Hounds at ten o 'clock. You know you didn't—that it was nearer half past eleven when you reached this house. Consider what that discrepancy alone might have meant if Scotland Yard failed to take your measure correctly. Then add the fact that the murderer wore the hat, wig, and whiskers in which you made a guy of yourself while filling the role of Svengali last winter. Now, I ask you, Elkin, where would you have stood with the average British jury when the prosecution established those three things: Motive, your jealousy of Grant; time, your unaccounted-for disappearance during the hour when the crime was committed; and disguise, a clumsy suggestion of Owd Ben's ghost? Really, I have known men brought to the scaffold on circumstantial evidence little stronger than that. Instead of glaring at me like a cornered rat you ought to drop on your knees and thank providence, as manifested through the intelligence of the 'Yard,' that you are not now in a cell at Knoleworth, ruminating on your own stupidity, and in no small jeopardy of your life."
Many emotions chased each other across Fred Elkin's somewhat mean and cruel face while Furneaux rated him in this extraordinary manner. Surprise, wrath, even fear, had their phases. But, dominating all other sensations, was an overpowering indignation at the implied hopelessness of his pursuit of Doris Martin.
He literally howled an oath at his torturer. Furneaux was shocked.
"No, no," he protested in a horrified tone. "Don't swear at your best friend."
"Friend! By—, I'll make you pay for what you've said. There's a law to stop that sort of thing."
"But the law requires witnesses. A slander isn't a slander unless it's uttered to your detriment before a third party. How different would be Mr. Grant's action against you! Your well-wishers simply couldn't muzzle you. Whether before your pot-house cronies or mere strangers, you charged him openly with being a murderer. I'm sorry for you, Elkin, if ever you come before a judge. He'll rattle more than my three guineas out of you. Even now, you don't grasp the extent of your folly. Instead of telling me how you spent that hour and a half on the night of the crime you have the incredible audacity to threaten me, me, the man who has saved you from jail. One more word, you miserable swab, and I'll let Robinson arrest you. You'll be set free, of course, when I stage the actual villain, but a few remands of a week each in custody will thin your hot blood. You were with Peggy Smith after leaving the Hare and Hounds, making a fool of an honest girl who thinks you mean to wed her. Yet you blather about being 'practically engaged' to Doris Martin, a girl who wouldn't let you tie her shoe-lace. You're an impudent pup, Fred, and you know it. But you stock decent tea, so I'll take another cup. If you're wise, you'll take a second one yourself. It's better for you than whiskey."
Elkin, despite all his faults, was endowed with the shrewdness inseparable from his business, because no man devoid of brains ever yet throve as a horse-dealer. He smothered his rage, thinking he might learn more from this strange-mannered detective by seeming complaisance.
"You're a bit rough on a fellow," he growled sulkily, pouring out the tea.
"For your good, my boy, solely for your good. Now, own up about Peggy."
"Yes. That's right. She'd prove an alibi, so your torn-fool case breaks down when the flag falls."
"Does it? A girl may say anything to save her supposed lover. How will the twelve good men and true view Doris Martin's evidence on Wednesday? What did you mean, for instance, by your question to the coroner at the first hearing?"
"I thought Grant was guilty, and I think so still," came the savage retort.
"A nice juryman you are, I must say! May I trouble you to pass the sugar?"
"Look here! What are you gettin' at? Damme if I can see through your game. What is it?"
"I didn't want to worry poor Peggy. And her father might set about you if he knew the facts, so I'm probably saving you a hiding as well as a period in jail. The only reliable witness we had as to events in Tomlin's place was a commercial traveler, and he is positive that the house closed at ten o'clock. However, that's all right. How do you account for the marvelous improvement in your health? Dr. Foxton cannot understand your illness. He says you are wiry, and have a strong constitution."
"Dr. Foxton jolly near knocked me up," said Elkin. "I took his medicine till I was sick as a cat."
"But you took spirits, too."
"That's nothing fresh. Anyhow, I've dropped both, and am picking up every hour."
"Since yesterday morning, if you want to know."
"I do. I'm most interested. Dr. Foxton doesn't compound his own prescriptions, does he?"
"No. I get 'em made up at Siddle's."
"Ah. These country chemists often keep drugs in stock till they deteriorate, or even set up chemical changes. Have you the bottles?"
"Yes. But what the—"
"Anything left in them?"
"The last two are half full. Still—"
"What a cross-grained chap you are? I buy your pictures, drink your tea, rescue you from a positively dangerous position, warn you against carrying any farther a most serious libel, yet you won't let me help you in a matter affecting your health!"
"Help me? How?"
"Even you, I suppose, realize that Scotland Yard employs skilled analysts. Give me your bottles, in strict confidence, of course, and I'll tell you what they really contain. Then you can compare the analyses with the doctor's prescriptions. The knowledge should be useful, to say the least. Siddle's reputation needn't suffer, but, unless I am greatly mistaken, you will have the whip hand of him in future."
The prospect was alluring. Elkin would enjoy showing up the chemist, who had treated him rather as a precocious infant of late.
"By jing!" he cried, "I'm on that. Bet you a quid—But, no. You'd hardly lay against your own opinion. Just wait a tick. I'll bring 'em."
Furneaux stared fixedly at the table while his host was absent. His conscience was not pricking him with regard to an unmerited slur on the country chemists of Great Britain. All is fair in love and the detection of crime, and he simply had to get hold of those bottles by some daring yet plausible ruse.
"Now—I wonder!" he muttered, as Elkin's step sounded on the stairs.
"There you are!" grinned the horse-dealer. "Take a dose of the last one. It'll stir your liver to some tune."
Furneaux drew the corks out of both bottles, and sniffed the contents. Then he tasted, with much tongue-smacking.
"Um!" he said. "Stale laudanum, for a start. I expected as much. Bought by the gallon and sold by the drop. Is that the dogcart with my pictures?"
"Hail your man. He can give me a lift."
"But there's lots of things I want to ask you—"
"Probably. I'm here to put questions, not to give information. I've gone a long way beyond the official tether already. If you've a grain of sense, and I think you're not altogether lacking in that respect, you'll keep a close tongue, and act on the tips thrown out. You'll find pearls of price among the rubbish-heap of my remarks generally. Good-by. See you on Wednesday."
And Furneaux climbed into the cart, holding the pictures so that they would not rattle, and perhaps loosen the old gilded frames.
"Drive me to the chemist's" he said to the groom; within five minutes, he was explaining his purchase to Siddle, and requesting, as a favor, that the latter should wrap the set of prints in brown paper, making two parcels, and tying each securely, so that they might be dispatched by train.
Siddle examined one, the first of the series, which depicted the Aylesbury Steeplechase.
"Rather good," he said. "Where did you pick them up?"
"Indeed. What an unexpected place!"
"That's the only way a poor man can get hold of a decent thing nowadays. The dealers grab everything, and sell them as collections."
"Art is not in my line, though anyone can see that these are excellent."
"Yes. But you're looking at 'The Start.' Have a peep at this one, 'The Finish.' The artist would have his joke. You see that the dark horse wins."
"How did you persuade Elkin to part with them?"
"By paying him a tempting price, of course. I'm a weak-minded ass in such matters."
The chemist busied himself to oblige the detective, wrapping and tying the packages neatly. Furneaux insisted on paying sixpence for the paper, string, and labor. There was quite a friendly argument, but he carried his point.
The dog-cart then brought him to the station, where he tipped and dismissed the man; a little later, he caught a London-bound train.
At half past seven precisely, Winter turned in through the Knoleworth-side gate of The Hollies (there were two, the approach to the house being semi-circular) and pushed the door open, as it was standing ajar.
Grant was waiting in the hall, and greeted him pleasantly.
"Here's a telegram which is meant for you, I fancy," he said.
"Sorry to spoil your party. Compelled to travel to London. Returning early to-morrow. F."
"That's pretty Fanny's way," smiled the Chief Inspector. "But there's something in the wind, or he would never have hurried off in this fashion. He tells me that the only pleasant evening he spent in Steynholme was under your roof, Mr. Grant."
"Come along in, Don Jaime!" drawled Hart's voice from the "den," which had been cleared of its litter, the lawn being deemed somewhat unsuitable for the purposes of a drawing-room on that occasion. It was overlooked from too many quarters.
"Ah, we meet now under less uneven conditions, Mr. Hart," said Winter. "Do you know that Enrico Suarez is in London?"
Hart, startled for once in his life, gazed at the detective fixedly.
"Since when?" he cried.
"He crossed from Lisbon last week."
Hart took a revolver from his hip pocket, and opened it, apparently making sure that it was properly loaded.
"What's the law in England?" he inquired. "Can I shoot first, or must I wait till the other fellow has had a pop?"
"It's all right," he said. "Suarez is in Holloway, awaiting extradition. But I owed you one for the rise you took out of me to-day."
A bell sounded, and Peters came in. He glanced around.
"Where's Furneaux?" he demanded.
"Gone to London. Why this keen interest?" said Winter.
"There's something up. Elkin dropped in at the Hare and Hounds. He was simply bursting with curiosity, and had to talk to somebody. So he chose me."
"He would," was the dry comment.
"Fact, 'pon me honor. I didn't lead him on an inch. It seems that Furneaux bought some prints which caught his eye in Elkin's house, and Tomlin says that that hexplains hit."
"Furneaux's visit to Siddle, and certain bulky parcels brought in and brought out again."
"Queer little duck, Furneaux," said Hart. "Now that my mind is at ease about the immediate future of the biggest rascal in Venezuela I can take an active part in Steynholme affairs once more. When it's all through I'll make a novel of it, dashed if I don't, with the postmaster's daughter in the three-color process as a frontispiece."
"But who will be the villain?" said Peters.
Hart waved the negro-head pipe at the other three.
"Draw lots. I am indifferent," he said.
AN OFFICIAL HOUSEBREAKER
No word bearing on the main topic in these men's minds was said during dinner. Grant was attentive to his guests, but markedly silent, almost distrait. Two such talkers as Hart and Peters, however, covered any gaps in this respect. Cigars and pipes were in evidence, and, horrible though it may sound in the ears of a gourmet, the port was circulating, when Winter turned and gazed at the small window.
"Is that where the ghost appears!" he inquired.
"Yes," said Grant. "You know the whole story, of course?"
"Furneaux misses nothing, I assure you."
"He missed a daylight apparition this afternoon, at any rate. I have no secrets from my friends, so I may as well tell you—"
"That Siddle called, and implored you to consider Doris Martin's future by avoiding her at present," put in the Chief Inspector.
Such shocks were losing some of their effect, on the principle that a man hears the burst of the thousandth high-explosive shell with a good deal less trepidation than attended the efforts of the first dozen. Still, Grant gazed at the speaker in profound astonishment.
"You Scotland Yard men seem to know everything," he said.
"A mere pretense. Try him on sheep-raising in the Argentine, Jack," murmured Hart.
"Wally, this business is developing a very serious side," protested Grant. Hart stretched a long arm for the port decanter.
"Come, friend!" he addressed it gravely. "Let us commune! You and I together shall mingle joyous memories of
"A draught of the Warm South, The true, the blushful Hippocrene."
"We read Siddle's visit aright, it would appear," said Winter quietly.
"Yes. That was his mission, put in a nutshell."
"And what did you say?"
"I told him that, after Wednesday, I would ask Doris Martin to marry me, which is the best answer I can give him and all the world."
"Why 'after Wednesday'?"
"Because I shall know then the full extent of the annoyance which Ingerman can inflict."
"Did you give Siddle that reason?"
"You literary gentlemen are all alike," he said vexedly. "You become such adepts in analyzing human duplicity in your books that you never dream of trying to be wise as a serpent in your own affairs. The author who will split legal hairs by way of brightening his work will sign a contract with a publisher that draws tears from his lawyer when a dispute arises. Why be so candid with a rank outsider, like Siddle?"
"I distrust the man. Doris distrusts him, too."
"So you take him into your confidence."
"No. I merely give him chapter and verse to prove that his interference is useless."
"Have you engaged a lawyer for Wednesday"
"No. Why should I? My hands are clean."
"But your clothes may suffer if enough mud is slung at you. Wire to this man in the morning, and mention my name—Winter, of course, not Franklin."
"Codlin's your friend, not Short," said Hart. "Sorry. It's a time-worn jape, but it fitted in admirably."
The detective scribbled a name and address on a card.
"I don't think you need worry about Ingerman," he went on, "though it's well to be prepared. A smart solicitor can stop irrelevant statements, especially if ready for them. But there must be no more of this heart-opening to all and sundry, Mr. Grant. Siddle is your rival. He, too, wants to marry Miss Martin, and regards you now as the only stumbling-block."
"Siddle! That stick!" gasped Grant.
"Ridiculous, indeed monstrous," agreed Winter, rather heatedly, "but nevertheless a candidate for the lady's hand."
Then he laughed. Peters's keen eyes were watching him, and Wally Hart was giving more heed to the conversation than was revealed by a fixed stare at the negro's head in meerschaum.
"You've bothered me," he went on. "I thought you had more sense. Don't you understand that all these bits of gossip reach Ingerman through the filter of the snug at the Hare and Hounds?"
"The man's visit was unexpected, and his mission even more so. I just blurted out the facts."
"Well, you've rendered the services of a solicitor absolutely indispensable now."
Grant, by no means so clear-headed these days as was his wont, followed the scent of Winter's red herring like the youngest hound in a pack; but Wally Hart and Peters, lookers-on in this chase, harked back to the right line.
"May I—" they both broke in simultaneously.
"Place to the fourth estate," bowed Hart solemnly.
"Thanks," said the journalist. "May I put a question, Winter?"
"A score, if you like."
"Totting up the average of the murder cases in which Furneaux and you have been engaged, in how many days do you count on spotting your man?"
"Sometimes we never get him."
"Oh, come a bit closer than that."
"Generally, given a clear run, with an established motive, we know who he is within eight days."
"Wednesday, in effect?"
"Can't say, this time?"
"Suppose, as a hypothesis, you are convinced of a man's guilt, but can obtain little or no evidence?"
"He goes through life a free and independent citizen of this or any other country. Arrests on suspicion are not my long suit."
"How does one get evidence?" purred Hart. "It isn't scattered broadcast by a clever criminal. And you fellows seem to object to my method, which has been the only effectual one so far in this affair."
"If you had shot that specter the other night there would have been the deuce to pay."
"But you would now be sure of the murderer?"
"Why do you assume that?"
"Like Eugene Aram, he can't keep away from the scene of his crime."
Winter felt he was skating on thin ice, so hastened to escape.
"Detective work is nearly all guessing," he said sententiously, "yet one must beware of what I may term obvious guessing. If cause and effect were so closely allied in certain classes of crime my department would cease to exist, and the protection of life and property might be left safely to the ordinary police. By the way, P. C. Robinson has been rather inactive during two whole days. That makes me suspicious. What's he up to? Can you throw a light on him, Peters?"
The journalist knew that he was being told peremptorily to cease prying. He kicked Hart under the table.
"Hi!" yelled Wally. "What's the matter? Strike your matches on your own shin, not mine."
"Peters is announcing that the discussion is now closed," said Winter firmly.
"Very well. He needn't emphasize the warning by a hob-nailed boot. When my injured feelings have recovered I'll discourse to you of strange folk and stranger doings on the banks of the Rio de la Plata, and your stock as an Argentine plutocrat will rise one hundred per cent, next time you're badgered by a man who knows the country."
"Meanwhile, Robinson is hot-foot on the Elkin trail," laughed Peters. "His face was a study to-day when the groom supplied details of the picture-buying."
"Furneaux wanted that transaction to be widely known," said Winter. "He gave every publicity to it."
"Did he secure a bargain, I wonder?" said Grant.
"Oh, I expect so. He doesn't waste his hard-earned money, even for official purposes."
But Winter was well aware of, and kept to himself one phase of the art deal, at any rate. Furneaux had persuaded Siddle to fasten two bulky packages with string!
He was shaving next morning when his colleague entered, spruce as ever in attire, but looking rather weary. The little man flung himself at full length on Winter's bed.
"Been up all night," he explained. "Chemical analysis is fascinating but slow work—like watching a moth evolve from a grub. Had a fearful job, too, to get an analyst to chuck a theater and attend to business. The blighter talked of office hours. Cre nom! Ten till four, and an hour and a half for lunch! Why can't we run our show on those lines, James!"
Winter finished carefully the left side of his broad expanse of face.
"You came down by the mail, I suppose?" he said casually.
"What a genius you are!" sighed Furneaux. "If I were trembling with expectation I could no more put a banal question like that than swallow the razor after I was done with it. You might at least have the common decency to thank me for leaving you to gorge on rare meats and vintage wines while I dallied with the deadly railway sandwich."
Winter scraped the other cheek, his chin, and upper lip.
"Shall I go to the bathroom first, or listen?" he inquired.
"Ah, well, I'm tired, and hiking these frail bones to bed till twelve, so I'll give you a condensed version," snapped Furneaux. "Elkin 's illness, begun by whiskey and over-excitement, developed into steady poisoning by Siddle. The chemist used a rare agent, too—pure nicotine—easy, in a sense, to detect, but capable of a dozen reasonable explanations when revealed by the post-mortem. But Elkin wasn't to be killed outright, I gather. The idea was to upset stomach and brain till he was half crazy. As you can read print when it's before your eyes, I needn't go into the matter of motive; Elkin's behavior supplies all details."
"How about the knots? Hurry! I hate the feeling of soap drying on my skin."
"One running noose and twice two half hitches on each package."
"Good! Charles, we're going to pull off a real twister."
"We! Well, that tikes it, as the girl said when her hat blew off with the fluffy transformation pinned to it."
Winter rushed to the bathroom, and Furneaux crept languidly to bed.
Before going to Knoleworth, Mr. Franklin consulted with Tomlin as to a suitable dinner, to which the other guests staying in the inn, namely, Mr. Peters and the Scotland Yard gentleman—the little man with the French name—might be invited. This important point settled, Mr. Franklin caught an early train, and was absent all day, being, in fact, closeted with Superintendent Fowler and a Treasury solicitor.
Furneaux was sound asleep long after twelve o'clock, and swore at Tomlin in French when the landlord ventured to arouse him. Tomlin went downstairs scratching his head.
"Least said soonest mended," he communed, "but we may all be murdered in our beds if them's the sort of 'tecs we 'ave to look arter us."
However, he cheered up towards night. Ingerman, a lawyer, and some pressmen, arriving for the inquest, filled every available room, and the kitchen was redolent of good fare. All parties gathered in the dining-room, of course, and Ingerman had an eye for Mr. Franklin's party. The scraps of talk he overheard were nothing more exciting than the prospects of a certain horse for the Stewards' Cup. Peters had the tip straight from the stables. A racing certainty, with a stone in hand.
After dinner the financier was surprised when Furneaux approached, and tapped him professionally on the shoulder.
"A word with you outside," he said.
Ingerman was irritated—perhaps slightly alarmed.
"Can't we talk here?" he said, in that singularly melodious voice of his.
"Better not, but I shan't detain you more than five minutes."
"Anything my legal adviser might wish to hear?"
"Not from me. Tell him yourself afterwards, if you like."
In the quiet street the detective suddenly linked arms with his companion. Probably he smiled sardonically when he felt a telltale quiver run through Ingerman's lanky frame.
"You've brought down Norris, I see?" he began.
"Meaning to make things hot for Grant tomorrow?"
"Meaning to give justice the materials—"
"Cut the cackle, Isidor. I know you, and it's high time you knew me. Grant has retained Belcher. Ah! that gets you, does it? You haven't forgotten Belcher. Now, be reasonable! Or, rather, don't run your head into a noose. Grant had no more to do with the murder of your wife than you had. Call off Norris, and Grant withdraws Belcher. Twig? It's dead easy, because the Treasury solicitor will simply ask for another week's adjournment, as the police are not ready to go on. In the meantime, you pay off Norris, and save your face. Is it a deal?"
"Am I to understand—"
"Don't wriggle! The key of the situation is held by Belcher. Name of a pipe! What prompting does Belcher need from me or anybody else after the Bokfontein Lands case?"
"Isidor, this is the last word. I was at the funeral on Saturday, and met your wife's mother and sister. They do love you, don't they?"
Ingerman died game.
"If I have your assurance that Mr. Grant is really innocent of Adelaide's death, that is sufficient," he said slowly.
"Well, if it pleases you to put it that way, I'm agreeable. Which is your road? Back to the hotel? I'm for a short stroll. Mind you, no wobbling! Go straight, and I'll attend to Belcher. But, good Lord! How his eyes will sparkle when they light on you to-morrow!"
Neither the redoubtable Belcher, nor the Bokfontein Lands, nor poor Adelaide Melhuish's mother and sister may figure further in this chronicle. The inquest opened at the appointed hour next day, and was closed down again for a week with a celerity that was most disappointing both to the jury and the general public. Of three legal luminaries present only one, the Treasury man, uttered a few bald words. Belcher and Norris did not even announce the names of their clients. Norris noticed that Belcher surveyed Ingerman with a grim smile, but thought nothing of it until he received a check later in the week. Then he made some inquiries, and smiled himself.
The foreman of the jury looked a trifle pinched, though his cheeks bore two spots of hectic color. Mr. Franklin, drawn to the court by curiosity, happened to glance at him once, and found him gazing at Furneaux in a peculiarly thoughtful manner.
Elkin, thriving on a diet of tea and eggs, was also interested in the representative of Scotland Yard. He seemed to ignore Grant entirely. Doris Martin was not in court. Superintendent Fowler had called about half, past nine to tell her she would not be asked to attend that day.
Near Mr. Franklin sat a few village notabilities, who, since they had not the remotest connection with anyone concerned in the tragedy, have been left hitherto in their Olympian solitude. He listened to their comments.
"As usual, the police are utterly at sea," said one.
"Yes, 'following up important clews,' the newspapers say," scoffed another.
"It's a disgraceful thing if a crime like this goes undetected and unpunished."
"Which is the Scotland Yard man!"
"The small chap, in the blue suit."
"What? That little rat!"
"Oh, he's sharp. I met a man in the train and he told me—"
Mr. Franklin grinned amiably; Hobbs, the butcher, intercepting his eye, grinned back. It is not difficult to imagine what portion of the foregoing small talk reached Furneaux subsequently.
Oddly enough, both detectives had missed a brief but illuminating incident which took place in the Hare and Hounds the previous night, while Winter was finishing a cigar with Peters, and Furneaux was bludgeoning Ingerinan into compliance with his wishes.
Elkin's remarkable improvement in health was commented on by Hobbs, and Siddle took the credit.
"That last mixture has proved beneficial, then?" he said, eying the horse-dealer closely.
"Top-hole," smirked Elkin. "But it's only fair to say that I've chucked whiskey, too."
"Did you finish the bottle?"
"Mine, of course."
"Don't take any more. It was decidedly strong. I'll send a boy early to-morrow morning with a first-rate tonic, and you might give him any old medicine bottles you possess. I'm running short."
Elkin hesitated a second or two.
"I'll tell my housekeeper to look 'em up," he said. After the inquest he communicated this episode to Furneaux as a great joke.
"Queer, isn't it?" he guffawed. "A couple of dozen bottles went back, as I'm always getting stuff for the gees, but those two weren't among 'em. You took care of that, eh? When will you have the analysis?"
"It'll be fully a week yet," said the detective. "Government offices are not run like express trains, and this is a free job, you know. But, be advised by me. Stick to plain food, and throw physic to the dogs."
Another singular fact, unobserved by the public at large, was that a policeman, either Robinson or a stranger, patrolled the high-street all day and all night, while no one outside official circles was aware that other members of the force watched The Hollies, or were secreted among the trees on the cliffside, from dusk to dawn.
Next morning, however, there was real cause for talk. Siddle's shop was closed. Over the letter-box, neatly printed, was gummed a notice:
"Called away on business. Will open for one hour after arrival of 7 p. m. train. T. S."
Everyone who passed stopped to read. Even Mr. Franklin joined Furneaux and Peters in a stroll across the road to have a look.
"I want you a minute," said the big man suddenly to Furneaux. There was that in his tone which forbade questioning, so Peters sheered off, well content with the share permitted him in the inquiry thus far.
"That fellow, Hart, is no fool," went on Winter rapidly. "He said last night 'How does one get evidence?' It was not easy to answer. Siddle has gone to his mother's funeral. What do you think!"
"You'd turn me into a housebreaker, would you?" whined Furneaux bitterly. "I must do the job, of course, just because I'm a little one. Well, well! After a long and honorable career I have to become a sneak thief. It may cost me my pension."
"There's no real difficulty. An orchard—"
"Bet you a new hat I went over the ground before you did."
"Get over it quickly now, and get something out of it, and I'll give you a new hat. Got any tools?"
"I fetched 'em from town Tuesday morning," chortled Furneaux. "So now who's the brainy one?"
He skipped into the hotel, while Winter went to the station to make sure of Siddle's departure and destination. Yes, the chemist had taken a return ticket to Epsom, where a strip of dank meadow-land on the road to Esher marks the last resting-place of many of London's epileptics. On returning to the high-street, Winter lighted a cigar, a somewhat common occurrence in his everyday life, where-upon Furneaux walked swiftly up the hill. A farmer, living near the center of the village, owned a rather showy cob. Winter found the man, and persuaded him to trot the animal to and fro in front of the hotel. There was a good deal of noise and hoof-clattering, and people came to their doors to see what was going on. Obviously, if they were watching the antics of a skittish two-year-old in the high-street, their eyes were blind to proceedings in the back premises. Even the postmaster and his daughter were interested onlookers, and a policeman, who might have put a summary end to the display, vanished as though by magic.
Luckily, Winter was a good judge of a horse. When the cob was stabled, and the farmer came to the inn to have a drink, he was forced to admit a tendency to cow hocks, which, it would seem, is held a fatal blemish in the Argentine.
Meanwhile, Furneaux had dodged into a lane and thence to a bridle-path which emerged near Bob Smith's forge. When he had traversed, roughly speaking, one-half of a rectangle in which the Hare and Hounds occupied the center of one of the longer sides, he climbed a gate and followed a hedge. Though not losing a second, he took every precaution to remain unseen, and, to the best of his belief, gained an inclosed yard at the back of Siddle's premises without having attracted attention. He slipped the catch of a kitchen window only to discover that the sash was fastened by screws also. The lock of the kitchen door yielded to persuasion, but there were bolts above and below. A wire screen in a larder window was impregnable. Short of cutting out a pane of glass, he could not effect an entry on the ground floor.
Nimble as a squirrel, and risking everything, he climbed to the roof of an outhouse, and tried a bedroom window. Here he succeeded. When the catch was forced, there were no further obstacles. In he went, pausing only to look around and see if any curious or alarmed eye was watching him. He wondered why every back yard on that side of the high-street was empty, not even a maid-servant or woman washing clothes being in sight, but understood and grinned when the commotion Winter was creating came in view from a front room.
Then he undertook a methodical search, working with a rapid yet painstaking thoroughness which missed nothing. From a wardrobe he selected an overcoat and pair of trousers which reeked with turpentine. They were old and soiled garments, very different from the well-cut black coat and waistcoat, with striped cloth trousers, worn daily by the chemist. He drew a blank in the remainder of the upstairs rooms, which included a sitting-room, though he devoted fully quarter of an hour to reading the titles of Siddle's books.
A safe in the little dispensing closet at the back of the shop promised sheer defiance until Furneaux saw a bunch of keys resting beside a methylated spirit lamp.
"'Twas ever thus!" he cackled, lighting the lamp. "Heaven help us poor detectives if it wasn't!"
In a word, since murder will out, Siddle had forgotten his keys! Probably, he had gone to the safe for money, and, while writing the notice as to his absence, had laid down the keys and omitted to pick them up again.
Furneaux disregarded ledgers and account books. He examined a bank pass-book and a check-book. In a drawer which contained these and a quantity of gold he found a small, leather-bound book with a lock, which no key on the bunch was tiny enough to fit. A bit of twisted wire soon overcame this difficulty, and Furneaux began to read.
There were quaint diagrams, and surveyor's sketches, both in plan and section, with curious notes, and occasional records of what appeared to be passages from letters or conversations. The detective read, and read, referring back and forth, absorbed in his task, no doubt, but evidently puzzled.
At last, he stuffed the book into a pocket, completed his scrutiny of the safe, examined the bottles on the shelf labeled "poisons," and took a sample of the colorless contents of one bottle marked "C10H14N2."
Then he went to the kitchen, replaced all catches and the lock of the door, and let himself out by the way he had come.
Winter saw him from afar, and hastened upstairs to the private sitting-room. Furneaux appeared there soon.
"Well?" said the Chief Inspector eagerly.
"Got him, I think," said Furneaux.
Not much might be gathered from that monosyllabic question and its answer, but its significance in Siddle's ears, could he have heard, would have been that of the passing bell tolling for the dead.
THE TRUTH AT LAST
Not often did Furneaux qualify an opinion by that dubious phrase, "I think," which, in its colloquial sense, implies that the thought contains a reservation as to possible error.
Winter looked anxious. Both he and his colleague knew well when to drop the good-natured banter they delighted in. They were face to face now with issues of life and death, dark and sinister conditions which had already destroyed one life, threatened another, and might envisage further horrors. Small wonder, then, if the Chief Inspector's usually cheerful face was clouded, or that his hopes should be somewhat dashed when Furneaux seemed to lack the abounding confidence which was his most marked characteristic.
"You've got something, I see," he said, trying to speak encouragingly, and glancing at the bundle of clothing which Furneaux had wrapped in a newspaper before dropping from the bedroom window of Siddle's house.
"Yes, a lot. What to make of it is the puzzle. We either go ahead on the flimsiest of evidence or I carry out another housebreaking job this afternoon and restore things in status quo. First, the bundle—an old covert-coating overcoat and a pair of frayed trousers which probably draped Owd Ben's ghost. They've been soaked in turpentine, which, chemist or no chemist, is still the best agent for removing stains. We'll put 'em under the glass after we've examined the book. Siddle keeps a sort of diary, a series of jumbled memoranda. If we can extract nutriment out of that we may have something tangible to go upon. Let's begin at the end."
Opening the leather-bound note-book, Furneaux stood with his back to the window. Winter, owing to his superior height, could look over the lesser man's shoulder. Many an occult document affecting the famous crimes and social or dynastic intrigues of the previous decade had these two examined in that way, the main advantage of scrutiny in common being that they could compare readings or suggested readings without loss of time, and with the original manuscript before both pairs of eyes.
In the first instance, there were no dates—only scraps of sentences, or comments. The concluding entry in the book was:
"A tactical error? Perhaps. Immovable."
Then, taking the order backward:
"Scout the very notion of such an infamy. You and every scandal-monger in S. may do your worst."
"Free to confess that events have opened my eyes to the truth, so, not for the first time, out of evil comes good."
"Visit for such a purpose a piece of unheard-of impudence."
These were all on one page.
"Quite clearly a precis of Grant's remarks when Siddle called on Monday," said Winter.
At any other time, Furneaux would have waxed sarcastic. Now he merely nodded.
"Stops in a queer way," he muttered. "Not a word about the inquest or the missing bottles."
The preceding page held even more disjointed entries, which, nevertheless, provided a fair synopsis of Doris's spirited words on the Sunday afternoon.
"Malice and ignorance."
"Patient because of years."
"Loyal comrade. Shall remain."
"No difference in friendship."
"E. hopeless. Contempt."
On the next page:
"Isidor G. Ingerman. Useful. Inquire."
"E.'s boasts? Nonsensical, surely!"