by Louis Tracy, 1915
THE OUTCOME OF ARTISTIC CURIOSITY
"Taxi, sir? Yes, sir. No. 4 will be yours."
A red-faced, loud-breathing commissionaire, engaged in the lucrative task of pocketing sixpences as quickly as he could summon cabs, vanished in a swirl of macintoshes and umbrellas.
People who had arrived at the theater in fine weather were emerging into a drizzle of rain. "All London," as the phrase goes, was flocking to see the latest musical comedy at Daly's, but all London, regarded thus collectively, is far from owning motor cars, or even affording taxicabs, so the majority of the play-goers were hurrying on foot towards tube railways and omnibus routes.
Still, a popular light opera could hardly fail to draw many patrons from the upper ranks of society, and, in the crush at the main exit, Francis Berrold Theydon, hesitating whether to walk or wait the hazard of a cab, deemed himself fortunate when a panting commissionaire promised to secure a taxi "in half a minute."
Automobiles of every known variety were snorting up to the curb and bustling off again as promptly as their users could enter and bestow themselves in dim interiors. Being a considerate person— wishful also to light a cigarette— Theydon moved out of the way. In so doing, he was cannoned against by an impetuous footman, whose cry, "Your car, sir," led him to follow the man's alert eyes.
He saw a tall, elderly gentleman, with clean-shaven, shrewd, and highly intelligent features, of the type which finance, or the law, or a combination of both, seems to evolve only in big cities, escorting a young lady from the vestibule. Then Theydon remembered that he had noticed this self-same girl's remarkable beauty as she was silhouetted in white against the dark background of a first-tier box. He had even speculated idly as to her identity, and had come to the conclusion, on catching her face in profile, that she must be the daughter of the man seated by her side but half-hidden behind a heavy curtain.
The likeness was momentarily lost now while the two neared him, yet discovered anew when they halted for a second at his elbow. Oddly enough, the man was carrying an umbrella, which he proceeded to open, and his daughter's astonished question put their relationship beyond doubt.
"Dad," she said, with a charming smile in which there was just a hint of a pout, "aren't you coming home with me?"
"No. I must look in at the Constitutional Club. It's only a step. I'll take no harm. This sleet looks worse than it is when every drop shines in the glare of so many lamps. Now, in with you, Evelyn! Tell Downs to come back, and don't forget which club. Anyhow, I'll tell him myself."
"Shall I wait up for you?"
"Well— er— I shan't be late. I'll be free by the time Downs returns."
"No. 4 taxi!" came a voice, and Theydon saw his commissionaire perched on the step of a cab swinging in deftly behind the waiting car. The girl, gazing at her father, happened to look for an instant at Theydon, who, fearful lest his candidly admiring glance might have been a trifle too sustained, pretended a hurried interest in an unlighted cigarette. That was all. The three crossed the pavement almost simultaneously.
The next moment the unknown goddess was gone, though Theydon snatched a final glimpse of her, faintly visible, yet no less radiantly lovely, as she leaned forward from the depths of the limousine, and waved a white-gloved hand to her father through a window jeweled with raindrops.
There was nothing in the incident to provoke a second thought. Assuredly, Frank Theydon— as his friends called him— was not the only man in the vestibule of Daly's Theater who had found the girl well worth looking at, and it was the mere accident of propinquity which enabled him to overhear the quite commonplace remarks of father and daughter.
A score of similar occurrences had probably taken place in the like circumstances that night in London, and the maddest dreamer of fantastic dreams would not have heard the fluttering wings of the spirit of romance in connection with any one of them. It was by no means marvelous, therefore, but rather in obedience to the accepted law of things as they are when contrasted with things as they might be, if Theydon both failed to attach any importance to that chance meeting and proceeded forthwith to think of something else.
He did not forget it, of course. His artist's eyes had been far too interested in a certain rare quality of delicate femininity in the girl's face and figure, and his ear too quick to appreciate the music of her cultured voice, that he should not be able to recall such pleasant memories later. Indeed, during those fleeting moments on the threshold of the theater, he had garnered quite a number of minor impressions, not only of the girl, but of her father.
In some respects they were singularly alike. Thus, each had the same proud, self-reliant carriage, the same large, brilliant eyes, serene brow and firm mouth, the same repose of manner, the same clear, incisive enunciation. Neither could move in any company, however eclectic, without evoking comment.
They held in common that air of refinement and good breeding which is, or should be, the best-marked attribute of an aristocracy. It was impossible to imagine either in rags, but, given such a transformation, each would be notable because of the amazing difference that would exist between garb and mien.
It must not be imagined that Theydon indulged in this close analysis of the physical characteristics of two complete strangers while his cab was wheeling into the scurry of traffic in Cranbourn Street. Rather did he essay a third time to light the cigarette which he still held between his lips. And yet a third time was his intent balked.
A policeman stopped the east-bound stream of vehicles somewhat suddenly at the corner of Charing Cross road; owing to the mud, the taxi skidded a few feet beyond the line; a lamp was torn off by a heavy wagon coming south; and a fierce argument between taxi driver and policeman resulted in "numbers" being demanded for future vengeance. Then Theydon took a hand in the dispute, poured oil on the troubled waters by tipping the policeman half a crown and the driver half a sovereign— these sums being his private estimate of damages to dignity and lamp— and the journey was resumed, with a net loss, to the person who had absolutely nothing to do with the affair, of twelve and sixpence in money and nearly ten minutes in time.
Theydon was not rich, as shall be seen in due course, but he was generous and impulsive. He hated the notion of any one suffering for having done him a service, and the taxi man might reasonably be deemed a real benefactor on that sloppy night.
So far as he was concerned, the delay of ten minutes was of no consequence. It only meant a slightly deferred snuggling down into an easy chair in his flat with a book and a pipe. That is how be would have expressed himself if questioned on the point. In reality it influenced and controlled his future in the most vital way, because, once the cab had crossed Oxford Street and turned into the quiet thoroughfare on which the first block of Innesmore Mansions abutted, he passed into a new phase of existence.
The cigarette, lighted at last after the altercation, had filled the cab with smoke to such an extent that Theydon lowered a window. At that moment the driver was slowing down to take the corner of the even more secluded road which contained Innesmore Mansions and the gardens appertaining thereto, and nothing else. Necessarily, Theydon was looking out, and he was very greatly surprised at seeing the unknown gentleman of the theater walking rapidly round the same corner.
He could not be mistaken. The stranger tilted back his umbrella and raised his eyes to ascertain the name of the street, as though he was not quite sure of his whereabouts, and the glare of a lamp fell directly on his clean-cut, almost classical face.
Being thus occupied, he did not glance at the passing cab, or recognition might possibly have been mutual— possibly, though not probably, because, during that brief pause on the steps of the theater, he stood beside Theydon; hence, he was half-turned toward his daughter while they were discussing the night's immediate program.
In itself the fact that he had gone in the direction of Innesmore Mansions rather than toward the Constitutional Club was in nowise remarkable. Nevertheless, he had deceived his daughter— deceived her intentionally, and the knowledge came as a shock to his unsuspected critic in Theydon.
He did not look the sort of man who would stoop to petty evasion of the truth. It was as though a statue of Praxiteles, miraculously gifted with life, should express its emotions, not in Attic Greek, but in the up-to-date slang of the Strand.
"Well, I'm dashed!" said Theydon, or words to that effect, and his cab sped on to the third doorway. Innesmore Mansions arranged its roomy flats in blocks of six, and he occupied No. 18.
He held a florin in readiness; the rain, now falling heavily, did not encourage any loitering on the pavement. For all that, he saw out of the tail of his eye that the other man was approaching, though he had paused to examine the numbers blazoned on a lamp over the first doorway.
"Good night, sir, and thank you!" said the taxi driver.
The cab made off as Theydon ran up a short flight of steps. Innesmore Mansions did not boast elevators. The flats were comfortable, but not absurdly expensive, and their inmates climbed stairs cheerfully; at most, they had only to mount to a second storey. Each block owned a uniformed porter, who, on a night like this, even in May, needed rousing from his lair by a bell if in demand.
Theydon took the stairs two at a stride, opened the door of No. 18, which, with No. 17, occupied the top landing. He was valeted and cooked for by an ex-sergeant of the Army Service Corps and his wife, an admirable couple named Bates, and the male of the species appeared before Theydon had removed coat and opera hat in the tiny hall.
"Bring my tray in fifteen minutes, Bates, and that will be all for tonight," said Theydon.
"Yes, sir," said Bates. "Remarkable change in the weather, sir."
"Rotten. Who would have expected this downpour after such a fine day?"
Bates took the coat and hat, and Theydon entered his sitting room, a spacious, square apartment which faced the gardens. He had purposely prevented Bates from coming immediately with his nightly fare, which consisted of a glass of milk and a plate of bread and butter.
Truth to tell, the artistic temperament contains a spice of curiosity, which is, in some sense, an exercise of the perceptive faculties. Theydon wanted to raise a window and look out, an unusual action, and one which, therefore, would induce Bates to wonder as to its cause.
For once in his life a man who bothered his head very little about other people's business was puzzled, and meant to ascertain whether or not the unknown was really calling on some resident in Innesmore Mansions. It was a harmless bit of espionage. Theydon scarcely knew the names of the other dwellers in his own block, and his acquaintance did not even go that far with any of the remaining tenants of 48 fiats, all told.
Still, to a writer, the vagaries of the tall stranger were decidedly interesting, so he did open a window, and did thrust his head out, and was just in time to see the owner of the limousine which would call at the Constitutional Club in a quarter of an hour mount the steps leading to Nos. 13-18. Somehow, the discovery gave Theydon a veritable thrill.
Could that pretty girl's father, by any chance, he coming to visit him? A wildly improbable development had been whittled down to a five-to-one chance. He closed the window and waited, yes, actually waited, for the bell to ring!
The sitting room door was open, and it faced the hall door. Footsteps sounded sharply on the slate steps of the stairway; when Theydon heard some one climbing to the topmost landing he was almost convinced that, as usual, the unexpected was about to happen. It did happen, but took its own peculiar path. The unknown rang the bell of No. 17, and, after a slight delay, was admitted.
Theydon smiled at the anticlimax. A trivial mystery had developed along strictly orthodox lines. A rather good-looking and distinctly well-dressed lady, a Mrs. Lester, occupied No. 17. She lived alone, too, he believed. At any rate, he had never seen any other person, except an elderly servant, enter or leave the opposite flat, and he had encountered the tenant herself so seldom that he was not quite certain of recognizing her apart from the environment of the staircase which provided their occasional meeting place.
Then he sighed. Romance evidently denied her magic presence to one who wooed her assiduously by his pen. He was yet to learn that the alluring sprite had not only favored him with her attentions during the past twenty minutes, but meant to stick to him like his own shadow for many a day. And he frowned, too.
He did not approve of that pretty girl's father visiting the attractive Mrs. Lester in conditions which savored of something underhanded and clandestine. The man had deliberately misled his daughter. He left her with a lie on his lips; yet never were appearances more deceptive, for the stranger had the outward aspect of one whose word was his bond.
"Oh, dash it all, what business is it of mine, anyhow?" growled Theydon, and he laughed sourly as he sat down to write a letter which Bates could take to the post, thus himself practicing a slight deceit intended solely to account for the deferred bringing of the tray.
It was apparently an unimportant missive which could well have been postponed till the morning, being merely an announcement to a firm of publishers that he would pay a business call later in the week. In less than five minutes it, and another, making an appointment for Wednesday, this being the night of Monday, were written, sealed, directed and stamped.
He rang. Bates came, with laden hands, thinking the tray was in demand.
"Kindly post those for me," said Theydon, glancing at the letters. "Better take an umbrella. It's raining cats and dogs."
The man had found the door open, and left it so when he entered. Before he could answer, the door of No. 17 was opened and closed, with the jingle inseparable from the presence of many small panes of glass in leaden casing, and footsteps sounded on the stairs. For some reason— probably because of the unusual fact that any one should be leaving Mrs. Lester's flat at so late an hour, both men listened.
Then Bates recollected himself.
"Yes, sir," he said.
Oddly enough, the man's marked pause suggested a question to his employer.
"Mrs. Lester's visitor didn't stop long," was the comment. "He came up almost on my heels."
"I thought it must ha' bin a gentleman," said Bates.
"Why a 'gentleman'?" laughed Theydon.
"I mean, sir, that the step didn't sound like a lady's."
"Ah, I see."
Vaguely aware that he had committed himself to a definite knowledge as to the sex of Mrs. Lester's visitor, Theydon added:
"I didn't actually see any one on the stairs, but I heard an arrival, and jumped to the same conclusion as you, Bates."
Tacitly, master and man shared the same opinion— it was satisfactory to know that Mrs. Lester's male visitors who called at the unconventional hour of 11:30 p. m. were shown out so speedily. Innesmore Mansions were intensely respectable.
No lady could live there alone whose credentials had not satisfied a sharp-eyed secretary. Further, Theydon was aware of a momentary disloyalty of thought toward the distinguished-looking father of that remarkably handsome girl, and it pleased him to find that he had erred.
Bates went out, closing the door behind him: he donned an overcoat, secured an umbrella and presently descended to the street. Yielding again to impulse, Theydon reopened the window and peered down. The stranger was walking away rapidly. A policeman, glistening in cape and overalls, stood at the corner, near a pillar box.
The tall man, who topped the burly constable by some inches, halted for a moment to post a letter. Whether by accident or design he held his umbrella so that the other could not see his face. Then he disappeared. Bates came into view. He dropped Theydon's letters into the box, but he and the policeman exchanged a few words, which, his employer guessed, must surely have dealt with the vagaries of the weather.
For an author of repute Theydon's surmises had been wide of the mark several times that night. The policeman had seen the unknown coming out from the doorway of Nos. 13-18, and had noted his stature and appearance.
"Who's the toff who just left your lot?" he said, when Bates arrived.
"Dunno," said Bates. "Some one callin' on Mrs. Lester, I fancy. Why?"
"O, nothing. On'y, if I was togged up regardless on a night like this I'd blue a cab fare."
"I didn't see him meself," commented Bates. "My boss 'eard him come, an' both of us 'eard him go. He didn't stay more'n five minnits."
"Wish I was in his shoes. I've got to stick round here till six in the morning," grinned the policeman.
"Well, cheer-o, mate."
Bates looked in on his master before retiring for the night.
"What time shall I call you, sir?" he said.
Theydon was in the pipe and book stage, having exchanged his dress coat for a smoking jacket. He was reading a treatise on aeronautics, and, like every novice, had already formulated a flying scheme which would supersede all known inventions.
"Not later than 8," he said. "I must be out by 9. And, by the way, I may as well tell you now. After lunch tomorrow I am going to Brooklands. I return to Waterloo at 6:40. As I have to dine in the West End at 7:30, and my train may be a few minutes behind time, I want you to meet me with a suitcase at the hairdresser's place on the main platform. I'll dress there and go straight to my friend's house. It would be cutting things rather fine if I attempted to come here."
"I'll have everything ready, sir."
Bates was eminently reliable in such matters. He could be depended on to the last stud.
The storm which had raged overnight must have cleared the skies for the following day, because Theydon never enjoyed an outing more than his trip to the famous motor track. His business there, however, lay with aviation. A popular magazine had commissioned him to write an article summing up the progress and practical aims of the airmen and he was devoting afternoon and evening to the quest of information. A couple of experts and a photographer had given him plenty of raw material in the open, but he looked forward with special zest to an undisturbed chat that night with Mr. James Creighton Forbes, millionaire and philanthropist, whose peculiar yet forcible theories as to the peaceful conquest of the air were for the hour engaging the attention of the world's press.
He had never met Mr. Forbes. When on the point of writing for an appointment he had luckily remembered that the great man was a lifelong friend of the professor of physics at his (Theydon's) university, and a delightfully cordial introductory note was forthcoming in the course of a couple of posts. This brought the invitation to dinner. "On Tuesday evening I am dining en famille," wrote Mr. Forbes, "so, if you are free, join us at 7:30, and we can talk uninterruptedly afterward."
The train was not late. Bates, erect and soldierly, was standing at the rendezvous. With him were two men whom Theydon had never before seen. One, a bulky, stalwart, florid-faced man of forty, had something of the military aspect; the other supplied his direct antithesis, being small, wizened and sallow.
The big man had a round, bullet head, prominent bright blue eyes, and the cheek bones, chin and physical development of a heavyweight pugilist. His companion, whose dark and recessed eyes were noticeably bright, too, could not be more than half his weight, and Theydon would not have been surprised if told that this diminutive person was a dancing master. Naturally he classed both as acquaintances of his valet, encountered by chance on the platform at Waterloo.
He was slightly astonished, therefore, when the two faced him, together with Bates. A dramatic explanation of their presence was soon supplied.
"These gentlemen, sir, are Chief Inspector Winter and Detective Inspector Furneaux of Scotland Yard," said the ex-sergeant, in the awed tone which some people cannot help using when speaking of members of the Criminal Investigation Department.
Though daylight had not yet failed it was rather dark in that corner of the station, and Theydon saw now what he had not perceived earlier, that the usually sedate Bates was pale and harassed looking.
"Why, what's up?" he inquired, gazing blankly from one to the other of the ominous pair.
"Haven't you seen the evening papers, Mr. Theydon?" said Winter, the giant of the two.
"No, I've been at Brooklands since two o'clock. But what is it?"
"You don't know, then, that a murder was committed in the Innesmore Mansions last night or early this morning?"
"Good Lord, no! Who was killed?"
"A Mrs. Lester, the lady—"
"Mrs. Lester, who lives in No. 17?"
"What a horrible thing! Why, only the day before yesterday I met her on the stairs."
It was a banal statement, and Theydon knew it, but he blurted out the first crazy words that would serve to cloak the monstrous thought which leaped into his brain. And a picture danced before his mind's eye, a picture, not of the fair and gracious woman who had been done to death, but of a sweet-voiced girl in a white satin dress who was saying to a fine-looking man standing by her side: "Dad, aren't you coming home with me?"
His blurred senses were conscious of the strange medley produced by the familiar noises of a railway station blending with the quietly authoritative voice of the chief inspector.
"Mr. Furneaux and I have the inquiry in hand, Mr. Theydon," the detective was saying. "We called at your flat, and Bates told us of the sounds you both heard about 11:30 last night. I'm afraid we have rather upset you by coming here, but Bates was unable to say what time you would return home, so I thought you would not mind if we accompanied him in order to find out the hour at which it would be convenient for you to meet us at your flat— this evening, of course."
"You have certainly given me the shock of my life," Theydon gasped. "That poor woman dead, murdered! It's too awful! How was she killed?"
"She was strangled."
"O, this is dreadful! Shall I wire an apology to the man I'm dining with?"
"No need for that, Mr. Theydon," said Winter, sympathetically. "I'm sorry now we blurted out our unpleasant news. But you had to be told, and it was essential that we should get your story some time tonight. Can you be home by eleven?"
"Yes, yes. I'll be there without fail."
"Thank you. We have a good many inquiries to make in the meantime. Goodby, for the present."
The two made off. Winter had done all the talking, but Theydon was far too disturbed to pay heed to the trivial fact that Furneaux, after one swift glance, seemed to regard him as a negligible quantity. It was borne in on him that the detective evidently believed he had something of importance to say, and meant to render it almost impossible that he should escape questioning while his memory was still active with reference to events of the previous night.
And he had so little, yet so much, to tell. On his testimony alone it would be a comparatively easy matter to establish beyond doubt the identity of Mrs. Lester's last known visitor. And what would be the outcome? He dared hardly trust his own too lively imagination. Whether or not his testimony gave a clew to the police, the one irrevocable issue was that somewhere in London there was a girl named Evelyn who would regard a certain young man, Francis Berrold Theydon to wit, as a loathsome and despicable Paul Pry.
Bates, somewhat relieved by the departure of the emissaries of Scotland Yard, recalled his master's scattered wits to the affairs of the moment.
"It's getting on for seven, sir," he said. "I've engaged a dressing room."
"Tell you what, Bates," said Theydon abstractedly, "it is my fixed belief that you and I could do with a brandy and soda apiece."
"That would be a good idea, sir."
The good idea was duly acted on. While Theydon was dressing Bates told him what little he knew of the tragedy, which was discovered by Mrs. Lester's maid when she brought a cup of tea to her mistress' bedroom at ten o'clock that morning.
Bates himself was the first person appealed to by the distracted woman, and he had the good sense to leave the body and its surroundings untouched until a doctor and the police had been summoned by telephone. Thenceforth the day had passed in a whirl of excitement, active in respect to police inquiries and passive in its resistance to newspaper interviewers. He saw no valid reason why his employer's plans should be disturbed, so made no effort to communicate with him at Brooklands.
"Them 'tecs were very pressin', sir," said Bates, rather indignantly, "very pressin', especially the little one. He almost wanted to know what we had for breakfast."
At that Theydon laughed dolefully, and, as it happened, Bates's grim humor prevented him from ascertaining the exact nature of Furneaux's pertinacity. Moreover, the time was passing. At 7:15 Theydon called a taxi and was carried swiftly to Mr. Forbes's house in Belgravia, while Bates disposed himself and the dressing case on top of a northbound omnibus.
The mere change of clothing, aided by the stimulant, had cleared Theydon's faculties. Though he would gladly have foregone the dinner, he realized that it was not a bad thing that he should be forced, as it were, to wrench his thoughts from the nightmare of a crime with which such a man as "Evelyn's" father might be associated, even innocently.
At any rate, he was given some hours to marshal his forces for the discussion with the representatives of Scotland Yard. He knew well that he must then face the dilemma boldly. Two courses were open. He could either share Bates's scanty knowledge, no more and no less, or avow his ampler observations. And why should he adopt the first of these alternatives? Was he not bringing himself practically within the law?
Why should any man be shielded, no matter what his social position or how beautiful his daughter, who might possibly have caused the death of the pleasant-mannered and ladylike woman fated now to remain for ever a tragic ghost in the memory of one who had dwelt under the same roof with her for five months?
It was a thorny problem, yet it permitted of only one solution. Duty must be done though the heavens fell.
This conviction grew on Theydon as his cab scurried across the Thames and along Birdcage Walk. A pretty conceit could not be allowed to sweep aside the first principles of citizenship. Indeed, so reassuring was this reasoned judgment that he felt a sense of relief as he paid off the cab and rang the bell of the Forbes mansion.
He gave his name to a footman, who disposed of his overcoat and hat, and led him to an upstairs drawing room. Even the most fleeting glances at hall and staircase revealed evidences of a highly trained artistic taste gratified by great wealth. The furniture, the china, the pictures, were each and all rare and well chosen.
"Mr. Theydon," announced the man, throwing wide the door.
A lady, bent over some prints spread on a distant table, turned at the words, and hastened to greet the guest.
"My father is expecting you, Mr. Theydon," she said. "He was detained rather late in the city, but will be here now at any moment."
Theydon was no neurotic boy, whose surcharged nerves were liable to crack in a crisis demanding some unusual measure of self-control. Yet the room and its contents— and, not least, the graceful girl advancing with outstretched hand— swam before his eyes.
Because this was "Evelyn," and it was certain as the succession of night to day that Mrs. Lester's mysterious visitor must have been "Evelyn's" father, James Creighton Forbes.
So petrified was Theydon by coming face to face with the last person breathing whom he expected to meet in that room, that he stumbled over a small chair which lay directly between him and his hostess. At any other time the gaucherie would have annoyed him exceedingly; in the existing circumstances, no more fortunate incident could have happened, since it brought Evelyn Forbes herself unwittingly to the rescue.
"I have spoken twenty times about chairs being left in that absurd position," she cried, as their hands met, "but you know how wooden-headed servants are. They will not learn to discriminate. People often sit in that very place of an afternoon, because any one seated just there sees the Canaletto on the opposite wall in the best light. When the lamps are on, the reason for the chair simply ceases to exist, and it becomes a trap for the unwary. You are by no means the first who has been caught in it."
Theydon realized, with a species of irritation, that the girl was discoursing volubly about the offending chair merely in order to extricate an apparently shy and tongue-tied young man from a morass of his own creation.
That an author of some note should not only behave like a country bumpkin, but actually seem to need encouragement so that he should "feel at home" in a London drawing room, was a fact so ridiculous that it spurred his bemused wits into something approaching their normal activity.
"I have not the excuse of the Canaletto," he said, compelling a pleasant smile, "but may I plead an even more distracting vision? I came here expecting to meet an elderly gentleman of the class which flippant Americans describe as 'high-brow,' and I am suddenly brought face to face with a Romney 'portrait of a lady' in real life. Is it likely that such an insignificant object as a chair, and a small one at that, would succeed in catching my eye?"
Evelyn Forbes laughed, with a joyous mingling of surprise and relief. Most certainly, Mr. Theydon's manner of speech differed vastly from the disconcerting expression of positive bewilderment, if not actual fright, which marred his entrance.
"Do I really resemble a Romney? Which one?" she cried.
"An admitted masterpiece."
"Ah, but people who pay compliments deserve to be put on the rack. I insist on a definition."
"Lady Hamilton as Joan of Arc."
He drew the bow at random, and was gratified to see that his hearer was puzzled.
"I don't know that particular picture," she said, "but I cannot imagine any model less adapted to the subject."
"Romney immortalized the best qualities of both," he answered promptly. "Please, may I look at the Canaletto which indirectly waylaid me?"
She turned to cross the room, but stopped and faced him again with a suddenness that argued an impulsive temperament.
"Now, I remember," she said. "Dad told me you had written novels and some essays. Have you ever really seen Romney's portrait of Lady Hamilton as Joan of Arc?"
Those fine eyes of hers pierced him with a glance of such candid inquiry that he cast pretence to the winds.
"No," he said.
"Then you just invented the comparison as an excuse for colliding with the chair?"
"Yes. At the same time I throw myself on the mercy of the court."
"It was rather clever of you."
He laughed, and their eyes met, at very close range.
"May I share the joke?" said a voice, and Theydon knew, before he turned, that the man he had last seen disappearing around the corner of Innesmore Mansions in a heavy rainstorm was in the room.
"Why did you tell me that Mr. Theydon was a serious scientific person?" cried the girl. "He is anything but that. He can talk nonsense quite admirably."
"So can a great many serious scientific persons, Evelyn. Glad to see you, Mr. Theydon. Professor Scarth's letter paved the way for something more than a formal meeting, so I thought you wouldn't mind giving us an evening. My wife is not in town. She is a martyr to hay fever, and has to fly from London to the sea early in May to escape. If caught here in June nothing can save her. Tonight, as it happens, you're our only guest, but my daughter is going to a musicale at Lady de Winton's after dinner, so you and I will be free to soar into the empyrean through a blaze of tobacco smoke."
Standing there, in that delightful drawing room, made welcome by a man like Forbes, and admitted to a degree of charming intimacy by a girl like Forbes's daughter, Theydon tried to believe that his meeting with those ill-omened detectives at Waterloo Station was, in some sort, a figment of the imagination.
But he was instantly and effectually brought back to a dour sense of reality by Evelyn Forbes's next words. She, by chance, looked at Theydon just as she had looked at him the previous night.
"Were you at Daly's Theater last night?" she inquired suddenly.
"Yes," he said. Then, finding there was no help for it, he went on:——
"You and I have hit on the same discovery, Miss Forbes. We three stood together at the exit. I was waiting for a taxi, and saw you get into your car. Now you know just why I fell over the chair."
Forbes glanced up quickly.
"Don't tell me Tomlinson forgot to move that infernal chair again!" he cried. "Really, I must get rid either of our butler or the Canaletto, yet I prize both."
"Don't blame Tomlinson, Dad," laughed the girl. "If Mr. Theydon hadn't made an unconventional entry we would have talked about the weather, or something equally stupid."
At that moment Tomlinson himself, imperturbable and portly, announced that dinner was served. The three descended the stairs, chatting lightly about the musical comedy witnessed overnight. It was no new revelation to Theydon that truth should prove stranger than fiction, but the trite phrase was fast assuming a fresh and sinister personal significance. He believed, and not without good reason, that no man living had ever undergone an experience comparable with his present adventure.
When he left that house he was going straight to two officers of the law whose bounden duty it would become to call upon Mr. Forbes for a full and true explanation of his visit to Mrs. Lester— provided, that is, he (Theydon) told them what he knew. Talk about a death's-head grinning at a feast! At that bright dinner-table he was a prey to keener emotion than ever shook a Borgia entertaining one whom he meant to poison.
In sheer self-defense he talked with an animation he seldom displayed. Evelyn was evidently much taken by him, and, fired by her manifest interest, he indulged in fantastic paradox and wild flights of fancy. Seemingly his exuberance stimulated Forbes, himself a well-informed and epigrammatic talker.
An hour sped all too soon. The girl rose with a sigh.
"It's too bad that I should have to go," she said. "I shall be bored stiff at Lady de Winton's. But I can't get out of it except by telling a positive fib over the telephone. Dad, next time you ask Mr. Theydon to dinner, please let me know in good time, and neither of you will be rid of me so easily."
She shook hands with Theydon. While she was giving her father a parting kiss the guest moved to the door and held it open. As she passed out she smiled and her eyes said plainly:
"I like you. Come again soon."
Then she was gone and the pleasant room lost some of its glow and color.
"Don't sit down again, Theydon," said Forbes, rising. "We'll have coffee brought to my den. What is your favorite liqueur— or shall we tell Tomlinson to send along that decanter of port? It's a first-rate wine. Another glass won't hurt you, or me, for that matter."
Theydon had hardly dared to touch the champagne supplied during the meal. Abstemious at all times, because he found that wine or spirits interfered with his capacity for work, he felt that a clear head and steady nerves were called for that night more than any other night in his life. Following the lead given by his host, therefore, he elected for the port.
"You are right, too," said Forbes. "You remember Dr. Johnson's dictum: 'Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy'? Tonight, not aspiring to the heroic, we'll stick to port."
"It is a curious fact that on my return from Brooklands today I took a glass of brandy," confessed Theydon. "I seldom, if ever, drink any intoxicant before dining, but I needed a stimulant of a sort, and some unknown tissue in me cried aloud for brandy."
He hoped vaguely that the comment would lead to something more explicit, and thus bring him, without undue emphasis, so to speak, to the one topic on which he was now resolved to obtain a decisive statement from the man chiefly concerned before he faced the representatives of Scotland Yard.
But Forbes, motioning to an easy chair in a well-appointed library, and flinging himself into another, gave heed only to the one word— Brooklands.
"Did you fly?" he asked.
"No. I was soaking in theory, not practice."
"Ah, theory. It would, indeed, seem to be true that folded away in some convolution of our brain are the faculties of the fish and the bird. Those latent powers are expanding daily. The submarine has already gone far beyond the practical achievement of aerial craft. But why, in the name of humanity, should every such development of man's almost immeasurable resources be dedicated to warlike purposes? I am sick at heart when I hear the first question put in these days to each inventor: 'Can you enable us to kill more of our fellowmen than we can kill with existing appliances?' Is it a new engine, a new amalgam of metals, a new explosive, a new field of electrical energy, one hears the same vulture's cry— 'How many, how far, how safely can we slay?' I regard this lust for destruction as contemptible. It is a strange and ignominious feature of modern life. Forgive me, Mr. Theydon, if I speak strongly on this matter. The men who spread the bounds of science today are, nominally, at any rate, Christians. They tell of peace and goodwill to all, yet prepare unceasingly for some awful Armageddon.[*] We teach Christ's gospel in pulpit and schoolhouse, strive to express it in our laws, obey it in our lives and social relations, yet we are armed to the teeth and ever arming, adding strength to the plates of our warships and distance to the range of our guns, constantly riveting and welding and forging monsters which shall shatter men and cities and States."
[*This story was written before the outbreak of war in 1914.]
It was not the younger man now who talked brilliantly and forcibly. Theydon, frankly abandoning the effort to twist the conversation to that enigma which, the more he saw and heard of Forbes the more incredible it became, listened enthralled to one who spoke with the conviction and earnestness of a prophet.
"Don't imagine that I am framing an indictment against Christianity," went on Forbes passionately. "The Sermon on the Mount inspires all that is great and noble in our everyday existence, all that is eternally beautiful in our dreams of the future. But why this din of war, this smoke of arsenals, this marching and drilling of the world's youth? Nature's law appears to have two simple clauses. It enforces a principle in the struggle for existence, a test in the survival of the fittest. Great heavens, are not these enough, without having our ears deafened by powder and drumming? That is why I am devoting a good deal of time and no small amount of money to an international crusade against the warlike idea, and I see no reason why a beginning should not be made with the airship and the airplane. We are too late with the submarine, but, before the golden hour passes, let us stop the navigation of the air from forming part of the equipment of murder. Surely it can be done. England and the United States, Italy, France and the rest of Europe— the founts of civilization— can write the edict, with all the blazonry of their glorious histories to illuminate the page— There shall be no war in the air!'"
Theydon was carried away in spite of himself.
"You believe that the airship might develop along the unemotional lines of the parcel post?" he inquired.
"Exactly," he said. "I like your simile. No one suggests that we Britons should endeavor to destroy our hated rivals by sending bombs through the mails. Why, then, in the name of common sense, should the first— I might almost say the only use of which the airship is commonly supposed capable— be that of destruction? Don't you see the instant result of a war-limiting ordinance of the kind I advocate? Suppose the peoples and the rulers declared in their wisdom that soldiers and war material should be contraband of the air— and suppose that airships do become vehicles of practical utility— what a farce would soon be all the grim fortresses, the guns, the giant steel structures now designed as floating hells! Humanity has yet time to declare that the flying machine shall be as harmless and serviceable as the penny post. I believe it can be done. Come now, Mr. Theydon, I think you've caught on to my scheme— will you help?"
Help! Here was a man expounding a new evangel, which might, indeed, be visionary and impracticable, but was none the less essentially noble and Christian in spirit, yet Theydon was debating whether or not he should give testimony which would bring to that very room a couple of detectives whose first questions would make clear to Forbes that he was suspected of blood-guiltiness!
The notion was so utterly repellent that Theydon sighed deeply; his host not unnaturally looked surprised.
"Of course, such a revolutionary idea strikes you as outside the pale of common sense," he began, but the younger man stayed him with a gesture. Here was an opportunity that must not be allowed to pass. No matter what the cost— if he never saw Evelyn Forbes or her father again— he must dispel the waking nightmare which held him in such an abnormal condition of uncertainty and foreboding.
"Now that your daughter is gone I may venture to speak plainly," he said. "I told you that, I felt the need of a brandy and soda at Waterloo. As a matter of fact, I did not leave the Brooklands track until six o'clock, and, as Innesmore Mansions, where I live, lie north, and I was due here at 7:30, I had my man meet me at the station with a suitcase, meaning to change my clothes in the dressing room there, and come straight here. Guess my astonishment when I found Bates— Bates is the name of my factotum— in the company of two strangers, whom he introduced as representing the Criminal Investigation Department."
He paused. He had brought in his own address skilfully enough, and kept his voice sufficiently under control that no tremor betrayed a knowledge of Forbes's vital interest in any mention of that one block of flats among the multitude.
Now, for the first time, Innesmore Mansions figured as his abode, the correspondence which led to the dinner having centered in his club. But not a flicker of eyelid nor twitch of mobile lips showed the slightest concern on Forbes's part. Rather did he display at once a well-bred astonishment on hearing Theydon's concluding words.
"Do you mean detectives from Scotland Yard?" he cried.
Forbes smiled, and commenced filling a pipe.
"Evidently they did not want you as a principal," he said.
His tone was genial, but slightly guarded. Theydon realized that this man of great wealth and high social position had reminded himself that his guest, though armed with the best of credentials, was quite unknown to him otherwise, and that, perhaps, he had acted unwisely in inviting a stranger to his house without making some preliminary inquiry. This reversal of their roles was a conceit so ludicrous that Theydon smiled too.
At any rate, he meant now to pursue an unpleasing task, and have done with it.
"No," he said slowly. "It seems that I am the worst sort of witness in a murder case. I may have heard, I may even have seen, the person suspected of committing the crime, or, if that is going too far, the person whom the police have good reason to regard as the last who saw the poor victim alive and in ordinary conditions. But my testimony, such as it is, is so slight and inconclusive that, of itself, no one could hang a cat on it."
"Good gracious! That sounds interesting, though you have my sympathy. It must be rather distressing to be mixed up in such an affair, even indirectly."
Forbes struck precisely the right note of friendly inquiry. He wished to hear more, and was at the same time relieved to find that Professor Scarth had not introduced a notorious malefactor in the guise of a young writer seeking material for an article on air-ships!
Theydon could have laughed aloud at this comedy of errors, but the fact that at any moment it might develop into a tragedy exercises a wholesome restraint.
"I happen to live at No. 18 Innesmore Mansions," he said. "Opposite— on the same floor, I mean— lives, or did live, a Mrs. Lester. I do not—"
"Are you telling me that a Mrs. Lester of No. 17 Innesmore Mansions is dead— has been murdered?"
Forbes's voice rang out vibrant, incisive. His ordinarily pale face had blanched, and his deep-set eyes blazed with the fire of some fierce emotion, but, beyond the slight elevation of tone and the change of expression, he revealed to Theydon's quietly watchful scrutiny no sign of the terror or distress which an evildoer might be expected to show on learning that the law's vengeance was already shadowing him, even in so remote a way as was indicated by the presence under his roof of a witness regarded by the police as an important one.
"Yes!" stammered Theydon, quite taken aback by his companion's vehemence. "Do you— know the lady? If so— I am sorry— I spoke so unguardedly—"
"Good heavens, man, don't apologize for that! I am not a child or weakling, that I should flinch in horror from one of life's dramatic surprises! But, are you sure of what you are saying? Mrs. Lester murdered! When?"
"About midnight last night, the doctor believes. That is what Bates told me. I was so shaken on hearing his news, which was confirmed by the two detectives, that I really gave little heed to details.... She was strangled— a peculiarly atrocious thing where an attractive and ladylike woman is concerned. I have never spoken to her, but have met her at odd times on the stairs. I was immeasurably shocked, I assure you. In fact, I was on the point of telegraphing an excuse to you for this evening, but the Chief Inspector— Winter, I think his name is— said it would suffice for his purpose if I met him at my flat about eleven o'clock, as he was engaged on other inquiries which would occupy the intervening hours."
"But if the news of this dastardly crime only reached you tonight at Waterloo Station, and you have no personal acquaintance with Mrs. Lester, what evidence can you give that will assist the police?"
"Mrs. Lester received a visitor last night, an incident so unusual that I, who heard him arrive, and Bates, who was in my sitting room when we both heard him depart, commented on the strangeness of it. That, I suppose, is the reason why I am in request by Scotland Yard."
"You say 'him.' How did you know it was a man? Did you see him?"
"Er— that was impossible. We were in my flat, behind its closed door. Bates and I deduced his sex from the sound of his footsteps."
Again Theydon nearly stammered. Events had certainly turned in the most amazing way. Instead of carrying himself almost in the manner of a judge, he was figuring rather as an unwilling witness in the hands of a skilled and merciless cross-examining counsel.
"Did the police officers supply any theory of motive for the crime? Was this poor woman killed for the sake of her few trinkets?"
By this time Theydon was stung into a species of revolt. It was he, not Forbes, who should be snapping out searching questions.
"I regret to say that my nerves were not sufficiently under control at Waterloo that I should listen carefully to each word," he said, almost stiffly. "Bates had picked up such information as was available; but he, though an ex-sergeant in the Army, was so upset as to be hardly coherent. When I meet the detectives in the course of another hour I shall probably gather something definite and reliable in the way of details."
Forbes laid the pipe which he had filled but not lighted on the table. He poured out a glass of port and drank it.
"Try that," he said, pushing the decanter toward Theydon. "They cannot trouble you greatly. You have so little to tell."
"No, thanks. Nothing more for me tonight until the Scotland Yard men have cleared out."
Forbes rose as he spoke and strode the length of the room and back with the air of a man debating some weighty and difficult point.
"Mr. Theydon," he said, at last, halting in front of the younger man and gazing down at him with a direct intensity that was highly embarrassing to one who had good cause to connect him with the actual crime. "I want you to do me a favor— a great favor. It was in my mind at first to ask you to permit me to go with you to Innesmore Mansions, and to be present during the interview with the detectives. But a man in my position must be circumspect. It would, perhaps, be unwise to appear too openly interested. I don't mind telling you in confidence that I have known Mrs. Lester many years. The shock of her death, severe as it must have been to you, is slight as compared with my own sorrow and dismay. More than that I dare not say until better informed. I remember now hearing the newsboys shouting their ghoulish news, and I saw contents bills making large type display of 'Murder of a lady,' but little did I imagine that the victim was one whom— one whose loss I shall deplore.... Are you on the telephone?"
"Yes," said Theydon, thoroughly mystified anew by the announcement that Forbes had even contemplated, or so much as hinted at, the astounding imprudence of visiting Innesmore Mansions that night.
"Ring me up when the detectives have gone. I shall esteem your assistance during this crisis as a real service."
For the life of him, Theydon could not frame the protest which ought to have been made without delay and without hesitation.
"Yes," he said. "I'll do that. You can trust me absolutely."
Thus was he committed to secrecy. That promise sealed his lips.
IN THE TOILS
Theydon, though blessed, or cursed, with an active imagination— which must surely be the prime equipment of a novelist— was shrewd and level-headed in dealing with everyday affairs.
It was no small achievement that the son of a country rector, aided only by a stout heart, a university education and an excellent physique— good recommendations, each and all, but forming the stock-in-trade of many a man on whose subsequent career "failure" is writ large— should have forced himself to the front rank of the most overcrowded among the professions before attaining his twenty-sixth year.
It may be taken for granted, therefore, that he was not lacking in the qualities of close observation and critical analysis. He would, for instance, be readier than the majority of his fellows to note the small beginnings of events destined to become important.
Often, of course, his deductions would prove erroneous, but the mere fact that he habitually exercised his wits in such a way rendered it equally certain that his judgment would be accurate sometimes. One such occasion presented itself a few seconds after he had left the Forbes mansion.
A taxi, summoned by a footman, was in waiting, and Theydon was crossing the pavement when he noticed a gray landaulet car at rest beneath the trees at some distance. Mr. Forbes's house stood in a square, and the gray car had been drawn up on the quiet side of the roadway, being stationed there, apparently, to await its owner's behest. Gray cars are common enough in London, but they are usually of the touring class.
Not often does one see a gray-painted landaulet; hence, the odd though hardly remarkable fact occurred to Theydon that a precisely similar gray automobile had occupied the center of the station yard at Waterloo when he took a taxi from the rank.
Admittedly he was in a nervous and excited state. It could hardly be otherwise after the strain of that astounding conversation with Forbes, and there was no prospect of the tension being relaxed until the close of the interview with the detectives, which he now regarded as the worse ordeal of the two.
But this subconscious neurasthenia in no wise affected the reflex action of his ordinary faculties. When, on leaving the square, and while his cab was rattling along an aristocratic thoroughfare leading to Knightsbridge, he peered through a tiny observation window in the back of the vehicle, and ascertained that the gray car was stealing along quietly about a hundred yards in the rear, he began to believe that its presence both at Waterloo and outside Mr. Forbes's residence could not be wholly accidental. When he had watched its persistent treading on his heels along Piccadilly its intent became almost unmistakable.
The route to Innesmore Mansions traversed some of London's main arteries, but, despite the rush of traffic due to the first flight of homewardbound playgoers, the gray car kept steadily on his track. Amused at first, be became angry because of a notion which grew out of the wonderment of finding himself the object of this persistent espionage.
To make sure, and at the same time discover the sort of person who was spying on him, he adopted a ruse. Leaning out, when about to cross Oxford Street into Tottenham Court Road, he said to his driver: "Turn sharp to the right in Store Street, and pull up. I'll tell you when to go on again."
The man obeyed. Theydon posted himself at the outer window, and in a space of time so short that the excellence of the gray car's accelerator was amply demonstrated, the pursuer swung into sight. A stolid-faced chauffeur at the wheel did not appear discomfited at coming on his quarry thus unexpectedly. He whirled past, seemingly quite oblivious of Theydon's fixed stare. Though the weather was mild he wore an overcoat with upturned collar, so that between its protecting flaps and a low-peaked cap his face was well hidden. Still, Theydon received an impression of a curiously wooden physiognomy.
The man might have been an automaton for all the heed he gave to the taxi or its inquisitive occupant. But his aspect was almost forgotten in the far stranger discovery that the car was empty. Both windows were open, and the bright lights of a corner shop flashed into the interior, yet not a soul was visible. Moreover, the car sped on unhesitatingly, stopping some two hundred yards ahead.
So far as Theydon could tell, no one alighted. He jotted down the number— XY 1314— on his shirt cuff.
"Did you happen to see that car waiting near the house I came from?" he said to the taxi man, who, of course, provided an interested audience of one.
"Yes, sir," was the ready answer. "It's not a London car. I've never seen them letters afore."
"In other words, it may be a faked number."
"Likely enough, sir, but rather risky. The police are quick at spotting that sort of thing."
"Can you take a hand in the game? I want to know where that car goes to."
The man grinned.
"I wouldn't like to humbug you, sir. That there machine can lose me quicker'n a Derby winner could pass a keb horse. Didn't you hear the hum of the engine as it went by?"
"Thanks. Now go ahead to Innesmore Mansions."
He was paying the driver when the gray car stole quietly past the end of the street, and that was the last he saw of it.
"There it goes again, sir," said the man. "Tell you wot, gimme your name an' address. I'll make a few inquiries, an' keep me eyes open as well. Then, if I hear anythink, I'll let you know."
Theydon scribbled the number of his flat on a card.
"There you are," he said. "Even if I happen to be out, I'll leave instructions that you are to be paid half a crown for your trouble if you call. By the way, what is your name?"
There was really little doubt in Theydon's mind as to the reason why he had been followed. He was fuming about it when Bates met him in the hall of No. 18 with the whisper:
"Them two are waiting here now, sir."
Theydon glanced at his watch. The hour was ten minutes past eleven.
"Sorry I'm late, gentlemen," he said, on entering the sitting room and finding the detectives seated at his table, seemingly comparing notes, because the Chief Inspector was talking, while Furneaux, the diminutive, was glancing at a notebook.
"We have no reason to complain of being kept waiting a few minutes in such comfortable quarters," said Winter pleasantly.
"O, I fancy I was detained by some zealous assistant of yours," said Theydon, determined to carry the war into the enemy's territory.
At that Furneaux looked up quickly.
"Will you kindly tell me just what you mean, Mr. Theydon?" said Winter.
"Why? Is it news to you that a gray limousine car stalked me from Waterloo to— to my friend's house, waited there three hours or more, and has carefully escorted me home? I dislike that sort of thing. Moreover, it strikes me as stupid. I didn't kill Mrs. Lester. It will save you and me a good deal of time and worry if you accept that plain statement as a fact."
"Won't you sit down?" said Winter quietly. "And— may I smoke? I didn't like to ask Bates for permission to light up in your absence."
Theydon was not to be outdone in coolness. He opened a corner cupboard and produced various boxes.
"The cigars are genuine Havanas," he said. "A birthday present from a maiden aunt, who is wise enough to judge the quality of tobacco by the price. Here, too, are Virginian, Turkish and Egyptian cigarettes."
Winter inspected the cigars gravely.
"By Jove!" he cried, his big eyes bulging in joyous surprise. "Last year's crop from the Don Juan y Guerrero plantation. Treasure that aunt of yours, Mr. Theydon. None but herself can be her equal."
Theydon saw that the little man did not follow his chief's example.
"Don't you smoke?" he said.
"No, but if you'll not be horrified, I would like to smell one of those Turks."
"Yes. That is the only way to enjoy the aroma and avoid nicotine poisoning. My worthy chief dulls a sound intellect by the cigar habit. What is worse, he excites a nervous system which is normally somewhat bovine. You, also, I take it, are a confirmed smoker, so both of you are at cross-purposes already."
Furneaux's voice was pitched in the curious piping note usually associated with comic relief in a melodrama, but his wizened face was solemn as a red Indian's. It was Theydon who smiled. His preconceived ideas as to the appearance and demeanor of the London detective were shattered. Really, there was no need to take these two seriously.
Winter, while lighting the cigar, grinned amiably at his colleague. Furneaux passed a cigarette to and fro under his nostrils and sniffed. Theydon reached for a pipe and tobacco jar and drew up a chair.
"Well," he said, "it is not my business to criticise your methods. I have very little to tell you. I suppose Bates—"
"The really important thing is this car which followed you tonight," broke in Winter. "The details are fresh in your memory. What type of car was it? Did you see the driver and occupants? What's its number?"
Theydon had not expected these questions. He looked his astonishment.
"Ha!" cackled Furneaux. "What did I tell you?"
"O, shut up!" growled Winter. "I am asking just what you yourself are itching to know."
"May I take it that the car has not been dogging me by your instructions?" said Theydon. He was inclined to be skeptical, yet the Chief Inspector seemed to have spoken quite candidly.
"Yes," said Winter, meeting the other's glance squarely. "We have no reason on earth to doubt the truth of anything you have said, or may say, with regard to this inquiry. The car is not ours. This is the first we have heard of it. We accepted your word, Mr. Theydon, that you were dining with a friend. Perhaps you will tell us now what his name is and where he lives."
Theydon hesitated the fraction of a second. That, he knew instantly, was a blunder, so he proceeded to rectify it.
"I was dining with Mr. James Creighton Forbes, of No. 11, Fortescue Square," be said. "Probably you are acquainted with his name, so you will realize that if my evidence proves of the slightest value I would not like any reference to be made to the fact that I was his guest tonight."
"I don't see how that can possibly enter into the matter, except in its bearing on this mysterious car."
Though Winter was taking the lead, Theydon was aware that Furneaux, who had given him scant attention hitherto, was now looking at him fixedly. He imagined that the queer little man was all agog to learn something about the automobile which had thrust itself so abruptly into the affair.
"Exactly," he agreed. "I visited Mr. Forbes tonight for the first time. We are mutually interested in aviation. That is why I went to Brooklands today, and the invitation to dinner was the outcome of a letter of introduction given me by Professor Scarth."
Then, thinking he had said enough on that point, he described the gray car and its stolid-faced chauffeur to the best of his ability. He told of the brief chat with the taxi driver and its result.
"Good!" nodded Winter. "I'm glad you did that. It may help. I am doubtful of any information turning up, but you never can tell. The number plate, at any rate, is certainly misleading. Now, about last night? Try and be as accurate as possible with regard to time. Can you give us the exact hour when you returned home?"
"I happened to note by the clock on the mantelpiece that I came in at 11:35."
Winter compared the clock's time with his watch.
"You had been to a theater?" he said.
"It was raining heavily. Did you take a cab?"
"Were you delayed? The piece ended at 11:05."
"My cab met with a slight accident."
"What sort of accident?"
"In all likelihood you can discover the driver," he smiled, "and he will establish my alibi."
His tone seemed to annoy Furneaux, who broke in:
"Don't you write novels?"
"Then you ought to be tickled to death, as the Americans say, at being mixed up in a first-rate murder. This is no ordinary crime. Several people will be older and wiser before the culprit is found and hanged."
"What Mr. Furneaux has in mind," purred Winter cheerfully, "is the curious habit of some witnesses when questioned by the police. They arm themselves against attack, as it were. You see, Mr. Theydon, we suspect nobody. We try to ascertain facts, and hope to deduce a theory from them. Over and over again we are mistaken. We are no more astute than other men. Our sole advantage is a wide experience of criminal methods. The detective of romance— if you'll forgive the allusion— simply doesn't exist in real life."
"I accept the rebuke," said Theydon. "I suppose the gray car was still rankling in my mind. From this moment I start afresh. At any rate, the man who brought me from the theater might check my recollection of the time."
Winter nodded. He was evidently pleased that Theydon was inclined to share his view of the difficulties Scotland Yard encountered in its fight against malefactors.
"Did you see or meet any one in particular while your car approached these mansions, or when you ascended the stairs?"
"No," said Theydon.
He perceived intuitively that if the detectives found the driver of the taxi which brought him from the theater it was possible the man might have noticed Forbes, who had certainly been scrutinized a few minutes later by a policeman, so he hastened to add:
"You said 'any one in particular.' I did see a tall, well-dressed gentleman at the corner of the street, but there is nothing remarkable in that."
"Which way was he heading?"
"In this direction."
"Then it is conceivable that he might be the man who called on Mrs. Lester?"
"Aren't you pretty sure he was the man?"
Theydon permitted himself to look astonished.
"I?" he said. "How can I be sure? If you mean that, judging from the interval of time between my seeing him at the corner and the sound of footsteps on the stairs, followed by the opening of the door at No. 17, it could be he, I accept that."
Winter nodded again. Apparently he was content with Theydon's correction.
"As the weather was bad, you probably hurried in when your cab stopped?" he said.
"That is equivalent to saying you credit me with sense enough to get in out of the wet," smiled Theydon.
"Just so. And you wore an overcoat, which you removed on entering your hall?"
"Yes," and Theydon's tone showed a certain bewilderment at these trivialities.
"Then if you paid no special heed to the movements of the tall gentleman you have mentioned, why did you open one of these windows and look out soon after Bates went to the post?"
Theydon flushed like a schoolboy caught by a master under circumstances which youth generally describes as "a clean cop."
"How on earth do you know I looked out?" he almost gasped.
"I'll tell you willingly. The discovery was Mr. Furneaux's, not mine. When we came here this morning, and ascertained that you had been out at a late hour last night, we asked your man if he could enlighten us as to your movements. He did so. To the best of his belief you dined at a club, and occupied a stall at Daly's Theater subsequently. He was sure, too, you had not walked home through the rain, so it was easy to draw the conclusion that you returned in a covered vehicle. Mr. Furneaux requested Bates to produce the clothes you had worn, which, owing to the uproar created by the news of the murder, had not been brushed and put away. As a consequence the silk collar and part of the back of your dress-coat bore the marks of raindrops. How had they got there? The only logical deduction was that you had thrust your head and shoulders through a window, and the time of the action is established almost beyond doubt, because you had changed the coat when Bates came from the pillar-box. It was either directly after you came in, or while Bates was absent. Of course you may have looked out twice. Did you? Whether once or twice, why did you do it?"
Theydon's feelings changed rapidly while Winter was delivering this very convincing analysis of a few simple facts. He had passed at a bound from the detected schoolboy stage to that of a man forcing his way through a thicket who finds himself on the very lip of a precipice.
He remembered hazily that Bates had said something at Waterloo with regard to the manner in which the detectives, especially Furneaux, had questioned him. But it was too late to apply the warning thus conveyed. If he faltered now he was forever discredited. These men would read his perplexed face as if it were a printed page. In his distress be was prepared to hear Winter or that little satyr, Furneaux, say mockingly:
"Why are you trying to screen James Creighton Forbes? What is he to you? What matter his fame or social rank? We are here to see that justice is done. Out with the truth, let who may suffer."
But neither of the pair said anything of the sort. Furneaux only interjected a sarcastic comment.
"You will observe, Mr. Theydon, that even in a minor instance of deductive reasoning, such as this, the man who smells rather than the man who smokes tobacco solves the problem promptly."
Theydon threw out his hands in token of surrender. He thought he saw a means of escape, and took it unhesitatingly.
"I'm vanquished," he said. "You force me to admit that I do know a little, a very little, more than I have confessed hitherto about the man who visited Mrs. Lester's flat last night. I have said nothing about the matter thus far because I didn't want to be convicted of a piece of idle curiosity worthy of a gossip-loving housemaid. I noticed the man I have described staring at the name tablet of the street as my cab turned the corner. I did not know him. I had never seen him before last night, but he was of such distinguished appearance and his face was of so rare a type that I was interested and wished to ascertain, if possible, on whom he meant calling if, as it seemed, he was searching for an address in these flats. Therefore, I did look out, and saw him enter the doorway beneath. In due course I heard him arrive at Mrs. Lester's door— that is, I assume it was he. Five minutes later Bates and I heard him depart. To make sure, I looked out a second time. If you ask me why I behaved in that way I cannot tell you. I have occupied this flat during the past five months, and I have never previously, within my recollection, lifted a window and gazed out to watch anybody's comings and goings. The thing is inexplicable. All I can say is that it just happened."
"Would you recognize him if you saw him again?"
Theydon gave the assurance readily. It was beyond credence that either detective should put the one question to which he was now firmly resolved to give a misleading answer, and in this belief he was justified, since not even Furneaux's uncanny intelligence could suggest the fantastic notion that the man who walked through the rain the previous night and the man with whom Theydon had dined that evening were one and the same person.
"I don't blame you for adopting a policy of partial concealment," said the Chief Inspector, spryly. "You are not the first, and you certainly will not be the last witness from whom the police have to drag the facts. Now that we have reached more intimate terms, can you help by describing this stranger?"
Theydon complied at once. He drew just such a general sketch of Forbes as a skilled observer of men might be expected to formulate after one direct glance close at hand, supplemented by a view into a lamp-lit street from a second-storey window on a rainy night.
"So far, so good," said Winter. "You have contrived to fill in several details lacking in the description supplied by a policeman who chanced to be standing at the corner when Mrs. Lester's visitor posted a letter. Did you notice that?"
"Yes. Indeed, I believed that, whether intentionally or not, he held an open umbrella at an angle which prevented the constable from seeing his face."
"In fact, it's marvellous what you really do know when your memory is jogged," snapped Furneaux.
Theydon did not resent the sarcasm. He smiled candidly into the little detective's eyes.
"I suppose I deserve that," he said meekly.
"Why did you hide your knowledge of Mrs. Lester's visitor from your man Bates?"
"I was rather ashamed of the subterfuge adopted in order to get him out of the room while I opened the window the first time."
"That was understandable last night, but I fail to follow your reasoning for a policy of silence when we told you at Waterloo that Mrs. Lester had been killed."
"I was utterly taken aback by your news. I wanted time to think. I never meant to hide any material fact at this interview."
"You have contrived to delay and hamper our inquiry for twelve hours— twenty-four in reality. I can't make you out, Mr. Theydon. You would never have said a word about your very accurate acquaintance with this mysterious stranger's appearance had not last night's rainstorm left its legible record on your clothes. Do you now vouch for it that the man was completely unknown to you?"
"You are pleased to be severe, Mr. Furneaux, but, having placed myself in a false position, I must accept your strictures. I assure you, on my honor, that the man I saw was an absolute stranger."
Happily, Theydon was under no compulsion to choose his words. He met the detective's searching gaze unflinchingly. Fate, after terrifying him, had been kind. If Furneaux had expressed himself differently— if, for instance, he had said: "Had you ever before seen the man?" or "Have you now any reason for believing that you know his name?"— he would have forced Theydon's hand in a way he was far from suspecting.
"It may surprise you to hear," piped the shrill, cracked voice, "that there are dozens of policemen walking about London who would arrest you on suspicion had you treated them as you have treated us."
"Then I can only say that I am fortunate in my inquisitors," smiled Theydon.
Winter held up a massive fist in deprecation of these acerbities.
"You have nothing more to tell us?" he queried.
"Then we need not trouble you further tonight. Of course, if luck favors us and we find the gentleman with the classical features— the most unlikely person to commit a murder I have ever heard of— we shall want you to identify him."
"I am at your service at any time. But before you go won't you enlighten me somewhat? What did really happen? I have not even seen a newspaper account of the crime."
"Would you care to examine No. 17?"
It was Furneaux who put the question, and Theydon was genuinely astonished.
"Do you mean—" he began, but Furneaux laughed, almost savagely.
"I mean Mrs. Lester's flat," he said. "The poor woman's body is at the mortuary. If you come with us we can reconstruct the crime. It occurred about this very hour if the doctor's calculations are well founded."
"I shall be most— interested," he said. "By the way, Mr. Furneaux, yours is a French name. Are you a Frenchman, may I ask?"
"A Jersey man. You think I am adopting some of the methods of the French juge d'instruction, eh?"
"No. I cannot bring myself to believe that you regard me as a murderer."
The three passed out into the hall. Mr. and Mrs. Bates immediately showed scared faces at the kitchen door.
"It's all right, Bates," said Theydon airily. "I'm not a prisoner. I'll be with you again in a few minutes."
But Bates was profoundly disturbed.
"Wot beats me," he said to his wife when they were alone, "is why that little ferret wanted to see the guv'nor's clothes. I looked 'em over carefully afterwards, an' there wasn't a speck on 'em except some spots of rain on the coat collar. It's a queer business, no matter how you look at it. Mr. Theydon's manner was strange when he kem in last night. He seemed to be list'nin' for something. I don't know wot to make of it, Eliza. I reely don't."
In effect, since no man is a hero to his valet, what would Tomlinson, butler at No. 11 Fortescue Square, have thought of his master if told that Mrs. Lester's last known visitor was James Creighton Forbes?
A TELEPHONIC TALK AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
Theydon's journalistic experiences had been, for the most part, those of the "special correspondent," or descriptive writer. He had never entered one of those fetid slums of a great city in which, too often, murder is done, never sickened with the physical nausea of death in its most revolting aspect, when some unhappy wretch's foul body serves only to further pollute air already vile.
It was passing strange, therefore, that Winter had no sooner opened the door of No. 17 than the novice of the party became aware of a heavy, pungent scent which he associated with some affrighting and unclean thing. At first he swept aside the phantasy. Strong as he was, his nervous system had been subjected to severe strain that evening. He knew well that the mind can create its own specters, that the five senses can be subjugated by forces which science has not as yet either measured or defined.
Moreover, he was standing in a hall furnished with a taste and quiet elegance that must surely indicate similar features in each room of a suite which, in other respects, bore an almost exact resemblance of his own apartments. In sheer protest against the riot of an overwrought imagination he brushed a hand across his eyes.
The chief inspector noted the action.
"You will find nothing grewsome here, I assure you," he said, quietly. "Beyond a few signs of hurried rummaging of drawers and boxes there is absolutely no indication of a crime having been committed."
"Mr. Theydon came prepared to see ghosts," squeaked Furneaux. "Evidently he is not acquainted with the peculiar smell of a joss stick."
Theydon turned troubled eyes on the wizened little man who seemed to have the power of reading his secret thought.
"A joss stick," he repeated. "Isn't that some sort of incense used by Chinese in their temples?"
"Yes," said Furneaux.
"Lots of ladies burn them in their boudoirs nowadays," explained Winter offhandedly.
"The Chinese burn them to propitiate evil spirits," murmured Furneaux. "The Taou gods are mostly deities of a very unpleasant frame of mind. The mere scowl of one of them from a painted fan suggests novel and painful forms of torture. I've seen Shang Ti grinning at me from a porcelain vase, otherwise exquisite, and felt my hair rising."
"I do wish you wouldn't talk nonsense, Charles," said Winter, frowning heavily.
"Am I talking nonsense, Mr. Theydon?" demanded Furneaux. "Didn't your flesh creep when that queer perfume assailed your nostrils, which are not yet altogether atrophied by the reek of thousands of rank cigars?"
"Stop it!" commanded Winter, throwing open a door.
"And they christened him Leander— Leander, who swam the Hellespont for love of a woman!" muttered Furneaux.
Theydon began to believe that both detectives were cranks of the first order. Furneaux, whose extraordinary insight he actually feared, was obviously an excellent example of the alliance between insanity and genius. In a word, he failed, and not unreasonably, to understand that when the Jersey man was mouthing a strange jargon of knowledge and incoherence, and Winter was inclined to be snappy with his subordinate, and each was more than rude to the other, they were then giving tongue like hounds hot on the trail.
Winter's Christian names were James Leander, the latter being conferred for no more classical reason than his father's association with a famous boating club, but the fact supplied Furneaux with material for many a quip. These things Theydon learnt later. At present he was giving all his attention to Winter, who led the way into a dainty furnished bedroom. The electric lights were governed by two switches. A pair of lamps occupied the usual place in front of a dressing table; a third was suspended from a canopy over the bed, and was controlled also by an alternate switch behind the bolster. Winter turned on all three lights, so the room was brilliantly illuminated.
Any place less likely to become the scene of a brutal crime could hardly be imagined. It looked exactly what it was, the bedchamber of a refined and well-bred woman, whose trained sense of color and design was shown by the harmony of carpet, rugs, wall paper and furniture.
Winter pointed to a slight depression on the side of the bed. A white linen coverlet was rumpled as though some one had sat there.
"That is where Ann Rogers, the maid, found her mistress at ten o'clock this morning," he said. "As you see, the bed had not been slept in. Indeed, Mrs. Lester was fully dressed. My belief is that she was pounced on the instant she entered the room— probably to retire for the night— strangled before she could utter a sound, and flung here when dead."
Again Theydon was aware of the subtle, penetrating, and not wholly unpleasing scent which Furneaux had attributed to the burning of a joss stick, but his mind was focused on the detective's words, which suggested a queer discrepancy between certain vague possibilities already flitting through his brain and the terrible drama as it presented itself to a skilled criminologist.
"But," he said, almost protestingly, "from what I have seen of Mrs. Lester she was a strong and active woman. It is inconceivable that the man who came here last night could have murdered her while I was writing two brief notes. I am positive he did not remain five minutes, and Bates or I, or both of us, must have heard some trampling of feet, some indications of a struggle. Moreover, you think she was about to retire. Doesn't that opinion conflict with the known facts?"
"What known facts?"
"Well— or— those I have mentioned. The brief visit, the open nature of the arrival and departure, the posting of a letter, which, by the way, may have been written in his presence."
Theydon positively jumped. He would not be surprised now if Forbes's name came out.
"How do you know that?" he asked.
"Mrs. Lester wrote to an aunt in Oxfordshire, a lady who lives in the village of Iffley, near the first lock on the Thames below Oxford. As it happened, this aunt, a Miss Beale, was lunching with a friend in Oxford today, and some one showed her an early edition of a London evening newspaper containing an account of the murder. Instead of yielding to hysteria, and passing from one fainting fit into another, Miss Beale had the rare good sense to go straight to the police station. One of our men has interviewed her this evening, and she is coming here tomorrow, but in the meantime the Oxford police telephoned the gist of the letter, which is headed 'Monday, 11:30 p. m.' The hour is not quite accurate, but near enough, since the context shows that a 'friend' had just called and given certain information which had determined the writer to leave London 'to-morrow'— meaning today— 'or Wednesday at latest.' So you see, Mr. Theydon, if the unknown is an honest man, he will soon hear of the hue and cry raised by the murder, and declare himself to the police. Indeed, for all I know, he may have reported himself to the Yard already. In that event you will probably meet him again quite soon."
An electric bell jarred at the end of the main passage. It smote on their ears with the loud emphasis of a pistol shot. Even the detectives were startled, and Winter said, in a tone of distinct annoyance:
"Go and see who the deuce that is, Furneaux."
Furneaux returned promptly with Bates, pallid and apologetic.
"Beg pardon, sir," said the intruder, addressing Theydon, but allowing his eyes to roam furtively about the room as though he expected to see something ghoul-like and sinister, "Mr. Forbes has rung up—"
Theydon's voice literally quavered. For the first time in his life he knew why a woman shrieks in the stress of sudden excitement.
"Tell Mr. Forbes I am still engaged with the gentlemen from Scotland Yard," he gasped. "I'll give him a call the moment I'm free. He will understand. Anyhow, I can't explain further now."
"Yes, sir," and Bates disappeared.
"Mr. Forbes? The gentleman you were dining with?" inquired Winter.
"Yes," said Theydon. He knew he ought to add something by way of explanation, but his heart was thumping madly, and he dared not trust his voice.
"You told him, I suppose, that Scotland Yard was worrying you, and he wants to know the result?"
Then Theydon saw an avenue of escape, and took it eagerly.
"I spoke of the murder, of course," he said, "but Mr. Forbes was hardly interested. He had seen the newspaper placards, and that was all he knew of it. The truth is, he is wholly wrapped up in a scheme for reforming mankind by excluding airships and aeroplanes from warlike operations, and found me a somewhat preoccupied listener. He wants my help, such as it is, and I have no doubt the present call is a preliminary to another meeting tomorrow."
"Why not go to him? We'll wait. We can do nothing more tonight after leaving here."
"Speaking candidly, I am not in a mood to discuss such visionary projects. I shall be glad if Mr. Forbes has gone to bed when I do ring him up."
Winter shook his head.
"Excuse me, Mr. Theydon, but I am older than you, and may 'venture on advice,'" he said. "A writer who has his way to make in the world cannot afford to slight a man of Mr. Forbes's standing. Go to him at once. It will please him. Don't hurry."
Theydon realized that a continued refusal would certainly set Furneaux's wits at work, and he dreaded the outcome. He went without another word. When the outer door had closed behind him Winter turned to Furneaux.
"Well?" he said.
For answer Furneaux waved a hand and tiptoed into the hall. Waiting until he heard the door of No. 18 slam he opened the latch of No. 17 so cautiously that no sound was forthcoming. Soon he had an ear to Theydon's letter box and was following attentively a one-sided conversation.
Now, Theydon had thought hard during the few strides from one flat to the other. His telephone was fixed close to the party wall dividing the two sets of apartments and he was not certain that, in the absolute quietude prevailing in Innesmore Mansions at that late hour, a voice could not be overheard. True, he did not count on Furneaux playing the eavesdropper at the slit of the letter box, but he resolved to take no risks and say nothing that any one could make capital of.
So, when he had asked the exchange to reconnect him with the caller who had just rung up, and he was put through, this is what Furneaux heard:
"That you, Mr. Forbes. Sorry I sent my man just now with a message that must leave sounded rather curt, but the Scotland Yard people kindly excused me, so I can give you a minute or two.... No, I'm sorry, but I cannot come to luncheon tomorrow, nor go to Brooklands again this week. You see, this dreadful murder which I spoke of will necessitate my presence at an inquest, and the police seem to attach much significance to the visit to Mrs. Lester last night of a man whom I saw in the street, and whom Bates and I heard entering and leaving the poor lady's flat.... Bates? O, he is my general factotum. He and his wife keep house for me. . . . Yes, I'll gladly let you know the earliest date when I'll be free. Then you and I can go into the flying proposition thoroughly.... No. The detectives have apparently not got any clew to the murderer, nor even discovered any motive for the crime. They have taken me into No. 17. In fact, I was there when your call was made.... The murderer ransacked the place thoroughly, but did not touch money or jewelry, I understand. The only peculiar thing, if I may so describe it, about the place, is the scent of a burnt joss stick. It clings to the passage and the bedroom in which the body was found.. . . Ah, by the way, Mrs. Lester wrote a letter, which her visitor posted, and the addressee, her aunt, is in communication with the police. The text tends to clear the man of suspicion.... Yes, if, by chance, I find myself at liberty tomorrow, I'll 'phone you at your city office. I'll find the number in the directory, of course?... O, thanks— I'll jot it down— 00400 Bank.... Goodnight! Too bad that this wretched affair should interfere with our crusade, which, the more I think of it, the stronger it appeals. Au revoir, then."
In reality, Forbes had not said one word about his peace propaganda, but he had evidently been quick to realize that Theydon was purposely giving their talk a twist in that direction. A muttered "I understand— perfectly," showed this, and he did not strive to conceal the alarm which possessed him when Theydon spoke of the joss stick. He murmured distinctly, "Great Heavens! Then I was not mistaken," and again voiced his distress on hearing of the letter.
But he made matters easy by pressing Theydon to come and see him on the morrow, either at his office in Old Broad Street or at his residence. On the whole, Theydon did not care who heard what he had said, but it was a relief to find that he had to ring for readmission to No. 17.
Furneaux opened the door.
"You soon got rid of your friend, then?" said the detective, while they were on the way to rejoin Winter.
"Yes. It was just what I imagined— a pressing invitation to plunge forthwith into Mr. Forbes's project for the regeneration of mankind. I had to tell him frankly that you gentlemen had first claim on me. I suppose I shall be wanted at the inquest?"
"Not tomorrow. The coroner will hear the medical evidence, and that of Ann Rogers, if she is in a condition to appear, and there will be an adjournment for a week."
"Ah, that reminds me. Didn't Mrs. Lester's servant admit the visitor last night?"
Theydon put the question advisedly. He was calmer now, and had made up his mind as to the course he should pursue. Although he had assured Winter that he would recognize the stranger if confronted with him, and, if Forbes was brought into the inquiry, the admission might prove awkward, he meant to say that he had, indeed, noticed a remarkable resemblance in the millionaire to the man he had seen looking up at the name tablet on the corner, but felt that the likeness was only one of those singular coincidences which abound in a cosmopolitan city.
The smartest cross-examiner at the bar could not shake him if he took that stand. The sheer improbability of Forbes being the mysterious visitor would justify his attitude, and the notion was so consoling that he faced the two detectives with new confidence and a self-possession that was exceedingly pleasant when compared, with his earlier embarrassment.
"No," said Winter. "By a most remarkable chance, Ann Rogers was given leave to spend the night with her father, who lives in Camden Town. He is an old man and was taken ill last evening. He believes he asked some one to telegraph to his daughter, asking her to come to him. She certainly received a telegram and as certainly did visit him. Of course, that phase of the affair will be cleared up thoroughly, but the main facts are indisputable. Ann Rogers has her own latchkey. As Mrs. Lester usually sat up late, being a lover of books, and seldom stirred before ten o'clock, the maid waited until that hour before bringing her mistress's cup of tea. That stain on the carpet near the door shows where the tray fell from her hands."
Sometimes an artist obtains the strongest effect by one deft sweep of the brush. Winter, though he would have blushed if described as an artist in words, had achieved a similar result by his concluding sentence. Theydon pictured the scene. He saw the limp form thrown across the bed, the distorted face, the hands and arms posed grotesquely.
He heard the shrill scream of the terrified servant, an elderly woman whom Bates described as "a quiet body," and could imagine the clatter of the laden tray as it dropped from nerveless fingers. A sort of fury rose within him. Mrs. Lester had been done to death in a horrible and insensate way, and no matter who suffered, be he millionaire or pauper, the wretch who committed the crime should be made to pay the penalty of the law.
In that moment he forgot Evelyn Forbes, and thought only of the fair and gracious woman whose agonized spirit had taken flight under the compulsion of the tiger grip of some human brute now moving among his fellow-creatures unknown and unsuspected. It was inconceivable that Forbes should be guilty, but why should he not avow his acquaintance with the victim, and thus aid the police in their quest?
He glowered savagely at the telltale stain, and vowed to rid his conscience of an incubus. He would wait till the morrow and force Forbes to come out into the open. Otherwise—
"You wish you had the murderer here now?"
Furneaux spoke softly, and with no trace of his wonted irony, but Theydon was aware that once more the little detective had peered into his very soul.
"Yes," he said, and there was a new gravity in his tone. "I do wish that. I have never before been brought in contact with a crime of this magnitude. It conveys a sort of personal responsibility. To think that I was in my room, reading about aviation, while a woman's life was being choked out of her within a few feet of where I was seated! O, it is monstrous! Let me tell you two, here and now, that if I can do anything to bring Mrs. Lester's slayer to justice, you can count on me, no matter what the cost."