THE CROOKED HOUSE
New York Edward J. Clode
Copyright, 1921, by Edward J. Clode Printed in the United States of America
I A STRANGE RIDDLE 9
II THE CROOKED HOUSE 19
III THE ENDLESS GARDEN 33
IV DESTRUCTION 45
V COPPLESTONE 53
VI THE TRAIL OF CORPSES 65
VII TRANTER 71
VIII MRS. ASTLEY-ROLFE 80
IX THE DANSEUSE 83
X MR. GLUCKSTEIN 85
XI THE CLERGYMAN 87
XII MR. BOLSOVER 89
XIII THE TRINITY OF DEATH 92
XIV WITHOUT TRACE 105
XV A BUILDER OF MEN 117
XVI A TRIPLE ALLIANCE 133
XVII MR. GLUCKSTEIN IN CONFIDENCE 142
XVIII THE WIT OF THE PINK LADY 151
XIX DETAINED ON SUSPICION 159
XX THE BIRTH OF THE KILLER 176
XXI A HASTY FLIGHT 187
XXII TRANTER ATTACKS THE CROOKED HOUSE 195
XXIII A DUEL 203
XXIV THE SECRET OF THE HOUSE 220
XXV TRUER COLORS 233
XXVI PROVIDING FOR THE WORST 241
XXVII THE DISAPPEARANCE OF TRANTER 250
XXVIII IN PURSUIT 259
XXIX ETHICS OF KILLING 262
XXX MONSIEUR DUPONT'S TASK 273
XXXI WHAT THEY HEARD 279
XXXII THE BEAUTY-KILLER 288
XXXIII LAST TRUTHS 291
XXXIV CONCLUSION 312
THE CROOKED HOUSE
A STRANGE RIDDLE
"Monsieur Tranter! A moment!"
The Right-Honorable John Tranter swung round, latch-key in hand. Behind him, an enormous figure emerged, with surprisingly agile and noiseless steps, from the shadow of the adjoining house—a figure almost grotesque and monstrous in the dim light of the street lamp. The very hugeness of the apparition was so disconcerting that John Tranter drew back with a startled exclamation.
"Good Lord! Monsieur Dupont? You in London?"
Monsieur Dupont described circles with his country's largest silk hat.
"I in London! An event, my friend, in the history of your city!"
He laughed softly, and replaced the hat on his head. They shook hands warmly.
"This is a delightful surprise," Tranter said, turning back to the door. "Come in."
"It is late," Monsieur Dupont apologized—"but I entreat a moment. It is three hours only since I arrived, and I have passed one of them on your doorstep."
"An hour?" Tranter exclaimed. "But surely——"
Monsieur Dupont squeezed himself into the narrow hall with difficulty.
"I possess the gift of patience," he claimed modestly. "In London it is of great value."
In the small library he looked about him with surprise. The plain, almost scanty furniture of Tranter's house evidently did not accord with his expectations of the residence of an English Privy Councillor. Monsieur Dupont sat down on a well-worn leather couch, and stared, somewhat blankly, at the rows of dull, monotonous bindings in the simple mahogany bookcases.
He placed the drink Tranter mixed for him on a small table by his side, accepted a cigar, and puffed at it serenely. And in that position, Monsieur Victorien Dupont presented a pleasing picture of elephantine geniality. He was so large that his presence seemed to fill half the room. His great face was one tremendous smile. His eyes, though capable of a disconcertingly direct gaze, were clear and even childlike. His English was perfect, his evening-dress faultless, and, though obviously a bon-viveur, he was also unmistakably a man with a purpose.
"And what has brought you to London?" Tranter asked, sitting opposite to him.
"My friend," said Monsieur Dupont, "I am here with a remarkable object. I have come to use the eyes the good God has given me. And to do so I beg the assistance of the great position the good God has given you."
"I hope," Tranter returned, "that what you require will enable me to make some sort of return to the man who saved my life."
Monsieur Dupont waved his hands in a gigantic gesture.
"To restore to the world one of its great men—it was a privilege for which I, myself, should pay! The service I ask of you is small."
"You have but to name it," said the Privy Councillor.
* * * * *
Suddenly there was no smile on Monsieur Dupont's face. Without the smile it was a very much less pleasant face.
"Two years ago, in my own country," his voice acquired a new snap, "some one asked me a riddle."
"A riddle?" Tranter echoed, surprised at the change.
"A very strange riddle. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you what it was. I cannot tell any one what it was. I undertook to find the answer. From France the riddle took me far away to another country—and there, after a year's work, I found half the answer. The other half is in London. And I am in London to find it."
"This is interesting," said Tranter, smiling slightly at the huge Frenchman's intense seriousness.
"You, my friend, can help me."
"I am at your service," the other promised.
Monsieur Dupont half-emptied his glass, and the smile began to reappear on his face in gradual creases. In a moment the shadow had vanished. He laughed like a jolly giant.
"Ah, forgive me! I had almost committed the crime to be serious. It is a fault that is easy in your London."
"What do you want me to do for you?" Tranter asked.
"I want," said Monsieur Dupont, "to be taken with you, as your friend from Paris, to one or two society functions—where I may be likely to meet ... what I seek."
Tranter was somewhat taken aback.
"Unconsciously," he returned—"though of course, I will make it my business to fulfill your wishes—you have really asked me a difficult thing. No man goes less into society than I do. Most people have given up inviting me."
"Forgive me," said Monsieur Dupont again. "I had imagined I should be asking a thing the most simple."
"So you are," Tranter assured him. "The fault is with me. Where women are concerned I am utterly hopeless. I fly from a pretty woman as you might fly from a crocodile."
"An ugly woman," said Monsieur Dupont, "is the real friend of man—if he would but know it."
"The dull family dinners of dull family people are the only 'functions' I ever attend. However, let me see what can be done for you." Tranter rose, and with an amused expression began to sort out a small pile of cards on the mantel-piece.
Monsieur Dupont smiled on. He emptied his glass, and inhaled the smoke of his excellent cigar with all the enjoyment of a satisfied connoisseur. His glance played from one article of furniture to another, from the floor to the ceiling, from bookcase to bookcase, from picture to picture. The very plainness of the room seemed to fascinate him. His gaze sought out the ugliest picture, and became fixed on it. Tranter turned over all the cards, and shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
"In a couple of days I shall be able to fix you up a dozen times over," he said. "But I am afraid I have scarcely anything to offer you for to-morrow night. Why didn't you drop me a line in advance?"
"Let us dispense with to-morrow night, then," said Monsieur Dupont.
Tranter ran through the cards again.
"There is a dinner at Lord Crumbleton's—which I have too much regard for you to suggest. The Countess is a most estimable lady, who has spent the last fifteen years in vain attempts to become unfaithful to her husband, and now reads the Apocrypha all day for stimulation. You could dine with a high-church clergyman who absolves sins, or an actor-manager who commits them. But stay——" he paused quickly. "I forgot. There is something else." He sorted out a card. "Here is a possibility of amusement that had escaped me."
"Ah!" said Monsieur Dupont.
"George Copplestone has favored me with an invitation to a select gathering at his house at Richmond, which would be very much more likely to provide answers to riddles. I never accept Copplestone's invitations on principle—although he goes on sending them. But, if you like, I will break my rule, and take you. It is sure to be entertaining, if nothing more."
Monsieur Dupont bowed his gratitude. Tranter replaced the cards, and returned to his seat.
"Copplestone is a remarkable individual, who has learnt what a multitude of sins even a slight financial connection with the Theater will cover. He puts various sums of money into the front of the house to gain unquestioned admission to the back. He has an extraordinary taste for fantasy, and is always startling his friends with some new eccentricity. He is not generally considered to be a desirable acquaintance—and certainly no man in London has less regard for the conventions."
"To confine myself to desirable acquaintances," said Monsieur Dupont, "would be my last wish."
"Then we will go to Richmond to-morrow night. He lives in a very strange house, in a stranger garden—the sort of place that no ordinary normal person could possibly live in. And I warn you that you will find nothing ordinary or normal in it. If you are interested in some of the unaccountable vagaries of human nature, you will enjoy yourself."
"The unaccountable vagaries of human nature," said Monsieur Dupont, "are the foundation of my riddle."
"Then," Tranter returned, "I could give you no better chance to solve it. In addition, you will probably make the acquaintance of a certain pretty society widow, who wants to marry him because of his vices, and one or two other well-known people who owe him money and can't afford to refuse to dine with him. Also, as the invitation is an unusually pressing one, we can rely on the introduction of some unexpected freaks for our entertainment."
"It is arranged," Monsieur Dupont declared, "I go with you to Richmond."
"Very well," Tranter agreed. "Call for me here at eight o'clock, and we will go. Help yourself to another drink."
Monsieur Dupont helped himself to another drink.
THE CROOKED HOUSE
It was no unusual thing for George Copplestone to spring surprises on his guests. He had a twisted sense of the dramatic, and twisted things were expected from him. On some occasions he perpetrated the wildest and most extravagant eccentricities, without the slightest regard for the moral or artistic sensibilities of those on whom he imposed them—on others he contented himself with less harrowing minor freaks—but the object of thoroughly upsetting and confounding the mental balances of his victims was invariably achieved. He delighted, and displayed remarkable ingenuity, in providing orgies of the abnormal. He reveled in producing an atmosphere of brain-storm, and in dealing sledge-hammer blows at the intellects of his better balanced acquaintances. Often he was in uncontrollable spirits—on fire with mental and physical exuberance—sometimes he was morose and silent, and apparently weak. Frequently he disappeared for considerable periods, and his house appeared to be closed. But none saw his coming or going.
Strange rumors circulated about him from time to time. Certain social circles, to which his wealth and position entitled him to the entree, were closed to him. Over and above his wild extravagancies, he was credited with vices that remained unnamed. It was said that things took place in his house that sealed the lips of men and women. When his name was mentioned in the clubs, some men shrugged their shoulders. When it was spoken in the drawing-rooms, some women remained silent. There had been an attempt to stab him, and twice he had been shot at. After the second attempt, a woman had been heard to say bitterly that he must bear a charmed life. He continued to pursue his strange ways with supreme indifference to the opinions of his fellow-creatures.
The house he lived in was the only sort of house he could have lived in. From the foundations to the topmost brick it was a mass of bewildering crookedness. Nothing was straight. Not a single passage led where it would have been expected to lead—not a staircase fulfilled normal anticipations. Scarcely two windows in the whole building were the same size—scarcely two rooms were the same shape—and not even two contortions corresponded. There must have been a mile of unnecessary corridors, dozens of incomprehensible corners and turnings, and at least a score of unwanted entrances and exits. If the aim and object of the architect, whoever he was, had been to reduce the unfortunate occupants of his handiwork to a condition of hopeless mental entanglement, he could not have created a more effective instrument for the purpose. George Copplestone found it a residence after his own heart, and delighted in the means it provided for gratifying his feverish inspirations.
The room into which John Tranter and Monsieur Victorien Dupont were ushered at eight-thirty on the following night presented an extraordinary spectacle of lavish and indiscriminate decoration, arriving at a general suggestion of something between a Royal visit and preparations for a wildly enthusiastic Christmas. Flags and festoons, flowers, real and imitation, fairy-candles and colored lamps, burning with strange heavy scents, quaint fantastic shapes of paper, startlingly illuminated—all massed into an indescribable disorder of light and color. Five amazed people were awaiting further developments.
Mrs. Astley-Rolfe was a charming widow of twenty-seven, who had successfully gambled on her late husband's probable lease of life, and was now in the throes of a wild attachment to George Copplestone, to which he had shown himself by no means averse. She was somewhat languid from an excess of luxury, unable to brook opposition even to a whim, and as yet undefeated in the attainment of her desires, which were not, perhaps, always to the credit of her sex. She had an insufficient income, and a weakness for inscribing her signature on stamped slips of paper, several of which, it was rumored, were in Copplestone's possession. Her house in Grosvenor Gardens was an artistic paradise, and was frequently visited by gentlemen from Jermyn Street, who seemed fond of assuring themselves that its treasures remained intact.
A West-End clergyman, of Evangelical appearance, who translated French farces under a nom-de-plume, was advocating, in confidence, the abolition of the Censor to a well-known theatrical manager, whose assets were all in the name of his wife. A bejeweled Russian danseuse, who spoke broken English with a Highland accent, extolled the attractions of theatrical investment to a Hebrew financier, who was feasting his eyes on the curves of her figure, and hoping that she was sufficiently hard-up. The entrance of Tranter and his huge companion created general surprise. Mrs. Astley-Rolfe held up her hands prettily.
"You?" she exclaimed, to Tranter. "You—of all people—condescending to visit our plane? The mystery is explained at once. The decorations are for you—the Pillar of the State!"
"Indeed they are not," he assured her. He stood aside. "Permit me to introduce my friend, Monsieur Dupont."
"This is delightful!" she smiled.
Monsieur Dupont bent over her hand.
"Madame," he declared, "I change completely my opinion of London."
"Where is Copplestone?" Tranter inquired, gazing with amazement round the festooned room.
A frown passed over Mrs. Astley-Rolfe's face.
"He has not yet appeared. He sent in a message asking us to wait for him here. He is up to some freak obviously."
"It is certainly a strange medley of color," Tranter admitted. "Fortunately, I am not particularly susceptible—but to an artistic temperament I can understand that the effect would be acute. What extraordinary event can such a blaze be intended to celebrate?"
"I don't know," she returned, a little shortly. "He has told us nothing."
Her eyes strayed anxiously to the door. The movements of her hands were nervous.
"I wish he would come," she muttered—and stood away from them.
Tranter drew his companion across the room.
"Well?" he asked, smiling. "How do you like this somewhat showy welcome?"
"My friend," said Monsieur Dupont slowly—"into what manner of house have you brought me?"
"Copplestone is a curious fellow," Tranter replied. "I warned you to be prepared for something unusual."
"It is a crooked house," said Monsieur Dupont. "It stands on a crooked road, and there are crooked paths all round it. And everything is crooked inside it."
"These decorations are crooked enough, at any rate," Tranter laughed.
"These decorations," said Monsieur Dupont, "are not only crooked—they are bad. Very bad."
He lowered his voice. There was a gleam of excitement in his eyes.
"Don't you see," he whispered, "that decorations can be good or bad, just as men and women can be good or bad? These decorations are bad. They are a mockery of all decorations—a travesty the most heartless of the motives for which good and pure people decorate. There is nothing honest or straightforward about them. They are a mean confusion of all the symbols of joy. They are put up for some cruel and detestable purpose——"
The door flew open with a snap, and a young man of dishevelled appearance burst into the room. His eyes were wild, and his face was working with the intensity of his passion.
"Christine," he panted. "Christine...."
He stopped, and gazed round in a dazed fashion, clenching and unclenching his hands.
Mrs. Astley-Rolfe sprang forward with a suppressed cry, and confronted him tensely.
"Well?" she cried sharply—"what about Christine?"
He did not seem to be aware of her. He was staring at the flags, the lights, the flowers, and the colored paper.
"It is true then," he muttered. "These things...."
The woman was as white as death. Her hands were locked together. She swayed.
"What is true?" she gasped.
The young man took no notice of her. Copplestone's elderly manservant appeared in the doorway, and approached him.
"Mr. Copplestone declines to see you, sir—and requests that you will leave his house. I have orders, otherwise, to send for the police."
The young man drew himself up. He was suddenly quite composed and dignified. The passion died out of his face, leaving an expression almost of contentment in its place.
"I wish it to be understood," he said, addressing himself to the room generally with perfect evenness, "that, rather than allow Christine Manderson to become engaged to George Copplestone, I will tear her to pieces with my own hands, and utterly destroy her." And he turned, and walked quietly out of the room.
In the silence that followed all eyes were fixed on the white, rigid woman. Her face was drawn and haggard. She seemed to have grown old and weak. Her whole frame appeared to have shrunk under an overwhelming blow. For some moments she stood motionless. Then, with a supreme effort of self-control, she turned, and faced them steadily.
"I think," she said calmly, "that if Miss Manderson is in the house she should be warned."
"Fellow was mad," said the theatrical manager.
"Tout-a-fait daft," agreed the Russian danseuse.
"It would have been safer," Tranter remarked, "if he had been given in charge."
There was something very like contempt in Mrs. Astley-Rolfe's glance.
"Do you know," she said quietly, "that that young man is a millionaire who lives on a pound a week, and spends the remaining nine hundred and ninety-nine pounds a week on saving lives and souls in places in London that people like us try to avoid even hearing about? If it is madness to devote your life and money to lifting some of the world's shadows—then he is very mad."
"Mosth creditable," said the Hebrew financier.
She turned her back on them, and stood apart.
Monsieur Dupont laid a hand on Tranter's arm.
"My friend," he said—and there was the faintest tremor in his voice, "I ask you again—into what manner of house have you brought me?"
"I am beginning to wish that I had not brought you," Tranter returned. "I don't like the atmosphere."
"That," said Monsieur Dupont, drawing him aside, "is where we differ. To me the atmosphere is extremely interesting. If I were a sportsman, I would make you a bet that this will be an eventful evening."
"I feel strongly," said Tranter seriously, "that we should be wise to leave. We don't want to be mixed up in an affair with a madman."
Monsieur Dupont shook his head.
"The millionaire was not mad, my friend. He may have been mad yesterday. He may be mad to-morrow. But he is very sane to-night."
"I don't like it," Tranter maintained. "I would much rather go. Events under this roof have a trick of being a little too dramatic."
Laughter from the clergyman, the financier, and the danseuse, greeted the conclusion of a story with which the theatrical manager had attempted to relieve the strain. Monsieur Dupont drew Tranter still further back.
"This Mademoiselle Manderson—do you know her?"
"No," Tranter replied. "I've never heard of her. I suppose she is some new friend of Copplestone's. If she is really engaged to him, I don't think she is altogether to be envied."
Monsieur Dupont's glance found Mrs. Astley-Rolfe.
"No," he remarked softly—"I do not think she is."
Two heavy curtains at the extreme end of the room were drawn apart, and the figure of a man appeared between them—a tall, thick-set man, in full evening-dress, with a large white flower in his button-hole. For a moment he stood still, looking intently down the room.
"Copplestone," Tranter whispered to his companion.
"Mon Dieu," muttered Monsieur Dupont.
It was the face of a fanatic—wonderful, fascinating, cruel—a fanatic who neither feared God nor regarded man—an infinite egotist. The fires of a great distorted soul smoldered in his eyes. The broad, lofty forehead proclaimed a mind that might have placed him among the rulers of men—but instead he was little above the level of a clown. The destinies of a nation might have rested in the hands that he turned only to selfish fantasy. The whole appearance of him, arresting and almost awe-inspiring as it undoubtedly was, had in it the repulsiveness of the unnatural—and, with that, all the tragedy of pitiful waste.
To-night, he confronted his guests in an attitude, and with an air, of triumph. But as Mrs. Astley-Rolfe turned quickly to him with something of a challenge in her bearing, a faint mocking smile appeared and lingered for a moment on his face. Then he moved aside, his hand on the curtains.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said deliberately, "permit me to present you to my fiancee—Miss Christine Manderson."
He drew the curtains apart.
"Mon Dieu," said Monsieur Dupont again.
A half-strangled sob came from the lips of Mrs. Astley-Rolfe. Tranter uttered an exclamation. The danseuse, the clergyman, and the theatrical manager burst into vigorous applause.
Framed in the darkness behind him was the white form of a woman, of transcendent loveliness. In the soft light it seemed almost a celestial figure. She smiled with entrancing sweetness, and held out her hands.
But as her gaze swept over the occupants of the room, the smile vanished. Her eyes became fixed and staring; her face set. She uttered a sharp cry—and fell forward in a dead faint.
THE ENDLESS GARDEN
Confusion followed. Copplestone knelt beside her, calling her by name in a strange excess of fear. The theatrical manager tore a flask from his pocket, and administered its contents freely. The spirit revived her. She opened her eyes. They lifted her gently, and laid her on a couch.
"It was that madman rushing in unnerved her," Copplestone cried fiercely. "Wish I'd called in the police. Curse him!"
Her hand closed on his. "No, no," she whispered. "He must not be touched. He didn't mean it."
"Mean it be damned!" said Copplestone savagely. "If I see any more of him, he'll find himself in jail in less time than it takes to say it."
The manager proffered further stimulant. The color began to return to her face, but her eyes were wide and strained. Copplestone watched her closely.
"Look here," said the manager, re-corking his empty flask, "she'd better rest. Let's all clear off, and go on with this another night."
"Thertainly," agreed the financier.
But Christine Manderson rose, and leant on Copplestone's arm. Her self-control was exerted to the utmost, but she trembled.
"Forgive me," she said softly. "I am all right now. Please don't go."
"Good!" Copplestone exclaimed, recovering his equanimity. "It would be a pity to break up. We'll have a jolly night." He laughed loudly. "Tranter, of all people!" he cried boisterously. "And——" he looked towards Monsieur Dupont.
"I was sure you wouldn't mind my bringing a friend with me," Tranter said. "Monsieur Dupont has just arrived from Paris."
"Delighted," said Copplestone, shaking hands with great heartiness. "Forgive this unhappy beginning. We'll make up for it now. Come along to dinner. It's all ready."
In the dining-room they sat down to a table that glittered and gleamed with a hundred lights, concealed under strands of white crystallized leaves, springing from a frosted tree. Such a table might have been set in Fairyland, for the betrothal feast of Oberon.
"Glad we didn't miss this," said the theatrical manager.
He regaled the company with a selection of his less offensive stories, and found ready applause. The gayety was loud and forced. Every one attempted to keep it at fever-heat. Jest followed jest with increasing rapidity. Laughter rang out on the smallest provocation. It was a competition in hilarity. And the gayest of all were Christine Manderson, and Mrs. Astley-Rolfe.
The night was hot and sultry. The distant roll of thunder added to the tenseness of the atmosphere. And hearing it, Christine Manderson shuddered.
"Storms are unlucky to me," she said, listening until the sullen roll died away. "Why should we have one to-night—of all nights?"
The clergyman adroitly twisted the subject of lightning into a compliment. As the dinner drew to a somewhat loud conclusion, Copplestone's face grew flushed, and his hands unsteady. The manager's voice and stories thickened, and the thoughts of the Russian danseuse became fixed on Aberdeen. Tranter and Monsieur Dupont were abstemious guests. But the Frenchman seemed to be enjoying himself immensely.
They rose from the fairy table, and strolled out through the open windows into the garden. The air had grown hotter and more oppressive, the thunder louder. Frequent flashes lit up the darkness.
The glowing tips of cigars and cigarettes disappeared in various directions across the lawns.
* * * * *
Monsieur Dupont discovered, to his cost, the truth of his remark that the house was surrounded by crooked paths. The grounds were a veritable maze. He had purposely slipped away alone, and in five minutes was involved in a network of twisting, thickly-hedged paths, all of which seemed only to lead still further into the darkness.
He stopped, and listened. He could hear no voices. Not a sound, except the gathering thunder, disturbed the silence. He was completely cut off. Even the lights of the house were hidden from him. He had turned about so many times that he did not even know in which direction it lay. Coupled with the effect of what had happened in the house, the influence of this tortuous garden was sinister and unnerving. In the lightning flashes, now more vivid and frequent, he tried in vain to determine his position. He wandered about, trying path after path, doubling back on his own tracks—only to find himself more and more helplessly lost.
"Nom de Dieu," said Monsieur Dupont, in despair.
He halted suddenly, standing as still as a figure of stone. On his right the hedge was thick and high. He could see nothing. But the whisper of a voice had reached him.
The path took a sharp turn. He stepped noiselessly on to the grass border, and crept round, with wonderful agility for a man of his size. The foliage gradually thinned, and kneeling down he was able to listen and peer through until the next flash should reveal what lay beyond.
The whisper thrilled with indescribable passion.
"I love you. You are my body, my soul, my god, my all. I love you—I love you—I love you."
It was the voice of Christine Manderson.
Not a tremor escaped the listener. Parting the leaves with a hand as steady as the ground itself, he waited for the light.
"I have no world but you—no thought but you. I want nothing but you ... you ... you." A sob broke her voice.
"Go," the answer was almost inaudible in its tenseness. "Go—and forget. I have nothing for you."
The lightning came. In a small open space on the other side of the hedge it illuminated the wild tortured face of Christine Manderson. And standing before her, gripping both her hands and holding her away from him—John Tranter.
She struggled to bring herself closer to him.
"I thought you were dead," she gasped.
"I am dead," he answered. "I am dead to you. Let me go."
The listener could almost hear the effort of her breathing.
"I waited for you," she panted. "I was broken. I had to seem happy—but my heart was a tomb. You were all my life—all my hope. I know I wasn't what I might have been. I was what people call an adventuress. But my love for you was the one great, true thing of my life. Oh, why did you leave me?"
"For your own sake," he said slowly. "I am no mate for such a woman as you."
"My own sake?" she repeated. "My own sake—to take from me the only thing I had—my only chance?—to throw my life into the shadows? My own sake ... to have made me what I am?"
"I would have spared you this meeting," he returned, "if I had known. But the name Christine Manderson was strange to me. I had never heard it before."
"I changed my name," she said sadly. "I couldn't bear that any one should use the name that you had used. I called myself Christine Manderson, and went on the stage in New York. Oh, it was dreadful. All those long years since you left me I have lived under a mask—as you have seen me to-night. You thought I was smiling—but I didn't smile. You thought I was laughing—but I didn't laugh. It was all ... only disguised tears ... to hide myself."
"Go," his voice was torn. "For God's sake go ... Thea."
A second flash showed them again to the listener. Tranter was still holding her away from him. In that vivid fraction of a second the agony of her face was terrible.
"Thea!" she echoed pitifully. "Ah, yes—call me Thea! Poor Thea! Oh, doesn't that name awaken ... something? Hasn't it still some charm? Once you said it was the only name in all the world. Is it nothing to you now?"
"Nothing," he answered.
In spite of his resistance she was forcing herself nearer to him. The magic of her presence was binding him.
"Am I less beautiful?" she whispered. "Have I lost anything that used to draw you? Is not my hair as golden? Are not my eyes as bright—my lips as red? Am I not as soft to touch? Where could you find anything better than me?"
"Keep back!" he muttered.
Her hands were about him. In the darkness he could feel the deadly loveliness of her face almost touching his own. He was yielding, inch by inch. The warmth of her breath ... the perfume of her body.... Her closeness was intoxicating—maddening.
"Oh, let me come to you," she prayed. "I will follow you barefooted to the end of the world. I will live for you—slave for you—die for you. Only let me come. Let me leave all this—and come to you ... to-morrow...."
A groan was wrung from him. He crushed her to him.
"Come then!" he cried desperately. "Come, if you will!..."
A vivid flash, which seemed to burst almost over their heads, showed them locked in each other's arms, their lips pressed together.
Monsieur Dupont raised himself quickly. There was the sound of running footsteps on the path behind him. Monsieur Dupont had just time to turn the corner before the disordered figure of the theatrical manager loomed up before him.
"The madman is in the garden! He ran this way."
"Diable!" said Monsieur Dupont.
"I found him sneaking towards the house. He bolted out here."
Unaccustomed to physical exertion, the manager laid a heavy hand on Monsieur Dupont's shoulder, and mopped his forehead breathlessly.
"The scoundrel means mischief," he declared. "He must be found."
"Where is Mr. Copplestone?"
"I called him, but couldn't get an answer. He must be away at the other end of the garden."
"No one has passed this way," Monsieur Dupont assured him. "For a half-hour I have been wandering about these horrible paths."
"It's a devil of a garden," the manager admitted. "The fellow won't get very far. Let's look about here."
Fortified with a fresh supply of breath, he released Monsieur Dupont's shoulder, and made a brisk movement towards the direction from which the Frenchman had come.
Monsieur Dupont blocked the way.
"No, no—it would be a waste of time. I have come from there."
"To the river, then," the manager cried, bearing him round. "He may be trying to get across."
He was evidently familiar with the intricacies of the garden. In a few minutes, after a dozen turnings, they reached the gleam of water.
"Keep your eyes open for the next flash," the manager directed.
He peered about. A moment later the lightning lit up the calm stretch of the river and the broad lawns sloping down to it. Monsieur Dupont detected no form or movement—but with a startling shout, the manager bounded away from him across the lawns.
Monsieur Dupont blinked after him in astonishment.
He was alone again—in a new and even darker part of the endless garden.
A deep-toned clock in the house struck twelve.
Rain began to fall. A few moments later the financier hurried across the lawns with his collar turned up. The danseuse followed him. She seemed a disappointed and indignant woman.
"It's almost an insult," she complained overtaking him.
"Noth a penny more," said the financier firmly.
They both turned quickly. Her hand gripped his arm convulsively. Wild shouting arose in the darkness, and the sound of someone forcing a headlong way through hedge and bush.
The Reverend Percival Delamere was rushing towards the house as if the entire penalties of sin were at his heels.
"A corpse! A corpse by the river! Miss Manderson has been murdered!"
The danseuse uttered a terrified cry. The financier shook.
"Murderedth?" he gasped, shrinking back.
The clergyman was shattered by horror.
"By the river ... almost torn to pieces...."
The danseuse screamed loudly. A figure bounded up behind them, and a hand seized the clergyman's throat in a savage grip. The furious, distorted face of George Copplestone glared down at him. He struggled, freeing himself with all his strength.
"Copplestone," he choked, "something dreadful has happened to Miss Manderson. I found her by the river ... horribly torn...."
From another direction, Tranter reached them, breathless.
"What is the matter? What has happened?"
The financier clung to him.
"Mith Manderthon ... murderedth."
Tranter shook him off, and stood very still. The agony on his face passed unnoticed. As the theatrical manager and Mrs. Astley-Rolfe arrived at a run, Copplestone, with a sound like the cry of a raging animal, grasped the unhappy clergyman by the arm, and dashed off towards the river.
The others followed. They found her lying a few yards from the water's edge. The manager struck a match, and they looked down.
The danseuse shrieked, and fainted. Mrs. Astley-Rolfe sank on her knees, sobbing, and covered her face with her hands. The financier sickened, and turned away, trembling violently.
"God!" Tranter cried—"some one must have stamped on her!"
He bent down. "Thea...." he whispered.
Something like a sob shook him. But the others did not see.
"It must have been a wild beast," shuddered the clergyman.
"It is the work of a madman," said the manager hoarsely. "He has utterly destroyed her—as he threatened."
George Copplestone stood without a tremor. As he looked down at the broken form all his frenzy disappeared. The distortion of his first fury faded from his face, leaving it set in a pallid, lifeless mask. He contemplated the dreadful destruction at his feet without a sign of horror, or even of pity. He was perfectly steady. Not a quiver escaped him. Stooping down, he asked quietly for assistance to carry the body to the house.
"Wait a bit," said the manager, looking at him curiously. "She ought not to be moved before the police come."
Copplestone straightened himself, and remained silent.
"Let Gluckstein take the women in, and telephone to the Police Station," the manager suggested.
Mrs. Astley-Rolfe raised her bloodless face.
"Yes, yes," she sobbed. "Let me go. It's too horrible. I can't bear it."
Tranter raised her up. The danseuse had recovered consciousness, and was crying hysterically. Suddenly the financier startled them in a thin high voice, pointing a shaking finger into the darkness.
"Someone ith moving! Out there behind uth! Whoth there? Whoth there?"
They swung round, straining their eyes into the blackness.
"Who's there?" the manager called.
An answering voice reached them. The manager struck another match. On the edge of the darkness they saw an enormous figure.
"It's Monsieur Dupont!" Tranter cried.
"My friends," exclaimed Monsieur Dupont, "at last I find you! What is the matter?"
Copplestone looked at him steadily.
"The matter," he said evenly, "is that Miss Manderson has been murdered."
Monsieur Dupont uttered an extraordinary exclamation. He was instantly galvanized into a condition of seething energy. With what was almost a snarl, he brushed the financier aside, and reached the white mangled form on the ground.
For a tense minute he knelt beside it. The others waited.
"Destroyed," they heard him mutter—"utterly destroyed...."
When he rose, his eyes were full of tears.
"It is terrible. Who was with her last?"
"I was with her less than a quarter of an hour ago," Tranter replied. "She said she was going back to the house, and asked me to find Mr. Copplestone, and tell him that she was not feeling well."
"Where are your police?" asked Monsieur Dupont.
"Gluckstein is going to take the ladies back to the house, and telephone for them," the manager returned.
The financier departed with his charges. The four men remained, facing each other over the dead body. Rain was falling heavily.
"Poor girl," said the clergyman huskily.
"That such a brute should be at large," the manager added.
Copplestone's gaze again became rivetted to the ground. He seemed unconscious of their presence. He was like a man alone and dazed in a strange world.
Then the storm burst over them with all its fury. The rain poured down in torrents, the lightning was incessant. It was as if the elements themselves, in their rage, were seeking to complete the work of destruction.
"We can't leave her out in this—police or no police," the clergyman shivered.
Copplestone bent down again. The manager moved to assist, but Tranter put him aside, and assisted Copplestone to lift the ghastly burden in his arms. Then they picked their way slowly along the winding paths to the house.
When they entered the decorated room, Copplestone's strange immobility flashed upon him with startling suddenness. Uttering a oath, he placed what he had previously been carrying with dull indifference roughly on a couch, and hurled himself furiously upon the confusion of decorations, tearing and crushing everything into a smashed heap on the floor. So overwhelming was his violence that no one dared attempt to stop him. He dashed the lights to the ground, and rent the flags with appalling ferocity. In a few moments a shattered pile was all that remained of the medley of illumination. He stood on the pile and ground his heels into it.
Then all the energy was snuffed out of him like the switching off of an electric current. The dull heavy cloud descended on him again. He stared vacantly at the others, shrugged his shoulders slightly, and turned his back on them.
The silence remained unbroken until a loud ringing at the front door bell announced the arrival of the police.
Detective-Inspector Fay was an able and successful officer, of international reputation, whose achievements had placed a substantial price on his head in most countries sufficiently civilized to possess their criminal organizations. His bag had included many famous law-breakers, and, though now employed in less strenuous directions, he was admitted to be one of the most skilful and reliable of Scotland Yard's unravelers of mystery. But, experienced as he was, the inspector could not suppress his horror and indignation when the mutilated body of Christine Manderson was uncovered to him.
"What, in God's name, was there in this garden to-night?" he demanded, shuddering.
"A madman," the theatrical manager muttered.
The inspector's glance rested on him for an instant, but passed on. He made no further remarks during his examination—but when, concluding it, he carefully replaced the covering and turned again to the others, there was a concentrated gleam in his eyes and a certain set to his face that were known to bode ill to the perpetrators of the deeds that inspired them.
"There can scarcely be a whole bone in her body," he declared, regarding them all intently. "Her face is smashed to pulp; some of the hair has been wrenched from her head; and even the bones of her fingers are broken. It is the most brutal and disgusting crime I have had the misfortune to meet with in the whole of my thirty years experience."
He gave a brief order to an attendant constable, who moved to the door.
"If you will kindly retire with the constable to the next room," he requested, "I will take a separate account from every one. Perhaps Mr. Copplestone will give me his information first."
The constable marshalled them into an adjoining room, which the danseuse filled with complaints at this prolonged detention. Copplestone remained behind. His dullness and immobility had increased almost to a stupor.
"She was engaged to marry me," he said, in a slow lifeless tone, "since yesterday."
Inspector Fay seated himself at a table, and opened his note-book.
"We fully sympathize with you, Mr. Copplestone," he said quietly, "and I am afraid it is poor consolation to promise you that justice shall be done on the inhuman criminal, whoever it may be."
"Justice?" Copplestone returned, in the same weary, monotonous voice. "Of what use is Justice? Can it call her back—or mend her broken body?"
"Unfortunately, it cannot," the inspector admitted. "But it is all humanity can do. Will you answer a few questions, as clearly and briefly as possible? The great thing in a case like this is to lose no time at the beginning."
Copplestone sat down, and passed an unsteady hand across his forehead.
"Go on," he said dully.
"Where and when did you first meet Miss Manderson?"
"She came over from New York two months ago, to play in a new piece at the Imperial. I have an interest in the theater, and saw her there for the first time about a week after her arrival."
"Do you know anything of her life and associations in America?"
"Very little. She was not communicative. She only told me a few of her theatrical experiences."
"So far as you know," the inspector proceeded, "had she an enemy in this country—or was there any one who could have wished to harm her?"
"Apparently there was," Copplestone returned. "I did not know it until to-night."
Mechanically, in the manner of one repeating a lesson, he described the visit of the young millionaire, and his threat against Christine Manderson.
"And the name of this young man?" the inspector asked, bending over his note-book.
Inspector Fay looked up sharply.
"Layton? The man they call the Mad Philanthropist?"
"I don't know," Copplestone replied wearily. "He may be."
"James Layton is very well known to us," the inspector said slowly. "He is a charitable fanatic, who does more good in the East End than all the Royally Patronized Associations put together. But how in the world did he come to know Miss Manderson?"
"She never mentioned him to me," Copplestone stated. "I had not heard of him until he burst into this house to-night."
The inspector made several notes.
"He has educated and trained as his assistant a particularly wild specimen of a coster girl, who is madly in love with him...." He closed his note-book with a snap. "You say the words he used were that rather than allow Miss Manderson to become engaged to you, he would tear her to pieces with his own hands, and utterly destroy her?"
"So they told me," Copplestone answered heavily. "I was not in the room. I refused to see him."
"And he left quite quietly?"
"Did Miss Manderson show any particular fear of the threat?"
"She was very much upset, and fainted when she came into the room. I should have sent for the police at once, but she begged me not to, and insisted that he didn't mean what he said. I wish to God I hadn't listened."
"So there was no doubt that she knew him?"
"No. She certainly knew him."
"Afterwards, you say, he was seen in the garden when you were all out after dinner?" the inspector continued.
"Who saw him?"
"Mr. Bolsover, the theatrical manager, found him sneaking about the house, and chased him out in the direction of the crime."
"Did any one see him, besides Mr. Bolsover?"
"Apparently not. He says he called to me—but I had gone into the house to fill my cigarette-case, and did not hear him."
"He escaped from Mr. Bolsover, and was not seen again?"
"Was there any one else," the inspector asked slowly, "who might, for any reason, have entertained unfriendly feelings towards Miss Manderson?"
Copplestone's glance sharpened a little under the question.
"I suppose there was," he admitted, with some reluctance.
"Who was it?"
Copplestone paused, frowning.
"Please do not hesitate," the inspector pressed firmly. "We must know everything."
"Perhaps," the tired voice confessed, "it wasn't altogether playing the game to announce my engagement so unexpectedly to—to——"
"Well?" the inspector insisted—"to whom?"
"To Phyllis Astley-Rolfe."
There was silence for a moment. The inspector waited quietly. With an effort, Copplestone continued.
"I am afraid it was rather cruel. She'd annoyed me lately, and I put up some decorations, and announced the news in a dramatic way ... to mock her." He broke off, staring at the remains of the decorations on the floor. "But I tore them down. I shall never decorate again...."
The inspector watched him closely. He seemed to be on the verge of sleep.
"Then Mrs. Astley-Rolfe had reason to be jealous of Miss Manderson?" the inspector demanded briskly.
"I suppose ... she had."
"Had you given her definite cause to believe that you intended to ask her to marry you?"
"Perhaps so. At any rate ... I had not given her definite cause to believe that I didn't."
His voice sank to a whisper. He leant back limply in his chair.
"There is only one more question I need trouble you with at present," the inspector said. "Who was the last person to be with Miss Manderson before the crime was discovered?"
Copplestone scarcely opened his eyes.
"Mr. Tranter was with her near the river. She left him to go back to the house, and asked him to find me, and tell me she was not well."
"Did he find you?"
"Yes. And I at once went into the house."
"Where were you when Mr. Tranter found you?"
"I was crossing the second lawn—towards the tennis courts."
The inspector was busy with his note-book.
"Were you alone?"
"Yes. I had just come out of the house after filling my cigarette-case, as I told you. I was looking for Miss Manderson, and wondering where she had got to. If only I had gone in the right direction ... I might have been in time...."
"After Mr. Tranter had spoken to you, you say you went into the house at once?"
"At once. I waited nearly ten minutes for her, and came out again just as Mr. Delamere gave the alarm. I'm afraid I handled him roughly...."
The words trailed off into silence. A convulsive shudder passed through him.
"Then we all ran off ... to where she lay," his voice shook. "Something seemed to give way ... here...." he pressed his hands to his head. "Is there ... anything more ... you want to know?"
The inspector rose.
"Only one thing. Will you kindly give me the names of your guests in the other room?"
Copplestone complied slowly. Inspector Fay wrote the names down.
"Thank you," he said, laying down his book. "I am sorry to have had to give you the pain of answering so many questions. I am afraid you are quite overwrought. I should advise you to try to get some sleep."
"Sleep," Copplestone murmured, rising weakly from his chair. "Sleep.... Good God."
The inspector himself made a gesture of fatigue.
"I only got back from another heavy case as your message came in," he apologized, stifling a yawn. "Tobacco is the only thing that keeps me going. Could you give me a cigarette?"
Without answering, Copplestone languidly produced an elaborately jeweled gold cigarette-case, and handed it to the inspector.
There were two cigarettes in it.
Inspector Fay took one, with a perfectly impassive countenance, and returned the case. Copplestone replaced it in his pocket.
"Please give whatever instructions you like to my man," he said dully—"and let me know if you want me. I shall be in my room."
He turned, and moved away with slow heavy steps, disappearing between the same curtains through which, a few hours before, he had presented Christine Manderson to his guests.
The inspector stood looking after him, fingering the cigarette thoughtfully, a very curious expression on his face. He showed no further signs of fatigue.
"I wonder why you lied to me," he muttered—and laid the cigarette on the table.
He glanced down the list of names, and went to the door. The constable had mounted guard over his prisoners with extraordinary dignity. The voice of the danseuse was still raised in lamentation.
"Monsieur Dupont," the inspector called.
The constable passed on the summons—and Monsieur Dupont instantly obeyed it.
THE TRAIL OF CORPSES
The inspector closed the door behind him. "What has brought you back into the arena?" he asked quietly.
"A riddle," the Frenchman answered, in an equally low tone.
"It must have been something pretty big to have tempted you," the inspector remarked, coming closer to him.
"It was," Monsieur Dupont admitted.
The other glanced cautiously towards the curtains at the far end of the room.
"Why are you here—in this house?" he demanded softly.
"By chance," Monsieur Dupont replied.
"Did you know Copplestone before?"
"I did not. I had never seen him. I came with my friend, Tranter."
"You were here all the evening?"
"Anything to tell me?" the inspector asked, looking at him intently.
Monsieur Dupont smiled.
"Only, my friend, that I imagine you will find it an interesting and somewhat unusual case."
"That's not enough—from you," the inspector retorted.
"If I may be permitted to advise—it is a case in which you would do well to ignore the obvious."
"I want more than that," insisted the inspector.
The huge Frenchman remained silent.
"You are not a man to waste your time on this kind of entertainment," said the inspector slowly. "Is there any connection between the crime to-night, and your so-called 'riddle'?"
"The connection of death," said Monsieur Dupont.
There was something of awe in his voice and manner.
"For two years," he said, "I have been following in the track of something, which, in the words of our great Dumas—'must have passed this way, for I see a corpse.'"
"That quotation referred to a woman," said the inspector quickly.
"From me," returned Monsieur Dupont evenly, "it is sexless—at present."
The inspector frowned.
"Come," he said impatiently—"in what way are you mixed up in this?"
"In the way of my quotation—a corpse. I started my quest two years ago—over a dead body, torn and mutilated. At the end of the first year I found another dead body, torn and mutilated. I follow on and on—from one point to the next point—often with no more than the instinct of the hunter to guide me. And here, at the end of the second year, there is yet another dead body, torn and mutilated. It is horrible. I sicken. I wish I had remained in my retirement."
"What were the two previous crimes?" the inspector asked.
"Two women—two very beautiful women."
Inspector Fay started, staring at him.
"Miss Manderson was a beautiful woman," he said slowly.
Monsieur Dupont's enormous head nodded several times.
"She was," he agreed deliberately. "The most beautiful of the three."
There was silence for a moment. Then the inspector laid a hand on the Frenchman's shoulder.
"We have worked together a good many times in the past," he said, with more cordiality than before.
"We have, indeed," Monsieur Dupont responded pleasantly.
"And though your methods were always fanciful compared with our's, I know enough of your powers to ask you a simple, straight question."
"I am at your service," said Monsieur Dupont.
"You were here on the spot when this crime was committed. Who, or what, smashed the body of that unfortunate woman to pulp in this garden to-night?"
Monsieur Dupont's gigantic form seemed to acquire a new, strange dignity—a solemnity—as though he were in the presence, or speaking, of something before which humanity must bow its head.
"A Destroyer," he whispered. "A Destroyer who strikes with neither fear nor compunction—and passes on without pity or remorse. A Destroyer who is as old as the sins of men, and as young as the futures of their children."
"You always spoke in parables," the inspector exclaimed irritably. "What do you mean?"
"I mean," said Monsieur Dupont, "that I believe the thing which passed through this crooked garden to-night, leaving death so horribly behind it, is the same thing that has already passed on twice before me, and left the same death in its wake. I cannot tell you any more. Let us both go our own ways, as we have done so many times before. I do not wish to take any credit in this affair. If I am able to prove its connection with my own case, and to solve it, I shall hand the whole matter over to you."
The inspector appeared somewhat relieved.
Monsieur Dupont's eyes were fixed on an unframed photograph of Christine Manderson, which stood on a small cabinet in front of him.
"Please compound a felony," he said softly—and slipped it into his pocket.
"Where are you to be found?" the inspector asked.
"At the Hotel Savoy." He yawned. "I am very sleepy," he complained. "If you will finish with Mr. Tranter as soon as possible, he will take me back in his car."
He turned to the door.
"Stay," said the inspector.
"You have not lost your old fantastic kink," said the inspector, with a faint smile. "The last time we ran together you were five minutes ahead of me at the finish. This time—we will see who is the first to pass the post."
"My friend," said Monsieur Dupont, "I will do my best to give you a good race."
He passed out of the room. The inspector followed him to the door, and called for Mr. Tranter.
"Mr. Tranter," said the inspector, "I understand that you were the last person to see Miss Manderson alive."
"I believe I was," Tranter replied.
The inspector sat down again at the table, and re-opened his note-book.
"Will you kindly tell me exactly what happened from the time you went out into the garden after dinner, and the time you left Miss Manderson?"
"We strolled away from the house together, in the direction of the river. The events of the evening seemed to have upset her very much, and she was nervous of the storm. We walked about, I should think, for nearly half an hour, until the lightning became very vivid——"
"Did you see or hear any one in that part of the garden?" the inspector interrupted.
"No. Most of the others went to the lawns, in the opposite direction. When the lightning became very vivid, Miss Manderson said she would return to the house, and asked me to go down to the lawns to find Mr. Copplestone, and send him in to her. She was obviously unwell."
"You will be able to show me the place where you left her?"
"I think so. It was very dark—but I remember that we had just passed under a number of rose-arches across the path."
"It was, I presume, further away from the house than the spot where the body was found?"
"The body was found close to the river, about half-way between the house and the place where I left her," Tranter replied.
"So we may surmise that she had got about half-way to the house before the attack was made. How far would that actually be?"
"Along those winding paths," Tranter calculated, "I should say roughly about a hundred and fifty yards."
"Did she start to walk to the house immediately you left her?"
"Yes. She started in that direction as I started in the other."
"Then," mused the inspector, "she must have met the criminal, whoever it was, at the most within three minutes of leaving you?"
"Presumably she must," Tranter agreed.
"And was that," pursued the inspector, "about the spot where she might have met the young man, Layton, who was, it appears, being chased out towards the river by Mr. Bolsover?"
"It might be. But I do not know anything about the chase. If I had known that Layton was in the garden, I should not have left her."
"Where did you find Mr. Copplestone?"
"On the lawns."
"How long after you parted from her?"
"Only a few minutes. Four or five."
"Was he alone?"
"Yes. He was looking for Miss Manderson himself. He went into the house at once."
Silence followed while the inspector added to his notes.
"Mr. Tranter," he said quietly—and his eyes rested for a moment on the cigarette on the table, "I have only one suggestion to make. You will understand that it is only a suggestion, but I want to be perfectly clear. Considering that this was the evening of Miss Manderson's engagement to Mr. Copplestone, might she not have been expected to have strolled away from the house, and to have spent that following half-hour, with him rather than with you?"
"I suppose she might," he admitted.
The inspector was looking at him sharply.
"It is a small point," he said smoothly. "Perhaps you can clear it up."
There was another pause. Tranter was plainly embarrassed.
"Inspector," he said at last, "I must, of course, tell you everything—but I should be obliged if for obvious reasons, you will keep as much as possible to yourself."
"That, sir," returned the inspector firmly, "you must leave to my discretion."
"I am content to do so," Tranter said. "The truth is—I had met Miss Manderson before."
"Ah!" said the inspector softly.
"I knew her first nearly six years ago, in Chicago. Her real name was not Christine Manderson."
The inspector's eyes began to brighten. He turned to a fresh page in his note-book.
"She took that name, she told me to-night, when she went on the stage in New York. She was really Thea Colville."
Inspector Fay started.
"Thea Colville? The Chicago adventuress?"
"I believe some people called her that," Tranter returned shortly.
"The woman who ruined Michael Cranbourne, son of Joshua Cranbourne, the Nitrate King?"
"She had finished with Cranbourne before I knew her," Tranter replied. "He was a scoundrel. Whatever happened, she certainly could not be blamed."
The inspector was making rapid notes.
"She was not so wild as she was painted," Tranter continued. "Women with such beauty as hers have a thousand temptations. The sins of a beautiful woman are always many degrees blacker than the sins of a plain one. We became very intimate—and I am afraid I allowed her to expect more from me than I actually intended. I was called back to England unexpectedly, and heard nothing more of her until Mr. Copplestone brought her into this room to-night."
He stopped. Emotion had crept into his voice.
"During the most part of your conversation with her, were you walking about, or standing still?"
"You have said that you did not hear any one moving about near you while you were speaking to her?"
"Were there trees or hedges about, where some one might have hidden to overhear you?"
"There was a hedge," Tranter replied. "But I did not notice the spot particularly."
"You will be able to point it out to me to-morrow."
"I think so. As I say, I did not particularly notice it—and the possibility of being overheard certainly did not occur to me. I am afraid at that moment caution was hardly a consideration with either of us."
The inspector closed his note-book.
"Unless circumstances compel me to do otherwise," he promised, "I will keep your story to myself. Will you tell me whether the announcement of Mr. Copplestone's engagement to Miss Manderson produced a noticeable effect on any particular person in the room? Please do not hesitate to answer."
"It certainly appeared to be unwelcome news to Mrs. Astley-Rolfe," Tranter replied, "but she very quickly recovered herself."
"It seemed, in fact, to be a considerable shock to her?"
"Were you in the room when this young man, James Layton, burst in?"
"I was. Monsieur Dupont and I had just arrived."
"It is true that he said that rather than allow Miss Manderson to become engaged to Mr. Copplestone, he would tear her to pieces with his own hands?"
"Those were his exact words."
The inspector rose.
"I understand that you brought Monsieur Dupont here with you as your friend?" he remarked casually.
"Yes. He only arrived in London last night."
"Do you know him well?"
"Fairly," Tranter replied. "I am under a great obligation to him. He saved my life in Paris, a year ago."
"Has he mentioned anything of the business that has brought him to this country?" the inspector asked, moving to the door.
"Only that he had come to solve a strange riddle."
A faint, rather grim smile passed over the inspector's face.
"I am obliged to you, sir," he said, opening the door. "If you will kindly return here at ten o'clock in the morning—and bring Monsieur Dupont with you—I shall ask you to show me the various places you have referred to in the garden."
When Tranter returned to the waiting-room, he found Monsieur Dupont asleep in an armchair. The room was very quiet. The danseuse had subsided into an interim condition of mute tension. Mrs. Astley-Rolfe was deathly white, but perfectly composed. The men made occasional remarks to each other.
"Mrs. Astley-Rolfe," the inspector called.
"Madam," said the inspector, placing a chair for her, "I need only trouble you with one or two questions. You will understand that it is necessary for me to account for each member of this party, so that I may know which of them can, or cannot, assist me in my investigations."
She sat down with a weary movement. Her hands trembled slightly.
"It is very dreadful," she shuddered. "Such a frightful crime is inconceivable. Who could have hated the poor girl so dreadfully?"
"That remains to be discovered," the inspector returned quietly. "I have no doubt we shall succeed in clearing it up."
"I hope you will," she said fervently. "Please ask me any questions you like."
The inspector kept his eyes fixed on his note-book.
"You went into the garden with the others after dinner?"
"Will you please tell me with whom, and in what part of the garden, you passed the time before the crime was discovered?"
"I was alone," she said slowly.
"The whole time?"
"Yes. I was not feeling very well, and did not want the trouble of talking. I walked away by myself."
"You know the way about the garden quite well?"
"In what direction did you walk?"
"To the croquet lawn."
"Did you see anything of the others?"
"Or hear any voices?"
"Nothing until the alarm was given?"
"Nothing. It was an isolated part of the garden. When I heard Mr. Delamere shouting, I ran back to the house, and found them on the lawn."
The inspector shot a keen glance at her.
"Did you know Miss Manderson well?"
"I had only met her three or four times."
"I suppose—being one of the most beautiful women on the American stage, and about to appear for the first time in London—you heard her a good deal talked about?"
"Yes." Her voice was just perceptibly harder. "People were taking great interest in her."
"Did you hear her private affairs, and mode of life, discussed at any time?"
"Or the name of James Layton, the millionaire philanthropist, mentioned in conjunction with her's?"
"Thank you, madam. I need not trouble you any further. Will you kindly leave me your address, in case I should have to ask you for any more information?"
He wrote the address down, and bowed her out.
"Madame Krashoff," summoned the inspector.
The danseuse was in a condition of the utmost distress.
"Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!" she wept.
"Please calm yourself, madame," the inspector requested patiently.
"I ken nothin' o' the creeme!" she sobbed thoughtlessly.
"I am sure of that," he declared gravely. "I merely wish to establish the movements of every one here. With whom did you pass the time after you went out into the garden until the alarm was given?"
"Wi' M'soo Gluckstein," she whimpered.
"All the time?"
"How much of the time?"
She became more collected.
"He said to me something that made me angry," she replied, with a touch of viciousness. "I walk away from him. Then it rain, and I overtook him as I go back to the house."
"How long were you away from him?" the inspector asked.
"Ma foi, I cannot tell. Maybe ten minutes."
"Did you see any one else?"
"In what part of the garden were you when you left him?"
"Behind the tennis courts."
"That is some way from the river?"
"Yes, yes—ver' far away."
"Thank you, madame."
The financier was extremely agitated, and tried to shake hands with the inspector.
"Mr. Gluckstein, I understand from Madame Krashoff that you were with her in the garden for the greater part of the time before the crime was discovered."
"I wath," the financier quivered—"indeed I wath, inthpector."
"Then she left you for about ten minutes?"
"Not tho much ath ten minutes," corrected the financier hastily.
"What did you do after she left you?"
"I stayed vere I vath—until the rain commenthed."
"Did you see any one else?"
"No one at allth."
"Thank you," said the inspector. "Please leave me your address, in case I should want to ask you any further questions."
The financier produced a card with trembling fingers.
"Mr. Delamere," said the inspector, "you discovered the body?"
"I did," replied the clergyman, with a shiver.
"Were you alone when you found it?"
"Yes. I had been walking with Mr. Bolsover for about quarter of an hour. Then he turned back to find some of the others, and I strolled on to the river."
"Did you meet any one else?"
"You saw nothing of this young man, Layton, who was chased towards the river by Mr. Bolsover?"
"No sounds of a struggle?"
"No. I heard nothing."
"Was the body lying in your path?"
"No. Some distance aside. I saw something white on the ground in one of the lightning flashes, and went to see what it was."
"I shall have to ask you to return here at ten o'clock, to show me the exact spot."
"Thank you, Mr. Delamere."
"My God!" exclaimed the manager, "what an appalling business!"
"It is," the inspector agreed shortly.
"She was to have appeared at my theater, too," said the manager ruefully.
"I understand that you found Layton sneaking about the house?"
"Yes. I first strolled out with Mr. Delamere. Then I left him, and went back to see where the others had got to, and saw Layton creeping round the side of the house towards the open drawing-room windows. He heard my footsteps on the path, and bolted."
"To the river?"
"Yes. I shouted for Mr. Copplestone, but there was no answer—so I followed him."
"You are quite certain it was Layton?"
"Perfectly. I saw his face in the light of the windows, and he was wearing the peculiar kind of slouch hat he had carried when he came into the room."
"Apparently no one saw him in the garden except yourself."
"Unfortunately not. I met the Frenchman, Monsieur Dupont, a little way from the river—but he had not seen him."
"It was a pity you did not manage to catch him," the inspector remarked.
"Confound it, yes! But it was easy to get away in such a garden as this. There wasn't a chance of finding him."
"What did you do, after meeting Monsieur Dupont?"
"We went on to the river together. I thought I saw a movement among the trees when the lightning lit them up—but there was nothing. I walked round about there for a few minutes, and then went back to warn Copplestone."
"Leaving Monsieur Dupont by the river?"
"Yes. Before I reached the house, I heard Mr. Delamere shouting the alarm."
"Thank you," said the inspector, closing his note-book. "I am afraid I shall have to trouble you to come here at ten o'clock and show me certain places in the garden."
"I am entirely at your disposal," said the manager.
He went out. The inspector sat down at the table, and remained perfectly still for half an hour.
THE TRINITY OF DEATH
In Tranter's car, its owner and Monsieur Dupont started, at half-past one, on their return from the crooked house.
The storm had passed, and the air was fresh and cool. It was possibly the atmospheric clearance which accounted for the fact, that, however, fatigued he had been, or appeared to be, at the end of his conversation with the inspector, Monsieur Dupont was now particularly wide-awake and alert.
"Dieu!" he cried, "what a terrible crime! Almost to tear that woman to pieces—to crush her—to rend her! And what a woman! Ma foi, what a woman!"
There was a pause. Monsieur Dupont accepted and lit a cigar from Tranter's case.
"My friend," he said quietly, "I wish to be quite fair to you."
"Fair to me?" Tranter echoed, surprised.
"Something happened to-night which you doubtless believe to be unknown to every one except yourself."
Tranter turned to him quickly.
"I have not the habit," Monsieur Dupont continued, "of listening to private conversations between other people. It is only on very rare occasions that I have done so. I did so to-night."
"What do you mean?" Tranter exclaimed.
"In that horrible garden, before the crime was committed," pursued Monsieur Dupont evenly, "I lost my way. Such a garden must have been especially designed to cause innocent people to lose their way. I wandered about. How I wandered!"
"What did you overhear?" asked Tranter, in a strained voice.
"A conversation—between that unfortunate Mademoiselle Manderson, and yourself."
"You heard it?" Tranter cried sharply.
"I heard it," admitted Monsieur Dupont. "I heard a great part of it. I believe nearly all. I should not have done so. Understand, I make you all my apologies. It was improper to listen. But the storm, the surroundings, the scene itself, excited me. I listened."
Tranter remained silent.
"I continued to listen, until Mr. Bolsover found me. He was following that young man, Layton. I went with him to the river."
Tranter was still silent—staring straight in front of him with fixed eyes.
"You saw a picture of weakness," he said, at last. "I am not proud of it. I should much prefer to be able to think that no one had seen it. I gave Inspector Fay an account of the whole scene, and of my previous acquaintance with Christine Manderson. He promised to keep it to himself. I hope you will do the same."
"I shall indeed," the other assured him.
"I am only human," Tranter went on, with an effort—"more human than I thought. I resisted her once by taking flight. I couldn't resist her to-night."
He mastered his emotion.
"From the moment she first came into the room I was helpless. I knew what would come of it—but I couldn't tear myself away. It was the whole spell—with all the new strength of memories. I knew she intended to find me alone in the garden." He paused. "I had to let her."
"Human nature," said Monsieur Dupont consolingly, "is human nature."
Silence followed. Monsieur Dupont thoughtfully puffed at his cigar.
"A crooked house in a crooked garden," he said, at length, "is a combination from which all honest people should shrink. Those who frequent it must be, for the most part, crooked people. They were, for the most part, crooked people to-night."
"It was a crooked evening from beginning to end," Tranter said wearily.
"It was a wicked evening," Monsieur Dupont declared—"full of wicked thoughts. A crime was the natural and logical end to such an evening. It would have been surprising if there had not been one."
He smoked vigorously for some moments—then made an expansive gesture.
"Are there not," he demanded, "houses and gardens and thunder-storms that awaken cruel and shameful impulses that would never be aroused in other houses and other gardens and other storms? Does not the influence of good and noble decorations uplift us to joy and patriotism? Why should not the influence of mean and sinful decorations degrade us to murder and destruction? The flags that fly over the innocent revels of children are innocent flags, and inspire kind feelings and happiness. But remove the same flags to a Bull-ring, and they become evil flags, inspiring lust for the blood and slaughter of helpless creatures—the basest of human instincts."
"You are fantastic," said Tranter, with a gloomy smile.
"In fantasy," returned Monsieur Dupont, "are the world's greatest truths."
He carefully deposed the ash from his cigar.
"Will you please tell me," he went on, "something more about our strange host to-night—the man who chooses so much crookedness to live in, when there is straightness to be had for the same price?"
"I know very little more about him than I told you last night," Tranter replied. "He is wealthy, and very eccentric. He seems to pass his life in a perpetual effort to be different from other people."
"He is more than eccentric," Monsieur Dupont stated. "He is mad. In a few years he will be a dangerous lunatic. And the Good God only knows what he may make of himself in the meantime."
"There are plenty of strange stories about him," Tranter said. "But I have always looked on them as greatly exaggerated."
"Probably," Monsieur Dupont remarked, "they were true."
"Whatever his reputation may be, women seem very ready to put up with his eccentricities, or pander to them, in return, no doubt, for big inroads into his banking account. He is very free with his money where the opposite sex is concerned."
"It is always so," said Monsieur Dupont, "with such men."
"He mixes chiefly in theatrical and bohemian circles—and often by no means the most desirable of those. The better people look askance on him—but he is supremely indifferent to the opinions of others, and to all the conventions. Whatever he takes it into his head to do he does, quite regardless of the approval or disapproval of other people. He is certainly not a man I would introduce to any woman who possessed even the smallest degree of physical attraction. He is supposed to be quite unscrupulous in the attainment of his objects."
"Most of us are," said Monsieur Dupont. "But we dislike to admit it."
He looked steadily out of the window for a moment.
"I wonder," he said, turning back, "what he does with the rest of that house."
"The rest of the house?" Tranter repeated.
"It is very large," said Monsieur Dupont. "It is large enough for twenty men."
"In this country," Tranter smiled, "there is no law against one man living in a house large enough for twenty, if he chooses."
"When only a small part of a house is used for ordinary purposes," remarked Monsieur Dupont, "the remainder is often used for extraordinary ones."
"You know as much of the house as I do," Tranter returned.
"As a practical man," Monsieur Dupont continued, "you may smile when I speak of such a thing as 'psychic intuition.' But you may smile, and again you may smile. I possess that intuition strongly. It has been of great use to me. The moment I entered that house to-night, I knew it was a house of sin. I knew there were hidden things in it—things that were not for honest eyes to see. I do not say—at present—that they have any connection with the crime. But they are there."
"I do not smile at such instincts," Tranter said. "I quite admit that there is a strange, uncanny atmosphere about the place. And if there are secrets in it, I am equally ready to admit that they are probably bad ones."
"They are bad ones," declared Monsieur Dupont. "They could not be anything but bad ones. When that excellent Inspector Fay has solved the mystery of the garden, he would be wise to turn his attention to the secrets of the house."
There was a pause.
"Did Layton kill her?" Tranter asked suddenly.
Monsieur Dupont shrugged his shoulders.
"The evidence is against him," he replied judicially. "Your Coroner's jury will find him guilty, and the police will not look further. They will build up a strong case. They will doubtless find that he was cruelly treated by that poor girl, and was furious to know that she was engaged to another man. He threatened, in the presence of many witnesses, to kill her in a horrible way. He was seen later in the garden, and afterwards she was found—killed in exactly that horrible way. Who would not say that in his rage and jealousy he had fulfilled his threat? Every one will be perfectly satisfied. It is enough for justice if the most likely person is hanged. And, so far, he is not only the most likely, but the only, person."
"Perhaps so," Tranter acknowledged. "But—he didn't look like a murderer. He looked a good fellow. Is there no other alternative?"
"There is an alternative," said Monsieur Dupont steadily.
Monsieur Dupont smoked composedly for a minute.
"My friend," he said—"are you inclined for an adventure?"
"I am rather busy," Tranter replied. "What is it?"
"Suppose ... I were to declare to you positively that James Layton is innocent—that he did not commit that crime in the crooked garden to-night—and that I do not intend to allow him to be hanged for a crime that he did not commit—would you give a certain amount of your time to help me to save him?"
"Certainly. I will do anything I can."
"Then," said Monsieur Dupont, "I answer the question you asked a moment ago. He did not kill her."
"Who did?" Tranter demanded, looking at him in astonishment.
"That is another matter. It is one thing to say who did not—but quite another to say who did. That is for us to discover. There will be very little time. I think I can promise you excitement. Possibly there will be danger. You do not object to that?"
"I have faced a certain amount of danger in my time," Tranter replied.
"Good," said Monsieur Dupont. "Then we will set ourselves—quite apart from the efforts of our friend, Inspector Fay—to solve the mystery of the crooked garden. And we will not speak a word to any one of our intention."
"You seem to have some very definite ideas on the subject already," Tranter observed.
"Ah, no," demurred Monsieur Dupont—"do not credit me with the superhuman. We have a very difficult task before us."
"But what of your other object," Tranter inquired—"the 'riddle' that you came over to solve?"
"It may be," Monsieur Dupont replied carefully, "that there is some connection between my riddle and this dreadful affair to-night. At present I cannot say. Only events themselves can prove that. But that very possibility compels me to take up a peculiar attitude—unfortunately a most necessary one. If you will assist me—as I beg you to do—you must be content to follow my guidance and instructions without question, and remain, as you call it, in the dark, until the time comes for all to be told."
"You are certainly the most mysterious person I have ever met!" Tranter exclaimed.
"It is not that I have the smallest doubt of yourself or your discretion," Monsieur Dupont hastened to explain. "On the contrary. It is simply that my position at this moment is an extraordinary one, and I cannot do what would seem to be the natural and ordinary thing. Will you help me on that understanding?"
"I will help you in any case," Tranter agreed, smiling slightly at his companion's intense seriousness. "What is to be my first task?"
"Your first task," said Monsieur Dupont gravely, "is to deposit me at the Hotel Savoy, and call for me later on your way back to Richmond."
Tranter spoke some instructions through the speaking-tube to the chauffeur. When he turned again, Monsieur Dupont was asleep. He did not open his eyes again until the car stopped at the Savoy.
Entering the hotel, he ascended to his room. In it, he mixed himself a whisky-and-soda, sat down at the writing-table, and unlocked a despatch-box.
He took out two photographs—each of a remarkably beautiful woman.
Under one was neatly written—
Colette d'Orsel. Nice. August 1900.
And under the other—
Margaret McCall. Boston. Dec. 1910.
From his pocket he took the photograph which the inspector had allowed him to appropriate, and laid it beside the others. The face that smiled up at him was the most beautiful of the three.
He dipped a pen in the ink, and wrote under it, in the same neat handwriting—
Christine Manderson. London. July 1919.
At ten o'clock, Tranter and Monsieur Dupont stood with Inspector Fay in the garden. The Rev. Percival Delamere joined them a few minutes later, and the theatrical manager arrived shortly afterwards. Finally, still in the same half-dazed condition, George Copplestone emerged from the house.
"Mon Dieu," Monsieur Dupont whispered quickly. "Look at that man!"
His face was white, with a sickly pasty whiteness. In the few hours that had passed he seemed to have wasted to a startling gauntness. His cheeks were drawn, his sunken eyes dull and filmy. He moved slowly and heavily, as if compelling himself under an utter weariness.
"What do you want first?" he asked the inspector curtly.
"First," replied Inspector Fay, "I want to be shown the spot where the body was found."
Copplestone led the way across the lawns. In the daylight Monsieur Dupont eagerly followed the maze of winding paths and hedges that had imprisoned him so helplessly in the darkness. It was a veritable looking-glass garden. The end of every path mocked its beginning. To reach an object it was necessary to walk away from it. To arrive at the bank of the river, Copplestone conducted his followers in the opposite direction.
"This garden might have been designed for a crime," the inspector remarked, as they turned yet another corner.
"It was," Monsieur Dupont agreed from the rear. "It was designed for the most abominable crime of making men and women go backwards instead of forwards. And last night it attained the height of its purpose."
For an instant Copplestone glanced back at him, a quickening in his dull eyes. A moment afterwards they turned a final corner, and emerged on to the broad lawns, sloping down to the edge of the river.
Copplestone halted, and looked round, measuring distances. Then he moved on, keeping close to the trees.
"About here, I think," said the clergyman, pausing.
Copplestone stopped a few paces ahead.
"It was very dark," he said, looking at the ground. "I don't think I knew exactly where we were. As near as I can judge, it was just here."
"There ought to have been some sign left to mark the place when the body was taken away," the inspector said sharply.
"You will find," said the quiet voice of Monsieur Dupont, "a pencil in the ground at the exact spot. It is a useful pencil, and I should be obliged if you would kindly return it to me."
The inspector shot him a rather grim smile. All, except Copplestone, bent down to look for the sign.
"Here it is," Tranter exclaimed, pulling a pencil out of the ground. They stood aside to give the inspector room.
"The rain has washed away any traces that might have helped us," that official grumbled, after a fruitless search.
"And even if it had not," the manager observed, "you would only have found traces of all of us, as we were all here."
The inspector continued his examination. Copplestone stood apart, his eyes fixed on the river. He did not appear to be taking the slightest interest in the proceedings.
"In what position was the body lying?" the inspector asked, looking up at the clergyman.
"It was so horribly contorted that it is difficult to say in what position it was lying," the latter replied, bending down beside him. "The head, I think, lay towards the river, and the feet towards the trees."
"It was so when we came," Copplestone corroborated, without turning his head.
"There are no signs of a struggle here," said the inspector, straightening himself after another pause. "If there had been one, some of the heavier indications might have remained in spite of the rain."
"It is possible," Monsieur Dupont suggested, "that the body was carried here from the place where the struggle did take place."
"Quite possible," the inspector agreed. He turned to Tranter. "Will you show us now, Mr. Tranter, where you parted from Miss Manderson?"
"I am not familiar with the garden," Tranter replied. "I only know, as I told you last night, that we had just passed under some arches across the path. I do not know where they are."
"Mr. Copplestone will show us," said the inspector.
Copplestone started at the sound of his own name, and turned to them.
"What next?" he asked abruptly.
"The rose arches," returned the inspector.
Copplestone indicated an opening in the trees, some distance ahead of them.
"Over here," he directed, moving towards it.
There were twelve ornamental arches, overgrown with roses. Monsieur Dupont looked at the wealth of flowers almost with reverence.
"So far," he muttered, "the only innocent things I have seen in this garden."
Tranter stopped at a point where several paths intersected.
"I left her here," he said. "I went down that path to the right, which she told me would lead to the main lawns where I should be most likely to Mr. Copplestone. She said she was going straight back to the house."
"She should have taken that path," Copplestone said, turning to one in another direction. "That is the way to the house."
"Did she know the garden well?" asked the inspector.
"Still, she might easily have taken a wrong turning in the darkness."
"She might. But it is about the straightest path in the garden. I don't think she would have made a mistake."
Slowly and carefully Inspector Fay followed the path to the house, under the guidance of Copplestone. Every yard of the way was examined, but yielded nothing. The inspector's face became darker and darker. He stopped when they turned a corner and found themselves at the house.
"She could not possibly have got so far as this before the attack was made," he said discontentedly.
"Impossible," agreed the manager. "If the murderer had killed her here, he would have left her here. He would not have taken the risk of dragging her all the way to the river."
"It seems a curious thing," the clergyman remarked, "that apparently she did not utter any cry for help."
"Ah!" said Monsieur Dupont quietly.
He looked at the clergyman with a new interest. Copplestone also glanced at him quickly.
"Even the thunder would hardly have drowned a sharp cry, and some one would surely have heard it."
"Probably she hadn't time," suggested the manager. "No doubt he sprang out and attacked her from the back. He must have been as quick as the lightning itself."
Monsieur Dupont drew Tranter aside.
"Our clerical friend does not realize the importance of his own point," he said softly. "But he has put his finger on the key to the whole mystery."
"The key?" Tranter repeated.
"If Christine Manderson had uttered a cry for help, this would have been a simple, straightforward case," said Monsieur Dupont. "In the fact that she did not lies the whole secret of the crime."
"Bolsover's reason would seem to be the obvious one," Tranter returned. "The assault must have been made so quickly that she had no time."
"Mr. Bolsover's reason is, as you say, the obvious one," admitted Monsieur Dupont. "But it is not the correct one. I have already warned Inspector Fay to disregard the obvious. If he will not take my advice, that is his affair."
"But what do you mean?" asked Tranter.
Monsieur Dupont's voice sank lower.
"Don't you see that a cry for help would have completely transformed the whole case? It would have brought it down in one crash to a human level. It is the silence—the utter, horrible silence—that makes it what it is. It is the silence——"
The inspector's voice recalled them.
"Now, Mr. Bolsover, just whereabouts was Layton when you disturbed him?"
"He was sneaking round there," the manager replied, pointing to a corner of the house, "towards the drawing-room windows."
"Which path did he run to when he saw you?"
"That one—to the river."
"Does that path communicate anywhere with the one which we presume Miss Manderson was following to the house?"
"Yes," said Copplestone.
They moved along the path indicated by the manager. It twisted about unproductively for some distance.
"How far was he in front of you?" asked the inspector.
"I don't know," confessed the manager. "I should say about ten yards when we started—but I am not much of a runner. I had lost him altogether before I got here."
They went on.
"That cursed rain," the inspector muttered.
"This is the branch that leads to the other path," said Copplestone, halting.
"And it was further along there, by that fir tree that I met Monsieur Dupont," added the manager.
"That is so," agreed Monsieur Dupont. "Layton certainly did not come beyond this point in my direction."
"By taking that branch," the inspector calculated, "he would have met Miss Manderson just at the time that the crime was committed."
"He would," said the manager.
Monsieur Dupont turned again to Tranter.
"We must be quick," he whispered, "Layton is already hanged."
"There doesn't seem to be much chance for him," returned Tranter. "It will be a very strong case. No criminal could complain at being hanged on such evidence."
"And yet," said Monsieur Dupont slowly, "so far as the actual crime is concerned, there is not a single trace. Not one single trace. Is it not extraordinary?"
He doubled his fists.
"That luck!" he ground out angrily. "Again that luck!"
"What luck?" Tranter exclaimed.
"If that most unfortunate young man had not come here and made a fool of himself last night, the police might have searched forever without finding a clue. There is no clue here. And there was the rain. The very elements sweep up after the passing of the Destroyer."
"What on earth do you mean?" Tranter cried.
"Hush!" said Monsieur Dupont.
"I am obliged to you, gentlemen," said the inspector. "Your evidence will of course be required at the inquest, of which you will receive notice. I need not detain you any longer."
The clergyman and the manager hurried away. Monsieur Dupont lingered at the inspector's side, and Tranter strolled back with Copplestone.
"Well?" queried the inspector. "Not much doubt about it, is there?"
"You have a strong case," said Monsieur Dupont. "Very strong."
"You agree with it?"
Monsieur Dupont shrugged his shoulders.
"At all events, I am not in position, at present, to contradict it."
"You will have your work cut out to build up another one," said the inspector complacently. "There isn't a trace."
"That is it," said the other sharply. "There is no trace. There is never a trace." He lowered his voice cautiously. "One point I recommend to you, as I have just recommended it to Tranter—that remark of Mr. Delamere that there was no cry for help."
"What of it?" returned the inspector.
"It is the key," said Monsieur Dupont.
He moved on abruptly, and overtook Tranter.
A BUILDER OF MEN
James Layton occupied two dingy rooms, in a dilapidated house, situated between a church and a public-house, in as squalid and unwholesome a street as any in the East End of London. In them he spent such time as was left to him—and it was not much—after his active ministrations among the denizens of the miserable neighborhood. They were scantily furnished, and of comforts there were none. He denied himself anything beyond the barest necessities of existence, with the exception of a few books and pipes, which were the companions of his odd moments of leisure, and he read and smoked in a hard wicker chair, destitute even of a cushion. He ate sparingly, of food scarcely better than that on which his neighbors subsisted, and drank little. His clothes were poor, his shirts frayed, and his boots patched—and his income was a thousand pounds a week.
In his work he was unusually broad-minded and unprejudiced. He spent none of his time in efforts to lure the occupants of the public-house on his left into the church on his right. Indeed, he was an excellent customer of the former institution, and was on the best of terms with its landlord, who was an ex-pugilist after his kind. He made no discrimination in the dispensation of his charity. He worked on the principle that before he reformed a man he must feed him—so before he attempted to deal with the mind he relieved the body. He was open-handed and unsuspicious—and wonderfully beloved. There were hundreds of people in that street, and many other streets, who would gladly have laid down their lives for him—and who imposed on him shockingly day after day in the minor matters of life. The Mad Philanthropist never turned away—never refused. He was a builder of Men. No one knew, or cared, who he was or whence he came. He never gave account of himself, or spoke of his own affairs. Curiosity was the one thing he resented. He enclosed himself, so far as private matters were concerned, within the fortifications of a reserve which no one had succeeded in penetrating. Though he held a thousand confidences, he made none. In listening to the experiences of others he never referred to his own, or even hinted whether they had been sweet or bitter. He went on his silent way—and the world was the better for him.