The Postmaster's Daughter
by Louis Tracy
Author of "The Terms of Surrender," "The Wings of the Morning," etc., etc.
I. THE FACE AT THE WINDOW
II. P. C ROBINSON "TAKES A LINE"
III. THE GATHERING CLOUDS
IV. A CABAL
V. THE SEEDS OF MISCHIEF
VI. SCOTLAND YARD TAKES A HAND
VII. "ALARUMS AND EXCURSIONS"
VIII. AN INTERRUPTED SYMPOSIUM
IX. HE WHOM THE CAP FITS—
X. THE CASE AGAINST GRANT
XI. P. C. ROBINSON TAKES ANOTHER LINE
XII. WHEREIN WINTER GETS TO WORK
XIII. CONCERNING THEODORE SIDDLE
XIV. ON BOTH SIDES OF THE RIVER
XV. A MATTER OF HEREDITY
XVI. FURNEAUX MAKES A SUCCESSFUL BID
XVII. AN OFFICIAL HOUSEBREAKER
XVIII. THE TRUTH AT LAST
THE FACE AT THE WINDOW
John Menzies Grant, having breakfasted, filled his pipe, lit it, and strolled out bare-headed into the garden. The month was June, that glorious rose-month which gladdened England before war-clouds darkened the summer sky. As the hour was nine o'clock, it is highly probable that many thousands of men were then strolling out into many thousands of gardens in precisely similar conditions; but, given youth, good health, leisure, and a fair amount of money, it is even more probable that few among the smaller number thus roundly favored by fortune looked so perplexed as Grant.
Moreover, his actions were eloquent as words. A spacious French window had been cut bodily out of the wall of an old-fashioned room, and was now thrown wide to admit the flower-scented breeze. Between this window and the right-hand angle of the room was a smaller window, square-paned, high above the ground level, and deeply recessed—in fact just the sort of window which one might expect to find in a farm-house built two centuries ago, when light and air were rigorously excluded from interiors. The two windows told the history of The Hollies at a glance. The little one had served the needs of a "best" room for several generations of Sussex yeomen. Then had come some iconoclast who hewed a big rectangle through the solid stone-work, converted the oak-panelled apartment into a most comfortable dining-room, built a new wing with a gable, changed a farm-yard into a flower-bordered lawn, and generally played havoc with Georgian utility while carrying out a determined scheme of landscape gardening.
Happily, the wrecker was content to let well enough alone after enlarging the house, laying turf, and planting shrubs and flowers. He found The Hollies a ramshackle place, and left it even more so, but with a new note of artistry and several unexpectedly charming vistas. Thus, the big double window opened straight into an irregular garden which merged insensibly into a sloping lawn bounded by a river-pool. The bank on the other side of the stream rose sharply and was well wooded. Above the crest showed the thatched roofs or red tiles of Steynholme, which was a village in the time of William the Conqueror, and has remained a village ever since. Frame this picture in flowering shrubs, evergreens, a few choice firs, a copper beech, and some sturdy oaks shadowing the lawn, and the prospect on a June morning might well have led out into the open any young man with a pipe.
But John Menzies Grant seemed to have no eye for a scene that would have delighted a painter. He turned to the light, scrutinized so closely a strip of turf which ran close to the wall that he might have been searching for a lost diamond, and then peered through the lowermost left-hand pane of the small window into the room he had just quitted.
The result of this peeping was remarkable in more ways than one.
A stout, elderly, red-faced woman, who had entered the room soon after she heard Grant's chair being moved, caught sight of the intent face. She screamed loudly, and dropped a cup and saucer with a clatter on to a Japanese tray.
Grant hurried back to the French window. In his haste he did not notice a long shoot of a Dorothy Perkins rose which trailed across his path, and it struck him smartly on the cheek.
"I'm afraid I startled you, Mrs. Bates," he said, smiling so pleasantly that no woman or child could fail to put trust in him.
"You did that, sir," agreed Mrs. Bates, collapsing into the chair Grant had just vacated.
Like most red-faced people, Mrs. Bates turned a bluish purple when alarmed, and her aspect was so distressing now that Grant's smile was banished by a look of real concern.
"I'm very sorry," he said contritely. "I had no notion you were in the room. Shall I call Minnie?"
Minnie, it may be explained, was Mrs. Bates's daughter and assistant, the two, plus a whiskered Bates, gardener and groom, forming the domestic establishment presided over by Grant.
"Nun-no, sir," stuttered the housekeeper. "It's stupid of me. But I'm not so young as I was, an' me heart jumps at little things."
Grant saw that she was recovering, though slowly. He thought it best not to make too much of the incident; but asked solicitously if he might give her some brandy.
Mrs. Bates remarked that she was "not so bad as that," rose valiantly, and went on with her work. Her employer, who had gone into the garden again, saw out of the tail of his eye that she vanished with a half-laden tray. In a couple of minutes the daughter appeared, and finished the slight task of clearing the table; meanwhile, Grant kept away from the small window. Being a young man who cultivated the habit of observation, he noticed that Minnie, too, cast scared glances at the window. When the girl had finally quitted the room, he laughed in a puzzled way.
"Am I dreaming, or are there visions about?" he murmured.
Urged, seemingly, by a sort of curiosity, he surveyed the room a second time through the same pane of glass. Being tall, he had to stoop slightly. Within, on the opposite side of the ledge, he saw the tiny brass candlestick with its inch of candle which he had used over-night while searching for a volume of Scott in the book-case lining the neighboring wall. Somehow, this simplest of domestic objects brought a thrill of recollection.
"Oh, dash it all!" he growled good-humoredly, "I'm getting nervy. I must chuck this bad habit of working late, and use the blessed hours of daylight."
Yet, as he sauntered down the lawn toward the stream, he knew well that he would do nothing of the sort. He loved that time of peace between ten at night and one in the morning. His thoughts ran vagrom then. Fantasies took shape under his pen which, in the cold light of morning, looked unreal and nebulous, though he had the good sense to restrain criticism within strict limits, and corrected style rather than matter. He was a writer, an essayist with no slight leaven of the poet, and had learnt early that the everyday world held naught in common with the brooding of the soul.
But he was no long-haired dreamer of impossible things. Erect and square-shouldered, he had passed through Sandhurst into the army, a profession abandoned because of its humdrum nature, when an unexpectedly "fat" legacy rendered him independent. He looked exactly what he was, a healthy, clean-minded young Englishman, with a physique that led to occasional bouts of fox-hunting and Alpine climbing, and a taste in literature that brought about the consumption of midnight oil. This latter is not a mere trope. Steynholme is far removed from such modern "conveniences" as gas and electricity.
At present he had no more definite object in life than to watch the trout rising in the pool. He held the fishing rights over half a mile of a noted river, but, by force of the law of hospitality, as it were, the stretch of water bordering the lawn was a finny sanctuary. Once, he halted, and looked fixedly at a dormer window in a cottage just visible above the trees on the opposite slope. Such a highly presentable young man might well expect to find a dainty feminine form appearing just in that place, and eke return the greeting of a waved hand. But the window remained blank—windows refused to yield any information that morning—and he passed on.
The lawn dipped gently to the water's edge, until the close-clipped turf gave way to pebbles and sand. In that spot the river widened and deepened until its current was hardly perceptible in fine weather. When the sun was in the west the trees and roofs of Steynholme were so clearly reflected in the mirror of the pool that a photograph of the scene needed close scrutiny ere one could determine whether or not it was being held upside down. But the sun shone directly on the water now, so the shelving bottom was visible, and Grant's quick eye was drawn to a rope trailing into the depths, and fastened to an iron staple driven firmly into the shingle.
He was so surprised that he spoke aloud.
"What in the world is that?" he almost gasped; a premonition of evil was so strong in him that he actually gazed in stupefaction at a blob of water and a quick-spreading ring where a fat trout rose lazily in midstream.
Somehow, too, he resisted the first impulse of the active side of his temperament, and did not instantly tug at the rope.
Instead, he shouted:—
An answering hail came from behind a screen of laurels on the right of the house. There lay the stables, and Bates would surely be grooming the cob which supplied a connecting link between The Hollies and the railway for the neighboring market-town.
Bates came, a sturdy block of a man who might have been hewn out of a Sussex oak. His face, hands, and arms were the color of oak, and he moved with a stiffness that suggested wooden joints.
Evidently, he expected an order for the dogcart, and stood stock still when he reached the lawn. But Grant, who had gathered his wits, summoned him with crooked forefinger, and Bates jerked slowly on.
"What hev' ye done to yer face, sir?" he inquired.
Grant was surprised. He expected no such question.
"So far as I know, I've not been making any great alteration in it," he said.
"But it's all covered wi' blood," came the disturbing statement.
A handkerchief soon gave evidence that Bates was not exaggerating. Miss—or is it Madam?—Dorothy Perkins can scratch as well as look sweet, and a thorn had opened a small vein in Grant's cheek which bled to a surprising extent.
"Oh, it is nothing," he said. "I remember now—a rose shoot caught me as I went back into the dining-room a moment ago. I shouted for you to come and see this."
Soon the two were examining the rope and the staple.
"Now who put that there?" said Bates, not asking a question but rather stating a thesis.
"It was not here yesterday," commented his master, accepting all that Bates's words implied.
"No, sir, that it wasn't. I was a-cuttin' the lawn till nigh bed-time, an' it wasn't there then."
Grant was himself again. He stooped and grabbed the rope.
"Suppose we solve the mystery," he said.
"No need to dirty your hands, sir," put in Bates. "Let I haul 'un in."
In a few seconds the oaken tint in his face grew many shades lighter.
"Good Gawd!" he wheezed. At the end of the rope was the body of a woman.
There are few more distressing objects than a drowned corpse. On that bright June morning a dreadful apparition lost little of its grim repulsiveness because the body was that of a young and good-looking woman.
If one searched England it would be difficult to find two men of differing temperaments less likely to yield to the stress of even the most trying circumstance than Grant and Bates, yet, during some agonized moments the one, of tried courage and fine mettle, was equally horrified and shaken as the other, a gnarled and hard-grained rustic. It was he from whom speech might least be expected who first found his tongue. Bates, who had stooped, straightened himself slowly.
"By gum!" he said, "this be a bad business, Mr. Grant. Who is she? She's none of our Steynholme lasses."
Still Grant uttered no word. He just looked in horror at the poor husk of a woman who in life had undoubtedly been beautiful. She was well but quietly dressed, and her clothing showed no signs of violence. The all-night soaking in the river revealed some pitiful little feminine secrets, such as a touch of make-up on lips and cheeks, and the dark roots of abundant hair which had been treated chemically to lighten its color. The eyes were closed, and for that Grant was conscious of a deep thankfulness. Had those sightless eyes stared at him he felt he would have cried aloud in terror. The firm, well-molded lips were open, as though uttering a last protest against an untimely fate. Of course, both men were convinced that murder had been done. Not only were arms and body bound in a manner that was impossible of accomplishment by the dead woman herself, but an ugly wound on the smooth forehead seemed to indicate that she had been stunned or killed outright before being flung into the river.
And then, the rope and the staple suggested an outlandish, maniacal disposal of the victim. Here was no effort at concealment, but rather a making sure, in most brutal and callous fashion, that early discovery must be unavoidable.
The bucolic mind works in well-scored grooves. Receiving no assistance from his master, Bates pulled the body a little farther up on the strip of gravel so that it lay clear of the water.
"I mum fetch t' polis," he said.
The phrase, with its vivid significance, seemed to galvanize Grant into a species of comprehension.
"Yes," he agreed, speaking slowly, as though striving to measure the effect of each word. "Yes, go for the police, Bates. This foul crime must be inquired into, no matter who suffers. Go now. But first bring a rug from the stable. You understand? Your wife, or Minnie, must not be told till later. They must not see. Mrs. Bates is not so well to-day."
"Not so well! Her ate a rare good breakfast for a sick 'un!"
Bates was recovering from the shock, and prepared once more to take an interest in the minor features of existence. Among these he counted ability to eat as a sure sign of continued well-being in man or beast.
Grant, too, was slowly regaining poise.
"I hardly know what I am saying," he muttered. "At any rate, bring a rug. I'll mount guard till you return with the policeman. There can be no doubt, I suppose, that this poor creature is dead."
"Dead as a stone," said Bates with conviction. "Why, her's bin in there hours," and he nodded toward the water. "Besides, if I knows anythink of a crack on t'head, her wur outed before she went into t'river.... But who i' t'world can she be?"
"If you don't fetch that rug I'll go for it myself," said Grant, whereupon Bates made off.
He was soon back again with a carriage rug, which Grant helped him to spread over the dripping body. Then he hastened to the village, taking a path that avoided the house.
The lawn and river bank of The Hollies could only be overlooked from the steep wooded cliff opposite, and none but an adventurous boy would ever think of climbing down that almost impassable rampart of rock, brushwood, and tree-roots. At any rate, when left alone with the ghastly evidence of a tragedy, Grant troubled only to satisfy himself that no one was watching from the house. Assured on that point, he lifted a corner of the rug, and, apparently, forced himself to scrutinize the dead woman's face. He seemed to search therein for some reassuring token, but found none, because he shook his head, dropped the rug, and walked a few paces dejectedly.
Then, hardly knowing what he was about, he relighted his pipe, but had hardly put it in his mouth before he knocked out the tobacco.
Clearly, he was thinking hard, mapping out some line of conduct, and the outlook must have been dark indeed, judging by his somber and undecided aspect.
More than once he looked up at the attic window of the cottage which had drawn his eyes before tragedy had come so swiftly to his very feet. But, if he hoped to see anyone, he was disappointed, though, in the event, it proved that his real fear was lest the person he half expected to see should look out.
He was not disturbed in that way, however. Fish rose in the river; birds sang in the trees; a water-wagtail skipped nimbly from rock to rock in the shallows; honey-laden bees hummed past to the many hives in the postmaster's garden. These were the normal sights and sounds of a June morning—that which was abnormal and almost grotesque in its horror lay hidden beneath the carriage rug.
To and fro he walked in that trying vigil, carrying the empty pipe in one hand while, with the other, he dabbed the handkerchief at the cut on his face. He was aware of some singular change in the quality of the sunlight pouring down on lawn and river and trees. Five minutes earlier it had spread over the landscape a golden bloom of the tint of champagne; now it was sharp and cold, a clear, penetrating radiance in which colors were vivid and shadows black. He was in no mood to analyze emotions, or he might have understood that the fierce throbbing of his heart had literally thinned the blood in his veins and thus affected even his sight. He only knew that in this crystal atmosphere the major issues of life presented themselves with a new and crude force. At any rate, he made up his mind that the course suggested by truth and honor was the only one to follow, and that, in itself, was something gained.
By the time Bates returned, accompanied by the village policeman, and two other men carrying a stretcher, Grant was calmer, more self-contained, than he had been since that hapless body was dragged from the depths. He was not irresponsive, therefore, to the aura of official importance which enveloped the policeman; he sensed a certain uneasiness in Bates; he even noted that the stretcher was part of the stock in trade of Hobbs, the local butcher, and ordinarily bore the carcase of a well-fed pig.
These details were helpful. Naturally, Bates had explained his errand, and the law, in the person of the policeman, was prepared for all eventualities.
"This is a bad business, Mr. Grant," began the policeman, producing a note-book, and moistening the tip of a lead pencil with his tongue. Being a Sussex man, he used the same phrase as Bates. In fact, Grant was greeted by it a score of times that day.
"Yes," agreed Grant. "I had better tell you that I have recognized the poor lady. Her name is Adelaide Melhuish. Her residence is in the Regent's Park district of London."
Robinson, the policeman, permitted himself to look surprised. He was, in fact, rather annoyed. Bates's story had prepared him for a first-rate detective mystery. It was irritating to have one of its leading features cleared up so promptly.
"Oh," he said, drawing a line under the last entry in the note-book, and writing the date and hour in heavy characters beneath. "Married or single?"
"Married, but separated from her husband when last I had news of her."
"And when was that, sir?"
"Nearly three years ago."
"And you have not seen her since?"
"You didn't see her last night?"
Grant positively started, but he looked at the policeman squarely.
"It is strange you should ask me that," he said. "Last night, while searching for a book, I saw a face at the window. It was that window," and four pairs of eyes followed his pointing finger. "The face, I now believe, was that of the dead woman. At the moment, as it vanished instantly, I persuaded myself that I was the victim of some trick of the imagination. Still, I opened the other window, looked out and listened, but heard or saw nothing or no one. As I say, I fancied I had imagined that which was not. Now I know I was wrong."
"About what o'clock would this be, Mr. Grant?"
"Shortly before eleven. I came in at a quarter past ten, and began to work. After writing steadily for a little more than half an hour, I wanted to consult a book, and lighted a candle which I keep for that purpose. I found the book, and was about to blow out the candle when I saw the face."
Robinson wrote in his note-book:—
"Called to The Hollies to investigate case of supposed murder. Body of woman found in river. Mr. Grant, occupying The Hollies, says that woman's name is Adelaide Melhuish"—at this point he paused to ascertain the spelling—"and he saw her face at a window of the house at 10.45 P.M., last night."
"Well, sir, and what next?" he went on.
"It seems to me that the next thing is to have the unfortunate lady removed to some more suitable place than the river bank," said Grant, rather impatiently. "My story can wait, and so can Bates's. He knows all that I know, and has probably told you already how we came to discover the body. You can see for yourself that she must have been murdered. It is an extraordinary, I may even say a phenomenal crime, which certainly cannot be investigated here and now. I advise you to have the body taken to the village mortuary, or such other place as serves local needs in that respect, and summon a doctor. Then, if you and an inspector will call here, I'll give you all the information I possess, which is very little, I may add."
Robinson began solemnly to jot down a summary of Grant's words, and thereby stirred the owner of The Hollies to a fury which was repressed with difficulty. Realizing, however, the absolute folly of expressing any resentment, Grant turned, and, without meaning it, looked again in the direction of the cottage on the crest of the opposite bank. This time a girl was leaning out of the dormer window. She had shaded her eyes with a hand, because the sun was streaming into her face, but when she saw that Grant was looking her way she waved a handkerchief.
He fluttered his own blood-stained handkerchief in brief acknowledgment, and wheeled about, only to find P. C. Robinson watching him furtively, having suspended his note-taking for the purpose.
P.C. ROBINSON "TAKES A LINE"
"It will help me a lot, sir," he said, "if you tell me now what you know about this matter. If, as seems more than likely, murder has been done, I don't want to lose a minute in starting my inquiries. In a case of this sort I find it best to take a line, and stick to it."
His tone was respectful but firm. Evidently, P.C. Robinson was not one to be trifled with. Moreover, for a sleuth whose maximum achievement hitherto had been the successful prosecution of a poultry thief, it was significant that the unconscious irony of "a case of this sort" should have been lost on him.
"Do you really insist on conducting your investigation while the body is lying here?" demanded Grant, deliberately turning his back on the girl in the distant cottage.
"Not that, sir—not altogether—but I must really ask you to clear up one or two points now."
"For goodness' sake, what are they?"
"Well, sir, in the first place, how did you come to find the body?"
"I walked out into the garden after finishing breakfast a few minutes ago, and noticed the rope attached to the staple, just as you see it now."
"Did you walk straight here?"
"No. Not exactly. I was—er—curious about the face I saw, or thought I saw, last night, and looked into the room through the same window. By doing so I scared Mrs. Bates, who was clearing the table, and she screamed—"
"Her would, too," put in Bates. "Her'd take 'ee for Owd Ben's ghost."
"You shut up, Bates," said the policeman. "Don't interrupt Mr. Grant."
Grant was conscious of an undercurrent of suspicion in the constable's manner. He was wroth with the man, but recognized that he had to deal with narrow-minded self-importance, so contrived again to curb his temper.
"I am not acquainted with old Ben or his ghost," he said quietly. "I can only tell you that I went inside to reassure Mrs. Bates, and then strolled slowly to this very spot. Naturally, I could not miss the rope and the stable. To my mind, it was not intended that I or anyone else should miss them. I regarded them as so peculiar that I shouted for Bates. He came at once, and drew the body out of the water."
"And you recognized the dead woman as the one you saw last night?"
"At about ten minutes to eleven?"
"Is it likely, sir, that any other person saw her in these grounds a bit earlier?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, sir, I can't put it much plainer. Could anybody else have seen her here, say about 10.15?"
Grant met the policeman's inquiring glance squarely before he answered.
"It is possible, of course," he said, "but most unlikely."
"Were you alone here at that hour?"
Again Grant sought and held that inquisitive gaze, held it until Robinson affected to consult his notes. There was a moment of tense silence. Then the reply came with an icy stubbornness that was not to be denied.
"I decline absolutely to be cross-examined about my movements. If you are unable or unwilling to order the removal of the body, I'll telegraph to the chief of police at Knolesworth, and ask him to act. Further, I shall request Dr. Foxton to examine the poor lady's injuries. It strikes me as a monstrous proceeding that you should attempt to record my evidence at this moment, and I refuse to become a party to it."
"Now, then, Robinson, stop yer Sherlock Holmes work, an' help me to lift this poor woman on to the stretcher," said Bates gruffly.
The policeman's red face grew a shade deeper with annoyance, but he had the sense to avoid a scene. He was not popular in the village, and was well aware that the two rustics pressed into service as stretcher-bearers would joyfully retail the fact that he had been "set down a peg or two by Mr. Grant."
"I'll do all that's necessary in that way, sir," he said stiffly. "I suppose you have no objection to my askin' if you noticed any strange footprints on the ground hereabouts?"
"That was the first thing I looked for, both here and outside the window—the latter, of course, for another reason. I found none. These stones would show no signs. The ground is so dry that even the five men now present leave no traces, but I remember seeing in the bed of the stream certain marks which, unfortunately, were obliterated when Bates hauled the body ashore. They were valueless, however—shapeless indentations in the mud and sand."
"Were they wide apart or close together, sir?"
"Quite irregular. No one could judge by the length of the stride whether they were made by the feet of a man or a woman, if that is what you have in mind ... but, really—"
Grant's impatient motion was not to be misunderstood. Robinson stooped, removed the rug, and unfastened the rope, after noting carefully how it was tied, a point which he called on the others to observe as well. Then he and the villagers went away with their sad burden, the rug being requisitioned once more to hide that wan face from the vivid sunshine.
Bates had a trick of grasping a handful of his short whiskers when puzzled; he did so now; it seemed to be an unconscious effort to pull his jaws apart in order to emit speech.
"I've a sort of idee, sir," he said slowly, "that Robinson saw Doris Martin on the lawn with 'ee last night."
Grant turned on his henchman in a sudden heat of anger.
"Miss Martin's name must be kept out of this matter," he growled.
But Sussex is not easily browbeaten when it thinks itself in the right.
"All very well a-sayin' that, sir, but a-doin' of it is a bird of another color," argued Bates firmly.
"How did you know that Miss Martin was here?"
"Bless your heart, sir, how comes it that us Steynholme folk know everythink about other folk's business? Sometimes we know more'n they knows themselves. You've not walked a yard wi' Doris that the women's tittle-tattle hasn't made it into a mile."
No man, even the wisest, likes to be told an unpalatable truth. For a few seconds, Grant was seriously annoyed with this village Solon, and nearly blurted out an angry command that he should hold his tongue. Luckily, since Bates was only trying to be helpful, he was content to say sarcastically:
"Of course, if you are so well posted in my movements last night, you can assure the coroner and the Police that I did not strangle some strange woman, tie a rope around her, and throw her in the river."
"Me an' my missis couldn't help seein' you an' Doris a-lookin' at the stars through a spyglass when us were goin' to bed," persisted Bates. "We heerd your voices quite plain. Once 'ee fixed the glass low down, an' said, 'That's serious. It's late to-night.' An' I tell 'ee straight, sir, I said to the missis:—'It will be serious, an' all, if Doris's father catches her gallivantin' in our garden wi' Mr. Grant nigh on ten o'clock.' Soon after that 'ee took Doris as far as the bridge. The window was open, an' I heerd your footsteps on the road. You kem' in, closed the window, an' drew a chair up to the table. After that, I fell asleep."
Perturbed and anxious though he was, Grant could hardly fail to see that Bates meant well by him. The mental effort needed for such a long speech said as much. The allusion to Sirius, amusing at any other time, was now most valuable, because an astronomical almanac would give the hour at which that brilliant star became visible. Other considerations yielded at once, however, to the fear lest Robinson and his note-book were already busy at the post office. Without another word, he hurried away by the side-path through the evergreens, leaving Bates staring after him, and, with more whisker-pulling, examining the rope and staple, which, by the policeman's order, were not to be disturbed.
Grant reached the highroad just as Robinson and the men with the stretcher were crossing a stone bridge spanning the river about a hundred yards below The Hollies. A slight, youthful, and eminently attractive female figure, walking swiftly in the opposite direction, came in sight at the same time, and Grant almost groaned aloud when the newcomer stood stock still and looked at the mournful procession. He, be it remembered, was somewhat of an idealist and a poet; it grieved his spirit that those two women, the quick and the dead, should meet on the bridge. He took it as a portent, almost a menace, he knew not of what. He might have foreseen that unhappy eventuality, and prevented it, but his brain refused to work clearly that morning. A terrible and bizarre crime had bemused his faculties. He seemed to be in a state of waking nightmare.
He was stung into impetuous action by seeing the policeman halt and exchange some words with the girl. He began to run, with the quite definite if equally mad intent of punching Robinson into reasonable behavior. He was saved from an act of unmitigated folly by the girl herself. She caught sight of him, apparently broke off her talk with the policeman abruptly, and, in her turn, took to her heels.
Thus, on that strip of sun-baked road, with its easy gradient to the crown of the bridge, there was the curious spectacle offered by two men jogging along with a corpse on a stretcher, a young man and a young woman running towards each other, and a discomfited representative of the law, looking now one way and now the other, and evidently undecided whether to go on or return. Ultimately, it would seem, Robinson went with the stretcher-bearers, because Grant and the girl saw no more of him for the time.
Grant had received several shocks since rising from the breakfast-table, but it was left for Doris Martin, the postmaster's daughter, to administer not the least surprising one.
Though almost breathless, and wide-eyed with horror, her opening words were very much to the point.
"How awful!" she cried. "Why should any-one in Steynholme want to kill a great actress like Adelaide Melhuish?"
Now, the name of the dead woman was literally the last thing Grant expected to hear from this girl's lips, and the astounding fact momentarily banished all other worries.
"You knew her?" he gasped.
"No, not exactly. But I couldn't avoid recognizing her when she asked for her letters, and sent a telegram."
"Oh, Robinson told me she was dead. I see now what is puzzling you."
"It is not quite that. I mean, why didn't you tell me she was in Steynholme? Has she been staying here any length of time?"
The girl's pretty face crimsoned, and then grew pale.
"I—had no idea—she was—a friend of yours, Mr. Grant," she stammered.
"She used to be a friend, but I have not set eyes on her during the past three years—until last night."
"After you had gone home. I was doing some work, and, having occasion to consult a book, lighted a candle, and put it in the small window near the bookcase. Then I fancied I saw a woman's face, her face, peering in, and was so obsessed by the notion that I went outside, but everything was so still that I persuaded myself I was mistaken."
"Oh, is that what it was?"
Grant threw out his hands in a gesture that was eloquent of some feeling distinctly akin to despair.
"You don't usually speak in enigmas, Doris," he said. "What in the world do you mean by saying:—'Oh, is that what it was?'"
The girl—she was only nineteen, and never before had aught of tragic mystery entered her sheltered life—seemed to recover her self-possession with a quickness and decision that were admirable.
"There is no enigma," she said calmly. "My room overlooks your lawn. Before retiring for the night I went to the window, just to have another peep at Sirius and its changing lights, so I could not help seeing you fling open the French windows, stand a little while on the step, and go in again."
"Ah, you saw that? Then I have one witness who will help to dispel that stupid policeman's notion that I killed Miss Melhuish, and hid her body in the river at the foot of the lawn, hid it with such care that the first passerby must find it."
Every human being has three distinct personalities. Firstly, there is the man or woman as he or she really is; secondly, there is the much superior individual as assessed personally; thirdly, and perhaps the most important in the general scheme of things, there is the same individuality as viewed by others. For an instant, the somewhat idealized figure which John Menzies Grant offered to a pretty and intelligent but inexperienced girl was in danger of losing its impressiveness. But, since Grant was not only a good fellow but a gentleman, his next thought restored him to the pedestal from which, all unknowing, he had nearly been dethroned.
"That is a nice thing to say," he cried, with a short laugh of sheer vexation. "Here am I regarding you as a first-rate witness in my behalf, whereas my chief worry is to keep you out of this ugly business altogether. Forgive me, Doris! Never before have I been so bothered. Honestly, I imagined I hadn't an enemy in the world, yet someone has tried deliberately to saddle me with suspicion in this affair. Not that I would give real heed to that consideration if it were not for the unhappy probability that, strive as I may, your name will crop up in connection with it. What sort of fellow is this police constable? Do you think he would keep his mouth shut if I paid him well?"
Grant was certainly far from being in his normal state of mind, or he would have caught the tender gleam which lighted the girl's eyes when she understood that his concern was for her, not for himself. As it was, several things had escaped him during that brief talk on the sunlit road.
On her part, Doris Martin was now in full control of her emotions, and she undoubtedly took a saner view of a difficult situation.
"Robinson is a vain man," she said thoughtfully. "He will not let go the chance of notoriety given him by the murder of a well-known actress. Was she really murdered? Robinson said so when I met him on the bridge."
"I'm afraid he is justified in that belief, at any rate."
"Well, Mr. Grant, what have we to conceal? I was in your garden at a rather late hour, I admit, but one cannot watch the stars by day, and a big telescope with its tripod is not easily carried about. Of course, father will be vexed, because, as it happens, I did not tell him I was coming out. But that cannot be helped. As it happens, I can fix the time you opened your window almost to a minute, because the church clock had chimed the quarter just before you appeared."
Grant, however, was not to be soothed by this matter-of-fact reasoning.
"I am vexed at the mere notion of your name, and possibly your portrait, appearing in the newspapers," he protested. "Miss Melhuish was a celebrated actress. The press will make a rare commotion about her death. Look at the obvious questions that will be raised. What was she doing here? Why was she found in the river bordering the grounds of my house? Don't you see? I had to decide pretty quickly whether or not I would admit any previous knowledge of her. I suppose I acted rightly?"
"Why hide anything, Mr. Grant? Surely it is always best to tell the truth!"
He looked into those candid blue eyes, and drew from their limpid depths an element of strength and fortitude.
"By Jove, Doris, small wonder if a jaded man of the world, such as I was when I came to Steynholme, found new faith and inspiration in friendship with you," he said gratefully. "But I am wool-gathering all the time this morning, it would seem. Won't you come into the house? If we have to discuss a tragedy we may as well sit down to it."
"No," she said, with the promptitude of one who had anticipated the invitation. "I must hurry home. There are accounts to be made up. And Robinson and others will be telegraphing to Knoleworth and London. I must attend to all that, because dad gets flustered if several messages are handed in at the same time."
"Come and have tea, then, about four o'clock. The ravens will have fled by then."
"The police, you dear child, and the reporters, and the photographers—the flock of weird fowl which gathers from all points of the compass when the press gets hold of what is called 'a first-rate story,' By midday I shall be in the thick of it. But, thank goodness, they will know nothing to draw them your way until the inquest takes place, and not even then if I can manage it."
"Don't mind me, Mr. Grant. You must not keep anything back on my account. I'll try and come at four. But I may be very busy in the office. By the way, you ought to know. Miss Melhuish came here on Sunday evening. She arrived by the train from London. I—happened to notice her as she passed in the Hare and Hounds 'bus. She took a room there, at the inn, I mean, and came to the post office twice yesterday. When I heard her name I recognized her at once from her photographs. And—one more thing—I guessed there was something wrong when I saw you, and Robinson, and Bates, and the other men standing near a body lying close to the river. That is why I came out. Now I really must go. Good-by!"
She hastened away. Grant stood in the road and looked after her. Apparently she was conscious that he had not stirred, because, when she reached the bridge, she turned and waved a hand to him. She was exceedingly graceful in all her movements. She wore a simple white linen blouse and short white skirt that morning, with brown shoes and stockings which harmonized with the deeper tints of her Titian red hair. As she paused on the bridge for a second or two, silhouetted against the sky, she suggested to Grant's troubled mind the Spirit of Summer.
Returning to the house by way of the main gate, which gave on to the highway, he bethought him of Mrs. Bates and Minnie. They must be enlightened, and warned as to the certain influx of visitors. He resolved now to tackle a displeasing task boldly. Realizing that the worst possible policy lay in denying himself to the representatives of the press, who would simply ascertain the facts from other sources, and unconsciously adopt a critical vein with regard to himself, he determined to go to the other extreme, and receive all comers.
Of course, there would be reservations in his story. That is what every man decides who faces a legal inquiry as a novice. It is a decision too often regretted in the light of after events.
Meanwhile, P. C. Robinson was hard at work. In his own phrase, he "took a line," and the trend of his thoughts was clearly demonstrated when a superintendent motored over from Knoleworth in response to a telegram. He told how the body had been found, and then went into details gathered in the interim.
"Miss Melhuish hadn't been in the village five minutes," he said, "before she asked Mr. Tomlin, landlord of the Hare and Hounds, where The Hollies was, and how long Mr. Grant had lived in the village. She went for a walk in the direction of his house almost at once. Tomlin watched her until she crossed the bridge. That was on Sunday evening."
Superintendent Fowler allowed his placid features to show a flicker of surprise. In that rural district an actual, downright murder was almost unknown. Even a case of manslaughter, arising out of a drunken quarrel between laborers at fair-time, did not occur once in five years.
"Oh, she came here on Sunday, did she?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. Yesterday, too, she spoke of Mr. Grant to Hobbs, the butcher, and Siddle, the chemist."
The two were closeted in the sitting-room of Robinson's cottage, which was situated on the main road near the bridge. It faced the short, steep hill overhanging the river. A triangular strip of turf formed the village green, and the houses of Steynholme clustered around this and a side road climbing the hill. From door and windows nearly every shop and residence in the village proper could be seen. In front of the Hare and Hounds had gathered a group of men, and it was easy to guess the topic they were discussing. The superintendent, who did not know any of them, had no difficulty in identifying Hobbs, who looked a butcher and was dressed like one, or Tomlin, who was either born an innkeeper or had been coached in the part by a stage expert. A thin, sharp-looking person, pallid and black-haired, wearing a morning coat and striped trousers, must surely be Siddle, while a fourth, the youngest there, and of rather sporting guise, was apparently a farmer of a horse-breeding turn.
"Who is that fellow in the leggings?" inquired the superintendent irrelevantly. He was looking through the window, and Robinson considered that the question showed a lack of interest in his statement, though he dared not hint at such a thing.
"He's a Mr. Elkin, sir," he said. "As I was saying—"
"How does Mr. Elkin make a living?" broke in the other.
"He breeds hacks and polo ponies," said Robinson, rather shortly.
"Ah, I thought so. Well, go on with your story."
Robinson was irritated, and justly so. His superior had put him off his "line." He took it up again sharply, leaving out of court for the moment the various rills of evidence which, in his opinion, united into a swift-moving stream.
"The fact is, sir," he blurted out, "there is an uncommonly strong case against Mr. John Menzies Grant."
"Phew!" whistled the superintendent.
"I think you'll agree with me, sir, when you hear what I've gathered about him one way and another."
Robinson was sure of his audience now. Quite unconsciously, he had applied the chief canon of realism in art. He had conveyed his effect by one striking note. The rest of the picture was quite subsidiary to the bold splurge of color evoked by actually naming the man he suspected of murdering Adelaide Melhuish.
THE GATHERING CLOUDS
Thus, it befell that Grant was not worried by officialdom until long after his housekeeper and her daughter had recovered from the shock of learning that they were, in a sense, connected at first hand with a ghastly and sensational crime.
Like Bates and their employer, neither Mrs. Bates nor Minnie had heard or seen anything overnight which suggested that a woman was being foully done to death in the grounds attached to the house. As it happened, Minnie's bedroom, as well as that occupied by her parents, overlooked the lawn and river. Grant's room lay in a gable which commanded, the entrance. He had chosen it purposely because it faced the rising sun. The other members of the household, therefore, though in bed, had quite as good an opportunity as he, working in the dining-room beneath, of having their attention drawn to sounds disturbing the peace of the night in a quiet and secluded spot. Moreover, none of them was asleep. Minnie Bates, in particular, said that the "grandfather's clock" in the hall struck twelve before she "could close an eye."
At last, just as Grant was rising from an almost untasted luncheon, Mrs. Bates, with a voice of scare, announced "the polis," and P.C. Robinson introduced Superintendent Fowler. This time Grant did not resent questions. He expected them, and had made up his mind to give full and detailed answers. Of course, the finding of the body was again described minutely. The superintendent, a man of experience, one whose manner was not fox-like and irritating like his subordinate's, paid close attention to the face at the window.
"There seems to be little room for doubt that Miss Melhuish did enter your grounds about a quarter to eleven last night," he said thoughtfully. "You recognized her at once, you say?"
"I imagined so. Until this horrible thing became known I had persuaded myself that the vision was a piece of sheer hallucination."
"Let us assume that the lady actually came here, and looked in. Evidently, her face was sufficiently familiar that you should know instantly who this unusual visitor was. I understand, though, that you had not the least notion she was staying in Steynholme?"
"Not the least."
"How long ago is it since you last saw her?"
"Nearly three years."
"You were very well acquainted with her, then, or you could not have glanced up from your table, seen someone staring at you through a window, and said to yourself, as one may express it:—'That is Adelaide Melhuish'."
"We were so well acquainted that I asked the lady to be my wife."
"Ah," said the superintendent.
His placid, unemotional features, however, gave no clew to his opinions. Not so P. C. Robinson, who tried to look like a judge, whereas he really resembled a bull-terrier who has literally, not figuratively, smelt a rat.
Despite his earlier good resolutions, Grant was horribly impatient of this inquisition. He admitted that the superintendent was carrying through an unpleasant duty as inoffensively as possible, but the attitude of the village policeman was irritating in the extreme. Nothing would have tended so effectively to relieve his surcharged feelings as to supply P. C. Robinson then and there with ample material for establishing a charge of assault and battery.
"That is not a remarkable fact, if regarded apart from to-day's tragedy," he said, and there was more than a hint of soul-weariness in his voice. "Miss Melhuish was a very talented and attractive woman. I first met her as the outcome of a suggestion that one of my books should be dramatized, a character in the novel being deemed eminently suitable for her special role on the stage. The idea came to nothing. She was appearing in a successful play at the time, and was rehearsing its successor. Meanwhile, I—fell in love with her, I suppose, and she certainly encouraged me in the belief that she might accept me. I did eventually propose marriage. Then she told me she was married already. It was a painful disillusionment—at the time. I only saw her, to speak to, once again."
"Did she reveal her husband's name?"
"Yes—a Mr. Ingerman."
The superintendent looked grave. That was a professional trick of his. He had never before in his life heard of Mr. Ingerman, but encouraged the notion that this gentleman was thoroughly, and not quite favorably, known to him. Sometimes it happened that a witness, interpreting this sapient look by the light of his or her personal and intimate knowledge, would blurt out certain facts, good or bad as the case might be, concerning the person under discussion.
But Grant remained obstinately silent as to the qualities of this doubtful Ingerman, so Mr. Fowler scribbled the name in a note-book, and was particular as to whether it ended in one "n" or two.
Still, he carried other shots in his locker. In fact, Mr. Fowler, had he taken in youth to nicer legal subtleties than handcuffs and summonses, would have become a shrewd lawyer.
"We'll leave Mr. Ingerman for the moment," he said, implying, of course, that on returning to him there might be revelations. "I gather that you and Miss Melhuish did not agree, shall I put it? as to the precise bearing of the marriage tie on your love affair?"
"I'm afraid I don't quite follow your meaning," and Grant's tone stiffened ominously, but his questioner was by no means abashed.
"I have no great acquaintance with the stage or its ways, but I have always understood that divorce proceedings among theatrical folk were, shall we say? more popular than, in the ordinary walks of life," said Mr. Fowler.
Grant's resentment vanished. The superintendent's calm method, his interpolated apologies, as it were, for applying the probe, were beginning to interest him.
"Your second effort is more successful, superintendent," he said dryly. "Miss Melhuish did urge me to obtain her freedom. It was, she thought, only a matter of money with Mr. Ingerman, and she would be given material for a divorce."
"Ah," murmured Fowler again, as though the discreditable implication fitted in exactly with the life history of a noted scoundrel in a written dossier then lying in his office. "You objected, may I suggest, to that somewhat doubtful means of settling a difficulty?"
"Something of the kind."
Assuredly, Grant did not feel disposed to lay bare his secret feelings before this persuasive superintendent and an absurdly conceited village constable. Love, to him, was an ideal, a blend of mortal passion and immortal fire. But the flame kindled on that secret altar had scorched and seared his soul in a wholly unforeseen way. The discovery that Adelaide Melhuish was another man's wife had stunned him. It was not until the fire of sacrifice had died into parched ashes that its earlier banality became clear. He realized then that he had given his love to a phantom. By one of nature's miracles a vain and selfish creature was gifted in the artistic portrayal of the finer emotions. He had worshiped the actress, the mimic, not the woman herself. At any rate, that was how he read the repellent notion that he should bargain with any man for the sale of a wife.
"You might be a trifle more explicit, Mr. Grant," said the superintendent, almost reproachfully.
"In what direction? Surely a three-years-old love affair can have little practical bearing on Miss Melhuish's death?"
"What, then, may I ask, could bear on it more forcibly? The lady admittedly visits you, late at night, and is found dead in a river bordering the grounds of your house next morning, all the conditions pointing directly to murder. Moreover—it is no secret, as the truth must come out at the inquest—she had passed a good deal of her time while in Steynholme, unknown to you, in making inquiries concerning you, your habits, your surroundings, your friends. Surely, Mr. Grant, you must see that the history of your relations with this lady, though, if I may use the phrase, perfectly innocent, may possibly supply that which is at present lacking—a clew, shall I term it, to the motive which inspired the man, or woman, who killed her?"
P.C. Robinson was all an eye and an ear for this verbal fencing-match. It was not that he admired his superior's skill, because such finesse was wholly beyond him, but his suspicious brain was storing up Grant's admissions "to be used in evidence" against him subsequently. His own brief record of the conversation would have been:—"The prisoner, after being duly cautioned, said he kept company with the deceased about three years ago, but quarreled with her on hearing that she was a married woman."
The superintendent seldom indulged in so long a speech, but he was determined to force his adversary's guard, and sought to win his confidence by describing the probable course to be pursued by the coroner's inquest. But Grant, like the dead actress, had two sides to his nature. He was both an idealist and a stubborn fighter, and ideality had been shattered for many a day by that grewsome object hauled in that morning from the depths of the river.
"I am willing to help in any shape or form, but can only repeat that Miss Melhuish and I parted as described. I should add that I have never, to my knowledge, met her husband."
"He may be dead."
"Possibly. You may know more about him than I."
"Even then, we have not traveled far as yet."
Fowler was puzzled, and did not hesitate to show it. He believed, not without reasonable cause, that this young man was concealing some element in the situation which might prove helpful in the quest for the murderer. He resolved to strike off along a new track.
"I am informed," he went on, speaking with a deliberateness meant to be impressive, "that you did entertain another lady as a visitor last night."
Grant allowed his glance to dwell on Robinson for an instant. Hitherto he had ignored the man. Now he surveyed him as if he were a viper.
"It will be a peculiarly offensive thing if the personality of a helpless and unoffending girl is brought into this inquiry," he cried. "'Brought in' is too mild—I ought to say 'dragged in.' As it happens, astronomy is one of my hobbies. Last evening, as the outcome of a chat on the subject, Doris Martin, daughter of the local postmaster, came here to view Sirius through an astronomical telescope. There is the instrument," and he pointed through P.C. Robinson to a telescope on a tripod in a corner of the room. The gesture was eloquent. The burly policeman might have been a sheet of glass. "As you see, it is a solid article, not easily lifted about. It weighs nearly a hundred-weight."
"Why is it so heavy?"
The superintendent had a knack of putting seemingly irrelevant questions. Robinson had been disconcerted by it earlier in the day, but Grant seemed to treat the interruption as a sensible one.
"For observation purposes an astronomical telescope is not of much use unless the movement of the earth is counteracted," he said. "Usually, the dome of an observatory swings on a specially contrived axis, but that is a very expensive structure, so my telescope is governed by a clockwork attachment and moves on its own axis."
Mr. Fowler nodded. He was really a very well informed man for a country police-officer; he understood clearly.
"Miss Martin came here about a quarter to ten," continued Grant, "and left within three-quarters of an hour. She did not enter the house. She was watching Sirius while I explained the methods whereby the distance of any star from the earth is computed and its chemical analysis determined—"
"Most instructive, I'm sure," put in the superintendent.
He smiled genially, so genially that Grant dismissed the notion that the other might, in vulgar parlance, be pulling his leg.
"Well, that is the be-all and end-all of Miss Martin's presence. It would be cruel, and unfair, if a girl of her age were forced into a distasteful prominence in connection with a crime with which she is no more related than with Sirius itself."
The older man shook his head in regretful dissent.
"That is just where you and I differ," he said. "That very point leads us back to your past friendship with the dead woman."
"Surely you see, Mr. Grant, that Miss Melhuish might be, probably was, watching your star-gazing, especially as your pupil chanced to be, shall I say, a remarkably attractive young lady ... No, no," for Grant's anger was unmistakable—"It does no good to blaze out in protest. An unhappy combination of circumstances must be faced candidly. Here are you and a pretty girl together in a garden at a rather late hour, and a woman whom you once wanted to marry spying on you, in all likelihood. I've met a few coroner's juries in my time, and not one of them but would deem the coincidence strange, to put it mildly."
"What in Heaven's name are you driving at?"
"You must not impute motives, sir. I am seeking them, not supplying them."
"But what am I to say?"
"Perhaps you will now tell me just how Miss Melhuish and you parted."
The fencers were coming to close quarters. Even P. C. Robinson had to admit that his "boss" had cornered the suspect rather cleverly.
Grant realized that there was no room for squeamishness in this affair. If he did not speak out now, his motives might be woefully misunderstood.
"We parted in wrath and tears," he said sadly. "Miss Melhuish could not, or did not, appreciate my scruples. She professed to be in love with me. She even went so far as to threaten suicide. I—hardly believed in her sincerity, but thought it advisable to temporize, and asked for a few days' delay before we came to a final decision. We met again, as I have said, and discussed matters in calmer mood. Ultimately, she professed agreement with my point of view, and we parted, ostensibly to remain good friends, but really to separate for ever."
"Thank you. That's better. What was your point of view, Mr. Grant?"
"Surely I have made it clear. I could not regard my wife as purchasable. The proposed compact was, I believe, illegal. But that consideration did not sway me. I had been dreaming, and thought I was roaming in an enchanted garden. I awoke, and found myself in a morass."
The superintendent nodded again. Singularly enough, Grant's somewhat high-flown simile appeared to satisfy his craving for light.
"Do you mind telling me—is there another woman?" he demanded, with one of those rapid transitions of topic in which he excelled.
"No," said Grant.
"You see what I am aiming at. Let us suppose that Miss Melhuish never, in her own mind, abandoned the hope that some day the tangle would straighten itself. Women are constituted that way. If her husband is now dead, and she became free, she might wish to renew the old ties, but, being proud, would want to ascertain first whether or not any other woman had come into your life."
"I follow perfectly," said Grant, with some bitterness. "She would be consumed with jealousy because my companion in the garden last night happened to be a charming girl of nineteen."
"It is possible."
"So she went off and got someone to kill her, and tie her body with a rope, and arrange a dramatic setting whereby it would be patent to the meanest intelligence that I was the criminal?"
Mr. Fowler smiled, and looked fixedly at P.C. Robinson.
"No, no," he said, quite good-humoredly. "That would be carrying realism to extremes. Still, I am convinced, Mr. Grant, that this mystery is bound up in some way with your romance of three years ago. At present, I admit, I am working in the dark."
He rose. Apparently, the interview was at an end. But, while pocketing his note-book, he said suddenly:—
"The inquest will open at three o'clock tomorrow. You will be present, of course, Mr. Grant?"
"I suppose it is necessary."
"Oh, yes. You found the body, you know. Besides, you may be the only person who can give evidence of identity. In fact, you and the doctor will be the only witnesses called."
"Has he made a post-mortem?"
"He is doing so now. You see, there is clear indication that this unfortunate lady was struck a heavy blow, perhaps killed, before she was put in the river."
"Good Heavens! Somehow, I was so stunned that I never thought of looking for signs of any injury of that sort."
Grant's horror-stricken air was so spontaneous that it probably justified the severe test of that unexpected disclosure. He was so unnerved by it that the two policemen had gone before he could frame another question.
Once they were in the open road, and well away from The Hollies, Robinson ventured to open his mouth.
"He's a clever one is Mr. Grant," he said meaningly. "You handled him a bit of all right, sir, but he didn't tell you everything he knew, not by long chalks."
The superintendent walked a few yards in silence. Even when he spoke, his gaze was introspective, and seemed to ignore his companion.
"I'm inclined to agree with you, Robinson," he said, speaking very slowly. "We have a big case in our hands, a very big case. We must tread warily. You, in particular, mixing with the village folk, should listen to all but say nothing. Don't depend on your memory. Write down what you hear and see. People's actual words, and the exact time of an occurrence, often have an extraordinarily illuminating effect when weighed subsequently. But don't let Mr. Grant think you suspect him. There is no occasion for that—yet."
Mr. Fowler could be either blunt or cryptic in speech at will. In one mood he was the straightforward, outspoken official; in another the potential lawyer. P.C. Robinson, though unable to describe his chief's erratic qualities, was unpleasantly aware of them. He was not quite sure, for instance, whether the superintendent was encouraging or warning him, but, being a dogged person, resolved to "take his own line," and stick to it.
Grant passed a distressful day. Work was not to be thought of, and reading was frankly impossible. His mind dwelt constantly on the tragedy which had come so swiftly and completely into his ordered life. He could not wholly discard the nebulous theory suggested by Superintendent Fowler, but the more he surveyed it the less reasonable it seemed. The one outstanding fact in a chaos of doubt was that someone had deliberately done Adelaide Melhuish to death. The murderer had been actuated by a motive. What was that motive? Surely, in a place like Steynholme no man could come and go without being seen, and the murderer must be a stranger to the district, because it was ridiculous to imagine that he was one of the residents.
Yet that was exactly what a dunderheaded policeman believed. P.C. Robinson had revealed himself by many a covert glance and prick-eared movement. Grant squirmed uneasily at the crass conceit, as there was no denying that circumstances tended towards a certain doubt, if no more, in regard to his own association with the crime.
The admission called for a fierce struggle with his pride, but he forced himself to think the problem out in all its bearings, and the folly of adopting the legendary policy of the chased ostrich became manifest. What, then, should he do? He thought, at first, of invoking the aid of a barrister friend, who could watch the inquest in his behalf.
Nevertheless, he shrank from that step, which, to his super-sensitive nature, implied the need of legal protection, and he fiercely resented the mere notion of such a thing. But something must be done. Once the murderer was laid by the heels his own troubles would vanish, and the storm raised by the unhappy fate of Adelaide Melhuish would subside into a sad memory.
He was wrestling with indecision when a newspaper reporter called. Grant received the journalist promptly, and told him all the salient facts, suppressing only the one-time prospect of a marriage between himself and the famous actress.
The reporter went with him to the river, and scrutinized the marks, now rapidly becoming obliterated, of the body having been drawn ashore.
"The rope and iron staple, I understand, were taken from the premises of a man who lets boats for hire on the dam quarter of a mile away," he said casually.
Grant was astounded at his own failure to make any inquiry whatsoever concerning this vital matter. He laughed grimly.
"You can imagine the state of my mind," he said, "when I assure you that, until this moment, it never occurred to me even to ask where these articles came from or what had become of them."
"I can sympathize with you," said the journalist. "A brutal murder seems horribly out of place in this environment. It is a mysterious business altogether. I wonder if Scotland Yard will take it up."
Grant surprised him by clapping him on the back.
"By Jove, my friend, the very thing! Of course, such an investigation requires bigger brains than our local police are endowed with. Scotland Yard must take it up. I'll wire there at once. If necessary, I'll pay all expenses."
The newspaper man had his doubts. The "Yard," he said, acted in the provinces only if appealed to by the authorities directly concerned. But Grant was not to be stayed by a trifle like that. He hurried to the post office, hoping that Doris Martin might walk back with him.
The girl and her father were busy behind the counter when he entered. He noticed that Doris was rather pale. She was about to attend to him, but Mr. Martin intervened. It struck Grant that the postmaster was purposely preventing his daughter from speaking to him.
For some inexplicable reason, he felt miserably tongue-tied, and was content to write a message to the Chief Commissioner of Police, London, asking that a skilled detective should be sent forthwith to Steynholme.
Mr. Martin read it gravely, stated the cost, and procured the requisite stamps. In the event, Grant quitted the place without exchanging a word with Doris, while her father, usually a chatty man, said not a syllable beyond what was barely needed.
As he passed down the hill and by the side of the Green he was aware of being covertly watched by many eyes. He saw P.C. Robinson peering from behind a curtained window. Siddle, the chemist, came to the shop door, and looked after him. Hobbs, the butcher, ceased sharpening a knife and gazed out. Tomlin, landlord of the Hare and Hounds Inn, surveyed him from the "snug."
These things were not gracious. Indeed, they were positively maddening. He went home, gave an emphatic order that no one, except Miss Martin, if she called, was to be admitted and savagely buried himself in a treatise on earth-tides.
But that day of events had not finished for him yet. He had, perforce, eaten a good meal, and was thinking of going to the post office in order to clear up an undoubted misapprehension in Mr. Martin's mind, when Minnie Bates came with a card.
"If you please, sir," said the girl, "this gentleman is very pressing. He says he's sure you'll give him an interview when you see his name."
So Grant looked, and read:—
MR. ISIDOR G. INGERMAN
Prince's Chambers, London, W.
Grant stared again at the card. A tiny silver bell seemed to tinkle a sort of warning in a recess of his brain. The name was not engraved in copper-plate, but printed in heavy type. Somehow, it looked ominous. His first impression was to bid Minnie send the man away. He distrusted any first impression. It was the excuse of mediocrity, a sign of weakness. Moreover, why shouldn't he meet Isidor G. Ingerman?
"Show him in," he said, almost gruffly, thus silencing shy intuition, as it were. He threw the card on the table.
Mr. Ingerman entered. He did not offer any conventional greeting, but nodded, or bowed. Grant could not be sure which form of salutation was intended, because the visitor promptly sat down, uninvited.
Minnie hesitated at the door. Her master's callers were usually cheerful Bohemians, who chatted at sight. Then she caught Grant's eye, and went out, banging the door in sheer nervousness.
Still Mr. Ingerman did not speak. If this was a pose on his part, he erred. Grant had passed through a trying day, but he owned the muscles and nerves of an Alpine climber, and had often stared calmly down a wall of rock and ice which he had just conquered, when the least slip would have meant being dashed to pieces two thousand feet below.
There was some advantage, too, in this species of stage wait. It enabled him to take the measure of Adelaide Melhuish's husband, if, indeed, the visitor was really the man he professed to be.
At first sight, Isidor G. Ingerman was not a prepossessing person. Indeed, it would be safe to assume that if, by some trick of fortune, he and not Grant were the tenant of The Hollies, P.C. Robinson would have haled him to the village lock-up that very morning. It was not that he was villainous-looking, but rather that he looked capable of villainy. He was a tall, slender, rather stooping man, with a decidedly well-molded, if hawk-like, face. His aspect might be described as saturnine. Possibly, when he smiled, this morose expression would vanish, and then he might even win a favorable opinion. He had brilliant black eyes, close set, and an abundant crop of black hair, turning gray, which, in itself, lent an air of distinction. His lips were thin, his chin slightly prominent. He was well dressed, and managed a hat, stick, and gloves with ease. Altogether, he reminded Grant of a certain notable actor who is invariably cast for the role of a gentlemanly scoundrel, but who, in private life, is a most excellent fellow and good citizen. Oddly enough, Grant recognized in him, too, the type of man who would certainly have appealed to Adelaide Melhuish in her earlier and impressionable years.
Meanwhile, the visitor, finding that the clear-eyed young man seated in an easy chair (from which he had not risen) could seemingly regard him with blank indifference during the next hour, thought fit to say something.
"Is my name familiar to you, Mr. Grant?" he inquired.
The voice was astonishingly soft and pleasant, and the accent agreeably refined. Evidently, there were surprising points about Mr. Ingerman. Long afterwards, Grant learned, by chance, that the man had been an actor before branching off into that mysterious cosmopolitan profession known as "a financier."
"No," said Grant. "I have heard it very few times. Once, about three years ago, and today, when I mentioned it to the police."
The other man's sallow cheeks grew a shade more sallow. Grant supposed that this slight change of color indicated annoyance. Of course, the association of ideas in that curt answer was intolerably rude. But Grant had been tried beyond endurance that day. He was in a mood to be brusque with an archbishop.
"We can disregard your confidences, or explanations, to the police," said Ingerman smoothly. "Three years ago, I suppose, my wife spoke of me?"
"If you mean Miss Adelaide Melhuish—yes."
"I do mean her. To be exact, I mean the lady who was murdered outside this house last night."
Grant realized instantly that Isidor G. Ingerman was a foeman worthy of even a novelist's skill in repartee. Thus far, he, Grant, had been merely uncivil, using a bludgeon for wit, whereas the visitor was making play with a finely-tempered rapier.
"Now that you have established your identity, Mr. Ingerman, perhaps you will tell me why you are here," he said.
"I have come to Steynholme to inquire into my wife's death."
"A most laudable purpose. I was given to understand, however, that at one time you took little interest in her living. I have not seen Mrs. Ingerman for three years—until last night, that is—so there is a chance, of course, that husband and wife may have adjusted their differences. Is that so?"
"Until last night!" repeated Ingerman, almost in a startled tone. "You admit that?"
Grant turned and pointed.
"I saw, or fancied I saw, her face at that window," he said. "She looked in on me about ten minutes to eleven. I was hard at work, but the vision, as it seemed then, was so weird and unexpected, that I went straight out and searched for her. Perhaps 'searched' is not quite the right word. To be exact, I opened the French window, stood there, and listened. Then I persuaded myself that I was imagining a vain thing, and came in."
"What was she doing here?"
"I don't know."
"She arrived in Steynholme on Sunday evening, I am told."
"I heard that, too."
"You imply that you did not meet her?"
"No need to imply anything, Mr. Ingerman. I did not meet her. Beyond the fanciful notion that I had seen her ghost last night, the first I knew of her presence in the village was when I recognized her dead body this morning."
"Strange as it may sound, I am inclined to believe you."
Grant said nothing. He wanted to get up and pitch Ingerman into the road.
"But who else will take that charitable view?" purred the other, in that suave voice which so ill accorded with his thin lips and slightly hooked nose.
"I really don't care," was the weary answer.
"Not at the moment, perhaps. You have had a trying day, no doubt. My visit at its close cannot be helpful. But—"
"I am feeling rather tired mentally," interrupted Grant, "so you will oblige me by not raising too many points at once. Why should you imagine that conversation with you in particular should add to my supposed distress?"
"Why, then, may I ask, do you so obviously resent my questions? Who has so much right to put them as I?"
Grant found that he must bestir himself. Thus far, the honors lay with this rather sinister-looking yet quiet-mannered visitor.
"I am sorry if anything I have said lends color to that belief," he answered. "Candidly, I began by assuming that you forfeited any legal right years ago to interfere in behalf of Miss Melhuish, living or dead. Let us, at least, be candid with each other. Miss Melhuish herself told me that you and she had separated by mutual consent."
"Allow me to emulate your candor. The actual fact is that you weaned my wife's affections from me."
"That is a downright lie," said Grant coolly.
Ingerman's peculiar temperament permitted him to treat this grave insult far more lightly than Grant's harmless, if irritating, reference to the police.
"Let us see just what 'a lie' signifies," he said, almost judicially. "If a lady deserts her husband, and there is good reason to suspect that she is, in popular phrase, 'carrying on' with another man, how can the husband be lying if he charges that man with being the cause of the domestic upheaval?"
"In this instance a hypothetical case is not called for. Three years ago, Mr. Ingerman, you had parted from your wife. Your name was never mentioned. Apparently, none in my circle had even heard of you. Miss Melhuish had won repute as a celebrated actress. I met her, in a sense, professionally. We became friends. I fancied I was in love with her. I proposed marriage. Then, and not until then, did the ghost of Mr."—Grant bent forward, and consulted the card—"Mr. Isidor G. Ingerman intrude."
"So marriage was out of the question?"
"If you expect an answer—yes."
Ingerman rested the handle of his stick against his lips.
"That isn't how the situation was represented to me at the time," he said thoughtfully.
Grant was still sore with the recollection of the way in which the superintendent of police had forced him to confess the pitiful scheme whereby a woman in love had sought to gain her ends. He refused to sully her memory a second time that day, even to gain the upper hand in this troublesome controversy.
"I neither know nor care what representations may have been made to you," he retorted. "I merely tell you the literal truth."
"Possibly. Possibly. It was not I who used the word 'lie,' remember. But if you are ungracious enough to refuse to withdraw the offensive phrase, let it pass. We are not in France. This deadly business will be fought out in the law courts. I am here to-night of my own initiative. I thought it only fair and reasonable that you and I should meet before we are brought face to face at a coroner's inquest, and, it may be, in an Assize Court.... No, no, Mr. Grant. Pray do not put the worst construction on my words. Someone murdered my wife. If the police show intelligence and reasonable skill, someone will be tried for the crime. You and I will certainly be witnesses. That is what I meant to convey. The doubt in my mind was this—whether to be actively hostile or passively friendly to the man who, next to me, was interested in the poor woman now lying dead in a wretched stable of this village."
The almost diabolical cleverness of this long speech, delivered without heat and with singularly adroit stress on various passages, was revealed by its effect on Grant. He was at once infuriated and puzzled. Ingerman was playing him as a fisherman humors a well-hooked salmon. The simile actually occurred to him, and he resolved to precipitate matters by coming straightway to the landing-net.
"Is your friendship purchasable?" he inquired, making the rush without further preamble.
"My wife was, I was led to believe," came the calm retort.
Grant threw scruples to the wind now. Adelaide Mulhuish was being defamed, not by him, but by her husband.
"We are at cross purposes," he said, weighing each word. "Your wife, who knew your character fairly well, I am convinced, thought that you were open to receive a cash consideration for your connivance in a divorce."
"She had told me plainly that she would never live with me again. I was too fair-minded a man to place obstacles in the way when she wished to regain her freedom."
"So it was true, then. What was the price? One thousand—two? I am not a millionaire."
"Nor am I. As a mere matter of pounds, shillings, and pence, it was a serious matter for me when my wife's earnings ceased to come into the common stock."
"My first, if rather vague, estimate of you was the correct one. You are a good bit of a scoundrel, and, if I guess rightly, a would-be blackmailer."
"You are talking at random, Mr. Grant. The levying of blackmail connotes that the person bled desires that some discreditable, or dangerous, fact should be concealed."
"Such is not my position."
"I can relieve you of any oppressive doubt. I informed the police some few hours ago that you have appeared already in a similar role."
"Oh, you did, did you?" snarled Ingerman, suddenly abandoning his pose, and gazing at Grant with a curiously snakelike glint in his black eyes.
"Yes. It interested them, I fancied."
Grant was sure of his man now, and rather relieved that the battle of wits was turning in his favor.
"So you have begun already to scheme your defense?"
"Hadn't you better go?" was the contemptuous retort.
"You refuse to answer any further questions?"
"I refuse to buy your proffered friendship—whatever that may mean."
"Have I offered to sell it?"
"I gathered as much."
Ingerman rose. He was still master of himself, though his lanky body was taut with rage. He spoke calmly and with remarkable restraint.
"Go through what I have said, and discover, if you can, the slightest hint of any suggested condonation of your offenses, whether avowed or merely suspected. I shall prove beyond dispute that you came between me and my wife. Don't hug the delusion that your three years' limit will save you. It will not. I wish you well of your attempt to prove that I was a consenting party to divorce proceedings. I came here to look you over. I have done so, and have arrived at a very definite opinion. I, also, have been interviewed by the police, and any unfavorable views they may have formed concerning me as the outcome of your ex parte statements are more than counteracted by the ugly facts of a ghastly murder. You were here shortly before eleven o'clock last night. My wife was here, too, and alive. This morning she was found dead, by you. At eleven o'clock last night I was playing bridge with three city men in my flat. When the news of the murder reached me to-day my first thought, after the shock of it had passed, was:—'That fellow, Grant, may be innocently involved in a terrible crime, and I may figure as the chief witness against him.' I am not speaking idly, as you will learn to your cost. Yet, when I come on an errand of mercy, you have the impudence to charge me with blackmail. You are in for a great awakening. Be sure of that!"
And Isidor G. Ingerman walked out, leaving Grant uncomfortably aware that he had not seen the last of an implacable and bitter enemy.
It was something new and very disturbing for a writer to find himself in the predicament of a man with an absolutely clear conscience yet perilously near the meshes of the criminal law. He had often analyzed such a situation in his books, but fiction diverged so radically from hard fact that the sensation was profoundly disconcerting, to say the least. He did not go to the post office. He was not equal to any more verbal fire-works that evening. So he lit a pipe, and reviewed Ingerman's well-rounded periods very carefully, even taking the precaution to jot down exact, phrases. He analyzed them, and saw that they were capable of two readings. Of course, it could not be otherwise. The plausible rascal must have conned them over until this essential was secured. Grant even went so far as to give them a grudging professional tribute. They held a canker of doubt, too, which it was difficult to dissect. Their veiled threats were perplexing. While their effect, as apart from literal significance, was fresh in his mind, he made a few notes of different interpretations.
He went to bed rather early, but could not sleep until the small hours. Probably his rest, such as it was, would have been even more disturbed had he been able to accompany Ingerman to the Hare and Hounds Inn.
A small but select company had gathered in the bar parlor. The two hours between eight and ten were the most important of the day to the landlord, Mr. Tomlin. It was then that he imparted and received the tit-bits of local gossip garnered earlier, the process involving a good deal of play with shining beer-handles and attractively labeled bottles.
But this was a special occasion. Never before had there been a Steynholme murder before the symposium. Hitherto, such a grewsome topic was supplied, for the most part, by faraway London. To-night the eeriness and dramatic intensity of a notable crime lay at the very doors of the village.
So Tomlin was more portentous than usual; Hobbs, the butcher, more assertive, Elkin, the "sporty" breeder of polo ponies, more inclined to "lay odds" on any conceivable subject, and Siddle, the chemist, a reserved man at the best, even less disposed to voice a definite opinion.
Elkin was about twenty-five years of age, Siddle looked younger than his probable thirty-five years, while the others were on the stout and prosperous line of fifty.
They were discussing the murder, of course, when Ingerman entered, and ordered a whiskey and soda. Instantly there was dead silence. Looks and furtive winks were exchanged. There had been talk of a detective being employed. Perhaps this was he. Mr. Tomlin knew the stranger's name, as he had taken a room, but that was the extent of the available information.
"A fine evenin', sir," said Tomlin, drawing a cork noisily. "Looks as though we were in for a spell o' settled weather."
"Yes," agreed Ingerman, summing up the conclave at a glance. "Somehow, such a lovely night ill accords with the cause of my visit to Steynholme."
"Well, you and these other gentlemen may judge for yourselves. It will be no secret tomorrow. I am the husband of the lady who was found in the river outside Mr. Grant's residence this morning."
Sensation, as the descriptive reporters put it. Mr. Tomlin was dumbly but unanimously elected chairman of the meeting, and was vaguely aware of his responsibilities. He drew himself a fresh glass of bitter.
"You don't tell me, sir!" he gasped. "Well, the idee! The pore lady's letters were addressed to Miss Adelaide Melhuish. Perhaps you don't know, sir, that she stayed here!"
"Oh, yes. I was told that by the local police-constable. Have I, by any chance, been given her room?"
"No, sir. Not likely. It's locked, and the police have the key till the inquest is done with."
"As for the name," explained Ingerman, in his suave voice, "that was a mere stage pseudonym, an adopted name. My wife was a famous actress, and there is a sort of tacit agreement that a lady in the theatrical profession shall be known to the public as 'Miss' rather than 'Mrs.'"
"Well, there!" wheezed Tomlin. "Who'd ever ha' thought it?"
The landlord was not quite rising to the occasion. He was, in fact, stunned by these repeated shocks. So Hobbs took charge.
"It's a sad errand you're on, sir," he said. "Death comes to all of us, man an' beast alike, but it's a terrible thing when a lady like Miss— Mrs. ——"
"Ingerman is my name, but my wife will certainly be alluded to by the press as Miss Melhuish."
"When a lady like Miss Melhuish is knocked on the 'ead like a—"
Mr. Hobbs hesitated again. He also felt that the situation was rather beyond him.
"But my wife was flung into the river and drowned," said Ingerman sadly.
"No, sir. She was killed fust. It was a brutal business, so I'm told."
"Do you mean that she was struck, her skull battered?" came the demand, in an awed and soul-thrilling whisper.
"Yes, sir. An' the wust thing is, none of us can guess who could ha' done it."
"Lay yer five quid to one, Hobbs, that the police cop the scoundrel afore this day fortnight," cried Elkin noisily.
Then Mr. Siddle put in a mild word.
"Gentlemen," he said, "let me remind you that we four will probably be jurors at the inquest."
That was a sobering thought. Elkin subsided, and Hobbs looked critically at the remains of a gill of beer.
Ingerman took stock of the chemist. He might easily induce the others to believe that Grant was the real criminal, but the quiet man in the black morning-coat and striped cloth trousers was of finer metal. He knew instantly that if he could persuade this one "probable juror" of Grant's guilt, the remainder would follow his lead like a flock of sheep.
But there was no need to hurry. Next day's inquest would be a mere formality. The real struggle would begin a week or a fortnight later.
"You have said a very wise thing, sir," he murmured appreciatively. "Even my feelings must be kept under better control. But this is no ordinary murder. Before it is cleared up there will be astounding revelations. Mark the word—astounding."
Hobbs, whose heavy cheeks were of a brick-red tint, almost startled the conclave by a sudden outburst which gave him an apoplectic appearance.
"You're too kind'earted, Siddle," he cried. "Wot's the use of talkin' rubbish. We all know where the body was found. We all know that Doris Martin an' Mr. Grant were a'sweet-'eartin' in the garden—"
"Look here, Hobbs, just keep Doris Martin's name out of it!" shouted Elkin, smiting the table with his fist till the glasses danced.
"Gentlemen!" protested Siddle gently.
"It's all dashed fine, but I'm not—" blustered Elkin. He yielded to Ingerman's outstretched hand.
"I seem to have brought discord into a friendly gathering," came the mournful comment. "Such was far from being my intent. Landlord, the round is on me, with cigars. Now, let us talk of anything but this horror. If I forget myself again, pull me up short, and fine me another round."
Siddle half rose, but thought better of it. Evidently, he meant to use his influence to stop foolish chatter.
THE SEEDS OP MISCHIEF
Ingerman was a shrewder judge of human nature than the village chemist. As well try to stem the flowing tide as stop tongues from wagging when such a theme offered.
Tomlin created a momentary diversion by clattering in the bar. After this professional interlude, Ingerman ignored his own compact.
"I'm sure you local residents will be interested, at least, in hearing something of my wife's career," he said. "There never was a more lovable and gracious woman, and no couple could be more united than she and I till some three years ago. Then came a break. She was independent of me, of course. She was a celebrity, I a mere nobody, best known, if at all, as 'Miss Melhuish's husband.' Nevertheless, we were devoted to each other until, to her and my lasting misfortune, a certain author wrote a book which, when dramatized, contained a part for which my wife's stage presence and talents seemed to be peculiarly suited."
Siddle stirred uneasily, but the others were still as partridges in stubble. Ingerman did not intend to alarm the shy bird of the covey, however.
"I name no names," he said solemnly. "Nor am I telling you anything that will not be thoroughly exposed before the coroner and elsewhere. From that unhappy period dated our estrangement. My wife fell under a fatal influence which lasted, practically unchecked, until the day, if not the very hour, of her death. Do I blame her? No—a thousand times no! You see me, a plain man, considerably her senior. I had not the gift of writing impassioned love passages in which she could display her artistic genius. When I came home from the City, tired after the day's work, she was just beginning hers. You know what London fashionable life is—the theater, a supper, a dance, some great lady's 'reception,' and the rest of it. Ah, me! The stage, and literature, and the arts generally are not for poor fellows moiling in a City office. You gentlemen, I take it, are all happily married—"
"I'm not," said Elkin, "but I'll lay you long odds I will be soon."
For some reason, this remark produced a certain uneasiness among his friends. Tomlin stared at the ash of one of the cigars "stood" by this talkative Londoner; Hobbs, whose glass had reached a low level again, examined the dregs almost fiercely; and Siddle seemed to be about to say something, but, with his usual restraint, kept silent. Then Ingerman made a very shrewd guess, and wondered who Doris Martin was, and what Hobbs's cryptic allusion had meant.
"Good luck to you, sir," he said, "but—take no offense—don't marry an actress. There's an old adage, 'Birds of a feather flock together.' I would go farther, and interpolate the word 'should.' If Adelaide Melhuish had never met me, but had married the man who could write her plays, this tragedy in real life would never have been."
"D—n him," muttered Elkin fiercely. "He's done for now, anyhow. He'll turn no more girls' heads for a bit."
"An' five minutes since you yapped at me like a vicious fox-terrier for 'intin' much the same thing," chortled Hobbs.
Siddle stood up.
"You ain't goin', Mr. Siddle?" went on the butcher. "It's 'ardly 'arf past nine."
"I have some accounts to get out. It's near the half year, you know," and Siddle vanished unobtrusively.