THE STOWMARKET MYSTERY
Or A Legacy of Hate
By LOUIS TRACY
"Wings of the Morning," "The Final War," "An American Emperor," "Disappearance of Lady Delia," etc., etc.
I. "THE STOWMARKET MYSTERY" II. DAVID HUME'S STORY III. THE DREAM IV. THROUGH THE LIBRARY WINDOW V. FROM BEHIND THE HEDGE VI. AN OLD ACQUAINTANCE VII. HUSBAND AND WIFE VIII. REVELATIONS IX. THE KO-KATANA X. THE BLACK MUSEUM XI. MR. "OKASAKI" XII. WHAT THE STATIONMASTER SAW XIII. TWO WOMEN XIV. MARGARET SPEAKS OUT XV. AN UNEXPECTED VISITOR XVI. THE COUSINS XVII. "CHERCHEZ LA FEMME" XVIII. FURTHER COMPLICATIONS XIX. THE THIRD MAN APPEARS XX. THE TRAIL XXI. CONCERNING CHICKENS, AND MOTIVES XXII. THE SECOND ATTACK XXIII. MARGARET'S SECRET XXIV. THE MEETING XXV. WHERE DID MARGARET GO? XXVI. MR. OOMA XXVII. HOLDEN'S STORY XXVIII. MR. AND MRS. JIRO XXIX. MARGARET'S SECRET XXX. HUSBAND AND WIFE XXXI. TO BEECHCROFT XXXII. THE FIGHT XXXIII. THE LAST NOTE IN BRETT'S DIARY
A LEGACY OF HATE
"THE STOWMARKET MYSTERY"
"Mr. David Hume."
Reginald Brett, barrister-detective, twisted round in his easy-chair to permit the light to fall clearly on the card handed to him by his man-servant.
"What does Mr. David Hume look like, Smith?" he asked.
"A gentleman, sir."
Well-trained servants never make a mistake when they give such a description of a visitor. Brett was satisfied.
Then he examined the card.
"It is odd," he thought. "Mr. David Hume gives no address, and writes his own cards. I like his signature, too. Now, I wonder—"
The door was thrown open. A tall, well-proportioned young man entered. He was soberly attired in blue serge. His face and hands bore the impress of travel and exposure. His expression was pleasing and attractive. In repose his features were regular, and marked with lines of thought. A short, well-trimmed beard, of the type affected by some naval men, gave him a somewhat unusual appearance. Otherwise he carried himself like a British cavalry officer in mufti.
He advanced into the room and bowed easily. Brett, who had risen, instantly felt that his visitor was one of those people who erect invisible barriers between themselves and strangers.
"My errand will occupy some time, perhaps half an hour, to permit of full explanation," said Mr. Hume. "May I ask—"
"I am completely at your service. Take that chair. You will find it comfortable. Do you smoke? Yes. Well, try those cigarettes. They are better than they look."
Mr. Hume seemed to be gratified by this cordial reception. He seated himself as requested, in the best light obtainable in a north-side Victoria Street flat, and picked up the box of cigarettes.
"Turkish," he announced.
"Grown on a slope near Salonica."
"Indeed? You interest me."
"Oh, I know them well. I was there two months ago. I suppose you got these as a present from Yildiz Kiosk?"
"Mr. Hume, you asked for half an hour, Make it an hour. You have touched upon a subject dear to my heart."
"They are the best cigarettes in the world. No one can buy them. They are made for the exclusive use of the Sultan's household. To attempt to export them means the bastinado and banishment, at the least. I do not credit you with employing agents on such terms, so I assume an Imperial gift."
The barrister had been looking intently at the other man during this short colloquy. Suddenly his eyes sparkled. He struck a match and held it to his visitor, with the words:
"You are quite right, Mr. David Hume-Frazer."
The person thus addressed neither started, nor sprang to his feet, nor gasped in amazement He took the match, lit a cigarette, and said:
"So you know me?"
"It is strange. I have never previously met you to my knowledge. Am I still a celebrity?"
"A sort of distinguished criminal, eh?"
"No man could be such a judge of tobacco and remain commonplace."
"'Pon my honour, Mr. Brett, I think you deserve your reputation. For the first time during eighteen months I feel hopeful. Do you know, I passed dozens of acquaintances in the streets yesterday and none of them knew me. Yet you pick me out at the first glance, so to speak."
"They might do the same if you spoke to them, Mr.—"
"Hume, if you please."
"Certainly. Why have you dropped part of your surname?"
"It is a long story. My lawyers, Flint & Sharp, of Gray's Inn, heard of your achievements in the cases of Lady Lyle and the Imperial Diamonds. They persuaded me to come to you."
"Though, personally, you have little faith in me?"
"Heaven knows, Mr. Brett, I have had good cause to lose faith. My case defies analysis. It savours of the supernatural."
The barrister shoved his chair sideways until he was able to reach a bookcase, from which he took a bulky interleaved volume.
"Supernatural," he repeated. "That is new to me. As I remember the affair, it was highly sensational, perplexing—a blend of romance and Japanese knives—but I do not remember any abnormal element save one, utter absence of motive."
"Do you mean to say that you possess a record of the facts?" inquired Hume, exhibiting some tokens of excitement in face and voice as he watched Brett turning over the leaves of the scrap-book, in which newspaper cuttings were neatly pasted, some being freely annotated.
"Yes. The daily press supplies my demands in the way of fiction—a word, by the way, often misapplied. Where do you find stranger tales than in the records of every-day life? Ah, here we are!"
He searched through a large number of printed extracts. There were comments, long reports, and not a few notes, all under the heading: "The Stowmarket Mystery."
Hume was now deeply agitated; he evidently restrained his feelings by sheer force of will.
"Mr. Brett," he said, and his voice trembled a little, "surely you could not have expected my presence here this morning?"
"I no more expected you than the man in the moon," was the reply; "but I recognised you at once. I watched your face for many hours whilst you stood in the dock. Professional business took me to the Assizes during your second trial. At one time I thought of offering my services."
"No, not to you."
"To whom, then?"
"To the police. Winter, the Scotland Yard man who had charge of the business, is an old friend of mine."
"What restrained you?"
"Pity, and perhaps doubt. I could see no reason why you should kill your cousin."
"But you believed me guilty?"
The barrister looked his questioner straight in the eyes. He saw there the glistening terror of a tortured soul. Somehow he expected to find a different expression. He was puzzled.
"Why have you come here, Mr. Hume?" he abruptly demanded.
"To implore your assistance. They tell me you are the one man in the world able to clear my name from the stain of crime. Will you do it?"
Again their eyes met. Hume was fighting now, fighting for all that a man holds dear. He did not plead. He only demanded his rights. Born a few centuries earlier, he would have enforced them with cold steel.
"Come, Mr. Brett," he almost shouted. "If you are as good a judge of men as you say I am of tobacco, you will not think that the cowardly murderer who struck down my cousin would come to you, of all others, and reopen the story of a crime closed unwillingly by the law."
Brett could, on occasion, exhibit an obstinate determination not to be drawn into expressing an opinion. His visitor's masterful manner annoyed him. Hume, metaphorically speaking, took him by the throat and compelled his services. He rebelled against this species of compulsion, but mere politeness required some display of courteous tolerance.
"It seems to me," he said, "that we are beginning at the end. I may not be able to help you. What are the facts?"
The stranger was so agitated that he could not reply. Self-restrained men are not ready with language. Their thoughts may be fiery as bottled vitriol, but they keep the cork in. The barrister allowed for this drawback. His sympathies were aroused, and they overcame his slight resentment.
"Try another cigarette," he said, "I have here a summary of the evidence. I will read it to you. Do not interrupt. Follow the details closely, and correct anything that is wrong when I have ended."
Hume was still volcanic, but he took the proffered box.
"Ah," cried Brett, "though you are angry, your judgment is sound. Now listen!"
Then he read the following statement, prepared by himself in an idle moment:—
"The Stowmarket Mystery is a strange mixture of the real and the unreal. Sir Alan Hume-Frazer, fourth baronet, met his death on the hunting-field. His horse blundered at a brook and the rider was impaled on a hidden stake, placed in the stream by his own orders to prevent poachers from netting trout. His wife, nee Somers, a Bristol family, had pre-deceased him.
"There were two children, a daughter, Margaret, aged twenty-five, and a son, Alan, aged twenty-three. By his will, Sir Alan left all his real and personal estate to his son, with a life charge of L1,000 per annum for the daughter. As he was a very wealthy man, almost a millionaire, the provision for his daughter was niggardly, which might be accounted for by the fact that the girl, several years before her father's death, quarrelled with him and left home, residing in London and in Florence. Both children, by the way, were born in Italy, where Sir Alan met and married Miss Somers.
"The old gentleman, it appeared, allowed Miss Hume-Frazer L5,000 per annum during his life. His son voluntarily continued this allowance, but the brother and sister continued to live apart, he devoted to travel and sport, she to music and art, with a leaning towards the occult—a woman divorced from conventionality and filled with a hatred of restraint.
"Beechcroft, the family residence, is situated four miles from Stowmarket, close to the small village of Sleagill. After his father's death, the young Sir Alan went for a protracted tour round the world. Meanwhile his first cousin, Mr. David Hume-Frazer, lived at Beechcroft during the shooting season, and incidentally fell in love with Miss Helen Layton, daughter of the rector of Sleagill, the Rev. Wilberforce Layton."
Hume stirred uneasily in his chair, and the barrister paused, expecting him to say something. But the other only gasped brokenly: "Go on; go on!"
"Love lasts longer than death or crime," mused Brett.
"In eighteen months Sir Alan the fifth—all heirs had same name—returned to Beechcroft, about Christmas. His cousin had been called away on family business, but returned for a New Year's Eve ball, given by Mrs. Eastham, a lady of some local importance. Sir Alan and Helen Layton had followed the hounds together three times during Christmas week. They were, of course, old friends.
"David sent from Scotland—his father's estate was situated close to Inverness—some presents to his future wife, his cousin, and others. The gift to Sir Alan was noteworthy and fatalistic—a handsomely inlaid Japanese sword, with a small dagger inserted in a sheath near the top of the scabbard. David reached Beechcroft on the day of the ball. Relations between the cousins seemed to the servants to be cool, though the coolness lay rather with the baronet, and David, a year older, it may be here stated, was evidently taken by surprise by Sir Alan's attitude.
"The three young people went to the ball, and shortly after midnight there was something in the nature of a scene. Sir Alan had been dancing with Miss Layton. They were in the conservatory when the young lady burst into tears, hurried to find David, and asked him to take her at once to her carriage. Mrs. Eastham was acting as chaperon to the girl, and some heated words passed between her and the two young men.
"Evidence showed that Sir Alan had bitterly upbraided Miss Layton on account of her engagement, and hinted that David had taken an unfair advantage of his (Alan's) absence to win her affections. This was absolutely untrue. It was denied by the two most concerned, and by Mrs. Eastham, who, as a privileged friend, knew all the facts. The young men were in a state of white heat, but David sensibly withdrew, and walked to the Hall.
"Mrs. Eastham's house was close to the lodge gates, and from the lodge a straight yew-shaded drive led to the library windows, the main entrance being at the side of the house.
"In the library a footman, on duty in the room, maintained a good fire, and the French windows were left unfastened, as the young gentlemen would probably enter the house that way. David did, in fact, do so. The footman quitted the room, and a few minutes later the butler appeared. He was an old favourite of David's. He asked if he should send some whisky and soda.
"The young man agreed, adding:
"'Sir Alan and I have commenced the year badly, Ferguson. We quarrelled over a silly mistake. I have made up my mind not to sleep on it, so I will await his arrival. Let me know if he comes in the other way.'
"The butler hoped that the matter was not a serious one.
"'Under other circumstances it might be,' was the answer, 'but as things are, it is simply a wretched mistake, which a little reasonable discussion will put right.'
"The footman brought the whisky and soda.
"Twenty minutes later he re-entered the room to attend to the fire. Mr. David Hume-Frazer was curled up in an arm-chair asleep, or rather dozing, for he stirred a little when the man put some coal in the grate. This was at 1 a.m. exactly.
"At 1.10 a.m. the butler thought he heard his master's voice coming from the front of the house, and angrily protesting something. Unfortunately he could not catch a single word. He imagined that the 'quarrel' spoken of by David had been renewed.
"He waited two minutes, not more, but hearing no further sounds, he walked round to the library windows, thinking that perhaps he would see Sir Alan in the room.
"To his dismay he found his young master stretched on the turf at the side of the drive, thirty feet from the house. He rushed into the library, where David was still asleep and moving uneasily—muttering, the man thought:
"'Come quickly, sir,' he cried, 'I fear something has happened to Sir Alan. He is lying on the ground outside the house, and I cannot arouse him.'
"Then David Hume-Frazer sprang to his feet and shouted:
"'My God! It was not a dream. He is murdered!'
But the barrister's cold-blooded synopsis of a thrilling crime proved to be too much for his hearer's nerves. Hume stood up. The man was a born fighter. He could take, his punishment, but only on his feet.
Again he cried in anguish:
"No! It was no dream, but a foul murder. And they blame me!"
DAVID HUME'S STORY
Brett closed the book with a snap.
"What good purpose can it serve at this time to reopen the miserable story?" he asked.
Curiously enough, Hume paid no heed to the question. His lips quivered, his nostrils twitched, and his eyes shot strange gleams. He caught the back of his chair with both hands in a grasp that tried to squeeze the tough oak.
"What else have you written there?" he said, and Brett could not help but admire his forced composure.
"Nothing of any material importance. You were arrested, after an interval of some days, as the result of a coroner's warrant. You explained that you had a vivid dream, in which you saw your cousin stabbed by a stranger whom you did not know, whose face even you never saw. Sir Alan was undoubtedly murdered. The dagger-like attachment to your Japanese sword had been driven into his breast up to the hilt, actually splitting his heart. To deliver such a blow, with such a weapon, required uncommon strength and skill. I think I describe it here as 'un-English.'"
Brett referred to his scrap-book. In spite of himself, he felt all his old interest reawakening in this remarkable crime.
"Yes?" queried Hume.
The barrister, his lips pursed up and critical, surveyed his concluding notes.
"You were tried at the ensuing Assizes, and the jury disagreed. Your second trial resulted in an acquittal, though the public attitude towards you was dubious. The judge, in summing up, said that the evidence against you 'might be deemed insufficient.' In these words he conveyed the popular opinion. I see I have noted here that Miss Margaret Hume-Frazer was at a Covent Garden Fancy Dress Ball on the night of the murder. But the tragic deaths of her father and brother had a marked influence on the young lady. She, of course, succeeded to the estates, and decided at once to live at Beechcroft. Does she still live there?"
"Yes. I am told she is distinguished for her charity and good works. She is married."
"Ah! To whom?"
"To an Italian, named Giovanni Capella."
"His stage name?"
"No; he is really an Italian."
Brett's pleasantry was successful in its object. David Hume regained his equanimity and sat down again. After a pause he went on:
"May I ask, Mr. Brett, before I tell you my part of the story, if you formed any theories as to the occurrence at the time?"
The barrister consulted his memoranda. Something that met his eyes caused him to smile.
"I see," he said, "that Mr. Winter, of Scotland Yard, was convinced of your guilt. That is greatly in your favour."
Hume disdained the police, but Brett's remark evoked curiosity.
"Because Mr. Winter is a most excellent officer, whose intellect is shackled by handcuffs. 'De l'audace!' says the Frenchman, as a specific for human conduct. 'Lock 'em up,' says Mr. Winter, when he is inquiring into a crime. Of course, he is right nine times out of ten; but if, in the tenth case, intellect conflicts with handcuffs, the handcuffs win, being stronger in his instance."
Hume was in no mood to appreciate the humours of Scotland Yard, so the other continued:
"The most telling point against you was the fact that not only the butler, footman, and two housemaids, but you yourself, at the coroner's inquest, swore that the small Japanese knife was in its sheath during the afternoon; indeed, the footman said it was there, to the best of his belief, at midnight. Then, again, a small drawer in Sir Alan's writing-table had been wrenched open whilst you were alone in the room. On this point the footman was positive. Near the drawer rested the sword from which its viperish companion had been abstracted. Had not the butler found Sir Alan's body, still palpitating, and testified beyond any manner of doubt that you were apparently sleeping in the library, you would have been hanged, Mr. Hume."
"The air of probability attending your execution would have been most convincing."
"Is my case, then, so desperate?"
"You cannot be tried again, you know."
"I do not mean that. I want to establish my innocence; to compel society to reinstate me as a man profoundly wronged; above all, to marry the woman I love."
Brett amused himself by rapidly projecting several rings of smoke through a large one.
"So you really are innocent?" he said, after a pause.
David Hume rose from his chair, and reached for his hat, gloves, and stick.
"You have crushed my remaining hope of emancipation," he exclaimed bitterly. "You have the repute of being able to pluck the heart out of a mystery, Mr. Brett, so when you assume that I am guilty—"
"I have assumed nothing of the kind. You seem to possess the faculty of self-control. Kindly exercise it, and answer my questions, Did you kill your cousin?"
"Who did kill him?"
"I do not know."
"Do you suspect anybody ?"
"Not in the remotest degree."
"Did he kill himself?"
"That theory was discussed privately, but not brought forward at the trial. Three doctors said it was not worthy of a moment's consideration."
"Well, you need not shout your replies, and I would prefer to see you comfortably seated, unless, of course, you feel more at ease near the door."
A trifle shamefacedly, Hume returned to his former position near the fireplace—that shrine to which all the household gods do reverence, even in the height of summer. It is impossible to conceive the occupants of a room deliberately grouping themselves without reference to the grate.
Brett placed the open scrap-book on his knees, and ran an index finger along underlined passages in the manner of counsel consulting a brief.
"Why did you give your cousin this sword?"
"Because he told me he was making a collection of Japanese arms, and I remarked that my grandfather on my mother's side, Admiral Cunningham, had brought this weapon, with others, from the Far East. It lay for fifty years in our gun-room at Glen Tochan."
"So you met Sir Alan soon after his return home?"
"Yes, in London, the day he arrived. Came to town on purpose, in fact. Afterwards I travelled North, and he went to Beechcroft."
"How long afterwards? Be particular as to dates."
"It is quite a simple matter, owing to the season. Alan reached Charing Cross from Brindisi on December 20. We remained together—that is, lived at the same hotel, paid calls in company, visited the same restaurants, went to the same theatres—until the night of the 23rd, when we parted. It is a tradition of my family that the members of it should spend Christmas together."
"A somewhat unusual tradition in Scotland, is it not?"
"Yes, but it was my mother's wish, so my father and I keep the custom up."
"Your father is still living?"
"Yes, thank goodness!"
"He is now the sixth baronet?"
"He is not. Neither he nor I will assume the title while the succession bears the taint of crime."
"Did you quarrel with your cousin in London?"
"Not by word or thought. He seemed to be surprised when I told him of my engagement to Helen, but he warmly congratulated me. One afternoon he was a trifle short-tempered, but not with me."
"Tell me about this."
"His sister is, or was then, a rather rapid young lady. She discovered that certain money-lenders would honour her drafts on her brother, and she had been going the pace somewhat heavily. Alan went to see her, told her to stop this practice, and sent formal notice to the same effect through his solicitors to the bill discounters. It annoyed him, not on account of the money, but that his sister should act in such a way,"
"Ah, this is important! It was not mentioned at the trial."
"Why should it be?"
"Who can say? I wish to goodness I had helped your butler to raise Sir Alan's lifeless body. But about this family dispute. Was there a scene—tears, recriminations?"
"Not a bit. You don't know Rita. We used to call her Rita because, as boys, we teased her by saying her name was Margharita, and not Margaret"
"She has such a foreign manner and style." "How did she acquire them?"
"She was a big girl, six years old, and tall for her age, when her parents settled down in England. She first spoke Italian, and picked up Italian ways from her nurse, an old party who was devotedly attached to her. Even Alan was a good Italian linguist, and given to foreign manners when a little chap. But Harrow soon knocked them out of him. Rita retained them."
"I see. A curious household. I should have expected this young lady to upbraid her brother after the style of the prima donna in grand opera."
"No. He told me she laughed at him, and invited him to witness the trying on of a fancy dress costume, the 'Queen of Night,' which she wore at a bal masque the night he was murdered."
"When did she get married?"
"Last January, at Naples, very suddenly, and without the knowledge of any of her relatives."
"She had been living at Beechcroft nearly a year, then?"
"Yes, she went South in the winter. The reason she gave was that the Hall would be depressing on the anniversary of her brother's death. She had become most popular in the district. Helen is very fond of her, and was quite shocked to hear of her marriage. The local people do not like Signor Capella."
"It is difficult to give a reason. Miss Layton does not indulge in details, but that is the impression I gather from her letters."
Hume paused, and Brett shot a quick glance at him.
"Finish what you were going to say," he said.
"Only this—Helen and I have mutually released each other from our engagement, and in the same breath have refused to be released. That is, if you understand—"
The barrister nodded.
"The result is that we are both thoroughly miserable. Our respective fathers do not like the idea of our marriage under the circumstances. We are simply drifting in the feeble hope that some day a kindly Providence will dissipate the cloud that hangs over me. Ah, Mr. Brett, I am a rich man. Command the limits of my fortune, but clear me. Prove to Helen that her faith in my innocence is justified."
"For goodness' sake light another cigarette," snapped the barrister. "You have interfered with my line of thought. It is all wriggly."
Quite a minute elapsed before he began again.
"What caused the trouble at Mrs. Eastham's ball?"
"I think I can explain that. It seems that Alan's father told him to get married—"
"Well, left instructions."
"I do not know. I only gathered as much from my cousin's remarks. Well, it was not until his final home-coming that he realised what a beautiful woman the jolly little girl he knew as a boy had developed into. She was just the kind of wife he wanted, and I fancy he imagined I had stolen a march on him. But he was a thoroughly straightforward, manly fellow, and something very much out of the common must have upset him before he vented his anger on me and Helen."
"Have you any notion—"
"Not the least. Pardon me. I suppose you were going to ask if I guessed the cause?"
"It is quite unfathomable. We parted the best of friends in London, although he knew all about the engagement. We met again at 6 p.m. on New Year's Eve, and he was very short with me. I can only vaguely assume that some feeling of resentment had meanwhile been working up in him, and it found expression during his chat with Helen in the conservatory."
"Did you use threats to him during the subsequent wrangle?"
"Threats! Good gracious, no. I was angry with him for spoiling Miss Layton's enjoyment. I called him an ass, and said that he had better have remained away another year than come back and make mischief. That is all. Mrs. Eastham was far more outspoken."
"Indeed. What did she say?"
"She hinted that his temper was a reminiscence of his Southern birth, always a sore point with him, and contrasted me with him, to his disadvantage. All very unfair, of course, but, you see, she was the hostess, and Alan had upset her party very much."
"So you walked home, and resolved to hold out the olive branch?"
"Most decidedly. I was older, perhaps a trifle more sedate. I knew that Helen loved me. There were no difficulties in the way of our marriage, which was arranged for the following spring. Indeed, my second trial took place on the very date we had selected. It was my duty to use poor Alan gently. Even his foolish and unreasonable jealousy was a compliment."
Brett threw the scrap-book on to the table. He clasped his hands in front of his knees, tucking his heels on the edge of his chair.
"Mr. Hume," he said slowly, gazing fixedly at the other, "I believe you. You did not kill your cousin."
"Thank you," was the quiet answer.
"You hinted at some supernatural influence in relation to this crime. What did you mean?"
"Ah, that is the unpublished part of the affair. We are a Scots family, as our name implies. The first Sir Alan Frazer became a baronet owing to his services to King George during the '45 Rebellion. There was some trouble about a sequestered estate—now our place in Scotland—which belonged to his wife's brother, a Hume and a rebel. Anyhow, in 1763, he fought a duel with Hume's son, his own nephew by marriage, and was killed."
"Really," broke in Brett, "this ancient history—"
"Is quite to the point. Sir Alan the first fought and died in front of the library at Beechcroft."
The barrister commenced to study the moulding in the centre of the ceiling.
"He was succeeded by his grandson, a little lad of eight. In 1807, after a heavy drinking bout, the second Sir Alan Hume-Frazer cut his throat, and chose the scene of his ancestor's duel for the operation."
"A remarkable coincidence!"
"In 1842, during a bread riot, the third baronet was stabbed with a pitchfork whilst facing a mob in the same place. Then a long interval occurred. Again a small child became the heir. Three years ago the fourth baronet expired whilst the library windows were being opened to admit the litter on which he was carried from the hunting-field. The fate of the fifth you know."
Brett's chair emitted a series of squeaks as he urged it closer to the wall. At the proper distance he stretched out his leg and pressed an electric bell with his toe.
"Decanters and syphons, Smith," he cried, when the door opened.
"Which do you take, whisky or brandy, Mr. Hume?" he inquired.
"Whisky. But I assure you I am quite serious. These things—"
"Serious! If my name were Hume-Frazer, nothing less than a runaway steam-engine would take me to Beechcroft. I have never previously heard such a marvellous recital."
"We are a stiff-necked race. My uncle and cousin knew how strangely Fate had pursued every heir to the title, yet each hoped that in his person the tragic sequence would be broken. Oddly enough, my father holds that the family curse, or whatever it is, has now exhausted itself."
"What grounds has he for the belief?"
"None, save a Highlander's readiness to accept signs and portents. Look at this seal."
He unfastened from his waistcoat his watch and chain, with a small bunch of pendants attached, and handed them to Brett. The latter examined the seal with deep interest. It was cut into a bloodstone, and showed a stag's head, surmounted by five pointed rays, like a crown of daggers.
"I cannot decipher the motto," he said; "what is it?"
"Fortis et audax."
"Hum! 'Strong and bold.' A stiff-necked legend, too."
He reached to his bookcase for Burke's "General Armoury." After a brief search, he asked:
"Do you know anything about heraldry?"
"Then listen to this. The crest of your, house is: 'A stag's head, erased argent, charged with a star of five rays gules.' It is peculiar."
"Yes, so my father says; but why does it appeal to you in that way?"
"Because 'erased' means, in this instance, a stag's head torn forcibly from the body, the severed part being jagged like the teeth of a saw. And 'gules' means 'red.' Now, such heraldic rays are usually azure or blue."
"By Jove, you have hit upon the old man's idea. He contends that those five blood-coloured points signify the founder of the baronetcy and his four lineal descendants. Moreover, the race is now extinct in the direct succession. The title goes to a collateral branch."
Brett stroked his chin thoughtfully.
"It is certainly very strange," he murmured, "that the dry-as-dust knowledge of some member of the College of Heralds should evolve these armorial bearings with their weird significance. Does this account for your allusion to the supernatural?"
"Partly. Do not forget my dream."
"Tell it to me."
"During the trials, my counsel, a very able man, by the way—you know him, of course, Mr. Dobbie, K.C.—only referred to the fact that I dreamed my cousin was in some mortal danger, and that my exclamation 'He is murdered!' was really a startled comment on my part induced by the butler's words. That is not correct. I never told Mr. Dobbie the details of my dream, or vision."
"Oh, didn't you? Men have been hanged before to-day because they thought they could construct a better line of defence than their counsel."
"I had nothing to defend. I was innocent. Moreover, I knew I should not be convicted."
The barrister well remembered the view of the case taken by the Bar mess. Even the redoubtable Dobbie was afraid of the jury. His face must have conveyed dubiety with respect to Hume's last remark, for the other continued eagerly:
"It is quite true. Wait until I have concluded. After the footman brought the whisky and soda to the library that night I took a small quantity, and pulled an easy-chair in front of the fire. I was tired, having travelled all the preceding night and part of the day. Hence the warmth and comfort soon sent me to sleep. I have a hazy recollection of the man coming in to put some coal on the fire. In a sub-conscious fashion I knew that it was not my cousin, but a servant. I settled down a trifle more comfortably, and everything became a blank. Then I thought I awoke. I looked out through the windows, and, to my astonishment, it was broad daylight. The trees, too, were covered with leaves, the sun was shining, and there was every evidence of a fine day in early summer. In some indefinite way I realised that the library was no longer the room which I knew. The furniture and carpets were different. The books were old-fashioned. A very handsome spinning-wheel stood near the open window. There was no litter of newspapers or magazines.
"Before I could begin to piece together these curious discrepancies in the normal condition of things, I saw two men riding up the avenue, where the yew trees, by the way, were loftier and finer in every way than those really existing. The horsemen were dressed in such strange fashion that, unfortunately, I paid little heed to their faces. They wore frilled waistcoats, redingotes with huge lapels and turned-back cuffs, three-cornered hats, and gigantic boots. They dismounted when close to the house. One man held both horses; the other advanced. I was just going to look him straight in the face when another figure appeared, coming from that side of the hall where the entrance is situated. This was a gentleman in very elegant garments, hatless, with powdered queue, pink satin coat embroidered with lace, pink satin small-clothes, white silk stockings, and low shoes. As he walked, a smart cane swung from his left wrist by a silk tassel, and he took a pinch of snuff from an ivory box.
"The two men met and seemed to have a heated argument, bitter and passionate on one side, studiously scornful on the other. This was all in dumb show. Not a word did I hear. My amazed wits were fully taken up with noting their clothes, their postures, the trappings of the horses, the eighteenth century aspect of the library. Strange, is it not, I did not look at their faces?"
Hume paused to gulp down the contents of his tumbler. Brett said not a word, but sat intent, absorbed, wondering, with eyes fixed on the speaker.
"All at once the dispute became vehement. The more stylishly attired man disappeared, but returned instantly with a drawn sword in his hand. The stranger, as we may call him, whipped out a claymore, and the two fought fiercely. By Jove, it was no stage combat or French duel. They went for each other as if they meant it. There was no stopping to take breath, nor drawing apart after a foiled attack. Each man tried to kill the other as speedily as possible. Three times they circled round in furious sword-play. Then the stranger got his point home. The other, in mortal agony, dropped his weapon, and tried with both hands to tear his adversary's blade from his breast. He failed, and staggered back, the victor still shoving the claymore through his opponent's body. Then, and not until then, I saw the face of the man who was wounded, probably killed. It was my cousin, Alan Hume-Fraser."
David Hume stopped again. His bronzed face was pale now. With his left hand he swept huge drops of perspiration from his brow. But his class demands coolness in the most desperate moments. He actually struck a match and relighted his cigarette.
"I suppose you occasionally have a nightmare after an indigestible supper, Mr. Brett," he went on, "and have experienced a peculiar sensation of dumb palsy in the presence of some unknown but terrifying danger? Well, such was my exact state at that moment. Alan fell, apparently lifeless. The stranger kissed his blood-stained sword, which required a strong tug before he could disengage it, rattled it back into the scabbard, rejoined his companion, and the two rode off, without once looking back. I can see them now, square-shouldered, with hair tied in a knot beneath their quaint hats, their hips absurdly swollen by the huge pockets of their coats, their boots hanging over their knees. They wore big brass spurs with tremendous rowels, and the cantles of their saddles were high and brass-bound.
"Alan lay motionless. I could neither speak nor move. Whether I was sitting or standing I cannot tell you, nor do I know how I was supposed to be attired, A darkness came over my eyes. Then a voice—Helen's voice—whispered to me, 'Fear not, dearest; the wrong is avenged.' I awoke, to find the trembling butler shouting in my ear that his master was lying dead outside the house. Now, Mr. Brett, I ask you, would you have submitted that fairy tale to a jury? I was quite assured of a verdict in my favour, though the first disagreement almost shook my faith in Helen's promise, but I did not want to end my days in a criminal lunatic asylum."
He did not appear to expect an answer. He was quite calm again, and even his eyes had lost their intensity. The mere telling of his uncanny experience had a soothing effect. He nonchalantly readjusted his watch and chain, and noted the time.
"I have gone far beyond my stipulated half hour," he said, forcing a deprecatory smile.
"Yes; far beyond, indeed. You carried me back to 1763, but Heaven alone knows when you will end."
"Will you take up my case?"
"Can you doubt it? Do you think I would throw aside the most remarkable criminal puzzle I have ever tackled?"
"Mr. Brett, I cannot find words to thank you. If you succeed—and you inspire me with confidence—Helen and I will strive to merit your lifelong friendship."
"Miss Layton knows the whole of your story, of course?"
"Yes; she and my father only. I must inform you that I had never heard the full reason of the duel between the first Sir Alan and his nephew. But my father knew it fairly well, and the details fitted in exactly with my vision. I can hardly call it a dream."
"What was the nephew's name?"
Brett jumped up, and paced about the room.
"These coincidences defy analysis," he exclaimed. "Your Christian name is David. Your surname joins both families. Why, the thing is a romance of the wildest sort."
"Unhappily, it has a tragic side for me."
"Yes; the story cannot end here. You and your fiancee have suffered. Miss Layton must be a very estimable young lady—one worth winning. She will be a true and loyal wife."
"Do you think you will be able to solve the riddle? Someone murdered my cousin."
"That is our only solid fact at present. The family tradition is passing strange, but it will not serve in a court of law. I may fail, for the first time, but I will try hard. When can you accompany me to Stowmarket?"
The question disconcerted his eager auditor. The young man's countenance clouded.
"Is it necessary that I should go there?" he asked.
"Certainly. You must throw aside all delicacy of feeling, sacrifice even your own sentiments. That is the one locality where you don't wish to be seen, of course?"
"It is indeed."
"I cannot help that. I must have the assistance of your local and family knowledge to decide the knotty points sure to arise when I begin the inquiry. Can you start this afternoon?"
"Very well. Come and lunch with me at my club. Then we will separate, to meet again at Liverpool Street. Smith! Pack my traps for a week."
Brett was in the hall now, but he suddenly stopped his companion.
"By the way, Hume, you may like to wire to Miss Layton. My man will send the telegram for you."
David Hume's barrier of proud reserve vanished from that instant. The kindly familiarity of the barrister's words to one who, during many weary days, suspected all men of loathing him as a murderer at large, was directed by infinite tact.
Hume held out his hand, "You are a good chap," he said.
THROUGH THE LIBRARY WINDOW
Hume did not send a telegram to the Sleagill Rectory. He explained that, owing to the attitude adopted by the Rev. Wilberforce Layton, Helen avoided friction with her father by receiving his (Hume's) letters under cover to Mrs. Eastham.
The younger man was quick to note that Brett did not like this arrangement. He smilingly protested that there was no deception In the matter.
"Helen would never consent to anything that savoured of subterfuge," he explained. "Her father knows well that she hears from me constantly. He is a studious, reserved old gentleman. He was very much shocked by the tragedy, and his daughter's innocent association with it. He told me quite plainly that, under the circumstances, I ought to consider the engagement at an end. Possibly I resented an imputation not intended by him. I made some unfair retort about his hyper-sensitiveness, and promptly sent Helen a formal release. She tore it up, and at the same time accepted it so far as I was concerned. We met at Mrs. Eastham's house—that good lady has remained my firm friend throughout—and I don't mind telling you, Brett, that I broke down utterly. Well, we began by sending messages to each other through Mrs. Eastham. Then I forwarded to Helen, in the same way, a copy of a rough diary of my travels. She wrote to me direct; I replied. The position now is that she will not marry me without her father's consent, and she will marry no one else. He is aware of our correspondence. She always tells him of my movements. The poor old rector is worried to know how to act for the best. His daughter's happiness is at stake, and so my unhappy affairs have drifted aimlessly for more than a year."
"The drifting must cease," said Brett decisively. "Beechcroft Hall will probably provide scope for activity."
They reached Stowmarket by a late train. Next morning they drove to Sleagill—a pretty village, with a Norman church tower standing squarely in the midst of lofty trees, and white-washed cottages and red-tiled villa-residences nestling in gardens.
"A bower of orchards and green lanes," murmured the barrister as their dog-cart sped rapidly over the smooth highway.
Hume was driving. He pointed out the rectory. His eyes were eagerly searching the lawn and the well-trimmed garden, but he was denied a sight of his divinity. The few people they encountered gazed at them curiously. Hume was seemingly unrecognised.
"Here is Mrs. Eastham's house," he said, checking the horse's pace as they approached a roomy, comfortable-looking mansion, occupying an angle where the village street sharply bifurcated. "And there is Beechcroft!"
The lodge faced the road along which they were advancing. Beyond the gates the yew-lined drive, with its selvages of deep green turf, led straight to the Elizabethan house a quarter of a mile distant. The ground in the rear rose gently through a mile or more of the home park.
Immediately behind the Hall was a dense plantation of spruce and larch. The man who planned the estate evidently possessed both taste and spirit. It presented a beautiful and pleasing picture. A sense of homeliness was given by a number of Alderney cattle and young hunters grazing in the park on both sides of the avenue. Beechcroft had a reputation in metropolitan sale-rings. Its two-year-olds were always in demand.
"We will leave the conveyance here," announced Brett "I prefer to walk to the house."
The hotel groom went to the horse's head. He did not hear the barrister's question:
"I suppose both you and your cousin quitted Mrs. Eastham's house by that side-door and entered the park through the wicket?"
"Yes," assented Hume, "though I fail to see why you should hit upon the side-door rather than the main entrance."
"Because the ball-room is built out at the back. It was originally a granary. The conservatory opens into the garden on the other side. As there was a large number of guests, Mrs. Eastham required all her front rooms for supper and extra servants, so she asked people to halt their carriages at the side-door. I would not be surprised if the gentlemen's cloak-room was provided by the saddle-room there, whilst the yard was carpeted and covered with an awning."
Brett rattled on in this way, heedless of his companion's blank amazement, perhaps secretly enjoying it.
Hume was so taken aback that he stood poised on the step of the vehicle and forgot to slip the reins into the catch on the splashboard.
"I told you none of these things," he cried.
"Of course not. They are obvious. But tell this good lady that we are going to the Hall."
Both the main gate and wicket were fastened, and the lodge-keeper's wife was gazing at them through the bars.
"Hello, Mrs. Crowe, don't you know me?" cried Hume.
"My gracious, It's Mr. David!" gasped the woman.
"Why are the gates locked?"
"Mrs. Capella is not receiving visitors, sir."
"Is she ill?"
"No, sir. Indisposed, I think Mr. Capella said."
"Well, she will receive me, at any rate."
"No doubt, sir, it will be all right."
She hesitatingly unbarred the wicket, and the two men entered. They walked slowly up the drive. Hume was restless. Twice he looked behind him.
"It was here," he said, "that the two men dismounted."
Then a few yards farther on:
"Alan came round from the door there, and they fought here. Alan forced the stranger on to the turf. When he was stabbed he fell here."
He pointed to a spot where the road commenced to turn to the left to clear the house. Brett watched him narrowly. The young man was describing his dream, not the actual murder. The vision was far more real to him.
"It was just such a day as this," he continued. "It might have been almost this hour. The library windows—"
He ceased and looked fixedly towards the house. Brett, too, gazed in silence. They saw a small, pale-faced, exceedingly handsome Italian—a young man, with coal-black eyes and a mass of shining black hair—scowling at them from within the library.
A black velvet coat and a brilliant tie were the only bizarre features of his costume. They served sufficiently to enhance his foreign appearance. Such a man would be correctly placed in the marble frame of a Neapolitan villa; here he was unusual, outre, "un-English," as Brett put it.
But he was evidently master. He flung open the window, and said, with some degree of hauteur:
"Whom do you wish to see? Can I be of any assistance?"
His accent was strongly marked, but his words were well chosen and civil enough, had his tone accorded with their sense. As it was, he might be deemed rude.
"Are you Signor Capella?" he inquired.
"Mr. Capella. Yes."
"Then you can, indeed, be of much assistance. This gentleman is Mrs. Capella's cousin, Mr. David Hume-Frazer."
"Corpo di Baccho!"
The Italian was completely taken by surprise. His eyebrows suddenly stood out in a ridge. His sallow skin could not become more pallid; to show emotion he flushed a swarthy red. Beyond the involuntary exclamation in his own language, he could not find words.
"Yes," explained the smiling Brett, "he is a near relative of yours by marriage. We were told by the lodge-keeper that Mrs. Capella was indisposed, but under the circumstances we felt assured that she would receive her cousin—unless, that is, she is seriously ill."
"It is an unexpected pleasure, this visit."
Capella replied to the barrister, but looked at Hume. He had an unpleasant habit of parting his lips closely to his teeth, like the silent snarl of a dog.
"Undoubtedly. We both apologise for not having prepared you."
Brett's smooth, even voice seemed to exasperate the other, who continued to block the library window in uncompromising manner.
"And you, sir. May I ask who you are?"
"My name is Brett, Reginald Brett, a friend of Mr. Hume's—who, I may mention, does not use his full surname at present."
The Italian was compelled to turn his glittering eyes upon the man who addressed him so glibly.
"I am sorry," he said slowly, "but Mrs. Capella is too unwell to meet either of you to-day."
"Ah! We share your regrets. Nevertheless, as a preliminary to our purpose, you will serve our needs equally well. May we not come in?"
Capella was faced with difficult alternatives. He must either be discourteous to two gentlemanly strangers, one of them his wife's relative, or admit them with some show of politeness. An Italian may be rude, he can never be gauche. Having decided, Capella ushered them into the library with quick transition to dignified ease.
He asked if he might ring for any refreshments. Hume, who glared at his host with uncompromising hostility, and had not taken any part in the conversation, shook his head.
Brett surprised both, for different reasons, by readily falling in with Capella's suggestion.
"A whisky and soda would be most grateful," he said.
The Italian moved towards the bell.
"Permit me!" cried Brett.
He rose in awkward haste, and upset his chair with a loud crash on the parquet floor.
"How stupid of me!" he exclaimed, whilst Hume wondered what had happened to flurry the barrister, and Capella smothered a curse.
A distant bell jangled. By tacit consent, there was no further talk until a servant appeared. The man was a stranger to Hume.
Oddly enough, Brett took but a very small allowance of the spirit. In reality, he hated alcohol in any form during the earlier hours. He was wont to declare that it not only disturbed his digestion but destroyed his taste for tobacco. Hume did not yet know what a concession to exciting circumstances his new-found friend had made the previous day in ordering spirits before luncheon.
When the servant vanished, Capella settled himself in his chair with the air of a man awaiting explanations. Yet he was restless and disturbed. He was afraid of these two. Why? Brett determined to try the effect of generalities.
"You probably guess the object of our visit?" he began.
"I? No. How should I guess?"
"As the husband of a lady so closely connected with Mr. Hume—"
But the Italian seemed to be firmly resolved to end the suspense.
"Caramba!" he broke in. "What is it?"
"It is this. Mr. Hume has asked me to help him in the investigation of certain—"
The library door swung open, and a lady entered. She was tall, graceful, distinguished-looking. Her cousinship to Hume was unmistakable. In both there was the air of aristocratic birth. Their eyes, the contour of their faces, were alike. But the fresh Anglo-Saxon complexion of the man was replaced in the woman by a peach-like skin, whilst her hair and eyebrows were darker.
She was strikingly beautiful. A plain black dress set off a figure that would have caused a sculptor to dream of chiselled marble.
"A passionate, voluptuous woman," thought Brett. "A woman easily swayed, but never to be compelled, the ready-made heroine of a tragedy."
Her first expression was one of polite inquiry, but her glance fell upon Hume. Her face, prone to betray each fleeting emotion, exhibited surprise, almost consternation.
"You, Davie!" she gasped.
Hume went to meet her.
"Yes, Rita," he said. "I hope you are glad to see me."
Mrs. Capella was profoundly agitated, but she held out her hand and summoned the quick smile of an actress.
"Of course I am," she cried. "I did not know you were in England. Why did you not let me know, and why are you here?"
"I only returned home three days ago. My journey to Beechcroft was a hasty resolve. This is my friend, Mr. Reginald Brett. He was just about to explain to Mr. Capella the object of our visit when you came in."
Neither husband nor wife looked at the other. Mrs. Capella was flustered, indulging in desperate surmises, but she laughed readily enough.
"I heard a noise in this room, and then the bell rang. I thought something had happened. You know—I mean, I thought there was no one here."
"I fear that I am the culprit, Mrs. Capella. Your husband was good enough to invite us to enter by the window, and I promptly disturbed the household."
Brett's pleasant tones came as a relief. Capella glared at him now with undisguised hostility, for the barrister's adroit ruse had outwitted him by bringing the lady from the drawing-room, which gave on to the garden and lawn at the back of the house.
"Please do not take the blame of my intrusion, Mr. Brett," said Margaret, with forced composure. "You will stay for luncheon, will you not? And you, Davie? Are you at Mrs. Eastham's?"
Her concluding question was eager, almost wistful. Her cousin answered it first.
"No," he said. "We have driven over from Stowmarket."
"And, unfortunately," put in the barrister, "we are pledged to visit Mrs. Eastham within an hour."
The announcement seemed to please Mrs. Capella, for some reason at present hidden from Brett. Hume, of course, was mystified by the course taken by his friend, but held his peace.
Capella brusquely interfered:
"Perhaps, Rita, these gentlemen would now like to make the explanation which you prevented."
He moved towards the door. So that his wife could rest under no doubt as to his wishes, he held it open for her.
"No, no!" exclaimed Brett. "This matter concerns Mrs. Capella personally. You probably forget that we asked to be allowed to see her in the first instance, but you told us that she was too unwell to receive us."
For an instant Margaret gazed at the Italian with imperious scorn. Then she deliberately turned her back on him, and seated herself close to her cousin.
Capella closed the door and walked to the library window.
Hume openly showed his pained astonishment at this little scene. Brett treated the incident as a domestic commonplace.
"The fact is," he explained, "that your cousin, Mrs. Capella, has sought my assistance in order to clear his name of the odium attached to it by the manner of Sir Alan Hume-Frazer's death. At my request he brought me here. In this house, in this very room, such an inquiry should have its origin, wherever it may lead ultimately."
The lady's cheeks became ashen. Her large eyes dilated.
"Is not that terrible business ended yet?" she cried. "I little dreamed that such could be the object of your visit, Davie. What has happened—"
The Italian swung round viciously.
"If you come here as a detective, Mr. Brett," he snapped, "I refer you to the police. Mr. Hume-Frazer is known to them."
FROM BEHIND THE HEDGE
The man's swarthy rage added force to the taunt. David Hume leaped up, but Brett anticipated him, gripping his arm firmly, and without ostentation.
Margaret, too, had risen. She appeared to be battling with some powerful emotion, choking back a fierce impulse. For an instant the situation was electrical. Then the woman's clear tones rang through the room.
"I am mistress here," she cried, "Giovanni, remain silent or leave us. How dare you, of all men, speak thus to my cousin?"
Certainly the effect of the barrister's straightforward statement was unlooked-for. But Brett felt that a family quarrel would not further his object at that moment. It was necessary to stop the imminent outburst, for David Hume and Giovanni Capella were silently challenging each other to mortal combat. What a place of ill-omen to the descendants of the Georgian baronet was this sun-lit library with its spacious French windows!
"Of course," said the barrister, speaking as quietly as if he were discussing the weather, "such a topic is an unpleasant one. It is, however, unavoidable. My young friend here is determined, at all costs, to discover the secret of Sir Alan's murder. It is imperative that he should do so. The happiness of his whole life depends upon his success. Until that mystery is solved he cannot marry the woman he loves."
"Do you mean Helen Layton?" Margaret's syllables might have been so many mortal daggers.
"Is David still in love with her?"
"And she with him?"
David Hume broke in:
"Yes, Rita. She has been faithful to the end."
A very forcible Italian oath came from Capella as he passed through the window and strode rapidly out of sight, passing to the left of the house, where one of the lines of yew trees ended in a group of conservatories.
Margaret was now deadly white. She pressed her hand to her bosom.
"Forgive me," she sobbed. "I do not feel well. You will both be always welcome here. Let no one interfere with you. But I must leave you. This afternoon—"
She staggered to the door. Her cousin caught her.
"Thank you, Davie," she whispered. "Leave me now. I will be all right soon. My heart troubles me. No. Do not ring. Let us keep our miseries from the servants."
She passed out, leaving Hume and the barrister uncertain how best to act The situation had developed with a vengeance. Brett was more bewildered than ever before in his life.
"That scoundrel killed Alan, and now he wants to kill his own wife!" growled Hume, when they were alone.
Brett looked through him rather than at him. He was thinking intently. For a long time—minutes it seemed to his fuming companion—he remained motionless, with glazed, immovable eyes. Then he awoke to action.
"Quick!" he cried. "Tell me if this room has changed much since you were last here. Is the furniture the same? Is that the writing-table? What chair did you sit in? Where was it placed? Quick, man! You have wasted eighteen months. Give me no opinions, but facts."
Thus admonished, scared somewhat by the barrister's volcanic energy, Hume obeyed him.
"There is no material change in the room," he said. "The secretaire is the same. You see, here is the drawer which was broken open. It bears the marks of the implement used to force the lock. I think I sat in this chair, or one like it. It was placed here. My face was turned towards the fire, yet in my dream I was looking through the centre window. The Japanese sword rested here. I showed you where Alan's body was found."
The young man darted about the room to illustrate each sentence. Brett followed his words and actions without comment. He grabbed his hat and stick.
"We will return later in the day," he said. "Let us go at once and call on Mrs. Eastham."
"Mrs. Eastham! Why?"
"Because I want to see Miss Helen Layton. The old lady can send for her."
Hume needed no urging. He could not walk fast enough. They had gone a hundred yards from the house when Brett suddenly stopped and checked his companion.
Behind the yew trees on the left, and rendered invisible by a stout hedge, a man was running—running at top speed, with the labouring breath of one unaccustomed to the exercise. The barrister sprang over the strip of turf, passed among the trees, and plunged into the hedge regardless of thorns. He came back instantly.
"There is a footpath across the park, leading towards the lodge gates. Where does it come out?" he asked, speaking rapidly in a low tone.
"It enters, the road near the avenue, close to the gates. It leads from a farmhouse."
"A lady is walking through the park towards the lodge. Capella is running to intercept her. Come! We may hear something."
Brett set off at a rapid pace along the turf. Hume followed, and soon they were near the lodge. Mrs. Crowe saw them, and came out.
"Stop her!" gasped Brett.
Hume signalled the woman not to open the gate. She watched them with open-mouthed curiosity. The barrister slowed down and quietly made his way to the leafy angle where the avenue hedge joined that which shut off the park from the road.
He held up a warning hand. Hume stepped warily behind him, and both men looked through a portion of the hedge where briars were supplanted by hazel bushes.
Capella was standing panting near a stile. A girl, dressed in muslin, and wearing a large straw hat, was approaching.
"Great Heavens! It is Helen!" exclaimed Hume.
Brett grasped his shoulder.
"Restrain yourself," he whispered earnestly. "Luckily, Capella has not heard you. I regret the necessity which makes us eavesdroppers, but it is a fortunate accident, all the same. Not a word! Remember what is at stake."
They could not see the Italian's face. His back was heaving from the violence of his exertion. Miss Layton was walking rapidly towards the stile. Obviously she had perceived the waiting man, and she was not pleased.
Her pretty face, flushed and sunburnt, wore the strained aspect of a woman annoyed, but trying to be civil.
It was she who took the initiative.
"Good day, Mr. Capella," she said pleasantly. "Why on earth did you run so fast?"
"Because I wished to be here before you, Miss Layton," replied the man, his voice tremulous with excitement.
"Then I wish I had known, because I could have beaten you easily if you meant to race me."
"That was not my object."
"Well, now you have attained it, whatever it may have been, please allow me to get over the stile. I will be late for luncheon. My father wished me to ascertain how Farmer Burton is progressing after his spill. He was thrown from his dog-cart whilst coming from the Bury St. Edmund's fair."
It was easy for the listeners behind the hedge to gather that the girl's affable manner was affected. She was really somewhat alarmed. Her eyes wandered to the high road to see if anyone was approaching, and she kept at some distance from the Italian.
"Do not play with me, Nellie," said Capella, in agonised accents. "I am consumed with love of you. Can you not, at least, give me your pity?"
"Mr. Capella," she cried, and none but one blind to all save his own passionate desires could fail to note her lofty disdain, "how can you be so base as to use such language to me?"
"Base! To love you!"
"Again I say it—base and unmanly. What have I done that you should venture to so insult your charming wife, not to speak of the insult to myself? When you so far forgot yourself a fortnight ago as to hint at your outrageous ideas regarding me, I forced myself to remember that you were not an Englishman, that perhaps in your country there may be a social code which permits a man to dishonour his home and to annoy a defenceless woman. I cannot forgive you a second time. Let me pass! Let me pass, I tell you, or I will strike you!"
Brett, in his admiration for the spirited girl who, notwithstanding her protestations, seemed to be anything but "defenceless," momentarily forgot his companion.
A convulsive tightening of Hume's muscles, preparatory to a leap through the hedge, warned him in time.
"Idiot!" he whispered, as he clutched him again.
Were not the others so taken up with the throbbing influences of the moment they must have heard the rustling of the leaves. But they paid little heed to external affairs. The Italian was speaking.
"Nellie," he said, "you will drive me mad. But listen, carissima. If I may not love you, I can at least defend you. David Hume-Frazer, the man who murdered my wife's brother, has returned, and openly boasts that you are waiting to marry him."
"Boasts! To whom, pray?"
"To me. I heard him say this not fifteen minutes since."
"Where? You do not know him. He could not be here without my knowledge."
"Then it is true. You do intend to marry this unconvicted felon?"
"Mr. Capella, I really think you are what English people call 'cracked.'"
"But you believe me—that this man has come to Beechcroft?"
"It may be so. He has good reasons, doubtless, for keeping his presence here a secret. Whatever they may be, I shall soon know them."
"Helen, he is not worthy of you. He cannot give you a love fierce as mine. Nay, I will not be repelled. Hear me. My wife is dying. I will be free in a few months. Bid me to hope. I will not trouble you. I will go away, but I swear, if you marry Frazer, neither he nor you will long enjoy your happiness!"
The girl made no reply, but sprang towards the stile in sheer desperation. Capella strove to take her in his arms, not indeed with intent to offer her any violence; but she met his lover-like ardour with such a vigorous buffet that he lost his temper.
He caught her. She had almost surmounted the stile, but her dress hampered her movements. The Italian, vowing his passion in an ardent flow of words, endeavoured to kiss her.
Then, with a sigh, for he would have preferred to avoid an open rupture, Brett let go his hold on Hume. Indeed, if he had not done so, there must have been a fight on both sides of the hedge.
He turned away at once to light a cigarette. What followed immediately had no professional interest for him.
But he could not help hearing Helen's shriek of delighted surprise, and certain other sounds which denoted that Giovanni was being used as a football by his near relative by marriage.
Mrs. Crowe came out of her cottage.
"What's a-goin' on in the park, sir?" she inquired anxiously.
"A great event," he said. "Faust is kicking Mephistopheles."
"Drat them colts!" she cried, adding, after taking thought; "but we haven't any horses of them names, sir."
"No! You surprise me. They are of the best Italian pedigree."
Meanwhile, he was achieving his object, which was to drive Mrs. Crowe back towards the wicket.
Helen's voice came to them shrilly:
"That will do, Davie! Do you hear me?"
"Why, bless my 'eart, there's Miss Layton," said Mrs. Crowe.
"What a fine little boy this is!" exclaimed Brett, stooping over a curly-haired urchin. "Is he the oldest?"
"Good gracious, sir, no. He's the youngest."
"Dear me, I would not have thought so. You must have been married very early. Here, my little man, see what you can buy for half-a-crown."
"What a nice gentleman he is, to be sure," thought the lodge-keeper's wife, when Brett passed through the smaller gate, assured that the struggle in the park had ended.
"Just fancy 'im a-thinkin' Jimmy was the eldest, when I will be a grandmother come August if all goes well wi' Kate."
The barrister signed to the groom to wait, and joined the young couple, who now appeared in the roadway. A haggard, dishevelled, and furious man burst through the avenue hedge and ran across the drive.
"Mrs. Crowe," he almost screamed, "do you see those two men there?"
The good woman was startled by her master's sudden appearance and his excited state.
"They are never to be admitted to the grounds again. Do you understand?"
Capella turned to rush away up the avenue, but he was compelled to limp. Mrs. Crowe watched him wonderingly, and tried to piece together in her mind the queer sounds and occurrences of the last two minutes.
She had not long been in the cottage when the butler arrived.
"You let two gentlemen in a while ago ?" he said.
"One was Mr. David and the other a Mr. Brett?"
"Oh, was that the tall gentleman's name?"
"I expect so. Well, here's the missus's written order that whenever they want to come to the 'ouse or go anywheres in the park it's O.K."
Mrs. Crowe was wise enough to keep her own counsel, but when the butler retired, she said:
"Then I'll obey the missus, an' master can settle it with her. I don't hold by Eye-talians, anyhow."
AN OLD ACQUAINTANCE
Helen was very much upset by the painful scene which had just been enacted. Its vulgarity appalled her. In a little old-world hamlet like Sleagill, a riotous cow or frightened horse supplied sensation for a week. What would happen when it became known that the rector's daughter had been attacked by the Squire of Beechcroft in the park meadow, and saved from his embraces only after a vigorous struggle, in which her defender was David Hume-Frazer, concerning whom the villagers still spoke with bated breath?
Of course, the girl imagined that many people must have witnessed the occurrence. The appearance of Brett, of the waiting groom, and of a chance labourer who now strode up the village street, led her to think so.
She did not realise that the whole affair had barely lasted a minute, that Brett was Hume's friend, the man-servant a stranger who had seen nothing and heard little, whilst the villager only wondered, when he touched his cap, "why Miss Layton was so flustered like."
Brett attributed her agitation to its right cause. He knew that this healthy, high-minded, and athletic young woman went under no fear of Capella and his ravings.
"What happened when you jumped the hedge?" he said to Hume.
"I handled that scoundrel somewhat roughly," was the answer. "It was Nellie here who begged for mercy on his account."
"Ah, well, the incident ended very pleasantly. No one saw what happened save the principals, a fortunate thing in itself. We want to prevent a nine days' wonder just now."
"Are you quite sure?" asked Miss Layton, overjoyed at this expression of opinion, and secretly surprised at the interest taken by the barrister in the affair, for Hume had not as yet found time to tell her his friend's name.
"Quite sure, Miss Layton," he said, with the smile which made him such a prompt favourite with women. "I had nothing to do but observe the mise-en-scene. The stage was quite clear for the chief actors. And now, may I make a suggestion? The longer we remain here the more likely are we to attract observation. Mr. Hume and I are going to call on Mrs. Eastham. May we expect you in an hour's time?"
"Can't you come in with us now?" exclaimed David eagerly.
She laughed excitedly, being yet flurried The sudden appearance of her lover tried her nerves more than the Italian's passionate avowal.
"No, indeed," she cried. "I must go home. My father will forget all about his lunch otherwise, and I am afraid—I—w—ant to cry!"
Without another word she hurried off towards the rectory.
"My dear fellow," murmured Brett to the disconsolate Hume, "don't you understand? She cannot bear the constraint imposed by my presence at this moment, nor could she meet Mrs. Eastham with any degree of composure. Now, this afternoon she will return a mere iceberg. Mrs. Eastham, I am sure, has tact. I am going to the Hall. You two will be left alone for hours."
He turned aside to arrange with the groom concerning the care of the horse, as they would be detained some time in the village. Then the two men approached Mrs. Eastham's residence.
That good person, a motherly old lady of over sixty, was not only surprised but delighted by the advent of David Hume.
"My dear boy," she cried, advancing to meet him with outstretched hands when he entered the morning-room. "What fortunate wind has blown you here?"
"I can hardly tell you, auntie," he said—both Helen and he adopted the pleasing fiction of a relationship that did not exist—"you must ask Mr. Brett."
Thus appealed to, the barrister set forth, in a few explicit words, the object of their visit.
"I hope and believe you will succeed," said Mrs. Eastham impulsively. "Providence has guided your steps here at this hour. You cannot imagine how miserable that man Capella makes me."
"Why?" cried Hume, darting a look of surprise at Brett.
"Because he is simply pestering Nellie with his attentions. There! I must speak plainly. He has gone to extremes that can no longer be misinterpreted. In our small community, Mr. Brett," she explained, "though we dearly love a little gossip, we are slow to believe that a man married to such a charming if somewhat unconventional woman as Margaret Hume-Frazer—I cannot train my tongue to call her Mrs. Capella—would deliberately neglect his wife and dare to demonstrate his unlawful affection for another woman, especially such a girl as Helen Layton."
"How long has this been going on?" inquired Brett, for Hume was too furious to speak.
"For some months, but it is only a fortnight ago since Helen first complained of it to me I promptly told Mr. Capella that I could not receive him again at my house. He discovered that Nellie came here a good deal, and managed to call about the same time as she did. Then he found that she was interested in Japanese art, and as he is really clever in that respect—"
"Clever," interrupted the barrister. "Do you mean that he understands lacquer work, Satsuma ware, painting or inlaying? Is he a connoisseur or a student?"
"It is all Greek to me!" exclaimed the old lady, "but unquestionably the bits of china and queer carvings he often brought here were very beautiful. Nellie did not like him personally, but she could not deny his knowledge and enthusiasm. Margaret, too, used to invite her to the Hall, for Miss Layton has great taste as an amateur gardener, Mr. Brett. But this friendship suddenly ceased. Mr. Capella became very strange and gloomy in his manner. At last Nellie told me that the wretched man had dared to utter words of love to her, hinting that his wife could not live long, and that he would come in for her fortune. Now, as my poor girl has been the most faithful soul that ever lived, never for an instant doubting that some day the cloud would lift from Davie, you may imagine what a shock this was to her."
"Mrs. Eastham," said Brett, suddenly switching the conversation away from the Italian's fantasy, "you are well acquainted with all the circumstances connected with Sir Alan's murder. Have you formed any theory about the crime, its motive, or its possible author?"
"God forgive me if I do any man an injury, but in these last few days I have had my suspicions," she exclaimed.
"Tell me your reasons."
"It arose out of a chance remark by Nellie. She was discussing with me her inexplicable antipathy to Mr. Capella, even during the time when they were outwardly good friends. She said that once he showed her a Japanese sword, a most wonderful piece of workmanship, with veins of silver and gold let into the handle and part of the blade. To the upper part of the scabbard was attached a knife—a small dagger—similar—"
"Yes, I understand. An implement like that used to kill Sir Alan Hume-Frazer."
"Exactly. Nellie at first hardly realised its significance. Then she hastily told Capella to take it away, but not before she noticed that he seemed to understand the dreadful thing. It is fastened in its sheath by a hidden spring, and he knew exactly how to open it. Any person not accustomed to such weapons would endeavour to pull it out by main force."
Brett did not press Mrs. Eastham to pursue her theory. It was plain that she regarded the Italian as a man who might conceivably be the murderer of his wife's brother. This was enough for feminine logic.
Hume, too, shared the same belief, and had not scrupled to express it openly.
There were, it was true, reasons in plenty, why Capella should have committed this terrible deed. He was, presumably, affianced to Margaret at the time. Apparently her father's will had contemplated the cutting down of her annual allowance. The young heir had, on the other hand, made up the deficit. But why did these artificial restrictions exist? Why were precautions taken by the father to diminish his daughter's income? She had been extravagant. Both father and brother quarrelled with her on this point. Indeed, there was a slight family disturbance with reference to it during Sir Alan's last visit to London. Was Capella mixed up with it?
At last there was a glimmering perception of motive for an otherwise fiendishly irrational act. Did it tend to incriminate the Italian?
A summons to luncheon dispelled the momentary gloom of their thoughts. Before the meal ended Miss Layton joined them.
Brett looked at his watch. "Fifty minutes!" he said.
Then they all laughed, except Mrs. Eastham, who marvelled at the coolness of the meeting between the girl and David. But the old lady was quick-witted.
"Have you met before?" she cried.
"Dearest," said the girl, kissing her; "do you mean to say they have not told you what happened in the park?"
"That will require a special sitting," said Brett gaily. "Meanwhile, I am going to the Hall. I suppose you do not care to accompany me, Hume?"
"I do not."
The reply was so emphatic that it created further merriment.
"Well, tell me quickly what this new secret is," exclaimed Mrs. Eastham, "because in five minutes I must have a long talk with my cook. She has to prepare pies and pastry sufficient to feed nearly a hundred school children next Monday, and it is a matter of much calculation."
Brett took his leave.
"I knew that good old soul would be tactful," he said to himself. "Now I wonder how Winter made such a colossal mistake as to imagine that Hume murdered his cousin. He was sure of the affections of a delightful girl; he could not succeed to the property; he has declined to take up the title. What reason could he have for committing such a crime?"
Then a man walked up the road—a man dressed like a farmer or grazier, rotund, strongly-built, cheerful-looking. He halted opposite Mrs. Eastham's house, where the barrister still stood drawing on his gloves on the doorstep.
"Yes," said Brett aloud, "you are an egregious ass, Winter."
"Why, Mr. Brett?" asked the unabashed detective. "Isn't the make-up good?"
"It is the make-up that always leads you astray. You never theorise above the level of the Police Gazette."
Mr. Winter yielded to not unnatural annoyance. With habitual caution, he glanced around to assure himself that no other person was within earshot; then he said vehemently:
"I tell you, Mr. Brett, that swine killed Sir Alan Hume-Frazer."
"You use strong language."
"Not stronger than he deserves."
"What are you doing here?"
"I heard he was in London, and watched him. I saw him go to your chambers and guessed what was up, so I came down here to see you and tell you what I know."
"Out of pure good-nature?"
"You can believe it or not, Mr. Brett. It is the truth."
"He has been tried and acquitted. He cannot be tried again. Does Scotland Yard—"
"I'm on my holidays."
Brett laughed heartily.
"I see!" he cried. "A 'bus-driver's holiday! For how long?"
"You are nothing if not professional. I suppose it was not your first offence, or they might have let you off with a fine."
The detective enjoyed this departmental joke. He grinned broadly.
"Anyhow, Mr. Brett," he said, "you and I have been engaged on too many smart bits of work for me to stand quietly by and let you be made a fool of."
The barrister came nearer, and said, in a low tone:
"Winter, you have never been more mistaken in your life. Now, attend to my words. If you help me you will, in the first place, be well paid for your services. Secondly, you will be able to place your hand on the true murderer of Sir Alan Hume-Frazer, or I will score my first failure. Thirdly, Scotland Yard will give you another holiday, and I can secure you some shooting in Scotland. What say you?"
The detective looked thoughtful. Long experience had taught him not to argue with Brett when the latter was in earnest.
"I will do anything in my power," he said, "but there is more in this business than perhaps you are aware of—more than ever transpired at the Assizes."
"Quite so, and a good deal that has transpired since. Now. Winter, don't argue, there's a good fellow. Go and engage the landlord of the local inn in a discussion on crops. I am off to Beechcroft Hall. Mr. Hume and I will call for you on our way back to Stowmarket. In our private sitting-room at the hotel there I will explain everything."
They parted. Brett was promptly admitted by Mrs. Crowe, and walked rapidly up the avenue.
Winter watched his retreating figure.
"He's smart, I know he's smart," mused the detective. "But he doesn't know everything about this affair. He doesn't know, I'll be bound, that David Hume-Frazer waited for his cousin that night outside the library. I didn't know it—worse luck!—until after he was acquitted. And he doesn't know that Miss Nellie Layton didn't reach home until 1.30 a.m., though she left the ball at 12.15, and her house is, so to speak, a minute's walk distant. And she was in a carriage. Oh, there's more in this case than meets the eye! I can't say which would please me most, to find out the real murderer, if Hume didn't do it, or prove Mr. Brett to be in the wrong!"
HUSBAND AND WIFE
Brett did not hurry on his way to the Hall. Already things were in a whirl, and the confusion was so great that he was momentarily unable to map out a definite line of action.
The relations between Capella and his wife were evidently strained almost to breaking point, and it was this very fact which caused him the greatest perplexity.
They had been married little more than six months. They were an extraordinarily handsome couple, apparently well suited to each other by temperament and mutual sympathies, whilst their means were ample enough to permit them to live under any conditions they might choose, and gratify personal hobbies to the fullest extent.
What, then, could have happened to divide them so completely?
Surely not Capella's new-born passion for Helen Layton. Not even a hot-blooded Southerner could be guilty of such deliberate rascality, such ineffable folly, during the first few months after his marriage to a beautiful and wealthy wife.
No, this hypothesis must be rejected. Margaret Capella had drifted apart from her husband almost as soon as they reached England on their return as man and wife. Capella, miserable and disillusioned, buried alive in a country place—for such must existence in Beechcroft mean to a man of his inclinations—had discovered a startling contrast between his passionate and moody spouse, and the bright, pleasant-mannered girl whose ill-fortune it was to create discord between the inmates of the Hall.
This theory did not wholly exonerate the Italian, but it explained a good deal. The barrister saw no cause as yet to suspect Capella of the young baronet's murder. Were he guilty of that ghastly crime, his motive must have been to secure for himself the position he was now deliberately imperilling—all for a girl's pretty face.
The explanation would not suffice. Brett had seen much that is hidden from public ken in the vagaries of criminals, but he had never yet met a man wholly bad, and at the same time in full possession of his senses.
To adopt the hasty judgment arrived at by Hume and Mrs. Eastham, Capella must be deemed capable of murdering his wife's brother, of bringing about the death of his wife after securing the reversion of her vast property to himself, and of falling in love with Helen—all in the same breath. This species of criminality was only met with in lunatics, and Capella impressed the barrister as an emotional personage, capable of supreme good as of supreme evil, but quite sane.
The question to be solved was this: Why did Capella and his wife quarrel in the first instance? Perhaps, that way, light might come.
He asked a footman if Mrs. Capella would receive him. The man glanced at his card.
"Yes, sir," he said at once. "Madam gave instructions that if either you or Mr. David called you were to be taken to her boudoir, where she awaits you."
The room was evidently on the first floor, for the servant led him up the magnificent oak staircase that climbed two sides of the reception hall.
But this was fated to be a day of interruptions. The barrister, when he reached the landing, was confronted by the Italian.
"A word with you, Mr. Brett," was the stiff greeting given to him.
"Certainly. But I am going to Mrs. Capella's room."
"She can wait. She does not know you are here. James, remain outside until Mr. Brett returns. Then conduct him to your mistress."
Capella's tone admitted of no argument, nor was it necessary to protest. Brett always liked people to talk in the way they deemed best suited to their own interests. Without any expostulation, therefore, he followed his limping host into a luxuriously furnished dressing-room.
Capella closed the door, and placed himself gently on a couch.
"Does your friend fight?" he said, fixing his dark eyes, blazing with anger, intently on the other.
"That is a matter on which your opinion would probably be more valuable than mine."
"Spare me your wit. You know well what I mean. Will he meet me on the Continent and settle our quarrel like a gentleman, not like a hired bravo?"
"Mr. Brett, you are not so stupid. David Hume, notwithstanding his past, may still be deemed a man of honour in some respects. He treated me grossly this morning. Will he fight me, or must I treat him as a cur?"
Brett, without invitation, seated himself. He produced a cigarette and lit it, adding greatly to Capella's irritation by his provoking calmness.
"Really," he said at last, "you amuse me."
"Silence!" he cried imperatively, when the Italian would have broken out into a torrent of expostulations. "Listen to me, you vain fool!"
This method of address had the rare merit of achieving its object. Capella was reduced to a condition of speechless rage.
"You consider yourself the aggrieved person, I suppose," went on the Englishman, subsiding into a state of contemptuous placidity. "You neglect your wife, make love to an honourable and pure-minded girl, stoop to the use of unworthy taunts and even criminal innuendos, lose such control of your passion as to lay sacrilegious hands upon Helen Layton, and yet you resent the well-merited punishment administered to you by her affianced husband. Were I a surgeon, Mr. Capella, I might take an anatomical interest in your brain. As it is, I regard you as a psychological study in latter-day blackguardism. Do you understand me?"
"Perfectly. You have not yet answered my question. Will Hume fight?"
"I should say that nothing would give him greater pleasure."
"Then you will arrange this matter? I can send a friend to you?"
"And if you do I will send the police to you, thus possibly anticipating matters somewhat."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that my sole purpose in life just now is to lay hands on the man who killed Sir Alan Hume-Frazer. Until that end is achieved, I will take good care that your crude ideas of honour are dealt with, as they were to-day, by the toe of a boot."
Capella was certainly a singular person. He listened unmoved to Brett's threats and insults. He gave that snarling smile of his, and toyed impatiently with his moustache.
"Your object in life does not concern me. Your courts tried their best to hang the man who was responsible for his cousin's death, and failed. I take it you decline this proffered duel?"
"Then I will fight David Hume in my own way. You have rejected the fair alternative on his behalf. Caramba! We shall see now who wins. He will never marry Helen."
"What did you mean just now when you said that he was 'responsible for his cousin's death'? Is that an Italian way of describing a cold-blooded murder?"
Capella leaned back and snarled silently again. It was a pity he had cultivated that trick. It spoilt an otherwise classically regular set of features.
"James!" he shouted.
The footman entered.
"Take this gentleman to your mistress. I have done with him."
"For the present, James," said Brett.
The astonished servant led him along a corridor and knocked at a door hidden by a silk curtain. Mrs. Capella rose to receive her visitor. She was very pale now, but quite calm and dignified in manner.
"Davie did not come with you?" she said when Brett was seated near to her in an alcove formed by an oriel window.
"No. He is with Miss Layton."
"Ah, I am not sorry, I prefer to talk with you alone."
"It is perhaps better. Your cousin is impulsive in some respects, though self-contained enough in others."
"It may be so. I like him, although we have not seen much of each other since we were children. I knew him this morning principally on account of his likeness to Alan. But you are his friend, Mr. Brett, and I can discuss with you matters I would not care to broach with him. He is with Helen Layton now, you say?"
"Yes, and let me add an explanation. Those two young people are devoted to each other. No power on earth could separate them."
"Why do you tell me that?"
"Because I think you wished to be assured of it?"
"You are clever, Mr. Brett. If you can interpret a criminal's designs as well as you can read a woman's heart you must be a terror to evil-doers."
A slight colour came into her cheeks. The barrister leaned forward, his hands clasped and arms resting on his knees.
"I have just seen your husband," he said.
She exhibited no marked sign of emotion but he thought he detected a frightened look in her eyes.
"Again I ask," she exclaimed, "why do you tell me?"
"The reason is obvious. You ought to know all that goes on. There was a quarrel this morning between him and David Hume. Your husband wished me to arrange a duel. I promised him a visit from the police if I heard any more of such nonsense."
"A duel! More bloodshed!" she almost whispered.
"Do not have any alarm for either of them. They are quite safe. I will guarantee so much, at any rate. But your husband is a somewhat curious person. He is prone to strong and sudden hatreds—and attachments."
Margaret pressed her hands to her face. She could no longer bear the torture of make-believe quiescence.
"Oh, what shall I do!" she wailed. "I am the most miserable woman in England to-day, and I might have been the happiest."
"Why are you miserable, Mrs. Capella?" asked Brett gently.
"I cannot tell you. Perhaps it is owing to my own folly. Are you sure that David and Helen intend to get married?"
"Then, for Heaven's sake, let the wedding take place. Let them leave Beechcroft and its associations for ever."
"That cannot be until Hume's character is cleared from the odium attached to it."
"You mean my brother's death. But that has been settled by the courts. David was declared 'Not guilty.' Surely that will suffice! No good purpose can be gained by reopening an inquiry closed by the law."
"I think you are a little unjust to your cousin in this matter, Mrs. Capella. He and his future wife feel very grievously the slur cast upon his name. You know perfectly well that if half the people in this county were asked, 'Who killed Sir Alan Hume-Frazer?' they would say 'David Hume.' The other half would shake their heads in dubiety, and prefer not to be on visiting terms with David Hume and his wife. No; your brother was killed in a particularly foul way. He died needlessly, so far as we can learn. His death should be avenged, and this can only be done by tracking his murderer and ruthlessly bringing the wretch to justice. Are not these your own sentiments when divested of all conflicting desires?"
Brett's concluding sentence seemed to petrify his hearer.
"In what way can I help you?" she murmured, and the words appeared to come from a heart of stone.
"There are many items I want cleared up, but I do not wish to distress you unduly. Can you not refer me to your solicitors, for instance? I imagine they will be able to answer all my queries."
"No. I prefer to deal with the affair myself."
"Very well. I will commence with you personally. Why did you quarrel with your brother in London a few days before his death?"
"Because I was living extravagantly. Not only that, but he disapproved of my manner of life. In those days I was headstrong and wilful. I loved a Bohemian existence combined with absurd luxury, or rather, a wildly useless expenditure of money. No one who knows me now could picture me then. Yet now I am good and unhappy. Then I was wicked, in some people's eyes, and happy. Strange, is it not?"
"Not altogether so unusual as you may think. Was any other person interested in what I may term the result of the dispute between your brother and yourself?"
"That is a difficult question to answer. I was very careless in money matters, but it is clear that the curtailment of my rate of living from L15,000 to L5,000 per annum must make considerable difference to all connected with me."
"Had you been living at the former rate?"
"Yes, since my father's death. What annoyed Alan was the fact that I had borrowed from money-lenders."
"Who else knew of your disagreement with him besides these money-lenders and his solicitors?"
"All my friends. I used to laugh at his serious ways, when I, older and much more experienced in some respects, treated life as a tiresome joke. But none of my friends were commissioned to murder my brother so that I might obtain the estate, Mr. Brett."
"Not by you," he said thoughtfully.
He knew well that to endeavour to get Margaret to implicate her husband would merely render her an active opponent. She loved this Italian scamp. She was profoundly thankful that David Hume had come back to claim the hand of Helen Layton, the woman who had been the unwilling object of Capella's wayward affections. She would be only too glad to give half her property to the young couple if they would settle in New Zealand or Peru—far from Beechcroft.
Yet it was impossible to believe that she could love a man whom she suspected of murdering her brother. Why, then, had husband and wife drifted apart? Assuredly the pieces of the puzzle were inextricably mixed.
"Where did you marry Mr. Capella?" asked Brett suddenly.
"At Naples—a civil ceremony, before the Mayor, and registered by the British Consul."
"Had you been long acquainted"
"I met him, oddly enough, in Covent Garden Theatre, the night my brother was killed"
It was now Brett's turn to be startled.
"Are you quite certain of this ?" he asked, his surprise at the turn taken by the conversation almost throwing him off his guard.
"Positive. Were you led to believe that Giovanni was the murderer?"
Her voice was cold, impassive, marvellously under control. It warned him, threw him back into the safe role of Hume's adviser and friend.
"I am led to believe nothing at present," he said slowly. "This inquiry is, as yet, only twenty-four hours old so far as I am concerned. I am seeking information. When I am gorged with facts I proceed to digest them."
"Well, what I tell you is true. There are no less than ten people, all living, I have no doubt, who can testify to its correctness. I had a box at the Fancy Dress Ball that New Year's Eve. I invited nine guests. One of them, an attache at the Italian Embassy, brought Giovanni and introduced him to me. We were together from midnight until 4.30 a.m. Whilst poor Alan was lying here dead, I was revelling at a bal masque. Do you think I am likely to forget the circumstances?"
The icy tones thrilled with pitiful remembrance. But the barrister's task required the unsparing use of the probe. He determined, once and for all, to end an unpleasant scene.
"Will you tell me why you and your husband have, shall we say, disagreed so soon after your marriage? You were formed by Providence and nature to be mated. What has driven you apart?"
The woman flushed scarlet under this direct inquiry.
"I cannot tell you," she said brokenly, "but the cause—in no way—concerns—either my brother's death—or David's innocence. It is personal—between Giovanni and myself. In God's good time, it may be put right."
Brett, singularly enough, was a man of quick impulse. He was moved now by a profound pity for the woman who thus bared her heart to him.
"Thank you for your candour, Mrs. Capella," he exclaimed, with a fervour that evidently touched her. "May I ask one more question, and I have done with a most unpleasant ordeal. Do you suspect any person of being your brother's assassin?"
"No," she said. "Indeed I do not."
Hume and Winter did not meet on terms that might be strictly described as cordial.
Brett, on quitting the Hall, had surrendered himself to a spell of vacant bewilderment. He haled the unwilling Hume from Helen's society, and picked up the detective at the Wheat Sheaf Inn. Then the barrister, from sheer need of mental relief, determined to have some fun with them.
"You two ought to know each other," he said good-humouredly. "At one time you took keen interest in matters of mutual concern. Allow me to introduce you. Hume—this is Mr. Winter, of Scotland Yard."
David was quite unprepared for the meeting.
"What?" he exclaimed, his upper lip stiffening, "the man who concocted all sorts of imaginary evidence against me!"
"'Concocted' is not the right word, nor imaginary' either," growled Winter.
"Quite right," said Brett. "Really, Hume, you should be more careful in your choice of language. Had Winter been as careless in his statements at the Assizes, he would certainly have hanged you."
Hume was too happy, after a prolonged tete-a-tete with his beloved, to harbour malice against any person.
"What are we supposed to do—shake hands?" he inquired blandly.
"It might be a good preliminary to a better understanding of one another. You think Winter is an unscrupulous ruffian. He described you to me as a swine not two hours ago. Now, you are both wrong. Winter is the best living police detective, and a most fair-minded one. He will be a valuable ally. Before many days are over you will be deeply in his debt in every sense of the word. On the other hand, you, Hume, are a much-wronged man, whom Winter must help to regain his rightful position. This is one of the occasions when Justice is compelled to take the bandage off her eyes. She may be impartial, but she is often blind. Now be friends, and let us start from that basis."
Silently the two men exchanged a hearty grip.
"Excellent!" cried the barrister. "Hume, take Winter with you in front. I will seat myself beside the groom, and please oblige me, both of you, by not addressing a word to me between here and Stowmarket."
Hume and the detective got along comfortably once the ice was broken. Naturally, they steered clear of all reference to the tragedy in the presence of the servant. Their talk dealt chiefly with sporting matters.
Brett, carried swiftly along the level road, kept his eyes fixed on Beechcroft and its contiguous hamlet until they vanished in the middle distance.
"This is the most curious inquiry I was ever engaged in," he communed. "Winter, of course, will fasten on to Capella like a horse leech when he knows the facts. Yet Capella is neither a coward nor an ordinary villain. For some ridiculous reason, I have a sneaking sympathy with him. Had he stormed and blustered when I pitched into him to-day I would have thought less of him. And his wife! What mysterious workings of Fate brought those two together and then disunited them? They become fascinated one with the other whilst the brother's corpse is still palpitating beneath that terrible stroke. They get married, with not unreasonable haste, but no sooner do they reach Beechcroft, a house of evil import if ever bricks and mortar had such a character, than they are driven asunder by some malign influence.