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Title: The Caravan Crime Author: Fergus Hume * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1100681h.html Language: English Date first posted: February 2017 Most recent update: February 2017 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy and Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Published in The Mail (Adelaide, S.A.), in serial form commencing Saturday 13 December, 1924.
The story was later published in book form as “The Caravan Mystery” in 1926.
Along a twisting country lane, warm and dusty, and richly colored by the dying radiance of a July sunset, jangled a battered caravan, as brown and worn as the ancient horse which lugged it reluctantly onward. From innumerable hooks on back, front, and sides dangled tin cans, iron kettles, bristling brooms, bundles of brushes, and such-like domestic necessaries, together with goat-skin rugs, woollen mats, reach-me-down suits, carpet clippers, and many pairs of stout boots. The whole crazy vehicle, with its hawkers’ stock-in-trade, creaked and groaned and labored complainingly, as if on the verge of disintegration.
Not so the driver—presumably the owner. He sat rigidly upright, holding the reins alert for adventure; slim and straight, and spare as a poplar; filled to the brim with the fiery wine of youth. Handsome, too, a woman would have declared at the sight of that clean-shaven face, bronzed, smooth-skinned, oval, with clear-cut features, and closely-clipped dark hair. The young man’s firm mouth, watchful grey eyes, strong jaw, and square chin revealed him as an inborn master of his fellows. He should have been commanding men in war, controlling some big business in peace; somehow governing, somehow dictating.
Yet here he was in a dingy grey riding suit and a shabby cap, with disreputable gaiters and heavy boots, driving an equally disreputable caravan for the traffic of gipsy merchandise. His being in such a galley would certainly have startled M. Jourdain, that innocent gentleman, who was only surprised when he found virtue in unexpected places. A country policeman, who was strolling along the lane, knew nothing of Moliere’s hero, but he felt much the same when the dreary old caravan rumbled round the corner. The enigmatic driver was the very last person he expected to meet in his back-water of Life’s tumultuous river.
On the instant Constable Selwin’s right hand went to his helmet, as his broad, round face expressed excessive and very natural surprise. “Mr. Lawson!”
“Selwin!” Lawson spoke in an easy, imperious tone, friendly, but with more than a hint of mastership. “We parted at Capetown five years ago to meet in this Rip Van Winkle country. What the dickens are you doing here?”
“Sarley village policeman, sir; married, with a family of two; got into the force six months after reaching Albert Docks. And you, sir?” Selwin ran an observing eye over the driver’s dress and the driver’s caravan. “Ain’t you doing this for a sort o’ bet, sir?”
“For a living, Selwin. After another hunting trip—sorry you weren’t with me that time—I took the trail to South America, and had a ton-hole time in the wilds. Came home last year to find father dead, leaving me nothing but his blessing.”
“The colonel dead, sir?”
“Two years dead. Lost all his money in some speculation, and I had to earn a living somehow. I saved a gipsy’s old mother from drowning, and when he died nine months ago he left me this caravan and the horse. As I couldn’t stick an office, I took to trading round the country.”
“But a gentleman like you, Mr. Lawson—”
“Oh, that’s all right, Selwin. I’m having a topping time, although I don’t meet with such adventures as we did when we were on that hunting trip in Africa. So there you are. I want to camp hereabouts tonight.”
“Sarley Wood’s the place,” volunteered the policeman, promptly pointing a guiding thumb over his left shoulder. “Quarter of a mile on, Sir; glade in the heart of it, sir, with water for the horse. And no one will say anything if I don’t—which,” added Selwin, viciously, “ain’t my style with a gentleman who saved me from being eaten by a lion like Daniel.”
“Who wasn’t eaten,” answered Lawson, with a laugh. “Look me up tonight.”
“Yes, sir!” Selwin saluted again. “Anything I can do, sir?”
Lawson fished out a shilling from his pocket. “Tobacco!”
“Navy cut, sir.” The policeman fielded the coin dexterously. “I know the sort, sir, none better, after two years of hunting and shooting along o’ you, sir,” and he stood looking after the caravan with an admiring air—for the driver—not for the vehicle—which excited his disgust.
Dick—that was the diminutive of Lawson’s baptismal name to his few and tried friends—easily found the wood, and less easily the glade in the heart of the wood. Here, near a pond of clear water and under the whispering foliage of a spreading beech, he halted his disreputable caravan to prepare camp as in old African days. But there was no ready-handed Selwin to assist him now, as then, and he regretted the lost comradeship. However, with the methodical thoroughness of long experience he unharnessed the ancient steed, haltered him, and selected a grazing ground. Nigh to this was a narrow tangled path—leading to nowhere so far as he knew—and he roped the animal to a birch tree at its entrance. Afterwards he lighted a fire, filled his kettle from the bubbling spring which fed the pond, and made ready the frying pan for eggs and bacon.
By the time he had arranged his tin dinner service, with knife, fork, and spoon, on a coarse white cloth spread over a convenient stump, the water was boiling and the contents of the pan spluttering. So Dick brewed hot and strong tea to enjoy a truly excellent supper, which was very acceptable after his long drive from Tarhaven to this hamlet in the wilderness. Not that he had seen Sarley Village, or wished to see it for the moment, but he knew that it was within exploring distance. Meanwhile he was very well satisfied with his solitude, and reclined lazily by the fire, smoking thoughtfully and considering a somewhat problematic future. The outlook was not encouraging, for he seemed to be at the bottom of the abyss. Regularly the distant Sarley church clock chimed the hours and the quarters; but so deep in thought was the young fellow that he was amazed when 10 booms of the bell wakened him to the swift passing of time.
“Ten o’clock, b’ Jove!” he said, speaking aloud after the fashion of the solitary, and rose to stretch himself with a comfortable yawn. “Time for bye-bye. Shall I sleep in the open, or under cover?”
A light hand swept along the grass told him that dew was beading every blade so Lawson sauntered into the caravan with an electric torch for his night-lamp. On the bed he found an envelope, which must have fallen unawares from his pocket. As it contained a possible answer to his cogitations regarding his future he took out the letter to refresh his memory. The epistle directed him to seek out Lady Hamber of Sarley Court, with a view to employment as a bailiff on her estate. Attached was a visiting card inscribed with the name ‘Oliver Bollerd,’ and a few pencilled words recommending the bearer. Nodding his head in approval, and wondering if the introduction would lead to anything, Dick restored letter and card to the envelope, that to his inner pocket, and yawned again as he proceeded to take off his Norfolk jacket. Before his arms were out of the sleeves he paused and listened, on the alert immediately, like a startled stag. In the stillness there came a cry to his ear—the cry of a woman in pain, such as he had heard several times in Africa. The note of suffering, strange in so solitary a neighborhood, sent him shuffling back into his jacket and headlong down the caravan steps. As he leapt towards the dying fire he heard a low moan in the dark distance, and flung on a bundle of brushwood to excite a blaze. But the sufferer was beyond the bound of the luminous circle, and only when Lawson heard her moan again did he discover her whereabouts. A few strides brought him to the entrance to the path near which the horse was tethered, and he swore inwardly at his neglect to bring the torch, which would have given him sufficient light for necessary examination of sex and condition. But it was a woman, sure enough, as he soon became certain when she explained her outcry. “I stumbled over the horse’s rope, and have sprained my ankle,” she murmured in a low and very musical voice.
“Sorry, Madam,” Lawson went down on his knees. “I didn’t expect anyone to come down the path, or I should have tied up my horse elsewhere.”
“You are a gentleman!”
“Of sorts, I suppose.”
“Oh, but you are. I can tell by your voice. Help me; my foot—” she moaned.
“With permission, madam.” Dick picked her up gently and carried her toward the fire, now blazing briskly. Yet even as he did so she feebly resisted his masterful action.
“No! No! No!” She spoke faintly but insistently. “Put me down.”
“Nonsense. I can’t leave you in the darkness with a sprained ankle!” He placed her beside the fire and ran back to the caravan. On the way he marvelled, as did Christabel when she met the Darke Ladye in the magic wood. This lady was not dark, but the fairest of the fair, as he knew from the glimpse he had caught of feathery golden hair; but she was just as lovely and just as richly dressed. What an adventure! Here was a straying damsel, arrayed in a fashionable dinner gown, and wrapped in a gold-embroidered cloak, coming from nowhere into his life. Dick, wondering profoundly at the beneficence of destiny, strode back to his angel, entertained unexpectedly, if not unawares, with an eiderdown quilt, a pillow, a bottle of embrocation, and a few hastily-contrived bandages. The girl, having drawn her glittering cloak closely up to her neck and over her face, so that only a pair of angry eyes were visible, greeted her good Samaritan in a few muffled words the reverse of sweet.
“I wish you wouldn’t!” she snapped, and her voice was as angry as were her eyes.
“My dear young lady, you don’t know what is good for you,” said Lawson, coolly placing the pillow under her head and the quilt over her body.
“If you are a gentleman you will let me go,” she flashed out indignantly.
“Oh by all means.” He rose from his knees and stepped back with a bow.
She made a valiant effort to rise, and failed. “You see I can’t!” she said crossly.
“I have seen that ever since I picked you up over yonder,” the young man assured her dryly, and thinking how excessively feminine she was, and how charming were her contradictions. “Let me have a look at the ankle.”
“No!” She tucked her slender feet in the smartest of evening shoes under the hem of her gown. “Go away. Oh!” Out came the right foot, for, very naturally, the change of position enhanced the pain.
“Don’t be silly,” said her comforter, roughly. “I must rub your foot with this embrocation and bandage it somehow.”
“Are you a doctor?” she asked mistrustfully.
“Would I be rambling round the country in a caravan if I were a doctor—”
“I don’t know—that is—”
“You don’t know anything, not even how impossible you are as an invalid.”
“Oh!” she frowned, and winced—”how very rude.”
“And how very true. Come now, I won’t beat you. Pull off your shoe and stocking.”
Daunted by his imperious manner, and feeling with feminine intuition that he was to be thoroughly trusted, she obeyed. Tenderly the man rubbed the delicate ankle with the strong biting mixture, bandaged it carefully, and stood up to let her put on her shoe; the stocking, of course, being impossible. Then he discovered that she had fainted with the pain and that the cloak had fallen away from her face.
“Oh, b’ jove!” commented the young man, stirred to the core of his appreciative soul by the sight of the exquisite face, delicately perfect, “this is the beauty of the world.”
The praise was superlative, but none the less honest and well deserved. But Dick, very much a gentleman, did not take such pardonable advantage of the situation. After gazing for one glorious moment he hastened to fill a cup at the spring, and was shortly restoring consciousness to this stray Helen. Two splendid blue eyes—Dick guessed from the halo of golden hair that they would be blue—opened slowly with a bewildered expression, which changed suddenly to one of mingled fear and defiance. The girl sat up, drew her rich cloak again around her—but this time not over her face—and shivered at the thought of the isolation. Lawson ascribed this attack of nerves to a matter-of-fact cause. “Foot hurting?” he asked anxiously.
“It’s my ankle,” she retorted, ungraciously.
“Sorry.” He was quite imperturbable. “Ankle hurting?”
It was so smoothly said, yet with such a twinkle in the eyes, that the prostrate lady permitted herself to relieve a smile. Then she frowned; the more so as she became convinced of his good will. “You might do something more useful than stand there laughing at me,” was her unexpected remark.
“So I might,” agreed Dick cheerfully: and stooping. “If you will let me carry you into my caravan and put you on an apology for a bed I think you would be more comfortable.”
“Certainly not. I know nothing about you.”
“Ditto, ditto, so far as you are concerned,” he retorted lightly.
“I am not going to answer any questions.”
“I haven’t asked any.”
“But you will. And I have a brother.”
“Oh. Does he ask questions?”
“No. But I have a—”
“Then I regret to say that I can’t see the connection between—”
This time she interrupted, and petulantly. “Men are so stupid.”
“Granted—and women are so clever. Come now, that is nicely said, isn’t it?”
The girl smiled again and frowned again. “What is the use of talking cleverly? You ought to help me.”
“Good idea. You have only to ask.”
“I want to go to Sarley Grange, two miles from here.”
“Sarley Court,” said man, the supremely stupid, remembering the letter.
“No; Sarley Grange. Don’t you understand?”
“Not-er-exactly,” confessed Lawson, sadly.
“How dense you are. I want to go to Sarley Grange, two miles away. I was walking there when I stumbled over your silly rope.”
Dick surveyed her charming evening frock, which the now open cloak revealed more fully. “Is that you usual costume for walking?”
“Of course not. I came away in a hurry and—and—”
“Yes, yes. That’s all right. I am not asking questions.”
“They won’t be answered if you do ask them!” she cried, crossly; then with delightful inconsistency proceeded to demand information. “What about yourself?”
Dick chuckled at this very feminine turning of the tables. “Well,” he asked, “what about myself?”
“Who are you?”
“A hawker of pots, kettles, pans, brushes.”
“Nonsense; you are a gentleman—”
“Fallen on evil days, if I may venture to complete your sentence.”
“Can’t you be serious?”
“Occasionally, when life is at its best.”
“And now?” she put the question in quite a sympathetic tone.
“It is at its worst. I have a caravan, a horse, another suit of clothes, and a trifle of money. Such is my dismal lot.” He shrugged his shoulders.
“Also good looks, youth, strength, hope, brains, and the wide world before you.”
“You assign to me the gifts of the good,” said Lawson, imperturbably, and wondering at her motherly tone of kindly rebuke.
“I think the gods are very good to you,” said the girl, seriously.
“They are—in sending you here.”
“That is not my opinion,” she replied, dryly. “I wish I were elsewhere.”
“Sarley Grange, for instance.”
“Precisely. But how am I to get there with my sprained ankle?”
“B’ Jove, madame—”
“I am not madam,” she interrupted with a snap.
“Sorry, mademoiselle. What I was about to say is that you have heaps of pluck.”
“Thank you!” She blushed and looked more attractive than ever. “I need it.”
“B’ Jove, you do, sitting there talking so delightfully when you are in pain.”
She blushed again and her eyes shone. Really this was a very charming young gentleman, who knew how to turn a compliment, and evidently, acknowledged the undoubted superiority of women. “But,”—she followed up her thoughts in sober speech, “I don’t think that compliments help me much in my present plight.”
“They are as oil to grease the wheels of Life’s chariot,” said Dick, sententiously. “But to take a more practical view—”
“Which is what I have been asking you to do for the last thirty minutes,” she interpolated with a grimace, for her ankle hurt considerably.
“I can drive you to Sarley Grange in my caravan,” went on Lawson, as if she had made no remark.
“Splendid!” The errant damsel clapped her hands. “And you will leave me at the lodge without requesting explanations?”
“On my honor!”
“Oh, you are—er—nice,” sighed his patient. “I don’t suppose we shall ever meet again. Mr.—Mr.—er—”
“Lawson. Richard Maxwell George Henry Lawson.”
“Quite a Royal string of names,” she commented, but did not offer information in return. “But as we won’t meet again, Mr. Lawson, I thank you.”
“Why won’t we—or, why can’t we—meet again?”
“Three reasons. Go on.”
“No!” She became angry, and looked as tempting as a peach. “You are asking me questions.”
“You asked me questions,” he countered.
“It’s a woman’s privilege. And my ankle is hurting me while you stand there making fun of my sufferings.”
“Oh, no, no.” Dick was shocked, and came towards her. “I shall catch my horse at once, but you must let me take you into my caravan.”
“The horse is only a stone’s throw away,” said the lady, sharply; “you can put me in the caravan when you put the horse between the shafts.”
“Right ho!” Seeing that there was no arguing with her, Dick walked towards the path where he had chanced upon her so unexpectedly. Then he uttered an exclamation of astonishment and dismay. The horse had vanished, only the rope and the halter remaining.
“What is the matter?” called out the girl.
“The horse has escaped—wandered—disappeared. Choose your word.”
“Oh,” there was a distinct note of anxiety in her voice, “it must have slipped its halter.”
“Looks like it.” Lawson untied the rope from the birch tree and advanced towards the fire. “What about a horse thief? Anyone with you?” he shot a keen glance at her which she resented promptly.
“Certainly not,” was her wrathful reply. “I don’t go about with people who steal horses. How silly you are! Go away and catch the horse.”
“Sound advice, mademoiselle. But it will take time to hunt through this fairy wood—near Athens, you know. And you—” he lifted her up, quilt and all, in his strong arms with a promptitude which aroused resentment but not alarm.
“Why? Why? Why?” she babbled, feeling that she could trust him wholly.
“There may be—er—tramps about,” explained Dick, hoping that Selwin would not stumble too suddenly on his romance.
“Oh, well,” she sighed, and allowed him to carry her into the caravan, wrapped in the quilt and grasping the pillow. “Do hurry,” she implored, when he laid her gently on the bed.
“I’ll put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes,” answered Lawson in a gay tone. “Take the torch and don’t be frightened.”
Lawson was puzzled by the escape of the ancient steed. In his remarkably logical mind he was tolerably assured that the halter had been deliberately removed so that the animal might stray. But for what reason, and by whom? Severely as he questioned himself, while groping here and there in this cimmerian wood, he could find no plausible answer to these suggestions. And all the time he wandered, further and further away from the glade, from the caravan, and its precious occupant. The gloom was not altogether cimmerian, he found, when his eyes grew accustomed to the dimness, for there was a faint, luminous light lingering amongst the trees, and he managed to scramble along without any marked mishap. The distant clock, struck three-quarters. “Nearly eleven,” muttered Dick, treading cautiously through leagues—as it seemed—of unknown geography. “Damn the horse!”
At that very moment he heard crackling sounds as the beast pushed its way through the close undergrowth and sprang in the direction of the movement. As he did so there came to his ear, faint but distinct, the unmistakable noise indicating the discharge of a revolver. Lawson half-unconsciously promptly wheeled round to fight his way back to the glade. All on fire for rescue of the girl from some unknown danger, he plunged onward blindly like a bull, and brought his head violently into contact with a tree trunk. For the next fifteen minutes or so he took no further interest in life as he knew it.
Recovering his senses with a dull aching in his head, he ploughed through the underwood more cautiously towards the glade—reached it somehow, some time, and noted vaguely that the fire had died down to a smouldering glow. Up the caravan steps he went, flung open the caravan door, and plunged in. There was no answer to his call, and he dropped on his knees to explore, his hand coming into touch with the torch immediately. Clicking on the light he saw a woman lying on the bed, as he expected; but the torch light revealed another face. Dick gasped. The girl had disappeared. In her place was an elderly woman—a complete stranger. And she was dead—shot straight through the heart.
HERE was a pretty kettle of fish, truly. Sitting well back on his heels and flashing the torch every now and then over the expressionless mask of death, Dick considered hesitatingly the strange events of the evening.
They offered unanswerable riddles. The girl who had come so unexpectedly into the glade, and vanished just as unexpectedly, leaving in her place a woman almost thrice her age. Worse still, and still more extraordinary, this woman was dead, and not for long, since the body was yet warm. She also was arrayed in a costly opera cloak. There was blood on her breast, and it required only a brief examination for Dick to determine that she had been shot through the heart. But for what reason, and by whom?
“Confound!” ejaculated Lawson, for the third time that evening, and wondered how he was to extricate himself from the morass into which the worst-tempered of the Three Fates had cast him.
That he was in danger of being arrested he knew very plainly.
Then the instinctive desire of man born of woman to make himself as safe as he well could, asserted itself strongly and stirred him to immediate action. Selwin might arrive with the tobacco at any moment, and it was necessary to shift the body before his official eye could behold it in its present resting place. Wisdom suggested a prompt removal of this damning evidence to some less suggestive locality. With his liberty and life in jeopardy the man’s brain worked with exceeding swiftness: and almost in the moment when the details of the scheme were conceived he found himself carrying the sinister burden down the caravan steps. And, as he bore it across the glade, past the dying fire, past the pond, he thought of the best hiding place. But immediately that thought was displaced by another. He would not hide the body, for if discovered hidden, as it would most certainly be sooner or later with Sarley village so near, the fact of concealment would tell against him. It would be best to lay down his burden somewhere in the wood, so that it might appear that the woman had fallen naturally under the fire of some unknown assailant.
But where? The reply came so rapidly that it was evident his good angel was bestirring on his behalf. The girl had come down the path by the birch tree, so it was possible, even probable, that the elder woman—say her mother—had followed on to guard, or watch. Lawson, mindful of the precious moments flying swiftly, lost no time in nutting his thought into action, and, carrying his uncanny load for some distance up the narrow winding path laid it down gently in a curve of the same. Luckily he had been careful to wrap the opera cloak securely round the body while conveying it to the path, so there was no blood on his grey clothes to incriminate him. Having thus arranged matters he felt assured that, so far as he and the caravan were concerned, no physical evidence was available to connect him with the crime in any way whatsoever.
Before leaving the sinister spot, Dick waved the torch over the still, white face. It was a remarkably handsome countenance, strong in outline, with an aqueline nose, and a determined chin. As the informing life had escaped from the shell, there was no positive expression to reveal character; but Lawson judged from the decisive contours of nose and lips and chin, from the width, and height of the forehead, that the dead woman had been an imperiously dominant human being. He noted that her shoes were thin and ill-adapted to wandering in these rough woodland ways; also that she wore much jewellery on neck and wrists and fingers. Even under the black lace veil, draping her plentiful white hair, twinkled a diamond star, so it was evident that she had been a woman of wealth and good standing. Finally the presence of the gems declared positively that robbery was not the motive for the execution of what seemed to be a purposeless crime.
Naturally enough, Lawson would have preferred to make a more thorough examination in the hope of finding some clue to her name; but there was no time to search exhaustively. He examined himself all over in the gleam of the torch, when he turned away, so as to make sure that all incriminating marks were absent. Also, he made certain that the ground was sufficiently hard and dry to avert the registration of betraying footmarks. The fates proved propitious, and all was safe, so he hastened back to the glade with a sigh of relief that the most gruesome part of his task was over. Stroking his chin meditatively by the fire, he considered his next move with much care and deliberation.
This was plainly to go forth and meet Selwin. He slipped on breeches and boots, and started towards the distant roadway along which he had driven, if would seem, centuries ago. On the way he made up an ingenious tale, likely to account for all discoveries, without bringing him too prominently into the matter. As he made his way out of the glade the church clock told him it was half-past 11.
“Too early,” murmured the schemer, guided through the wood by stray moonbeams, thin, cold, and silver clear. “I shall have to lengthen that time of insensibility when I banged against the tree-trunk. Otherwise Selwin will wonder why I did not give the alarm before.”
The village constable was late on his rounds, and Lawson struck the high road before he met him. The tramp, tramp, tramp of stout boots gave notice of the man’s approach, and at once Dick began to run with such blindfold speed that he cannoned off Selwin into the near hedge.
The policeman whipped out his torch at once, and uttered an exclamation of surprise when he saw the face of the panting fugitive.
Recovering himself, the young man staggered towards the officer, at his last gasp, it would seem. “Selwin!” he grasped an arm, and shot out his words brokenly, breathlessly—“ran—all—the—way. Shot—heard—shot—Long—ago. Shot—shot!”
“Poachers?” queried the constable, on the alert immediately, and steadying him.
The other wiped the perspiration off his face with the back of his hand, and sat down on the roadside, presumably to recover much-wanted breath, “Might be,” he nodded. “Anyhow—shot. I heard one. Would poachers—”
“Oh, they’re all over the place, sir. Give me no end of trouble. When?”
“A quarter to 11.” Dick rose, now quite himself, as he was tired of acting the part of a blown runaway. “I went to bed early”—he hated to tell lies, but it was necessary to do so in the interests of the girl, although, for all he knew, she might be inculpated in the crime—”and found the caravan too hot. So I shoved on my boots and breeches, and took the bedding to the fire. Went to sleep for a time, and woke to find that my horse had slipped his halter; his movement roused me, I guess. In the wood, while looking for him, I heard the shot—quarter to 11, for I heard the clock strike.”
“Where were you at the moment, sir?”
“In the heart of the wood, searching for that infernal horse. When I heard the shot I turned back to see what was doing. In the darkness I came against a tree and went west for the time being.”
“How long?” Selwin flashed his torch, and nodded when he saw the bruise on Lawson’s forehead, continuing the tale.
“There you have me.” Dick held his aching head with both hands. “I dunno. Anyhow, when I came to myself I scouted to find you.”
“Poachers!” chuckled Selwin. “Come along, sir. This is like old times in the wilds. Glad you are with me, sir,” he chuckled again.
Shortly two men were exploring the bush with keen glances everywhere for a possible poacher. Selwin glanced round the glade, and made mental notes in the growing light of the rising moon. He saw that the horse was missing, the caravan door was open, and noted the bedding by the fire. Everything was in keeping with the story, and he scratched his head in a puzzled way. “Seems all right, sir. Sure you ain’t been dreaming?”
“Rot? I was wide awake. Look round carefully.”
The officer obeyed, and nosed about like a hound on the trail, while Dick at his heels urged promptitude and caution. Wishing Selwin to be the finder of the body, Lawson gradually urged him toward the path, believing that he would naturally be on fire to explore it. And this happened, for the policeman shouted discovery while Dick was ostentatiously examining the opposite side of the glade. Lawson raced toward the sound. “Hullo! Where are you?”
“Up this blinking path, sir. Here—here—here!”
“This!” Lawson halted by the birch tree. “Shout again!”
Selwin did so, and Dick sped up the windings quickly, purposely diving to right and left among the brushwood, as if unaware of the geography of the place. He arrived breathless, to find the officer’s torch flashing over the dead face, and the officer himself excited beyond measure.
“Murder, sir. Look at the blood. And a woman.” He looked closer, bending down. “Why, it’s Lady Hamber!” He straightened himself in dismay.
“Lady Hamber,” he repeated solemnly. “Lady Hamber!” Dick echoed the name with equal dismay. He remembered the letter. “Lady Hamber!”—he spoke as solemnly as Selwin had done.
FORTUNATELY the imperfect moon light prevented Selwin from noticing the startled look of his companion which might have suggested leading questions. The mention of the dead woman’s name, so intimately connected with what he carried in his pocket, shook Dick considerably. With cautious cunning he feigned complete ignorance. “And who is Lady Hamber?”
“Widow of Sir John Hamber,” answered the policeman, glibly. “Sarley Court.”
“Sarley Court!” echoed Lawson, wondering if the unknown girl had come from that house; wondering also if she had anything to do with this mysterious death. “Lady Hamber of Sarley Court,” repeated Selwin, more to himself than to his companion. “What was she doing in this blinking wood so late.”
“If we could learn that we might find out who murdered her,” said Dick drily.
Selwin nodded. “Did you see her in the glade by any chance, sir?”
“No! So far as I know she never entered the glade. Do you think she was coming to the glade when she was shot down?”
The policeman criticised the attitude of the body and was perplexed by the disposition of the same. “Lying sideways, face up’ard,” he said, shaking his head with official gravity. “Seems to me as one can’t say nohow if she was coming or going.”
“Certainly not going,” remarked Dick, positively; “had she passed through the glade I should have seen her.”
“But you was sleeping in the caravan, sir,” objected the constable.
“Yes; but later on, in the open, by the fire, as you see. Besides, as I told you, I was hunting for my horse when Lady Hamber was shot down. At a quarter to eleven I heard the crack of a revolver when I was groping my way through trees and underwood over yonder. It is just as well to be precise, Selwin, or people will think that I have something to do with the matter.”
The policeman threw back his head and laughed scornfully. “No one ‘ud be such a fool as to think that, sir. Any tramps about the glade tonight, sir?”
“I didn’t see any. I saw no man of any kind.”
“And no woman, since you never set eyes on Lady Hamber,” chuckled Selwin.
Dick did not contradict him, since truth-telling was risky. “Lady Hamber,” he mused, looking down on the still, white, handsome face. “Had she enemies?”
“Well, she wasn’t what you’d call popular, sir. Haughty and stuck-up and thinking a power of herself. But murder—” Selwin shook his head again. “I don’t know as anyone would have gone so far as murder. Evening dress with jewels, I see; not a robbery, I take it, unless the cove as did it had no time to lift the swag.”
“He had ample time. I heard the shot at a quarter to eleven, and when I met you on the road it was after half-past eleven. I was insensible meanwhile from the knock on the head. But as you say, Selwin, evening dress, alone in a wild wood at so late an hour. What does it mean?”
“Them at Sarley Court may be able to tell us,” suggested the policeman, “Help me to carry the body, sir.”
Lawson obeyed, lifting the head while Selwin swung up the feet. “Where is the place—Sarley Court, I mean?”
“Something like a stone’s throw away, sir.”
“Up this path?” Dick remembered how the girl had come down this byway.
“Yes, sir. This here wood joins on to the park, and there’s a fence between with a gate of sorts. Lady Hamber must have come this way to get into the wood, though goodness knows why she was messing about here after dark.” And the perplexed officer shook his head with the air of a beaten man.
The two carried the dead woman slowly along the path, stopping every now and then. The way was so narrow, so twisted, so tangled with briar and brushwood, that it was some considerable time before they reached the gate. A bright half-moon revealed the fence, which turned out to be a low brick wall into which were mortised stout posts, supporting wire-netting.
Passing through a gate at the park boundary they struggled along a little used path, as crooked and tangled as that in the wood, and suddenly emerged into a vast space of smooth, green lawns, girdled by ancient oaks and elms, beech, birch, and chestnut trees. On a slight rising, approached by three terraces, rose the big house of mingled flint and stone and brick, with steeply sloping roofs and many windows glittering coldly in the moonlight.
The mansion fronting them was as dark as the wood, and as silent; no lights, no sound, no indication of life anywhere. “Gone to bed.” commented Selwin, ponderously. “Why wasn’t she there, too, and what was she doin’ in Sarley Wood?”
Dick naturally could not reply to these questions, and said nothing, but he uttered an exclamation of relief when they turned the corner of the house after climbing the three flights of terrace steps. Here four French windows were ablaze with vivid light, and one of them stood wide open, as though an inmate of the mansion had stepped out for a mouthful of fresh air. Undoubtedly, if circumstantial evidence went for anything, Lady Hamber had made use of this exit, but—”Why did she walk as far as that bloomin’ wood?” queried the constable, voicing Dick’s mental question. “Queer go, ain’t it, sir? We’d best carry her in and call up the servants.”
On a convenient couch of rose-colored brocade they laid down their uncomfortable burden, and Selwin went to shout for assistance while Lawson kept watch. When alone he glanced curiously round the room, a luxurious apartment with a richly painted ceiling. In his half-undressed state—without gaiters and coat, clothed mainly in pyjamas, with the addition of breeches and stout boots—Dick felt very much out of the picture. But the servants, who now began to push into the room, were not much better as regards clothing, being all more or less untidy and in hastily assumed costumes. Selwin drew them into line, quite in a military way, and began to question a very dignified butler, who remained dignified throughout in spite of his dishabille and natural alarm.
“Lady Hamber,” said the constable, pointing to the body on the couch, “dead—found in the wood by this gentleman and myself, shot through the heart. What do you know about it? Be careful, for anything you say will be used in evidence against you.”
“I—I don’t know—anything,” quavered the butler, while a wail of alarm rose from the female servants, horror-struck in the presence of death. “We all went to bed at 10, leaving her ladyship here with Mr. Randolph.”
“Who is Mr. Randolph?” Selwin made a note of the name.
“A friend of her ladyship’s, who came over here this evening from Mr. Pollard’s place to stay for a few days.”
“Where is he?”
“In bed, I suppose,” said the bewildered man, staring at the body of his late mistress as if the eyes would start out of his head.
“And Sir Gerald?”
“He’s in bed, too; went there at 9 o’clock. You know, Mr. Selwin, as he had an accident with his motor car and has been ill for a long time.”
“I know.” The policeman glanced round at the frightened faces. “Well, and have any of you anything to say?”
“No!” came in a chorus, and one after another endorsed the butler’s statement that they had all retired to bed at 10 o’clock, leaving her ladyship and Mr. Randolph in the drawing room. “But Miss Audrey is sitting with her brother,” volunteered the housekeeper, a stout old dame, wearing a nightcap and a bed robe of flaming red.
“I must see her; see everyone,” said Selwin, positively. “Now, Mr. Randolph—”
“My name!” A tall young man with a toothbrush moustache as black as his closely-trimmed hair lounged into the room. He was clothed from head to foot in a sage-green silk dressing gown, and smoked a cigarette. “Heard a row,” he explained in a drawling way. “Thought this might be useful; burglars. What?”
The officer took the revolver, which Randolph held and examined the chambers carefully. “Hasn’t been fired,” he muttered, laying it on the table.
“Why should it have been fired?” asked the young man, greatly amazed, and shot an enquiring glance at Lawson, whom he recognised as one of his own class, notwithstanding the shabby undress.
“Lady Hamber has been shot in the wood, sir,” stammered the butler, and moved aside to reveal the body on the couch.
“Good Lord!” Randolph dropped his easy tone, also his cigarette, and stepped forward swiftly, with a look of horrified amazement. “Who shot her?”
“That is what I am trying to find out, sir,” said Selwin, significantly. “Mrs Trotte”—he turned to the stout housekeeper—”go up and ask Sir Gerald and his sister to come down at once.”
“But I say, you know,” cried Randolph, as the woman left the room, “I was with Lady Hamber here up to 9 o’clock.”
“Ten, according to the servants,” interposed Dick, sharply.
“I went to bed at nine,” insisted Randolph, wheeling to face the speaker; “but I did come down just before ten to get a book I had left here. The butler was in the room when I came down.”
“You were, sir,” struck in the butler, “and I left you here with her ladyship.”
“Quite so; but I went upstairs again a minute or so after ten.”
“And Lady Hamber?” asked Selwin, pointedly.
“She said that she was going to the library to write some business letters; but I left her in this room.”
“Was that window open?”
“Yes; but she said nothing about going out,” said the young man, perplexed. “And after reading my book for a time I went to bed, and was awakened by the infernal row you have all been making.”
The man spoke convincingly, and Dick believed that he was truly explaining the events of the evening. Selwin nodded once more, and was about to ask another question, when Mrs. Trotte rolled into the room, much flustered.
“Miss Audrey begs that you will excuse her, Mr. Selwin, as she is sitting up with Sir Gerald, and don’t want him waked out of a lovely sleep, she holding his hand to keep them eyes of his shut.”
Lawson objected to the policeman accepting this excuse as he seemed inclined to do, being more than anxious to satisfy himself on a certain and very important point. His whispered suggestion altered the man’s mind.
“Take me to Sir Gerald’s room,” commanded Selwin, sharply. “Mr. Lawson, come with me.”
Mrs. Trotte objected vehemently, but was nevertheless compelled to become an unwilling guide. Leaving the excited, hysterical servants at one end of the room and Randolph staring at the dead body of his unfortunate hostess at the other, the two men followed the stout housekeeper. Protesting loudly all the way that they would rob Sir Gerald of a much-needed sleep, she panted up the wide staircase, along the spacious corridor, and knocked gently at a door near the far end. In answer to a soft invitation, Selwin, with the other man at his heels, stepped promptly into the room. They found themselves in the rosy twilight of shaded electric bulbs to behold a handsome lad sleeping on the bed close to an open window. Beside him, holding his hand, sat an agitated young lady, swathed in a crane-embroidered kimono of white silk. Lawson stared with all his eyes. Yet he was by no means surprised. She—as he expected—was the very girl who had appeared and disappeared so mysteriously in the wood of adventure.
Lawson instinctively knew that Miss Hamber not only recognised him immediately, but had guessed at his presence in the house from the moment Mrs. Trotte had taken up Selwin’s summons. Consequently, so far as he was concerned, she had her feelings completely under control, and after an indifferent glance in his direction addressed herself pointedly to the constable. With him, indeed, she was anything but indifferent, displaying considerable distress and alarm. But for the fear of waking her brother, she would undoubtedly have been even more vehement in showing her anxiety. As it was, she spoke in an eagerly enquiring whisper. “Is it true?” she asked, trying to control herself.
“Yes, miss,” Selwin spoke as softly as she did, knowing, from village gossip, that the baronet’s nerves were dangerously shattered by his motor car accident, and that possibly to waken him suddenly might wreck his reason. “She is dead. Her body is lying in the drawing room.”
“Lady Hamber! Dead!” Audrey shivered, and turned even paler than she was.
“Shot through the heart,” whispered Dick over Selwin’s shoulder, and with his eyes fixed intently on her anxious face.
“Murdered?” She put the question with a quick indrawing of her breath.
“So far we don’t know, miss,” struck in Selwin, staring alternately at the girl and the sleeping man. “Have you any idea who—”
“No!” she interrupted, quietly positive, her bosom rising and falling with overpowering emotion held in check determinedly. “I have been here for the greater part of the evening holding my brother’s hand. He will wake if I take it away.”
“Can’t you come downstairs, miss, and explain?”
“There is nothing to explain,” replied the girl, fiercely, but keeping her voice to undertones. “I can’t leave my brother; I won’t leave him. This is the first sound sleep he has had for nights and nights. If he wakes he may lose his sanity. You know, Selwin.”
“Yes, miss. That accident broke him up a lot, miss. Shan’t stay longer than I can help; but you understand, I must hunt while the trail is hot.”
“Yes! Yes! It’s terrible—horrible!” She wiped her pale lips with a cobweb handkerchief. “Anything I can say or do to help—”
“Of course, miss. Perhaps you can explain why Lady Hamber went into the wood?”
The surprise exhibited by the girl was so perfect that had not Dick been aware of recent events, he would have been deceived. “Was she in the wood?”
Selwin nodded respectfully. “We found her body on the path leading to the park.”
“On the path leading to the park,” repeated Audrey, and again her manifestation of surprise was a masterpiece of acting. “But how did it—I mean, how did she get there?”
“That is what I am trying to learn, miss,” said Selwin, drily. “If you—”
“But I know nothing,” she interrupted again, and again in a fierce whisper. “About half-past 9 I came up here to sit with my brother, who retired to bed at 8 o’clock.”
“Leaving Lady Hamber and Mr. Randolph, in the drawing room, miss?”
“Oh, no, I left her there, but Mr. Randolph had already gone to bed. He has been staying with my Uncle Oliver at Sarley Grange, and told me that he had been walking over the grounds during the day for miles. So he went to bed early, and, as my brother needed me, I left Lady Hamber in the drawing room. She said she was going to the library to write business letters.”
“And you have been in this room ever since half-past 9, miss?”
“Yes,” said Audrey, boldly, and stared directly at Dick, who stared back in an equally searching manner. The situation adjusted itself between them without words, and she drew a deep breath of relief. “Sitting beside my brother.”
“And you know nothing, miss?” Selwin looked disappointed.
“No!” she said, resolutely, but this time did not look at Lawson, aware by her previous glance that what he knew he would keep secret.
The constable stood irresolute, overcome by the situation. A more independent and zealous officer would have insisted upon her coming into the presence of the dead, so as to shake her into possible confession, presuming that she had any knowledge. But Selwin was a native of Sarley Village, and his hereditary respect for his local superiors prevented him from pushing things to extremes. Also the danger of the sickness complicated matters. With a remembrance of his former master’s resourceful mind in African wilds, he turned to him for counsel.
“What do you think, sir?”
“I think that Miss Hamber has said all she can say for the moment,” advised Dick, promptly. “Tomorrow morning, when released from her vigil, she can tell more—that is, if she knows more, which I doubt.”
Audrey shot him a grateful glance. “I don’t—don’t know—more,” she gasped, “and I—I can’t—bear any—any trouble at present. This horrible death is enough.”
Lawson, taking Selwin’s arm, guided him gently to the door, where Mrs. Trotte hovered anxiously.
“Don’t worry, Miss Hamber,” he added, looking back with his eyes on her feet, “all will come right in the end.”
Audrey drew her feet under her kimono, guessing from his significant glance exactly what he meant she should guess. The excuse of holding her brother’s hand did away with the risk of rising and revealing a sprained ankle. If Selwin saw that she limped he would probably have declined belief in her staying-at-home tale. Dick knew, and she knew that he knew, that several lies had been told during the last 15 minutes; but these were white lies to save someone—possibly the young man on the bed, who had slept throughout the conversation. On the way down the stairs, at the heels of the voluble housekeeper and Constable Selwin, Lawson considered the matter. If the sick brother with shattered nerves had retired to bed at 8 o’clock, he, naturally, could not have been hidden in the wood to fire the shot. There was someone else concerned in the matter, he felt sure, if only to carry back the girl to Sarley Court, since she could not have walked hither with a sprained ankle. Out of gratitude, she might be, and probably was, shielding this person, for in no other way could he account for her obstinate deception. Of course, in thus acting a difficult part, she was lying cleverly and cautiously. Dick disapproved of falsehood, but was forced to be lenient in his judgment, remembering how he had lied himself earlier in the evening. More, he admired the pluck of the girl in facing a desperate situation so resolutely. She was to him a heroine, as well as a beauty. It must be confessed that her attractive looks biassed the young man in his conclusions, for, if it was possible to fall in love at sight, he was fathoms deep in an ocean of nectarous sweetness. “But it is a devil of a mess,” ruminated Lawson, on returning to the drawing room. The ordinary duties of a country policeman had not educated Selwin into dealing with mysterious crimes, and he was baffled at the outset. The servants, Mr. Randolph, Miss Hamber, all had told their various stories, honestly enough, it would seem. These threw no light on the darkness, indicated no trail, pointed to no safe conclusion. In a quandary, Selwin appealed again to Lawson for advice. And as Dick was as much an inborn ruler as the policeman was an inborn servant, he promptly interpreted the appealing glance, giving Selwin the credit of being in authority. “As you suggested to me, constable,” he said, when all were looking to the officer for guidance, “it will be best to leave things as they are until the morning.”
“Of course, sir.” Selwin was grateful for sound advice, masked under an open recognition of his official position.
“You should arrest me, Selwin. It would show real zeal an your part,” said Dick when they passed out into the park.
“Show me up as a bally idiot, sir,” exclaimed Selwin. “Ain’t I known you for four or five years, inside out?”
Dick nodded, touched by the man’s loyalty. “Still, the body was found in the wood, and I was camping in the wood. I might have a revolver—”
“I take your word for it, sir, that you haven’t,” struck in Selwin, swiftly.
“All right between you and I, Selwin, but we must satisfy the coroner as to that. Just shift my goods in the caravan to make sure of my honesty.”
Openly grumbling at this cautious advice, but recognising its wisdom, Selwin pushed on, through the park and the wood, finally arriving at the glade. Here he went through the contents of the caravan methodically, turning over everything both inside and outside. Also he searched the glade and the path, but without any result in any direction. “Clever chap that chap as did it sir,” commented the baffled constable, with a shrug of despair, “ain’t left never a trace behind him. Now I’m going to the post office to knock up the gal with the wire and get a telegram sent off to my inspector at Tarhaven. And you, sir?”
“I shall stay here and get some kind of a sleep. Unless you want me, of course.”
“No! No! That’s all right, sir. See you at sunrise, sir.”
When Selwin went off with a hasty salute Dick filled his pipe, rekindled the fire, and boiled a kettle of water to brew himself some strong tea, which refreshment he very greatly required. Then, instead of seeking his bed, he sat by the fire, thinking deeply. The girl—her brother. Was she guilty; was he guilty? When the dawn came with golden lights and winging birds, dew on the grass and wind in the trees, he was as far off as ever from finding answers to these leading questions.
Sarley Village—the inhabitants insisted upon the majesty of the full name—was made up of many cottages, round about and climbing up a tolerably high hill, topped by the church with its wooden spire. The narrow streets ran crookedly anyhow and anywhere, leading into one another, leading into the surrounding country lanes confusedly. There were no sidewalks, and the cobblestone pavements sloped inward to central open drains, down which poured the spring and autumn rains in torrents. These last washed away all refuse, and kept the place in a sanitary condition, so this continual cleansing, together with the stimulating winds from the North Sea, made the locality singularly healthy. The cottages had whitewashed walls, thatched roofs, quaint, diamond-paned casements, and narrow, low doors. It was quite a primeval village, such as Arthur’s knights might have stumbled across, and the villagers prided themselves on its simplicity. That such a place should keep its prehistoric appearance when only four miles from the main railway to London was a source of pride to all who dwelt therein.
The Monk’s Inn—two cottages thrown into one—was the largest house in the hamlet, and here the inhabitants collected after the day’s work was done to discuss the small events to their small world. Mostly, the gossips were agricultural laborers, for Sarley Village was set in the midst of spacious cornlands, dotted with farms, more or less prosperous. From the churchyard could be seen the marshes, the broad silver line of the Thames, and the distant loom of the Kentish hills. But inland, from the cluster of cottages, stretched a rich land of alluvial soil, with wheat fields, blossoming hedges, and here and there limited woodlands, the remains of a once overspreading forest. Sarley Court, divided from the hamlet by Sarley Wood, lay to the left of the hill, and Sarley Grange to the right, two and a trifle more miles away.
The mysterious and startling crime committed in Sarley Wood amazed and shocked the villagers, especially as the victim was the chief lady of the countyside. But it cannot be said that they expressed any great sorrow, for she had never been popular, and, indeed, was frankly disliked for her tyranny. Still, the tragedy of her sudden death galvanised everyone into something resembling energy, and the Monk’s Inn was filled from morning to night with stolid Saxon folk debating the whys and wherefors of the matter. Some said this, others said that; but no one had any idea as to how Lady Hamber had come by her unexpected death. The whole place was in an uproar when Inspector Helder and his myrmidons came post-haste from Tarhaven in response to Selwin’s summons. With them, men, women, and children streamed eagerly towards Sarley Wood, which now took on a sinister aspect, likely to grow largely when winter tales were told by the fireside. Helder’s police drove away the morbid sightseers, formed a cordon, and prevented all exploration, with the result that the gossipers were reduced to chattering in street and cottage and public-house. The general view expressed was that Sir Gerald and Miss Audrey would be thankful that Lady Hamber had passed away, tragic though her going was.
That such an uncomplimentary opinion should be held was due to the dead woman herself. She had never attempted to conciliate local prejudices, and, indeed, had gone out of her way to accentuate them, with that true aristocratic intolerance which leads to revolutions. She had always been looked upon as a haughty despot, whose insolent manner was only equalled by her superlative bad temper. No person of either sex had a good word to say for her, and some even hinted that she thoroughly deserved her fate. It was suggested that some poacher, or discharged servant, or evicted tenant, had shot her out of revenge; but no one could indicate, with any precision, as to who had done the deed. The circumstances of the death—the reason for the death—the name of the assassin who had inflicted death—these were unfathomable mysteries. And mysteries they remained when the inquest took place in the largest room of the Monk’s Inn two days later.
Certainly, as more became known of the presence of the caravan in Sarley Wood, various suspicious persons wondered, openly, if its owner had committed the crime. But Selwin, loyal to his former master, soon nipped these rumors in the bud by pointing out that Mr. Lawson was a stranger in the land, that he had never set eyes on Lady Hamber, that he possessed no revolver, and finally, that he had been the first to give the alarm. This, said Selwin, he would scarcely have done, if guilty, without risking the feel of a rope round his neck. Also, the constable eulogised Lawson as the saviour of his life in Africa, talked of his hunting exploits, and spoke feelingly of his generous hand, his kind heart, his qualities of perfect comradeship with high and low. In this way the grateful man repaid his debt to Dick, and stopped much wicked gossip before it grew to dangerous proportions. So when he ventured into Sarley Village, Lawson found himself greeted with all due respect, and understood that public opinion exonerated him from all complicity. Even when he appeared before coroner and jury in the commercial room of the Inn, no one credited him with committing the crime, or of having knowledge of the perpetrator of the crime. Dick felt, and said later on, when the storm blew over, that he owed a deep debt of gratitude to Selwin for his championship.
But for that loyal friend he might have been placed in an awkward position.
Inspector Helder, Selwin, and Lawson did their best to obtain all possible evidence to place before the coroner. But their efforts resulted in nothing, or next to nothing, for when the inquest took place little more was known than had been known immediately the shot was fired. Lady Hamber, without the knowledge of anyone in the house, had gone into the wood, and there had been shot by some unknown person, who had vanished into thin air. Why she had gone, or who had murdered her, it was impossible to discover. Helder, clever enough in ordinary police duties, professed himself confounded when confronted by this abnormal event.
The number of witnesses called was naturally large, since all the Sarley Court servants had to be in attendance. The story of one and all was the same. Sir Gerald Hamber, a delicate-looking young man, declared that he had retired to bed at 8 o’clock, leaving his stepmother—for such Lady Hamber was to him and Audrey—his sister, and Randolph in the drawing-room. Randolph stated that being weary after wandering for hours over the Gollard estate, he had retired also, leaving Miss Hamber and the elder lady together. Just before 10 o’clock he had come down again to fetch a book, and found Lady Hamber, but not her stepdaughter, who had gone to sit with her brother. Audrey herself deposed to the departure of her brother and the visitor at the times stated, and that she herself went upstairs at half-past nine to soothe Sir Gerald to sleep. The servants, headed by the dignified butler and the stout housekeeper, swore that they had retired to bed at 10 o’clock, so it would seem that after that hour no one had seen the deceased. Backhouse was the last to see her, just before ten, and had also seen Mr. Randolph when he came down to fetch the book. Selwin stated that the drawing-room was lighted up, and that one of the French windows was open when he and Mr. Lawson brought the body to the big house. Lady Hamber, throwing a veil over her head, had evidently stepped out for a breath of fresh air after writing her business letters in the library.
“But why should the deceased have gone so far as the wood?” asked the coroner.
“I can’t say, sir,” replied the constable, stolidly.
Lawson’s evidence was listened to with breathless interest, and he was careful to repeat the story he had already told to Selwin. While doing this he saw that Miss Hamber was watching him steadily all the time, as if wondering why he withheld mention of her visit to his camp. But of this he said nothing. Yes, he had camped in Sarley Wood, and had heard the shot while looking for his horse. “At a quarter to eleven,” said the witness. “The church clock chimed that hour just before I heard the crack of the revolver. I ran at once towards the glade, but, hitting by head against a tree, became insensible.”
“For how long?”
“I can’t say,” confessed Lawson, frankly; “but it was after half-past 11 when I came across the constable.”
Selwin (recalled) stated that he agreed with the last witness as to the time, as it was shortly after midnight when he and Mr. Lawson carried the body into the Sarley Court drawing room. He described the finding of the body.
“From the position of the body, would you say the deceased was coming into the glade or going away from it?”
“I can’t tell that, sir. The body was lying sideways on the path.”
Lawson was again questioned as to whether he expected any visitor, and if he knew the dead woman. To both questions he replied in the negative. He saw no tramps about the glade. “I am a light sleeper,” said the witness, “and, being in the open, would have heard the slightest footfall.”
“Well, well,” said the coroner, when the scanty evidence was complete, “it does not seem to me that we have learnt much.”
“We have learnt nothing,” grumbled Inspector Helder, disconsolately. “An open verdict is all that can be given.”
And an open verdict was given, for the jury could only say that the crime had been committed by some person or persons unknown. There were some uncomplimentary remarks made regarding the absence of the revolver, with which the poor lady had been shot; but, on the fact of it, this was not the fault of the police, as the wood had been searched from end to end. Also there was a sense of dissatisfaction with the verdict. “For my own sake,” said Lawson to Inspector Helder, “I wish the mystery of the death had been solved.”
“So do I,” rejoined the officer, “but so far as you are concerned, sir, the law has nothing on you.”
“Thank you for your good opinion, inspector. All the same, I intend to look into the matter and get at the truth myself.”
“You’ll be clever if you do, sir,” said Helder cynically.
Naturally, as Lady Hamber was a great personage, the funeral was sumptuous and stately. People came from all over the country and from London, so that the little hill-top churchyard was crowded. Audrey and her brother were present, but avoided Lawson; indeed, took not the slightest notice of him. He was annoyed by this, particularly on the part of the girl, seeing how his silence had prevented trouble from coming to her. “When Lady Hamber’s body was laid to rest in the family vault, he tried to meet the couple face to face, while the throngs of mourners was breaking up. In this attempt he failed, and their attitude of dodging a meeting inclined him to believe that the girl had something to do with the murder, and that the brother knew that she had. Or the brother was guilty and the sister was shielding him. Dick returned to his camp firmly resolved to bring the pair to book next day. But—”
“You can’t see either Sir Gerald or Miss Audrey, sir,” said Backhouse, the dignified butler, when the young man presented himself next day at Sarley Court front door, with the idea of extorting a confession from one or the other.
“I must see them, and at once,” insisted Lawson, his face growing dark.
Backhouse shook his head gravely. “Sir Gerald and Miss Hamber left for the Continent last night, sir, immediately after the funeral.”
“Guilty,” thought Dick, immediately. “He, she, or both of them.”
As the day was exceedingly warm, with a pitiless sun blazing in a sky of tropical blue, Dick Lawson had sought shelter from intolerable glare and heat under the spreading beech-tree which shadowed his disreputable caravan. Being more or less of a professional hawker, he should have been travelling along the dusty roads toward the next village. But somehow he could not tear himself away from the neighborhood in which he had met with so extraordinary an adventure. He wished to conclude it, to get to the bottom of things, to bring the culprit to justice, and thought that some clue to the truth might be discovered in the vicinity. Four-and-twenty hours had elapsed since he had stood at the door of Sarley Court, and during that time Dick had been thinking hard, so far without any result. There was no beginning and no end to his thoughts; they ran in circles, the last constantly repeating the first.
Stretched at full length under the beech, Dick smoked meditatively, and thought out a theory—a story, a possibility, concerning the happenings on that fatal night. Young Hamber had retired to bed at 8 o’clock, leaving his sister, his step-mother, and the guest in the drawing room; At 9 Randolph had gone upstairs, while the two women remained. Audrey had declared that she went to her brothers’ bedroom 30 minutes later. This Dick did not believe. It was more probable that she had quarrelled with the elder woman, and had fled from the house hurriedly—as was indicated by her unsuitable attire for a night journey—to seek refuge with her uncle, Olive Bollard, at Sarley Grange, two miles distant. Randolph, coming down for the book, and Backhouse, the butler coming for final orders, had both seen Lady Hamber in the drawing room before 10 o’clock. Lawson, therefore, surmised that immediately they departed she had followed Audrey through the park into the wood. Probably it was Lady Hamber, overhearing the conversation about the sprained ankle, who had slipped the halter from the horse, so that Audrey might be prevented from travelling in the caravan to Sarley Grange. And then—here Dick’s imagination gave out. Audrey was in the caravan while he was trailing the horse. Lady Hamber probably lurking up the path. But how the girl had left the caravan with her useless ankle, and how Lady Hamber had replaced her on the bed, it was impossible to say. There certainly was—as Dick conjectured—a third person involved, who had shot the elder woman, transferred her body to the caravan, and carried Audrey to her home. But who was that person? Not Sir Gerald, who was a mere wreck, and incapable of active participation. Then who else? So far Lawson’s thoughts ran easily: now they came to full stop.
Audrey, who could have thrown light on the darkness, had fled to France with her brother, to whom she had doubtless confessed everything. The wonderful thing was that she trusted so wholly to Lawson to preserve an honorable silence, and had not even thought it worth while to demand a promise of secrecy in a personal interview. It was this neglect that justified her mainly in Dick’s eyes. Had she been really guilty she assuredly would have striven to extort some such promise. As it was, being innocent—so Lawson believed—she left him unfettered in any way. But he had seen the relief in her eyes, both in the bedroom and in the room where the inquest was held. Therefore she trusted him, and Dick, ridiculously in love with a girl about whom he knew next to nothing, swore inwardly that he would still continue to hold his peace. Nevertheless, he wished to meet her and ask questions. But it was difficult to bring about such a meeting. In the hope of evolving some plan to do so, he continued to think, and closed his eyes, the better to concentrate his jostling thoughts.
“Oh, you are here. Good! I am glad to find you. Hi, Lawson! Wake up!”
Dick opened his eyes, sat up and stared at the bulky figure of a stout old gentleman who was moving with a surprisingly light step across the glade. He put a name to him at once. “Mr. Bollard.” and rose, wondering why his visitor had come.
“Himself!” assented Bollard, straddling his huge legs, taking off his straw hat, and wiping his round ruddy face with a yellow and red bandana handkerchief, “and glad to find you so immediately young Lawson.”
“Why?” asked Dick, very directly.
The intruder produced a gold snuff box, tapped it lightly, and refreshed himself with a goodly pinch of the mixture. He was over 6 ft. in height, immensely stout, and his large, clean-shaven face was like a setting winter sun in its fullness and redness. With shrewd grey eyes, a hard mouth, and an eagle-beaked nose, Mr. Oliver Bollard looked quite a formidable person. But when his eyes twinkled and his mouth smiled—as they did while he looked at his slim young friend—he became less threatening in bulk and looks. In fact, he suggested a good-natured elephant, with a giant’s strength put to good uses. Dick knew him of old, and realised that he was much less of an ogre than he looked. And after the passing of his first surprise, the young fellow accepted the newcomer’s presence as natural. “I saw you at the funeral yesterday,” he remarked, to break the silence.
“Why did you not come and speak to me, then?”
“There was—there is—nothing to speak about,” retorted Dick, shrugging.
“I think there is, or I would not be here,” said the stockbroker—that was his occupation—in a roaring voice.
“Oh, really.” Dick pointed to the rug whence he had risen. “Won’t you sit down and explain? And, if you like, something, to eat.”
“Something to drink,” thundered Bollard, dropping lightly to the ground. He was wonderfully light and dexterous, considering his bulk.
“Bah! Yours is a Pussyfoot camp, is it? Well, well, the better for you, if not for your visitors. I believe in young people being temperate.”
“And old people?” asked Dick, with an amused look.
“Oh, they can do as they like. I am fond of my glass myself. But you—no, no!”
“You preach what you don’t practice, Mr. Bollard.”
“I am a signpost; go where I point. Ha ha!” he roared at his mild joke. “And now, young Lawson, I knew you as a brat in petticoats, and your father since he was a Sandhurst cadet. For that reason I gave you a letter to Lady Hamber to get employment. It has not been delivered, I presume.”
“Quite so. Lady Hamber was murdered before I could call at Sarley Court.”
“Who murdered her?”
Dick shrugged again. “Ask me another. If you are acquainted with the proceedings which took place at the Monks’ Inn you must know—”
“I know all that there is to be known,” said Bollard with a snort, “and that amounts to nothing. I saw Inspector Helder and your village constable.”
“Selwin, I suppose?”
“Exactly. He does not believe that you have anything to do with the matter.”
Lawson nodded. “We are old friends. And I venture to say that you do not suggest any complicity on my part in this crime.”
“Of course. Seeing that it was to your advantage to deliver that letter and get employment, Lady Hamber was more useful to you alive than dead.”
“There I agree with you.” Dick bent his head in grave assent.
“But, knowing that you had this letter, which, by the way, I notice you did not mention in your evidence, you should have searched me out yesterday when I was at the funeral. In place of that I have to come hunting after you.” The last words came in an indignant roar.
“I see no reason why I should see you or you see me, Mr. Bollard, The letter has nothing to do with the mystery of this crime.”
“Mystery. Ha! Exactly. Mystery! What do you know about it?”
“I told everything I knew.”
“No! No.” Mr. Bollard’s eyes lost their twinkle, and became as hard as those of a cat on a mouse hunt “You kept silent about something. Come, now.”
“What did I keep silent about?” asked Lawson, wondering at this probing.
“I wish you to inform me,” countered the other smartly.
“I have nothing to say.”
The eyes of Bollard bored into Dick, as if to search out his most intimate thoughts. “I love my niece,” he said finally, and with apparent irrelevance. “Yes, and I loved her mother, my sister, quite as much, if not more.”
“Well?” Dick looked an enquiry, for the conversation puzzled him.
“You don’t, don’t think that my—my niece, has anything to do with—”
“Oh, no,” interrupted the other man positively, and a trifle untruthfully.
“Ah!” Bollard took another pinch of snuff, and sighed with relief. Yet when he spoke again it was again with apparent irrelevance. “A man of your birth and brains cannot go touring the country side as a hawker. Come to London, young Lawson, and I shall get you a post in a West-End establishment as a riding master.”
“Why a riding master?” demanded Lawson, grateful for the offer, but still wondering at Mr. Bollard’s aggressive friendliness.
“You are fond of horses”—Bollard heaved himself up from the ground—”and you enjoy an open-air life. Come now; what do you say?”
“You accept?” roared the Good Samaritan ogre.
“Yes. I want to be in London—for reasons.”
Again Bollard’s eyes hardened; again he looked a searching enquiry. But he did not ask for any explanations. “Good. When will you be in town?”
“In five or six days.”
“Good. Call at my office. You know where it is. Then we can talk further.”
“Why do you do all this for me?” asked Dick as Bollard turned away.
“I knew your father; I know you,” called back the big man over his shoulder, and sped lightly out of the glade, like an escaping fairy—say a giant Puck.
Within two weeks of rearranging his future, Dick had established himself in shabby rooms in a shabby Bloomsbury boarding-house. These were not such as he would have chosen had he been possessed of any plausible banking account; for a lavish up-bringing had inculcated luxurious tastes. However, a lengthy experience of lean days in African wilds had accustomed this stepson of Nature—so he regarded himself—to discomfort, and he was content with bed, board, fire, and limited pocket-money. Of course, he hoped sooner or later, to revert to the civilised delights of his nonage, when his father was alive and cash plentiful; but he could not see, at the moment, how he could recover these fair-weather days. The prospect of earning money as a riding master did not allure him; but it was all that offered, and an improvement on the alternative of walking the streets. So Lawson, thankful for the grudging gifts of the gods, went to interview Mr. Oliver Bollard, 37 Wren street, E.C. From him he hoped to learn details regarding the situation.
Being a born pedestrian, Dick preferred to walk, rather than to ride in an overcrowded bus, and sauntered leisurely along Holborn on his way to the City. Ignoring the traffic and the passers-by he mused over his present position. After seven hours of wrangling with a closefisted gipsy, he had sold the jingling caravan and its contents, together with the ancient steed, at a tolerable profit. The price would keep his head above water for the time being, so he was satisfied on that score. But he was by no means satisfied with the termination—or rather the non-termination of his adventure in Sarley Wood.
Further searching, further questioning, further theorising, had been but the weaving of ropes of sand; and he left the glade as wise as when he had first camped therein. Nevertheless, still hoping for the happening of the unexpected, he had left his present address with Selwin with instructions to write him should any clue be discovered. Of Audrey and her brother he had heard nothing since their hurried departure to Paris; and, indeed, he scarcely expected to hear anything, seeing what social barriers divided them. At the same time he was watching his chance to break down those barriers, so that he might obtain an interview with the girl. She owed him an explanation since he had stood by her in the hour of need. That explanation he was determined to have, not only that a very natural curiosity might be gratified, but that his belief in her innocence might be justified. Of course, being head-over-heels in love, he made sure that she would be able to exonerate herself in some unforeseen way.
Although Mr. Bollard was a wealthy man and extremely well known on the Stock Exchange, his offices gave no evidence either of position or riches. The building was mean and small; the business rooms, when Dick gained them up a narrow flight of stairs, scarcely less so. But the clerks were smartly dressed and alert, while the outer office had an air of stealthy prosperity felt rather than seen.
Although up in the air, so to speak, Lawson had the feeling of being in the treasure vaults of Midas, gloomy, rough, chilly, but undeniably filled with gold. Dick was smiling to himself over this flight of fancy on his part, when he was ushered into the sanctum of the great man. Mr. Bollard, huge and imposing, even more so in his city clothes than he had been in his country kit, rose to welcome his visitor, and pounced immediately on that smile with the roar of a lion. “You appear to be pleased with yourself, young Lawson,” he said, shaking hands vigorously.
“I was thinking of the contrast between the glitter of gold and the gloom of your dingy office.”
“Come, now”—Bollard spoke good-humoredly but loudly, as was his custom—”don’t disparage my office, young Lawson. This is the magnet which attracts the gold.”
“Exactly.” Dick took a seat near the writing table, “That is why I remarked on the contrast. Why do you compel me to dot my ‘i’s’ and cross my ‘t’s’?”
“We don’t understand epigrams in the city. But we understand—none better—the value of time, so let us get to business at once. Here”—Bollard passed along an envelope—”that is a letter of introduction to Simon Tarr, who has a riding school in Belgravia. Go to that address today at 3 o’clock and see him. He wants a smart young riding master, as his pupils are mostly young ladies’ who approve of good looks. Put your goods in the shop window; be well groomed, well dressed, entertaining, and a good instructor. Then you may marry one of Tarr’s pupils—there are rich girls among them.”
“Don’t tempt me.” said Lawson, slipping the envelope into his pocket with a nod of thanks.
“I tempt you? No, no! Eve will do that—a dozen of Eves. Good heavens! What wouldn’t I give to be young and handsome as you are.”
“And poor?” queried Lawson with a shrug.
“Pooh! With your looks and chatter you can buy a rich wife.”
“Can I really? And suppose I don’t want to buy?”
“Oh!” Mr. Bollard shot a look at him. “You are in love.”
“Candid! Candid!” the stockbroker grunted. “Pretty girl?”
“They all are until they are married. Rich?”
“I believe so, I don’t know. What is more. I don’t care.”
“May I ask her name?”
“I am not at liberty to give heir name!” retorted Dick, wondering what this prosperous elephant would say if he mentioned Miss Audrey Hamber.
“Oh!” Bollard looked abashed for a moment but soon recovered himself, and apologised with a good-humored bellow. “You must excuse my being inquisitive, young Lawson, but your father was a very old friend of mine and I am anxious to do what I can for his son.”
“I am more than grateful Mr. Bollard. Your first effort was a failure, so I hope that this second one will prove a success.”
“Hope so. Hope so.” Bollard tumbled his papers about. “For your own sake it will be advisable to say nothing about this Sarley Wood crime. People don’t like to mix up with those who have been connected with such dark doings.”
Lawson raised his eyebrows. “I can assure you, sir, that there were no dark doings on my part.”
“Oh I didn’t mean that. But it is just as well for you to keep a silent tongue in that handsome head of yours young Lawson.”
“So far I have done so,” said Dick drily.
“Eh, what, what, what? Do you know anything?” Bollard looked anxious.
“I told all I knew at the inquest.”
“Oh!” Bollard grunted and looked disappointed. “Nothing more has come to light?”
“And never will.” Bollard threw himself back in his chair looking vast and almost threatening. “The Sarley Wood murder will have to be relegated to the list of undiscovered crimes.”
“It would appear so,” confessed Lawson, composedly. “But you knew Lady Hamber intimately, since she married your brother-in-law. What is your opinion?”
“I haven’t got one, save that one of her many enemies must have done her in.”
Dick nodded. “So the Sarley villagers suggest. She had enemies?”
“To put it in another way, young Lawson, she had no friends. Lady Hamber was a most detestable woman—Heaven forgive me for speaking ill of the dead.”
“Is that so? And her past?”
“Oh, she had no past of the kind understood. Chaste, well-born, accomplished, above reproach in every way. She was all that, and yet a more meddling, evil-minded, gossiping woman never lived. Her very virtues were vices.”
“How did she get on with her stepchildren?”
Bollard looked uneasy, but answered, honestly enough, in a subdued roar, “She bullied them and made their lives a misery. They disliked her, and she disliked them. Her death came in the nature of a relief.”
“So the villagers seem to think, Mr. Bollard.”
“Eh? What?” The big man’s face grew purple with wrath. “You don’t mean to say that any of these villagers suspect—”
“Oh, no,” Dick hastened to interrupt, “they don’t suspect; but they know that Sir Gerald and his sister are happier without their stepmother.”
Bollard nodded heavily. “They would not be human else. You are sure that there is no talk about either being inculpated in the matter?”
“Quite sure.” Lawson felt that the old man referred particularly to Audrey. “You see, I made every enquiry before I left Sarley Village. Also I have given Selwin my address, and should he learn anything he will write to me.”
“Why to you?”
Dick rose and shrugged his square shoulders. “I had so much to do with the matter that I wish to see it through.”
“See it through?” Bollard also rose, and his face looked anxious. “Why?”
“Can you ask? I don’t like incomplete adventures.”
“You mean to learn more?”
“I mean to learn everything.”
Bollard looked at Dick, and Dick at Bollard. “I shouldn’t, if I were you,” said the stockbroker, gloomily. “It will do you no good.”
“It will bring the assassin of Lady Hamber to the scaffold.”
“If you can do that”—Bollard brought his great hand down with tremendous force on Lawson’s shoulder. “I am with you. Let me know what you discover. Let us work together.”
“But I thought you did not want me to—”
“I did not! I don’t,” interrupted the older man, sharply; “but since you are bent upon completing your adventure, as you call it, I have some desire to take a belated part in it. Also I must confess that for the sake of my—my”—he gulped—”that is, of my niece, I want the matter cleared up.”
“Oh, Miss Hamber has nothing to do with it!” said Dick, quickly.
“Of course not!” Bollard, was quite fierce. “Nevertheless, people may say much they ought not to say. Now good-bye, good-bye. I’m busy.”
Thus abruptly dismissed, Lawson left the office, and walked back to his Bloomsbury lodgings. He was more certain than ever that Bollard knew from Audrey herself of the visit to the glade and the sprained ankle, and was terrified lest anything should come out to inculpate her. The odd thing was that he was not more open about the matter, seeing he must know that Dick knew. But all meditation on this puzzle was ended when Lawson returned to his sitting room to pick up a bulky letter. He opened it to find a paper on which was typewritten, “With thanks for your silence;” also a bundle of 50 ten-pound notes. “By Jove!” ejaculated Dick, “Lady Hamber’s murderer!”
This unexpected five hundred pounds had apparently fallen from the skies, and Dick stared at the bundle of notes—at the single line of typewriting—with a surprise too great to be expressed in mere words. This was a bolt from the blue with a vengeance, but how it had struck the intended person—himself—the young man could not imagine. With his mind full of the late interview with Mr. Bollard, he had failed to examine the envelope, but now did so, in order, if possible, to trace the sender of the money. How was it that this anonymous correspondent had learnt his new address? This part of the mystery proved easier to solve than he expected, for the notes had been addressed to Richard Lawson care of Constable Selwin, Sarley Village, with the instruction “Please forward.”
There was nothing unreasonable about this. The criminal knew that Lawson and Selwin were deeply involved in the tragedy, and it was natural to suppose that they had kept in touch with one another. The packet had been posted from London to Sarley Village, thence back again to London. As there was no handwriting, no name, no registration, it would be difficult to trace the sender. Lawson flicked through the notes. They were all brand new, and genuine enough, as he saw. Dick rose to walk up and down his small room, very much puzzled, as he did not know what to make of the matter.
It was at this moment that the name of Mrs. Josephine Tremby flashed into Lawson’s perturbed mind. She was an old friend of his with whom he had been intimate up to the age of 21, when she was 19. Then he had gone to seek his fortune in Africa, and although they had corresponded in a perfunctory manner they had not come together for the last ten years. But Mrs. Tremby had informed Dick of her marriage; later on the death of her husband, leaving her penniless. Her last letter—dated a year ago—had explained that she now earned bread and butter as a detective.
Lawson looked for the letter, hoping fervently that he had not destroyed it. Fortunately he came across it among the bundles of papers in his trunk. “Mrs. Josephine Tremby, 24 Parson’s street, Soho,” read Lawson and ruminated. “I wonder if she is still there. Anyhow, it’s worth looking her up at that address on the chance. If anyone can help me it will be Jossy.”
No sooner had he made up his mind than he acted at once, and sent off a wire asking if he could see her that evening. While waiting for a reply he filled in the time by calling on Mr. Simon Tarr at his riding establishing in Belgravia, and speedily arranged details for his engagement. Mr. Tarr was all that was amiable, and seemed to be visibly impressed by Dick’s superior manner. They parted on the understanding that Lawson was to take up his duties within three days and as the salary was satisfactory everything seemed all right.
Mr. Tarr was an easy-going personage, and so long as his new employee conducted riding parties early in the morning and late in the afternoon stated that Dick could do as he pleased. Lawson returned to his shabby lodgings, much relived by this unexpected settlement of ways and means to live. And to add to his gratitude to the gods—he no longer called them grudging—he found an answer to his wire. Mrs. Tremby was still at her year old address, and would expect him at 8 o’clock that evening.
Dick made himself smart for the visit, as he wished to do his best to impress his decidedly critical friend. Dress clothes were out of the question, as he had not affected such luxuries for years, but he put on a lately purchased suit of blue serge which his old Bond street tailor had supplied on credit. Dick was an aristocratic-looking man, who knew how to wear clothes, and was quite satisfied with his appearance when he knocked at Mrs. Temby’s office door. To reach it he had to climb a narrow flight of dingy stairs in a dingy house, in a dingy neighborhood. Wondering why so fastidious a woman, as she always was, should elect to carry on business amidst such grim and shady surroundings, Lawson entered in response to an invitation. Passing through a chilly, uninviting outer office, he stepped into a well-furnished room, the appearance of which was positively luxurious in the rose-hued shading of many electric lights.
Mrs. Tremby rose from her desk to advance towards him with outstretched hands. “My dear old Dick, I am glad to see you.”
“Ditto! Ditto! Jossy, old girl.” Dick did not refuse the cheek she proffered, and kissed her warmly. “It’s ages since we met.”
“Ten years,” calculated Mrs. Tremby, indicating a chair with a nod. “And whose fault is that, my dear?”
“The fault of Fate,” retorted the visitor, coolly seating himself. “One of the three sisters sent me abroad to make my fortune and kept you at home to make yours, Jossy. And—” He looked round significantly.
Mrs. Tremby shrugged. “Oh, my dear boy, all this is camouflage. I manage to keep my head above water, and that is all.”
“But why in this shady locality?”
“Ah, hum! I have much to do with foreign scamps in my professional capacity, and like to be on the spot.”
“You are not in Scotland Yard—in the C.I.D.?”
“No such luck. But occasionally I have been engaged by the authorities in connection with cases. I rather like the detective business, you know, Dicky; it’s sensational and interesting, particularly when it has to do with Continental sharpers. But I can’t say that I have made my fortune.”
“You look all right,” Dick surveyed her critically.
Mrs. Tremby really looked more than all right, for her evening dress was costly, attractive, and admirably chosen. She was a tall, rather massive woman, with a well-moulded face, strikingly handsome. Her mouth was firm, her large dark eyes somewhat imperious, and on the whole suggested a masculine strain of determination and thoroughness. She smiled in a motherly way at her visitor’s compliment, for she was fond of Dick after a sisterly fashion.
“Camouflage again,” she said, with a broad smile, showing brilliantly white teeth. “All my goods are in the shop window, and I have to make a show to keep my end up.”
“Whatever made you take up the detective business, Jossy?”
“Needs must when a certain gentleman drives,” replied Mrs. Tremby, lighting a cigarette and passing along her case to Dick. “Billy chucked away all our coin in silly speculations, and then died of a broken heart, poor chap! I had the choice of going on the stage, of being a companion, of entering a stuffy city office, and several other chances. Nothing doing, Dicky.” She leaned back and crossed her legs in quite a gentlemanly way. “All too dull and much too uncertain. Then I met a Secret Service man, who suggested the detective business, and gave me several tips. I jumped at the opportunity and have done fairly well for the last few years. But—” Mrs. Tremby sighed—”nothing likely to make me famous has come my way. I want to make a splash, and get my name in the mouth of the public. But all this is egotism,” she finished. “Tell me about yourself, your adventures, your success.”
Dick blew rings of smoke, and laughed. “My failure, you should say. You know the pater died.”
Mrs. Tremby nodded sadly. “Speculated like Billy did; broke his heart also.”
“Yes. Well, he left me without a cent, and I made no money in Africa. So home I came, and with a caravan left me by a gipsy whose life I saved—that is, I saved his mother from being drowned, to be precise—I have been travelling the country in a caravan.”
“In a caravan,” Mrs. Tremby sat up and threw away her half-smoked cigarette, somewhat excited. “Now I remember. Deuce take me, how could I have forgotten! You are the Richard Lawson of the Caravan Crime.”
“Oh the London papers call it that, do they?”
“Yes. Dicky, you don’t mean to say that you have come here to ask me to take a hand in clearing up the business?”
“Yes, I do. Now is your chance to make a splash.”
“I should think so.” The lady was tremendously excited, and shuffled the papers on the table before her into some sort of order. “My dear boy, tell me all about the business.”
“But you have read everything in the newspapers,” protested Dick, feeling as if she had taken him by the throat with her strenuous interest.
“I read what the newspapers chose to say,” replied Mrs. Tremby. “It is very interesting to note how much they don’t say.”
“What do you mean?”
“Come, now, Dicky, there’s a heap left unsaid. I want you to say it.”
“But I gave my evidence at the inquest.”
“Quite so,” answered Mrs. Tremby sarcastically, “and very guarded evidence it was, my dear boy. You were alone in that wood, and I’ll bet you saw much more than you let out to the coroner and jury.”
Dick was startled by her feminine intuition. “But I say—” He hesitated.
“Come now,” observed the lady abruptly. “I’ll give you a lead. I know Audrey Hamber. Yes. We were at school together. I am eight-and-twenty; she is twenty-five, two years older than that delicate brother of hers.”
“And you—you like her?” Dick bent forward eagerly.
“Hullo!” Jossy bent forward also and grinned, if a knowing smile from a beautiful woman can merit such a word being used. “You are in—”
“Yes, I am,” finished Dick, promptly. “Head over ears!”
“H’m! And you only saw her at the inquest,” mused Mrs. Tremby, artfully.
“Well, I—that is—you see—”
“No, I don’t see; but I guess a lot. Seeing Audrey at the inquest would not make you fall in love with her. You have met her; you have spoken to her. Oh, I know what a fascinating little wretch Audrey is.”
“She isn’t a wretch; she’s a darling.”
Mrs. Tremby lifted her handsome eyebrows. “As bad as that. Well, tell me what she said to you in the wood, and how she came to be there.”
“I never said she was in the wood. That’s guesswork on your part.”
“Pure guesswork,” assented Mrs. Tremby, agreeably; “but you may as well tell me what she said.”
Dick still hesitated. Her uncanny hitting of the bull’s-eye amazed him beyond description. And once she got into her head what she had got, he knew enough of the tenacity of the feminine nature to be sure that she would follow up her guess—if guess it was—by making certain that she was right.
“You have seen Audrey,” declared Dick, nervously.
“She is in Paris. The ‘Morning Post’ said that she went there with her brother immediately after the funeral.”
“And without seeing me,” muttered Lawson, more to himself than to the other.
“Why should she see you, unless you were friends?—and that you could not be if you only saw her at the inquest. It won’t do, Dicky, old son. If you want your mother to pull you through you must own up.”
“Hang it, Jossy,” fumed the young man, “you talk as though I had shot that poor woman. I didn’t. I was in another part of the—”
“Yes, yes, yes!” She waved her hand to silence him. “I read all that in the newspapers. You silly fellow, I know you are as innocent as Audrey, or her delightful brother. All the same, you do know of something which implicates her and Gerald. Go on! I am her friend, remember.”
“Jossy!”—he stared at her admiringly—”you are as clever as the devil.”
“Scarcely so successful,” sighed Mrs. Tremby, selecting a fresh cigarette.
* * * * * * *
“I—I—” He hesitated. “I do know much which I kept dark at the inquest.”
“I win,” said the lady, in quite an American way. “H’m. You feared to inculpate Audrey.”
“Yes, confound you!”
“Pooh! You and your ‘confounding.’“ Jossy was quite good humored. “Well?”
“I speak in confidence, I suppose?”
“Honest Injun. I am not going to publish your information, whatever it may be worth, and give the tip to the scamp we are after. Can’t you see, Dicky, that if I run this show properly I shall make a record as a detective? Well-born people—rich people—murder—mystery—a pretty girl—all the elements of a detective story are there.”
“I hope you will be able to end the story with my marriage to Audrey.”
“Well, there’s no knowing,” replied Mrs. Tremby, tolerantly. “I am a born matchmaker, and it is time you were married. Now then?”
Dick took the plunge. After all, he knew he could trust Jossy.
For the next fourteen days Lawson was engaged in instructing young ladies how to ride. He had explained everything to Mrs. Tremby, from the time he arrived at Sarley Village up to the receipt of the bundle of notes and the anonymous line of gratitude. Naturally, when he did so, he expected to hear Josey’s comments on his extraordinary story. But she declines to express any opinion, save that there were wheels within wheels, and she could not see at the moment how these worked. Bidding Dick to keep silent and possess his soul in patience, she sent him away from the dingy house in Soho with the assurance that she would deal with the matter in her own way. “And my way, my innocent child,” ended Mrs. Tremby, “doesn’t admit of your queering my pitch by shoving your oar in.”
So while Jossy did magic in her own dark ways, hunting a trail invisible to Dick, that young gentleman devoted himself to earning honest money as Mr. Tarr’s riding master. He proved to be a great success, his looks and charm of manner fluttering the hearts of the pupils so greatly that their number increased. Also, from African experiences, Dick knew his business, and was able to convey to the most dense the idea of managing a horse and using the animal to the best advantage. Mr. Tarr, seeing that this skill and popularity added largely to the number of his clients, even at this early stage, blessed his stars and Mr. Bollard for having sent him so capable an assistant. Lawson found the life pleasant, easy, and profitable, but all the time thought of Audrey and the mystery of Sarley Wood. But for that fly in the ointment he would have been completely happy.
It was at the end of the fourteen days that he again came into contact with Arthur Randolph. Since the inquest he had not set eyes on that languid young gentleman, and cared very little if he never saw him again. But early one morning Randolph, riding in the park, saw Dick with his bevy of girls—a company of charming Amazons on horseback. Randolph followed, and when Lawson led his charges back to Mr. Tarr’s mews, and the throng dispersed, found means to renew his acquaintance with the young riding master. Dick emerged from the mews to come face to face with Randolph in a irreproachable riding kit and mounted on a remarkably fine blood horse. “How do you do, Lawson?” said Randolph, bringing his animal up to the kerbstone.
“Oh!” Dick lifted his eye carelessly. “How are you?” and, wondering why the man should greet him, he said no more, wishing to gain information.
“We have not met since that time in Lady Hamber’s drawing room.”
“Since the inquest on Lady Hamber’s body,” corrected Lawson, coolly.
“Oh, we didn’t meet then?” smiled Randolph. “We were only in the same room.”
“What matter?” said Dick, with a shrug, and still watchful.
“Oh, no matter at all,” replied the man on the horse, carelessly. “Only it is odd we should meet again so soon.”
“I don’t think so, seeing that you followed me here,” observed Dick coldly, for Randolph was a kind of man about town he did not admire.
“I did so to ask if you had found out anything about Lady Hamber’s death.”
“Why should I find out anything? I gave my evidence at the inquest, as you did, and there the matter ended.”
“For me, Mr. Lawson, not for you.”
“Meaning?” Dick looked an enquiry.
“I saw your friend Mrs. Tremby,” said Randolph meaningly. “She called on me to hear what I had to say, and I gathered—indirectly, of course—that you had engaged her to deal with the matter.”
“I have. It is necessary that Lady Hamber’s assassin should be captured and punished.”
“You won’t find that easy,” said Randolph, and his smile disappeared.
“I don’t expect to find it easy; nor does Mrs. Tremby, who understands things of this kind. All the same, I mean to get at the truth.”
“You never will,” the other assured him, and spoke emphatically.
“Why do you say that so positively?” Dick put this leading question bluntly.
“My dear fellow, look at the difficulties. Lady Hamber goes into a wood at a late hour; no one knows why. She is shot in that wood; no one knows who by. The revolver with which she was shot cannot be found. The man who used it has disappeared, and—”
“How do you know that the shot was fired by a man?” interrupted the other.
Randolph’s eyes glittered eagerly. “Have you any reason to believe that a woman used the revolver?”
“Not at present. But—” Lawson purposely left his sentence unfinished so as to learn if Randolph dreaded hearing Audrey’s name. Certainly he could not have known that Audrey had visited the wood; but the eager look in his eyes seemed to hint that he guessed she might have done so.
“But what?” enquired Randolph, and now indolently, more on his guard.
Dick shrugged his shoulders again. “Nothing! I don’t know if it was a man or a woman who shot Lady Hamber. I know nothing.”
“Yet you were in the wood all the time;” the remark was made significantly.
“I satisfied the coroner and jury with regard to my innocence, Mr. Randolph.”
“Oh, my dear chap”—the tone of the other was quite cordial as he gathered up his reins. “I didn’t mean for one moment that you had anything to do with the matter. I only wondered if, being in the wood, you might not have some kind of—er—suspicion, let us say.”
“I have not,” declared Lawson bluntly.
“Oh, well; it’s a pity. If I can do anything to help—for Lady Hamber was a dear friend of mine—let me know what I can do,” and with a nod Randolph touched up his horse and rode away, more languid than ever.
“H’m!” commented Dick, looking after, him. “What does this mean?”
All the way to Bloomsbury he asked himself this question, for it seemed queer and even suspicious that Randolph should thrust himself into the matter at this—so to speak—eleventh hour. Did he know anything? Was he uneasy about anything? These were puzzling and very pertinent questions, so much so that Dick found no answer to them when he arrived at his lodgings. Also all idea of trying to do so vanished when he found Mrs. Tremby waiting.
“You are late,” she said, greeting him gaily in the shabby sitting room. “Why, I have been here quite half an hour, and time means money in my business, my very unpunctual old dear.”
“I was detained by—” Lawson stopped, not wishing to mention Randolph’s name, lest it should lead to discussion and postpone the explanation of his visitor’s errand. “Never mind. Why have you come, Jossy?”
“I have found out who sent you that money,” announced Mrs. Tremby triumphantly.
“No! B’ Jove, you’re a marvel, Jossy! And who—”
“Wait a bit. I want to explain how I traced the notes.”
Dick passed her a cigarette and took one himself. When they lighted up he looked enquiringly at Jossy, who was quite willing to afford him details.
“I took the notes to the bank,” she said, leaning her elbows on the table and speaking with much deliberation. “Threadneedle street, you know. I believed that they would keep the numbers and might know who had cashed the cheque for the five hundred. In one way and another—no need to go into details, Dicky, as I see you are on tenterhooks—I learnt that those fifty-pound notes—the whole ten of them—were paid across the counter to—” She stopped with an exasperating smile.
“Go on! Go on!” commanded Lawson impatiently. “Why stop?”
“I want you to guess.”
“Silly cuckoo you are, Jossy!” snapped Dick, still impatient. “Not Audrey?”
“Of course not. The queen can do no wrong.”
“Gerald Hamber—her brother?”
“Not much. He is in Paris.”
Dick, remembering his late meeting, started. “Randolph?” he asked quickly.
“No, my son. Mr. Oliver Bollard.”
Half an hour later Lawson was on his way to the city to a taxi. The name revealed by Mrs. Tremby as that of the man who had sent the money startled him not a little, as it was the very last one he expected to hear. Jossy had her views about the matter, and Dick had his; yet, strange to say, the two did not exchange views. The lady gave her reason for such reticence on her part in her own bluff, masculine way. “Before I tell you my opinion, Dicky; go and see Mr. Bollard, and ask questions.”
“He may refuse to answer them.”
“Hardly, seeing what a dubious position he stands in by this secretive action, my dear boy. What do you think?”
“I shall follow your example, Jossy, and let you know that after I have seen Bollard.” He paused and nodded reflectively. “But he sent these notes for a very good reason.”
“He sent them as a bribe,” declared Mrs. Tremby, preparing to go, “and if the reason is a good one there was no need for secrecy.”
“I am not so sure of that,” retorted Lawson, dryly. “Anyhow, there you are, and there I am. I can’t say more at present.”
“You certainly can’t say less. Good bye, you close old oyster.” At the door she halted and laughed. “I have another string to my bow.”
Dick stared and became incautious. “Randolph?”
“Ah, hum!” said Mrs. Tremby, and, with a most unladylike wink, disappeared.
Thinking how exasperating she was with her saying just enough to make him wish to hear more, Lawson rapidly changed his clothes. Having got rid of his professional riding kit, he put on his serge suit and went out to hail the first taxi he saw. While the vehicle dodged the crowded traffic and buzzed towards Ludgate, Dick reflected over Jossy’s discovery.
In spite of the doubt he had expressed to Mrs. Tremby, he felt tolerably confident that Bollard would own up. Also he was certain that the reason Bollard would give was one which had suggested itself to him the moment he had heard the name. However, it was useless to consider what the stockbroker would or would not say, when all would be explained within the next quarter of an hour. So Lawson thought more of his meeting with Randolph than of the coming interview, and wondered why the man had so pointedly sought him out. Only when he alighted before Bollard’s dingy office did he remember his errand. The bulky parcel of notes in his breast pocket, which Jossy had restored to him, brought the immediate business of the moment into his mind.
“You again, young Lawson!” roared the stockbroker, who had ordered his visitor to be shown in immediately to the inner office. “What now?”
“I have come to tell you that I am getting on all right with Tarr, and that the situation is tophole,” said Dick, avoiding an immediate explanation.
Bollard shrugged his massive shoulders. “You seem to be in a great hurry about it. Quite unnecessary, I assure you, young Lawson. Tarr came a few days ago to thank me for having picked up a parcel for him. Have a cigar!”
“I prefer a cigarette. Thanks!” Dick selected one from the box pushed towards him and struck a match. “And—”
“Yes; I thought there was an ‘and,’“ said Mr. Bollard, coolly. “It is usually a ‘but.’ Well, what have you really and truly come to see me about?”
“I wish to restore these.” Lawson fished out the parcel of notes and placed them, uncovered, on the writing table.
“Money!” Bollard raised his thick eyebrows, but otherwise was wholly unconcerned. “Yes?”
“You meant well in sending them, but I don’t require such a bribe.”
“Bribe?” Bollard’s face grew dark, and his manner became stiff. “What do you mean, Mr. Lawson?”
“Oh, I think you can guess!” Dick’s tone was dry, but not unfriendly. “But I see no reason why the five hundred pounds should have been sent anonymously.”
Bollard fenced. “You might make yourself clearer.”
“I prefer the explanation to come from you,” said Lawson politely.
“I have none to give,” was the stiff reply.
“Oh, I think you have. A bit of an insult to me—what?”
“I can’t see the insult.”
“Ah!” Dick seized on the half admission. “Then you do know something about the matter?”
Bollard fenced again. “Why do you think that I sent you five hundred pounds?”
“I don’t think. I know.” And Dick related Jossy’s visit to the Bank of England and the tracing of the notes by their numbers.
“Very clever of your lady friend,” said the stockbroker, unmoved. “She ought to succeed in her profession. Well?”
“I am waiting to hear what you have to say.”
“You told me so before.” Bollard threw himself back in his chair and put his thumbs in the armholes of his white waistcoat. “Let us make the position as plain as as possible. You say—on the evidence of Mrs. Tremby—that I sent you these notes. Why should I?”
“That is where the insult I spoke of comes in. I require no bribe to keep silent, Mr. Bollard.”
“Silent about what?” enquired the other, doggedly obstinate in keeping his cards hidden.
“About Audrey Hamber’s visit to the glade on the night when her stepmother was murdered. Come now, Mr. Bollard, I guessed long ago from your attitude towards me that you knew—that she told you.”
“I got you the situation with Tarr out of respect to the memory of your late father, who was my dear friend.” observed Bollard irrelevantly, or apparently so.
“So you say!” Dick wondered why the man fenced so persistently.
“Yes. And I say that I tried to get you a situation with Lady Hamber, as her bailiff, before she was murdered.”
“So you did. I take back my hint of bribery, although it was needless for you to send me this money.”
Bollard abandoned his defiant attitude and leaned forward, looking somewhat old and worn. “I wanted to help you, young Lawson.”
“You have done so, and I thank you.”
“I don’t want thanks. What you have done for Audrey is worth much more than the situation with Tarr and that money.” He glanced at the banknotes.
“Oh!” Dick heaved a sigh of relief that they had come to grips at last, “so you do know of that visit to the glade?”
“Yes. You were clever to guess that I possessed such knowledge.”
“Oh, it was natural that I should guess. I knew that Miss Hamber would turn to you for assistance in her new trouble.”
“Her new trouble?” Bollard looked up anxiously.
“Yes. On the night she came to the glade she was going to you at Sarley Grange for your help. What her trouble was then I don’t know. But the death of her stepmother in the wood is the new trouble.”
Bollard nodded. “Both troubles are one,” he said heavily.
“Then you know why Lady Hamber was murdered?” Dick looked aghast.
“No; I don’t,” said the stockbroker doggedly.
“Then how can the two troubles be one?”
“In this way. Audrey quarrelled with her stepmother, who was a most impossible and tyrannical woman, and so left Sarley Court on the spur of the moment to come to me. Lady Hamber, afraid of what would come of my supporting my niece against her, followed to stop her. So out of the old trouble rose the new one. You see?”
“I see!” Dick nodded. “What was the quarrel about?”
Bollard hesitated. “Well, you know so much that I may as well tell you more, especially as you have befriended my niece. Lady Hamber was anxious that the girl should marry Arthur Randolph.”
“Oh!” Dick winced. He hated the idea of Audrey becoming the wife of such a wastrel as he was tolerably sure the man would turn out to be.
The stockbroker guessed his thoughts.
“You needn’t be afraid, young Lawson,” he said quietly. “Audrey dislikes the man, and it was because she refused to marry him that the quarrel took place. It reached such proportions that my niece—always impetuous—determined to rush over to me immediately, and ask for my interference. So now you know why she was wandering about in so unsuitable a dress for a country walk.”
“Lady Hamber did follow her, then?”
“She must have done so, seeing that her body was found in your caravan by you; but,” added Bollard, enquiringly, “how did Selwin find it lying on the path?”
“I placed it there, so as to avert suspicion from myself,” explained the other, bluntly. “You can guess that I was in a quandary.”
“Yes. Very wise of you to act as you did,” said Bollard, approvingly. “But you can imagine why Lady Hamber followed, it was to prevent Audrey from bringing me into the matter. Lady Hamber,” finished the man, grimly, “had a wholesome fear of me, since she knew I disapproved of her doings.”
“Precisely. I understand. And she let my horse loose, no doubt.”
“So Audrey thinks; so I believe. She must have followed on immediately after Randolph and the butler left the drawing room, and undoubtedly overheard the conversation about the sprained ankle. Knowing that my niece could not walk to Sarley Grange, she—Lady Hamber—must have slipped the halter from the horse to prevent you from taking Audrey over in your caravan.”
“Plain as day,” said Dick, absently. Then added, alertly; “what took place while I was hunting after the horse?”
Bollard hesitated for the second time. “I shall leave my niece to explain all that,” he remarked after a pause. “You see, young Lawson, she swore me to silence, and only your discovery that I had sent you the money has forced me to break my silence. You can guess that I wish to say as little as possible.”
“In a way I do, Mr. Bollard. But why there should be anything withheld from me, seeing that I am so deep in the confidence of your niece, I do not understand. Nor do I understand why Miss Hamber refused to meet me and explain matters before she left for the Continent with her brother.”
“She was unstrung and upset,” explained the other, earnestly, “and could not bring herself at the moment, to repeat to you what she told me.”
“Does what she told you throw any light on the darkness?”
“It does not reveal the name of the person who murdered Lady Hamber, or why Lady Hamber was shot,” said Bollard, bluntly. “So far as that goes, my niece is as much in the dark as you are, or I am.”
“Then why should she refuse to meet me?” persisted Lawson, dubiously.
“I have told you, so far as I am able to tell. Who can account for the whims of a woman? Anyhow, her very leaving without an explanation shows that she trusts you not to give her away.”
“I thought she was shielding someone.”
“Whom did you think she was shielding?”
“Pooh!” Bollard laughed in his big, jovial manner. “Gerald was in bed all the time, more or less of a wreck with his nerves. He has lost much of his memory, poor chap, because of a motor accident. Audrey is shielding no one. But I shall leave her to explain things. Meanwhile, as you won’t allow me to be your banker, can’t I help you in other ways?”
“You have got me this situation, which suits me.”
“But I want to give you something to show my gratitude,” urged Bollard.
Lawson halted at the door and half-turned. “When the time comes and this mystery is solved, you can give me something.”
“With all my heart.” was the eager answer. “And that is?”
“The hand of your niece in marriage,” said Dick briskly, and disappeared.
After Lawson left the city he drove to Soho to report the result of his interview with Bollard to Mrs. Tremby. To his surprise the door of her office was locked, and a paper pinned thereto informed him and all callers that she would not return for five or six days. The young man was annoyed, since it seemed to him that it was unbusinesslike of Jossy to leave him in the lurch at the moment. However, there was nothing to be done at the moment by word of mouth, so he went back to his lodgings and wrote an explanatory letter. This he posted to the Soho address. thinking that he was something of an ass to do so, seeing that she was not there and would not be there for at least a week.
To his surprise once more—the first one having been when he discovered her absence—he received an answer by next day’s evening post. Mrs. Tremby had read his statement concerning his visit to Bollard, and thanked him for having sent it so promptly. She added that, for reasons connected with the case in hand, which would take too long to explain by letter, she was obliged to go out of town. Dick wondered if she meant to make enquiries about the matter in Sarley Village, and had half a mind to follow her there, if, indeed, that was the goal of her journey. But all conjecture and decision to pursue was swept aside when he read the postscript to her original epistle. Women’s postscripts are always significant, since a woman’s last word usually means much more than dozens of the preceding ones. But this particular one puzzled the young man greatly, since it appeared to have nothing to do with anything in the letter. “Have you a dress suit?” wrote Jossy, in her large masculine caligraphy. “If not, get one—the smartest your means will allow.”
“Now, what the dickens is she talking about clothes for?” questioned Lawson, raising his eyebrows and wondering what was the secret of this Sphinx. “I fail to see what she has to do with my wardrobe. Dashed nonsense—fiddling while Rome is burning. Hang all women—excepting one, of course!” And in a fit of petish anger he tore the silly letter into small bits.
But during the next day or so he went about his business with that silly letter tormenting his mind. After all, Jossy was as clever as a monkey, and—in his experience—had never suggested this or that without some good reason, not always apparent at the moment. What this one might be for—chattering about dress clothes Dick could not guess, and fought for many exasperating hours against adopting the suggestion.
* * * * * * *
The mirror into which Dick was looking to settle his white tie, gave no answer, only showing the gazer his handsome, cross face. The sight made the wise young gentleman smooth his wrinkles, and rid himself of his frown, for it would never do to let Jossy suspect that she had ruffled his temper. It was a very smiling, agreeable person who greeted Mrs. Tremby when she swept into the shabby siting room on the stroke of nine. Jossy was in her warpaint also, gorgeous in a sumptuous gown of amber satin, which suited her dark beauty. She looked as stately as the Queen of Sheba, and her dress sparkled with jewels, as did her eyes with good humor. She was undoubtedly pleased that Dick had obeyed her, and admired his handsome, well-bred looks. “You are now a civilised being, old chap,” said Jossy, nodding her satisfaction. “Didn’t you kick a bit when you read my P.S.?”
“Oh, dear no,” said Dick untruthfully, and determined not to give the lady any opportunity of triumphing. “You are in charge of the case, so I obeyed orders.”
“I don’t think,” answered Mrs. Tremby, sarcastically. “You always like to be top-dog, Dicky, and I bet you swore yourself silly over my being silly.”
“Well, I did think you were silly,” confessed Lawson, with a shrug, “but thinking that there might be method in your silliness, I—well, here you are.”
“Yes. Here I am,” said Jossy, taking his words in another sense, “and don’t you think I am wearing well. Where are your compliments?”
“Jossy, darling, you look like Solomon-in-all-his-glory, and if I weren’t in love with Audrey I should certainly ask you to marry me.”
“And you certainly shouldn’t be accepted. You always did have the mere of a German super-man, Dicky. Now we’ll go.”
“Go where?” Lawson got between her and the door.
“Where I am taking you to.”
“And the place?”
“You’ll know all about it when you get there.”
Lawson frowned, and still prevented her from leaving the room, although Mrs. Tremby, reminded him that the register of a waiting taxi was ticking up an increasingly large fare every minute. “Hang the taxi,” he said, sharply. “Why do you indulge in all this mystery?”
“It is my way of doing things.”
“It is an infernally unpleasant way.”
“Now, look here Richard Maxwell George Henty Lawson, you’ve got to let me run this show in my own way. Only by allowing me to do so can I bring things to a successful issue. And don’t swear in the presence of a lady, you civilised ruffian of the back blocks.”
“I didn’t swear.”
“You said ‘hang,’ likewise ‘infernally.”
“Call that swearing? Why, I could—”
“I am sure you could,” interrupted Mrs. Tremby hastily. “Dicky, don’t be several kinds of ass. I know what I am doing.”
“You do, and that is what I want to know also.”
“Tiresome person!” Jossy resumed her seat. “I have been attending to the case for the last seven days.”
“Why didn’t you write me?”
“There was no use my wasting stamps when I had nothing to report.”
“Have you anything to report now?”
“You’ll see when I take you to the place I am taking you to,” said Mrs. Tremby, mysteriously. “But I can tell you this much, Dicky—I have been following that Randolph person.”
“What?” Lawson became quite eager. “Do you think he knows anything?”
“I am quite sure he does. Didn’t Bollard talk about him?”
“Only so much as I reported in my letter.”
Mrs. Tremby reflected. “That the quarrel between Audrey and her stepmother was on account of a possible marriage with Randolph.”
“You can leave out possible,” said Dick coolly. “Audrey belongs to me.”
“There’s many a slip,” quoted Jossy, and rose impatiently, gathering her cloak of claret colored velvet round her ample figure. “Come! I can explain myself better in the taxi.” And without further words she left the room.
Dick followed, wondering why she behaved so mysteriously. It was plain that she had a plan. But what was that plan? When he joined her in the taxi she had already directed the chauffeur where to go; so he was still ignorant of his destination. As to her promised explanations, these were mere scraps and vague hints.
“If you meet Randolph, don’t let him think that you are suspicious,” warned Mrs. Tremby as they drove through the well-lighted streets.
“I won’t. Am I likely to meet him?”
“It’s not impossible,” rejoined Jossey, dryly, and relapsed into silence. Not another word would she say, and Dick felt inclined to shake her into speech.
In due time the taxi turned into Park lane and stopped before a red pathway leading under a striped awning up to an hospitable open door. Dick paid the chauffeur, and followed his guide, greatly bewildered. She led him up a wide staircase smothered in flowers, and presented him as her dear friend to a smiling hostess, who welcomed him affably. Afterwards, with Jossy on his arm, Dick moved into a vast and sumptuous drawing room, which opened out into an equally sumptuous ballroom.
“I have brought you here,” said Mrs. Tremby, impressively whispering, “to see someone who knows the truth.”
“Where is the someone?” Lawson stared at the rainbow colored crowd of dancers swaying to lively music like a bed of tulips in a summer breeze.
“Yonder.” Mrs. Tremby waved her fan towards the left. “Don’t faint, old son.”
Dick wholly unprepared, very nearly did. Amidst the merry dancers, standing beside Randolph and talking gaily, he beheld—Audrey Hamber!
“She knows everything,” whispered Mrs. Tremby significantly. “It is your business to learn everything.”
Only for a moment did Dick gain a glimpse of the girl he loved, talking brightly with the man he hated. The next moment Jossy drew him back into the multitude of guests. He tried to break away from her, to struggle towards Miss Hamber, but his arm was firmly held and shaken gently.
“Don’t be silly, you hot-head!” breathed Mrs. Tremby, half amused, half angry. “We are not here for enjoyment, but on business. Randolph must not see you.”
“Why not, hang him?” demanded Lawson, chafing under restraint.
“Because he will make it his business to prevent you from having a quiet talk with Audrey,” she said, sharply. “You’ll be sorry if you don’t allow me to arrange matters in my own way.”
“You are so confoundedly mysterious,” muttered the young man, irritably.
“I have to handle this thing with the gloves on, Dicky. Come and sit down. I can answer your questions now.”
“How did you know that Audrey was to be here?”
“You thought she was in Paris, I suppose?”
“She was in Paris, and returned two days ago. I brought her back.”
“Then you have seen her; you have spoken to her,” said Dick, breathlessly.
“Not much,” replied Jossy, deliberately. “I don’t want to let her know that I am professionally engaged in this Sarley Wood case. But Lady Heston, who gives this ball is an old friend of mine. She knows Audrey also—we were all three at school together—so I asked her to send an invitation to Paris and insist that Audrey should come over. You see she has come, but is quite unaware that I schemed for her to come.”
“Oh! And she doesn’t know that I am here?”
“Of course not. I want you to take her by surprise and startle her into a confession. I induced Lady Heston to ask Randolph also.”
“Why did you, when you know that I detest the man?”
“Dear boy, you must put your likes and dislikes aside for the moment. So far as Randolph is concerned, I like him as little as you do. He was always a wrong ‘un, and Bill, my late lamented, had more to do with him than I approved of. But I wished him to meet Audrey, so that I might see them together and learn what terms they are on with one another.
“Very agreeable terms, if one can judge,” growled Lawson, bitterly.
“Ah! but one can’t always judge,” retorted Jossy, wisely. “I am perfectly sure that Audrey fears the man.”
“Why should she fear him?” Dick bristled and scowled.
“That is what I wish to find out—what you must learn. I told you I have been following Randolph for the last six or seven days. I learn that he is desperately hard up; that he was very thick with Lady Hamber; that he wished Audrey to marry him.”
“Bollard said as much.”
“I learnt what I tell you from Bollard and the information suggested to me the idea of bringing Audrey and Randolph together.” Mrs. Jossy paused, and added, musingly, “I don’t know if Gerald is on Randolph’s side.”
Dick sat up alertly. “Why should he be?”
“Well, they are friends—great friends. Both were in Africa two years ago on a hunting trip, and got to know one another intimately. This being so, it is just possible that Gerald may favor his friend as Audrey’s husband. Rotten if he does, as Randolph is only after her money.”
“Has she money?”
“Three thousand a year under her father’s will. Gerald has the estate and five thousand per annum. And as Lady Hamber only had a life interest in the property I expect that boy is now richer than ever. He is a nice boy,” Jossy sighed. “I saw a lot of him when Audrey and I were school friends”—she shook herself to banish sentiment. “Well?”
“You are wonderful, Jossy. If you can introduce me to Miss Hamber I daresay I can learn much. But,” Dick hesitated, “you suggest that she knows everything. I don’t believe that.”
“But think, Dicky. While you were hunting that horse the shot was fired. Audrey was in the caravan, yet when you returned she had disappeared and the body of Lady Hamber was in the bed she had occupied. It is impossible than all that could have happened without her knowing the truth.”
“She may know a lot,” said Lawson, doggedly defending the girl, “but I am sure she is ignorant of the man’s name who shot her step-mother. If she knew it she would have told at the inquest.”
Mrs. Tremby shook her head. “Audrey had no love for her step-mother. Everyone knew that.”
“Still, I don’t think she would keep the name of the man who murdered her step-mother quiet.”
“She might want to shield the man.”
Dick winced. The idea had occurred to him more than once. “Unless it was her brother, there is no one I can think of whom she would shield.”
“Oh, Gerald wasn’t in the business. You remember you saw him yourself in bed.”
“Yes. I don’t think he had anything to do with the matter,” Dick reflected. Then he winced again. “You don’t suppose that she is shielding Randolph?”
“I don’t know. She might be—not from love. But Randolph has some hold over her. I gathered here and there—society gossip and scandal, you know—that she tolerated him dangling after her and paying her lover-like attentions. And then he was staying at Sarley Court when the crime was committed.”
“As the guest of Lady Hamber, I take it, since she was mistress there?”
Mrs. Tremby nodded and stood up. “Yes. Lady Hamber was keen on the marriage, and—as we learnt from Bollard—that caused the row which sent Audrey into the wood on her way to Sarley Grange.”
“But you don’t think—”
“My dear Dick, I don’t know what to think. It’s all a muddle, but I am now giving you an opportunity of learning something likely to dispose of the difficulties. Audrey would tell me nothing, since she thinks I know nothing. But you are partly in her confidence because of the adventure in the wood, so you can force her to tell everything. Then”—Jossy spoke significantly and moved out of the alcove. “Stay here, Dicky, and I shall send Audrey to you.”
Lawson followed her out with an alarmed look. “She won’t come if she knows that I am here.”
“She won’t know. I shall merely tell her that an old friend wants to see her. No, Dicky, don’t contradict. I am in charge of this business. How often have I to tell you that? Get back and sit tight, old bean.”
Mrs. Tremby pushed him back through the screen of flowers into the alcove and swept majestically down the brilliantly lighted corridor. Lawson sat down on the sofa, nervously anticipating the coming of the girl. He fervently hoped that no other person would stumble upon the cosy corner, as it was necessary for himself and Audrey to be alone for their very important conversation. But either from sheer luck or Jossy’s managements—he did not know what influence she had in this house—no one came to the alcove, although several couples passed along at intervals. Then he heard the sound of two murmuring voices in the distance, which, when they came nearer, proved to be those of Mrs. Tremby and Miss Hamber. It was the former who was speaking when the pair halted before the alcove. “It is an old friend who wishes to see you, dear,” said Jossy amiably. “Go in and you will have the surprise of your life.”
“An old friend,” repeated Audrey wonderingly. “I have no old friends,” she said with a sigh; “many acquaintances but no real friend.”
“I think you will find one in there,” said Mrs. Tremby, and guided the girl towards the screen of flowers. “I shall return in half an hour.”
“But, Jossy—” Audrey broke off, as her companion was now moving some distance away down the corridor. For a moment she hesitated, not approving of the mystery in which she seemed to be involved. Then curiosity got the better of prudence, and she stepped into the alcove, to find herself face to face with a tall man who had arisen when she entered. In the dim light she could not recognise him, and laughed. nervously. “Mrs. Tremby said that I would find an old friend here,” she remarked after an awkward pause.
“I hope you will think so, Miss Hamber.”
“Ah!” With a little cry she stepped back, recognising his voice, yet not quite trusting her hearing, “It surely, can’t be—you?”
“It is me—if you mean Richard Lawson,” said the young man gravely.
He had stepped forward as she stepped back, and a ray of light from the corridor revealed his face plainly. Audrey looked searchingly at him; he just as searchingly at her. Both were extremely pale. The girl gasped, and strove to carry off the situation lightly. “You had more names than that when we last met,” she stammered, shaking with nervous agitation.
“Richard Maxwell George Henry Lawson,” said Dick, striving to speak lightly in his turn. “I hope your ankle is better.”
“Thank you, yes!” she answered in low tones. Then she looked down, afterwards looked up, and spoke desperately. “What is the use of our fencing? Why did Mrs. Tremby bring me here?”
“To meet me.”
“Then she knows that we have met before?”
“She does. Mrs. Tremby is helping me to unravel the skein which the Fates twisted for us in Sarley Wood.”
“I know she became a detective,” stammered the girl, very pale and nervous.
“It is as a detective that she is assisting me, Miss Hamber.”
“Oh, what a shame! I never thought that Jossy—I mean Mrs. Tremby—would trick me like this!” Audrey spoke vehemently and angrily.
“What else could she do, since you refused to meet me?”
“I did not refuse,” she denied with a stamp.
“Not in words; but you avoided me.”
Tears came into her eyes; but they were tears of anger. “I didn’t want to meet you. There is no reason why you should persecute me.”
“Come, now, that is unjust both to me and to yourself.” said Dick, sternly, for he saw that she required to be dominated. “You know well that I have not persecuted you. I accepted your extraordinary conduct in silence.”
“Yes.” Audrey felt shamed and small at the gentle rebuke. “I owe you much for your silence. I take back what I said about persecution; but I don’t see what good can come of our meeting.”
“I do. You must tell me all that took place when I left you in my caravan.”
Audrey looked sullen, and sat down on the sofa, doggedly determined to hold her tongue.
“I shall tell you nothing.”
“I see. You are shielding some one.”
“How dare you say that?”
“Then how am I to interpret your silence? Don’t answer; I know that you are shielding your brother.”
Audrey sprang to her feet with a cry of alarm. Then, “It is true,” she said, in choking tones. “I didn’t mean to tell you, but it is true.”
Immediately after making her confession Audrey sat down again on the sofa and began to cry quietly. The tragedy in the wood, the many days of suspense, and now this meeting with the man she had striven to avoid broke her nerve. She was in a corner; she was up against it; and knew not what to do, what to say.
“Gerald is as innocent as you are.”
“Oh, the deuce,” murmured Lawson. Then, passing from the lover to the lawyer, he proceeded to examine her, and spoke sternly. “Then why are you shielding your brother?”
“If you talk to me in that tone I shan’t say a word,” she cried, still looking like a small fury. “And I thought you were my friend,” she added, again about to break down.
Dick sat beside her and took her hand. “I want to be your friend.”
Audrey snatched her hand away. “You don’t; you don’t. You have come to get me into trouble.”
Lawson laughed at this feminine way of putting things. “So far I have tried to avoid doing so,” he said in a wounded voice—purposely wounded.
The little lady was evidently an April damsel of rain and sunshine, tears and laughter. She changed again in a moment, and stretched out a timid hand.
“You are very kind and honorable and good,” she said in a meek voice, “but you can guess that I don’t mean half I say. I’m—I’m—all broken up?”
Dick recaptured the timid hand and patted it consolingly. “Poor little girl; I want to help you.”
“Do you really and truly mean that?” She looked at him hopefully.
“Of course I do. Had you come to me before you ran away to the Continent I should have stood by you.”
“I had to run away for Gerald’s sake. You know his nerves are all shattered by his car being overturned, and this dreadful thing has made them worse than ever. He remembers what took place day and night.”
“I thought his memory was gone?”
“Oh, no. It is faulty. He remembers some things and not others. But what took place in the wood”—she shivered and winced—”he remembers only too dearly.”
“What did take place?”
“If I tell you, you will keep it to yourself?”
“Yes—if I see it is necessary to do so.”
“That won’t do,” insisted the girl, tremulously, “I daren’t risk Gerald getting into trouble while he is so ill.”
“If he is innocent he won’t get into trouble.”
Audrey shook her head and clasped her hands between her knees, looking down at her feet. “You don’t know. Things look black against him.”
“Tell me all about it,” coaxed Dick, gently. “You can trust me, surely, seeing that I have proved myself worthy of your trust.”
“I know I can.” She still hesitated. “But—”
“My dear,”—he took her hand again—”there must be no ‘but.’ I must learn all you know if I am to be of any use in clearing up this business. Yes, and Mrs. Tremby must know.”
“Jossy. No, no.”
“She must,” said Lawson firmly. “She is your friend as I am, and, like myself, is working in your interest. Come now. Your uncle told me he would leave you to explain. Yes,” in answer to her look of surprise. “He sent me five hundred pounds anonymously, as a reward for my silence. Mrs. Tremby traced the bank notes to him, and I learn that he knows about your adventure to the wood. He told me something, but not all. Now you—”
“Ah, well,” Audrey interrupted him swiftly, having apparently made up her mind on the instant. “I shall trust you.”
“You will have no reason to regret doing so,” said Dick, and waited for the recital, rather downcast as she removed her hand from his when she began.
“When you left me in the caravan,” Audrey started abruptly, and plunged straight into the middle of things, “I lay for a time feeling very sick with the pain in my ankle. Then I heard a shot, close at hand. Wondering what was wrong and thinking it might be poachers—”
“You didn’t guess that Lady Hamber had followed you?” he interrupted.
“No. You see, we had a quarrel about, about—” she hesitated. “Well, we had a quarrel. I had gone up to Gerald’s room at half-past eight, and came down again later when Mr. Randolph went to bed, as I didn’t want to see him.”
“I can understand that,” murmured Dick, recollecting the cause of the quarrel.
“What did you say?” she asked; then without waiting for a reply continued quickly. “Lady Hamber—she was only my step-mother, you know, and we never got on well together—insulted me so grossly that I determined to go over to Uncle Oliver at once. I came to the wood, and—”
“And I left you in the caravan where you heard the shot,” supplemented Dick with a nod. “I know all the rest. But after you heard the shot?”
“I thought it was poachers, and lay for some time—I don’t know for how long—hoping that you would come back, as I feared lest they should enter the caravan and find me. Then I grew so nervous that I wished to face the worst to end the suspense. I crawled to the door and opened it. Some distance away, near your fire, and not far from the path, I saw a woman lying. Near her stood my brother, holding a revolver. I was terrified and called out to Gerald.”
“He hadn’t shot her? You are sure he hadn’t shot her?” asked Dick sharply.
“No,” said Audrey, positively. “He came running up to me, and said that, finding I was not beside him when he woke up, he put on his clothes, and came down to look for me. He found the drawing-room empty, the window open, and saw Lady Hamber walking down the terrace steps. Wondering where I was and what she was doing, he followed. She was some distance ahead of him, and just as he got through the park gate into the wood he heard the shot. Very much alarmed, he ran down the path into the glade, and found Lady Hamber lying near the fire, as I told you. She was dead, and a revolver lay beside her. Gerald had just picked it up when I called out to him.”
“Sir Gerald heard nothing other than the shot? He saw no one?”
“No. He just heard the shot, and ran down the path to find the dead body and the revolver. I was afraid, if you came back, that you would think Gerald was guilty, so I made him carry Lady Hamber’s body into the caravan and lay it on the bed.”
“You might have trusted me,” said Dick, reproachfully.
“How could I?” she retorted, rather snappishly, “when I knew so little about you.” She sighed with relief when she completed her narrative.
Dick nodded. “I know. Selwin and I found you seated by your brother’s bed holding his hand. Was he alone?”
“No. But I told him to pretend to be asleep, so that I might hold his hand and excuse myself from rising and coming downstairs.”
“You feared to show that your ankle was sprained?”
“Yes. That might have led to awkward explanations, and I had to consider my poor brother. I was afraid when you entered that you would speak; but after a single look at you I knew that you wouldn’t.”
“How did you know?” asked Lawson, feeling secretly pleased.
“Oh, how does a woman know such things in a man? Instinct, I suppose. And for Gerald’s sake I avoided meeting you, as I knew you would ask questions. But my very avoidance of you showed that I trusted in your honor.”
“So your uncle said,” murmured the young man. “But I was puzzled.”
“Silly! Men are so stupid!” said Audrey, more April like than ever. “That is all, and you see Gerald is innocent.”
“Is he?” questioned Lawson, unexpectedly. “After all, his memory is faulty, and he might have unknowingly shot Lady Hamber.”
“Absurd,” said Audrey more calmly than he expected. “Gerald had no revolver.”
“H’m!” Dick reflected, “there is something in that. Where is the revolver which he picked up!”
“Gerald has it. He carried it home, when he carried me.”
“Does be know to whom it belongs?”
“No. I don’t either. But if you will come and see us in Winter square Gerald will show it to you.”
“Good. It will be a useful clue. Have you any idea who shot Lady Hamber?”
“Not the least,” said Audrey, frankly. “I never liked her, as she was always unkind and sometimes actively cruel. I daresay I should not be at this ball, seeing that she was killed only lately; but I can’t pretend to be sorry for her, and lament like a hypocrite. Besides, Lady Heston made a point of my coming here tonight—I don’t know why?”
“I do,” said Dick, coolly. “Mrs. Tremby arranged the whole thing, so that we might meet.”
“Jossy might have told me,” cried Audrey, in angry tones.
“Would you have come, if she had told you?”
“I might; I might not. Anyhow—” the girl took Dick’s hand and shook it—”I am glad I did come, and forgive Jossy. You are my friend?”
“Yes,” Lawson’s voice was a little unsteady. “Can you doubt it?”
“Not after the way you have behaved. And you will discover the truth?”
“I shall try to, with the assistance of Mrs. Tremby.”
Audrey nodded in a satisfied way and with evident relief. “I want the truth to be discovered to set Gerald’s mind at rest. He lives in terror lest he should be suspected. I only wish his memory would give way on that point as it has given way on others.”
“No one suspects him,” said Dick, in comforting tones. “I shall call and see him, and put his mind at rest.”
“If you only can,” sighed Audrey, “Oh, dear! how I hate trouble. I have had nothing else since dad died, what with Lady Hamber’s disagreeable behaviour, and now her death. You are a tower of strength, Mr. Lawson.”
“I hope to prove one. But”—Dick spoke timidly for him—”can’t you call me by my—my first name?”
Audrey colored and looked embarrassed. “Why should I?” She rose abruptly.
“Because—because—oh, it is no use my beating about the bush—I love you.”
“Mr. Lawson!” She darted towards the screen of flowers, and stood there as if poised for flight. “You—you mustn’t.”
“Because I am engaged to marry Mr. Randolph!” sighed the girl, and the next instant she was gone, leaving Dick aghast and speechless.
After Audrey’s flight Lawson remained where he was, overwhelmed by the information so abruptly given. He knew from Mrs. Trembly that Randolph had been paying attentions to the girl for some time, less for herself than for her money; knew also that Lady Hamber had favored the match. But the quarrel which had made Audrey leave the house on the night of the crime arose from her objection to such a marriage; so it was strange that she should change her mind so immediately and positively. Also Dick remembered that, according to Jossy, the girl feared the man. He was puzzled as well as amazed, wondering how the situation had come about.
Mrs. Tremby might explain, since she was Audrey’s old school friend, and there was a chance that the two might be confidential. But be this as it may, it was necessary to hunt out Jossy, and enlighten her about the new and disagreeable complication. Dick pulled himself together, and left the alcove with the intention of enlisting his friend’s sympathy to bring about the breaking of this monstrous engagement.
Having been launched so suddenly and unexpectedly by Mrs. Tremby into society, Lawson knew none of the fashionable people present. There were many pretty girls, smart young men, old dowagers, and antique gentlemen, long past their dancing days. After silent months in Africa and hand-to-mouth living in the under-world Lawson was quite bewildered with the light and color and perfume, with the wines and food, the incessant chattering, and the intoxicating rhythm of the music. It was years since he had mingled with the social throng, and he felt singularly isolated, knowing no face, meeting on all sides indifferent glances, devoid of warmth or recognition. Jossy, in the distance, was dancing with a golden youth to the strains of the latest waltz—a very sentimental melody; so there was no chance of speaking to her at the moment. Audrey could not be seen, although Dick looked for her everywhere. He was on the point of going back to his drab-colored lodgings when he heard Randolph’s voice at his elbow—that languid, irritating, drawling voice, which had so annoyed him in the tragic drawing room of Sarley Court. Even now the young man frowned when it struck his ear.
His enemy—Dick quite looked upon the man as such—stood just behind him, arm-in-arm with a would-be-young woman all diamonds and bones. That is, she was remarkably tall, remarkably lean, sparsely clothed, and twinkled like a sunlit sea with many jewels. This ancient damsel was arrayed in a frock of pale-green chiffon, which began late and ended early, displaying thin legs and arms, rather pretty feet, a bust that left much to be desired, and the scrawny neck of a plucked fowl. It was a painful sight to see this mutton dressed-as-lamb female smiling and smirking with a man young enough to be her grandson. Randolph, as Dick observed, was paying great attention to this ruin of what was once a woman, and listened with flattering attention to her screaming peacock voice. She talked incessantly on everything and anything, her pale, shallow eyes wandering all over the place while she chattered. As it happened, they alighted on Dick, close at hand and a look of genuine surprise crept into them. “Richard!” screeched the lady with a gasp.
Dick recognised her at once; for, indeed, she was not one to be forgotten, with her Madge Wildfire looks and ways. “How are you, Cousin Esther?”
“Richard!” screamed Esther, with a coquettish wave of her fan, “you wicked boy, to have dropped just before me like this. I thought you were in Africa shooting kangaroos—dear, pretty creatures, such a shame to kill them.”
“I wiped Africa clean of kangaroos,” said Lawson, not caring to enlighten her ignorance, “and here I am.”
“So obvious,” giggled the lady, “but you always were obvious, you know. Let me introduce you to Mr. Randolph. Arthur, my cousin, Mr. Lawson—we were boy and girl together.”
Without showing any merriment at this ridiculous observation Randolph nodded stiffly to Dick. “I have met Mr. Lawson before.”
“Why odd, Miss Spine?” said her companion staring at Dick while Dick stared at him, with mutual dislike.
“Well, it is so strange meeting Richard here, and you knowing him. The world is small, isn’t it? Only the mountains don’t meet. And you do look well.”
“So do you,” said Dick, mendaciously, “not a day older.”
Miss Spine gave a little scream. “Oh my dear boy, and I haven’t seen you for centuries. How can you pay such bare-faced compliments?”
“Not compliments, Miss Spine,” put in Randolph, gallantly; “the truth!”
“Ah well, I suppose I must believe you. Do come and get me some supper, Richard. No, don’t go Arthur. I want you and my cousin to be friends.”
The two men glared at one another over Miss Spine’s skinny shoulders as they escorted her to the supper-room. Here they found a secluded table and attended to the wants of the flirtatious grandmother. Miss Spine ate and drank largely, chattering all the time, first to one, then to the other, asking questions without waiting for replies, and replying to questions which were not asked. Towards the end of the supper she hit upon a subject which both her companions wished to avoid. “And where did you meet Richard, Arthur?”
“Down the country,” replied Randolph, evasively, and Dick approved of the evasion. He wished to speak of the crime to Randolph, but not here, or in the disconcerting presence of Miss Spine.
“Down the country,” said the lady, and shivered agreeably. “I should think you had enough of the country, Arthur. Last time you were there it was awful, so you told me—Sarley Court—the murder, you know. Poor Lady Hamber, although I never admired her, with those trying-to-be-young ways. And that girl—the stepdaughter. I’m sure I don’t call her pretty, do you, Arthur?”
“She is—agreeable,” said Arthur, cautiously, much to Dick’s indignation and wonderment, since he expected Randolph to praise the girl he was engaged to.
“I can’t see it myself,” Miss Spine fanned herself violently. “She’s so very pale and washed out. Perhaps she knows something.”
“She knows nothing,” put in Lawson, fiercely.
“Dear me, Richard, don’t glare at me. You are just like your poor, dear father, you know. One couldn’t say a thing without his jumping down one’s throat. And I don’t see what you know about her.”
“I was one of the witnesses at the inquest,” growled the young man, angrily.
Miss Spine screamed again, and sat bolt upright. “I remember, Lawson! Oh, yes, of course! You were travelling with a horrid caravan—so silly for a man of your birth and position. And you saw nothing, did you?”
“No,” denied Dick, stolidly, but with his eyes on Randolph, “nothing!”
“You heard something, didn’t you?” asked Randolph, languidly, and avoiding the glance with which Lawson strove to fix him.
“The shot. I told all I had to tell at the inquest.”
“So interesting,” babbled Miss Spine, archly, although there was really no occasion for archness. “Quite a romance. And romances ought to end in marriage. Why, Richard, since you and that horrid constable found the body of poor, dear, Lady Hamber—disagreeable woman—you should marry the girl.”
“She may be already engaged,” said Dick, still looking at Randolph.
“Really? Who to? Oh, Arthur, do you know?”
“Haven’t heard of anyone,” replied Randolph, and this denial puzzled Dick more than ever. Why was the man lying?
“No, of course not. Who would marry her when one doesn’t know the real truth of the matter? She may be keeping something back.”
“She isn’t!” denied Dick savagely. “You are talking nonsense, Cousin Esther.”
“I never talk nonsense!” retorted the lady, indignant. “Do I, Arthur?”
“Never.” He switched off the conversation to a less dangerous line. “Do you know Hamber Mr. Lawson?”
“No. I have never met him. You were hunting with him in Africa. I believe.”
“A year or so ago,” drawled the other. “Who told you?”
“Oh, really! I didn’t know that my doings interested him to such an extent.”
Miss Spine, finding herself left out of the conversation, hastened to bring herself into it.
“Dear fellow, Gerald Hamber; so delicate, and no memory; that horrid motor car upset with him. He is a great friend of yours, Arthur?”
“Oh, yes. He saved my life in Africa.”
Miss Spine gave her usual peacock scream. “How thrilling! Yes?”
“We were in the wilds, and one of the niggers got drunk and went round with an axe to all the white men. He tackled me when I was unarmed; but Gerald, who was a little distance off, threw me his revolver, and I managed to pick it up and shoot the brute just as Gerald let fly at him with a Winchester.”
“You killed him? How thrilling!” cried Miss Spine, clasping her bony hands.
“Why didn’t Hamber use the revolver himself? asked Dick, abruptly.
“Well, he might have missed, and I was unarmed,” explained Randolph; “so in the excitement of the moment he did what he thought best. I made Gerald give me the revolver as a keepsake. Hullo! Going?” he added, as Dick rose.
“Yes. I want to get home early and put myself to bed. I rise early, you know.”
“Why do you rise early?” enquired Miss Spine, catching his arm.
“My business. I am a riding master.”
“Dick! You a riding master?” She was shocked, and looked offended.
“With Mr. Simon Tarr,” said her cousin, gravely. “I must earn money somehow, and it’s better than trading round the country with a caravan.”
“I should think so. And yet, it isn’t a position for you—the riding master, I mean. Of course, your poor darling father lost his money, but—” Miss Spine broke off and looked rather ashamed. “Why didn’t you come and see me?”
“I didn’t know you wanted to see me—the black sheep—the wastrel.”
“Don’t be silly, Richard, you were never the one or the other,” said his cousin severely. “We people of good birth must hang together. Come and see me, I am at my house in Shrewsbury square, Kensington. You know?”
“Yes, I know. Thank you. I shall call some day.” Dick nodded to Randolph and shook hands with his cousin. “Goodbye, Esther.”
“Au revoir, you mean,” said Miss Spine, lightly, although she felt inwardly greatly ashamed that she had so neglected her handsome cousin. “Remember the address.”
Promising that he would, Lawson left the supper room, glad to get away from Randolph, whom he disliked more than ever. The tale told by the rascal hinted that he and Gerald were on the best of terms, which would mean that the boy would probably support Randolph in his desire to marry Audrey. But why did not the scamp admit the engagement? Why was he so attentive to Esther Spine, who was the last person on earth to attract such a sybarite? The young man made sure that Randolph was playing some deep game, but what it was he could not quite understand. However, there were more important things to attend to, and he put Miss Spine and the supper conversation out of his mind. It was necessary to see Jossy and report to her the interview with Audrey. Just at the door of the ballroom, Dick found her and touched her shoulder. She turned immediately from the man she was talking to. “Yes?”
“Come aside for a moment,” murmured Dick, and drew her into a corner. “Audrey is engaged to Randolph,” he announced, abruptly.
“Never,” cried Mrs. Tremby, in dismay.
“She told me herself.”
“Oh!” Jossy reflected for a moment. “I’ll see her, Dick, and let you know the result tomorrow.” Then she went back to her partner, and Lawson went home.
While engaged in teaching his pupils next morning, Dick thought a great deal about his meeting with Miss Spine. She was a distant cousin of his father, possessed of a good income, and a thirst for admiration. Had he not met her thus by accident, as it were, Dick would never have thought of looking her up, and, indeed, was not sure that he would trouble to accept her invitation. But on second thoughts he decided that he would, since it had been given warmly and in good faith. Miss Spine greatly valued her connection with the Lawsons, slight as it was, and apparently disliked the idea of having a relative occupying the lowly position of a riding master. This was probably the case, as Dick decided when he returned to his lodgings to find a letter from the lady.
Miss Spine wrote very amiably, and—as Lawson confessed—kindly. She scolded her cousin for not having come to see her when he returned from Africa, instead of touring the country in a caravan. She insisted that he should get more respectable employment than that as the underling of Mr. Tarr, and enclosed a cheque for one hundred pounds.
Lawson laughed when he thought how Dame Fortune was pursuing him with offers of money. First the five hundred pounds from Bollard, now the one hundred from Miss Spine. But he felt as little inclined to accept the last as he had been to accept the first. At the same time, he admitted to himself that it was wonderful so mean a woman should behave so generously. Of course it was only Miss Spine’s foolish pride which made her open her purse; yet at the back of this Dick detected a possible sympathy with him in his troubles. He folded up the cheque and thrust it into his pocket, with the idea of consulting Jossy as to acceptance or non-acceptance.
But where was Jossy? Dick had called at her office in Soho on his way home after his morning duties had been attended to. She was not in, and a card on the door notified that she would not return until late in the day. Dick hoped that she would visit him at his lodgings, and remained at home for some hours in the hope of seeing her. Still, she did not put in an appearance, and the young man was sorely perplexed, sorely displeased. Considering how anxious he was to hear what Audrey had said relative to the engagement, he thought that Mrs. Tremby might have come immediately. Also he wished to tell her of his meeting with his cousin; of the conversation at the supper table, and ask what she thought about Randolph keeping the engagement with Audrey secret. While waiting, he passed an uncomfortable morning and afternoon, fretting over Jossy and her dilatory ways.
Then his patience—if it could be called so—was rewarded. At 4 o’clock a messenger boy brought a note from Mrs. Tremby, asking him to be at her office at 5. Lawson drew a long breath of relief, and lost no time in obeying the summons. Long before the appointed hour he was climbing the dingy stairs, only to find the office door still closed. However, as he was to blame and not Jossy, the young man sat on the top stair and smoked a meditative pipe until the dilatory lady arrived.
“Oh, here you are,” he said, when Jossy skipped up the stairs. “I have been on the look-out for you all day. Where have you been?”
“On your business, young man,” said Jossy, slipping her key into the lock. “I have been all over the shop. Bollard—Audrey—Randolph.”
“What does Audrey say?” enquired Dick, eagerly, as he followed her into the luxurious office—the pearl of comfort in the bleak misery of the dingy house. “Oh, Jossy, do tell me—”
“I’ll tell you nothing if you don’t let me choose my own way of telling,” she snapped, sinking into her desk chair. “Do give me a cigarette, old chap. I am dying of thirst and for want of a smoke.”
Dick passed along a cigarette, and lighted it for her. “I’ll make you some tea, if you have the appliances.”
“In the cupboard,” Jossy nodded over her shoulder. “But can you make tea?”
“A jolly sight better than you,” retorted her friend, bringing out a kettle, a Primus, and various other things. “Fancy asking a pioneer if he can make tea! Where is the water?”
“There’s a tap in the outer room.”
“Right oh! Now sit tight and smoke while I get things ready.”
Jossy laughed and blew rings of smoke, watching his deft preparations with amusement and approval. Dick filled the kettle, lighted the Primus, cut thin slices of bread and butter, and laid the cloth on a small bamboo table, which he placed at Mrs. Tremby’s elbow. When all was ready he poured out the tea, and fed Jossy lavishly with cake and the rest of the viands. “You are in good training for a husband Dicky,” said Mrs. Tremby, when her appetite was more or less satisfied.
“Audrey’s husband,” said Dick, with a nod, as he devoured bread and butter and drank his tea.
“You are gone on her, old boy!”
“Gone on her. How slangy you are, Jossy. I worship her, I adore her. Why, she is the most glorious—”
“Yes, I know she is,” Mrs. Tremby cut short his rhapsody, ruthlessly. “I have heard all that sort of stuff from Billy. But she is engaged to Randolph.”
“So she says, confound him. Why did you look him up?”
“To ask if it was true. Oh, I know Audrey told you, but she might have said it to choke you off.”
“What tosh,” burst out Dick, drawing in his long legs and looking furious. “I believe she loves me. So there.”
Jossy puffed out a cloud of blue smoke from a freshly lighted cigarette. “I always did believe men to be conceited. How do you know she loves you?”
“I saw it in her eyes. And—and—oh, Jossy, don’t be a beast. You know we are made for one another.”
“I have some idea that you are. But Randolph. He is engaged; he said so.”
“Then why is he playing the fool with that silly cousin of mine? Why does he keep the engagement secret from her?”
“Eh, what? Your cousin. The Spine woman?”
“Yes. I met her last night at the ball. She was talking to Randolph and spotted me. Randolph was feeding her vanity kite high, and denied that he had heard anything about Audrey being engaged.”
“I tell you, he said so—he shirked an explanation.”
“And you?” Jossy looked anxious.
“I said nothing. I lay low, waiting to find out what his game is.”
“And what is his game?”
“Ask me another! Unless it is to marry Esther.”
“But if he is engaged to Audrey—”
“That is what I can’t understand,” Dick paused, then asked: “And your opinion?”
Jossy waved aside the smoke curling from her cigarette, “Tell you what, my son. Randolph has two strings to his bow. One is Audrey, the other that Spine cousin of yours. Both are rich. Failing Audrey, he will marry Esther. Seems to me,” mused Mr. Tremby, “as if he wasn’t very sure of Audrey.”
“Yet she admitted the engagement herself,” argued the disconsolate Lawson.
“Daresay! They’re engaged right enough. But she doesn’t like him. I saw that when she owned up to me last night.”
“You saw her again?”
“After you went away from Lady Heston’s house I did. She said that she had seen you, that you had proposed, and that she had choked you off by telling of her engagement. I asked her if she loved Randolph.”
“Or me?” queried Dick, eagerly.
“No, I didn’t go so far as that. I asked about Randolph only. She would not say that she loved him, and, indeed, gave me to understand—being a woman dealing with a woman, I read between the lines—that she feared him. Dicky”—Mrs. Tremby leaned forward impressively—”she’s been frightened into this engagement. I don’t know in what way, but she doesn’t love the man. He can in some way force her into marrying him.”
“Then why is he paying attention to Esther?”
“We must find that out. Perhaps—as I suggested—he is not sure of Audrey, and should she fail him, will marry your cousin. He’s jolly hard up, my boy, and, in some way, wants to get hold of cash.”
Dick scowled, and clenched his fist, with an intense desire to drive it in his rival’s face. “What’s to be done?” he growled, wrathfully.
“Nothing more than what I have done.”
“And that is?”
“I went to Bollard’s city office this morning and told him of my interview with Audrey and Randolph. Bollard was furious. He detests Randolph, and—” added Mrs. Tremby, with emphasis, “favors you.”
“Favors me!” Dick gasped with excitement.
Jossy nodded. “I guess you’re the white boy with him. I believe he wants you to marry Audrey. Yes! He talked about her being unprotected, and Gerald as not being able to look after her. And then he said—”
“Yes! Yes! Yes?”
“That he would break the engagement with Randolph.”
“Good heavens!” Lawson sat back with a gasp. “Can he?”
“Don’t know. But after I left him he was going to look up Randolph, and promised to wire me the result of the interview, I am expecting the telegram every minute.”
Scarcely were the words out of her mouth than a sharp knock came to the outer door. Guessing in a flash what the knock meant Lawson sprang to his feet and was opening the door before Jossy could speak. He returned, with a buff-colored envelope. “Read! Read!” he commanded, on fire with impatience. Mrs. Tremby read: “Engagement broken. Audrey free. Tell Lawson. Bollard.”
The news conveyed by the telegram caused Dick to ascend immediately to the seventh heaven. How Bollard had contrived to break the engagement between his niece and Randolph it was impossible to say; but there was no doubt that the wire settled the matter decisively. Audrey was free to be wooed and won.
“And by me—by me—by me!” cried the young man, jumping up to pace the room exultingly. “My luck has changed, Jossy. I am passing out of the storm clouds into the brightest of sunshine.”
“Don’t shout until you are out of the wood,” advised Mrs. Tremby, gravely.
“Oh, don’t croak!” Dick felt a qualm, so seriously did she speak.
“I don’t croak without reason, old chap. Randolph is a revengeful beast. and won’t take his whipping lying down.”
“What can he do?”
“Don’t know.” Mrs. Tremby leaned back in her chair, and placed her hands behind her head. “But he managed to force Audrey to engage herself to him, so, to me, it looks as though he knew something to her disadvantage.”
“If so, he would not consent to the breaking of the engagement.”
“H’m! H’m! There is something in that, Dicky, boy. I wonder what means Bollard used to smash up things and upset Randolph’s applecart?”
“I’ll ask him when I see him,” said Lawson determinedly.
“I shouldn’t if I were you, old son. Better leave well alone. Go to Winter square and make love to Audrey.”
“I should like to, no end.” Dick hesitated, and his face became somewhat outcast. “But will she listen to me?”
“I think so. When I saw her last night she was full of your praises. In her eyes you are honorable, kind, clever, and all the rest of it. Audrey said that she never could, and never would, forget what she owed you.”
“That’s only gratitude,” said Dick, ungratefully. “I want love.”
“Well,” said the lady, philosophically, “they say that pity is akin to love, so why not gratitude also? Anyhow, Dicky, you have good ground to work upon.”
“Will Audrey listen to me?”
“I think so. No; more than that, I am sure she will listen. And I could not wish her a better husband. She needs one—and a protector,” ended Jossy, in a significant tone.
Lawson stopped his perambulations and stared at her. “Why do you say that?”
“Because Randolph is spiteful and cunningly clever. I know much more about him than you do, Dicky, for my late lamented had much to do with him. If Bollard had not managed to break the engagement I was going to bring forward my record of Randolph’s shady past into which I enquired. As it is, there is no need to do that.”
“Unless he worries Audrey,” finished Dick, thoughtfully, “but I don’t see what he can do.”
“Nor can I. However, he will do his best to make himself disagreeable.”
“I doubt that. Probably he will console himself with Esther.”
“Not if I know it, Dicky,” Mrs. Tremby sat up, with a wrathful look in her eyes. “There isn’t much friendship between me and your cousin, who is an extreme silly old spinster. All the same, she is too good to marry that scamp, who would waste her money and end up by deserting her. Bollard has stopped the marriage with Audrey; I shall stop the marriage with Miss Spine. Never you mind how. But I have a rod in pickle for Mr. Arthur Randolph, although I don’t wish to use it until I am forced to do so.”
Lawson nodded, rather absent-mindedly. “This is all very well, Jossy, but it is a side issue, after all—the breaking of Audrey’s engagement, I mean. We are as far off as ever from discovering the truth about the murder.”
“One thing at a time, Dicky. We have cleared the ground so far! now we can get on. What conversation did you have with Randolph last night, when your cousin was present? Tell me word for word. There might be something in it.”
“Unless you can make mountains out of molehills, I don’t think so,” replied Lawson, recalling the supper table.
“Anyhow, I’ll report everything.”
Having a remarkably retentive memory, the young man related the whole conversation, including Randolph’s African story, and the saving of Randolph’s life by young Hamber. Jossy listened attentively, and seemed deeply interested, so much so that Lawson expressed surprise.
“There is nothing in what I have told you, so far as I can see,” he protested.
“You can’t see further than your nose,” snapped Mrs. Tremby, rather vulgarly. “There may be more in this than you imagine.”
“What do you mean?”
“Never mind. You have given me an idea. No, don’t ask me what it is, because I won’t explain. I’ll think over things, and act accordingly. Now, Dicky, you go home and dream of Audrey.”
“I’d rather see her than dream about her,” said Lawson, ruefully. “If you come across her, do put in a good word for me, Jossy.”
“Oh, I’ll do that. And I am going to visit her in a couple of days—three o’clock on Thursday afternoon.”
“I’ll be there also,” said Dick brightening. “You don’t mind?”
“No, I shall be glad.” Jossy rose with a yawn. “Oh, Dicky, get out.”
Thus peremptorily dismissed Lawson took his departure, and returned on winged feet to his rooms. There he passed the rest of the evening smoking and thinking of Audrey’s perfections. What a beauty she was. What an angel—and something of a spitfire. Anyhow, the bravest and most loyal little soul in the world. The way in which she stood up for that wreck of a brother of hers; the self-control she had exercised throughout the whole trying time. “Oh, there is no one worth thinking about but Audrey,” said Dick to himself when he went to bed.
Next morning brought a letter from Mr. Bollard asking Dick to call at his office about noonday. Lawson wondered why the invitation should have been sent, so immediately after the telegram to Mrs. Tremby; but was glad to receive it. Had the letter not arrived he would in any case have looked up the stockbroker, being immensely curious to learn how he had contrived to bring Randolph to heel. Probably Bollard intended to tell him, and while attending to his bevy of damsels the riding master thought all the tine of the coming interview. He presented himself at Wren street when the many churches in the city were announcing with chiming bells the hour of twelve.
Bollard looked somewhat anxious and careworn, when the young man appeared in his office, and silently indicated a chair. Dick wondered at this unusual behaviour in the jovial old man, and noticed that he spoke throughout the interview in a much more subdued tone of voice. There was no roaring; and no hearty laughter. Bollard somehow did not seem to be his usual self. “Are you ill, sir?” asked Dick sympathetically.
“Worried, my boy, worried,” said the stockbroker, passing his hand across his forehead. “I had an uncomfortable interview with Randolph yesterday.”
“So I guessed. But it had a comfortable termination.”
Bollard nodded, with a grim look. “Oh, I settled him all right. I see you are very anxious to know how I did so. But I am not going to explain.”
“I don’t wish to force your confidence, sir,” said Lawson, quickly.
“I know that. Believe me that if I could explain to anyone I would do so to you, young Lawson. But there are things better left unsaid.”
“Randolph has a shady past, I know from Mrs. Tremby,” suggested Dick.
“Oh, the way I floored him had nothing to do with his past,” said Bollard, swiftly, “but if he makes trouble after what I have said to him, I shall bring up his past, which is not one of the cleanest. I employed a private detective to hunt up details, although in this instance I did not use them.” He paused.
Dick wondered what the old man was thinking about, so twisted was his large face with pain, although his eyes remained cool and steady. “You wish to speak to me, sir?” he said, when the silence become unbearable.
Bollard started, as if taken by surprise, and became more of his usual self, looking the speaker squarely in the eyes. Then he made an astonishing remark, which seemed to have nothing to do with the matter in hand. “You love my niece?” he said, quietly.
“You know I do, sir. I told you when we last met that one day I would ask you to give her to me.”
“You shall have her.”
“Oh!” Dick gasped, and stared wildly, with his mouth open.
“That is, of course,” amended Bollard, “if she loves you.”
“I—I—think—she does.” Lawson’s words came haltingly. “And I know that I love her,” he ended boldly and positively.
“I can see that. And I am inclined to think that Audrey returns your love, so far as one can read a young girl’s mind. Your honorable conduct and chivalrous silence made a great impression on her. I know of no one whom I would sooner choose for her husband.”
“Oh, thank you—thank you. But—” Dick’s face fell—”I have no money.”
“Money is not everything,” said the stockbroker, quietly; “and Audrey will have—indeed she has—three thousand a year.”
“I couldn’t live on my wife, sir,” Lawson’s face flushed. “Audrey would not respect me if I did that, nor would I respect myself.”
Bollard stretched out his hand and shook that of Lawson. “I quite expected you to say that, and your saying it shows me more than ever how right I am in my judgment. If Audrey is willing you shall marry her.”
“But I can’t give her a home or a position, sir.”
“You seem to make a great many objections,” said Bollard, dryly.
“Would you rather I did not, Mr. Bollard?”
“Well, no. I think the better of you for your diffidence. But you can set your mind at rest. I shall get you a place where you will be able to earn a good salary, and have a brilliant future, if you work.”
“I would work myself to death for Audrey,” exclaimed the fervent lover.
Bollard laughed in his old hearty manner. “I think Audrey prefers you alive rather, than dead,” he said, jovially. “Young Lawson, your father was my very good friend, and I have known you from your childhood upward. You are well bred, a man of good birth, and have brains, which you have not used. I shall put you in the way of using them. I want you to marry Audrey, because I know you are honorable and honest. She wants a protector.”
Dick was struck by Bollard’s use of the same word which Mrs. Tremby had applied to this possible marriage. “Is she in any danger, sir?” he asked.
“She might be—from Randolph!”
“And the danger?” Dick bristled like a terrier.
“It may not come; on the other hand it may. When it does then you shall be put in possession of facts.”
“Do they bear on Lady Hamber’s death?” questioned Dick, and wondered inwardly why he spoke thus, and without apparent reason.
“Well—yes,” drawled Bollard, and turned his face away; then he stood up and faced round, observing abruptly, “keep your eye on Randolph.”
“Has he anything to do with the murder?” Dick was startled, sensing danger.
“I accuse no one, young Lawson. Go and see if my niece will marry you, and if she accepts keep your eye on Randolph. He means mischief.”
“But—but—” Dick was amazingly puzzled. “If you would explain—”
“I can’t explain,” Bollard was quite fierce, “and what is more I won’t explain unless I am driven to do so. I speak in Audrey’s interests. Now go.”
Lawson obeyed and left the room, half-pleased, half-annoyed, wholly puzzled.
For the next four and twenty hours Dick had ample food for thought. The more he considered the circumstances of his visit to the city the more tangled did his thoughts become. So far as he could gather there was some secret connected with Audrey, which Randolph knew, which Randolph had made use of to compel the girl to engage herself to him. But as Bollard, in some known way, had forced the scoundrel to break the engagement, why should he fear any revenge on the part of the rejected suitor? If this shady friend of the late Lady Hamber had a hold over the girl, undoubtedly—so it would appear—the stockbroker had a hold over him. And one hold, or the other—perhaps both—had to do with the murder in Sarley Wood. It was impossible that Audrey could be guilty; equally impossible that Randolph was implicated. What, then, was the meaning of Bollard’s hints? Dick gave up the riddle in despair, not even having Jossy at hand to help him to solve it.
For Mrs. Tremby had disappeared again, and again the notice of her absence for two or three days was fixed to her office door. Where she had gone to, or what she was doing, Dick could not guess, save that her action had something to do with the case. The crime in which the young man was so strangely involved had been complicated at the outset, but it seemed to him that it was even more complicated now. Dick thought and thought and thought, in the hope of arriving at some conclusion, so that this nightmare existence—to others as well as to himself—should come to an end, but only succeeded in worrying himself to fiddle strings.
This game was certainly not worth the candle, as his worrying produced no result. Therefore, after more than 24 hours of tumultuous thoughts he threw his worries to the four winds and set out to visit Winter square.
He would see Audrey; he would make love to Audrey. The crime and its mystery, the extraordinary behaviour of Bollard and Randolph could go hang. Dick’s misery was so great that he laughed, and then sought out Audrey, to find a better reason for his laughter.
“Oh, I am glad to see you, Mr. Lawson,” was the girl’s greeting to the visitor, and she held out both her hands with a smile.
Lawson was so taken aback by this unexpected friendliness, and more than friendliness, that he could only stare and clasp both those dear little hands in his own. He looked into Audrey’s face, noting that in spite of her smile it was wan and worn. “I am glad to see—you,” he stammered, for his brain was whirling, and he did not know how to word his thanks for this delightful reception. “You—you are—kind.”
“I have every reason to be—to you,” replied Miss Hamber soberly. “Do sit down, Mr. Lawson. Tea will be in soon, and my brother Gerald is coming down. He wants to meet you.”
“Delighted!” murmured the still bewildered man. “And is Mrs. Tremby coming?”
“She wrote and said that she was; but so far I have seen nothing of her. Have you seen her?”
“Not for the last two days—more or less. She has disappeared. Somehow,” added Dick, looking puzzled, “Jossy has a trick of disappearing.”
“She always was a queer girl,” sighed Audrey, seating herself opposite to Dick in a deep armchair; “but she is very clever and a dear. She told me that she had known you all her life.”
“She has,” admitted the visitor, “and has bullied me terribly.”
Audrey laughed. “I shouldn’t think you were a man to be bullied. Remember how you ordered me about in the wood?”
“That was for your good,” said Lawson with a smile.
Audrey laughed again. She had no doubt that she loved Dick. He had walked into her heart when they met so strangely in Sarley Wood, and the door had been shut to everyone else.
“Your engagement has been broken,” said Lawson suddenly, bringing his eyes back to her face, and announcing the fact somewhat defiantly.
“Yes! How do you know?” Her color came and went, and she seemed embarrassed.
“Your Uncle Oliver told me; told Mrs. Tremby. We were both delighted.”
“It is superfluous to ask why,” said Miss Hamber with a nod of relief. “Neither of you liked Mr. Randolph.”
“We detest him. And you?” He looked at her searchingly.
“I—I—don’t—care—for him,” she murmured brokenly.
“I should think you didn’t, the bounder.” Dick bent forward eagerly. “And I hope you weren’t angry at what I said in that alcove?”
“In the alcove?” Audrey looked down and drew patterns on the carpet with the toe of one small bronze slipper.
“The dear alcove,” said Dick sentimentally, “where I—”
What he would have said Audrey guessed easily, and her heart beat while she waited to hear him say it. But at that moment the door opened to admit a tall, thin, delicate-looking young man. When he saw Lawson he came forward with an outstretched hand. All the same, there was an apprehensive, nervous look on his delicate face. “I have to thank you for much, Mr. Lawson,” he said, in a low and rather hoarse voice. “You have been a good friend to Audrey and to me.
“Oh, that is all right,” said Dick, wishing to pass over the matter lightly, so as to set the invalid at his ease. “I only did what any decent chap would have done.”
“No, no!” cried Audrey strongly. “Not one man in a thousand would have behaved with such discretion and so chivalrously.”
“I agree.” Gerald sank into a near armchair with a sigh of exhaustion. “As I said to my sister, Mr. Lawson, you are a tower of strength. You should hear our Uncle Oliver sing your praises.”
“Mr. Bollard is my very good friend,” laughed Dick, still striving to lighten the somewhat strained atmosphere, “but he thinks too well of me. I really have done very little; but I hope to do much.”
“In what way?” asked young Hamber listlessly.
“I wish to solve the mystery of your stepmother’s death!”
“I wish you could,” sighed the boy—he was little else. “All the same, I don’t think you ever will.”
“I am not so sure of that. With Mrs. Tremby’s assistance I hope to.”
“Go on hoping,” said Audrey, vehemently. “And you and Jossy are so clever that I am sure you will succeed.”
“You wish us to succeed?”
“Most emphatically; so does Gerald. We won’t know a moment’s peace until you do succeed.”
She would have said more, but that two footmen entered at that moment, bringing in the afternoon tea. When they were all enjoying the meal, Gerald looked round the big room enquiringly.
“I thought someone else was coming here today,” he said, vaguely.
“Jossy, dear,” murmured Audrey, who was refilling Dick’s cup.
“Oh, yes, of course. But there was someone else. I say, Mr.—Mr.—What did you say your name was?”
“Lawson,” replied Dick, seeing that the boy’s memory was at fault.
“Quite so, Lawson. Yes, you helped Audrey in the wood when I—when I—” His face took on a bewildered expression. “What did I do in the wood, Audrey?”
“Don’t think of the wood, Gerald,” she said, anxiously. “Have some more tea.”
“No. I have to think. Someone is coming. He doesn’t like Lawson.”
Dick looked puzzled. “Who doesn’t like me, Hamber?”
“The man who is coming. Ah, yes!” Gerald raised his voice, having got a clue to what he wished to remember. “It’s Randolph. He doesn’t like you.”
“And I don’t like him!” retorted Dick, promptly.
“Oh, Randolph isn’t a bad chap. We were in Africa together.”
“And you saved his life?” observed Dick, quietly.
“Did I? I forgot. But when he comes here—”
“Gerald!” Audrey started. “You don’t mean to say that you have asked—”
“Mr. Randolph,” announced the dignified Backhouse, throwing open the door.
The unwelcome visitor walked languidly forward as the door closed, but halted scowling when he saw Lawson. He was smartly dressed, looking prosperous and somewhat insolent. The color came to Miss Hamber’s face and her eyes looked angry. “Why have you come here?” she demanded in her straightforward way.
“Gerald asked me to come,” retorted Randolph with insolence—veiled it is true, but none the less insolent for that—”and I wanted to come.”
“Sit down, old chap,” said Hamber, patting a chair beside him; “you know Mr.—Mr.—what did you say your name was?” He appealed to Dick.
“Oh, I know his name and all about him,” said Randolph, coolly, “and I must say I am surprised to see him here, riding-master.”
“And my friend,” said Audrey, sharply.
“Oh, well,” sneered the other, “if you choose to select your friends from the riffraff of the lower orders, I have—”
“Stop,” commanded Dick, rising; “remember, you are in a lady’s drawing room, Mr. Randolph. You shall answer to me for that speech, outside.”
“Anywhere you choose,” said the man, with cool impertinence, “and you are not to come here again.”
“Who dares to say that?” demanded Audrey, her cheeks red with anger.
“I do!” Randolph, who had sat down rose again. “I hold you there,” he tapped the palm of his hand, “so I am master here.”
Hamber rose also, and spoke with dignified displeasure. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that I saw you carrying Audrey into the house on the night when your step-mother was murdered.”
“Well?” Gerald’s color came and went, but spoke firmly. “And that means?”
“That one or the other of you shot her. Obey me, both of you, or I tell. And no one can prevent my telling.”
“You are wrong,” said a clear voice at the door, and the three turned swiftly to see that someone had entered slightly. “I can prevent you.”
It was Mrs. Tremby who stood at the door, massive, imposing, and with a gleam in her dark eyes which boded little good to Randolph. Audrey and Dick were relieved and uplifted by her arrival, for they saw that she had come with the full intention of fighting Randolph, and made certain that he would find her no mean antagonist. The scamp himself evidently thought otherwise; for he stared at her derisively, and began to laugh mockingly. “You, Mrs. Tremby?” he said, with a shrug. “And what can you do, pray? How can you prevent me from telling what I know?”
“We’ll come to that later,” answered the big lady, advancing leisurely into the room. “I did not expect to find you here, Mr. Randolph; but it is just as well that we should meet so opportunely. Otherwise you would have put me to the trouble of looking you up. Gerald, how are you?” She placed her hand on the boy’s shoulder, and gave it a friendly shake. “Audrey, dear, do give me a cup of tea and something to eat.”
Randolph was quite taken aback by this cool behaviour, and apparently reconsidered his opinion with regard to her capability of opposing him. His laughter ceased, and he looked uneasy.
“I know Mrs. Tremby of old,” he remarked, in his drawling way. “There is no chance of anyone talking but herself when she is present. Audrey”—he turned towards the girl—”I shall call later and explain myself to you and your brother,” and he sauntered languidly toward the door, with an insolent look at Dick as he passed by him.
“I shouldn’t go away if I were you, Mr. Randolph,” said Jossy over her shoulder, and very imperturbably; “you might walk into the hands of the police.”
The man wheeled at the door, and his sallow face blanched, although he still strove to maintain his nonchalant attitude. “You are talking nonsense,” he called back, with an uneasy frown. “What have I to fear from the police?”
“You know best, Mr. Randolph. You hinted a few moments ago that I talked too much, so I won’t waste words in explaining what you already know. Sugar, please, Audrey; you know I always like my tea sweetened.”
“Well, I’m going!” Randolph tugged the door open irritably.
“As you please. Don’t say I have not warned you.”
Randolph hesitated, thought better of his determination to leave, and closed the door violently. Then he came swiftly back to face Mrs. Tremby. “What the devil do you mean?” he demanded ferociously.
“Gently, Mr. Randolph; you are in the presence of ladies.”
It was Lawson who spoke, and he advanced toward the man with a quiet smile, which seemed to intimidate Randolph more than open anger would have done.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” he muttered, scowling darkly. “But I don’t understand.”
“You will when I have finished my tea,” said Jossy, sweetly. “Well, Gerald, and what have you to say about this—gentleman? He’s a pal of yours.”
All this time Hamber had been sitting in his chair as quiet as a mouse, and listening attentively. “From this moment Randolph is no friend of mine,” he said, with a firm dignity new to those present. “He has dared to come here and declare that either Audrey or I shot Lady Hamber.”
“I believe you did,” insisted Randolph. He took his seat, leant back, and crossed his legs, quite recovering his coolness, which the entrance of Mrs. Tremby had dispelled. “If you did not—one or the other of you—why were you in the wood on that night?”
“How did you know we were in the wood?” asked Audrey, calmly. Now that things were becoming dangerous she set her teeth and faced them bravely.
“You must have been. I was reading up to a late hour in my bedroom, the window of which looked out on to the lawns in front of the house. Before retiring I went to see what kind of a night it was, and I saw Gerald carrying you across the lawn up the terrace steps. Oh, you were in the wood right enough, and you shot Lady Hamber.”
“Why should I shoot her?”
“You had a row with her. Oh, yes. When I came came down to the drawing room for that book she told me that you had quarreled with her and had rushed out. I wanted to go and search for you, but she made me go back to my room. Then the butler came in, and after dismissing him, I suppose, she followed, to be shot.”
“But not by Miss Hamber,” struck in Dick, quickly, “she was lying in my caravan when the shot was fired; and moreover, had no revolver.”
“You did not say that at the inquest,” snarled Randolph.
“There was no need for me to say anything,” retorted Lawson.
“Oh, of course you would defend her,” sneered the other man.
“I shall do so to the last ditch,” was Lawson’s answer, and Audrey looked at him with gratitude shining in her eyes.
“Well, the last ditch is close at hand, and I am going to push Gerald and his precious sister into it.”
Randolph surveyed Dick’s inches and noted the choleric gleam in his eye. “I don’t want you to interfere. It’s none of your business.”
“I make it my business!” said Lawson, resolutely.
“Words! Words! Words!” chanted Jossy, setting down her cup, “let us get to business. I can explain yours, Mr. Randolph.”
“Oh, can you?” the man’s lips twisted in quite an ugly way.
“Certainly. You want Audrey’s money, and so forced her to become engaged to you by threatening her with the story you have just told. For the sake of Gerald, she engaged herself to you. Bollard broke the engagement and forced you to withdraw. Now, finding that you can’t get the money in that way, you have come here to ask for blackmail.”
“I come to ask money for my silence,” said Randolph, sullenly.
“I said as much—blackmail!” Mrs. Tremby spoke with great tranquility. “You always were a low-bred hound, Mr. Randolph, as my late husband had only too good reason to know. But I did not think that you would fall quite as low.”
“Words! Words! Words!” Randolph mocked her by echoing her former speech.
“So far—yes. Now we come to deeds! deeds! deeds! You will hold your tongue about this cock-and-bull story, which can be explained away.”
“Who will make me hold my tongue?”
“Oh, dear me!” Jossy sighed. “Are we talking in a circle? I thought I had explained myself fully when I entered.”
“Say what you have to say, and get out!” snapped the man, furiously.
“Mrs. Tremby shall stay here as long as she pleases,” said Gerald, rising, and with an angry flush on his fair face. “This is my house.”
“I am master in it.”
“Indeed you are not!” flashed out Audrey. “Sooner than that, I shall go with Gerald to Inspector Helder at Tarhaven and explain all that took place on that night, and how Gerald and I came to be in the wood.”
“You won’t dare!”
Audrey faced him resolutely, and caught her brother’s hand. “I will dare! Do you think that I am going to be intimidated by a man who sinks to demanding blackmail? You forced me into a promise of marriage by threatening to tell how you saw my brother and I returning to Sarley Court in the moonlight. I was weak enough to agree, to shield my brother. Now that he knows—you having told him yourself—there is no need for me to keep the matter secret. I shall let Gerald judge for himself.”
“I have already judged,” said the young man, feverishly. “I agree with you, Audrey. We shall tell the story to Inspector Helder.”
“Not yet,” broke in Mrs. Tremby. “First we must find who really did murder Lady Hamber,” and she looked at Randolph.
He winced. “You will never find that out. There is no evidence.”
“I don’t agree with you. I haven’t been looking into this case for nothing, Mr. Randolph. But there is one thing I don’t know, so perhaps you will be good enough to enlighten me. How did Bollard force you to break the engagement?”
“I shan’t tell you. I have still a card to play, and when I play it”—he looked savagely at the girl—”you will find that I can make things deuced unpleasant all round—for Bollard as well as others.”
“Oh, you mean to blackmail Bollard,” observed Jossy, coolly.
“I object to the word.”
“Probably you do. But what does that matter? Well, Bollard can look after himself, which he is quite capable of doing. I shall attend to you.”
“Mind your own business!” Randolph glared at her.
“Whipping hounds such as you are is my business, my dear Judas. And, by the way, before we go any further, I don’t intend to let you marry Miss Spine.”
“I shall marry her if I choose,” growled Randolph, doggedly.
“No!” said Lawson, in a voice like thunder, so loud and emphatic was his tone. “You certainly will not. I am Miss Spine’s relative, and I don’t choose that she shall marry a man capable of acting as you have done.”
“You’d better take care, Lawson. I know a thing which will put you in Queen street. So there.”
“What do you know?”
“Never mind at present,” Randolph rose and caught up his hat and cane. “As I said, I have a card to play yet—two cards; one which will trump Bollard, and one which will trump you.”
“Well, the sooner you play them the better,” said Dick coolly, “for as soon as you do play them I shall thrash you within an inch of your miserable life.”
Randolph winced, and made for the door, with an ugly laugh. “I am going to Scotland Yard,” he said viciously.
The brother and sister looked at one another with sudden apprehension, and Dick, noting the interchange of glances, felt a qualm. It might be that this scoundrel could do some harm to one or the other. Mrs. Tremby alone was perfectly calm and collected. She rose from her chair and walked toward Randolph as he fumbled with the door knob. “Do you wish me to speak here or in the hall?” she enquired. “I am ready to do either.”
“What do you mean?”
“My good creature,” she said impatiently. “I told you that I was going to prevent you from speaking of what you know.”
“You can’t!” he cried triumphantly.
“I can! It does not suit my plans that you should speak now. When I lay my hand on the man who shot Lady Hamber”—she touched his shoulder lightly, and he shrunk away, quivering—”you can speak as much as you like.”
“How do you propose to stop me from telling what I know?” asked the man in a hoarse voice, and manifestly afraid.
“I can tell you here or in the hall.”
Randolph looked into her eyes, which were very close to his own. For the moment he was inclined to defy her and bid her speak out before everyone. But her calm looks daunted him, and he opened the door. “You can tell me in the hall,” he growled savagely, “but you won’t close my mouth.”
“Well, let us see if such a miracle can be accomplished,” said Mrs. Tremby, and pushed the man out of the room, closing the door after her.
Those left behind looked at one another. Audrey, controlling herself with a visible effort, threw her arm over the shoulder of her brother. He was shaking from head to foot, evidently the prey of his unruly nerves. “Do you—you think that Jossy will—stop him—from—speaking?” he murmured.
“Yes, dear, yes.” Audrey smoothed his fair hair tenderly.
“Lawson?” he appealed to Dick anxiously.
“I believe in Jossy,” said Dick cheerfully. “She’s a wonder.”
They had every reason to believe him, for when Mrs. Tremby returned she was smiling gaily. “It is all right,” she announced, “he will be silent. I’ve fixed him.”
“Jossy, how did you—?” asked Audrey breathlessly.
“My dear, I shall explain everything when the time comes. As I told Dick, so I tell you—that you must let me conduct this matter in my own way. Just now I want fresh tea. I am tackling no light job, and my nerves are as bad as yours, my dear Gerald.”
“No one would believe that,” said the young man, touching the bell. “Why, you stood up to that scoundrel like a Briton.”
Mrs. Tremby raised her eyebrows. “Scoundrel? I thought he was your pal?”
“You said that before, and I told you he wasn’t. My eyes are opened to what he really is.”
Audrey, who had always disliked and dreaded the friendship between her weak brother and this strong-minded rascal, clapped her hands softly with delight when he spoke. “Since when, Gerald?”
“Since he came in with his blackmailing proposition, Audrey.” He slipped his arm round her waist. “You should have told me how he forced you to promise to marry him.”
“Your health wasn’t good enough for me to tell you that,” she sighed. “All I wished to do was to get you out of the trouble. That is why I persuaded you to go with me to Paris immediately after the funeral. Hush!”
She broke off suddenly when Backhouse made his appearance with fresh tea and took away the empty teapot. A second ringing of the bell always meant that another supply of tea was wanted, so no time was lost. When the butler departed and Jossy was enjoying her second cup, Dick spoke out resolutely. He had been considering matters.
“Hamber, I think you know that I am a staunch friend to yourself and your sister?”
“Of course I know that, Lawson. You have proved it.”
“Then tell me everything.”
“I thought Audrey had already done so.”
“So I have.” The girl looked at her lover with a perplexed frown. “What do you want to know further than I have explained?”
“Are you afraid lest Randolph should get you both into trouble?”
“Well, there is no doubt that he can, if he goes to Scotland Yard and tells how he saw Gerald carrying me back to Sarley Court on that night.”
“Yes,” Hamber nodded, and turned even paler than he was. “It will be hard to explain that. And—and I can’t explain. I don’t quite remember everything, you know. I missed Audrey, and went in search of her. Then I heard the shot, and—and I picked up the revolver, didn’t I, Audrey?”
She nodded. “Afterwards you placed Lady Hamber’s body in the caravan and carried me home, since I could not walk.”
“I don’t remember that—exactly. It is all so vague.” The boy swept his thin hand across his forehead. “I only know bits. But I couldn’t tell a connected story to save my life.”
“Don’t try to,” advised Mrs. Tremby from the tea table.
“But I must, if the police ask me things.”
“They won’t ask you anything—at all events, not now.”
“But if Randolph goes to Scotland Yard—”
“My dear boy,” broke in Jossy, crossly, “your memory is rotten. Didn’t I tell you that I had shut that beast’s mouth? He won’t go to Scotland Yard.”
“You are sure?”
“Perfectly sure.” Mrs. Tremby rose and crossed to the boy to lead him gently to a deep armchair. “My dear, you always trusted me. I have been just like a mother to you, so why not trust me now?”
Gerald leaned against her confidently. “You are always kind, Jossy.”
“Of course I am kind,” murmured Mrs. Tremby; “in the meantime, don’t worry over that wretch. He daren’t speak.”
“I shouldn’t be surprised if he shot Lady Hamber himself,” said Audrey who had been thinking. “Yes. You heard how he admitted that she told him I had left the house. He might have followed me—followed my stepmother.”
“It is not impossible,” said Mrs. Tremby, dryly, “not even improbable.”
“B’Jove,” cried Lawson, suddenly enlightened, “is that what you said to him in the hall, Jossy?”
“No. I said something else. Don’t bother me, Dicky, I have other things to attend to, much more important.”
“Nothing can be more important than the closing of Randolph’s mouth.”
“Perhaps not at this moment. However, it is closed, so you needn’t bother any more as to the why and the wherefore.”
“Jossy!” burst out Audrey, desperately, “I wish you wouldn’t make such a mystery of things. I am sick of mystery.”
“I don’t wonder at it. Ever since Lady Hamber married your father you have had mystery, and her murder only adds to the perplexity of everything. But we must go step by step, Audrey dear, as we are groping along a dark path and cannot see very far ahead. When I know what I intend to know, then I shall speak out, and you will approve of my present licence. Lady Hamber—”
“Oh, don’t talk of her,” interrupted Audrey, vehemently. “I shall never forgive her for what she said to me on that night.”
“What did she say?” Jossy looked across the room curiously.
Audrey’s face became red, and she cast down her eyes. “I—I don’t want to—to speak of it,” she murmured, in choking tones. “She was a wicked woman.”
Mrs. Tremby suddenly left the arm of Gerald’s chair on which she was sitting, and went over to Audrey, and took both her hands. “Tell me,” she said, firmly.
“No.” The girl pulled her hands away.
“Has what she told you anything to do with the case—with the murder?”
“No. I would tell you if it had. It was a—a private matter.” Audrey looked at Dick, grew a deeper crimson, and ended up by bursting into tears as she sank down into a chair.
“Miss Hamber—Audrey!” Dick was beside her in a moment, greatly distressed.
“Oh, Dick, Dick!” She caught his hand and pressed it against her wet cheek. “I know you will help me!”
“In any way—in any way. Dearest, you know that I love you.”
“Love Audrey!” cried Gerald, with weak surprise.
“Yes. I want to marry her. Have you any objection?”
“Objection!” Hamber sprang to his feet with amazing strength, considering his weak health, and crossed the room to shake Dick’s hand. “After what you have done for us, there is nothing I would like better.”
Lawson was taken aback by this friendly display from a quarter where he had expected opposition. “But you scarcely know me,” he faltered.
“Audrey knows you—Jossy knows you—Uncle Oliver knows you. What they say is good enough for me.”
“Oh, Audrey!” Dick held out his arms and the girl, rising, would have cast herself into them, but Mrs. Tremby held her back. “No. This is no time for love-making, much as I sympathise with you and Dicky. I have something to learn from Gerald, as I told you at the ball. Where is that revolver he picked up in the wood?”
Audrey, with a nod, went to a cabinet, opened a drawer, and took out a revolver. This she brought to Jossy, who examined it carefully, and sat down to question Gerald. “Come over here, my dear boy. Is this the revolver you picked up near the body of Lady Hamber?”
“I suppose so. I did pick up a revolver, only I can’t be sure this one is—”
“It is,” said Audrey, positively. “When I crawled out of the caravan, Gerald had just picked it up. I took it from him and carried it home with me.”
Jossy nodded in a satisfied way. “That’s all right, Gerald, do you remember saving Randolph’s life in Africa?”
“Did I—oh, yes, I think I did.” The boy looked puzzled. “I’m sure I did.”
“Of course,” struck in Dick, wondering what Mrs. Tremby was trying to arrive at. “Randolph told me himself. A nigger got drunk and ran amuck. Randolph was unarmed, when the man made for him with an axe, and—”
“Yes, yes!” Hamber interrupted, excitedly. “I remember now quite clearly; I threw him my revolver, and he shot the nigger just when I fired my Winchester. Of course I saved Randolph’s life, and he repays me in the way he has done.”
“That kind of man would,” said Mrs. Tremby, with disgust. “But Gerald, dear, is this the revolver you threw to Randolph?”
Dick started, guessing what Jossy wished to learn, and looked eagerly at the boy, who was now examining the weapon.
“I can’t be sure,” murmured Hamber, in a far-away voice. “One revolver is so like another.”
“There are two deeply-cut nicks in the butt of this one, see, and some kind of letter, curving imperfectly.”
“Oh, yes,” said Hamber, still in his far-away voice, and looking at the weapon indifferently. “I remember trying to carve my name. That curve is a ‘G.’ and the two nicks the ‘H’; only I was interrupted before I could put in the crossbar. It is my revolver right enough.”
“Gerald!” cried Audrey, excitedly, “do you know what you are saying?”
“Saying?” He looked vaguely at her, evidently not realising the importance of his speech. “Yes, I know; of course I know. What are you making such a fuss about, Audrey? There’s nothing in giving a revolver to a chap. I chucked it to Randolph when that nigger went for him. We laughed over the business when talking in his bedroom at Uncle Oliver’s.”
Dick and Audrey would have both exclaimed, but that Jossy silenced them with a look.
“What made you recall the story, Gerald?” she asked, softly, and in a coaxing way.
“Why, I found the revolver in Randolph’s bag when he was packing up to come over to Sarley Court.” Gerald spoke easily and with indifference.
“And—and he took it to Sarley Court?” asked Jossy, anxiously.
“I suppose so. But why—”
“Why?” She rose triumphantly. “Because Randolph shot Lady Hamber with this very revolver. He is the guilty person. I always thought so.”
Mrs. Tremby and Lawson left Winter square with a triumphant feeling that the long-standing mystery had been rightly solved, and that Randolph would now have to pay in full for his evil deeds. Jossy explained at length to the young man that she had always suspected Randolph, since her knowledge of the past assured her that he would shrink at nothing to gain his ends. But it was hard to understand why he had shot Lady Hamber, although on the evidence of the revolver—he must have done so. “I don’t see what motive he had to get rid of her,” argued Lawson; “she was his friend; she supported his suit to Audrey, and, so far as I can see, was more use to him alive than dead.”
Jossey nodded gravely. “It is strange,” she assented. “I am puzzled myself.”
“Do you think that there may be some other explanation of the death?”
“There may. Everything is possible in connection with criminality. But failing Randolph, who could have killed the woman?” She thought for a few minutes, then suddenly made a suggestion. “Ask Randolph round to your lodgings?”
“Why?” Dicks face expressed unbounded astonishment. “We are not on good terms, and I prefer his room to his company.”
“Daresay. But I should like to ask the man questions in your presence. He is a slippery customer, and should I see him alone would deny the truth.”
“He won’t admit the truth before a witness,” expostulated Lawson, doubtfully.
“I don’t care if he does, or not,” said Mrs. Tremby coolly. “I have sufficient evidence on which to have him arrested. When Inspector Helder has him under lock and key he may confess. But I wish to learn what his motive was for this apparently causeless murder, so I want you to be present when I ask.”
“He won’t come to my rooms, Jossy.”
“He will,” Mrs. Tremby retorted confidently. “Mention in your note that I have told you how I closed his mouth, and infer you wish to speak to him about the matter.”
“But I don’t know how you closed his mouth.”
“I shall tell you now. Randolph forged the name of a rich young fellow, who was the friend of my late husband. Billy was mixed up in the matter, so that it looked as if he was an accomplice. I saw the young man, and managed to convince him that Billy was innocent; but I asked him not to take steps against Randolph, lest my husband’s name should suffer. Then Billy died, and the matter has remained in abeyance. I told Randolph that, if he spoke out, I would have him arrested for the forgery, however much it might reflect on my husband’s memory.”
“Oh, Jossy!” Dick was touched, for he knew how Mrs. Tremby had loved her weak and foolish husband. “Would you do that for Audrey’s sake?”
“Yes, and for Gerald’s. You guessed, as I saw, that I love Gerald. I should like to marry him, as he needs someone such as I am beside him to be his mother as well as his wife. I mothered Billy, who was just such another sweet-pea, ready to cling round any stick. However, we can discuss this later.
“Meanwhile, send a note by hand to Randolph—this is his address—and ask him to come round to your digs at nine o’clock tonight. I shall turn up at that hour.”
While Dick was placing the card she gave him in his pocket-book, and the two were yet lingering at the corner of Winter square, a breathless man hurried up. It was the butler, Backhouse, less dignified than usual, because of his haste. He addressed himself immediately to Mrs. Tremby. “I thought I would have missed you, madam,” he said, striving to recover his breath.
“Mr. Lawson and I have been chatting here for the last ten minutes,” replied Mrs. Tremby, wondering at his appearance. “Anything wrong?”
“No, madam. But Miss Audrey wants you to come back with me. She has something of importance to tell you.”
“Shall I come too, Jossy?” questioned Dick, looking anxious and fearful lest some new trouble had come to Audrey.
“No! Go to your rooms and write the note to Randolph immediately. There is no time to lose. I shall go back and see Audrey.”
“You don’t think there is anything wrong?”
“Everything is wrong until all these mysteries are cleared up,” retorted Mrs. Tremby, brusquely. “I shall call and see you at nine o’clock. Come, Backhouse.”
She moved away with the butler, looking much disturbed by this unexpected summons to return, and left Dick standing where he was in a state of nervous excitement. He immediately jumped to the conclusion that something had gone wrong with Audrey and her brother, but what it might be he could not think. But for the necessity of obeying Jossy and securing the presence of Randolph at his rooms, he would have gone back to the house.
“The whole infernal thing is enough to drive a chap out of his mind,” muttered Lawson between his teeth.
Ordering the taxi to wait, the young man hurried to his sitting room, and wrote a hasty note to Randolph, inviting him at 9 o’clock that evening to discuss what Mrs. Tremby had talked about in the hall of Sir Gerald Hamber’s house. With this he went downstairs and jumped into the taxi again. Dick felt that he could not sit still while things were in such an unset condition, and so drove to Randolph’s address, to deliver his own note. He dismissed the taxi in Sophia street, St. James’s, where the man lived, and gave the note to the ex-butler who owned the house, with instructions that it was to be given to Mr. Randolph at once. Then he wondered if he dared to call again at Winter square, so as to get his mind set at rest. After some struggle with his anxiety he decided to walk home to Bloomsbury, and leave things in the capable hands of Mrs. Tremby. The walk did him good, and he returned home to await patiently the coming of the expected visitor.
Yet it was with a long-drawn breath of relief that Lawson heard the clock strike nine times.
Randolph arrived almost to the minute, looking anxious and nervous. It was in vain that he strove to be his languid, insolent self. There was fear in his shifty eyes; lack of self-control in his restless gestures. With an effort to appear indifferent he lounged into the room at the heels of Dick’s landlady, and when she retired, threw himself into a chair. “Well?” he asked, striving to steady his voice, “and what do you wish to see me about?”
“I think my note informed you of that,” replied his host quietly. “What Mrs. Tremby said to you in the hall—”
“That is none of your business,” burst out Randolph, fiercely, “and she promised to say nothing if I held my tongue over the presence of Hamber and his sister in Sarley Wood on that night.”
“Mrs. Tremby thought it advisable to tell me of your crime,” said Dick, shrugging.
“Well, then. I think it advisable to tell the police about that couple, who have to do with the death of Lady Hamber.”
Dick was about to ask him if it was wise to do so, seeing that he, himself, could be proved guilty, when the door opened and Josey entered quietly. She had lost her florid color and lively manner, appearing pale and decidedly subdued, “Oh, you have come as requested,” she said, on seeing Randolph.
“Yes!” he replied, insolently, “and I want to know why you broke your promise?”
“I exercised a woman’s immemorial right to change her mind,” retorted Mrs. Tremby, coolly; “but you need not be afraid. Mr. Lawson will hold his tongue.”
“I won’t hold mine,” said Randolph, losing his coolness in a fit of sheer rage. “Tomorrow I shall go down to Tarhaven and explain all I know.”
“Oh, indeed! Will you explain how you shot Lady Hamber?”
Randolph sprang from his chair with such violence as to overturn it. “It’s a lie. You know it is!”
“It is the truth, and you know it is,” said Mrs. Tremby, very distinctly, while Dick listened with all his ears. “Audrey called me back to the house after I left it with Mr. Lawson, and told me to ask Backhouse questions. You did not go to bed after leaving Lady Hamber in the drawing room, but put on your overcoat and followed her out of the window.”
“I did not follow her,” said Randolph, livid with anger and fear.
“Backhouse saw you, when he came back for a moment to look in and see if the lights were out. He said nothing, since he did not think it was necessary at the time. But he revealed what he knew to Audrey, and—well, what explanation have you to make?”
“None. I had no revolver with which to shoot Lady Hamber.”
“Oh, yes, you had. The revolver Gerald threw to you in Africa, when that nigger tried to kill you. Gerald was over at Sarley Grange, where you were staying the day before you came to Sarley Court. He saw the revolver in your bag, and recognised it.”
“Oh!” Randolph’s face wore a curious expression. “So I shot Lady Hamber with that revolver, did I?”
“You did,” said Jossy, serenely. “Gerald picked it up near the body where you flung it down when you escaped from the wood.”
Randolph sneered. “So clear; very conclusive. Well, then, I was out of the house on that night. But I did not follow Lady Hamber; I was not in the wood. I did not have the revolver; and I did not shoot her, having no reason to do so.”
Mrs. Tremby shrugged her massive shoulders. “As to your reason I can say nothing. But you have admitted in the presence of a witness,” she pointed to the silent Lawson, who nodded, “you have admitted that you left the house on that night, on or about the time Lady Hamber went out. The revolver was in your possession, as Gerald can prove, and—”
“That is enough evidence against me,” interrupted Randolph, waving his hand impatiently, and now quite his own insolent self. “You are sure that the woman was shot with that revolver?”
“Yes, I am quite sure I have it. It is loaded in five chambers, the sixth is empty of the cartridge, with which Lady Hamber was shot.”
“She was shot with a bullet,” sneered Randolph, his eyes glittering, why Dick could not imagine, “not with a cartridge. But who can expect a woman to be strictly accurate? Well, you have a very pretty case against me. I suppose you intend to have me arrested. Are the police in waiting?”
“No.” Mrs. Tremby looked at him, steadily. “I am going to give you a chance of escape. Go back to your chambers and write out a confession, so that all those involved in this matter may have their characters cleared. Bring it me tomorrow and sign it in the presence of Mr. Lawson and myself. Then I advise you to escape to the States.”
“Oh, you advise me to escape to the States,” said Randolph, in a curious tone. “According to your account I am guilty of forgery and murder.”
“You are,” said Jossy, firmly.
“I admit the first, but not the last. Why this clemency?”
Mrs. Tremby faced him squarely, “I know why Audrey became engaged to you.”
“Oh!” Randolph laughed in an ugly way, “she explained how I forced her?”
“She did!” Jessy’s eyes met his very steadily.
The scoundrel looked rather taken aback. “I didn’t think she’d have the pluck to do that,” he muttered, then raised his eyes to look at Dick. “You are very silent, Mr. Lawson, yet you are the champion of this unfortunate damsel. Why don’t you defend her?”
“Mrs. Tremby is defending her on my behalf,” said Lawson, politely, and overcoming a wild desire to knock the man down. “I know how you forced Miss Hamber to engage herself to you. Yes—you intended to tell the police that she and her brother were in the wood if she refused to marry you.”
“Oh, that is it, is it?” Randolph laughed, and still in the old ugly way, while he turned toward Mrs. Tremby. “So he doesn’t know the truth?”
“No,” she answered, very pale, but with great self-control, “he does not.”
“I wonder what he will say when he does know?” sneered the man, now quite his old wicked, languid self, and surveyed the amazed face of Lawson with a mocking smile.
Dick sprang to his feet. “What do you mean—both of you?”
“You will know later,” said Jossy, catching his arm as he advanced with an angry gesture toward Randolph. “Gerald and Audrey are going down to-morrow to Sarley Grange for a few days,” she went on, addressing the scamp. “They stay there with Mr. Oliver Bollard. Before they leave town by the 12 o’clock train I want your confession. Only on your promising to bring it to me tomorrow at 11—bring it here, so that Mr. Lawson and I can witness it—will I afford you this chance of escape. Meantime you are being watched.”
“Very kind of you,” said Randolph, picking up his hat and overcoat, “both in having me watched and in giving me this chance of getting away. Well, Mrs. Tremby, I accept your generous offer. Tomorrow at 11 you will see me here with my confession, and everything will be put right. Meantime, I bid you good night, Mr. Lawson. Madam!” He bowed ironically to Jossy, and left the room with a mocking laugh.
“What does this mean?” asked Dick when the door was closed. “What is the truth he spoke about?”
Jossy sighed; “You will know all when the confession is signed and witnessed.”
It was in vain that Dick attempted to make Mrs. Tremby reveal what Randolph meant by his strange behaviour. All she would say was that Audrey had told her something of moment which had led her to afford the scamp a chance of escape, and that as soon as his confession was signed and witnessed an explanation would be given. Seeing that Mrs. Tremby was depressed and quite worn out, Lawson did not press the matter. But he passed a bad night after the lady left, since he felt that there was something very uncomfortable to be revealed. It concerned Audrey, perhaps her brother; but what it possibly could be Dick was unable to guess. Throughout the dark hours he tossed and turned on his bed, wooing sleep in vain, for the suspense was dreadful. He was quite haggard and sick with apprehension when he got up next morning.
A cold bath and a tolerably good breakfast, together with the early riding lesson he had to give his class, somewhat braced him. He returned to his rooms feeling very much better, and was changing his clothes when the landlady knocked at his bedroom door with the information that a lady wished to see him. Thinking it was Jossy, arriving to wait for Randolph and the promised confession, Dick was uplifted; actually whistling, when he finished dressing and opened the door of his bedroom to greet the lady. He stopped short at the sight of the very last person he expected to see.
“Yes, it’s me!” screamed Miss Esther Spine, in her peacock voice, and with an indignant glare. “You didn’t think I’d come, did you, Richard? Oh, you bad man, with your plots and schemes and wicked doings. And after I sent you a hundred pounds,” she continued, quivering with anger, and tossing her head indignantly; “after I was prepared to overlook your wicked past and welcome you to my only too kindly heart. To accuse Arthur of being a murderer—”
“Oh, you know that, do you?” Lawson strode across the room and stared hard at her. “And how do you know?”
“How do I know?” shrieked Miss Spine, shrilly. “Why, the poor darling came to me last night, after he left you, and told me what you and that wicked woman had said. Mrs. Tremby. Yes! Mrs. Tremby.” She repeated the name because Jossy had just entered silently. “Oh! the pair of you. And Arthur one of the sweetest and most angelic of men.”
“He has a good advocate in you,” said Jossy, quietly. “May I ask you why you have come here to defend that scoundrel?”
“I won’t hear you.” Miss Spine stuffed her fingers into her ears. “No, no! I really won’t! I can’t sit in the same room with you. Richard, turn that woman out immediately. I am only a girl—or almost a girl—innocently brought up. She is not fit company for me in any way. Oh, the shame of it; to sit down with a Jezebel.”
Mrs. Tremby flushed with annoyance, and, walking across the room, pulled the excited damsel’s hands from her ears and forced her into a chair. “What do you mean by coming here and making a fool of yourself?” She shook Miss Spine until the many jingling ornaments she wore rattled loudly.”‘How dare you talk to me and of me in this disgraceful way, you wretched old creature!”
“Old! Creature!” Miss Spine gasped, with indignation. “I am neither the one nor the other. In the interests of my dearest Arthur I—”
“What the devil is dearest Arthur to you?” demanded Dick, roughly.
“Swearing! How awful. Richard, I wonder you aren’t afraid of being struck dumb with your wicked speech.”
“I wish you were,” he retorted. “Now then, Esther, pull yourself together and explain yourself reasonably.”
“And be civil,” supplemented Mrs Tremby with a frown. “I am not going to allow you to be impertinent.”
Miss Spine tossed her head and her hands quivered as she tried to get her nerves into better order. “Oh, it’s all very well talking, and you are both very bold in your ignorance. But if you know what Arthur knows—”
“We do know,” snapped Jossy, impatiently; “he is coming here shortly to give me a written statement of the crime he committed.”
“He isn’t,” shrieked Miss Spine, triumphantly, “he has gone down to that horrid man, Mr. Bollard’s place.”
“I know that,” replied Mrs. Tremby, quietly, “but I wished to learn if you knew it, as you are evidently working hand-in-glove with Randolph.”
“Has he really gone down to see Bollard, Jossy?”
“No, Dick. He will see him, but not until the afternoon. Just before I left my office I received a wire from Tarhaven from the man I employed to watch Randolph. He—Randolph, I mean—has gone there to see Inspector Helder.”
“For what reason?” Dick looked perturbed.
“He is making a last attempt to throw the blame of his crime on to someone else. He and Helder will probably go over to Sarley Grange this afternoon.”
“Of course they will.” The fair Esther left off powdering her nose, and nodded with a contemptuous smile. “Arthur told me so. Gerald Hamber is guilty, and will be arrested by Inspector Helder.”
“That’s a lie,” cried Lawson angrily—but it distressed him to see that Mrs. Tremby did not support his downright denial.
“It is the truth,” insisted Miss Spine. “Oh, I know how you learnt that my dearest Arthur left the house on that night, and how you accuse him of following Lady Hamber to shoot her. He told me all, and now”—her voice leaped an octave, until she screamed like a seagull—”I will tell you all.”
“Go on, then,” said Dick, quietly.
“I am engaged to Arthur,” cried Miss Spine triumphantly. “Oh, I know he paid that washed-out Audrey Hamber attentions, but his heart was always mine. He told me so, bless him, my darling, my angel. We were going to elope—”
“Why should you elope?” asked Jossy, with a shrug. “No one would mind if you married the man.”
“I wanted the romance of an elopement,” said Miss Spine simpering. “My heart being fresh and young in a way you cannot understand with your worn nature.”
“Never mind my worn nature. Go on with your confession.”
“It’s not a confession. I need not tell you anything. I only came out of regard for Richard, so that he might escape from the punishment which will most surely fall upon him in being associated with you in accusing an innocent man of murder. My Arthur is no murderer.”
“He will have to prove that,” said Dick dryly.
“I can prove it!” Miss Spine rose dramatically, waving her arms with a small mirror in one hand and a powder puff in the other. “On that night when Lady Hamber was slain in the wood my Arthur was with me!”
“With you!” Jossy and Dick stared at the woman; stared at one another.
“Yes. I wished to elope, and wrote to Arthur, arranging to be on the road outside Sarley Court waiting for him. I drove down late at night in my car, my heart leaping to meet him. I heard the shot,” said Miss Spine, with emphasis, “and shortly afterwards Arthur came running up to say that he could not go with me that night, as something dreadful had happened. So I went back to town, and later read all about the tragedy.”
“Your statement doesn’t clear Randolph’s character,” said Dick bluntly. “You declare that he came to you after the shot was fired. And he might—”
“No!” Miss Spine screamed indignantly. “Gerald Hamber fired the shot! Arthur saw him fire it!”
“Then Randolph did follow Lady Hamber!” struck in Mrs. Tremby sharply. “You said a little time ago that he did not.”
“Arthur asked me to say nothing about that; but when you say that my Arthur fired the shot I think it is right to defend him. He did follow, and he did see the shooting. So there!” Miss Spine moved hurriedly toward the door.
“Hamber is not guilty!” insisted Lawson furiously.
“He is. That plain-looking sister of his has been trying to defend him, and that is why she took him to Paris. He is half an idiot.”
“Nothing of the sort!” cried Mrs. Tremby furiously in her turn. “He is much more sensible than you are! If anyone is guilty it is Randolph!”
“Well, then, go down to Mr. Bollard’s place and hear what Inspector Helder has to say now that Arthur has told him what he saw. You will arrive in time to see Gerald Hamber arrested. And Arthur,” ended Miss Spine triumphantly, “will then marry me!” She left the room with a cackling laugh, jeering and sneering.
Miss Tremby and Dick looked at one another. “Could Hamber be guilty after all?”
An hour later—on the stroke of one, to be precise—a powerful motor car was racing out of London, with Dick at the wheel and Mrs. Tremby beside him. Shortly after Miss Spine’s departure Jossy had telephoned to Winter square, only to learn that Audrey and her brother had already left the house to catch the midday express from Liverpool street. Bollard was expecting them at his country house, but Mrs. Tremby would have prevented their going had it been possible, if only to disarrange Randolph’s vindictive plans. But it was too late, so nothing remained but to follow and see what would be the result of the scoundrel’s machinations. Having wired to Tarr that he was off duty for the day, he and Jossy started as soon as possible.
“Do you think we shall be in time?” asked Mrs. Tremby, while the car whizzed along in the hot sunshine. “We must get there before Helder arrives.”
“I believe we can manage it,” said Lawson grimly, as he let out the car to full speed up a long, straight white road bordered by hedges; “but I don’t expect we shall find things will happen as Esther suggests.”
“She seemed very certain of the truth of what she was saying.”
“Randolph, has pulled wool over her eyes. She is so infatuated with the man that she believes anything he says.”
“But I know, from the wire I received, that Randolph has gone to seek out Inspector Helder,” said Jossy dismally. “He looks as though he were innocent, otherwise he would not put his head in the lion’s mouth.”
“Bluff!” said Lawson curtly.
“I doubt that,” contradicted Mrs. Tremby acidly, for her nerves were troubling her. “Gerald can prove that Randolph had the revolver, Audrey that it is the revolver with which Lady Hamber was shot, while that woman, in our presence, declared that Randolph was out of the house on that night. The evidence is strong against him. His mere statement that Gerald is guilty will not clear his character.”
Dick shook his head anxiously. “It’s a difficult case. Jossy. I can’t see what Randolph is driving at. If he really saw the boy shoot that woman, he would have asked for money to hold his tongue.”
“He did ask,” Mrs. Tremby reminded him.
“Yes. But he did not seem to be sure if Audrey or Gerald was guilty. Also he merely tried for blackmail, on the plea that he saw the boy carrying his sister back to the house. If he really saw Gerald shoot he would have charged him openly with the crime.”
“And so have been forced to admit that he left the house in pursuit of Lady Hamber,” declared Mrs. Tremby doubtfully, “He did not wish that to be known, remember. Miss Spine said so, and only let it out by chance. No, Dicky, there is something at the back of this which I cannot grasp.”
Lawson agreed, with a nod, then suddenly asked: “You are sure Hamber is an innocent man, Jossy?”
“Yes!” she replied resolutely. “I would stake my life on his innocence.”
“Yet Audrey seems to be afraid on his account.”
“Because of his health,” said Mrs. Tremby quickly. “The poor boy has been all broken to pieces since his accident. His memory is almost gone, and—”
“That’s the point,” interrupted Lawson sharply. “Do you think that he might have really shot the woman and then forgotten all about it?”
“No, I don’t. Gerald is not the kind of man to shoot a woman.”
“He disliked his stepmother, remember.”
“He had every reason to,” said Mrs. Tremby with a frown. “Particularly if what Audrey told me is true, which I can hardly believe.”
“What did she tell you?”
“I can’t explain at present. Audrey made me promise to tell the truth—and a very unpleasant one it is—to you; when the mystery of her stepmother’s death was solved. Until that happens I am bound in honor to hold my tongue.”
“Has what she told you anything to do with the death?”
“It might have something to do with it, and it might not.”
“Randolph knows this secret?”
“Yes. And made use of it to force Audrey to engage herself to him.”
“Well, I’m not going to be kept in the dark any longer,” said Dick in a resolute tone. “When I see Audrey I intend to insist upon an explanation. If in any possible way this secret bears on the death I have a right to know it in order to save the girl I love.”
“You will know it when the time comes. Meanwhile, can’t you trust me, Dicky?”
“I don’t like mystery,” he grumbled, frowning.
“Neither do I. I have had enough of it to last my lifetime. When things are straightened out I shall marry Gerald—he asked me once to become his wife, you know—and leave the detective business. In the meantime, trust your old pal, Dicky. I won’t let you down.”
Lawson cast a side glance at the massive figure of the big woman, at her strong face and firm lips. Jossy was no fool, and although he felt sore at being excluded from her confidence and that of Audrey, yet he felt that he could safely leave things in her hands. All the same, “I wish I could understand you, Jossy,” he said with a sigh of vexation.
“You will before you marry Audrey, or I Gerald,” she said, comforting him in her motherly way.
By this time they were more than halfway to their goal. Dick had travelled the roads only a short time previously in his caravan, so there was no need for any delay in consulting maps. With no deviation from the nearest route to Sarley Village he drove the big car steadily onward, between hedgerows, through villages and towns, over causeways bridging marshes, up and down hills. In a couple of hours, or a little more, the machine sung through Sarley Village, passing the big house, the wood, the tiny hamlet itself, and emerged again into the open country. Here, immediately beyond the village, the ground began to rise towards the hill upon which Sarley Grange was built. One side of the hill was extremely precipitous—a kind of inland cliff, which in prehistoric times had been washed by the sea—and up the side of this, in a slanting direction, a narrow road had been cut from the live rock. In days of yore Sarley Grange had been a robbers’ castle, and there was only one way of approaching it, so that in time of war it could be well defended by a few resolute men. Along the side of the road and on the verge of the precipice ran a new wall to prevent accidents—so low that Jossy became a trifle nervous.
“Do take care, Dicky,” she said, clutching the side of the car. “If you barge into that wall we’ll fall about 30 or 40 ft., and there won’t be much left of us.”
“Don’t squeal,” retorted Lawson, who was surging the machine steadily up the incline. “I know my business. Also, as much as I know, there has never been an accident here. Selwin, who is a native of these parts told me all about the place when he came upon me in Africa. Sarley Grange seems to be a kind of Dove-in-the-Eagle’s-Nest or an excellent robber’s castle of the Middle Ages. Bollard is a stockbroker. I expect it suits him.”
Mrs. Tremby, not having read Charlotte Young’s delightful story, paid no attention to this prattle. Still rising, this leafy way—the trees arched over it, making a kind of emerald twilight in the sunshine—led to an open space of widely-spreading lawns, bordered by brilliant flower beds. The house itself was a mixture of the old and the new—Norman, Tudor, Georgian, and Victorian architecture were all mingled in one delightful whole, harmonised by wind and sun and Father Time. It was a charming old house, but Mrs. Tremby cast only one look at it, and then her eyes fell on a car at the door.
“Oh, Dicky,” she said, her voice shaking, “we are too late. There is a car.”
“It may not have come from Tarhaven,” said Lawson soothingly, and halted his own machine behind the other. “Get out, Jossy, and let us go into the house.”
There was no chauffeur in the waiting car so it was impossible to make enquiries. But a glance told Dick that it was much too luxurious a vehicle to be hired or owned by Helder. An idea flashed into his mind that his cousin had anticipated their arrival, but he did not impart this to Mrs. Tremby, who was sufficiently anxious as it was. The footman who opened the door explained that Mr. Bollard, with his guests, was in the library, and just as he did so a French window on the left opened, and the man himself stepped out.
“Young Lawson! Mrs. Tremby!” He came forward quickly, and nodded to the footman to close the door. “I am so glad you have come. There is a lunatic here worrying Audrey, and Gerald, and me.”
“I am not a lunatic,” screamed a highpitched voice, and when Miss Spine appeared out of the French window, Dick knew that his guess had been correct. “How dare you say—oh!”—she broke off in dismay when she beheld the new arrivals—”you here?”
“I and Mrs. Tremby,” said Lawson coolly. “We came along to see this thing through. You advised us to, you know.”
“I didn’t expect you would come, Richard,” shrieked Miss Spine viciously, “and that woman, too. Ah, well,” she laughed jeeringly, “the more the merrier. Come in and wait for the arrival of the police.”
With a frown Bollard ushered in Jossy and Dick, when Miss Spine stepped back into the library. They entered by the window as the nearest way, since, in obedience to his master’s orders, the footman had already closed the front door. The library was a sombre apartment with a red carpet and curtains and black oak bookcases filled with volumes. Audrey was seated on the arm of a chair in which her brother was huddling, and looked up with relief when she saw her lover and his companion. “Oh, Dick!” she cried with a sob, “you are just in time. This woman has been saying such dreadful things about Gerald,” and she passed her arm round the neck of the shivering boy.
Miss Spine giggled hysterically, and Bollard turned from her with a look of aversion. “Is she mad?” he asked Mrs. Tremby pointedly.
“No more mad than you are, Mr. Bollard,” cried Miss Spine sharply. “And, if it comes to that, I would rather be mad than wicked. That man”—she pointed to young Hamber—”is guilty of the death of his stepmother.”
“Stuff and nonsense,” muttered the stockbroker.
“Wait until Inspector Helder arrives. Then we shall see if it is stuff and nonsense. Oh, I wish he would come to punish you all.”
“You have got your wish, madam,” said Bollard heavily. “Here is Inspector Helder, and with him that blackguard Randolph.”
As in the case of the last arrivals, Mr. Bollard went out by the French window to call Helder and his companion into the library. Helder, lean and sharp-eyed, followed the big man in through the window, and after him came Randolph, with a triumphant smile. Lawson felt nervous. Randolph certainly did not look as though he were afraid, whereas Hamber was shaking from head to foot and displayed every evidence of guilt.
Audrey also was pale, but kept her nerves well under control and faced the trying situation with amazing bravery. Mrs. Tremby had sat down silently with an impassive face, so it was hard to tell what she was thinking about. But Bollard’s expression was one of dismay and grief, which made him appear years older than he was. Evidently Miss Spine’s story had impressed him more than he had confessed, and he was by no means sure that she was the lunatic he had called her. She and Randolph, whose arm she took, were all smiles and sneers; but Helder preserved his official calm, and took his seat near the writing table with the air of a judge. For quite three minutes there was a dead silence. Helder broke it.
“I have heard a very extraordinary story from this gentleman,” he said, indicating Randolph, “one which I can scarcely believe.”
“It is true, all the same,” said Randolph, smiling sardonically, and the woman hanging on his arm added. “Perfectly true!” with her usual scream.
“What is the story?” asked Bollard, sitting down heavily. “As you have come to my house, Mr. Helder, I am entitled to an explanation.”
“Certainly, Mr. Bollard. Your nephew Sir Gerald Hamber is accused by this gentleman of having shot his stepmother, Lady Hamber.”
“It is a lie!” said the unfortunate boy from the chair in which he was curled up, looking the picture of misery.
“Anything you say will he used in evidence against you.” Helder warned him in rasping official tones.
“My brother has a right to defend himself!” cried Audrey, flushing.
“The time and place will be given to him to make his defence,” said Helder judicially. “Meanwhile—”
“Why don’t you come to the point?” interrupted Randolph, who seemed to be annoyed by this slow dignity of the law. “I told you—”
Helder interrupted sharply. “I know what you told me, but I am taking my own way in dealing with the matter.”
“You have already made one mis-statement,” muttered the scoundrel savagely.
“On purpose. I want to get at the rights of the case from all present before I tell exactly what you told me. You asserted that Sir Gerald Hamber was in Sarley Wood on or about the time Lady Hamber was shot?”
“Yes; but I also said that—”
“We will come to that later,” Helder waved his hand to impose silence.
Mrs. Tremby, who had been listening attentively and watching Randolph’s face, spoke suddenly to the scamp.
“You don’t believe that Sir Gerald is guilty?”
“Why do you say that?” demanded Miss Spine, ruffling her feathers, “when I said that he was when I saw you at my cousin’s lodgings?”
“You said so. Mr. Randolph doesn’t say so,” observed Mrs. Tremby shrewdly.
“You have heard what Inspector Helder said,” shuffled Randolph angrily.
“Oh, yes. But there is something behind what he says.” She faced round to the inspector. “Mr. Helder, give me a straight answer. Do you believe that Sir Gerald is guilty of this crime?”
“I am here to listen to what evidence can be given on that point,” evaded the officer, rather disconcerted by her sharpness. “Until Miss Spine speaks I cannot be sure. Mr. Randolph has told me his story; I wish to hear that of the witness he has called.”
“I shall speak at once!” screamed the peacock in a desperate hurry.
“No,” Helder spoke imperiously, “you shall speak when I order you to do so, Miss Spine. First, I wish to hear from those present what they did not say but should have said at the inquest,” he glanced at Audrey. “You, I understand, were in the wood on that night?”
“Yes,” she said boldly. “I quarrelled with my stepmother and—”
“Gently!” warned Helder, significantly, “what you say will be used in evidence against you.”
“Confound it,” said Lawson furiously, “you don’t accuse Miss Hamber. Why, I can tell you that—”
“I have heard from Mr. Rudolph what you can tell,” retorted the inspector, sharply, “and in due course you can repeat what you know. Just now I wish to hear what Miss Hamber has to say.”
“I quarrelled with my stepmother over a matter which has nothing to do with this case,” said Audrey quickly.
“I am not so sure of that,” murmured Randolph, looking at her with a wicked smile, “the quarrel about—”
“Hold your tongue,” shouted Helder indignantly. “Am I conducting this case or are you? Go on, Miss Hamber.”
“The matter of the quarrel,” went on Audrey steadily, “I repeat, has nothing to do with the case. Lady Hamber insulted me and I left the house, dressed as I was, with the intention of coming over here to see my uncle. On the way through the wood I stumbled over the rope with which Mr. Lawson’s horse was tethered, and sprained my ankle. As I could not walk Mr. Lawson went to look for the horse, which had got loose, and proposed to drive me here in his caravan. While I was in the caravan I heard a shot.”
“And then?” enquired Helder, keenly, for Audrey was hesitating.
“I looked out,” she said faintly, “and saw my brother near the body of Lady Hamber with a revolver.”
“There, you see!” shrieked Miss Spine, triumphantly.
“Be silent!” ordered the inspector, roughly. “Go on, Miss Hamber.”
“We placed the body of Lady Hamber in the caravan, and my brother carried me home, as I was unable to walk.”
“And the revolver?”
“I took that from him. Mrs. Tremby has it.”
“Here it is,” said Jossy, producing the weapon from her vanity bag. “I thought it would be necessary to produce it, and brought it along.”
“To whom does this belong?” asked Helder, examining it.
“To me,” said Gerald in quite a firm voice, and started to his feet.
“Oh!” Helder raised his eyebrows. “You admit that; also to having been in the wood; having stood by the body with this in your hand?”
“Yes. I missed my sister and followed Lady Hamber. While I was entering the wood I heard the shot, and arrived in the glade to find my stepmother’s body and the revolver beside her. I picked it up just as my sister looked out of the caravan. But,” he ended with emphasis, “I did not shoot her.”
“Yet you say that the revolver is yours, Sir Gerald?”
“It was; but I gave it to Randolph in Africa, so that he might save his life when it was in danger from a drunken negro.”
“Is that true?” Helder turned towards Randolph.
“Perfectly true,” said that gentleman, serenely, much to the astonishment of Dick, who expected him to deny it.
“Oh!” Helder nodded quietly, “and how did it get into the wood?”
“You must ask Hamber that, inspector.”
“I do ask it. Sir Gerald?”
“Randolph brought it into the wood,” said the boy positively.
“He never did—he never did,” screamed Miss Spine, furiously shaking her fist.
“Be quiet,” ordered the officer again. “How can you prove that Mr. Randolph brought this,” he tapped the weapon, “into the wood?”
“I can’t prove it,” sighed the boy sadly; “all I can say is that on the day before Randolph came over to my place I was seeing my uncle, and—”
“And you went to Randolph’s room,” interrupted Mr. Bollard hurriedly—”yes, I remember, Gerald. You saw the revolver in his bag, and afterwards told me of the incident in Africa.”
“I think I did,” said Hamber slowly, and passing his hand across his forehead.
“You are not sure,” questioned Helder gently.
“Not quite. But I must have, as the sight of the revolver would bring back the incident to my mind, bad as my memory is. I know that Randolph did have the revolver in his room, and that was the last I saw of it until I picked it up in the wood.”
“Did you recognise it then?”
“No. Only when Mrs. Tremby asked me about it did I remember it was the same revolver. And it is. So, it being in Randolph’s possession, how does he account for it being in the wood?”
“I have explained all that to Inspector Helder,” said Randolph, complacently.
“What is the explanation?” asked Dick, brusquely.
Mrs. Tremby looked the same question, although she did not speak. Randolph appeared so confident and so much at ease, that she scented danger to those she loved. As Dick’s question was not answered immediately, she was forced to speak in the end. “Miss Spine said that Mr. Randolph saw Sir Gerald shoot Lady Hamber. I don’t believe that.”
“You won’t believe many things you will hear shortly,” snapped the fair Esther with a giggle. “If I could speak—”
“You will give your evidence shortly,” said Helder, sharply imposing silence.
“How long is this comedy going on?” drawled Randolph, lazily.
“As long as I choose,” retorted the officer. “I have my reasons.”
“Why should the word ‘comedy’ be used?” asked Bollard, heavily. “It seems to me that this is much too serious a subject to be spoken of so lightly.”
“It is,” assented Helder, with official phlegm, and looked at him oddly.
“Well, then”—Bollard’s heavy gaze wandered towards the faces of Randolph and Miss Spine, who were regarding him intently, perhaps to see how he accepted the fact that his nephew was in danger of being hanged—”neither one of you can prove that Gerald is guilty!” he said, with a violent roar of defiance.
“Then let him prove himself to be innocent,” replied Randolph, insolently. “He was in the wood; he was seen by his sister standing over the body of the woman he hated with the revolver. How does he explain these things?”
“I can’t explain further than I have done,” said Hamber, doggedly. “I am guiltless.”
“What do you think, Mr. Lawson?” The inspector turned to address Dick.
“I believe Sir Gerald Hamber to be wholly innocent,” was the prompt reply.
“And you, Mrs. Tremby?”
“I agree with Mr. Lawson,” she replied, emphatically.
“My nephew is most certainly guiltless,” said the big man, loudly and fiercely.
“No! No!” Randolph and his companion spoke in chorus. “He murdered her!”
“I agree with you. Three against three, and the casting vote is mine.” Helder jumped up lightly and advanced towards the shrinking boy. “I arrest—”
“Stop!” Bollard rose, big and imposing. “Arrest the right man!”
Helder wheeled. “And who is the right man!”
“I am!” was the amazing answer. “I shot Lady Hamber!”
Followed a dead silence on the astounding declaration of Bollard that he had shot the woman. Three of those present looked at the man as though he had said what they expected him to say, and the remaining three stared in tongue-tied amazement, scarcely able to believe their ears.
Inspector Helder clapped a heavy hand on the stockbroker’s shoulder. “I arrest you, Oliver Bollard, in the King’s name for the murder of Selina Hamber. Anything you say will be used in evidence against you.” He produced handcuffs.
“You need not bring those out,” said the big man quietly. “I am quite willing to go without making trouble.”
“No, no! It is a mistake—it can’t be true.” Audrey sprang across the room and seized her uncle by the arm. “Say it is not true.”
“Yes, my dear child, it is true!”
“No, no!” It was Gerald this time who echoed his sister’s denial. “You are doing this to shield me, Uncle Oliver.”
“I am doing it to save you,” answered the stockbroker with emphasis. “That man and woman”—he indicated Randolph and Miss Spine with contempt—”believe that they had you in a net. To release you from that net I have spoken, and truly. I alone am guilty of this—if you call it so—crime.”
“What else do you call it?” asked Miss Spine, with a scream of surprise.
“Justice! Punishment! Lady Hamber deserved to die. I knew what I was doing, and deliberately removed her from this world to prevent her from making innocent people suffer wrongfully.”
“Mr. Bollard,” came Helder’s warning, “better say no more.”
The big man turned his head towards him, and roared quite in his old style of overbearing superiority. “I shall say all I wish to say, and I expect you to follow my example.”
“In what way?” Randolph asked the question with a yawn, rather overdoing his pretended indifference, since he was really greatly excited.
“Explain this comedy you have been carrying on for the last half-hour. Mrs. Tremby, you were right in thinking that there was something behind all the talk. Inspector Helder and these two melodramatic schemers knew all the time that I was the wanted man.”
“Quite right,” said Randolph coolly. “And you have to thank Mrs. Tremby, for bringing about this—as you suggest—melodrama.”
“I?” Jossy started to her feet indignantly. “I have nothing to do with this.”
“You have everything to do. Be quiet, Mr. Helder, I shall speak. It was your telling me that Lady Hamber was shot with that revolver which gave me the clue. Up to the time you spoke I never suspected Mr. Bollard, nor had I any suspicion that Gerald’s revolver had been used.”
Mrs. Tremby sat down, feeling faint. She liked the big, jovial stockbroker, and hated to think that he had been trapped by the information she had given, unconscious, as she had been, that such would accomplish Randolph’s ends. “I don’t see how you make that out,” she said defiantly, but in a trembling voice.
“I shall explain.” With his hands in his pockets Randolph leant against the wall by the still open French window. “I did have the revolver in my bag when Gerald was with me in my bed room. We talked of the African incident before I went over to Sarley Court, and in doing so I took the revolver up to examine it. Indeed, I think I offered it to Gerald, since it was of no use to me and really belonged to him.”
Gerald shivered and nodded. “I wish I had taken it; then this awful thing would not have happened.”
“Oh, I don’t know. You might have seen about shooting Lady Hamber yourself, old chap. You never liked her, you know. But to continue, I threw the revolver into a corner, and went away without it. Afterwards I remembered that I had left it, just when I was going, and asked Bollard to send it over to me. He promised to do so—promised to bring it himself.”
“And so I did,” said the stockbroker, who was listening intently. “An hour or so after you left this place I went up to your room and found the revolver—which, by the way, was loaded.”
“I always had it loaded in case I might wish to use it,” said Randolph in a careless tone. “Well, go on. You took possession of it.”
“Yes—to return it to you. Late at night I walked over to Sarley Court to return it to you. Seeing one of the windows of the drawing room open—”
“At what time?” asked Helder, who was busy with his notebook.
“Before 10 o’clock—I can’t be quite sure to the minute, but it was somewhere between half-past 9 and 10 o’clock. I was about to enter, when I heard Lady Hamber and Audrey quarrelling. For a reason I decline to impart, I remained outside listening. Lady Hamber insulted Audrey grossly—”
“She did—she did!”‘ murmured the girl, clinging to her uncle.
“So I was on the point of intervening,” went on Bollard, ignoring the interruption, “when Audrey ran out in a rage, saying that she would walk over to see me. I was on the point of following her, when Randolph entered the room to ask for some book he had left. Then Backhouse came in for final instructions. Lady Hamber got rid of both of them—she seemed anxious to do so, and I wondered why. So I waited and saw her come out. I followed her across the lawns, through the park, and into the wood when she passed through the gate. She went down the path, and I followed. I was near her crouching in the bushes, and overheard, as she did, the conversation between young Lawson and my niece.”
“About the sprained ankle?” asked Dick, suddenly.
“Yes, about the sprained ankle. When Lady Hamber heard you say, young Lawson, that you would take Audrey to my place in the caravan, she slipped the halter from the horse, and it strayed. I saw that she intended to prevent Audrey from leaving the wood, so that the poor girl might be compromised. And this evil intention, in conjunction with what she had said to my niece in the drawing room, caused me to make up my mind to kill her then and there as a dangerous and wicked woman. I had the revolver in my pocket, and it was loaded. Had I not possessed it at the moment, had it not been loaded, this tragedy might not have taken place.”
“Then you did not really kill intentionally,” said Mrs. Tremby anxiously.
“Oh, yes, I did,” replied the big man with amazing calmness. “Don’t try to find loopholes in the hope of my escaping, Mrs. Tremby; thank you all the same. I intended to shoot the woman. When young Lawson placed my niece in the caravan and went to search for the horse Lady Hamber moved forward into the glade. I believed that she intended to lock the caravan door, so as to still further compromise Audrey. When she reached the fire I aimed at her in the light of the fire and shot her through the heart. Then I examined her to see if she was dead, and in doing so threw down the revolver. Before I could pick it up I heard someone coming down the path.”
“That was me,” struck in Hamber quickly. “I followed Lady Hamber, but did not see you, Uncle Oliver.”
“Nor I you,” rejoined the other, looking puzzled. “Odd we should have missed one another, Gerald, when we were on the same trail. However, as soon as I heard the noise of someone coming I ran out of the wood and walked home.”
“I saw you!” cried Miss Spine, unexpectedly and triumphantly.
All present looked at her.
“You saw me?” questioned the stockbroker.
“Yes.” She nodded victoriously. “I came down in my car to elope with my dear Arthur.” She squeezed Randolph’s arm, and he winced at the endearing gesture and word. “While I waited I heard the shot, and then saw you run across the road. Your face was easily seen in the moonlight, which had grown strong. I never thought anything more about the matter until Arthur came and told me that Mrs. Tremby and Mr. Lawson suspected him of committing the crime.”
“You should have come forward at the inquest,” said Inspector Helder, looking up from his notebook and speaking severely. “We then wanted to learn if anyone had been seen in or about the wood. Had you spoken then, Miss Spine, we should have solved this mystery long ago.”
“I tell you the sight of Mr. Bollard never suggested to me that he had anything to do with the matter. I daresay I am a silly little thing,” went on the damsel, coquettishly, “and should have more sense. But only when my dear Arthur came to tell me that he was suspected did I reveal what I had seen. And I am sure, along with Arthur, I have done my best to tell you everything.”
“Rather late in the day,” commented the inspector dryly; “you should have come to Tarhaven with Mr. Randolph. He told me about the revolver; but, until I had your evidence, I could not be wholly certain that Mr. Bollard was guilty.”
“You can be certain now,” shrieked Miss Spine, very much offended, “and I am not going to stay here to be insulted by a low policeman.” She rushed through the window, calling out to her chauffeur, who had returned, to get the car ready to start. When those within heard the hum and buzz of the motor, Miss Spine looked back: “Arthur, come with me at once.”
“Right oh!” Randolph caught up his hat and moved towards the window. Before he could reach it Bollard lunged forward, and placed himself in the way. “Not so fast,” he roared, grimly, “you and I have to talk a little.”
“I decline to talk to you,” said the smaller man, and turned white. Certainly he had reason to be afraid, being a coward at heart and finding the gigantic towering appearance of Bollard very nerve wrecking.
The big man towered over his opponent, tremendously threatening, with his great hands outstretched to grip him. “Stay where you are,” he bellowed, and looked like a fairly tale giant in his grim strength.
“Mr. Bollard!” Helder rose and laid a warning hand on his prisoners arm.
“It is all right, inspector; I am not going to harm the rat, although he deserves to have his neck wrung. Yes, you,” he raged, bringing his large red face close to Randolph’s pallid cheek. “You are a blackmailer, a forger; yes, and a white-livered hound who lives on women! I’ll wring your neck!”
With two huge hands hovering near his throat Randolph’s blood turned to water, and he almost fainted. But the very extremity of his fear gave him the courage to save himself. Before those mighty hands could clutch him, before those long arms could hug him with a bear-like grip, he darted under them, and was out of the window in a moment, knocking down Miss Spine, who barred the way of escape. With a roar of fury the stockbroker, sweeping aside Inspector Helder like a straw hurled himself in pursuit.
Miss Spine’s chauffeur had started the motor and was standing by the door of the car, waiting for his mistress to seat herself in it. Randolph, all his senses on the alert to evade sure death, sprang into the machine, slipped behind the wheel, and set the machine going. It began to move, and but for Bollard’s extraordinary swiftness the fugitive would have got safely away. But the big man plunged in pursuit immediately, moving with the speed of an enraged elephant. As the car gathered speed so did he, and within a short distance caught it up, to leap into it and on to the wretched man. Randolph’s cry of terror was echoed by Miss Spine, who was picking herself up, much dishevelled.
Helder and the rest of those in the library came tumbling in disorder through the French window as quickly as possible. All began to run down the avenue, with a vague idea of preventing trouble. Needless to say, this was impossible. The car was racing down the incline at tremendous speed, with the two men fighting furiously over the wheel. Dick, being light-footed and in excellent condition, sped ahead of the others and arrived breathless at the archway, to see the machine lunge through on to the road. It did not take the curve, for no hand was on the steering gear, but smashed straight into the protecting wall. There was a cry of terror from Randolph, a shout of joy from Bollard, and the car, crashing through the heavy stone, toppled over the precipice. Lawson staggered under the archway and across the road to look over the abyss. Thirty and more feet below he saw the ruins of the machine. Bollard and his victim lay dead beneath.
“Nemesis!” said Dick, sighing.
When examination was made, and the bodies recovered from under the ruins of the car, Randolph proved to be as dead as the proverbial door-nail. But, strange to say, Bollard still breathed. How so heavy a man could fall from so great a height and yet remain alive, it was impossible to explain. Nevertheless, although unconscious, he had not passed away, and Helder had him carried back into the house. Miss Spine, in an agony of grief at the loss of her lover and the shattering of her hopes, took charge of his broken remains. She had his body taken to London, and it was buried at Kensal Green, where her family possessed a vault. For all her frivolity and faults, the woman really and truly loved the man, and mourned him sincerely all her days. But after she left Sarley Grange with the body of her beloved, none of those concerned in the case ever saw her again. She held aloof from them, and shut herself up to indulge in her grief, which was heartfelt and genuine.
Helder, still holding to his duty as the representative of the law, returned to Sarley Grange to keep watch and ward over his prisoner. It was his hope that Bollard would live to be tried and condemned for his double crime of killing Randolph as well as Lady Hamber. But, along with Mrs. Tremby, the man’s niece prayed that he might die, without recovering consciousness. And likewise prayed her brother and her lover. Bollard had done evil that good might come of it; and wrongly as he had acted, it could not be denied but what his mad actions had been dictated by love. It was to save his dead sister’s children from shame and disgrace that he had sinned so deeply.
“Will he live?” asked Helder, after the doctor summoned immediately from Tarhaven had made his examination.
“No hope,” replied the medical man, positively, “not the slightest. The wonder is that he has lived so long.”
All that day and all that night the stockbroker remained unconscious. His niece and nephew, along with Dick and Jossy, remained in the house. Helder also, intent upon getting some kind of confession. He knew that Bollard was guilty, but desired to learn why he had shot the woman. Towards the morning, just before dawn, the Tarhaven doctor sent a message, saying that his patient had recovered his senses, and wished to see the inspector. Helder went up at once, and found Bollard feeble, but able to speak. “Come here!” he whispered; for his roaring voice had sunk to the merest thread of sound. “I want to be sure before I die that my two dear children are safe.”
“They are safe enough,” said Helder, sympathetically, although from habit he produced his note-book; “you are guilty.”
“I am, and I do not apologise for my guilt. In my desk in the library you will find a written confession signed by me in which I have set down what I told you. I, and I alone, killed that woman, Gerald and Audrey knew nothing about the matter; they have never known.”
“Why did you murder Lady Hamber?” asked Helder, anxiously bending over him.
Bollard looked at him cunningly. “She tricked me. I loved her and found she was carrying on with Randolph. Now go and send up young Lawson; my time is short.”
With a friendly nod the inspector left the sick room, and delivered the message at once. While Dick went upstairs to obey the summons, Helder sought the library, and there, by candle-light, for the sun had not yet risen, made a close search of the confession. He speedily found it in a drawer of the desk, as Bollard had stated, and read it carefully. What it said was all in keeping with what he already knew. The dying man had loved Lady Hamber, but his jealousy had been aroused by her flirtation with Randolph. He had shot her in the glade, not for Audrey’s sake, but out of revenge. And Helder, putting away the confession in his pocket, felt tolerably certain that the death of Randolph was another act of revenge. So here was the truth. A good reason for the two crimes had been given, so there was no need to make further enquiries. But at the back of his mind; recollecting Bollard’s explanations in the library, the officer believed that there was another and more plausible reason. However, satisfied to some extent, he kept his promise made to the dying man, and never questioned Audrey or anyone else about the matter.
Meanwhile, Lawson was sitting by Bollard’s death-bed, listening to a strange story. The amazing vitality of the big man astonished him. After a glass of brandy, unwillingly administered by the doctor before he left the room, he was able to speak clearly and strongly and at length. But Dick knew that this was merely the sudden flare-up of an expiring candle, so did not waste his time or the man’s strength in asking more questions than were necessary. He listened with all his ears.
“I told Helder that I shot Lady Hamber because I loved her, and she awoke my jealousy by flirting with Randolph. And for that reason Helder believes that I killed the man also. Let him continue to believe so. He will ask no questions being thus satisfied as to the motive for my two acts—crimes he calls them. We’ll leave it at that.”
“Isn’t what you told him true?”
“No. Young Lawson, you love Audrey?”
“With all my heart and soul,” said Dick, fervently.
“Good! You shall marry her, and do so as soon as you can. Mrs. Tremby will marry Gerald, which is a good thing for her and for him; for him, as he needs someone to look after him and guide him, when Audrey is your wife; for, as she is poor, and wants a home and a proper position in society.”
“I am poor also,” Dick reminded him.
Bollard chuckled feebly. “You won’t be when I am dead. When my will is read, you will find that I have left you Sarley Grange and six thousand a year. No, don’t thank me! I loved your father, and I love you. Also I love my niece, whom you love. All is for the best. And now—listen.”
“Yes,” Dick bent his ear close to the man’s mouth, for his voice was now very much weaker. “I am listening.”
“Sir John Hamber, my brother-in-law, was a mean hound. We were at college together. He met my sister and Audrey was born out of wedlock.”
“That doesn’t matter to me,” said Lawson, when he had digested this astounding information. “I love Audrey for herself.”
“I thought you would say that.” Bollard feebly patted Dick’s hand. “I found out the truth, and compelled Hamber to marry my sister. Then Gerald, was born in wedlock. He is legitimate: Audrey illegitimate. Afterwards my sister, whom I very dearly loved, died. Years afterwards Hamber married the woman I shot. She was always a tyrant, and treated both the children shamefully. When Hamber died, like the mean dog he always was, he told her about Audrey. On the night she was shot, Lady Hamber taunted Audrey about the matter, and told her she had no right to her name. That information made Audrey rush out to find me, and so all the trouble came about. Knowing that Lady Hamber would disgrace my poor darling child, I shot the woman deliberately, and I am glad that I did shoot her. But she left her venom behind her, for afterwards, when Audrey became engaged to Randolph, I learnt that he knew the truth from Lady Hamber.”
“The scoundrel,” cried Lawson; “and used it to force on the engagement?”
“Yes. I broke the engagement by telling Randolph that if he married Audrey he would get no money, as being illegitimate, she could not inherit her large income, owing to the wording of the will. I killed Randolph deliberately, as he knew the truth, and I did not trust him. You understand?”
“Yes. Does anyone else know the truth?”
“Mrs. Tremby. Audrey told her. No one else. And now—now—” Bollard’s voice sank to a whisper, “now—I—am—dying. Rather—unexpected.” He made an effort to sit up, but fell back. “Gerald—Audrey—my—darl—” His voice ceased. He was dead, but had lived long enough to explain everything.
Dick drew the sheet over the massive, strong face, stern in death, and went out to notify the doctor and the nurse. Then he took his way to the library, which Helder had vacated. A lamp was lighted, although the dawn was now beginning to redden the eastern sky. A figure sitting in the armchair started up when the young man entered. It was Audrey. She ran to him and looked in his face! “Is he—is he—”
“Yes! He died a few minutes ago.”
“Thank God, he is safe from arrest, Dick,” she caught his arm, “did he tell you anything?” Her lips quivered.
“Everything. You are poor; losing the money because of the illegitimacy.” Lawson patted her hand. “We need not speak of that ever again, darling heart. We shall marry and live here.”
“Here? At Sarley Grange?” Audrey looked bewildered.
“Yes. Your uncle left it and a large income to me on condition that I married you. And so”—he drew her into his arms—“after a long journey under a clouded sky we come at last into the sunshine.”
“Oh, Dick! Dick!” She nestled to him. “And Gerald. He will be all right, for my dear Jossy and he are going to be married. But, darling about this illegi—”
Lawson drew her across the room, out of the French window and on to the lawn. Beyond the circle of trees the sky was rosy, on the horizon it was spangled with golden clouds. While they watched the lights grew more and more radiant, until the sun leapt over the edge of the world to bathe the dewy verdure with luminous splendor. With his arms round the girl he loved Dick pointed to the glorious promise of day.
“Before us is the light,” he said solemnly, “behind us the darkness. Never speak of the past, Audrey; let it bury its dead. You are—you. That is all I care about.”
And in the growing light, with myriad birds singing a welcome to their unclouded future, he kissed her thrice on her sweet lips.
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